Burma: Landmines Deadly for Fleeing Rohingya

Burma: Landmines Deadly for Fleeing Rohingya


A Rohingya woman travels to a hospital near Kutupalong, Bangladesh, after a landmine blew off her right leg while she was crossing the border from Burma, September 4, 2017.

© 2017 Bernat Armangue/AP Photo

(New York) – Burmese security forces have laid landmines during attacks on villages and along the Bangladesh border, posing a grave risk to Rohingya Muslims fleeing atrocities, Human Rights Watch said today. The Burmese government should immediately stop using antipersonnel landmines and join the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty.

“The dangers faced by thousands of Rohingya fleeing atrocities in Burma are deadly enough without adding landmines to the mix,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director. “The Burmese military needs to stop using these banned weapons, which kill and maim without distinction.”

According to witness accounts, independent reporting, and photo and video recordings, Burmese soldiers have in recent weeks laid antipersonnel landmines at key crossing points on Burma’s border with Bangladesh. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that Burmese military personnel also planted mines on roads inside northern Rakhine State prior to their attacks on predominantly Rohingya villages. The Burmese government has accused the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) of using improvised explosive devices (IEDs) against infrastructure and security forces.

Placing landmines in the path of fleeing refugees and on roads where families are likely to travel is heartless beyond words.

Meenakshi Ganguly

South Asia Director

Two Rohingya refugees from inner areas of Rakhine State, one from Buthidaung and another from Rathedaung township, told Human Rights Watch they saw the Burmese military laying antipersonnel mines on roads as the military entered and attacked villagers. “Mohammad,” 39, said he saw a neighbor’s son step on one of the mines laid by the military. The mine blew his right leg off.

On September 4, 2017, a landmine detonated on a path used by many refugees near the hamlets of Taung Pyo Let Yar, about 200 meters from the Bangladesh border. Human Rights Watch witnessed smoke arising from the hamlets, suggesting burning by the military that caused villagers to flee. The next day, three Rohingya men were wounded in three separate landmine explosions near the same border point.

Two Rohingya refugees told Human Rights Watch that men in apparent Burmese military uniforms were seen in the northern part of Taung Pyo Let Yar performing some activity on the ground prior to the September 4 explosions. One described watching a Burmese military patrol on the road near the border on the morning of September 4. From a vantage point in so-called no-man’s land, he observed several soldiers from the patrol stop at least twice, kneel down on the ground, dig into the ground with a knife, and place a dark item into the earth.

Since late August, Burmese security forces, following a coordinated attack by ARSA militants, have carried out a campaign of ethnic cleansing involving mass arson, killing, and other abuses against the Rohingya population, causing the flight of more than 420,000 people to neighboring Bangladesh.

Human Rights Watch has called on members of the United Nations Security Council to hold a public meeting and adopt a resolution that condemns the Burmese military’s ethnic cleansing campaign and threatens to impose further measures, including targeted sanctions on military leaders and an arms embargo.

In April 2017, news media reported that the Burmese and Bangladeshi governments agreed to remove landmines and IEDs from the border area. On September 6, the Bangladesh government protested the recent use of landmines on the border by Burmese security forces. In her September 21 address to the UN General Assembly in New York, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina accused Burma of laying landmines along the border to prevent Rohingya from fleeing the violence. According to Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) officials, at least five people have been killed and 12 injured from landmine blasts.

The Landmine Monitor reported that Burmese security forces have consistently used antipersonnel mines in numerous locations along the Bangladesh-Burma border since 1999, but this use had been abating in recent years. In September 2016, Deputy Minister of Defense Maj. Gen. Myint Nwe informed parliament that the army continues to use landmines in fighting with ethnic minority armed groups.

The use of antipersonnel landmines is banned by the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty. Bangladesh is a party to the treaty and destroyed its landmine stocks in accordance with its treaty obligations. Although Burma is not a party to the treaty, these weapons are unlawful because they cannot discriminate between civilians and combatants, and will kill and maim civilians long after they are placed. The Burmese government has not substantively responded to the allegations, but Zaw Htay, spokesman for de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, suggested that Rohingya militants might be responsible. Rakhine State Security and Border Affairs Minister Col. Phone Tint denied allegations that government forces were laying landmines, and blamed ARSA: “There’s no landmine planted by the military in the area. The terrorists planted the landmines. The military will never do that.”

In a February 2011 statement on the landmine ban, Aung San Suu Kyi told the International Campaign to Ban Landmines:

I believe everyone is aware that landmines should not be used in Myanmar, considering the serious effects that they have not only on troops in combat, but also on non-combatant civilians who are tending to their daily survival and livelihood – mothers, fathers, and their children. In order to prevent this the Tat Ma Daw [Burmese armed forces], as well as soldiers in combat – meaning all parties engaged in armed conflict – must make their decision to cease the way of mines.

“Placing landmines in the path of fleeing refugees and on roads where families are likely to travel is heartless beyond words,” Ganguly said. “The Burmese government should immediately end its ethnic cleansing campaign against the Rohingya population, including by immediately clearing landmines in northern Rakhine State.”

Human Rights Watch is a co-founder and chair of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, which received the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts to bring about the Mine Ban Treaty and its contributions to a new international diplomacy based on humanitarian imperatives.

Rohingya Crisis

Rohingya Crisis

Human Rights Watch reporting from the ground on the Burmese military’s ongoing campaign of ethnic cleansing.

Recent Cases of Landmine Use in Rakhine State

Sabikam Nahor, approximately 45, lost both of her legs below the knees after stepping on an antipersonnel landmine laid inside Burma near the Bangladesh border. She told Human Rights Watch that the incident occurred on the afternoon of September 4, 2017, after the Burmese military attacked her village, in the northern part of Taung Pyo Let Yar. Nahor said that she was in an outdoor latrine when she heard the shooting and ran toward the Bangladesh border nearby. She said that she had used the same path on many occasions before when she would go to markets across the border. Nahor said she was running when there was a sudden explosion as she stepped on the ground. She fell and, from the ground, saw one of her legs detached from her body. Several Rohingya picked her up and took her across the border, and from there she was transported to a hospital.

Subir Ahmed, 55, said that on August 28, his son, Azizul Huq, 15, stepped on a landmine and was killed within 60 meters of the Bangladesh border. Subir said that his son and his brother were separated from the family on August 25, after at least 30 Burmese soldiers arrived in their home of Taung Pyo Let Yar and opened fire on villagers who had just finished morning prayers. While waiting for his son at the border at Thiang Khali in Bangladesh, Subir heard a loud blast and then saw Azizul Huq lying on the ground near his brother. Subir rushed to where his son was lying on the ground and picked him up, leaving the remains of the boy’s shattered legs behind. Subir Ahmed noted that at least once a year, he had traveled on the same path to transport fish to markets in Bangladesh.

Mohammad said that the son of his neighbor, Noor Islam, was a victim of antipersonnel mines on August 29 at about midday in Buthidaung township. He said they were not aware that mines were in the area. “I saw his right leg was gone,” Mohammad said. “I saw the mines explode with my own eyes on the road.” Mohammad said he had traveled on the same road the day before the fighting broke out, and that at that time it was safe.

Military Placing of Landmines

The refugee who witnessed soldiers digging in the northern part of Taung Pyo Let Yar which borders Bangladesh said that he continued to monitor the activities of the military patrol, and went to several sites where he observed similar activities. He said that from September 4 to 10 he removed several antipersonnel mines from the ground, and used rocks to detonate another three mines.

A landmine is seen near the Bangladesh-Burma border, September 10, 2017.


A landmine is seen near the Bangladesh-Burma border, September 10, 2017. 

© 2017 Private

Senior Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) officers said that they observed similar activities by Burmese soldiers over several days before September 4. They alleged that Burmese officials acted contrary to border agreements and protocols by failing to notify their Bangladeshi counterparts in advance of entering the border area.

Refugees also described seeing landmines on other paths in no-man’s land. Human Rights Watch obtained images of emplaced PMN-1 type antipersonnel blast mines along the fence on the Burma side of the border. From the images alone, Human Rights Watch was not able to determine the origins of these PMN-1 type mines, particularly whether they were copies of the Soviet design produced by China (Type 58) or by Burma (MM-2).

In addition to mine-laying on the border, Human Rights Watch received credible accounts from two Rohingya who described the use of antipersonnel landmines on roads in Buthidaung township after August 25, just before the military started attacking villages, hindering flight from the villages.

“Rohim,” 52, described soldiers arriving by foot and in trucks to Chut Pyin, Rathedaung, in the early morning of August 25. He said that the soldiers were working in teams and placed landmines on the road outside his large, mud-walled house. “When they are coming, some are in four-man teams, some in 10-man teams, and some were sitting, digging, and putting mines in the roads,” said Rohim. He said they only laid mines in the roads, which prevented villagers from using the roads as they fled heavy gunfire and other attacks by the military.

Mohammad said that in addition to attacking his village with gunfire and other explosive weapons on the night of August 26, the military emplaced antipersonnel mines on the road in Taung Bazar, Buthidaung. He said that mines were placed near the hospital. 

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‘Safe Zones’ for Rohingya Refugees in Burma Could Be Dangerous

‘Safe Zones’ for Rohingya Refugees in Burma Could Be Dangerous

When Bangladesh’s prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, spoke at the United Nations General Assembly this week, she focused on the humanitarian challenges of hosting 400,000 Rohingya Muslims from northern Rakhine State in Burma. They have arrived destitute, victims of a state-led campaign of ethnic cleansing that began after Rohingya militants attacked some 30 police outposts on August 25.


Rohingya refugees carry their child as they walk through water after crossing the border by boat through the Naf River in Teknaf, Bangladesh, September 7, 2017.

© 2017 Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters

The situation of the Rohingya refugees is dire: they live in squalid conditions, crammed into a staggering sprawl of rudimentary shelters of sticks and tarps. Many lack food, medical services, and toilets. The rainy season makes everything worse.

The Bangladesh government is seeking answers on dealing with the influx. In her speech, Sheikh Hasina offered to create “safe zones” inside Burma where Rohingya refugees could return. Few details of this proposal have emerged, other than that the UN would supervise these areas.

It’s not clear whether those governments intending to assist the refugees would support this, but first a word of caution. “Safe zones” rarely if ever live up to their name, even with UN peacekeepers on patrol. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, the safe area of Srebrenica, protected by UN peacekeepers, was overrun by Bosnian Serb forces who promptly executed some 7,000 men and boys, and raped women and girls. In Sri Lanka, government-declared safe zones became kill zones: the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam refused to let civilians leave and the military shelled the areas, killing countless civilians.

And even if such zones aren’t attacked, without effective humanitarian aid supplies and freedom of movement for those inside, conditions within “safe zones” could be as bad, if not worse, than in refugee camps across the border.

Human Rights Watch has previously laid out its numerous concerns for governments and organizations when considering creating “safe zones.” Given the Burmese military’s brutal and unrelenting campaign against the Rohingya, no one should be under any illusion that it will allow a “safe zone” to actually be safe.





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Witness to Carnage in Burma’s Rakhine State

Witness to Carnage in Burma’s Rakhine State


Hasina witnessed a massacre. Burmese army soldiers threw her infant into a fire. Her younger siblings were beaten to death. The soldiers attempted to rape her before leaving her for dead in a burning house. Kutupalong refugee camp, Bangladesh, September 22, 2017.

© 2017 Anastasia Taylor-Lind for Human Rights Watch

Hasina is a soft-spoken 20-year-old Rohingya woman from Rakhine State in Burma. She asked us to use her picture and tell her story so the world knows what is happening there.

Her village, Tula Toli, was attacked in late August by the Burmese army on a rampage of killing and arson after Rohingya militants carried out coordinated strikes on police posts. The villagers ran when the soldiers came, but some were trapped on a river bank. Dozens, Hasina said, were murdered on the beach in front of her eyes, but the nightmare was only beginning.

The army forced Hasina and many other women to stand waist-deep in water and watch while soldiers dug a pit to burn the bodies of those they had killed. She tried to hide her infant daughter under her shawl, but a soldier noticed the baby, snatched her away and tossed her into the fire.

Hours later the soldiers took Hasina, her mother-in-law, sister-in-law and three other relatives, all children, to a nearby house. The soldiers tried to rape the women, knifing the mother-in-law to death when she resisted and beating Hasina and her sister-in-law unconscious. They beat the young children to death with spades.

Rohingya Crisis

Rohingya Crisis

HRW reporting from the ground on the Burmese military’s ongoing campaign of ethnic cleansing.

When Hasina regained consciousness, she found herself inside the house. It was on fire, and she had been left locked inside by the soldiers. Her sister-in-law was alive, too. They managed to escape the flames, but with serious burns. Badly injured, they somehow made their way to Bangladesh. Both still have burn injuries. Hasina’s sister-in-law, who confirmed this horrible incident, showed us a big gash on the back of her head from when she had been beaten unconscious, and that a doctor had stitched.

Hasina insisted we take her picture and show her face to the world. For her, it is a brave act of defiance to those who sought to eliminate her and her family. 

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Iraq: Missed Opportunity for Comprehensive Justice

Iraq: Missed Opportunity for Comprehensive Justice

(New York) – The United Nations Security Council has missed a key opportunity to address war crimes and rights abuses by all sides to the conflict in Iraq, Human Rights Watch said today. The council unanimously adopted a resolution on September 21, 2017, that establishes an investigative team to collect and preserve evidence of serious crimes allegedly committed by the extremist group Islamic State (also known as ISIS) – which is needed – but fails to include within its mandate abuses by anti-ISIS forces.


Heads of state and their representatives take part in a meeting of the United Nations Security Council to address the situation in the Middle East during the General Assembly for the 71st session of the U.N. General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York, September 21, 2016. © 2016 Reuters

“No one denies the importance of tackling the widespread atrocities by ISIS in Iraq, but ignoring abuses by Iraqi and international forces is not only flawed, it’s shortsighted,” said Balkees Jarrah, senior international justice counsel at Human Rights Watch. “The pursuit of justice is essential to all victims who saw their loved ones tortured and killed, or houses burned and bombed, regardless of who is responsible.”

The resolution mandates the UN secretary-general to establish an investigative team headed by a special adviser to collect and preserve evidence of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide by ISIS members in Iraq, for anticipated use in future criminal proceedings in Iraq or possibly in other national courts. It stipulates that “any other uses” of the evidence collected by the team is to be “determined in agreement with the Government of Iraq on a case by case basis.”

However, the team can and should play a positive role in advocating for federal Iraqi and Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) authorities to bring charges against ISIS suspects for the full range of crimes they have committed, improve respect for due process rights of suspects and detainees, and to take a more victim-centered approach to national accountability efforts. It can and should seek to convince the Iraqi government to allow it to broaden the investigations to include abuses by all sides in the conflict.

An initiative aimed at documenting serious crimes by ISIS is a positive first step to support accountability efforts in Iraq, Human Rights Watch said. ISIS forces in Iraq have carried out human rights abuses, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and what the UN-mandated Commission of Inquiry on Syria found to be genocide. Human Rights Watch has repeatedly called for international support for efforts to bring ISIS members to justice. But beyond ISIS atrocities, Iraq urgently needs investigations of serious crimes by all sides to the conflict.

The United Kingdom submitted the resolution after working closely with the Iraqi government to establish an investigative body for ISIS crimes in Iraq through the Security Council. Their discussions began in September 2016 after the United Kingdom, together with Iraq and Belgium, began a global campaign at the UN General Assembly to bring ISIS to justice.

The UK decided to formally move forward with the draft resolution in August after receiving Iraq’s consent through a letter to the Security Council. Iraq made clear that it was working with the UK on a resolution “in line with Iraq’s national sovereignty and jurisdiction at both the negotiation and implementation stages.”

Iraqi authorities face a complex task to bring to justice ISIS suspects. Iraq is prosecuting thousands of detainees under counterterrorism legislation, for crimes tied to their affiliation with ISIS. However, Human Rights Watch research has found that abuse is rampant in the detention of ISIS suspects and that serious due process violations are undermining the judicial proceedings. Iraqi authorities are not charging any suspects for serious international crimes such as crimes against humanity, war crimes, or genocide, which are not criminal offenses under Iraqi law, or even rape or slavery, which are. The authorities have made no efforts to solicit victims’ participation in the trials.

Iraq is also not a member of the International Criminal Court (ICC). Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi told Human Rights Watch in March 2016 that Iraq has no plans to join – out of apparent concern that the court would be able to examine grave abuses by government security forces.

The European Union and the UN human rights office have called on Iraq to join the ICC, which would allow for possible prosecution of serious crimes by all parties to the conflict.

While abuses by Iraqi and KRG forces, as well as historically Shia military units regularized into state forces known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, have been longstanding, the battle against ISIS has given these forces latitude to carry out abuses under the guise of fighting terrorism.

During operations to retake Mosul, Iraqi forces frequently tortured and executed those captured in and around the battlefield with complete impunity, sometimes posting photos and videos of the abuses on social media sites. Since 2014, KRG and Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces units have also carried out widespread destruction of civilian property in Sunni areas recaptured from ISIS.

Despite repeated promises to investigate wrongdoing by security forces, al-Abadi has yet to demonstrate that Iraqi authorities have held a single soldier accountable for murdering, torturing, or otherwise abusing Iraqis in this conflict. As far as Human Rights Watch has been able to determine, Iraqi and KRG courts have not opened investigations into the vast majority of human rights abuses by Iraqi army, federal police and PMF forces, and Kurdish and other anti-ISIS security forces in their battle against ISIS.

The lack of impartial justice could undermine longer-term prospects for stability and development. An imbalance in accountability efforts threatens to open new divisions and could breed a resurgence of ISIS-like groups at a moment when the Iraqi government has a unique opportunity to move the country toward meaningful reconciliation, Human Rights Watch said.

The resolution that establishes the ISIS-focused investigative team stipulates that evidence the team collects should be used in “fair and independent criminal proceedings, consistent with applicable international law,” and that the team should act consistent with its terms of reference, the UN Charter, and UN best practice. It does not explicitly exclude the use of evidence in proceedings that allow for the death penalty, one of only two penalties laid out in the federal Iraqi counterterrorism law, as well as a sentence KRG judges have handed down for counterterrorism convicts within the KRG judicial system.

Human Rights Watch opposes capital punishment in all countries and under all circumstances. Capital punishment is unique in its cruelty and finality, and it is inevitably and universally plagued with arbitrariness, prejudice, and error. A majority of countries in the world have abolished the practice.

The resolution asks the UN secretary-general to prepare, within 60 days, terms of reference “acceptable to the Government of Iraq” to guide the investigative team’s work for the Security Council’s approval. The Security Council stipulates that the terms of reference should specify the appointment of Iraqi investigative judges and other criminal experts to the team to work “on an equal footing alongside international experts”.

Though the Security Council resolution notes that the team should complement Iraqi investigations, it is unclear how its work will, in practice, interact with ongoing investigations by federal Iraqi and KRG security forces, as well as other nongovernmental efforts in Iraq to document ISIS crimes. The investigative team should ensure that its own efforts are not duplicative, at the risk of re-traumatizing victims and witnesses, and do not significantly delay the application of justice, to the detriment of victims as well as detainees being held in inhumane conditions.

“The real test for this new UN-mandated investigation is whether it can help Iraq end the rampant impunity in the country that has fed into the endless cycles of violence,” Jarrah said. “Ensuring justice for ISIS crimes – however essential – is not enough. What Iraq needs is a much more comprehensive approach that ends the selective prosecutions for abuses that have plagued the country for decades.”

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Lebanon: Refugees in Border Zone at Risk

Lebanon: Refugees in Border Zone at Risk


A general view shows Syrian refugee camps dotted in and around the Lebanese town of Arsal, near the border with Syria, Lebanon, September 21, 2016.

© 2016 Reuters

(Beirut) – Many refugees in Arsal, a border town in northeast Lebanon recently cleared of armed groups, face pressure to return to Syria, Human Rights Watch said today. Some have already returned to Syria because of the harsh conditions in Arsal. A recent Human Rights Watch visit to Arsal found widespread lack of legal residency, restrictions on freedom of movement, and fear of seemingly random arrests during army raids. Lebanese authorities should prioritize restoring services and protecting civilians there, following the military campaigns and negotiated agreements that pushed the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) and Jabhat al-Nusra militants out of the area.

“Conditions in Arsal have gotten so bad that many refugees have decided to go back into a war zone,” said Nadim Houry, terrorism and counterterrorism director at Human Rights Watch. “Lebanese authorities have a difficult job maintaining security in Arsal, but now that ISIS and al-Nusra have been pushed out, it is essential to improve services and protect civilians.”

Syrians who left Arsal for Idlib told Human Rights Watch by phone that they went back to Syria because of the situation in Arsal, including army raids on refugee settlements, a widespread lack of legal status, fear of arrest and detention, restrictions on their movement, and limited access to education and health care. Human Rights Watch did not find evidence of direct forced returns, but all of those interviewed said they left under pressure, not voluntarily.

Lebanon should ensure that refugees can regularize their legal status and have freedom of movement and access to humanitarian aid, Human Rights Watch said. Security measures should respect the rights of civilians in Arsal.

Arsal currently hosts an estimated 60,000 Syrians alongside a population of 38,000 Lebanese, according to the municipality. The Lebanese army has maintained tight control over Arsal since the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra attacked the town in 2014, and has restricted access to the town since then. While the army quickly regained control of the town, fighters from the Islamic State and al-Nusra remained in areas around Arsal until recent campaigns by the Lebanese army and Hezbollah ended in negotiated deals, under which armed men and their families as well as unaffiliated civilians returned to Syria.

Almost 10,000 Syrians have returned from Arsal since June, according to the municipality, largely under agreements negotiated by Hezbollah. Human Rights Watch entered Arsal in September, with permission from the Lebanese authorities, to interview Syrians and assess conditions first-hand. Human Rights Watch spoke with 19 refugees inside Arsal and by phone with five Syrians who returned to Syria.

“When we left [Arsal], we were forced to go,” said a doctor who returned to Idlib. “It wasn’t our place. We would always be persecuted there. Our fate was either arrest, or death, or permanently living in anxiety. This is why most people left, because of the persecution.”

Syrians said that the widespread lack of legal residency was a factor in the decision of many to return to Syria. Nine of the 19 said they did not have legal status, and that men in particular feared arrest by the General Security Organization when trying to renew their residency. Without residency, Syrians face restrictions on movement for fear of arrest, affecting their access to work, health care, and birth and marriage registration. Aid groups estimate that between 70 to 80 percent of the estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon lack legal status.

Eight Syrians in Arsal said that either they or an immediate family member had been arrested when trying to renew their residency, and that authorities had detained children as young as 9. One camp representative showed Human Rights Watch a list of 222 people who attempted to renew residency but whose identification cards had been held by General Security for at least a year – and as long as three years in some cases.

Syrians said that they feared arrest by the army during frequent security raids on refugee settlements in Arsal. Many said they perceived the arrests as “random,” and feared they could be arrested at any time. Several said that the mass raids in June resulting in the arrests of more than 350 Syrians, and the deaths of four Syrians in military custody amid evidence of torture, created a sense of fear and contributed to families’ decisions to return. Human Rights Watch has called on the army to release its investigation of this incident, but the army has not done so. Camp leaders said they were still unaware of the whereabouts of some of those detained.

“I’m not against the army,” one camp leader in Arsal said. “We will enter with them if they want to enter camps, we want to cooperate with the Lebanese army.”

Syrians in Idlib said they did not have clear information about conditions there before they returned. UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, does not have a permanent presence in Arsal, was not involved in facilitating the returns to Syria, and for the most part did not interview Syrians before they left to assess whether their departure was voluntary. UNHCR has not issued a public assessment as to whether these returns were voluntary.

“Our stay in Arsal was in fear, living in the unknown, our departure was in fear and to the unknown, and the trip was in fear and through the unknown,” said one man who returned to Idlib. “We were asking about guarantees but no one told us what it was. … We were in psychological torment. It’s the most difficult decision to make: whether to stay in the unknown or go toward the unknown.”

Almost all of the Syrians interviewed said they would have preferred to stay in Lebanon if they had felt safe.

Syrians still in Arsal also said that they felt under pressure to leave. “The army is putting pressure, General Security is putting pressure, people are putting pressure on us, the situation here is unacceptable,” one man said. But while some said they would consider going back under an international agreement, all said they would prefer to remain in Lebanon if conditions improved, until it was safe to return to Syria.

“I want to go back home with my honor, go back to my house, not under pressure [to Idlib],” one woman said.

Lebanon is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, but is bound by the universally binding customary law principle of nonrefoulement not to return anyone to a place where they would face a real risk of being persecuted, exposed to torture or other ill treatment, or to threats to their lives or freedom. Lebanon is also bound by the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment not to return anyone to a country where they would be in danger of torture or ill-treatment.

Refoulement occurs not only when a refugee is directly rejected or expelled, but also when indirect pressure on them is so intense that it leads them to believe that they have no practical option but to return to a country where they face serious risk of persecution or threats to their lives and safety.

The returns to Syria follow heightened calls by Lebanese politicians for the return of refugees to Syria. In July, President Michel Aoun called for safe, not voluntary, returns. Idlib province is considered a “de-escalation zone,” based on an agreement among some of the warring parties in Kazakhstan in May, but cannot be considered safe for returns. International experience has shown that “safe zones” rarely remain safe, Human Rights Watch said.

“With ISIS and al-Nusra gone from Arsal, Lebanon should recognize that it’s not in its interest for refugees to fear interaction with security services and reassess its security policy,” Houry said. “Lebanon should ensure that Syrians are able to obtain legal residency and that security operations respect the safety and security of refugees living in Arsal.” 

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Defending Rights in An Age of Brexit

Defending Rights in An Age of Brexit


The Union Flag and European Union flag fly in Parliament Square in central London, September 9, 2017.

© 2017 Reuters

The need to focus on Brexit may have led Britain’s Conservative government to shelve its problematic plans to scrap domestic human rights law, in force since 2000, and leave the European Court of Human Rights (which is not part of the European Union). But as a new explainer from Human Rights Watch shows, the government is pursuing Brexit in ways that put human rights at risk.

Some of the rights enjoyed by people in the UK, including workplace protections, privacy, and safeguards against discrimination, are the result of EU membership. The government has given assurances that rights will not be diminished as a result of Brexit.

However, in the EU Withdrawal Bill currently before parliament, aimed at moving EU rules to domestic law after Brexit, the government has singled out the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights as the only piece of EU law that will not be incorporated. And it has done so without saying how those rights will be maintained, a move that members of parliament from both main parties have vowed to oppose.  

The government has also refused to guarantee that it will remove or restrict some rights under the worryingly broad executive powers it would be granted under the bill. So it’s little wonder that leading UK human rights organizations are pushing for a “people’s amendment” to protect our rights.

One group particularly concerned about having their rights taken away are the estimated 3 million EU citizens living in the UK. While the UK government has made the right noises, it has missed repeated opportunities to create legal certainty for Europeans living here, despite a rash of hate crimes after the Brexit vote and recent reports of discrimination in employment and housing.

Unless Brexit is grounded in our values and guided by the compass of human rights, we may find that our rights have been hollowed out when we finally leave the European Union.  

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Ghana Makes Secondary Schools Free

Ghana Makes Secondary Schools Free

On September 12, Ghana’s new President Nana Akufo-Addo made good on his campaign promise to deliver free secondary education for children across the country.

The President pledged “there will be no admission fees, no library fees, no science center fees, no computer laboratory fees, no examination fees, no utility fees. There will be free textbooks, free boarding and free meals, and day students will get a meal at school for free.” All great news for Ghana’s more than 400,000 students entering secondary school this year.

Globally, many students’ educational aspirations end because of secondary school fees. In Ghana, in 2014, only 37 percent of students were enrolled in secondary education.

Removing these fees is a big step toward helping students stay in school. But other barriers to education, which disproportionately impact Ghana’s poorest and rural families, should be tackled, too.

For example, we recently investigated the effect of Tanzania removing lower secondary education fees in 2016. We saw that the poorest students still found it difficult to go to school. Other costs related to school, like food and uniforms, burdened their limited family income. In rural areas, it can be a long distance to the closest secondary school. This meant added transportation costs, as well as difficult or unsafe journey to school. Many girls who live apart from their families lacked affordable, safe housing close to schools.

In his announcement, Ghana’s president also said that “we will ensure that students from basic public schools have equal opportunity to enrol in any of the top senior high schools in the country.”

However, there are only a handful of these top public high schools, and they accept a limited number of students. To ensure all children will benefit equally from free secondary education, the government should invest in high schools everywhere in the country.

It’s commendable that Ghana wants to guarantee fully free secondary education. With the government’s commitment, taking additional steps to make this happen will truly help all the country’s children.

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A Move to Restore Dignity to Syria’s Victims

A Move to Restore Dignity to Syria’s Victims


Stockholm District Court, where most of Sweden’s war crimes cases are adjudicated.

© Balkees Jarrah/Human Rights Watch

The photograph is disturbing. A young man in military fatigues is standing on dead bodies looking victorious. The posture of the Syrian soldier, with a grin suggesting pride and his military boot on a victim’s chest, suggests domination. A hunter with his prey. Except the prey is a man wearing civilian clothes with blood on his head.

The Syrian conflict has generated an endless stream of horrible photos and footage. It is often described as the first YouTube war – with little professional journalistic coverage but non-stop footage of abuses captured by locals’ phones. From the shaky footage of soldiers and shabbiha beating and torturing detainees in the early days to the slick and sick ISIS productions of executions, one common thread runs through these videos: their utter dehumanization of the victims.

Why did the soldier have himself photographed in this posture? To spread fear among his enemies, brag to his friends, or create a souvenir for himself? What we know is that he did it because he believed – like all the others who film themselves committing horrible crimes – he would get away with it.

And he would have, if not for Syrian activists and prosecutors in Sweden. On September 14, Swedish prosecutors charged the soldier, identified as Muhammad Abdullah, with violating the laws of war. An informal group of Syrian activists tracked Abdullah down in Sweden based on his Facebook postings and brought him to the attention of the prosecutors.

In Sweden, investigators and prosecutors have used their domestic criminal law, based on the legal principle known as “universal jurisdiction,” to prosecute certain international crimes committed in Syria. Investigating crimes that take place outside your jurisdiction is not easy. A Swedish prosecutor’s initial effort to bring charges against Abdullah last year by the Swedish prosecutor to charge Abdullah with the execution of the men he stands atop in the photo failed for lack of evidence. Yesterday’s indictment uses existing evidence to charge him for “outrage upon personal dignity,” defined to include humiliating, degrading, or otherwise violating the dignity of a dead body.

Pursuing accountability for violating the dignity of a dead body may strike some as marginal in the carnage that is Syria. The opposite is true. By recognizing the inherent dignity of the victims even after their death, the Swedish prosecutor is challenging the collective indifference to Syrians’ fate. Syrian victims are mostly faceless, briefly appearing in the media as statistics. Reminding people that even the dead have dignity is a small but worthy effort to bring back some humanity to the Syrian conflict. The trial is scheduled for September 18. 

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Deaths and Damage in Hurricane-Affected US Nursing Facilities

Deaths and Damage in Hurricane-Affected US Nursing Facilities


The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills is seen in Hollywood, north of Miami, Florida, U.S., September 13, 2017.

© 2017 Reuters

After spending the past year visiting more than 100 nursing homes across the United States, I am sickened but not surprised to hear of the avoidable horrors people in facilities in Florida and Texas have suffered from hurricanes Harvey and Irma: most recently eight dead near Miami. Even on normal days many people in nursing homes face grave risks.

While my research focused on the use of antipsychotic drugs in people with dementia as “chemical straightjackets,” I encountered other types of abuse and neglect in many of the 109 facilities I visited. Residents and their families described abuse, isolation, and repeated falls. On one unannounced visit, I encountered an older man helplessly splayed on the floor, naked – as staff walked by with food trays. One simply said, “Again?”

Many who work in nursing homes are dedicated, skilled professionals. However, they control most aspects of life for people inside, which can be a real danger when government oversight is inadequate (as it usually is). As one nursing home administrator in Miami told me: “That’s up to us to decide if we’re violating their rights.”

The facility outside Miami where eight residents died last week has been cited for 33 deficiencies since 2014 for noncompliance with federal regulations. The sheer number of those citations seems to show that these tags and small associated fines have not deterred the facility from further noncompliance. Meanwhile the industry is lobbying for deregulation and weaker enforcement of such regulations. It has successfully pushed for lesser financial penalties to attach for many instances of noncompliance with the law and is pressing for delayed implementation of Obama-era regulations that will strengthen protections for people in nursing facilities. As the New York Times points out, the new rule include measures that might have saved lives last week: ensuring emergency power sources are able to maintain safe temperatures, for example.

Harvey and Irma have underscored the importance of protecting people who live in nursing facilities. Instead of caving to lobbyists and dismantling critical regulations, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services should improve enforcement so that no more people in nursing homes end up dying for no good reason. 

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Afghanistan: Proposed Militia a Threat to Civilians

Afghanistan: Proposed Militia a Threat to Civilians


Afghan local police (ALP) sit at the back of a truck near a frontline during a battle with the Taliban at Qalay- i-zal district, in Kunduz province, Afghanistan August 1, 2015.

© 2016 Reuters

(New York, September 15, 2017) – The Afghan government should reject proposals to create a new militia with inadequate training and oversight, Human Rights Watch said today. Western diplomatic sources in Kabul told Human Rights Watch that President Ashraf Ghani is considering establishing a defense unit modelled on the Indian Territorial Army, an auxiliary force comprising personnel who serve on a short-term contract basis with the regular armed forces. The NATO Resolute Support Mission is believed to support such a local security force in Afghanistan.

An Afghan Territorial Army with reduced training and potentially less oversight risks being yet another abusive militia operating outside the military’s chain of command, Human Rights Watch said. If approved, the Afghan government is expected to determine the location of a pilot project by September 20, 2017.

“The Afghan government’s expansion of irregular forces could have enormously dangerous consequences for civilians,” said Patricia Gossman, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Instead of creating additional local forces, which are hard to control and prone to abuses, the Afghan government with US and NATO support should be strengthening training and oversight to ensure that all forces respect the law.”

In recent years, the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces have relied on militia forces such as the Afghan Local Police (ALP) to “hold” local territory reclaimed from the Taliban or insurgent groups belonging to the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP). The group is an affiliate of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) and is based in Nangarhar province.

The Afghan Local Police, established in 2010, was meant to serve as a local defense force. While these forces have gained some local support as a result of recent reforms, in many localities these forces have been responsible for numerous abuses against civilians, as well as summary executions of captured combatants and other violations of international humanitarian law. The proposed Afghan Territorial Army would ultimately replace the Afghan Local Police as a defense force at the local level. There is concern that existing Afghan Local Police units could remain armed as militia forces.

Instead of creating a new militia, Afghan authorities should improve the training and capabilities of its existing troops, and hold accountable those responsible for abuses, Human Rights Watch said. The inadequacy of Afghan police and soldiers has been evident in districts of Nangarhar province in which ISKP groups have carried out frequent attacks.

The Indian Territorial Army, the model for this proposed defense force, has been deployed to support Indian counter-insurgency forces in Jammu and Kashmir. Territorial army personnel have been implicated in serious abuses, and its irregular status has contributed to a lack of accountability.

In one prominent case, on March 8, 1996, Maj. Avtar Singh of the territorial army detained Jalil Andrabi, a human rights lawyer and Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front member. Three weeks later Andrabi’s body was found floating in the Jhelum River near Srinagar. An autopsy showed that he had been killed days after his arrest. Indian authorities opened an investigation that ultimately indicted Major Singh, but state counsel asserted that Singh was not a member of the armed forces but under contract with the territorial army, and that his contract had expired and he was nowhere to be found.

The Afghan government has been unable or unwilling to hold powerful strongmen accountable for abuses, including those who command Afghan Local Police units or other militias. It’s not clear how the government intends to ensure that new Afghan Territorial Army units, whose members will be paid less than their army counterparts, won’t fall into the same pattern.

While the territorial army would operate under a regular army corps commander, diplomatic sources told Human Rights Watch that Afghan officials involved in the discussions have expressed concern about the force becoming used by powerful strongmen, or becoming dependent on local patronage networks. There is also concern that the new force could replicate the criminality that many Afghan Local Police units exhibited, and clash with other government forces and militias over control of territory and smuggling routes.

In addition to the proposed Afghan Territorial Army, the Afghan government is considering creating a new 15,000-strong tribal militia, under the Ministry of Tribal and Border Affairs, currently headed by former governor Gul Agha Sherzai. The model for such a militia appears to be those established along ethnic lines by the late President Mohammad Najibullah in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Members of those militia forces were responsible for serious human rights abuses.

“There is a long, unsavory history of using tribal and irregular militias in Afghanistan, and it has led to egregious crimes without accountability,” Gossman said. “Too often they have inflamed conflict rather than provide security.”

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