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Greece Again Extends Covid-19 Lockdown at Refugee Camps

Human Rights Watch - Friday, June 12, 2020

For many in Greece, life has returned to normal after the government last month lifted lockdown restrictions aimed at preventing the spread of Covid-19. The country is gradually opening to tourism, and bars, restaurants, and beaches are filled with people.

But the government is continuing restrictions on thousands of migrants and asylum seekers living in camps on the Aegean Islands and the mainland. Lockdown measures for these facilities were supposed to end on June 7, but the government extended them until June 21, citing public interest in taking measures to “limit the spread of Covid-19 in areas of overcrowding…”.

While restrictions on freedom of movement to protect public health can be necessary and justified, they must be based on scientific evidence, neither arbitrary nor discriminatory in their application, of limited duration, respectful of human dignity, and subject to review.

The camp lockdowns do not meet these criteria. There have been no Covid-19 cases reported in the islands’ camps. And those on the mainland haven’t recorded any cases since April. Yet despite insufficient evidence to justify stronger restrictions in the camps than elsewhere in the country, these discriminatory lockdowns continue for all of them. In fact, even with financial support from the European Commission, Greek authorities have done little to protect camp residents from Covid-19 or mitigate the risk of infection in the facilities. They haven’t addressed the overcrowding that makes social distancing impossible, the lack of health care, or lack of access to adequate water, sanitation, and hygiene products.

Since mid-April, authorities have transferred over 3,000 people from the island camps to the mainland, progress but not near enough to relieve severe overcrowding. As of June 9, 31,203 people still lived in the camps on the Aegean islands, with a capacity for 6,095.

Additionally, since late March, authorities have arbitrarily detained newly arrived migrants and asylum seekers on the mainland – including children, persons with disabilities, older people, and pregnant women – and kept them locked in cramped, unsanitary, and unhygienic conditions in reception centers, without evidence any of them had contracted the coronavirus.

The Greek government should stop using Covid-19 as an excuse to force people to live in segregated, overcrowded, and unsanitary conditions. Instead, it should immediately lift discriminatory and unjustified restrictions on migrants’ freedom of movement, protect their health, provide timely and fair examination of asylum claims, and massively and humanely reduce the overcrowding that has been a problem for years.

Covid-19 Pandemic Threatens Progress on Child Labor

Human Rights Watch - Friday, June 12, 2020
Click to expand Image A young girl ties tobacco leaves onto sticks to prepare them for curing in East Lombok, West Nusa Tenggara. © 2015 Marcus Bleasdale for Human Rights Watch

The number of children involved in child labor worldwide has dropped dramatically over the past two decades, falling by nearly 40 percent. Tens of millions of children have transitioned from work into school, helping to break cycles of poverty and ensure brighter futures.

But this remarkable trend is in grave jeopardy due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

This year’s World Day against Child Labor, celebrated every June 12, is occurring during widespread lockdowns and school closures, massive job and income losses, and a global economic crisis. Each of these elements heightens the risk that child labor rates will grow and more children will engage in work that is often grueling and dangerous.

Research shows children out of school are far more likely to join the workforce, and the longer they stay out of school, the less likely they are to return. Child labor is also closely linked to financial shocks experienced by individual families. As parents lose their jobs, fall sick, or die, children will go to work to try to meet their basic needs. Covid-19-related emergency measures may also mean that labor inspectors, civil society organizations, and social workers are less likely to detect child labor and intervene. 

Reversing the progress of the past is not inevitable, however. Smart policy choices by governments can protect children from child labor. Some of the most important interventions include:

  • Providing financial assistance for families hit hardest by the crisis, to help them meet basic needs without resorting to child labor;
  • Supporting decent employment for adults, including a living wage, sick leave, and unemployment insurance, and protecting the right to freedom of association so unions can mobilize for better working conditions;
  • Ensuring primary and secondary schools are truly free, removing financial barriers to attending, and ensuring plans to reopen schools, including outreach to marginalized children;
  • Finding innovative ways to monitor child labor, including remote reporting, to hold employers accountable.

Even before the pandemic, 152 million children were engaged in child labor. Under the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, governments set a goal of ending child labor by 2025. Meeting that goal seems increasingly unlikely, but in the short term, governments should do all they can to ensure the numbers do not grow.

US Sets Sanctions Against International Criminal Court

Human Rights Watch - Friday, June 12, 2020
Click to expand Image Illustration of the scales of justice replaced by two people shackled by their wrists and dangling in the air. © 2015 Brian Stauffer for Human Rights Watch

(Washington, DC) – The Trump administration’s announced action against the International Criminal Court (ICC) escalates its efforts to thwart justice for victims of serious crimes, Human Rights Watch said today. On June 11, 2020, President Donald Trump issued an executive order that authorizes asset freezes and family travel bans against ICC officials and potentially targets others who assist ICC investigations.

The Trump administration has repeatedly threatened to block ICC investigations in Afghanistan and Palestine that could probe conduct by US and Israeli nationals. The US revoked the ICC prosecutor’s visa in 2019 in retaliation for what was then a potential investigation in Afghanistan. On May 15, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo vowed to “exact consequences” if the ICC “continues down its current course” – that is, if the court moves forward with a Palestine investigation. The sanctions can be applied on a “case-by-case basis” in relation to ICC investigations of US personnel or personnel of US allies.

“Asset freezes and travel bans are for human rights violators, not those seeking to bring rights violators to justice,” said Richard Dicker, international justice director at Human Rights Watch. “By targeting the ICC, the Trump administration continues its assault on the global rule of law, putting the US on the side of those who commit and cover up grave abuses, not those who prosecute them.”

The ICC is the permanent international court created to try people accused of genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and the crime of aggression. Following the horrors of the genocides in the mid-1990s in Rwanda and in the former Yugoslavia, the international community created the ICC to prevent those responsible for serious crimes, including senior officials, from evading justice. The court has opened investigations in 12 countries. The June 9 surrender to the ICC of Ali Kosheib, a leader of the notorious “Janjaweed” militia who is accused of rapes and attacking and killing civilians in Darfur, after 13 years as a fugitive, is a powerful affirmation of the court’s role, Human Rights Watch said.

The ICC has an open investigation into the grave crimes committed during the Afghanistan conflict. The investigation could include serious abuses by the Taliban and Afghan national forces. Afghan government forces have committed summary executions, forced disappearances, and systematic torture. The Taliban has carried out numerous suicide and other deliberate attacks on civilians, including judges, legislators, community elders, and journalists. The investigation could also include serious abuses by the US military and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) personnel.

The ICC is a court of last resort, stepping in only if national authorities do not conduct genuine domestic proceedings. The US has conducted some limited investigations into alleged abuses by US personnel in Afghanistan. But senior-level civilian and military officials who could bear responsibility for authorizing these abuses, or failing to punish them, have not been held to account before US courts. Impunity for abuses by US forces has left a devastating legacy in Afghanistan. And CIA-backed Afghan strike forces continue to commit serious abuses there, some amounting to war crimes. Their presence, alongside Afghan forces accused of killing civilians during night raids, forcibly disappearing detainees, and attacking healthcare facilities, demonstrates the long-term consequences of impunity for serious crimes.

ICC officials are considering a number of key issues. In December, the ICC prosecutor concluded a preliminary inquiry into the situation in Palestine, determining that all the necessary criteria to proceed with a formal investigation of alleged serious crimes by Israelis and Palestinians had been met. The crimes could include the establishment of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, since international humanitarian law prohibits the transfer of civilians into occupied territory, and alleged war crimes by the Israeli military and Palestinian armed groups during the 2014 hostilities in Gaza. At the same time, her office sought a ruling from the court’s judges to confirm the scope of its mandate, and a decision is pending. Human Rights Watch has repeatedly urged the ICC prosecutor to open an investigation into the Palestine situation.

The authorities in Afghanistan have asked the ICC prosecutor to defer her investigation, alleging that they can conduct credible national proceedings. Given the repeated failures of the Afghan authorities to hold those responsible for serious abuses to account, it would be very difficult for Kabul to demonstrate that it is conducting meaningful investigations and trials, Human Rights Watch said.

“It’s a bitter irony that even as the US seeks a peace deal in Afghanistan, it retaliates against those seeking justice for the horrific crimes in that conflict,” Dicker said. “In Afghanistan and in Palestine, the ICC could play a valuable role in curbing impunity that has fueled abuses for decades.”

The US, which is not a party to the court’s Rome Statute, objects to the ICC’s jurisdiction over nationals of non-member countries, absent a referral to the court by the United Nations Security Council. Afghanistan, however, is an ICC member country, giving the court authority to investigate and prosecute crimes committed by anyone – regardless of nationality – on Afghan territory. The court’s authority is nothing unusual. US and other citizens who commit crimes abroad are already subject to the jurisdiction of foreign courts.  

On January 2, 2015, Palestinian authorities transmitted a copy of Palestine’s ICC accession instrument to the United Nations Secretariat. The ICC treaty officially went into effect for Palestine on April 1, 2015, giving the court jurisdiction over serious crimes in violation of international law, including war crimes and crimes against humanity committed on or from Palestinian territory. Israel is also not a member of the ICC.

The ICC’s 123 member countries have repeatedly confirmed that they are “undeterred by any threats against the [c]ourt, its officials, and those cooperating with it,” and will “stand united against impunity.” It is essential for member countries to speak out to make clear that they remain strong in their support and will work together to resist US attempts to block justice, Human Rights Watch said.

“The ICC certainly has its limits, but it embodies the expectation that those who commit serious crimes will be held to account at fair trials,” Dicker said. “In the face of shameless US efforts to block justice, the court’s member countries need to step up and defend it.”  

Tech Companies Should Stand Up to China’s Bullying

Human Rights Watch - Friday, June 12, 2020
Click to expand Image Signage at the headquarters of videoconferencing, remote work, and webinar technology company Zoom (ZM) in the Silicon Valley, San Jose, California, March 28, 2020.  © 2020 Photo by Smith Collection/Gado/Sipa USA

Global tech giants censoring on behalf of the Chinese government for the China market is not news, but Zoom has taken appeasement to the next level by directly censoring users outside of China on the government’s behalf. This should serve as a wake-up call to tech companies that keep acceding to Beijing’s censorship demands.  

On June 7, Zoom shut down a US-based Chinese dissident’s account after he held a Tiananmen Massacre memorial that was joined by China-based activists and families of victims of the 1989 massacre. Zoom later reactivated the account and said that the suspension was to “comply with local law.”

It is unclear what Chinese “law” Zoom is referring to that would compel Zoom to censor users outside of China. Besides, freedom of speech is guaranteed in the Chinese constitution and there is no law banning people from attending a vigil to commemorate the Tiananmen Massacre.

“Complying with local laws” has been repeatedly cited as the reason by international companies when they relent to political pressure from Beijing. Apple said it was “complying with local laws” when it removed hundreds of virtual private network (VPN) apps from China’s App Store. LinkedIn said the same when it blocked content critical of the Chinese government.

Laws in China are often abusive and don’t comply with international human rights standards. Yet tech companies have a responsibility to respect human rights. Yahoo’s reputation remains tarnished two decades after it handed over the email records of two journalists to Chinese authorities, which resulted in the pair being sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Beijing’s fit of rage last year with the National Basketball Association after the general manager of the Houston Rockets posted a tweet supporting the Hong Kong protests shows that any criticism – even outside of China – can put even major companies’ holdings there in jeopardy. Tech companies can never be sure that they won’t land themselves in the same predicament no matter how hard they try to stay in the Chinese Communist Party’s good graces. Without the rule of law and the protection of basic rights, everyone and every business live in fear of the Party’s wrath.

Tech companies should stand together to resist Beijing’s censorship demands and uphold the right to freedom of expression. Otherwise, the groveling will never end.

Can Multiple Husbands Solve China’s Gender Imbalance?

Human Rights Watch - Friday, June 12, 2020
Click to expand Image © 2019 Brian Stauffer for Human Rights Watch

This week an economics professor at Shanghai’s Fudan University offered up a novel proposal to solve China’s very serious gender imbalance: polyandry – women having multiple husbands.

It’s an interesting idea, but we don’t think polyandry would necessarily be great for women. More husbands could mean more work – especially since globally, women do two-and-a-half times as much unpaid care and domestic work as men.

But China’s gender imbalance is a serious problem. The country has 30 to 40 million “missing women,” a situation caused by gender inequality and a preference for boys and exacerbated by the “one-child policy” in place from 1979 to 2015 and ongoing restrictions on women’s reproductive rights. This gender gap has made it difficult for many Chinese men to find wives.

It has also fueled a demand for trafficked women from abroad. Human Rights Watch documented bride trafficking in Myanmar, where each year hundreds of women and girls are deceived through false promises of employment into traveling to China, only to be sold to Chinese families as brides for about US$3,000 to $13,000 and held in sexual slavery, often for years. Most were pressured to become pregnant as quickly as possible; some were compelled to undergo forced fertility treatment. Those who had children and were lucky enough to escape could usually only do so by leaving their children behind. Several of the women we interviewed had been trafficked more than once. This type of bride trafficking to China has spread across Asia, with cases documented in at least eight countries.

Fortunately, there are real solutions to China’s gender imbalance that could both work and respect rights. Try combating deeply entrenched state and societal discrimination against women. Try ending government harassment of women’s rights activists and government censorship of their calls for gender equality. Try equality in the workplace, including equal parental leave for women and men and an expectation that both take it. And try remembering that women are in charge of their own bodies.

Chinese netizens furiously pushed back against the polyandry proposal, suggesting they want serious change. If only the Chinese government would listen.

Pompeo Channels US Hypocrisy Over Human Rights

Human Rights Watch - Friday, June 12, 2020
Click to expand Image US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at a news conference at the State Department in Washington, April 29, 2020. © 2020 AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, Pool

Comments this week by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo show little recognition that United States human rights violations in its own backyard have implications for its foreign policy.

While all US administrations have downplayed US violations of human rights, the Trump administration seems to have raised hypocritical invocation of human rights in US foreign policy to a new level.

At a June 10 press conference, a reporter challenged Pompeo to explain US credibility on human rights at a time when US citizens protesting against racism were being met with excessive force by federal and local law officers.

Pompeo responded that the reporter’s question was fundamentally flawed for “assuming there is a moral equivalency” between authoritarian countries that “repress their people and bludgeon their people” and a country like the US where journalists were able to directly question the Secretary of State about government actions. “Those things don’t happen in those nations,” he said.

But violations of human rights are violations of human rights, whether they occur in an authoritarian regime or in a democracy. The nationwide protests in the wake of the May 25 police killing of George Floyd are not just about local and federal law enforcement using excessive force against Black people and largely peaceful protesters. They reflect an ongoing history of violations of Black people’s fundamental rights, underlying structural racism, and the lack of redress for the harm suffered.

It’s no excuse to say that the right to protest and express oneself is more explicitly protected in US law than in other countries. International human rights law places obligations on the United States that are not dismissed by the situations in other countries. 

The Trump administration has repeatedly invoked human rights only when it is convenient and with its own interpretation. US human rights rhetoric has always been greater than the reality of its foreign policy, which has included support for deeply abusive governments, but past administrations have also often invoked human rights to play a constructive role around the world. The credibility of the United States to do so will only suffer from Pompeo’s emphatic insistence on US exceptionalism.   

US Study Suggests Hurricanes May Trigger Early Births

Human Rights Watch - Friday, June 12, 2020
Click to expand Image A pregnant woman carries empty plastic bottles to collect water a day after the impact of Hurricane Maria, in Yabucoa, Puerto Rico, Thursday, September 21, 2017. © 2019 AP Photo/Carlos Giusti

A new study of almost 20 million births in the eastern United States suggests a pregnant person’s exposure to hurricanes may be associated with higher chances of a preterm birth. The report suggests severe storms could trigger early births because of stress, disruption of health services, or even mold.

As extreme weather events intensify in the US, this research points to one more way climate change may worsen already existing racial, ethnic, and income disparities in pregnancy outcomes. According to the study, the association between hurricanes and preterm birth was higher in socially vulnerable counties. This vulnerability was calculated using socio-economic and minority population data as well as other factors.

Because of the climate crisis, hurricanes are becoming stronger and more destructive. The eastern seaboard of the US faces another higher than average hurricane season this year, with experts predicting three to six major hurricanes in the Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, and Caribbean Sea.

The new research makes the impact of these storms on pregnant people or people who have just given birth more visible. In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, we found that most lacked proper access to prenatal care, information about emergency delivery services, breastfeeding support, or healthy food suitable for pregnant or lactating people.

But the study highlights a worrying trend in the US, where preterm birth is already on the rise and there exists inequitable access to the health care and environment conducive to a healthy pregnancy. Rates of preterm birth are far higher for Black and Native American women than white women. Preterm birth and low birth weight are the main causes of Black infant mortality in the US, but even late preterm birth is linked to lifelong health problems.

Many factors can contribute to preterm birth. In the US, Black mothers bear a disproportionate burden of health conditions linked to preterm birth, like diabetes and dealing with stresses like racism. Increased heat from climate change and air pollution are both also linked to higher rates of preterm birth. Like hurricanes, these do not affect everyone equally.

As the NAACP has noted, “disasters tend to devastate along the lines of existing inequalities.” We need a response to increasing disasters that involves the most affected in planning for storms, and that includes information outreach on health services in disasters. This should prioritize pregnant people, mothers – particularly those of color – and reproductive justice groups with strong community links.