IHRP external news feeds

Thousands of Foreigners Unlawfully Held in NE Syria

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, March 23, 2021
Click to expand Image A boy flies a homemade kite in the foreigners’ section of al-Hol camp in northeast Syria on March 15, 2021.  © 2021 Sam Tarling

Nearly 43,000 foreign men, women, and children linked to ISIS remain detained in inhuman or degrading conditions by regional authorities in northeast Syria, two years after they were rounded up during the fall of the Islamic State “caliphate,” often with the explicit or implicit consent of their countries of nationality, Human Rights Watch said today.

The foreign detainees have never been brought before a court, making their detention arbitrary as well as indefinite. They include 27,500 children, most in locked camps and at least 300 in squalid prisons for men, and scores of others in a locked rehabilitation center. The detainees suffer from rising levels of violence and falling levels of vital aid including medical care. In just one case, France has refused to allow a woman with advanced colon cancer to come home for treatment. One detained woman told Human Rights Watch that a guard ran over a young child in a vehicle, cracking his skull.

“Men, women, and children from around the world are entering a third year of unlawful detention in life-threatening conditions in northeast Syria while their governments look the other way,” said Letta Tayler, associate crisis and conflict director at Human Rights Watch. “Governments should be helping to fairly prosecute detainees suspected of serious crimes and free everyone else, not helping to create another Guantanamo.”

Governments that actively contribute to this abusive confinement may be complicit in the unlawful detention and collective punishment of thousands of people, most of them women and young children, Human Rights Watch said.

In February and March 2021, Human Rights Watch communicated via text, email, or phone with eight foreign women detained in camps for family members of male ISIS suspects in northeast Syria as well as relatives of five camp detainees. Human Rights Watch also spoke or emailed with members of six aid organizations and six civil society groups pressing for the detainees’ repatriations, as well as regional authorities, Western government officials, UN officials, journalists, and academics. In addition, Human Rights Watch reviewed dozens of reports, media articles, and videos about the camps and prisons.  

People interviewed described increasingly desperate mothers and children struggling to maintain dignity amid harsh conditions and fears of contracting Covid-19. Three women in one camp, Roj, said that guards confiscated Qurans, threatened women for wearing niqabs, and raided tents at night. Women caught with cellphones or suspected of withholding information about crimes in the camp were sometimes beaten and jailed for days or even weeks, the women and a relative said. The regional authority, called the Autonomous Administration of Northeast Syria, denied any abuse by guards and said that some women had attacked guards with stones and sharp objects. Badran Chia Kurd, Autonomous Administration’s deputy co-chair, told Human Rights Watch that women were in most cases jailed only for “a few days” if they tried to flee.=

One relative of a detainee said that her detained family member was suicidal. A young mother wrote that daily life in the camps made her want to “scream from the top of my lungs”:

It's mentally exhausting. … never gets better here. Always worse. … majority of the children in the camp are sick. Almost everyday something bad happens. Children trapped in burning tents and dies. … We have water tank that contains worms. The toilets are dirty so people started to build [their] own toilets.

Like all detainees who communicated with Human Rights Watch, the women asked that they not be identified by name or nationality for fear of retaliation by other detainees or camp guards.

Holding the foreigners “is a huge burden” for the cash-strapped Autonomous Administration, Chia Kurd said. “The international community, in particular the countries who have citizens in the camps and prisons, are not assuming their responsibility. This issue, if not solved, will not only affect us, but the entire world.”

Countries with nationals held in northeast Syria should answer repeated appeals by the Autonomous Administration to help them provide detainees with due process, including the right to contest the legality and necessity of their detention before a judge. All detainees held in inhuman or degrading conditions, or who are not promptly charged with a recognizable criminal offense in fair proceedings should be immediately released.

Foreign countries should also comply with the Autonomous Administration’s repeated calls for them to repatriate detainees not charged with a crime, prioritizing the most vulnerable. Repatriated children should be accompanied by their parents in keeping with the child’s right to family unity. Foreigners facing risks at home of death or torture or other ill-treatment should be transferred to a safe third country.

Upon transfer home or abroad, detainees can be provided with rehabilitation and reintegration services and as warranted, investigated and prosecuted, Human Rights Watch said. Children who lived under ISIS and any women trafficked by ISIS should be treated first and foremost as victims, and children should face prosecution and detention only in exceptional circumstances.

In the meantime, foreign governments and donors should immediately increase aid to improve camp and prison conditions in northeast Syria and press the United Nations Security Council to reauthorize vital aid operations across Syria’s northeast and northwest borders to speed the delivery of aid.  

Only 25 countries are known to have repatriated any nationals from northeast Syria and most have brought home or helped return only a token few, primarily orphans or young children, in some cases without their mothers.

The UN and donors, including many home countries of the foreign detainees, are providing humanitarian aid to the detainees and others in northeast Syria. But acute shortages of clean water, food, medicine, and adequate shelter and security persist, say UN experts and others.

The United States military, which leads the US coalition against ISIS, has funded measures to bolster security and ease overcrowding for some of the prisons, according to Chia Kurd, media, and US government reports. However, the measures appear to have done little to bring the prisons in compliance with minimum detention standards. Moreover, neither the US nor other members of the international community, including countries with nationals detained in northeast Syria, have funded any measures to provide the prisoners with due process, Chia Kurd said.

The international coalition against ISIS also reportedly plans to fund construction of additional detention centers for women suspects, as well as a 500-bed “rehabilitation center” for older boys. The United Kingdom, another key coalition member, is reportedly funding a project to double the capacity of one of the prisons, in Hasakah, from 5,000 to 10,000 detainees. UK and US defense officials did not respond to requests for comment in the time provided.   

“Improving horrific prison conditions does not change the fact that indefinite detention without judicial review is unlawful,” Tayler said. “Expanding prisons and locked rehabilitation centers to warehouse hundreds of children who never even chose to live under ISIS is unconscionable.”

The detainees

Backed by a US-led coalition, regional fighters called the Syrian Democratic Forces rounded up tens of thousands of ISIS suspects and family members during the fall of Baghouz, then the last ISIS stand in Syria, during a weeks-long battle that ended March 23, 2019. The Syrian Democratic Forces are still holding nearly 63,400 of the family members, nearly all of them women and children, in two locked, heavily guarded, open-air camps encircled by barbed wire. Roughly 20,000 are from Syria, 31,000 from neighboring Iraq, and nearly 12,000 others – 8,000 children and 4,000 women – are from almost 60 other countries. Conditions for the non-Iraqi foreigners, who are kept in special annexes, are particularly dire.

The Syrian Democratic Forces are also holding about 10,000 men as well as at least 700 boys of all nationalities, most ages 14 to 17 in 14, overcrowded, makeshift prisons for ISIS suspects, Chia Kurd said. Prison conditions “do not meet minimum standards,” he said, blaming scarce international aid for the abusive conditions. Human Rights Watch in 2019 and 2020 documented the inhumane conditions in some of these prisons.

Camp Conditions

In al-Hol and Roj, the locked camps for family members, more than 90 percent of children are under age 12 and more than half under 5, aid groups say. Syrians and Iraqis in the camps have relative freedom, including the ability to leave and return to the camps. During multiple visits to the two camps from 2017 to 2019, Human Rights Watch documented conditions in the foreigners’ annexes that amounted to cruel, degrading, and inhuman treatment. Combined with the indefinite and arbitrary nature of detention, these conditions may also amount to torture when they deliberately inflict serious physical or mental harm on a detainee. Since then, detainees, family members, civil society representatives, and aid workers told Human Rights Watch, conditions have deteriorated further along with detainees’ despair.

“You can feel that people are giving up on the outside world, they are so desperate you meet a wall of hopelessness,” said Natascha Rée Mikkelsen, founder of Repatriate the Children-Denmark, who has visited the camps several times, including in February. “And the young children, some of them have diarrhea all the time and they are so skinny and so small. They just have this look like they are locked up. They have nothing to do and they know nothing about their future.”

Detainees and others interviewed by Human Rights Watch complained of contaminated water, overflowing latrines, shortages of fresh food and diapers, tents leaking or catching fire, rampant disease, insufficient medical care, and almost no schooling for children or counseling for a severely traumatized population.

While conditions are somewhat better in Roj than in the larger camp, al-Hol, detainees and family members described harsh conditions there as well. Three relatives, a civil society member and two detainees said noxious fumes from adjacent oil fields were causing asthma, deep coughs, and lung inflammations. One mother texted of being terrified by the lack of medicine for her child, by guards threatening to cut detainees’ clothes if they were not “short and colorful,” and of the desert winds that flipped over her tent at night:

Honestly I have ptsd [Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder] from the camps more than IS territory (even though I am traumatized from that lifestyle). … I would hold my daughter tight and stay alert all night watching the tent as it was about to collapse onto us at any moment. And it did actually happen many times.

In mid-March, said a Western European man whose grandchildren are in the camps, a small group of children no older than 6 crossed an internal camp fence to pick dandelions just on the other side. “The camp guards saw them, caught them, and beat them severely,” he said. “The children didn't decide to be there, they don't deserve to live like this in such terrible conditions.”

Two relatives described detainees waiting hours to access a shared phone that they could only use for seconds. Communication in one section for foreigners in Roj is limited to messages of less than a minute every 8 to 10 days, compounding detainees’ isolation, one relative said.

Life-Threatening Conditions

According to humanitarian groups and the UN Office of Counterterrorism, more than 700 detainees in al-Hol and Roj – at least half of them children – have died in the past two years. Several were killed by detainees in al-Hol who remain loyal to ISIS, while others died in crossfire between guards and detainees or from lack of medical care, unsanitary conditions, and accidents such as tent fires.

At least 29 people were killed in al-Hol camp alone in January and February 2021 including seven children. “The people who work there feel more and more scared of the situation, as if they have no control,” Mikkelsen said. “You have the feeling that any time you could be killed.”

In text messages relayed to Human Rights Watch, one woman in Roj described a fire breaking out in a tent housing two children whom guards left in the camp while jailing their mother for having a cellphone. The woman said it was one of three fires in Roj so far in 2021:

The 5 year old boy put the tent on fire and his 7 year old sister took him out from the burning tent. Two tent burned that day, it was terrible day cuz it took very long time to put the fire [out] since many fire extinguisher didn't work and we didn't know if there was more ppl trapped in the fire.

In February, 10 Frenchwomen in the camps went on a hunger strike to publicize their demand to stand trial at home. That same month, Pascale Descamps, a Frenchwoman whose 32-year-old daughter and four young grandchildren are held in Roj, began her own hunger strike to press the government to let her daughter leave to receive medical treatment for advanced colon cancer. Doctors in northeast Syria told her daughter that she needed “urgent” treatment but that the operation would be high-risk if performed locally, Descamps told Human Rights Watch. In December, the UN Committee Against Torture called on France to repatriate Descamps’ daughter for medical care but she remains in Roj. Descamps said that in intermittent audio messages, her daughter sounded desperate:

Every time my daughter talks to me, she starts crying. She tells me that she is getting worse, bleeding a lot, and getting weaker. She is like an animal in her tent, dying in front of her children. … I am not exonerating my daughter, but she has the right to a fair trial and to receive proper medical care given the seriousness of her health condition … I am also fighting for my grandchildren not to have to go through all this any longer. It is a stake in the heart to know that they see their mother so ill and to imagine that she could die there when France could repatriate her and her children. It’s like they have no rights anymore.”

Covid-19 is another threat. As of February 16, the UN had reported 8,537 cases of the virus in northeast Syria, but humanitarians warn that rates are vastly under-counted because of insufficient staff and supplies for extensive testing. At least 13 cases of Covid-19 had been reported in al-Hol and Roj as of December 2020. A greater outbreak could disproportionately harm camp and prison detainees as most are malnourished with severely limited access to medical services.

Detainees began receiving monthly handouts of masks and gloves in mid-2020 but they have to reuse them several times because of shortages, two women in Roj said.

Inhuman Prison Conditions

Despite some improvements, only one of the 14 makeshift prisons for male ISIS suspects is fit for the purpose, said a June 2020 US military report. The 10,000 men, most Syrian and Iraqi and 2,000 from other countries, are jammed into severely overcrowded cells with open latrines and poor ventilation. The prisons lack essential services including adequate medical care for festering wounds and infectious diseases including tuberculosis. Up to several hundred men have died in the prisons including one from Germany and another from the UK.

The 700 or more boys in the prisons are held separately from the men. About 400 are Syrian, 200 are Iraqi, and the rest come from several other countries, Chia Kurd said. The boys have access to outdoor courtyards, but have little access to education, recreation, and other essential services, he said.

Three well-informed sources speaking on condition of anonymity said that many of the boys in the prisons were taken from the camps where they lived with their mothers and siblings when they reached mid-adolescence and that some were as young as 12. Imprisoned Syrian boys can visit with families, but imprisoned foreign boys are not allowed visits with their mothers and siblings in the camps, Chia Kurd said. Between 100 and 110 more boys are living in a locked rehabilitation center. Services there, too, are “insufficient” due to a lack of aid, Chia Kurd said. The Autonomous Administration would like to transfer the boys in prisons to additional rehabilitation centers if foreign governments will build them, he said.

Chia Kurd said some of the boys were taken from the camps for families and elsewhere “for committing acts of violence” or for ISIS ideology, although Human Rights Watch received reports from local family support groups that at least some of the boys were taken simply because they had reached adolescence. UK-based Rights and Security International in 2020 reported that Syrian Democratic Forces forcibly disappeared dozens of boys from the camps.

The Kurdish-led coalition had prosecuted about 8,000 Syrians suspected of membership in ISIS and other armed groups in People’s Defense Courts as of early 2021, with about 4,000 more awaiting local prosecutions. The trials have been piecemeal with due process gaps and the Autonomous Administration has sought assistance from foreign governments to bring them in line with international standards. For two years, the Autonomous Administration has asked foreign governments to help it create a hybrid or international court to prosecute the detainees, Chia Kurd said. At times the regional authorities have proposed internationally supported local courts. But “the international community has not been cooperative with us,” he said.

Humanitarian Access

Medical and other supplies are scarce in the camps and prisons, in part because of difficulties aid workers face in gaining access to the region. Russia has since January 2020 used and threatened its veto power at the UN Security Council to force the closure of three of the four vital border crossings into Syria that UN agencies had used to transport medicine and other aid into the country. Turkey and Turkish-backed forces have also repeatedly cut off water supplies to Autonomous Administration-held areas of northeast Syria, including al-Hol camp.

Representatives of four aid organizations said that these factors combined with mounting insecurity have forced many humanitarian organizations to suspend or scale back operations in northeast Syria.

Scant Repatriations

Despite the deplorable conditions, only 25 of nearly 60 home counties have repatriated any of their nationals from northeast Syria, and repatriation operations fell from 29 in 2019 to 17 in 2020 and 3 in the first 10 weeks of 2021, according to Save the Children and Human Rights Watch tallies. Kazakhstan, Kosovo, Russia, and Uzbekistan have together brought home more than 1,200 of their citizens, about 85 percent of all returns. Repatriations by Western countries remain piecemeal. The UK, Australia, and Denmark have stripped citizenship of some nationals detained in northeast Syria, in some cases even when the revocation may leave them stateless.

A few countries, including Germany and Finland, have brought home some mothers with children. But others including Canada, the UK, and France have repatriated one or more children without their mothers and others, such as Sweden and Belgium, plan to do so. Systematic returns of children without their parents flout the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which states that countries should uphold the principle of family unity absent a professional assessment that separation “is necessary for the best interests of the child.” While governments obtain mothers’ written consent to take their children without them, Human Right Watch questions whether consent can be informed and voluntary for women indefinitely detained inside locked camps with no access to redress or counsel.

“If I had to choose again, I don’t know if I would have done it,” a Canadian mother in Roj said of her anguished decision to allow Canada to repatriate her 4-year-old daughter without her in March. “It’s the hardest sacrifice for a mother to make.”

Many governments contend that repatriations pose too much of a security risk. While governments have an obligation to keep people safe, security concerns do not obviate their parallel duty to uphold human rights, Human Rights Watch said. Moreover, as even the US-led coalition against ISIS argues, abandoning these detainees to indefinite confinement in dire conditions may pose a greater risk than bringing them home.

Men imprisoned as ISIS suspects in northeast Syria have repeatedly rioted and more than 100 have escaped to whereabouts unknown. With no way to leave legally, women are regularly paying traffickers to smuggle them and their children out of the locked camps, placing them at risk of being trafficked into forced labor and sexual exploitation, among other abuses, or of rejoining ISIS. Shunned by home countries, children may be vulnerable to recruitment by ISIS hardliners in the prisons and camps.

In contrast, repatriations or third-country transfers allow governments to conduct individual assessments of each returnee, monitor them as appropriate, and hold to account those who have committed serious international human rights crimes, a critical step in redress for thousands of ISIS victims.

Repatriations of the foreigners may also improve conditions for the Syrian ISIS suspects and family members whom the local authorities are also detaining in the camps and prisons. The Autonomous Administration has allowed more than 9,100 Syrians to return to their communities since 2019, including more than 2,600 under an amnesty it announced in October 2020, but thousands of others remain. As with the foreign detainees, the local authorities should release any Syrians held in degrading or inhuman conditions or without due process, and improve conditions for those who may not be able to return home because of risks that their communities may reject them or fears of returning to areas held by the government.

In January, UN Secretary-General António Guterres called repatriations by home countries, particularly of children, “an urgent and strategic counter-terrorism imperative.” The European Parliament and UNICEF have also called on member states to repatriate all children, taking into account the best interests of the child. The UN human rights commissioner, the UN counterterrorism chief, and 22 UN specialized human rights experts have called on home countries to repatriate their nationals as well. The 22 UN human rights experts noted that the “violence, exploitation, abuse and deprivation” suffered by foreign detainees in northeast Syria have resulted in deaths and in and of themselves “may well amount to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment under international law,” with no effective remedy.

International Legal Standards

Countries have a responsibility to take steps to protect their citizens when they face serious human rights violations, including loss of life and torture. This obligation can extend to nationals in foreign countries when reasonable action by their home governments’ actions can protect them from such harm. International human rights law also provides that everyone has the right to a nationality. Governments have an international legal obligation to provide access to nationality for all children born abroad to one of their nationals who would otherwise be stateless, as soon as possible. All individuals have the rights to adequate food, water, clothing, shelter, and mental and physical health, and fair trials. All children have the right to education.

Detaining people in conditions that amount to inhuman or degrading treatment is strictly prohibited under human rights law.

The Autonomous Administration’s indefinite detention of these foreigners without due process, including their right to appear before a judge to review the legality and necessity of their confinement, is arbitrary and unlawful. The detention of ISIS suspects’ family members, particularly the children but also women who are not being investigated for any crimes, also amounts to guilt by association and collective punishment, prohibited under international law.

The arbitrary detention and lack of reintegration support for these children violates international principles for children associated with armed groups, who are to be viewed primarily as victims. UN Security Council Resolution 2396 of 2017, which is binding on all member states, emphasizes the importance of assisting women and children associated with groups such as ISIS who may themselves be victims of terrorism, including through rehabilitation and reintegration.

Resolution 2396 also calls on member states to investigate and prosecute suspects for involvement with foreign terrorist groups if appropriate. Given the absence of any fair trial proceedings for foreigners detained in northeast Syria, investigations by home countries remain the only viable option at this time to provide redress to victims for any serious crimes these detainees may have committed.

Countries with Citizens Detained in Northeast Syria

Citizens of at least 58 countries are reported to be detained in camps and prisons in northeast Syria: Afghanistan, Albania, Algeria, Australia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Belgium, Bangladesh, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Canada, China, Denmark, Egypt, Estonia, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Indonesia, India, Iran, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Maldives, North Macedonia, Malaysia, Netherlands, Norway, Pakistan, Palestine, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, South Africa, Spain, Sudan, Somalia, Serbia, Sweden, Switzerland, Tajikistan, Trinidad and Tobago, Tunisia, Turkey, Ukraine, United Kingdom, United States, Uzbekistan, Vietnam, and Yemen.


Yemen: Houthis Attacking Displaced People’s Camps

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, March 23, 2021
Click to expand Image Still from a video showing the crater where a Houthi missile struck in Marib city on March 16, 2021, and damage to surrounding vehicles and buildings. © 2021 Eyad Almsqry

(Beirut) – Houthi forces have indiscriminately fired artillery and missiles into heavily populated areas in Yemen’s Marib governorate since February 2021, causing mass displacement and exacerbating the humanitarian crisis, Human Rights Watch said today. The Houthi armed group should halt unlawful attacks and allow unimpeded humanitarian access to civilians trapped by the fighting.

Houthi forces have fired scores of projectiles into Marib, which is held by Yemeni government forces. The Yemeni government’s Foreign Ministry said on February 27 that the Houthis had fired 10 ballistic missiles, which cannot discriminate between civilians and military targets, toward Marib city since the beginning of the month. The Saudi-led coalition has also increased strikes in Marib governorate; the Yemen Data Project found, based on open-source information, that half of all coalition airstrikes in February struck Marib, making it the most heavily bombed governorate that month. All parties to the conflict should refrain from using explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas to minimize civilian harm.

“Houthi forces have committed serious abuses and shown a shocking disregard for the well-being and safety of civilians throughout the conflict,” said Afrah Nasser, Yemen researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Houthis’ indiscriminate artillery and rocket attacks toward populated areas in Marib have put displaced persons and local communities at severe risk.”

The Houthi armed group has controlled most of Yemen’s northern highlands, including the capital, Sanaa, since 2014. In February, the Houthis escalated operations to seize the natural resource-rich Marib governorate, 170 kilometers east of Sanaa. Ground fighting between Houthi forces and coalition-backed Yemeni government forces has focused on the northern and western districts, where several camps for internally displaced people are located. Human Rights Watch interviewed by phone in March eight Yemeni aid workers, including four based in Marib, three Yemeni journalists in Marib, and two residents.

Local media and the Yemeni government reported that on March 1 a Houthi missile struck the residential al-Rawdah neighborhood in Marib city, killing a civilian driving his car and injuring nine others. The cousin of the man killed said, “He was killed by the missile’s fragments. Others with him in the car and on the street sustained serious injuries.”

Local media reported that on March 16 a Houthi missile struck a fuel station inside a market in eastern Marib city, killing two civilians and injuring seven others. Human Rights Watch reviewed video footage and interviewed a witness to the attack’s aftermath. “When I arrived at the site, the victims had just been taken to the hospital,” the witness said.

Click to expand Image Civilian injured by a Houthi missile that struck a fuel station inside a market in eastern Marib city on March 16, 2021. © 2021 Eyad Almsqry

“It was tragic seeing blood and flesh of bodies spread on the ground and the damaged cars. The station’s owner said that one of his workers was hit by the missile’s fragments and killed immediately. The station is far away from the closest security checkpoint. The explosion was huge, and we felt it across all Marib city.”

Aid workers said that Houthi artillery and heavy direct-fire weapons forces hit several camps for displaced people during February, including al-Zour camp, Lafj al-Melh camp, Thanat al-Sawabin, and Thanat al-Haial camps, in northern and western Marib governorate. The attacks on the camps, which held hundreds of families, provoked a new wave of flight toward Marib city.

One aid worker said that most newly displaced civilians reach Marib carrying their tents and blankets on their backs. “Fleeing civilians shared terrifying stories about the heavy shelling they escaped from, very often on foot, to reach other camps in Marib,” he said.

Click to expand Image Van damaged by a Houthi missile that struck a market in eastern Marib city, killing two civilians and injuring seven others, on March 16, 2021. © 2021 Eyad Almsqry

The Executive Unit for the Management of Displaced Persons Camps, the Yemeni government agency that administers the camps, said that Houthi forces fired upon four camps on the outskirts of Marib city in February forcing families to flee. Two civilians were injured in the attacks.  

A journalist said, but Human Rights Watch could not confirm, that civilians reported that Houthi forces raided some camps in the Sirwah district of Marib and attempted to use displaced people as “human shields” against Yemeni government attacks.

The Executive Unit for the Management of Displaced Persons Camps reported that since the beginning of 2021, at least 14,000 civilians fled northern districts of Marib governorate for Marib city and the governorate’s southern districts. It said that there are currently displaced people in 143 camps concentrated in Marib’s al-Wadi district and Marib city. Some of these people have been displaced up to three times by different rounds of fighting.

Click to expand Image Aid workers said that Houthi artillery and heavy direct-fire weapons forces hit several camps for displaced people in Marib governorate during February, including al-Zour camp, Lafj al-Melh camp, Thanat al-Sawabin, and Thanat al-Haial camps, in northern and western Marib governorate.   © 2021 Human Rights Watch

This crisis of newly displaced, with families arriving daily, has increased humanitarian needs, putting pressure on host communities, public services, and stretching the capacity of aid agencies to respond. The International Organization for Migration reported in February that “civilians are bearing the devastating impact of renewed hostilities, seeing their homes and community infrastructure damaged, being forced to flee to safety.”

Aid workers said that access to areas of Marib affected by the fighting remains a problem. Some civilians trapped in the town of Sirwah, west of Marib, were unable to flee because of the fighting, and were in need of immediate assistance. One aid worker said, “I receive many phone calls from relatives of [internally displaced persons’] families in Sirwah pleading for help for those trapped because they are running out of food and medicine, and they are unable to flee the violence.”

Aid workers said that newly displaced civilians desperately need all basic services and have lost nearly everything they owned. At the same time, aid workers said that the available humanitarian assistance in Marib was inadequate to meet the growing population’s needs.

A local aid worker said that most aid groups it partners with are based in Sanaa and do not have branch offices in Marib: “We have been calling on international humanitarian partners to conduct humanitarian rescue efforts, but the response has been disappointing given the overwhelming displacement rate and growing humanitarian needs of the displaced.”

International aid to Yemen has experienced a dramatic shortfall in 2021. An aid-pledging conference organized by the United Nations in early March to raise funds for the humanitarian response in Yemen pledged only US$1.7 billion out of the $3.85 billion requested. Aid workers said that decreasing international aid has negatively affected their relief work.

Human Rights Watch in 2020 warned that civilians in Marib were at risk of Covid-19, heightened fighting, and an aid shortfall.

Prior to the conflict in 2014, Marib governorate had a population of only 20,000, according to the World Bank. Marib has since become one of Yemen’s most densely populated governorates, hosting at least two million displaced people, according to local authorities. Nearly half of the country’s more than four million displaced people live in Marib.

Marib is strategically significant as the last stronghold of the Yemeni government in northern Yemen and the center of the country’s oil and gas production. It is home to international oil companies and a gas pipeline that goes south towards the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea.

While intensifying their advance on Marib, the Houthis have also increased their indiscriminate missile attacks on Saudi Arabia.

“There is a massive humanitarian crisis in Marib and current international aid efforts are not enough to meet the challenge,” Nasser said. “Yemen’s donors should do all they can to ramp up humanitarian support in Marib and press all sides to abide by the laws of war.”

Afghanistan: Women’s Full Participation Needed in Talks

Human Rights Watch - Monday, March 22, 2021
Click to expand Image Former President Hamid Karzai, left, and Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, second right, attend an international peace conference in Moscow, Russia, March 18, 2021. © 2021 AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, Pool

(New York) – Afghanistan’s government and its international partners are failing in their obligation to ensure that Afghan women are full participants in all peace processes. In keeping with United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security, talks between the Afghan parties scheduled for April 2021 need to include the “full participation” of women.

On March 18, the Russian government hosted representatives of the Afghan government, the Taliban, and partner countries at a summit aimed to advance peace talks. The 12-member Afghan government delegation included one woman, Dr. Habiba Sarabi, backsliding from the inclusion of just four women among the 20 members at the intra-Afghan dialogue in Doha, Qatar in September 2020. The 10-person Taliban delegation was entirely male, as in the past. Afghan women’s rights activists have raised concerns that women will be largely shut out of the planned peace talks in Turkey, putting women’s rights at great risk in any final settlement.

“The minimal inclusion of women at the Moscow talks shows an appalling disregard for Afghan women’s struggle for over a decade to be full participants in peace processes as called for by the UN Security Council,” said Heather Barr, interim co-director of women’s rights at Human Rights Watch. “Even the Afghan government’s inadequate level of women’s representation at the Doha meeting seems to have slipped away, as women have again been pushed aside and ignored.”

UN Security Council Resolution 1325, adopted in 2000, calls for women’s “equal participation and full involvement in all efforts for the maintenance and promotion of peace and security.” Since then, the Security Council has passed seven additional resolutions on women, peace, and security.

Dr. Sarabi said in Moscow: “Why I should be the only woman in the room? We have not been part of the war. We can certainly contribute to peace. Fifty-one percent of people should not be ignored. I hope the hosts take note of it for the future.”

Women’s rights activists in Afghanistan have for many years raised concerns that the government will trade away women’s rights to reach an accommodation with the Taliban. The Afghan government has often resisted including women in peace talks. In June 2015, the Afghan government adopted a national action plan to implement Security Council Resolution 1325 from 2015 through 2022, including the goal of “[e]nsuring women’s effective participation in the peace process,” but the plan lacked detail and has not been meaningfully carried out. The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission has called for a minimum of 30 percent of negotiators to be women.

Nader Nadery, a member of the Afghan government delegations in both Doha and Moscow, tweeted that the host, the Russian government, selected the people invited to Moscow. But the leader of the delegation, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, almost certainly had input into the composition of his delegation, which included several men facing credible allegations of war crimes. Delegations from China, Pakistan, Russia, and the United States were also included in the Moscow summit.

“Afghanistan’s leaders should ensure that women are full participants at every stage of the peace process, and not allow the Moscow summit to set a new and even lower bar,” Barr said. “Research from around the world shows that women’s participation increases the effectiveness, success, and sustainability of peace processes, so all Afghans will lose if women continue to be shut out.”

Donors to Afghanistan, including those that have hosted peace talks, have often failed to promote including Afghan women. A 2014 study by Oxfam found that in 23 rounds of informal peace talks involving the Afghan government and the Taliban between 2005 and 2014, women were present at  only two. No women were  included in the discussions between international negotiators and the Taliban examined by Oxfam. Donors did not condemn the lack of women at the Moscow summit, with a US official saying only that Washington “wished” there had been more women and the EU tweeting that “peace required inclusivity.”

A leaked draft plan prepared by the United States calls for a transitional “peace government” in Afghanistan with appointments to that government to be made “with special consideration for the meaningful inclusion of women…throughout government institutions.” “Meaningful inclusion” falls short of the “full participation in the peace process” set out under Resolution 1325. The US is seeking an agreement in Afghanistan as the administration of President Joe Biden weighs whether to comply with the May 1, 2021 deadline for US troop withdrawal that was set in the February 2020 deal between the US and the Taliban negotiated by the previous US administration.

“Donors have not just stayed silent while the Afghan government shut women out of peace talks, but often they’ve been complicit, themselves shutting women out,” Barr said. “It’s critical for every donor and troop-contributing nation in Afghanistan to be clear that Afghan women need to be full participants in all talks, and that women’s rights are not up for debate.”

End Pakistan’s Enforced Disappearances

Human Rights Watch - Monday, March 22, 2021
Click to expand Image Relatives hold placards and photos of missing family members during a protest in Islamabad, Pakistan, February 20, 2021.  © 2021 AP Photo/Anjum Naveed

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s meeting last week with families of people who had been forcibly disappeared was an important step toward addressing this serious and longstanding issue. He now needs to follow up on his pledge to end this abuse once and for all.

Families staged a sit-in in Islamabad in February during which they held up photos of relatives who they said had been detained by security forces before disappearing. They demanded the government provide information on their whereabouts.

The protesters ended the sit-in after Prime Minster Khan agreed to meet with a delegation from the group. At the March 18 meeting, he directed his office to “ascertain quickly the exact status of the missing family members” and assured the families they would be kept updated. The federal minister for human rights, Dr. Shireen Mazari, said the prime minister also vowed that a draft law to criminalize enforced disappearances would be “fast-tracked.” The proposed law has languished at the draft stage for more than two years.

International human rights law strictly prohibits enforced disappearances, the detention of an individual in which the state denies holding the person or refuses to provide information on their fate or whereabouts.  In addition to the grave harm to the person, enforced disappearances cause continuing suffering for family members.

In January, the Islamabad High Court, after hearing a petition on a disappearance case from 2015, ruled that the prime minister and his cabinet were responsible for the state’s failure to protect its citizens “because the buck stops at the top.” The court called enforced disappearances “the most heinous crime and intolerable.”

Pakistani authorities, including law enforcement agencies and the criminal justice system, have long failed to demonstrate the political will to end enforced disappearances. Prime Minister Khan’s promises offer the victims’ families a glimmer of hope, but much more needs to be done. He now has an opportunity to signal to Pakistanis and the world that his government is intent on ending this illegal practice. This means not only taking action on pending cases but investigating and appropriately prosecuting those responsible to prevent future disappearances.

When Will There be Justice for Mali Massacre?

Human Rights Watch - Monday, March 22, 2021
Click to expand Image  A woman walks with her daughter past the remains of homes that were destroyed during the March 23, 2019 attack on Ogossagou village by armed Dogon men in which over 150 civilians were killed.  © 2019 UNICEF/Keita

The worst atrocity in Mali’s recent history occurred two years ago, on March 23, when over 150 civilians were massacred in Ogossagou village. Dozens of survivors described to Human Rights Watch how heavily armed ethnic Dogon men attacked the village in central Mali, accusing ethnic Peuhl residents of supporting armed Islamist groups.

The attackers executed, mutilated, and burned villagers cowering in their homes or as they fled the violence. A 32-year-old mother described her 5-year-old son being ripped from her arms and murdered. Another mother watched as her sons, ages 12 and 17, were gunned down.

The government opened an investigation and made a few low-level arrests. However, the commander of the Dogon self-defense group, Youssouf Toloba, whose militia was credibly implicated in the killings, has not even been questioned. Less than a year later, another 35 civilians were murdered in the same village, allegedly by the same militia.

Last November, the prosecutor in charge of investigations into both cases said the judicial investigations were “continuing their normal course despite the constraints linked to insecurity.” Yet, many survivors told us they do not understand why the many suspects they identified as having carried out the killings in Ogossagou have yet to be taken into custody.

The conflict in Mali since 2012 has been punctuated by dozens of atrocities by all sides – armed Islamists, ethnic militias formed to combat them, and the government security forces. Hundreds of civilians have been summarily killed. Next to none of these atrocities have been investigated, much less perpetrators brought to book.

On March 15, a court in Bamako, the capital, dismissed the case against army officer Amadou Haya Sanogo and 16 co-defendants for the 2012 killing of 21 elite soldiers in custody, citing the 2019 Law of National Understanding, which provides amnesty to perpetrators on a discretionary basis. The ruling left survivors of grave abuses wondering if there can be any justice for those they have lost.

The lack of justice not just for Ogossagou but for the cascade of other major crimes by all sides has contributed to a cycle of violence and revenge in Mali. As one elder from a village near Ogossagou said, “People from all armed groups have learned they can kill, maim, burn, and destroy without consequence. When will Mali learn that it is impunity driving the violence in Mali more than anything else?”

Canada Should Strive for More on World Water Day

Human Rights Watch - Monday, March 22, 2021
Click to expand Image Water jugs in the community water center in Grassy Narrows, Canada. April 13, 2016.  © 2016 Human Rights Watch

Where would we be without water to drink, to wash and cook with, and to keep us healthy and alive? Water is essential. But as we mark another World Water Day, many First Nations communities in Canada still don’t have access to safe water.

Five years ago today, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a commitment of $1.8 billion over five years to address the water crisis so First Nations wouldn’t need to boil water to make it drinkable, rely on bottled water, or evacuate their communities because their water is unsafe to use.

But today, more than 60 long-term water advisories are still in place.

An Auditor General report released last month makes clear that Canada still isn’t taking all the necessary steps to end the crisis. In 2016, Human Rights Watch documented challenges communities face from source to tap, and what we called for then remains as urgent today. The federal government needs to clearly show how the promised money has been spent and whether it has prioritized the most critical problems. Greater investment is also needed in operations and maintenance so more communities don’t go on water advisories or can stay off them once systems are fixed. Solutions need to be long-term, not band-aid fixes.

Indigenous people on-reserve are not protected by safe drinking water regulations when they turn on their tap, unlike people off-reserve. This can’t continue. Any safe drinking water regulation must be co-created with First Nations and come with funding commitments that ensure communities can meet any standards created.

A United Nations human rights committee confirmed, after hearing testimony from several First Nations women, that Canada has a human rights obligation to guarantee safe drinking water in First Nations communities. Canada’s Minster of Indigenous Services has made his commitment clear — boil water advisories need to end. But we need transparency and clear timelines for how this will happen, and ensure full participation of First Nations – many of whom have a spiritual relationship with water and are more likely to recognize problems and identify potential solutions.

There are many steps to ending this complicated crisis, but all of them require community participation and respect for human rights.

Syria: Bread Crisis Exposes Government Failure

Human Rights Watch - Sunday, March 21, 2021
Click to expand Image Syrian authorities distribute food to residents in the town of Douma, the site of a suspected chemical weapons attack, near Damascus, Syria, April 16, 2018. © 2018 AP Photo/Hassan Ammar

(Beirut) – The Syrian government’s failure to fairly and adequately address a bread crisis brought on by a decade of armed conflict is forcing millions of Syrians to go hungry, Human Rights Watch said today.

A deepening economic crisis, coupled with the significant destruction of infrastructure over a decade of conflict primarily by the Syrian government and its allies, have led to severe wheat shortages. Compounding the crisis, the Syrian government has allowed the discriminatory distribution of bread, alongside corruption and restrictions on how much subsidized bread people can buy that lead to people going hungry.

“Syrian officials say that ensuring everyone has enough bread is a priority, but its actions show otherwise,” said Sara Kayyali, Syria researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Millions are going hungry in Syria, in large part because of the government’s failure to address a bread crisis it helped to create.”

In addition to reviewing publicly available government statements, social media posts, and aid group reports, Human Rights Watch spoke to 10 residents in government-held Syria, including 2 bakery owners, and 4 aid workers, in Damascus, the Damascus countryside, Aleppo, Hama, Homs, and Sweida governorates. All described increased difficulties in getting bread and other food staples.

Bread has long been a food staple in Syria. Before 2011 the country produced enough wheat to satisfy domestic consumption needs. Low-income people in particular tended to rely on bread as the cheapest and most filling food staple, residents and humanitarian workers told Human Rights Watch. But the armed conflict led to a decline in domestic wheat production and at the same time drove millions into poverty, making them even more reliant on bread in their diet.

According to a study published by Humboldt University in 2020, Syria lost 943,000 hectares of cultivated land between 2010 and 2018, due to military operations, displacement of farmers and farmworkers, mismanagement of state resources, and conflict-related costs, including change in control of parts of the country. Some land loss was due to unlawful airstrikes by the Syrian-Russian military alliance, which escalated in 2015 and some cases rise to apparent war crimes. The strikes not only destroyed farmland but also destroyed numerous bakeries in areas then under opposition control.

In the last year, the Syrian government has faced major obstacles in its ability to purchase and import wheat, both from outside and from Syrian areas under Kurdish control that constitute most of the cultivated land. The severe depreciation of the Syrian currency, brought about by a mix of factors, including the Lebanese financial crisis and fears around announcements relating to new US sanctions, affected purchasing power across the country.

Lebanese banks’ capital controls prevented Syrian businesspeople, including intermediaries for the government to procure wheat, from accessing funds in Lebanese banks. In addition, Syria’s primary ally and primary supplier of imported wheat, Russia, has restricted its exports of wheat, including to Syria. US unilateral sanctions may have also had an indirect impact on the crisis through their influence on currency devaluation and fuel-related sanctions.

On February 24, 2021, news media reported that Turkey will deliver several hundred tons of wheat to Syria, reportedly through a Russia-brokered deal. On February 26, government-affiliated news outlets also said that wheat is being imported from Russia, as part of a million-ton deal, although no official source has confirmed this. However, the Syrian government’s discrimination, new bread-related policies, and corruption more immediately affect families’ ability to get enough bread, Human Rights Watch said.

As of February, at least 12.4 million Syrians, out of an estimated population of around 16 million, were food insecure, according to the World Food Programme (WFP), an alarming increase of 3.1 million in one year. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and WFP estimate that 46 percent of Syrian households have cut down on their daily food rations, and 38 percent of adults have reduced their consumption to ensure that children have enough to eat.

The Syrian government provides subsidized flour and fuel to public bakeries, which then sell subsidized bread. In September, Syria’s State News Agency, SANA, announced a new formula, limiting the amount of government-subsidized bread people can buy based on family size. On October 29, the Syrian government doubled the price of the subsidized bread.

Residents already suffering from severe food shortages told Human Rights Watch this policy has made things worse. According to people interviewed and UN data, families have reduced their number of meals and parents are going hungry to feed their children. One man from Zabadani said that his family of four had stopped eating cheese and meat earlier in 2020 and relied on bread for most of their diet. But with the price increase and government limits, he and his wife have made do with one small meal a day to have enough bread for their children. “We break the bread into little bites and dip it into tea to make it seem bigger, and because the quality is so bad,” he said.

Residents also described discriminatory distribution. In some areas, there are separate lines for the military and security personnel, for residents, and for displaced people, who get the lowest priority. A report by Newslines Institute says that Syrian security services interfere in bread and wheat distribution, including taking bread from bakeries and selling it on the black market.

Well-off families can buy better quality “tourist bread,” which is not subsidized, in larger quantities, or buy bread on the black market, where the price is at least 150 percent higher than subsidized bread. Three residents said that bakeries that sell tourist bread have regular supplies, but public bakeries may not be able to produce bread for days. “I can find bread wherever I want whenever, but that is because I have the money to pay for it,” one resident said.

Many bakeries were destroyed or left inoperable during the conflict, but the exact number affected is difficult to ascertain. The Industry and Trade Ministry claims that focus on rehabilitation has increased the number of operable bakeries to 178 in 2019, compared with 65 in 2016. But residents and aid workers in several areas under government control said that close to half of the bakeries in those areas remained destroyed or damaged, forcing people to travel through checkpoints or wait at overcrowded bakeries where there is often not enough bread for everyone in line.

Under international human rights law, the right to food forms part of the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living. It is “realized when every man, woman, and child, alone or in community with others, have physical and economic access at all times to adequate food or means for its procurement.” The right has four main components: availability, accessibility, adequacy, and sustainability, which require making food available “in a quantity and quality sufficient to satisfy the dietary needs of individuals, free from adverse substances, and acceptable within a given culture,” and making it accessible “in ways that are sustainable and that do not interfere with the enjoyment of other human rights.”

The government has an obligation to revise limits on the amount of subsidized bread families can obtain so that they do not go hungry and provide additional support to families who are unable to afford basic food staples, Human Rights Watch said. The government should put a stop to the abuses by the Syrian security services, including their discriminatory interference in bread and flour distribution. Russia should provide Syria with wheat, as Syria’s primary ally and one jointly responsible for military operations that contributed to the ongoing crisis.

Under international humanitarian law, Russia as a party to the conflict in Syria is liable to make reparations for violations it has been responsible for, including restitution and compensation, which may include repairing bakeries and supply chains, or provide wheat exports to the extent that reflects loss from burned farmland/destroyed infrastructure for which Russia was responsible.

Concerned countries, including donors to the UN and other humanitarian agencies repairing destroyed ovens, should ensure that those parties responsible for the destruction of bakeries and viable farmland are held accountable at the highest levels and that they send a clear and public message that discriminatory distribution of food aid is unacceptable.

“The Syrian government’s restrictive policies in response to the bread crisis are making the situation worse, giving rise to a black market that caters to the rich and well-connected,” Kayyali said. “Syria should ensure that a sufficient quantity and quality of bread is distributed to everyone who needs it across all areas it controls.”

Syria’s Wheat Shortages
Prior to 2011, Syria had been self-sufficient in wheat production, averaging between 3.5-4.1 million tons per year, although accurate figures are difficult to find The wheat grown in Syria is highly dependent on water. Attacks on viable land and displacement, coupled with changes in areas of government control and destruction of infrastructure, have more than halved the amount of wheat that Syria is able to produce, resulting in heavy reliance on wheat imports.

According to Syria Report, a specialist economic publication, in 2020, 72 percent of Syria’s wheat was grown in areas currently held by Kurdish-led authorities. Bidding wars between the Syrian government and Kurdish-led authorities have left less wheat available to the government, particularly as most farmers prefer to sell locally. In 2020, crop fires destroyed around 35,000 hectares of agricultural land under the government’s control, further exacerbating the crisis.

In April 2019, Syria passed a law that merged three public institutions for the trade and production of grains, silos management, and mills into a new institution, the General Establishment for Cereal Processing (known as Huboob, which means “grains” in Arabic), which now has the primary responsibility to import and distribute wheat and wheat products.

On October 26, 2020, the head of Huboob announced that there is enough wheat for all bakeries across government-held Syria to produce bread to the extent of their capacities. Residents in government-held areas, including Damascus countryside and Aleppo, told Human Rights Watch in December that the available bread was of bad quality and almost inedible.

On February 24, 2021, as part of a Russia-brokered deal, Turkey provided the Syrian government with several hundred tons of wheat. Russia is the world’s second-ranked wheat exporter and had been Syria’s primary source of wheat. But from mid-2019 until February 2021, the Syrian government was unable to procure wheat from outside, given alleged government “funding restrictions.” Syrian tenders for wheat in 2019 and 2020 have primarily requested Russian-sourced wheat. But Russian government-imposed restrictions on wheat sales during the Covid-19 pandemic have made it difficult for countries to procure wheat from Russia, even military allies. It announced a 7 million ton limit on exports of wheat and other grains to other countries in April 2020 and that it was extending these restrictions in November.

On February 26, 2021, government-affiliated news outlets said that wheat is being imported from Russia, as part of a million-ton deal, although no official source has confirmed this.

Syrian Government’s “Funding Restrictions”

In October-November 2019, the value of the Syrian pound (SYP) started to depreciate significantly, with the exchange rate dropping from around 600 SYP to the US dollar to around 900 SYP, largely due to several factors, including the Lebanese economic crisis, but also in response to fears around announcements relating to the US Caesar Sanctions.

In December 2019, as part of the National Defense Authorization Act, the United States Senate passed the Caesar Act, which augmented and expanded sanctions already imposed on Syria and affiliated entities. The bill provided for targeted asset and visa freezes and prohibitions on entering the US for individuals complicit in serious human rights abuses against Syrian citizens, as well as sanctions on specific sectors, such as oil and gas, technology, or luxury goods.

The legislation also includes specific measures to be taken with regards to the Central Bank of Syria if there are reasonable grounds to believe that it has been involved in money laundering. Once the legislation took effect in mid-2020, overcompliance with sanctions by banks coupled with the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic and entrenchment of the Lebanese crisis accelerated the depreciation of the currency.

Experts say that while sanctions have been imposed on the Syrian government since the start of the conflict, the capital controls imposed by banks in Lebanon in October 2019 have meant that Syrian business people were no longer able to access their accounts in Lebanese banks. This in turn affected their ability to bring foreign currency into the country, depleting foreign currency reserves and restricting the government’s ability to import food items, such as wheat.

In a November 2020 speech, President Bashar al-Assad said that the billions of dollars held by Syrians trapped in Lebanon’s banks were the main cause of Syria’s deepening economic crisis, “The crisis began before the Caesar Act and years after long-imposed Western sanctions … It’s the money (in Lebanese banks) that has been lost.” The coronavirus pandemic has further depreciated the Syrian pound. In March 2021, the Syrian pound was at an all-time low level of 4,300 SYP to the dollar. The currency depreciation increased the cost of imports like wheat, fuel, and fertilizers, as well as machines for wheat and bread production. Syria’s fuel crisis – brought about by the same factors but that has been more directly affected by fuel-related sanctions – also contributed to increases in wheat prices, since its production depends on diesel fuel.

Discriminatory Distribution

A community leader who visited the Damascus countryside, Homs, and Tartous told Human Rights Watch that government-supported bakeries had separate lines for regular residents, internally displaced persons, and military and intelligence services. The line for the military and intelligence services moved the fastest, while the displaced moved one place for every five places of the regular line. Sometimes, workers at the bakeries turned displaced people away, this person said, telling them “to go back from where they came from” and that they were the reason for the shortage. Residents in Sweida, Daraa, and Homs confirmed a similar pattern in these areas.

Access to bread differs according to people’s economic status. Privately owned bakeries produce regular bread and “tourism bread,” which is often of better quality than what is sold in government-subsidized bakeries, and often supplemented with milk and other ingredients, such as sugar.

On October 29, 2020, the Syrian government doubled the price of a parcel of subsidized bread from 50 to 100 SYP (US $0.017 to 0.034). Those who can afford it told Human Rights Watch that they resort to the black market to purchase bread, where the price of a bread parcel can range from 250 to 1000 SYP ($0.085 to 0.341), more than 10 times the new price of the subsidized bread.

More than 80 percent of Syrians live under the poverty line, and for 40 percent of households, 65 percent of expenditures are on food-related items, according to the UN. Coupled with government limits on the amount of subsidized bread available – a maximum of four packages for a family of seven or more, and one package for a family of two, pricing, and parallel lines, the system caters to better-off people who can afford “tourist” or black-market bread.

Two aid workers involved in providing food and livelihood support and one community leader told Human Rights Watch that there are also issues with distribution of bread and wheat by some humanitarian organizations. The community leader said that only a few local organizations deliver bread and that some of them distribute based on recipients’ ethnicity, sect, and area of origin.

Two international humanitarian officials confirmed that the Syrian government provides their teams with lists of bakeries to rehabilitate, but that the aid groups have no way of determining the need across the government-held territory. One aid group official said that the government directs humanitarian organizations to rehabilitate bakeries and to deliver food baskets according to the political affiliations of the neighborhood in question, rather than based on need alone.


While the Syrian government has issued decisions prohibiting non-accredited bakeries from selling subsidized bread and announcing a crackdown on black market sales, the Syrian security services are playing a key role in skimming bread and wheat sales. According to three residents in southern Syria, Damascus, and Homs, members of the Syrian security services take some of the bread from parcels and sell it off on the black market for more than double the price.

Posts on social media by residents in government-held Syria also report large amounts of flour, sugar, and other foodstuffs provided by humanitarian agencies being sold on the black market, including by known members of the Syrian security services or members of the Armed Forces.

The Syrian government has also appointed members of the Syrian Armed Forces and the security services as accredited bread distributors within their areas. According to a local media source, Horan Free Media, in at least one case, the accredited distributor sold bread parcels for double the official price.

Attacks on Bakeries and Ovens; Burning Croplands; Decreased Bread Production Capacity

Since the beginning of the conflict, the Syrian forces, and later the Syrian-Russian military alliance, have systematically destroyed bakeries, and ovens in several areas, including parts of Homs, Aleppo, and the Damascus countryside. The Syrian-Russian military alliance has also attacked cropland, most recently in Idlib governorate in 2019.

This affects bakeries’ ability to produce and distribute sufficient bread to the population and requires residents to travel significant distances, even if their areas are back under government control.

The World Food Programme (WFP), World Health Organization (WHO), and other humanitarian organizations have taken on projects to repair bakeries. However, aid workers and residents Human Rights Watch interviewed said that the projects are not based on a comprehensive assessment of needs, and in some areas where the crisis is acute no ovens and bakeries have been repaired.


In August 2012, Human Rights Watch documented at least 10 Syrian government attacks on bakeries in Aleppo province over a three-week period, seven of them in Aleppo city. In late 2016, the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria documented the destruction of three bakeries in al-Maadi, al-Maghayer, and al-Mashad. One of the bakeries fed almost 6,000 families, according to the commission. Former residents of Aleppo city confirmed that many bakeries had been attacked multiple times and put out of service.

Humanitarian workers currently operating in Aleppo city told Human Rights Watch in December that Aleppo city is among the hardest hit in terms of food shortages, and that the destruction of bakeries contributed significantly to the crisis. If a bakery is destroyed or partially operating, the government does not give their wheat quota to other bakeries that serve the area, but to other bakeries outside their neighborhoods, forcing residents to line up for long hours in the neighborhood or travel through checkpoints to other areas to get bread.

The Syrian government often asked aid agencies to repair the same bakeries that government forces destroyed years before, claiming the damage was due to “terrorist activity.”


In 2012 and again in 2014, the government attacked bakeries in northern Homs governorate, including the main bakery in Farhaniyeh village and the bakery in Al-Rastan. Each attack killed scores of civilians and stopped the operations of these bakeries entirely for several years. In 2016, one of the bakeries was repaired by a humanitarian organization but moved the production line to an external building to keep it from being bombed again.

In May 2018, villages and towns in Northern Hama signed reconciliation agreements with the government after it retook the territory. But residents and local reporting said the bread crisis has not abated. The government, upon retaking the territory, prevented all privately owned bakeries from operating, including one that had been jointly repaired by the WFP and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent. The authorities limited operations to the partially restored public bakery, which, according to two local residents, cannot produce enough for the population.

“The lines are overcrowded,” one resident said. “The bread comes at 1 a.m. but I cannot get it the next morning, I have to go immediately otherwise it is not edible. I spend hours waiting in line.”


Syrians for Truth and Justice and local media reported that in February 2018 the Syrian-Russian alliance bombed one of the main bakeries in the town of Saqba, in Eastern Ghouta, then under opposition control, leaving it inoperable. Residents said that accidental shelling by the Syrian-Russian military alliance destroyed the only other bakery in Saqba.

Facebook posts by Saqba residents from late 2020 highlight the ongoing bread crisis. In one post, a resident said that to get his allotted bread, he needed to stand in line from 4 a.m. until 8 a.m, and even then, there was no guarantee of getting bread. Another lamented the destruction of the bakeries, saying that there had been a bakery in the middle of town and that the lines would not be this long had there been more than one bakery operating in the area. One woman said that some people would wait in line for hours, but certain others could just walk in and get all the bread they need.

In September 2020, local media reported a gunfight in Saqba due to a disagreement over whose turn it was in the bread lines. The page included pictures of dozens of men waiting in line in front of a building with a sign “Saqba Bread” with Bashar and Hafez al-Assad’s faces on it.

Poor Quality of Bread

Residents said that the bread from public bakeries was almost inedible and black with age or mixed with lentils or barley. One man said that the quality was so bad that the bread had to be dunked in water to become edible. Another said this is particularly true of bread subsidized by the government.

Pictures and videos shared by residents on social media and with Human Rights Watch depicted bread dried out and cracked. Many claimed that the size of the bread differs from one bakery to the other. One man said they wait for hours in the line and need to eat it immediately, otherwise it becomes inedible.

Two bakery owners said that the government controls the distribution of wheat and flour due to shortages, and as result, several bakeries are using other materials to supplement the wheat in the bread. They confirmed that a lack of fuel contributed both to the transport prices of bread and the processing problems.


The government has an obligation to ensure that no one goes hungry. It should revise limitations on the amount of bread families can obtain to provide adequate supplies and provide additional support to families who are unable to afford basic food staples to ensure they do not go hungry. It should also rein in the Syrian security services, investigate allegations of corruption and discriminatory distribution, and hold those responsible for preventing the bread from reaching families who need it accountable.

Concerned countries, including donors to UN and other humanitarian agencies repairing destroyed ovens, should ensure that those parties responsible for the destruction of bakeries and viable farmland are held accountable at the highest levels. They should also put in place independent monitors to ensure that the flour and food baskets supplied are not provided in a discriminatory manner and are instead distributed based on needs across all areas under government control.

The United States, European Union, and other countries that have placed sanctions on Syria should ensure that effective and functional humanitarian exemptions are provided to mitigate the sanctions’ spillover effects on the bread supply. The authorities also need the resources necessary to quickly respond to and process exemption requests and conduct outreach to mitigate the chilling effects of sanctions.

Immigration Detainees Hunger Strike Again As Canada Fails To Listen

Human Rights Watch - Saturday, March 20, 2021
Click to expand Image Entrance to the Canadian Border Security Agency's (CBSA) Laval Immigration Holding Centre in Quebec, Canada. © Wikimedia

Desperate immigration detainees have undergone three separate hunger strikes in a Montreal-area detention facility since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic to protest what they feel are life-threatening conditions. Last month, at least five detainees in the facility contracted Covid-19, and on March 1, seven went on a five-day hunger strike.

“We are distraught and very fearful for our health. … it is only a matter of time before we are all infected,” they said. “This is a call for help. We want to be treated with dignity and above all we want to be protected in this time of pandemic like every Canadian citizen.”

“Marlon,” from Colombia, told Human Rights Watch that after testing positive for Covid-19 in February, authorities placed him and two others who also tested positive in conditions akin to solitary confinement for about a week. Marlon said he was locked in a “small and dirty cell,” which he could only leave to use the bathroom or make 15-minute phone calls once every two hours in the presence of a guard from whom he could not physically distance.

Marlon said he had a fever for several days but did not receive any medical attention besides painkillers and having his temperature taken. “I felt powerless and anxious. I was having trouble breathing,” he said. Despite the raging pandemic, Marlon said it was impossible to stay safe from the virus in the detention facility. “Ventilation is inadequate because all the windows are shut, the sanitary conditions are poor, and guards sometimes remove their masks. … I felt it was inconceivable that they put us in these conditions where we were unable to protect ourselves from the virus.”  

In response to the Covid-19 outbreak at the Montreal-area facility in February, authorities reportedly placed at least 12 detainees in isolation. According to Marlon and Solidarity Across Borders, a migrant justice network that works closely with immigration detainees in the Montreal-area detention facility, detainees were not tested again before they were transferred from solitary confinement back into shared spaces.

As one advocate from Solidarity Across Borders noted, “People should not have to starve just to bring attention to the injustice happening in immigration detention, especially in the middle of a pandemic.” If authorities cannot protect detainees’ health and human rights in detention, they should be released.

New WHO Report Calls Out Global Impacts of Ageism

Human Rights Watch - Friday, March 19, 2021
Click to expand Image Older people crossing the broken bridge at the Stanytsia Luhanska checkpoint in east Ukraine, November 6, 2018.  © 2018 Stanislav Krasilnikov\TASS via Getty Images

A groundbreaking report released on March 18 and led by the World Health Organization (WHO) calls out ageism for what it is: a socially-acceptable form of discrimination that impacts older people’s livelihoods, health, and even survival.

The report finds that one in two people globally have ageist attitudes about older people. The trend is more prevalent in lower-middle-income countries, where nearly half the world’s population lives.

According to the report, which includes a systemic review of academic research, ageism can be manifested through laws and policies that allow for the exclusion of older people, as well as societal norms and perceptions.

It also shows the impact government failures to address ageism have on older people’s human rights, including their rights to the highest attainable standard of health and an adequate standard of living. Ageism can undermine older people’s ability to access healthcare, find and retain employment, and get credit or loans. Ageism may even increase older people’s vulnerability to violence and abuse.

None of this should come as a surprise: Human Rights Watch has extensively documented human rights violations against older people, from policies preventing them from accessing pensions in eastern Ukraine to the inappropriate and nonconsensual use of antipsychotic drugs in nursing homes in the US and Australia. During the Covid-19 pandemic, the cost of longstanding policies that fail to protect older people has become even more clear. A July 2020 report by Claudia Mahler, the United Nations independent expert on the enjoyment of all human rights by older persons, found that the pandemic “drastically amplified prevalent ageism.”

Law and policies at national and international levels guaranteeing the rights of older people are crucial to ending ageism. There is no dedicated international legal instrument to protect the human rights of older people. On March 29, the UN Open-Ended Working Group on Ageing (OEWG) will meet for the 11th time. It should finally start drafting a convention on the rights of older people, as civil society groups have advocated for many years, as a clear commitment to end ageism around the world.

Guatemala Should Do More for LGBT People

Human Rights Watch - Friday, March 19, 2021
Click to expand Image Protest against the “Life and Family Protection” bill in Guatemala City, May 1, 2019. © Daniel Villatoro

“We know where you live, we’re going to kill you.” Those words echoed in Ale’s mind long after she left Guatemala to seek asylum. The men who threatened her had phoned to extort her nearly every day for two months in 2018, calling her homophobic slurs and misgendering her. 

“It’s What Happens When You Look Like This” “It’s What Happens When You Look Like This”

Ale’s case was one of dozens that Human Rights Watch documented in a report published in March 2021 on violence and discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in Guatemala. Perpetrators included public security agents, gangs, and the  general public. Human Rights Watch conducted the research in 2019 and 2020, but 2021 is shaping up to be just as dangerous for LGBT Guatemalans. The Human Right Ombudsperson’s Office reports that during the first month of 2021, at least five gay and trans people were killed in the country. 

Guatemalan authorities should prioritize LGBT people’s protection, but they are often part of the problem. In Ale’s case, when she reported the calls to the police, they responded with homophobic slurs rather than assistance.

Last month, Galilea Monroy de León, director of the transgender rights organization REDMMUTRANS, said police stopped her in the street while searching for someone accused of stealing a firearm. When Monroy asked for a female police officer to search her, an officer said, “You are a man, look at your genitals.” Shoved against a wall, Monroy explained that she is a human rights defender. A police officer said, “To hell with human rights.” REDMMUTRANS is calling for an investigation into this incident by National Civil Police and the Public Prosecutor’s Office.

Cases like Monroy’s are common in Guatemala, and many authorities’ anti-LGBT bias leaves LGBT people exposed to insidious levels of violence and discrimination. Congress should take meaningful steps to increase protections for LGBT people, including by passing Initiative 5674, which would address hate crimes and require the government to establish a comprehensive national plan to protect LGBT and intersex rights. It should also scrap the discriminatory “Life and Family Protection” bill and stop harassing authorities for supporting LGBT rights.

Monroy says she is committed to getting justice for the discrimination she experienced so that other trans people do not face a similar fate. It is time that Guatemalan authorities join her in that fight.

US: Atlanta Killings Underscore Dangers of Unaddressed Racism

Human Rights Watch - Friday, March 19, 2021
Click to expand Image A man holds a sign reading “#StopAsianHate” outside Youngs Asian Massage in Acworth, Georgia on March 17, 2021, where four people were fatally shot the day before.  © 2021 Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP, File

(Washington, DC) – The killings of eight people, most of them women of Asian descent in metro Atlanta, shows the need for US authorities to work to eradicate the racism and misogyny that puts lives at risk in the United States, Human Rights Watch said today. The attack on March 16, 2021, targeted people working at or visiting massage parlors.

Since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been a surge of violent attacks against people of Asian descent in the US, including assaults on women, members of the working class, and older people that reflects an alarming pattern of disrespect for the human rights of some of the most vulnerable people in the country.

“The killings in Atlanta are a heartbreaking reminder that racist, misogynist hate has consequences,” said Nicole Austin-Hillery, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s US Program. “If this past year has taught us anything, it’s that racial discrimination remains one of the biggest unaddressed problems in the United States.” 

Human Rights Watch called on the federal government as well as local agencies to do more to address discrimination against people of Asian descent in the United States. This has deep roots in the United States, as evidenced in attacks like the Chinese Massacre of 1871 and racist policies such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the internment of Japanese Americans. The nation should directly address the history of xenophobia, discriminatory and exclusionary policies, and erasure that have left these communities vulnerable, and address ongoing scapegoating of Asians and Asian American communities.

“All levels of government should work with communities to reimagine public safety, and to eradicate the racism, misogyny and other forms of discrimination that continue to put lives at risk,” Austin-Hillery said.

Azerbaijan: Armenian POWs Abused in Custody

Human Rights Watch - Friday, March 19, 2021
Click to expand Image Ethnic Armenian soldiers walk along the road near the border between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia, Sunday, Nov. 8, 2020. © 2020 AP Photo

(Berlin) – Azerbaijani forces abused Armenian prisoners of war (POWs) from the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, subjecting them to cruel and degrading treatment and torture either when they were captured, during their transfer, or while in custody at various detention facilities, Human Rights Watch said today.

Azerbaijani authorities should investigate all allegations of ill-treatment and hold those responsible to account. Azerbaijan should also immediately release all remaining POWs and civilian detainees and provide information on the whereabouts of servicemen and civilians whose situation is unknown but were last seen in Azerbaijani custody.

“The abuse, including torture of detained Armenian soldiers, is abhorrent and a war crime,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “It is also deeply disturbing that a number of missing Armenian soldiers were last seen in Azerbaijan’s custody and it has failed to account for them.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed four former POWs who detailed their ill-treatment in custody as well as the ill-treatment of other POWs with whom they were captured or shared cells. They all described prolonged and repeated beatings. One described being prodded with a sharp metal rod, and another said he was subjected to electric shocks, and one was repeatedly burned with a cigarette lighter. The men were held in degrading conditions, given very little water and little to no food in the initial days of their detention.

Scores of videos showing scenes in which Azerbaijani officers can be seen apparently ill-treating Armenian POWs have been posted to social media. Human Rights Watch closely examined and verified more than 20 of these videos, including through interviews with recently repatriated POWs and family members of servicemen who appear in the videos but have not yet returned. Human Rights Watch also reviewed medical documents.

The accounts of torture and ill-treatment raise concerns that Armenian POWs still in Azerbaijani custody are at risk of further abuse, Human Rights Watch said. Azerbaijani authorities should ensure that Armenian POWs and other detainees still in custody have all the protections to which they are entitled under international human rights and humanitarian law, including freedom from torture and ill-treatment.

The armed conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh escalated on September 27, when Azerbaijan began a military offensive. Hostilities ended on November 10 with a Russia-negotiated truce. The peace agreement provided, among other things, for “an exchange of prisoners of war and other detained persons and bodies of the dead.”

The number of Armenian POWs still in custody remains unclear. By the end of February 2021, Armenia’s Representative Office at the European Court of Human Rights had asked the court to intervene with Azerbaijan regarding 240 cases of alleged prisoners of war and civilian detainees. In approximately 90 percent of those cases, the office said, they had provided photo and/or video evidence confirming that Azerbaijani forces had taken these people into custody.

Armenia’s leadership said that Azerbaijan has returned 69 POWs and civilians. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev said that his government has returned all the POWs to Armenia but was still holding approximately 60 people as terrorism suspects. Human Rights Watch is not in a position to verify the claims by Azerbaijan or Armenia about the numbers of people remaining in custody or their status.

An Armenian Foreign Ministry representative in Yerevan told Human Rights Watch on February 24 that families are “increasingly desperate” to find their loved ones, especially in light of numerous credible reports of prisoner abuse.

All four former POWs who spoke with Human Rights Watch had been wounded before their capture. In one case, Human Rights Watch documented, an Azerbaijani officer provided first aid to a wounded Armenian soldier shortly after capturing him. Another Azerbaijani officer gave pain medication to another POW. One former POW said the commanding officer told his subordinates not to hit the POWs but that as soon as the commanding officer was no longer present, the soldiers would abuse them.

International humanitarian law, or the law of armed conflict, requires parties to an international armed conflict to treat POWs humanely in all circumstances. The third Geneva Convention protects POWs “particularly against acts of violence or intimidation and against insults and public curiosity.” Azerbaijan is also bound by the absolute prohibition on torture and other degrading or inhuman treatment in international law as articulated in both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), to which it is a party.

“We heard accounts and viewed images of prolonged and repeated beatings of Armenian prisoners of war, designed, it seems, solely to humiliate and punish them,” Williamson said. “Torture and ill-treatment of prisoners of war constitute war crimes for which accountability is urgently needed.”

For additional details and former POWs’ accounts, please see below.

In February, in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, Human Rights Watch interviewed four former POWs who were captured under different circumstances and in different locations during the active fighting between October 15 and November 20 and returned to Armenia on December 14. They were among 44 POWs and civilians whom Azerbaijani authorities repatriated on a special flight from Baku to Yerevan.

Abuse During Capture in Nagorno-Karabakh

Three of the four soldiers were beaten by Azerbaijani forces immediately following their capture and/or during their transfer to the first detention site.

Davit (not his real name), 19, said that the Azerbaijani officer who captured him on October 15, on the outskirts of Hadrut, treated him humanely. The officer applied a tourniquet to stop the bleeding from his lower leg wound, gave him water, carried him to the nearby Azerbaijani camp, reassured him he would be taken to a hospital for treatment, and watched over him to make sure that other soldiers left him alone. However, when a vehicle arrived to drive Davit to a hospital in Baku, where he then spent several days, things changed:

They tied me up and threw me in the back of the car, face down, my hands handcuffed behind my back. Once they hit the road, one of [the Azerbaijani servicemen] started yelling at me and pummeling me with his punches. He had something like a windproof lighter and burned my hands with it. He used it to heat up a metal rod and poked me in the back with the rod. I fainted from the pain. When we arrived at the hospital, I was barely conscious. All my muscles were clenched. I could not move, could not speak. They threw me on a stretcher. I spent four to five days in the hospital, my left arm cuffed to the bed with two guards watching me round the clock. Sometimes, when the medical workers did not see, [the guards] punched me, mostly on the head.  

When Human Watch interviewed Davit on February 22, the scars from the burns on his hands and back were still visible.

Tigran, 20, was captured in Hardut district on October 20 with eight other Armenian soldiers, by a large group of Azerbaijani forces. A video, widely circulated on social media, showed Azerbaijani forces kicking, stepping on, and dragging the Armenian soldiers.

“They started beating us straight away and kept it up for three hours or so,” Tigran said. “Their commanding officers told them not to. But whenever those officers weren’t around, the beating resumed… They gave a spade to one of ours and told him to go dig his grave. He was so frightened he started digging.”

The soldiers also used a metal rod to poke the men who were tied up. Tigran, who was wounded, weak, and disoriented, does not recall the details of being poked but after he was transferred to a detention facility, he saw two puncture wounds on his body, apparently from the rod.

Abuse in Alleged Military Police Custody

Three of the former POWs spent three to five days in the custody of what they understood was the Azerbaijani military police in Baku. Two of them, interviewed separately, said they were kept in separate rooms; one was held in a room with another Armenian POW. All three said they were handcuffed to a radiator in a position that would not allow them to lie down and had neither mattresses nor blankets. Once a day, the guards took them to the toilet, where they could also drink some water from the tap. Other than that, they were given no food or water. None received any treatment for injuries they had. Officers regularly entered their cells, screamed at them, punched, kicked, and beat them with wooden rods. Davit said:

I almost did not sleep there. At first, I would doze off, but they would come and beat me up so badly that I would not sleep out of fear again… They came in groups of two to four. One of them broke his wooden rod on me, hitting me so badly that I lost the use of my arm for a while. On my fourth day there, they beat me so badly that they actually broke two ribs.

Hovhanness, 45, captured on October 19, spent three days in that facility, alone in a room on the first floor. He said that several times a day, five to ten soldiers would come into the room to beat him with their fists, booted feet, clubs, and a metal rod. On multiple occasions late at night, his captors also forced him to perform exercises for two hours and beat him for his supposedly poor performance. On other occasions, they forced him face down on the floor, ordered him to lie still for two hours, left, and then returned and beat him for changing his position. Hovhanness received no food during the entire three days and if the guards or soldiers found him asleep, they would wake him.

Levon, 31, captured in Magadis on October 22 with another seven Armenian soldiers emphasized that the beatings were intended as punishment. Levon had multiple wounds he had received before he was detained, but that did not deter the Azerbaijani soldiers from beating him repeatedly and brutally:

It began as soon as we were brought to the military police in Baku – they beat us nonstop for one-and-a-half to two hours, pushing us to the ground, punching, and kicking us, two or three of them working on each of us. Once we were in the cells – I was put in a cell with another man from our group – they would run in, in small groups, several times a day and beat us. They did not interrogate us, did not really ask any questions, except things like, “Why did you join the fighting?”

They showed us some video from Ganja [second-largest city in Azerbaijan, where 32 civilians were killed by Armenian artillery strikes in October] … screamed at us and hit us. They mostly beat us on the arms and the upper body. My upper arms were literally black and blue. They yelled, they blamed us for… [killings of Azerbaijani civilians during the first war] and beat us… I actually told them, “I was two years of age at the time! … If you want to ask me any question, all it takes is to ask. If you want to kill me, just kill me. But do not do this to me!

Abuse in National Security Ministry Detention

All four of the former POWs were later transferred to the National Security Ministry detention facility in Baku, where they spent weeks being interrogated by Azerbaijani security services. They said that they received three meals a day, although the portions were small and the food was poor quality, and that medical workers examined their wounds and provided basic treatment. However, between interrogations, they were all beaten with fists, booted feet, and clubs.

Tigran described being tortured with electric shocks twice. On the first occasion, the torture went on for approximately 40 minutes. He said that every time he lost consciousness from pain, his torturers revived him and gave him more shocks. On the second occasion, the torture went on for approximately 10 minutes.

The Azerbaijan military forced all the POWs to speak on camera, in professional recordings, saying they did not want to fight in the war, blaming the Armenian government for their plight, and stating that Nagorno-Karabakh is part of Azerbaijan. Davit said his video was fully scripted and that when he did not get it right, an officer threatened him with an electric shock.

Hovhanness spent approximately 50 days at the National Security Ministry detention facility, having been transferred from the military police. He said that the guards entered his cell every day to kick and punch the inmates and that they beat him with clubs three or four times in the course of his detention. The beatings mostly took place in the cell and sometimes they went on as late as midnight. One of the blows damaged his kneecap and his knee still pained him at the time of his interview:

“They were hitting me even in front of the doctor [who changed the bandage on his wound during the first week he spent at the ministry’s detention facility]. They were beating every day and making us say ‘Karabakh [is] Azerbaijan’ every time they opened the cell.”

Humiliation, Insult at a Pre-trial Detention Facility in Baku

After several weeks at the Security Ministry detention center, the authorities transferred three of the four former POWs to the pre-trial detention facility No.1 in Baku’s Kurdakhani settlement. The former POWs described the conditions there as adequate and noted that they were not subjected to any physical abuse. They received a visit from the ICRC, which was able to connect them with their families. However, the guards called them names, forced them to chant “Karabakh-Azerbaijan,” and told them that Azerbaijan had taken over all of Nagorno-Karabakh and was advancing into Armenia, which caused them tremendous stress and made them fear for their families.

Applicable Legal Standards

The third Geneva Convention governs the treatment of prisoners of war in international armed conflicts, and articles 17, 87, and 89 all prohibit forms of torture and cruel treatment. Common Article 3 also prohibits “cruel treatment and torture” and “outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment,” torture or inhuman treatment, and “willfully causing great suffering or serious injury to body or health” constitute grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions and are war crimes. Both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, in articles 7 and 10, and the European Convention on Human Rights, in article 3, prohibit all forms of torture, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment, and require humane treatment of all those in custody.

Atlanta Shootings Strike Fear into Asian American Community

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, March 18, 2021


Click to expand Image A man holds a sign reading “#StopAsianHate” outside Youngs Asian Massage in Acworth, Georgia on March 17, 2021, where four people were fatally shot the day before.  © 2021 Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP, File

One year after the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, the number of new Covid-19 infections is falling, but violent attacks and discrimination against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and people of Asian descent continue to rise. Since March 2020, advocacy groups have recorded nearly 3,800 anti-Asian hate incidents, disproportionately targeting women.

On March 16, a mass shooter in an Atlanta suburb targeted three Asian-owned business, killing eight people, including six Asian women. Police later arrested Robert Aaron Long, a 21-year-old white man, for the shooting. Long reportedly denied the killings were racially motivated, although Korean-language media are reporting a witness heard him say, “I will kill all Asians.”

The attacks come as statistics show a 150 percent surge in anti-Asian hate crimes since the start of the pandemic. People of Asian descent are at greater risk of violence and racism than they were a year ago and many live in fear. Women and older people are especially at risk. Asian women experience 2.5 times more anti-Asian violence than their male counterparts while older people of Asian descent reported being physically assaulted 1.5 times more than the overall Asian American and Pacific Islander population.

Hours before the Atlanta shootings, a 77-year-old man was violently attacked in Oakland, California, and in San Francisco a 64-year-old man was stabbed in the face and a 60-year-old man was pushed over and left partially blind. A week prior, a 75-year-old Asian man died after being robbed and assaulted in Oakland while an 83-year-old Asian woman was knocked unconscious while collecting cans in New York.

On March 1, an 18-year-old Asian woman was violently struck and choked in New York City. On March 12, a 26-year-old Asian woman was called racial slurs and sexually assaulted while waiting for a commuter train in San Jose. In September 2020, a mentally ill Asian woman was attacked and raped by a group of boys and men in Milwaukee.

Whether or not the killings in Atlanta are shown to be racially motivated, they reveal the gravity of the risk and fear people of Asian descent are facing. In addition to ensuring full and fair investigations and accountability for these crimes, local and national leaders should clearly and forcefully denounce anti-Asian racism, misogyny, and white supremacy; develop plans with Asian American and Pacific Islander and immigrant communities to confront violence; and ensure appropriate resources are available for crisis intervention, long-term safety, and healing.

Tanzania: President Magufuli’s Death Should Open New Chapter

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, March 18, 2021
Click to expand Image Tanzania's President John Magufuli leaves after inspecting a guard of honour during his official visit to Nairobi, Kenya October 31, 2016. © 2016 Reuters

Tanzania’s President John Pombe Magufuli, whose death was confirmed on March 17, 2021, leaves a legacy of repression and serious human rights abuses, Human Rights Watch said today. His death provides an opportunity for the new leadership in Tanzania to take concrete steps to reverse the country’s downward human rights trajectory and ensure accountability for past abuses.

“Over the past six years, President Magufuli oversaw abusive laws and policies that seriously undermined human rights in Tanzania,” said Otsieno Namwaya, East Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The new government now has a chance for a fresh start by ending problematic past practices.”

President Magufuli was last seen in public on February 27, and the media reported that he was seriously ill due to Covid-19-related complications that could have aggravated an existing heart condition. However, government officials insisted that he was well and threatened to arrest journalists who published news of his health. In March, police in Iringa and Dar es Salaam arrested at least four people for “distributing fabricated information” about the president’s health.

On March 17, Vice President Samia Suluhu Hassan said in a public address that Magufuli had died of a heart attack at a hospital in Dar es Salaam. The vice president is expected to assume leadership as president until 2025, when Magufuli’s term was to end.

Magufuli was first elected president of Tanzania in 2015. In October 2020, he won a second term in presidential elections marred by serious human rights abuses, including arbitrary arrests and detention of scores of opposition party leaders and supporters. In the weeks ahead of the elections, the authorities suspended television and radio stations, censored mobile phone communication, arrested activists and journalists, and blocked social media. On the eve of elections, police fired live ammunition into crowds on the semi-autonomous island archipelago of Zanzibar, killing at least three people. The authorities continued to threaten and pursue opposition leaders and supporters even after Magufuli was declared the winner of the October vote.

Since Magufuli first took office, the authorities have increasingly cracked down on the media and civil society groups by passing and enforcing restrictive laws and threatening to withdraw the registration of organizations critical of the government. The government also placed restrictions on the political opposition and gave the registrar of political parties wide discretionary powers, including to withdraw registration from parties.

In 2017, Magufuli banned pregnant girls and teenage mothers from attending school and prohibited family planning. This was followed by crackdowns on individuals and organizations seen as critical of these policies. The authorities censored and suspended newspapers and radio stations for publishing or airing material critical of Magufuli’s presidency. The government also arbitrarily arrested – and in some cases brought harassing prosecutions against – journalists, activists, and opposition politicians perceived to be government critics.

Magufuli declared Tanzania free of Covid-19 in June 2020, after which the authorities imposed new restrictions on media outlets because of their reporting on Covid-19. They fined and suspended licenses of media companies and summoned media professionals over coverage of the pandemic.

“With Magufuli’s passing, the urgent need for justice for his many victims of abuse is clearer than ever,” Namwaya said. “The new leadership should not commit another injustice against Tanzanians by allowing these abuses to go unpunished.”

Will US Repeat History by Failing Haitians Again?

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, March 18, 2021
Click to expand Image A migrant from Haiti wearing a mask in the colors of the Mexican and US flags stands at a border crossing waiting to apply for asylum in the US, February 19, 2021.  © 2021 Jair Cabrera Torres/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

In 1993, when I was a junior staff member at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, I saw first-hand the tragic repercussions of US President Bill Clinton’s failure to follow through on the promise he made as a candidate to end summary expulsions to Haiti and provide temporary refuge to Haitians fleeing political unrest. The subsequent unraveling of the human rights situation in Haiti was terrible to watch, eventually prompting an intervention of the country by a multinational force led by the United States.

The administration of now-President Joe Biden and the US Congress should avoid repeating history. Human Rights Watch’s recent assessment of Haiti concluded that the country was “facing one of its worst outbreaks of violence since 1986” and was failing “to meet the basic needs of its people, resolve long-standing human rights problems, and address humanitarian crises.”  US Department of Homeland Security officials are warning “that Haitians removed to Haiti may face harm upon return.” But instead of ending expulsions to the country during the Covid-19 pandemic, the Biden administration has sent 21 planes of people being expelled or deported to Haiti since February 1.

While the long-term solution for Haiti requires addressing the underlying human rights and humanitarian situation in the country, there are two urgent actions the US should take to protect basic rights in Haiti and beyond. The first is to immediately end summary expulsions from the US, including those to Haiti, to protect people from return to a place where they face serious risk of harm. The Biden administration should stand by this principle by immediately ending sweeping border expulsions erroneously justified as public health measures.

The US should also use executive and legislative power to protect the ties to home and family of Haitians living in the United States. Haitians who under previous grants of temporary protected status (TPS), have established lives and families in the United States should have access to a legalization program such as the one proposed in the American Dream and Promise Act, which may be voted on in the House of Representatives this week. In the short term, the most practical way to protect these peoples’ human rights is for the Biden administration to re-designate Haiti for TPS.

Taken in tandem, these steps would allow Haitians living with TPS, and people seeking protection, a consistent rights-respecting response and avoid a repeat of past mistakes.

UN Security Council Urges South Sudan to Establish Hybrid Court

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, March 18, 2021
Click to expand Image File photo showing a meeting of the United Nations Security Council. © 2016 Andrew Kelly/Reuters

South Sudan should heed last week’s call from the UN Security Council to establish a hybrid court with the African Union, support the protection of civilians, and cease interfering with the UN peacekeeping mission in South Sudan’s (UNMISS) monitoring of human rights abuses.

That message came last week in a resolution that renewed the mandate of UNMISS, adopted under the Security Council’s enforcement powers in Chapter VII of the UN Charter. Security Council resolutions adopted under Chapter VII are in general binding under international law, so South Sudan should expect consequences for failing to act on it.

The Security Council has further South Sudan concerns on its agenda. In the coming weeks it will discuss the crucial renewal of a UN arms embargo on South Sudan and individual sanctions on commanders responsible for grave abuses. In an atmosphere where abuses persist and obstruction of UNMISS operations is increasing, the council should not consider easing sanctions. Benchmarks for the future lifting of sanctions should be assessed against concrete and measurable improvements in the human rights and humanitarian situations.

The Security Council described several “priority measures” over the next year for the government of South Sudan. These include providing security to civilian displacement sites and ceasing “obstructions” of UNMISS’ monitoring and investigating of abuses, and immediately signing a memorandum of understanding with the AU on the Hybrid Court for South Sudan and to “start its effective establishment.”

Having dragged its heels on this for five years South Sudan’s government recently endorsed the establishment of the hybrid court and other accountability mechanisms. The council made clear the time for delay is over: the hybrid court needs to be operationalized.

Last week UNMISS released a devastating report documenting displacement, killings, abductions and sexual violence by local community-based militias, backed by political and military leaders, in Jonglei and Greater Pibor Administrative Area. These vicious cycles of violence with no accountability, have contributed to food insecurity and famine. At least 7.2 million people will face severe food insecurity by mid-2021, according to the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification report.

In the face of such abuses, justice and civilian protection are key to a better future for South Sudan.

A Boost to Same-Sex Marriage in Japan

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, March 18, 2021
Click to expand Image Lawyers and supporters hold rainbow flags and a banner outside Sapporo District Court in Sapporo, Japan, March 17, 2021.  © 2021 Yohei Fukai/Kyodo News via AP

It was quite something to see a district court judge break into tears as she read her verdict declaring the denial of marriage registration to same-sex couples in Japan unconstitutional.

It’s a significant and emotional moment in Japan for a court to affirm the dignity of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community in such clear and unambiguous terms. Declaring that laws that deprive same-sex couples of the legal benefits of marriage constituted “discriminatory treatment without a rational basis” is a groundbreaking ruling in the long-fought battle for marriage equality. But it is also reflects the urgent need for the Japanese national government to catch up with its citizens’ opinions and other rights-respecting countries.

Public support for LGBT equality has surged in Japan in recent years. This includes the broad public outcry when the media has mocked gay and transgender people. A 2020 nationwide public opinion survey found that 88 percent “agree or somewhat agree” with the “introduction of laws or ordinances that ban bullying and discrimination (in relation to sexual minorities),” and nearly 80 percent support same-sex marriage rights. Dozens of prefecture and municipal governments have passed ordinances recognizing same-sex relationships with certificates. But these unofficial documents are not legally binding. Hundreds of domestic and international advocacy groups have written to the prime minister this year encouraging increased protections for LGBT people.

Although Japan has increasingly taken a leadership role at the United Nations by voting for both the 2011 and 2014 Human Rights Council resolutions calling for an end to violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, LGBT people in Japan continue to face intense social pressure, and have fewer legal protections than their peers abroad. Japan remains the only G7 country that does not recognize same-sex relationships.

More verdicts are expected in similar cases, but Japan’s Supreme Court will eventually decide whether the Diet needs to amend the law to recognize same-sex relationships or not. This will be several years away, but today’s ruling will boost the already-supportive Japanese public opinion on marriage equality, which will in turn make it harder for the Supreme Court to neglect.

Indonesia: Dress Codes Discriminate Against Women, Girls

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, March 18, 2021

(Jakarta) – Dress codes for women and girls in Indonesia discriminate against students, civil servants, and visitors to government offices and should be revoked, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The government should fully enforce a February 2021 decree that bans abusive dress codes for female students and teachers in Indonesia’s state schools, and take additional legal steps to end discrimination against women and girls.

The 98-page report, “‘I Wanted to Run Away’: Abusive Dress Codes for Women and Girls in Indonesia,” documents government regulations that require girls and women to wear the jilbab, Muslim apparel that covers the head, neck, and chest. Human Rights Watch describes the historical imposition of discriminatory regulations on clothing, and the widespread bullying to wear a jilbab that causes women and girls psychological distress. Girls who don’t comply have been forced to leave school or have withdrawn under pressure, while female civil servants have lost their jobs or resigned to escape constant demands to conform.

“Indonesian regulations and policies have long forced discriminatory dress codes on women and girls in schools and government offices that violate their right to freedom from coercion to adopt a religious belief,” said Elaine Pearson, Australia director at Human Rights Watch. “Indonesia’s national, provincial, and local governments should immediately end these discriminatory practices and let women and girls wear what they choose without sacrificing their right to education or work.”

After a complaint from the father of a secondary school student in Padang, West Sumatra, went viral on social media, Education and Culture Minister Nadiem Makarim, Home Affairs Minister Tito Karnavian, and Religious Affairs Minister Yaqut Cholil Qoumas signed a decree on February 3 that allows any student or teacher to choose what to wear in school, with or without “religious attributes.” Makarim said that state schools had “misinterpreted” a 2014 regulation on uniforms. Qoumas said that the Padang case was just “the tip of the iceberg,” and that the mandatory jilbab regulation has been used “to discriminate, to intimidate and to pressure schoolgirls.”

Human Rights Watch documented many cases in which Christian and other non-Muslim students and teachers were also forced to wear the jilbab, which is usually combined with a long skirt and a long sleeve shirt. In English, the head covering is better known as a hijab.

Since 2001, local authorities have issued more than 60 local and provincial ordinances to enforce what they claimed to be “Islamic clothing for Muslim girls and women.” Most of Indonesia’s almost 300,000 state schools (sekolah negeri), particularly in the 24 Muslim-majority provinces, require Muslim girls to wear the jilbab beginning in primary school.

“Whenever it is religion class, and whenever her teacher runs into her, he would ask why she’s not in jilbab,” a mother of a high school student in Yogyakarta told Human Rights Watch. “He would even ask, ‘Will you wear it tomorrow?’ My daughter would just say ‘Yes, okay.’ But as soon as she comes home, she shares with me her discomfort, ‘Why are they like that, Mom?’”

In 2014, the Ministry of Education and Culture issued a national state school uniform in which a drawing depicts “Muslim clothing” with a long skirt, a long sleeve shirt, and a jilbab, suggesting it was the only option for Muslim girls. This prompted provincial and local education offices to introduce new rules, which in turn induced thousands of state schools, from primary to high school, to rewrite their school uniform policies to require the jilbab for Muslim girls.

Mohammad Nuh, the education minister who signed the 2014 regulation, told Human Rights Watch in an interview for the report that the regulation provides two uniform choices: a long sleeve shirt, long skirt, and jilbab; or the uniform without the jilbab. He said, “I wrote that regulation. But it is not mandatory.” He stressed that any Muslim girl should be able to choose whether to wear a jilbab. Yet even when school officials have acknowledged that the national regulation does not legally require a jilbab, the existence of the regulation has allowed schools to pressure girls to wear one.

Under the new decree, local governments and school principals were required to revoke any mandatory jilbab regulations by March 5, and sanctions were to be imposed on any local government head or school principal who does not comply as of March 25. The education minister can withhold education funds to schools that ignore the decree.

The decree covers only state schools that are under the management of local governments and the Education and Culture Ministry. It does not affect Islamic state schools and universities under the Religious Affairs Ministry. It also excludes Aceh province, which under a special arrangement has greater autonomy than other provinces and is the only province that officially follows a version of Sharia, or Islamic law.

An appendix to the report sets out mandatory religious dress code rules in Chechnya in Russia, France, Germany, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syrian areas under the Islamic State (ISIS), Turkey, and Xinjiang in China.

International human rights law guarantees the rights to freely manifest one’s religious beliefs, to freedom of expression, and to education without discrimination. Women are entitled to the same rights as men, including the right to wear what they choose. Any limitations on these rights must be for a legitimate aim and applied in a nonarbitrary and nondiscriminatory manner. Mandatory jilbab rules, including those in Aceh, also undermine the right of girls and women to be free “from discriminatory treatment based upon any grounds whatsoever” under Indonesia’s Constitution.

“Indonesia’s clothing regulations are part of a broader attack by conservative religious forces on gender equality and the ability of women and girls to exercise their rights to an education, a livelihood, and social benefits,” Pearson said. “The Jokowi administration should enforce the new decree banning mandatory wearing of the jilbab, and then go further by ending all regulations that discriminate on the basis of gender at school or the workplace.”

Liberia Misleads on Justice at UN Rights Review

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, March 17, 2021
Click to expand Image File photo depicting the 36th Session of the Human Rights Council at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, November 2017.  © 2017 Reuters

Liberia’s justice minister, Frank Musa, gave a misleading statement at the United Nations Human Rights Council on March 17 regarding the government’s purported efforts to ensure much-needed justice for widespread atrocity crimes committed during the country’s back-to-back civil wars between 1989 and 2003.

Speaking during the adoption of the outcome of Liberia’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR), Musa claimed Liberia is engaged in national and regional consultations around accountability for serious crimes.

The last such consultation we are aware of, however, took place in 2019. As a coalition of Liberian and international nongovernmental organizations highlighted in a statement on the UPR outcome, the government has been essentially silent since then, while activists and witnesses of alleged crimes have faced increased threats.

In any event, the path forward should be clear without additional consultations. Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommended the creation of a war crimes court over a decade ago. International law requires states to prosecute serious crimes, such as war crimes, which helps ensure victims’ rights to truth, justice, and an effective remedy, while combating impunity. In addition, victims, activists, community leaders, politicians, and members of the general public in Liberia have backed a war crimes court, even marching in the streets to show their support.

Even as President George Weah dithers on a court, accountability for atrocities in Liberia has taken major strides outside the country. Switzerland began the first prosecution of war crimes committed during Liberia’s first civil war in December. The trial of Alieu Kosiah, also a landmark for Switzerland, concluded in early March and a verdict is expected in the coming months. In February, Gibril Massaquoi went on trial in Finland for alleged crimes committed during Liberia’s second civil war. The Finnish court is even holding some hearings in Liberia, marking the first proceedings on such crimes in the country.

Liberia has the potential to be a leader on accountability for atrocities by establishing a war crimes court in accordance with international standards. Instead, the government is leaving other countries in the driver’s seat. Victims deserve more than officials mischaracterizing old events as new progress and should instead see President Weah’s government unequivocally back a war crimes court and request UN assistance to do so.

Families of Victims Need Access to Cameroon Massacre Trial

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, March 17, 2021
Click to expand Image Memorial ceremony held on February 21, 2020 at the Saint Theresia Cathedral l in Kumbo, North-West region, Cameroon, for victims of the Ngarbuh massacre.  © 2020 Private

The trial of three members of security forces accused of involvement in the killings of 21 civilians in Ngarbuh, in Cameroon’s North-West region, is due to resume tomorrow.

The trial, which began on December 17, 2020, and adjourned twice, takes place before the military court in the capital, Yaoundé, about 380 kilometers from Ngarbuh, making it difficult for family members of victims to attend. Family members’ lawyers are concerned about how challenging it is for their clients to participate in the trial, as is their right as civil parties in the case under Cameroon law. They would prefer the trial be held at the military court in Bamenda, closer to Ngarbuh.

“Our clients don’t have the financial means to travel to Yaoundé,” Richard Tamfu, one of the lawyers, told Human Rights Watch. “The court sitting in Bamenda would fit with the key principle of meaningful access to justice, bringing it closer to the victims.”

The attack on the village of Ngarbuh on February 14, 2020, was one of the worst by Cameroonian army soldiers since the crisis in the Anglophone regions began in late 2016. Soldiers killed 21 civilians, including 13 children and a pregnant woman, and burned 5 homes in a reprisal attack aimed at punishing residents suspected of harboring separatist fighters. Two soldiers and a gendarme have been arrested in connection with the massacre and charged with murder, arson, destruction, violence against a pregnant woman, and disobeying orders. Seventeen members of a vigilante group and a former separatist fighter have also been charged but remain at large.

On February 3, some families of the Ngarbuh victims received food items and 5 million CFA (US $9,000) each as compensation for the destruction of their property from the Governor of the North-West region, on behalf of President Paul Biya, a move criticized by lawyers representing the families who said it is up to the court to decide on reparations.

The participation of victims of gross human rights violations in criminal proceedings is an essential way of giving them a voice. Cameroonian authorities, with the support of international partners, if necessary, should ensure that the victims’ families can attend and participate in the trial so that their rights to justice and reparations are upheld.