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Stop Backsliding on Use of Child Soldiers

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, May 27, 2020
Click to expand Image

When I joined Human Rights Watch more than two decades ago, I quickly became involved with a global campaign to stop the use of child soldiers. Today marks 20 years since 1 of the campaign’s key accomplishments – the adoption of the United Nations treaty banning the use of child soldiers. Since then, 170 countries have ratified the treaty, agreeing not to use children under the age of 18 in direct hostilities and to criminalize the recruitment and use of children by non-state armed groups.

Because of the treaty, governments – including the United States and United Kingdom, which used 17-year-olds in combat – have changed their deployment practices. More than 140,000 child soldiers have been released or demobilized. At least a dozen governments and armed groups have fulfilled formal agreements with the UN to end their use of child soldiers, including Chad, Cote d’Ivoire, Sudan, and Uganda. Commanders who once recruited children with impunity have been convicted of war crimes and received long sentences.

Until fairly recently, the progress seemed to be steady and positive. But in the past few years, we’ve seen that progress erode, with worrying surges of child recruitment in countries such as the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Nigeria, Somalia, and Syria. As governments battle armed groups, they have increasingly imprisoned, tortured, and prosecuted former child soldiers, rather than provide them with rehabilitation and reintegration, as the treaty requires.

Instead of celebration, this anniversary calls for us to do more: to investigate and prosecute commanders who recruit underage children, cut off support for the forces and groups that exploit children, negotiate more action plans to end the use of children in war, and to ensure that former child soldiers get the rehabilitation and support they need.

Police Beat and Injure Ecuador’s Covid-19 Protesters

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, May 27, 2020
Click to expand Image People transporting the remains of deceased loved ones wait in a slow moving line outside Jardines de la Esperanza Cemetery to hold burials in Guayaquil, Ecuador, April 6, 2020. © 2020 AP Photo/Luis Perez

Police in Guayaquil, Ecuador – the heart of the country’s coronavirus epidemic – used apparent excessive force to break up a peaceful protest held on May 14 by civil society groups, beating and injuring demonstrators. 

The 40 protesters were expressing concern at what they see as the government’s lack of guidance for handling the bodies of people suspected of dying from Covid-19, insufficient funds used to address the pandemic, and a budget cut to education. 

Fifteen police officers arrived at the demonstration, held at Centenario Park, broke the protester’s social distancing measures, and beat them with clubs, according to the Permanent Committee for the Defense of Human Rights (CDH), a local non-governmental organization. Videos and images shared by other civil society organizations and media outletscorroborate this. Several protesters were injured. Police also attacked journalists who were covering the demostration, according to Diario Expreso.

Police also arbitrarily detained four human rights defenders during the protest, according to the Alliance of Human Rights Organizations and CDH. For several hours, neither CDH staff nor the Ombudsperson’s Office were able to contact those arrested. According to CDH, the police report said the four detainees had verbally assaulted police officers. 

At a judicial hearing on May 15, a judge ruled the police had not provided evidence that the detained protesters had committed a crime and released them, stating they were innocent.

Guayaquil is Ecuador’s city most affected by Covid-19. As of May 21, authorities had confirmed 9392 cases there, out of 35,306 nationwide. In Ecuador, authorities have attributed 2,939 deaths to Covid-19, but President Lenín Moreno has acknowledged that official counts “are falling short.” Analysis of public health data suggests the number of Covid-related deaths is likely much higher. Some families have reported that authorities took days to remove bodies from homes and that they have had to visit several morgues and hospitals to locate the bodies of their loved ones to give them a proper burial. 

Accountability is key to deterring future police abuses. It is important to note that the investigation into abuses and crimes by demonstrators committed during massive protests in October 2019 remain pending. Investigations into all these allegations are key to ensure that police act within the law, even during a pandemic.  

Amnesty International Staffer Challenges Israel’s Travel Ban

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, May 27, 2020
Click to expand Image Laith Abu Zeyad, a campaigner for Amnesty International, in front of Israel’s separation barrier in Jerusalem. © 2020 Private

Amnesty International will soon challenge in a Jerusalem court a travel ban that the Israeli government imposed on its campaigner for Israel and Palestine, Laith Abu Zeyad. The hearing is slated for May 31.

Six months ago today, the Israeli government deported me over my human rights advocacy.

As a Palestinian from the West Bank, Abu Zeyad must obtain an Israeli-issued permit to enter significant parts of the West Bank under Israeli control, including East Jerusalem, and Israel itself. Yet Palestinians applying for permits face what the Israeli rights group B’Tselem describes as an “arbitrary, entirely non-transparent bureaucratic system.” Most can travel abroad only by land via Jordan through the Israeli-controlled Allenby Crossing.

Israeli authorities denied Abu Zeyad a permit in September 2019 to enter occupied East Jerusalem, where he had hoped to accompany his mother, who needed cancer treatment, to a hospital just three kilometers from his home but on the other side of the separation barrier. She died there in December without her son by her side.

In October 2019, Israeli authorities at the Allenby Crossing barred Abu Zeyad from traveling to Jordan to attend a relative’s funeral, citing undisclosed “security reasons,” despite his never having been convicted for a security offense.

Authorities provided no further information and designated the evidence as “secret,” meaning even his attorney will not be able to see it in court.

And of course, without a permit to enter Jerusalem, Abu Zeyad cannot attend his own court hearing.

Israel’s efforts to muzzle human rights work provide plenty of reason to be skeptical about the basis for the ban. Authorities in recent years imposed travel bans on, raided the offices of, and arrested Palestinian rights defenders. They also denied entry to international human rights activists, and have made it more difficult for Israeli advocacy groups to operate, with senior officials even branding them as “traitors” and “collaborators.”

New Defense Minister and Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz, who warned in his campaign that the previous government’s attacks on independent institutions jeopardized the country’s future, can signal a new direction by lifting Abu Zeyad’s travel ban. He is empowered to do so as he holds the defense portfolio.

Israel’s international friends should also find their voice. A government that kicks out a Human Rights Watch director and bans an Amnesty International campaigner from traveling without disclosing the reasons will not hesitate to go after others, much less end systematic rights abuse, unless there is greater global pressure.

Belarus: Activists, Journalists Jailed as Election Looms

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, May 27, 2020
Click to expand Image A nearly empty Oktyabrskaya Street in Minsk, Belarus amid coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic precautions on April 05, 2020. © 2020 Stringer/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

(Moscow) – Belarusian authorities have intensified their crackdown on independent activists and journalists, with presidential elections less than three months away, Human Rights Watch said today.

Between May 6 and 13, 2020, the authorities arbitrarily arrested over 120 peaceful protesters, opposition bloggers, journalists, and other critics of the government in 17 cities. Despite the Covid-19 pandemic, and the increased risk of virus transmission in closed settings such as detention facilities, courts handed down jail sentences of up to 25 days on charges of “participation in unsanctioned public gatherings.”

“The new wave of arbitrary arrests in Belarus is particularly disturbing in light of the Covid-19 pandemic,” said Tanya Lokshina, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Belarusian authorities should not be arresting people for peaceful protests, but to expose them to higher risk of a deadly infection is unacceptable.”

The Belarusian leadership should act on the calls by the World Health Organization and other expert international bodies such as the UN Sub-Committee on the Prevention of Torture to minimize the number of people in custody during the pandemic.

Belarus, which had 31,523 registered Covid-19 cases as of May 21, hasn’t ordered a lockdown, citing its potential economic and social costs.

Those arrested included environmental protestors who oppose construction of a battery factory in Brest; supporters of Sergei Tikhanovsky, a popular blogger who recently announced he would run for president; Youth Block movement activists concerned over human rights and the rule of law in Belarus; and human rights defenders and journalists who reported on peaceful public gatherings.

Human Rights Watch spoke with three activists after their release. One was diagnosed with Covid-19 shortly after his arrest, another fell ill with symptoms during his arrest, and the third was placed in a transport vehicle next to another detainee who was coughing and had no mask. The families of two of the activists did not discover their whereabouts for more than 24 hours.

Sergei Piatrukhin, a video blogger, was arrested when meeting with Tikhanovsky’s supporters on May 6, and five days later was sentenced by a court in Brest to 15 days of detention. He told the court that he was running a fever and had other symptoms of a respiratory disease and requested an ambulance. The judge consented, but, defying the court order, law enforcement officials took Piatrukhin to a detention center before the ambulance arrived.

Piatrukhin told Human Rights Watch that he was detained for alleged participation in an unsanctioned public gathering on April 19 against the construction of a battery plant near Brest, from which he live-streamed his blog. He said that on May 6, riot police broke into a house in the village of Ostrov where he was meeting with Tikhanovksy’s supporters, arrested him and two of his interlocutors, and drove them to a local police station.

There, the police blindfolded Piatrukhin, took him in a police van to the vicinity of Baranovichi, and transferred him to other police waiting for him. They then took him to a detention center in Brest, where officials finally registered his detention. The unsanctioned gathering that he was charged with participating in was one of a series of regular peaceful protests against the battery plant.

On May 8, a judge ordered Piatrukhin released until his next hearing on May 11. But police detained Piatrukhin as he was leaving the building, and returned him to the temporary detention center. On May 11, after the court sentenced Piatrukhin to 15 days of detention, the authorities took him back to the holding center, though an ambulance had been called for him.

At the detention center, Piatrukhin convinced staff to take his temperature. When they found he had a fever, they called another ambulance, which took Piatrukhin to a hospital. On May 12, Piaturkhin tested positive for Covid-19, and is being treated at the Brest Central Hospital.

Police detained Tikhanovsky on May 6 on the outskirts of Mogilev and detained him based on a 15-day sentence he received in January for alleged participation in an unsanctioned public gathering. On May 18, a different court sentenced Tikhonovsky to 15 days more for meetings with his followers in Orsh and Brest, which the authorities considered unsanctioned public gatherings.

On May 19, in a separate proceeding, the court handed down another 15 days for meetings with his followers in Soligorsk and Miory. Tikhanovsky told reporters that seven more administrative cases against him are pending over meetings with his followers in different towns.

Roman Kislyak, a human rights defender from Brest, was arrested on May 10 while monitoring a peaceful protest against the battery plant. Kislyak said there were about 230 participants, who did not shout slogans or hold posters, but rather fed the pigeons, a local protest tradition. Police detained Kislyak when the protest ended.

The officers took Kislyak in a police bus to a detention center in the nearby town of Kobrin. He was given no reason for his arrest until May 12, when he was taken to a police station in Brest, and given a charge sheet alleging he was at an unsanctioned gathering on April 12.

Between May 10 and May 12, Kislyak’s family had no information about his situation or whereabouts. His mother filed a missing persons report with police.

At Kislyak’s May 12 hearing, the authorities would not allow his lawyer into the courtroom. Kislyak complained to the judge about that, and about detention center staff taking away his pen, preventing him from drafting a complaint about his arbitrary detention.

The judge postponed the hearing on the merits and told Kislyak he was free to go. However, the police detained him by the building exit and took him to a detention center in Brest. The officers there said he was being detained on “an administrative violation” but provided no more information, and denied his request for a lawyer.

During a second court hearing on May 14, Kislyak found out that he was being charged with participation in an unsanctioned protest on May 3. He asked the court to review footage on his mobile phone to show his whereabouts that day. The judge granted his request, and Kislyak was allowed to return home pending a hearing scheduled for May 19. But he soon fell ill and is self-quarantined at home with respiratory symptoms resembling those of Covid-19.

Ales Asiptsou, a journalist from Mogilev working with the independent BelaPAN information agency, was arrested while covering a protest in Bobruisk on May 9 over President Alexander Lukashenka’s plans for a World War II Victory Day parade in Minsk despite the risks from Covid-19.

Asiptsou said that a plainclothes police officer detained him without explanation. They took him to a police station, searched him, and five hours later, at 5:30 p.m., took him to a station in Mogilev. Officers there showed him his detention report, saying he was charged with participation in a meeting with Tikhanovsky, with his followers in Mogilev on May 5, which the authorities considered an “unsanctioned public gathering.” Asiptsou had covered the meeting on assignment from BelaPAN.

Police drove him in a small prison vehicle to a temporary holding center, along with a detainee with a bad cough and other respiratory disease symptoms who was not wearing a mask. At the holding center, Apistou was put in a cell alone.

Asiptsou’s relatives searched for him for over 24 hours, unable to get information from various authorities about his situation or whereabouts. They eventually located him at the detention center by tracking his cell phone and calling the facility, where officers confirmed they had Asipstou in custody.

On May 12, a court in Mogilev sentenced Asiptsou to 10 ten days of detention. He was released on May 19 and is at home in apparent good health.

Belarusian authorities should respect freedom of assembly, Human Rights Watch said. Under international law everyone has a right to take part in peaceful assemblies, assemblies should be presumed lawful, and no person should be held criminally or administratively liable for participating in a peaceful protest, even if the authorities deem it unlawful.

“Arresting people for participating in or reporting on peaceful gatherings is an unjust penalty even in normal times, and pursuing this practice during a pandemic is simply outrageous,” Lokshina said. “Belarus authorities compromised the health of the activists they detained, as well as the health of other detainees and officials around them. The authorities should focus on containing the spread of Covid-19 rather than contributing to it by prosecuting and arbitrarily jailing people.”

Malta: Disembark Rescued People

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, May 27, 2020
Click to expand Image The Europa II, a tourist ferry sets sail from Marsamxett Harbour, Valletta, Malta. The vessel, along with sister ship, Atlantis, are being used by the Maltese government to detain asylum seekers in the Mediterranean. © 2012 NielsVK / Alamy Stock Photo

(Milan) – The Maltese government should immediately allow more than 160 people detained on two private tourism vessels just off Maltese territorial waters to disembark in Malta and seek asylum if they choose, Human Rights Watch said today.

Since April 30, 2020, the Maltese government has been paying a private company to keep people on the high sea on vessels designed for pleasure cruises. The government has not provided a legal basis, or legitimate purpose, for keeping people on these ferries, making this arbitrary deprivation of liberty.

“It’s incredible that the Maltese government would hold these people captive on tourist ferries in miserable conditions for weeks to pressure other EU countries to take them,” said Judith Sunderland, acting deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Concerns about Covid-19 and long-standing complaints, in part justified, about lack of fair sharing of responsibility can’t excuse this disgraceful behavior.”

France and Portugal have shown leadership and humanity in offering to relocate some of the men, and other European Union (EU) countries should follow their example, Human Rights Watch said.

The people were rescued at sea between April 30 and May 7. On April 30, the Maltese government arranged for the transfer of 57 people rescued the day before by a private fishing vessel to the Europa II, a 34.75-meter tourist ferry boat owned by Captain Morgan Cruises Ltd. On May 7, an Armed Forces of Malta patrol boat rescued 45 people and coordinated the rescue by a fishing boat of 78 people.

While all 18 women and children were reportedly taken ashore, the other 105 people were transferred the same day to the Bahari, a 23.59-meter tourist ferry boat owned by the same company. That group was subsequently transferred, on May 15, to the Atlantis, a 39.6-meter ferry boat owned by Captain Morgan Cruises. These boats, all flying the Maltese flag, are pleasure crafts designed for short tourist cruises and not to accommodate people for lengthy periods.

The government has not stated whether this is a mandatory quarantine to limit the potential spread of Covid-19, nor is it clear if it has carried out any public health measures, such as testing for Covid-19, isolating anyone with symptoms, and enabling social distancing. Even if it were intended as a quarantine, both groups have been on these boats for longer than the commonly mandated 14-day period.

Conditions on board, never appropriate, appear to be deteriorating significantly. On May 19, a man sent a Facebook post to the nongovernmental organization Alarm Phone, which runs a hotline for boats in distress in the Mediterranean, saying he is on board the Europa II and describing increasing despair in the “water prison.”

He said that some people had attempted suicide and that “anxiety, resentment, and depression have increased … this has made our health condition worse. Also due to lack of full health care, there’s been an outbreak of skin diseases … there is lack of care when it comes to food. Hunger strikes have started and we’re in a deplorable state. We have no means of communication to reflect our [condition] to the outside world.”

Alarm Phone was unable to reach the man for further communication, and no independent groups appear to have had any contact with anyone on the Europa II or the Atlantis. The government says it is spending €3,000 per day for each boat and has requested EU funds for these expenses.

In a letter to the European Commission, three Maltese organizations, Aditus Foundation, the Integra Foundation, and Jesuit Refugee Service Malta, said they are not aware of any effort by authorities to identify people with vulnerabilities or unaccompanied children, while no one on board has had access to lawyers, interpreters, or the United Nations (UN) refugee agency, UNHCR.

Click to expand Image Screenshot of a Facebook message sent to Alarm Phone, a hotline for people in distress at sea, by a man saying he is being detained on the Europa II boat by Maltese authorities. © 2020 Alarm Phone

The Maltese government of Prime Minister Robert Abela has stated explicitly that it is keeping people at sea to pressure other EU countries to take them. A government spokesman said on April 30, “Our ports are closed. Now it’s up to the European Union to shoulder responsibility.”

Media reported that Foreign Minister Evarist Bartolo and Home Affairs Minister Byron Camilleri sent a letter to the European Commission on May 1 saying that EU countries had failed to live up to relocation pledges and asserting that the then-57 people on a Captain Morgan ferry would stay there “pending their relocation to other European countries.”

On April 9, the day after Italy declared its ports “unsafe” amid the Covid-19 pandemic, Malta went even further, announcing that Maltese authorities “are not in a position to guarantee the rescue of prohibited immigrants … nor to ensure the availability of a ‘safe place’ on the Maltese territory to any persons rescued at sea.”

Malta faces serious allegations in at least two incidents involving boats in distress in mid-April. A joint investigation by the Italian newspaper Avvenire and the UK newspaper the Guardian, based also on evidence collected by Alarm Phone, documented that the Armed Forces of Malta allegedly intercepted a boat carrying 101 people and instead of rescuing them, engaged in dangerous maneuvers, gave them some supplies and instructions at gunpoint, and told them to continue toward Italy.

On April 15, the privately-owned Dar al Salam 1, allegedly acting on orders from Malta, intercepted a boat carrying forty men, eight women, and three children, and returned them to Libya, where they were detained in the Tarik al Sikka detention center in Tripoli. On April 30, a former Maltese official told prosecutors investigating the allegations that he coordinated the pushback under instructions from the prime minister’s office as part of a long-standing role as liaison with Libyan authorities in the western part of the country. A reconstruction of the boat’s journey by Avvenire suggests that failure by the Maltese and EU authorities to respond to repeated distress alerts contributed to the deaths of at least five people, whose corpses were on board when the boat reached Libya. Seven others remain unaccounted for.

Malta has clear responsibilities under international law to respond to boats in distress at sea, enact or coordinate rescue operations within its search and rescue area, and ensure timely disembarkation at a safe port. Under international law, restrictions may be placed on rights for public health reasons, but they must be proportionate, nondiscriminatory, and based on available scientific evidence. The pandemic cannot justify abdicating rescue responsibilities or blanket bans on disembarkation, which puts the right to health of those on board at risk.

Deprivation of liberty without a legal basis is unlawful and arbitrary detention in contravention of international and European law. That the men are being held on private vessels in international waters does not absolve Malta of its responsibilities or its liabilities under international and European law. For the purposes of state responsibility, the men are in the custody and under the control of Maltese authorities. Denial of access to asylum contravenes the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.

In a letter to Prime Minister Abela, the Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner said that the authorities should ensure prompt and safe disembarkation and investigate allegations of delay or non-response to situations of distress. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed concern in early May over reports of distress calls being ignored and reiterated that states should ensure search-and-rescue operations and swift disembarkation even amid the Covid-19 pandemic. On May 21, UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said that people on board the two boats should be brought to shore “as soon as possible,” stressing that it was “unacceptable to leave people at sea longer than necessary, especially under difficult and unsuitable conditions.”

This episode, reminiscent of numerous stand-offs at sea that were only resolved by ad hoc arrangements, makes an agreement among EU countries on a predictable system for disembarkation and relocation of migrants and refugees all the more urgent, Human Rights Watch said.

EU member states should not only relocate this group and follow through on prior commitments, but also strongly condemn the Maltese authorities for the arbitrary deprivation of liberty of scores of people and the violations of the law of the sea and of EU asylum standards, and urge Malta to allow the people to disembark. The European Commission should also open infringement proceedings against Malta for violating its EU treaty obligations.

“We believe the 160 people on board tourist cruise boats on the high sea are experiencing severe emotional and physical distress,” Sunderland said. “But we don’t believe their treatment, and violation of their rights, is worthy of the people of Malta, or any EU country.”

US: Don’t Sell Attack Helicopters to Philippines

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, May 27, 2020
Click to expand Image Image of a US Army AH-64E Apache attack helicopter. © 2020 US Army/Specialist Cody Rich

(Washington, DC) – The US Congress should block or delay sales of almost $2 billion in attack helicopters and munitions to the Philippines until the government adopts major reforms to end military abuses and hold those responsible to account, Human Rights Watch said today. The Trump administration notified Congress in late April 2020 of two possible Foreign Military Sales by the US military to the Philippines, one for $1.5 billion including six AH-64E Apache attack helicopters, a second for $450 million including six AH-1Z Viper attack helicopters, both with accompanying guided missiles, rockets, and light cannon ammunition, as well as ongoing service contracts for training, parts, and maintenance.

The Philippines military has a long track record of violations of human rights and the laws of war during counter-insurgency operations against the communist New People’s Army and Moro armed groups, including disregard of civilian life, hundreds of extrajudicial executions, mistreatment of displaced people, and indiscriminate attacks. The military also has a poor record of holding those responsible for human rights abuses accountable.

“Approving contracts for attack helicopters would be sending a terrible message to the Philippine government that long-running military abuses without accountability have no consequences on the US-Philippines relationship,” said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director. “Congress should be impressing upon the Philippine government that real reforms are needed to end military abuses before deals like this can be approved.” 

The Philippine military has a deeply rooted culture of impunity, Human Rights Watch said. Data from the Philippines Department of National Defense indicate that only one soldier has been convicted of an extrajudicial killing since 2001.

For much of the past decade, the US Congress has imposed conditions or restrictions on military assistance to the Philippines, communicating that cuts could only be restored if the Philippine government systematically improved its record, which the government never did. The arrest in August 2014 of Jovito Palparan, a retired Army major general implicated in numerous cases of abductions, torture, and killing, and his conviction in 2018, was a rare challenge to the impunity for military personnel, which multiple Philippine presidential administrations have failed to adequately address. There have been no other such convictions.

Unlawful attacks against leftists that the military accuse of being members of or sympathizers with the New People’s Army have continued, particularly in the central Philippine island of Negros. The government has also ramped up its dangerous anti-communist rhetoric against these individuals and groups.

The US State Department has not received any assurances about where these weapons systems would be deployed or for what purpose, Human Rights Watch said.

Congress has various means to stop or delay the sales. Members of Congress can introduce a “resolution of disapproval” and seek to vote it into law, and individual members on certain committees can place a “hold” on the sales pending further review.

If the sales goes forward, the US government should put the Philippines on notice that ongoing and future servicing and supply of parts for the weapons systems will cease in the event the systems are used illegally. Under US law illegal use of weapons constitute a violation of their End Use Certificates, which impose various restrictions on their use after a sale.

The proposed sales come at a time of a deeply deteriorating human rights situation in the Philippines and the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. After President Rodrigo Duterte began his “war on drugs” in mid-2016, the police have killed more than 5,600 people in anti-drug operations, according to official statistics. Thousands more have died in killings attributed to unidentified gunmen. The killings have orphaned thousands of children who suffer from the emotional, psychological, and economic impacts of the campaign. More than 100 children have been killed between 2016 and 2018.

“The US should not be selling advanced military systems to an abusive, unaccountable Philippine military under cover of a global pandemic,” Sifton said. “Congress needs to act now.”

Hong Kong: Beijing Threatens Draconian Security Law

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, May 27, 2020
Click to expand Image Delegates applaud as Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives for the opening session of China's National People's Congress (NPC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, May 22, 2020.  © 2020 AP Photo/Ng Han Guan, Pool

(New York) – The Chinese legislature’s adoption of a formal decision to directly impose national security legislation on Hong Kong threatens the basic rights and freedoms of the city’s people, Human Rights Watch said today. The law, which China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) almost certainly will enact, will prohibit acts of “splittism, subversion, foreign intervention, and terrorism,” vague terms that the Chinese government has frequently used on the mainland to punish peaceful dissent.

“The new national security law will deal the most severe blow to the rights of people in Hong Kong since the territory’s transfer to China in 1997,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “Hong Kong people will now have to consider arrests and harsh sentences for protesting, speaking out, running for office, and other freedoms they have long enjoyed and struggled peacefully to defend.”

The NPC’s decision authorizes the body’s Standing Committee to draft the legislation, following which the committee will add it into Annex III of Hong Kong’s Basic Law, the city’s functional constitution. The Hong Kong government will then promulgate the law and make it effective in Hong Kong.

The decision to directly insert the national security legislation into Annex III of the Basic Law raises serious concerns about human rights protections. Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” constitutional arrangement means that China’s national laws do not apply to the city. While article 18 of the Basic Law gives the NPC’s Standing Committee powers to add laws to Annex III, the laws must undergo either legislation or promulgation.

Legislation would involve the Hong Kong government introducing a bill to the Legislative Council (LegCo, Hong Kong’s semi-democratic legislature) for debate, amendments, and voting. This would allow the council to review the legislation, including evaluating whether the law complies with international human rights standards guaranteed under the Basic Law. To promulgate the law, the Hong Kong chief executive issues a legal notice in the Government Gazette, and the Chinese national laws concerned are applied verbatim. This will be the first time that a Chinese law carrying criminal penalties will be introduced to Hong Kong through promulgation and without a legislative process.

The Hong Kong government tried to introduce national security legislation in 2003, prompting massive protests and the withdrawal of the bill. The NPC, in its new decision, is explicit that its actions intend to bypass popular oversight through the Legislative Council.

The NPC decision also raises concerns because article 18 of the Basic Law states that such insertion of Chinese national legislation into Annex III “shall be confined to those relating to defense and foreign affairs as well as other matters outside the limits of the autonomy of the Region.”

Under the Basic Law and the bilateral treaty between the United Kingdom and China at the time of Hong Kong’s transfer of sovereignty, Hong Kong has a “high level of autonomy.” The Hong Kong government has autonomous powers to manage the city’s affairs, except for defense and foreign affairs. Article 23 of the Basic Law empowers the Hong Kong government to “enact laws on its own” to prohibit subversive acts. This suggests that it is the Hong Kong government, not the NPC Standing Committee, that has the power to legislate on Hong Kong’s national security.

The NPC Standing Committee will meet next in late June. As it takes three readings to legislate, the earliest the national security legislation will take effect will be around November, according to mainland media.

The NPC decision also states that the law will allow the central government to set up “relevant” institutions to protect “national security” in Hong Kong. Although there are few details, this could mean the establishment of agencies such as the Ministry of State Security and the National Security Bureau of the Ministry of Public Security – agencies long known for rights abuses in China, including arbitrary detention and torture – to operate in Hong Kong.

In addition, pro-Beijing sources say the law would enable the Hong Kong government to ban “foreign groups or organizations” designated by Beijing as being involved in “color revolutions” – another vague term that could apply to any groups critical of China’s government. It could also ban people who work for or receive funding from these organizations from entering Hong Kong.

The Chinese government conceptualizes “national security” in such a broad manner that people exercising their basic human rights and defending them peacefully, including activists, human rights lawyers, scholars, ethnic minorities, and netizens, are detained and imprisoned for years – sometimes for life – for crimes such as “subversion,” “inciting subversion,” “splittism,” and “leaking state secrets.”

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam issued a statement stating she will “comply fully” with the NPC’s decision. The proposed legislation already faces opposition from the pro-democracy movement. Even after the law is promulgated, it could still face challenges in the courts.

While the Chinese government controls China’s judiciary, Hong Kong has its own legal system, and the courts have long been regarded as independent and highly professional. The national security legislation will put additional strain on the judiciary, which has increasingly had to rule on more politically motivated prosecutions. Any legal challenges related to the national security legislation will challenge the judges’ independence, as the legislation will raise conflicts with the Basic Law’s human rights protections.

Judicial rulings against the government on this key legislation could result in Beijing intervening in Hong Kong’s judicial process and “interpreting” the law, as it did in 2016, further damaging Hong Kong’s judicial independence.

Since mid-April, amid the Covid-19 crisis, the Chinese and Hong Kong authorities have heightened their assault on Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, and Beijing has escalated its efforts to impose direct control over the city’s governance.

Governments should take concrete actions to help protect the rights of people in Hong Kong, Human Rights Watch said. They should sanction senior Beijing and Hong Kong officials responsible for recent human rights abuses in Hong Kong and future abuses under the national security legislation, subjecting them to travel bans and asset freezes. They should also offer a safe haven to Hong Kong people who suffer retaliation for exercising their human rights.

“Governments have offered little beyond rhetoric in support of Hong Kong’s freedoms while Chinese authorities have accelerated violations in the mainland and Hong Kong,” Richardson said. “China’s imposition of a Hong Kong security law under the cover of Covid-19 shows the need for strong international action.”

US Official Threatens International Criminal Court – Again

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, May 27, 2020
Click to expand Image Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director Mike Pompeo testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., February 13, 2018. © 2018 Reuters

United States Secretary of State Michael Pompeo once again threatened the International Criminal Court (ICC), this time saying the Trump administration will “exact consequences” if the ICC “continues down its current course” – that is, if the court moves forward with an investigation of possible war crimes committed on Palestinian territory.

A decision that could pave the way for an investigation of serious crimes by Israelis and Palestinians is pending before the ICC’s judges, who have been asked by the ICC prosecutor to confirm the court’s jurisdiction there. Palestine has ratified the court’s treaty, while Israel has not.

Pompeo’s May 15 statement termed the ICC a “political body” when it is instead a global court of last resort for serious international crimes. In March, Pompeo threatened to take action against ICC staff and their families in response to the opening of an investigation into crimes committed in and around Afghanistan. That probe could include scrutiny of serious abuses by Afghan nationals and could also touch on serious abuses by US military and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) personnel committed on Afghan soil or in other ICC member countries. These abuses have not been addressed by any meaningful action in US courts. The US, which is not an ICC member, earlier revoked the ICC prosecutor’s visa and threatened economic sanctions. Pompeo may have been bolstered by last week’s letters from members of Congress calling on him to work to see a stop to these ICC investigations.  

Pompeo’s rhetoric against the court reflects the Trump administration’s broader hostility to the international legal framework. The ICC’s 123 member countries should challenge Pompeo’s toxic narrative on the court. Israeli and Palestinian authorities have for years failed to credibly investigate alleged war crimes and hold those responsible to account. If ICC judges confirm the court’s mandate there, it could provide an opening to check this impunity. The member countries should make clear their support for the ICC’s independence and its mandate to act impartially to deliver accountability. Victims should know that their pursuit of justice will be met by a commitment to the rule-of-law. 

Ailing Cameroon Separatist Leader Deserves Proper Medical Care

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, May 27, 2020
Click to expand Image The High Security Prison in Yaoundé, Cameroon, where separatist leader Blaise Sevidzem Berinyuy, also known as Shufai, is being held, February 2019. © Private

Separatist leader Blaise Sevidzem Berinyuy, also known as Shufai, was discharged from the hospital and sent back to a high security prison in Yaoundé on May 21, despite his critical health condition and apparently following pressure by the head of the detention facility on medical staff. Transferring Shufai, who is immunocompromised, to a crowded prison setting where transmission of Covid-19 is more likely seriously enhances the threats to his health and life.

On May 16, Shufai, one of the leaders of the separatist group “Ambazonia Interim Government,” was transferred from the prison to the hospital for non-Covid-19-related illness. His family and lawyers said he was unconscious, and his health had deteriorated significantly over the previous 10 days. They reported that on May 19, Shufai was handcuffed to his hospital bed for the night, despite being barely able to move.

Shufai’s family members and lawyers said that the head of the prison visited Shufai twice at the military hospital and pressed medical staff to discharge him, although his condition continues to be alarming. This is despite concerns over the spread of Covid-19 across Cameroon’s overcrowded prisons.

Shufai and nine other leaders of the “Ambazonia Interim Government” were arrested in January 2018 in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, and forcibly returned to Cameroon. Their extrajudicial transfer was denounced by the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, as violating the fundamental principle of non-refoulement. The forced return of the 10 leaders was also declared illegal by a Nigerian court in March 2019. The 10 leaders were later held incommunicado at Cameroon’s State Defense Secretariat prison for six months before being taken to the Yaoundé high security prison. They were charged with terrorism, rebellion, and secession, and sentenced to life before a military court on August 20, 2019, following a deeply flawed trial.

Cameroon has a fundamental obligation to treat all prisoners with humanity and respect, and as the authorities grapple with the Covid-19 pandemic, they should ensure that all prisoners can take measures such as regular handwashing and have proper access to medical care. They should also ensure sick prisoners receive the medical treatment they need and that their health or lives are not further jeopardized by increasing their risk of Covid-19 infection. 

Philippines: Lasting Harm to Children from ‘Drug War’

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, May 27, 2020

May 27, 2020 Video Philippines: Lasting Harm to Children from ‘Drug War’

UN Human Rights Council Should Promote Justice for Killings

 

(Manila) – Thousands of children in the Philippines have suffered lasting physical, emotional, and economic harm from President Rodrigo Duterte’s abusive “war on drugs,” Human Rights Watch said in a report and accompanying video released today. Governments at the United Nations Human Rights Council in June 2020 should support an independent international investigation into the “drug war” killings in the Philippines, including violations against children.

May 27, 2020 Report “Our Happy Family Is Gone”

Impact of the “War on Drugs” on Children in the Philippines

The 48-page report, “‘Our Happy Family Is Gone’: Impact of the ‘War on Drugs’ on Children in the Philippines,” details the plight of children whose parents or guardians have been killed. Many children have suffered psychological distress, and all experienced economic hardship made worse by the death of a family breadwinner. The increased poverty and trauma have led many children to leave school or compelled them to work. Some children who lost a family member have faced bullying in their school and community. Some were forced to live on the streets.

“Filipino children have suffered horribly from President Duterte’s decision to unleash the police and their hit men against suspected drug users,” said Carlos Conde, Philippines researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The government needs to stop this endless violence that is upending children’s lives and direct assistance to the children harmed.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed 49 people for the report – 10 children; 23 parents, relatives, or guardians; and 16 government officials, nongovernmental organization staff members, and community leaders. Human Rights Watch documented the impact of 23 “drug war” killings on the victims’ families in six cities and provinces, including Metro Manila.

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Jennifer M. drew this using pencil and crayon as part of her therapy  for the psychological distress she suffered after witnessing the killing of her father by police officers inside their Quezon City home in December 2016. 

© 2016 Kiri Dalena for Human Rights Watch

The Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency has reported that 5,601 drug suspects died during police anti-drug operations from July 1, 2016 to January 31, 2020. The police claim these people were killed because they fought back. This number does not include the thousands killed by unidentified gunmen or so-called death squads, many of them linked to the police.

Children’s rights advocates in the Philippines have documented that 101 children were extrajudicially executed or killed as bystanders during anti-drug operations from mid-2016 through 2018. Media reports in 2019 and 2020 show that the killing of children has continued.

The impact of “drug war” violence goes beyond the killings, Human Rights Watch found. Children described the hardships they suffered because of the murder of a loved one. Jennifer M. said she stopped eating, became distressed, and was bullied in school after police killed her father in Quezon City in 2016. “I was angry at the policemen because my father was begging for mercy, but they didn't listen to him,” said Jennifer, who was 12 at the time. The police, she said, shot him in her presence.

The family of Renato A., who was killed in Mandaluyong City in 2016, has faced extreme hardships since his death. His 3 children – ages 13, 10, and 1 at the time of his killing – stopped going to school and have been living in the city’s streets. “I had to work harder when my father died,” said Robert, the eldest, who worked as a garbage collector to support his family. “I became a father to my siblings.”

The absence of government support has worsened the situation for these children, Human Rights Watch said. The Duterte administration does not have a program to address the needs of children left behind by the violence, who are often hesitant to approach government for help because of the stigma of the “drug war.” While the Department of Social Welfare and Development provides the usual assistance, such as shouldering burial expenses, it does not have a significant outreach campaign for these families and their children, leaving any economic and psychosocial or mental health interventions to religious, nongovernmental, and community groups.

In February 2018, the International Criminal Court opened a preliminary examination into the complaints filed against President Duterte related to the “drug war,” prompting the Philippine government to withdraw from the court. In June 2019, the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution requesting the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to submit a comprehensive report about the human rights situation in the Philippines. The office is expected to present this report to the Human Rights Council during its June session in Geneva.

“The UN Human Rights Council should create an international inquiry and press the Philippine government to end its deadly ‘drug war,’” Conde said. “Without action now, an entire generation of Filipino children will be victimized by the violence of Duterte’s anti-drug campaign.”

Please see below for quotes from some of the children, parents, and guardians interviewed.

Jennifer M., daughter of Benigno M., killed in December 2016:

I was confused because I didn’t understand why. Why my papa? Of all the people outside, why did they pick my father? I was angry at the policemen because my father was begging for mercy, but they didn’t listen to him. That’s why I was so angry.

I can’t explain it because with so many being killed here in Payatas, it’s like your mind gets muddled. How else to talk about it? What goes through your mind when you remember what happened? It's like your mind is in disarray.

 

Malou M., Jennifer’s mother:

It’s hard because you don’t know how you’re going to start, how you’re going to fend for your children, how you’re going to send them to school, and how you’re going to pay for their daily expenses and their meals. There are times they can’t go to school because they don’t have school allowance. We lost our tap water because we can’t pay the water bill, and electricity, and many more things.

 

Randy delos Santos, uncle of Kian delos Santos, 17, killed in August 2017:

If not for the CCTV footage, the truth about my nephew’s death may not have been known and there never would have been a case against the policemen.

 

Robert A., whose father was killed in December 2016:

We were out to buy peanuts. My cousin and I saw four men riding two motorcycles without plate numbers, their faces covered, wearing jackets. I tried to chase them, I tried to get ahead of them. I did everything I could to reach my father first, but it was too late. I saw my father being shot.

John [Robert’s brother] was more affected by my father’s death because ever since my father died, I don’t see him happy anymore. If I see him smile, it’s forced. He’s still looking for our father because he was my father’s favorite. He easily gets angry now and he lost trust in people.

I had to work harder when my father died. I became a father to my siblings because I don’t want to see them suffer … so I’m doing everything I can. I force myself to work even if I don’t want to. I force myself for me, for my siblings.

 

Karla A., Robert’s sister:

I was there when it happened, when my papa was shot. I saw everything, how my papa was shot.… Our happy family is gone. We don’t have anyone to call father now. We want to be with him, but we can’t anymore.

Covid-19 Prisoner Releases Too Few, Too Slow

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, May 27, 2020
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Inmates sitting in an overcrowded jail in Manila, Philippines, February 2019. 

© 2019 Kyodo via AP Images

(New York) – Governments are releasing from jails and prisons far too few people whose continued detention in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic is not justified, Human Rights Watch said today, based on a global media survey. Available data indicates that the virus is spreading rapidly through jails and prisons, putting detainees, staff, and their families at unacceptable risk.

Globally, abusive laws that criminalize non-criminal conduct and policies that prioritize incarceration, including pretrial detention, have led to an unacceptably large global prison population estimated at 11 million. Media, government, and other reports suggest that approximately 580,000 detainees from at least 80 countries have been authorized for release, a mere 5 percent, and many release orders have not been fully carried out.

“Prisoner releases have been too few and too slow, contributing to preventable suffering and death,” said Jo Becker, an advocate at Human Rights Watch. “Governments should urgently accelerate the releases – whether early, temporary, or conditional. Many detainees have not been convicted of any crime, and don’t pose a security risk.”

In the United States, more than 20,000 inmates and 6,400 correctional staff have tested positive for the virus, with over 300 deaths. Ohio’s Marion Correctional Institute has one of the highest Covid-19 infection rates in the world – more than 80 percent of the prison’s 2,500 inmates have tested positive. Across Latin America, thousands of cases have been confirmed among detained people and prison staff, and at least 160 have died. In Canada, over 60 percent of inmates at a women’s facility near Montreal have tested positive for the virus.

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

In at least 125 countries, prisons are overcrowded, further escalating the danger. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the main prisons are at more than 400 percent of capacity and over 70 percent of detainees have not been convicted, less than 3,000 of 20,000 total detainees have been released. Bolivia has released only 2 detainees out of a prison population of more than 18,000, although the country’s prisons hold more than twice their capacity, and 70 percent of detainees are awaiting trial.

In Indonesia, the government has released at least 36,500 prisoners, but as of April 14, the country still had 260,000 inmates, almost double the 132,000 total capacity. Some detention centers have had coronavirus outbreaks, such as the Jayapura Police Station in Papua, where 11 inmates have tested positive, prompting the prison chief to test his whole staff.

Many governments have been slow to carry out announced releases. In the United Kingdom, where Covid-19 cases have been identified in the majority of prisons, Justice Ministry authorities announced in early April that up to 4,000 prisoners would be eligible for release, but only 57 had been released by May 12. In Australia, New South Wales introduced emergency legislation in late March enabling the government to release prisoners, but as of May 18, no prisoners had been released.

Government release orders have often prioritized older prisoners, low-level offenders, those who have served the majority of their sentence, women, and those in ill health. But the criteria have in many places excluded others who should not necessarily have been detained and could be released without risk to public safety. In Turkey, a law authorizing the release of up to 90,000 prisoners was limited to convicted offenders, arbitrarily excluding a high number of prisoners in pretrial detention or without finalized convictions.

In Bangladesh, 80 percent of the 90,000 detainees have not been tried, yet authorities have authorized the release of fewer than 3,000. In India, where approximately 67 percent of detainees are awaiting or undergoing trial, a high-level committee authorized the release of up to half of all detainees in the state of Maharashtra, but a requirement to post bail will prevent many from securing release. In Nigeria, 70 percent of the country’s prison population are pretrial detainees – an estimated 50,000 people – but as of May 22, only 3,751 prisoners have been released.

Many Latin American countries have a large percentage of detainees awaiting trial – 77 percent in Paraguay, 75 percent in Haiti, 70 percent in Bolivia, and 63 percent in Venezuela.

In Egypt, where authorities have used protracted pretrial detention to keep critics and political opposition figures incarcerated, the authorities have used the Covid-19 pandemic to effectively halt even pro forma detention renewal hearings since mid-March. The likely result is that even fewer of the hundreds and perhaps thousands of pretrial detainees will be released.

Expanding release orders to include all pretrial detainees as eligible, unless their release poses a serious and concrete risk to others, could substantially reduce the prison population in most countries, Human Rights Watch said.

Releases in some countries specifically exclude human rights defenders and others wrongfully imprisoned for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression, assembly, and association. In Bahrain, local rights groups estimate that about 400 of the 1,500 detainees released were political prisoners. But the majority of imprisoned human rights defenders, opposition leaders, activists, and journalists – many of them older and/or with underlying medical conditions – remain imprisoned.

Turkey’s law authorizing prisoner releases specifically excluded tens of thousands of prisoners arbitrarily detained or unjustly convicted under anti-terror laws, among them journalists, human rights defenders, elected politicians, lawyers, and others. Those excluded include some prisoners with serious underlying medical issues.

In Belarus, authorities detained an additional 120 peaceful protesters and other critics of the government during May, despite serious health risks to some of them.

In some countries, arrests for violations of curfews, quarantines, or other restrictions linked to the pandemic have added to the detainee population. In Sri Lanka, where prisons are at more than double capacity, approximately 3,000 out of 20,000 prisoners have been released, but approximately 40,000 people have been arrested for curfew violations and in many cases, briefly detained.

In Malaysia, authorities have arrested more than 15,000 people for violating movement control orders, many of whom received jail sentences ranging from two days to several months. In El Salvador, thousands have been arrested and detained for 30 days or more for allegedly violating quarantine orders.

Arresting people for violating Covid-19 emergency measures may increase disease transmission if the authorities place people in crowded detention facilities where the virus could spread easily, Human Rights Watch said.

On March 25, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, warned governments of “catastrophic consequences” if they neglected prison populations in their Covid-19 response, and urged them to work quickly to reduce the number of people in detention. She called for the release of vulnerable detainees and low-level offenders, among other measures.

The UN Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture also called on governments to “reduce prison populations and other detention populations wherever possible” by utilizing early, provisional, or temporary release for detainees when it is safe to do so.

Human Rights Watch recommends that governments refrain from new custodial arrests, absent an assessment that they pose a serious danger to others. Governments should act urgently to achieve necessary reductions in jail and prison populations, prioritizing for release as eligible:

  • those held for minor offenses
  • those nearing the end of their sentence
  • those jailed for technical violations of probation or parole
  • incarcerated children, older, and otherwise medically vulnerable people, and people who are caregivers to vulnerable people
  • detainees who have not been charged
  • detainees held in pretrial detention, unless they pose a serious and concrete risk to others

The authorities should also ensure that they fully uphold their obligations to those who remain in detention to whom they owe a special duty, as detainees are dependent on them for their health and welfare. Authorities should take urgent steps to prevent or limit the spread of Covid-19 in detention facilities, to protect the physical and mental health of all detainees, and to isolate and treat any detainees who do become infected.

These steps include screening and testing for Covid-19 according to the most recent recommendations of health authorities; providing adequate hygiene, sanitary conditions, and medical services; and reducing density to allow social distancing and to allow placing all who are ill or their close contacts in non-punitive isolation or quarantine, with access to appropriate medical care.

“Governments need to move quickly to avoid disastrous consequences and massive loss of life,” Becker said. “Releasing people who don’t need to be in prison will not only protect incarcerated people, but staff and the broader communities as well.”

Greece Migrant Camps Unfit for Pregnant People

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, May 27, 2020
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A child plays in a temporary tent camp near the camp for migrants in Moria, Lesbos which is overcrowded and lacks adequate hygiene facilities and sanitation, putting migrants, including pregnant people, at particular risk amid Covid-19. Lesbos, Greece 2020.

© Angelos Tzortzinis/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images  

The Covid-19 pandemic has worsened already dire conditions for pregnant people in overcrowded reception centers for migrants and asylum seekers on Greek islands.

Highlighting the situation’s urgency, the European Court of Human Rights has ordered Greece to ensure adequate health care and living conditions for one pregnant woman living in Pyli Reception Center on Kos Island.

Pyli and other reception centers remain desperately overcrowded despite the government’s April commitment to transfer some migrants to the mainland. As of May 25, nearly 33,000 people were held in sites with capacity for around 6,000. Pyli holds nearly three times its capacity.  

Even before Covid-19 measures were put in place, the Greek government was not meeting international standards for health care, nutrition, and bedding for migrant pregnant people and new mothers. Heavily pregnant women in Moria Reception Center on Lesbos told me about sleeping in overcrowded tents on ground lined only with thin mats or blankets, struggling to reach toilets over rough terrain, and being returned to these conditions within days of caesarean births.

Reported reallocation of limited maternal health services in the Moria Reception Center due to Covid-19 could be devastating. In certain past disease outbreaks, diversion of reproductive health services contributed to increased maternal deaths.

Since late March, the Greek government has arbitrarily detained newly arrived migrants and asylum seekers on the mainland – including pregnant and other “vulnerable” people – and kept them in lockdown in cramped, unsanitary, and unhygienic conditions in reception centers. This flouts public health measures and recommendations for containment of Covid-19. While lifting general lockdown measures, with shops opening and older students returning to classrooms, the government extended lockdown in reception centers until June 7.

Evidence regarding Covid-19 and pregnancy is limited, with much still unknown. While pregnant people don’t appear to be at higher risk, the World Health Organization notes they can be badly affected by some respiratory infections and advises them to take protective measures. This is impossible in reception center conditions.

The Greek government should implement the European Court’s order in Pyli, but also go further to ensure adequate living conditions and health care for all pregnant people in migrant hotspots. It should also ensure decongestion and hygienic conditions for all residents of these sites before it’s too late.

Myanmar: Imagery Shows 200 Buildings Burned

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, May 26, 2020

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Human Rights Watch has identified the geolocation of burned buildings in Let Kar village, Rakhine State. The yellow outline estimates the extent of the damage from fire, based on satellite imagery.

Damage analysis by Human Rights Watch; satellite imagery © 2020 Planet Labs (Yangon) – Satellite imagery shows that about 200 homes and other buildings were destroyed by fire on May 16, 2020, in Myanmar’s embattled Rakhine State, Human Rights Watch said today. An impartial investigation is urgently needed to determine responsibility for this mass destruction of residential property in the predominantly ethnic Rakhine village of Let Kar, Mrauk-U township.

Since January 2019, fighting between the Myanmar military and the ethnic Rakhine Arakan Army has resulted in numerous civilian casualties and destruction of civilian property. The imagery of Let Kar bears a close resemblance to patterns of fires and widespread arson attacks by the Myanmar military on ethnic Rohingya villages in Rakhine State in 2012, 2016, and 2017, Human Rights Watch said.

“The burning of Let Kar village has all the hallmarks of Myanmar military arson on Rohingya villages in recent years,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “A credible and impartial investigation is urgently needed to find out what happened, punish those responsible, and provide compensation to villagers harmed.” View All

Before: Satellite imagery recorded on May 16, 2020, at 10:31 a.m. local time shows no signs of damage in Let Kar village, Mrauk U, Rakhine State. At 2:12 p.m., almost four hours later, an environmental satellite detected fires burning in Let Kar. After: Satellite imagery recorded on May 18 shows approximately 200 buildings affected by fire in Let Kar. The damage reported is most likely an underestimate as internal damage is not visible. Damage analysis by Human Rights Watch; satellite imagery © 2020 Planet Labs

Before: Damage analysis by Human Rights Watch; satellite imagery © 2020 Planet Labs After: Damage analysis by Human Rights Watch; satellite imagery © 2020 Planet Labs

Satellite imagery recorded on May 16, 2020 at 10:30 a.m. shows no signs of damage in Let Kar. But at 2:12 p.m., an environmental satellite detected extensive fires burning there. The Human Rights Watch damage analysis of 200 buildings burned is most likely an underestimate as internal damage to buildings is not visible.

The satellite imagery is consistent with witness accounts regarding the date and time of the fires and the number of buildings affected. Residents in the neighboring village of Bu Ywat Ma Nyo told the media they saw Myanmar soldiers walk past their village to enter Let Kar around 2 p.m. on May 16 and leave around 5 p.m. The two villages are nearly one kilometer apart. After the soldiers entered Let Kar, Bu Ywat Ma Nyo residents reported hearing gunfire, saw flames and smoke, and observed two aerial drones, one flying above Let Kar and another flying over Bu Ywat Ma Nyo village.

An aid worker from the town of Mrauk-U told Human Rights Watch that at about 2 p.m. on May 16, columns of smoke could be seen coming from the direction of Let Kar, 11 kilometers north. “There was no one living there after the fighting last year as [the residents] had fled, but the older people really have nowhere to go now,” he said. “They had been sheltering in IDP [internally displaced persons] camps in Tein Myo and Bu Ywat Ma Nyo villages and had at least been able to go home and collect their belongings or check their homes from time to time. Now they don’t have anything – it’s very sad.”

A former Let Kar resident who still lives nearby told a local source that he went to view the damage himself on May 17. He said he and his companions encountered about 50 Myanmar troops on the road as they travelled from Mrauk-U to Let Kar by motorbike, but the soldiers did not stop them. He said he counted at least 194 buildings that had been burned down, including his own home, and a school.

A Rakhine State regional member of parliament, Tun Thar Sein, confirmed that a military contingent had been in the area. “We will urge the union government for compensation and aid to be provided to the residents of Let Kar,” he said.

On May 17, Myanmar’s military released a statement that its troops had entered Let Kar the previous afternoon while patrolling the area and were attacked by the Arakan Army. It also issued an aerial view image of burning buildings in Let Kar, presumably taken by a drone. The military accused the Arakan Army of setting the fires and damaging at least 20 houses before retreating into the mountains.

On May 19, the Arakan Army issued a statement denying the allegations. A spokesperson, Khine Thuka, urged the media to investigate.

Most residents abandoned Let Kar more than a year ago, when fighting intensified. On April 10, 2019, the military raided Let Kar and detained 27 men for questioning about alleged ties to the Arakan Army. By April 22, three of the men had died in custody, attributed to “heart failure” by the military-owned Myawaddy newspaper. No autopsies were performed because the security forces swiftly cremated the bodies. The authorities contested allegations that the men were tortured but refused to investigate the deaths. The 24 others, two of whom are minors, remain detained in Sittwe.

On March 22, fighting resulted in more than 500 homes being burned in Tin Ma village, Kyauktaw township. The military denied responsibility. The Rakhine State government in April provided US$62,000 in compensation to residents, according to Development Media Group.

Under the laws of war applicable to the armed conflict between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army, attacks on civilians and civilian objects, such as homes, are prohibited. The wanton destruction of civilian property is a war crime. Myanmar has an obligation to investigate alleged war crimes and appropriately prosecute those responsible regardless of rank. The Myanmar government is obligated to provide compensation for any wrongful acts and should consider ex gratia or “condolence” payments for other civilian harm.

“Myanmar’s government should not leave the investigation of this incident to the military, which has repeatedly covered up atrocities and exonerated its troops,” Robertson said. “To ensure a credible investigation, the government should request UN assistance.”

Two Years in Prison for Gay Sex in Turkmenistan

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, May 26, 2020
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A screen showing a portrait of Turkmen President Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov inside the terminal of the newly built airport in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, September 17, 2016. 

© 2016 Reuters

In Turkmenistan, men who have sex with men continue to be arrested and imprisoned on sodomy charges.

In mid-March independent media in the region reported the arrest of a popular entertainer as well as those of numerous other men who move in Turkmenistan’s show-business world. Some were able to secure their release. On May 7, a Turkmen court sentenced the entertainer, and several others to two years’ imprisonment on sodomy charges.

Turkmenistan is one of sixty-nine countries in the world that outlaw consensual sexual intercourse between men. Article 135 of the criminal code stipulates penalties of up to two years’ imprisonment for sodomy and 5 to 10 years if repeated. This blatantly discriminatory law, that violates Turkmenistan’s international human rights obligations, enables police to subject gay and bisexual men to harassment, including with the purpose of extortion, humiliation, and abuse.

Human Rights Watch documented a 2013 case in Turkmenistan, where medical staff collaborated with law enforcement officials to conduct an anal exam on an 18-year-old man accused of homosexual conduct. While not evidence of a pattern, the case raises the possibility that forced anal examinations have been or are being used against others charged with sodomy in Turkmenistan.

Such examinations have no medical justification, are cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment and may amount to torture. They violate the Convention against Torture and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, both ratified by Turkmenistan.

Last year, in an extremely rare headline-grabbing instance, a gay man came out publicly despite hostile social attitudes and bullying by his family. He went missing after he came out, and then briefly resurfaced in the media before going silent again.

In 2017, the United Nations Human Rights Committee flagged criminalization of consensual same-sex conduct as “unjustifiable” and urged the Turkmen government to repeal it. Turkmenistan prides itself on its good standing in the United Nations. The government should immediately dismiss all charges against the men convicted under these laws and release them.

Turkmenistan should also repeal article 135 of the criminal code and protect people from violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation.

It’s Time to Treat Cybersecurity as a Human Rights Issue

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, May 26, 2020
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The UN Security Council holds a meeting on November 20, 2019, at United Nations headquarters in New York.

© 2019 AP Photo/Mary Altaffer   Cyberattacks are becoming more commonplace, sophisticated, and severe. As Covid-19 forced millions of people’s lives online, a stable and secure internet is essential to the functioning of societies.

Fortuitously, the UN Security Council held its second-ever informal meeting on cybersecurity, led by Estonia, on Friday. The discussion focused on cyber challenges to international peace, but human rights inched their way into the discussion too.

Fundamental rights are at stake when governments engage in cyberattacks, like when Russia shut down the internet, as it did  in Crimea in 2016 and in Ingushetia in 2018, or when a government hacks into a dissident or journalist’s phone, as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have repeatedly done.

Internet shutdowns deny people access to critical information, the ability to express themselves, work, learn, and access social services. Government hacking infringes on privacy and can lead to other rights violations, in particular for human rights activists and journalists. Emirati activist Ahmed Mansoor was imprisoned and Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was executed after their governments gathered information on their activities through hacking. Governments like China and Vietnam use cybersecurity as an excuse to exercise more control over the internet and further restrict rights.

At Friday’s debate, at least a dozen countries referenced the importance of human rights. Estonia expressed its “support [for] an open, free and stable cyberspace where the rule of law fully applies, and human rights and fundamental freedoms are respected.” This position was echoed by a number of EU member states - including Belgium and the Netherlands - Ecuador, Japan, Switzerland, and others. Eritrea and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines raised concerns about the spread of disinformation online and the need to reform the prevailing surveillance-based business models of companies in order to safeguard elections. A handful of States, including Australia, Canada, Ecuador, Ireland, and Italy recognized gender dimensions of cybersecurity.

Noticeably silent on rights were the two cyber heavyweights: the US, which didn’t address the issue, and Russia, which didn’t participate in the meeting.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres recently warned that “new technologies are too often used to violate rights.” Often this happens in the name of, or due to a lack of, cybersecurity. Cybersecurity is a human rights issue. It’s time more governments start treating it like one.

Costa Rica First in Central America to Legalize Same-Sex Marriage

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, May 26, 2020
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LGBT Rainbow Flag 

© 2008 Ludovic Berton (Wikimedia Commons)   Today, Alexandra Quiros and Dunia Araya were the first same-sex couple to marry in Costa Rica, as marriage equality became legal in the country.

It took a while. In 2016, Costa Rica requested that the Inter-American Court of Human Rights interpret the right to privacy and the right to equal protection under the American Convention on Human Rights. In a landmark 2017 opinion, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights stated that all rights applicable to heterosexual couples should extend to same-sex couples. Then, in 2018, the Costa Rican Constitutional Court followed that opinion and ruled in favor of marriage equality.

This day did not come without a fight. Same-sex marriage divided voters in Costa Rica’s 2018 presidential race, when a right-wing evangelical candidate pledged to ignore the Inter-American opinion. He lost the election, but not without polarizing Costa Rican society. Early this month, lawmakers even came to blows around a legislative motion to delay the constitutional court’s 2018 ruling.

But today is a day for celebration. Costa Rica joins 28 other countries around the world in providing access to marriage for same-sex couples, and advances marriage equality in Latin America, joining Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, and Uruguay. In Mexico, 18 states and the federal district have marriage equality, while in the other 13 states, same-sex couples can marry but need a court injunction.

Costa Rica should serve as an example to its Central American neighbors, where the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people remain more embattled. In Guatemala, for example, a bill in congress seeks to keep same-sex marriage illegal. In Panama, legislators proposed a constitutional amendment in October 2019 that defines marriage as between a man and a woman.

Beyond Central America, Costa Rica’s path to marriage equality can inspire engagement with human rights law and its institutions. Since its 2016 request to the Inter-American Court, the country has demonstrated a commitment to the spirit of human rights principles in this area and the dignity of its LGBT citizens.

WHO Should Intervene to End Internet Shutdowns amid Pandemic

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, May 26, 2020

(Geneva) – The World Health Organization (WHO) should press four governments that have shut down the internet to minority populations during the Covid-19 crisis to restore internet access, Human Rights Watch and 47 other organizations said today.

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As part of the KeepItOn Coalition, the groups asked WHO Director-General Dr. Zsuzsanna Jakab to urge the governments of Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, and Pakistan to restore full access to the internet.

New Database Threatens Right to Privacy in Russia

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, May 26, 2020
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FILE: A Russian state flag waves on top of a hammer and sickle at the State Duma, lower parliament chamber, headquarters in Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2017 

© AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko

A new law for creating a “uniform federal database” in Russia infringes on the right to privacy and weakens protection of personal data for everyone living in the country. Parliament’s lower chamber adopted the draft law on May 21 and it will enter into force once endorsed by the upper chamber and the president.

The federal database, which is set to be fully functional by 2025, would contain personal data of the entire population of Russia, including birth certificates, passport details, marital status, any change of gender, education, residence permits abroad, employment, and taxpayers’ information. References to parents’ and children’s profiles would also be included.

The database would be run by the Federal Tax Service, and other government agencies would feed into it. The data could be shared with election commissions, courts, prosecutors, and other law enforcement. According to the legislators, the draft law aims at ensuring reliability and consistency of data countrywide.

Russian law ‘on personal data’ prohibits merging databases collected for different purposes. It also forbids excessive collection and storage of data – meaning anything collected must be directly related to what the data will be used for. These principles echo the Council of Europe’s Convention 108+ for the protection of individuals with regard to the processing of personal data, which Russia is a party.

The head of Federal Tax Service noted that the unified database would allow the creation of “an ideal golden profile” for everyone, which could be used, among other things, for making decisions regarding allocation of social benefits by calculating family income based on information from relevant profiles. According to the Convention 108+, however, every individual has a right not to be subject to a decision significantly affecting them based solely on automated processing of data.

The uniform database concept allows the government to store excessive amounts of data indefinitely as well as share it with governmental agencies without a person’s explicit consent. It also jeopardizes security of personal data, gathering it all in one place rather than storing it in a decentralized way.

Proposing a system that runs contrary to the data protection principles enshrined both in national legislation and international agreements Russia is a party to, the law on “uniform federal database” can do more harm than good.

Burkina Faso: Armed Islamists Attack Education

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, May 26, 2020
May 26, 2020 Video Education Under Attack in Burkina Faso by Armed Islamists

Devastating Toll on Teachers, Students, and Schools

  (New York) – Increasing armed Islamist group attacks on teachers, students, and schools in Burkina Faso since 2017 have had a devastating impact on children’s access to education, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.   The 102-page report, “‘Their War Against Education’: Armed Group Attacks on Teachers, Students, and Schools in Burkina Faso,” documents scores of education-related attacks by armed Islamist groups in 6 of the country’s 13 regions between 2017 and 2020. The groups have killed, beaten, abducted, and threatened education professionals; intimidated students; terrorized parents into keeping children out of school; and damaged, destroyed, and looted schools.   “Armed Islamist groups targeting teachers, students, and schools in Burkina Faso are not only committing war crimes, but are undoing years of progress in improving children’s access to education,” said Lauren Seibert, children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. “The Burkinabè government should investigate these attacks, ensure children regain access to schooling, and provide needed support to education workers who experienced attacks.”   May 26, 2020 Report “Their War Against Education”

Armed Group Attacks on Teachers, Students, and Schools in Burkina Faso

  Human Rights Watch interviewed over 170 people between December 2019 and April 2020, including 74 education professionals, 35 current and former students, and other witnesses to attacks, parents of students, victims’ family members, community leaders, aid workers, experts, and government officials.   Armed Islamist groups allied with Al Qaeda and the Islamic State began attacking teachers and schools in Burkina Faso in 2017, citing their opposition to “French,” Western-style education and government institutions. The attacks have increased every year since.   Human Rights Watch documented 126 attacks and armed threats against education professionals, students, and schools, with more than half the attacks in 2019. At least 12 education professionals were killed and 17 assaulted or abducted in the documented attacks, with many others forcibly detained and threatened.   Teachers and school administrators described being chained, tied, blindfolded, and beaten, with their belongings stolen or burned. Those killed include five teachers shot at a primary school; a teacher and a principal shot at home; four teachers and administrators abducted and killed, including two beheaded; and a retired volunteer teacher gunned down as he tutored children.   In a May 2020 letter to Human Rights Watch, the education ministry reported that at least 222 education workers had been “victims of terrorist attacks” as of late April.   While armed Islamists have not appeared to target children for violence during school attacks, they often fired shots in the air to terrify students and teachers. “I was really scared. We thought they were coming to kill us,” a student recalled. A 14-year-old girl was killed by a stray bullet during a school attack in 2018. Seven students returning from school break were among the 14 people killed when an explosive device detonated under their bus in January 2020.   Witness: Waging War on Burkina Faso’s Schools

A survivor tells how armed Islamists attacked students and colleagues in Burkina Faso. 

READ MORE   Armed men damaged or pillaged schools in at least 84 of the documented cases, including by burning school infrastructure and academic materials, setting off explosives, shooting at schools, and plundering supplies from canteen storerooms.   Before the Burkinabè government closed all schools nationwide in mid-March in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, 2,500 schools had already closed due to attacks or insecurity, depriving nearly 350,000 students of access to education.   “All the schools here are closed [because of attacks and insecurity],” said an education professional in Namssiguia village, Centre-Nord region, in February. “We pray the situation will improve so the children can go back to school, because they are suffering.”   Violence by armed Islamist groups in Burkina Faso – and, in response, by self-defense militias and government security forces – has steadily increased since the emergence of the Burkinabè armed Islamist group Ansaroul Islam in 2016. A surge in attacks in 2019 continued into 2020, displacing over 830,000 people from their homes.   Between mid-2017 and mid-2019, the central Sahel countries of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger witnessed a six-fold increase in school closures due to attacks and insecurity. By early 2020, Burkina Faso had more such school closures than Mali (1,261) and Niger (354) combined.   The use of schools for military purposes, such as converting them into military bases, also puts education infrastructure at risk. Human Rights Watch documented the use of ten schools by Burkinabè security forces and six by armed Islamist groups, as well as armed Islamist attacks on four schools during or directly after their occupation by the Burkinabè military.   The attacks have had far-reaching consequences for students and teachers, including trauma and mental health issues, school withdrawals, dangers for children traveling to access new schools, and, among out-of-school children, increased child labor and risks of child marriage for girls.   In 2017, Burkina Faso endorsed the Safe Schools Declaration, a political agreement committing countries to prevent and respond to attacks on students, teachers, and schools. The government has since taken several positive steps, such as reopening closed schools, redeploying teachers, and creating a national strategy and technical secretariat on education in emergencies. Recently, the government expanded distance-learning programs – previously implemented in some conflict-affected regions – to national radio and television, as part of its Covid-19 education response.   However, the government should urgently address gaps in its response to education-related attacks. It should ensure timely psychosocial and financial support to victims, increase support to overcrowded “host schools” accepting displaced students, expand “education-in-emergencies” programs to reach more children affected by conflict, improve school security in conflict zones, and restrict military use of schools. Those responsible for attacks should be investigated for war crimes and appropriately prosecuted.   Donor governments should consider supporting education-in-emergencies programs and victim rehabilitation, including psychosocial care for teachers and students who experienced attacks.   “In their brutal assault against education, armed Islamist groups in Burkina Faso have cost teachers their lives, livelihoods, and physical and mental health, and they are costing hundreds of thousands of children their futures,” Seibert said. “These attacks need to stop.”   Launch Gallery   Selected Quotes   “The whole school was damaged, burned... Windows, doors, walls so ruined they couldn’t be repaired.”
Displaced Goenega villager, Barsalogho commune, Centre-Nord region, March 30, 2020.   “They started beating [my colleague] first, then me... They said, ‘You knew we didn’t want you here teaching, and still you dared to continue... You have defied us.’ They said if they come back and take us a second time, it will be to remove our heads.”
Teacher, victim of armed Islamist attack in Est region, February 12, 2020.   “The moment we saw [the armed Islamists], we ran. ... The principal told us they said they didn’t want to return and find us there [in school]. The school was closed for several months. ... It caused us a lot of problems. We couldn’t study, we had to stay at home.”
Primary school student, 13, Kaya, Centre-Nord region, February 9, 2020.   “[The students] started climbing the walls to escape—the teachers too... One [attacker]... pointed his gun at me and said, ‘Any child, girl or boy... should be learning the Quran, not French.’... They ... put a handmade explosive on one of the computer tables. I heard an explosion, BOOM... I was so afraid.”
High school administrator from Pissila, Centre-Nord region, February 13, 2020.   “The attack really disturbed me, so I haven’t been back to school. I’m not even planning to restart. I don’t have the spirit to go back.”
Former high school student, 26, from Béléhédé village, Sahel region, February 14, 2020.   “The attack hurt me very much, but the fact that after the attack, we weren’t supported… that’s what still bothers me... we had the impression we were abandoned to ourselves.”
School administrator, victim of an attack in 2018, Nord region, February 17, 2020.   “I lost everything... I am really in need. The government hasn’t helped me.”
School principal, victim of an attack in 2018, Centre-Nord region, April 30, 2020.   “Since the threats began, schools have started to close in a cascade. ... I continue to teach, but it’s hard to concentrate... you have to look constantly out the window to see if there’s a danger.”
High school teacher, Gourma province, Est region, February 7, 2020.   “This situation has created a psychosis... Students are no longer at ease being [in class] and doing their schoolwork. ... There has been pressure for teachers to stay and teach... But... they have [little] means to protect themselves. There is no warning and information system in place.”
Souleymane Badiel, secretary-general of the Federation of National Unions for Education and Research Workers (F-SYNTER), Ouagadougou, December 12, 2019.   “Each day, the displaced students come... we don’t refuse enrollment, but if there isn’t any space they can’t start. ... Some classes have over 100 students.”
Primary school principal in Kaya, Centre-Nord region, January 29, 2020.   “Because the number of [displaced] students is too high... the quality of teaching has suffered a blow.”
Teacher at a school hosting displaced students in Dédougou, Boucle du Mouhoun region, January 22, 2020.   “With dropping schooling rates, many of the improvements made in recent years have been undone... The children who lose access to education are limited in opportunities. They will be more vulnerable, such as to artisanal gold mining; girls are more vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.”
Souleymane Diallo, education quality and literacy program manager, Ouagadougou, December 8, 2019.

Venezuela: Urgent Aid Needed to Combat Covid-19

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, May 26, 2020

(Washington, DC) – The Venezuelan healthcare system is grossly unprepared for the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic, further jeopardizing the health of Venezuelans and threatening to contribute to regional spread of the disease, Human Rights Watch and the Johns Hopkins University’s Centers for Public Health and Human Rights and for Humanitarian Health said today. Ensuring that sufficient humanitarian aid reaches the Venezuelan people is urgently needed.

As of May 25, 2020, Venezuela had 1,121 confirmed cases of Covid-19, and 10 deaths. The real number is almost certainly much higher, given the limited availability of reliable testing, limited transparency, and the persecution of medical professionals and journalists who report on this issue. Overcrowding in low-income areas and prisons, as well as generalized limited access to water in hospitals and homes, makes it likely that the new coronavirus will rapidly spread within the country. The massive exodus of Venezuelans, and the migration back and forth across Venezuela’s borders due to the pandemic, increases the risk of the virus spreading further.

“The humanitarian crisis in Venezuela and the breakdown of the health system have created dangerous conditions conducive to rapid community spread, unsafe working conditions for health personnel, and high mortality rate among patients in need of hospital treatment,” said Kathleen Page, a physician and faculty member of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the Johns Hopkins Centers. “Venezuela’s lack of capacity to confront the Covid-19 pandemic may drive people to try to leave the country, further straining the health systems of neighboring countries and imperiling regional health more broadly.”

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres and Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock should lead efforts to address this issue. Members of the Lima Group, the United States, and the European Union should press Venezuelan authorities under Nicolás Maduro to immediately open doors to a full-scale, UN-led humanitarian response to prevent catastrophic spread of Covid-19 in the country, Human Rights Watch and Johns Hopkins Centers for Public Health and Human Rights and for Humanitarian Health said. It is critically important for foreign governments to depoliticize aid and for the US government to ensure that existing sanctions do not contribute to the crisis or hinder humanitarian efforts.

Venezuela’s health system has collapsed. Shortages of medications and health supplies, interruptions of basic utilities at healthcare facilities, and the emigration of healthcare workers have led to a progressive decline in healthcare operational capacity. At 180 out of 195, Venezuela ranks among the countries least prepared to mitigate the spread of an epidemic in the 2019 Global Health Security Index.

In November and December 2019, a team from Human Rights Watch and Johns Hopkins Centers conducted in-depth interviews by phone with healthcare providers in 14 public hospitals in Caracas, the capital, and five states – Anzoátegui, Barinas, Bolívar, Lara, and Zulia. All but one of the hospitals provided high-complexity care. The groups also conducted follow-up interviews with some health professionals, humanitarian actors, and experts on sanctions in March, April, and May 2020.

Although the bulk of the research was conducted before the pandemic hit, the findings give strong reason for concern that the healthcare system is not only failing, but failing in ways that make it particularly ill-equipped to cope with Covid-19, especially due to routine water shortages and sanitation and hygiene failures. Developments in the country through May 2020 give further cause for concern.

The doctors and nurses interviewed said that soap and disinfectants are virtually nonexistent in their clinics and hospitals. As inflation has risen and salaries have been devalued, it has become increasingly difficult for them to bring in their own supplies. The Caracas hospitals experience regular water shortages. In remote hospitals, water shortages have lasted weeks to months. Patients and personnel are required to bring their own water for drinking, for scrubbing up before and after medical procedures, for cleaning surgical supplies, and sometimes for flushing toilets.

In a survey of healthcare providers that measured the Venezuelan healthcare system’s capacity to confront Covid-19, 31.8 percent of hospital workers reported that their hospitals lacked potable water and 64.2 percent reported intermittent access to potable water between February 27 and March 1, 2020. On May 21, a union leader reported that a survey in 16 hospitals and health centers in Caracas revealed shortages of water in 8, gloves in 7, and of soap and disinfectant in 15. Eight hospitals and health centers also lacked face masks, and 13 were reusing them. Another national survey on the impact of Covid-19 published on May 16 reported there were shortages of gloves in 57.14 percent of the health sector, face masks in 61.9 percent, soap in 76.19 percent, and alcohol gel in 90.48 percent.

The mortality rate for Covid-19 is uncertain and likely to vary according to age, underlying health conditions, and availability of treatment, among other factors. The death rate will most likely be higher than average in Venezuela, where there is no capacity for complex care due to a lack of basic X-ray equipment, laboratory tests, intensive care beds, and respirators, and where healthcare providers’ lack of access to water prevents them from washing their hands, which is vital to limiting the spread of Covid-19. Fuel shortages are increasing the difficulty for both health professionals and patients to get to hospitals and clinics, and for food to reach people in need, which could further undermine health care.

The disease also could be transmitted quickly in the community and in overcrowded prisons in the absence of basic public health protections and access to sufficient water. Infectious diseases thrive under the poverty conditions, crowded living arrangements, and malnutrition that many Venezuelans face.

The humanitarian, political, and economic crisis in Venezuela has led to the largest migration in the region in recent decades. More than five million Venezuelans have left the country, taking with them diseases that had been eradicated in the region, such as measles. The health systems of neighboring countries are already strained trying to meet the health needs of Venezuelan exiles. Although a few thousand Venezuelans have recently decided to return to Venezuela due to dire conditions in receiving countries, the exodus is unlikely to stop and the coronavirus outbreak in Venezuela will only make things worse.

Venezuelan authorities have adopted some belated measures to, in theory, attempt to respond to the pandemic. The government declared a state of emergency on March 13 and instituted a nationwide quarantine on March 17, which restricts movement and mandates closing all but essential businesses. It is enforced by police, the Armed Forces, a special police force called FAES, and armed pro-government gangs, leading to arbitrary arrests and harassment, local groups said. On March 17, the Nicolás Maduro government requested an emergency $5 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to combat Covid-19, which the IMF rejected, stating there was “no clarity” regarding the Maduro government’s “official government recognition by the international community.”

The Venezuelan authorities’ response is severely undermined by their failure to publish epidemiological data, which is critical to address a pandemic; their harassment and persecution of journalists, health professionals, and others who raise awareness about deteriorating conditions in hospitals, gas shortages, and the spread of Covid-19; and their unwillingness to assume any responsibility for contributing to or failing to address the health system’s breakdown, which they blame entirely on US sanctions even though the breakdown predates the sanctions.

“Foreign governments should contribute to Venezuela’s Covid-19 response by funding UN humanitarian efforts to ensure the aid is distributed apolitically,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “However, for aid to effectively reach the Venezuelan people, the primary responsibility lies on Venezuelan authorities under Maduro, who need to ensure full access to the World Food Programme and allow humanitarian and health workers to work without fear of reprisals.”

For detailed recommendations and additional information about water shortages, sanctions, and humanitarian aid, please see below.

Human Rights Watch and Johns Hopkins Centers for Public Health and Human Rights and for Humanitarian Health experts urge UN Secretary-General António Guterres and Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock to lead efforts to address the humanitarian situation in Venezuela and to request that the Maduro government adopt all necessary measures, including those in this publication, to ensure that aid effectively reaches the Venezuelan people.

The Lima Group members, the US, and the European Union, as well as other countries with demonstrated influence over Venezuelan authorities, should press them to:

  • Open Venezuela’s doors to a full-scale, UN-led humanitarian response that reaches the interior of the country, specifically by allowing full access to the UN World Food Programme and its partners, which have the logistical capacity to provide a significant amount of humanitarian aid nationwide;
  • Enable local and international humanitarian workers to provide humanitarian aid and have access to all hospitals and other healthcare centers so that they can provide supplies and assistance;
  • Allow healthcare professionals and humanitarian workers to carry out their work without reprisals, and ensure they can move freely throughout Venezuela despite quarantine restrictions by issuing and respecting special permits and by prioritizing their access to gasoline; and
  • Allow independent experts to review and publish all available epidemiological data to increase transparency about the extent of the humanitarian emergency by reporting accurate counts of Covid-19 confirmed cases and deaths and by resuming regular publication of detailed mortality and morbidity reports.

All governments should fund UN-led humanitarian efforts that comply with the UN standards of humanity, neutrality, independence, and impartiality in the provision of assistance.

Given the risk of overcompliance with US financial sanctions and sanctions on Venezuela’s oil sector, as well as Venezuelans’ need for resources to address the humanitarian emergency, the US government should:

  • Clearly state again that no one will be penalized for financing or supplying humanitarian aid to Venezuela in this time of a public health crisis, and repeat that humanitarian aid is exempt from sanctions;
  • Limit overcompliance, including by publicly providing concrete avenues for companies and organizations to channel humanitarian aid into Venezuela without excessive bureaucratic scrutiny or delays; and
  • Actively support a robust UN-led humanitarian effort in Venezuela.

Limited Access to Water in Hospitals

The rights to water and sanitation are essential components of the right to an adequate standard of living and inextricably linked to the right to health. The United Nations has emphasized that the right to water requires that water be sufficient and continuous, safe and acceptable, physically accessible and within safe reach, and affordable to all. In particular, the World Health Organization has noted that safe water, sanitation, and hygienic conditions are key to protecting human health during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Across Venezuela, households and hospitals have limited access to water. According to a World Food Programme study, 25 percent of Venezuelan households lacked sustainable access to potable water and 4 in 10 households experienced daily interruptions in their water supply between July and September 2019.

The UN Humanitarian Response Plan for Venezuela, published and carried out in the last half of 2019, estimated that 4.3 million people needed water, sanitation, and hygiene services. During the same period, the UN response plan was able to provide safe water to 310,598 people – .07 percent of the estimated need. The response plan targeted 3,719 health and education facilities during this period but reached only 253, or 7 percent; only 44 of the targeted institutions, or 1.2 percent, were hospitals or health centers.

Hospitals in Venezuela have had limited access to water since 2014 and the problem has grown more acute over the years, health professionals interviewed said. According to Doctors for Health, a nationwide network of doctors, the percentage of Venezuelan public hospitals with intermittent access to water rose to 69 percent in 2016, from 28 percent in 2014. In 2019, 70 percent reported intermittent access to water and 20 percent reported no access to water.

One person interviewed said that in their hospital access to running water varies, with water cuts sometimes lasting for an entire weekend and at other times lasting as long as five days. Another interviewee said that the government rations the water in their hospital, with access only for an hour or two twice a week. In more remote hospitals, water shortages are worse.

In large cities, water trucks bring limited amounts of water to hospitals, but it is insufficient, the health professionals said. One hospital that needs 30 trucks for a day’s operations, for example, received only 4 or 5.

Even when hospitals have access to some water, its quality is poor. The water brought by the trucks is not potable. Running water is not adequately treated and there is no way to filter or boil it in hospitals since the kitchens in many hospitals are not operational, so it is risky for hospitals to rely on it. In addition, the hospitals’ methods of collecting and storing water create contamination risks. The wells, under- and aboveground water storage tanks, and barrels used in some hospitals are – due to lack of maintenance, lack of covers, or simple unsuitability – inadequate to preserve a quality water supply.

Impact of Water Shortages on Patient Care

An immediate consequence of hospitals’ limited access to water is that healthcare workers are unable to wash their hands, which they are supposed to do before and after touching a patient. Venezuelan healthcare workers do their best to keep their hands clean, which in one neonatal unit took the form of washing their hands with condensation that fell from the air conditioner.

The lack of water, especially as it prevents hand-washing, contributes to high rates of nosocomial infections, that is, infections that originate within a hospital. These infections in Venezuela have included bacteremia, fistula infections, and pulmonary infections, and are now likely to include Covid-19, according to Johns Hopkins University members of the research team. Similarly, in 2018, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) observed that “[l]ack of water and hygiene supplies were ... causing pervasive infection problems” in Venezuela. The lack of water has also resulted in a lack of laundry service at hospitals, and healthcare workers risk bringing infections home if they mix their clothing with the clothing of their family members in the wash.

Difficulties in accessing quality water also have led medical procedures such as dialysis and surgery to be cancelled. Five healthcare providers said that dialysis patients were among those most affected by lack of water and contaminated water, and two noted drastic reductions in the number of operational dialysis machines at their hospitals due to contamination of water: from 14 machines down to 9 in one hospital and from 35 to 15 in the other. With the arrival of Covid-19 and the accompanying quarantine, patients have faced increased difficulties accessing dialysis due to gasoline shortages, blocked roads, and limitations on their movement between cities.

One hospital had, only two weeks before the interview, cancelled all scheduled surgery for a week due to the lack of water and for four additional days due to contamination of the operating room. Meanwhile, the OHCHR noted that the inability of doctors in the Venezuelan state of Zulia to perform more than a few surgeries a week, due to a combination of water shortages, energy shortages, and operating-room contamination, has led to six-month waiting lists.

Hospitals have also been partially closed because of water shortages. One doctor said her hospital’s capacity was reduced from 79 beds to 5 due in part to the lack of water. Another doctor said that limited access to water had reduced her hospital’s five or six operating rooms to two. Four hospitals have closed their labs.

One hospital reduced its services so drastically that its status changed from a level 4 medical institution to a level 1 institution – from offering the most healthcare services to the least. The hospital also abandoned its radiology section. “It is nothing more than a hallway with a waiting room where nobody is waiting,” one doctor said.

Due to general rationing of services, hospitals also prioritize certain services, such as the emergency room, and certain patients, and turn others, such as the elderly, away to die at home. Since there are water shortages throughout the country, transferring the patients to a hospital with water is not an option, several doctors said.

Even when water shortages do not prevent healthcare workers from providing services, they contribute to an unsanitary and unhygienic environment. Hospitals cannot be cleaned regularly or thoroughly due to the lack of water and cleaning materials. One hospital had to close half a floor due to unsanitary conditions. Another hospital that used to be cleaned four times every 24 hours is now cleaned half as frequently and with very little water. People interviewed reported nauseating odors, rodent infestations, and broken-down bathrooms. Two interviewees could attend only a fraction of their patients after the building where they worked closed due to sewage problems in 2018.

One hospital’s bathrooms, although closed for lack of water, were still used. Another hospital’s patients urinated and defecated outdoors instead, resulting in a noxious environment surrounding the hospital. At another hospital, in which staff, patients, and even family members urinated and defecated into makeshift containers and then disposed of the waste outside, the doctors requested portable restrooms, but the request was never filled. “It is Dante-esque,” one doctor said, “as though we are in a war but not a single bomb has fallen.”

Response of Healthcare Providers, Patients, Families

Some healthcare providers buy alcohol gel for hand hygiene themselves. A bottle costs US$3 to $5 at the unofficial exchange rate at the time of the interviews, an enormous expense considering that the monthly salaries of doctors ranged from approximately $6 to $15 then. Some also occasionally bring bottled water, soap, or toilet paper to the hospital. But many do not have the means to buy even the alcohol gel, especially nurses, who earned about $3 a month at the time of the interviews.

Many patients are also forced to take on part of the burden of promoting a hygienic environment. Patients or family members bring water for the patient to drink, for medical procedures, and even to clean the bathrooms and flush the toilets. In one major hospital, patients had to bring 25 liters of water to be admitted. In another, if the patient or the patient’s family does not provide water, their surgery is cancelled. As the OHCHR observed in its 2019 report on Venezuela, “[F]amilies of patients have to provide all necessities, including water, gloves, and syringes.”

One healthcare provider estimated that only 25 percent of patients could afford to bring water. Even for those who can afford water and the additional items required for surgery, the time taken to gather all that is needed can make the patient’s condition worse, leading to a greater likelihood of complications and prolonging recovery.

Government Neglect

The Venezuelan government’s primary response to hospitals’ lack of water has been neglect. Several people interviewed said that for years the government has done nothing to improve the deteriorating conditions in their hospitals. During the only instance they could recall in which the Venezuelan government acknowledged the deterioration of a hospital and resolved to fix it, the government worked on the building for only one month before abandoning the project. A union representative said that government intervention in another hospital did not respond to healthcare workers’ demands for water and other necessities but instead “[A]ll they have done is fix a few lamps.”

Of the three projects targeting hospitals listed on the Water Ministry’s website, two provided a limited number of aboveground water storage tanks to the states of Vargas and Zulia, failing to address the root of the problem: the lack of a continuous supply of high-quality water. In June 2019, construction began on a third project that would increase water services at Hospital Universitario Antoni Patricio Alcalá (Huapa), but, as of March 11, this hospital still did not have a consistent water supply and had no access to potable water. Nevertheless, the Maduro government designated Huapa one of 46 hospitals and health centers for Covid-19 patients.

These isolated and half-hearted attempts to provide water to hospitals fall far short of the government’s obligation to ensure Venezuelans’ right to health, Human Rights Watch and the Johns Hopkins Centers said. The government should open its doors to humanitarian aid to improve its water system infrastructure, which has been operating at half its capacity in part due to corruption and lack of maintenance. It should also address widespread electricity shortages, which make it impossible for water systems to function properly; it should ensure that wells in the hospitals that have them are again fully operational; and it should frequently test the quality of water reaching Venezuelan hospitals and households.

Lack of Official Data; Limited Testing

Venezuelan authorities have suppressed or else failed to collect public health data that would reveal the extent of the crisis. Until 2014, when health indicators started deteriorating, Venezuela had a robust epidemiologic surveillance infrastructure that published regular and detailed morbidity and mortality reports. Then came two years of silence. In 2017, the then-health minister published data showing that infant mortality had increased by 30.12 percent and maternal mortality by 65.79 percent in 2016. She was promptly fired.

Since then, the government has not released its epidemiological data. Some doctors interviewed said that the government had also prohibited them from listing certain causes of death such as malnutrition and had forced doctors who went public with mortality data to resign.

The Venezuelan government has suppressed public health information regarding Covid-19. On March 17, the opposition-led National Assembly announced that it had created a Covid-19 awareness website, coronavirusvenezuela.info. On March 18, Venezuela Sin Filtro, a nongovernmental organization, reported that state-owned Internet provider CANTV had blocked the website and that private Internet providers had also limited access to the website indirectly by blocking another website linked to the opposition. A National Assembly representative confirmed this information to Human Rights Watch.

The authorities also have reportedly banned Covid-19 testing in a private clinic in Caracas and confiscated the results there, saying that only an official entity should conduct them. As of May 21, Venezuelan authorities claim to have conducted 697,691 tests, of which at least 16,577 were PCR tests. The vast majority are thus rapid tests that may result in false negatives during the first  days after becoming infected.

Harassment and Persecution of Healthcare Workers, Journalists

Several people interviewed said that government authorities and supporters had harassed them or other health professionals or activists they knew after they had openly questioned the government’s response to the health emergency. Health professionals said they were threatened, followed, and photographed, sometimes by intelligence agents. Some doctors who participated in protests said the authorities detained and prohibited them from speaking publicly about healthcare conditions.

Government authorities have also harassed healthcare professionals who publicize information about Covid-19. On March 9, the Zulia governor announced that he would order an investigation of Freddy Pachano, a doctor at the University of Zulia, for tweeting about possible Covid-19 cases at the Hospital Universitario de Maracaibo. The governor said that if Pachano had sounded the alarm in error he would have him prosecuted.

The Foro Penal Venezolano, a network of criminal lawyers and activists that provides pro-bono legal support to people who are arbitrarily detained, reported a sharp increase in arbitrary detentions since the government declared a state of emergency on March 13, including of healthcare workers and journalists who questioned Venezuelan authorities’ response to Covid-19. Foro Penal Venezolano has also reported arbitrary arrests of political opponents and others during this time. Espacio Público, a nongovernmental organization that monitors free speech in Venezuela, documented 40 cases of people detained for criticizing the government’s response to Covid-19 as of May 16, including 17 media workers. The National Press Workers Union documented 22 arbitrary arrests and 21 instances of harassment and/or intimidation of journalists between March 16 and May 3.

On March 21, the Venezuelan special police force FAES arrested Darvinson Rojas, a journalist, after he reported on possible Covid-19 cases. The police also detained Rojas’s parents, injuring his father. Rojas’s parents were released later that night. On March 23, Rojas was charged with incitement to hatred and incitement of the public. He was conditionally released on April 2, but remains under criminal prosecution.

On March 23, the Venezuelan newspaper La Verdad de Vargas reported that a nurse had tested positive for Covid-19. On March 24, the public prosecutor’s office subpoenaed the newspaper’s editor-in-chief, Beatriz Rodríguez, as a witness in a criminal investigation of La Verdad de Vargas for alleged terrorism.

Also on March 24, FAES detained Rosalí Hernández, a journalist, as she gathered information on disinfection efforts in Catia. FAES held Hernández for 40 minutes, forcing her to delete the material she had recorded.

Venezuelan authorities have also detained healthcare workers who protest how hospitals’ shortages of water and supplies have left them unable to respond to Covid-19 effectively.

On March 17, military intelligence detained Rubén Duarte, a nurse at Hospital Central de San Cristóbal, after he demanded water, masks, gloves, and other necessities. They held him overnight.

The National Bolivarian Guard detained Julio Molino, a doctor in Monagas, on March 17 after Molino called attention to the inability of Hospital Manuel Núñez Tovar to attend to Covid-19 patients. On March 19, Molino was charged with incitement to hatred, causing panic in the community, and illegal association and placed under house arrest. Venezuelan authorities also sought to detain two of Molino’s colleagues, Carlos Carmona and Maglis Mendoza. When they could not find the two, they instead arrested Mendoza’s 17-year-old granddaughter and her 16-year-old friend and held them until late at night.

Sanctions and Humanitarian Aid

The United States imposed financial sanctions, including a ban on dealings in new stocks and bonds issued by the Venezuelan government and Petróleos de Venezuela, Sociedad Anónima, or PDVSA, its state oil company, in August 2017. They explicitly exclude humanitarian transactions. The sanctions were expanded in January 2019, but maintain the humanitarian exception.

Despite the humanitarian exception, these sanctions could exacerbate the already dire humanitarian situation in Venezuela, both due to the risk of overcompliance and because the sanctions reduce the resources available to the government to address the crisis. The extent to which the sanctions are in fact having this impact, and whether the government would have used any additional resources to help its people, is unclear. But the United States should promptly take sufficient steps to prevent negative impacts from the sanctions on the humanitarian situation, Human Rights Watch said.

One humanitarian actor told Human Rights Watch that some humanitarian transactions to Venezuela have been delayed due to overcompliance, and experts on sanctions say that overcompliance with these types of sanctions is generally a problem.

While not dismissing the potential negative impact that sanctions are having on Venezuela’s health system, it is important to note that Human Rights Watch research indicates that Venezuela’s health system collapse predates the sanctions. Likewise, imports of food and medicines decreased prior to the imposition of the sanctions, according to leading economists interviewed by Human Rights Watch.

However, in an oil-dependent economy like Venezuela’s, the rapid decrease in oil revenue since 2017 has limited the availability of government resources, according to several sources interviewed by Human Rights Watch. Experts have provided different and sometimes conflicting explanations for the decrease in revenue, including sanctions and mismanagement. The price of oil, which reached its lowest level in years in March, also affects revenue.

There is no guarantee that Venezuelan authorities under Nicolás Maduro, who have contributed to the health system’s collapse, have been implicated in high-level corruption, and have used oil revenues to, for example, shrink PDVSA’s $6.5 billion debt with the Russian state oil company Rosneft, would have used oil revenue to provide humanitarian assistance to the Venezuelan people, Human Rights Watch said.

Although still very limited compared to the magnitude of the need, the number of humanitarian organizations operating in-country and the amount of aid reaching Venezuela has increased in recent months. According to the latest situation report on Venezuela from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the 2019 Humanitarian Response Plan for Venezuela – the first for the country – received $75.9 million, or 34 percent, of the $223 million it required. The UN Global Humanitarian Overview 2020 estimated that $750 million would be needed for a 2020 Humanitarian Response Plan for Venezuela, $72.1 million of which would be set aside for Covid-19 response under the new UN plan to deal with the coronavirus outbreak. These efforts remain underfunded. A special appeal made in April to deal with Covid-19 in Venezuela called for 61 million dollars for three months; it has received 14 million. Foreign governments could help to address the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela by funding these efforts, Human Rights Watch and the Johns Hopkins Centers said.

The United States, the European Union, Canada, and some Latin American governments have also imposed unrelated, targeted sanctions against Venezuelan officials and members of security forces implicated in human rights violations, corruption, or drug trafficking. These targeted sanctions do not appear to have impacted the humanitarian situation in the country, though the sanctioning governments should remain vigilant to ensure that remains the case. 

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