Not the Time to Look Away on Burundi 

Not the Time to Look Away on Burundi 

For the past month, Burundi’s ambassador to the United Nations, Albert Shingiro, has publicly threatened to “bring to justice” members of a UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) investigating abuses in the country, suggesting they could be prosecuted for defamation and “attempted destabilization” of Burundian institutions. 


Residents outside their houses in Nyakabiga, in the Burundian capital Bujumbura, look at the body of a man shot dead on December 11, 2015.

© 2015 Jean Pierre Aimé Harerimana

This week the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights hit back, characterizing the attacks as “unacceptable.”

But the UN’s broader membership, including the countries that pushed to create the Burundi probe, still haven’t spoken up in support of the experts. Continued silence in the face of threats like these will only embolden Burundian authorities.

Despite the public threats against UN experts, the Secretary-General’s special envoy on Burundi Michel Kafando told the Security Council in a briefing this week that the UN and Burundi’s relationship seemed to be “heading in the right direction.” He also didn’t sound the alarm on the human rights crisis there.

The only thing the UN experts are “guilty” of is sticking to a mandate given to them by the Human Rights Council last year: investigating human rights abuses and violations committed in Burundi since April 2015. In their latest report, the experts concluded they have “reasonable grounds to believe that crimes against humanity have been committed in Burundi since April 2015.” The report confirmed that extrajudicial executions, arbitrary arrests and detentions, enforced disappearances, torture, and sexual violence have continued, and they blamed most violations on members of the intelligence services, the police, the army and the youth league of the ruling party.

Soon after the commission’s report was published, the International Criminal Court (ICC) opened its own investigation into Burundi. This undoubtedly frustrated efforts by the government – which made its withdrawal from the world court official in October – to escape scrutiny over its role in horrific human rights abuses.

Countries that pushed to establish the investigation through the Human Rights Council in Geneva should stand up for their experts. The Security Council should too. Otherwise, the COI risks being sidelined, like the UN’s ill-fated police mission to Burundi authorized by the Security Council last year. Burundi’s civilians are still at risk of abuses. Now is not the time to look away. 


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EU: Press Azerbaijan on Rights at Summit

EU: Press Azerbaijan on Rights at Summit


Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev (L) arrives for a meeting with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker at the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium on February 6, 2017. 

© 2017 REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

(Brussels)Leaders of European Union member states should press visiting Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev to end the crackdown on critics and commit to concrete and sustainable human rights reforms, 37 nongovernmental groups said in a letter to heads of European Union member states.

On November 24, 2017, the heads of the 28 EU member states’ governments and of the six Eastern Partnership countries – Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine – will gather in Brussels for the 5th Eastern Partnership Summit.

“The EU has said Eastern Partnership countries should have vibrant civil societies and free media, but President Aliyev’s Azerbaijan doesn’t pass the test,” said Brigitte Dufour, director of International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR). “EU leaders should make it clear that there won’t be stronger ties with Azerbaijan until the government ends the crackdown on civil society and dissenting voices.”

Among the 20 Deliverables – or goals – for the Eastern Partnership by 2020, the EU has, notably, identified a vibrant civil society as a prerequisite for “democratic, stable, prosperous and resilient communities and nations.” In recent years however, Azerbaijan’s government has flouted these commitments by adopting and enforcing laws and regulations that severely restrict independent voices. The government has shut down independent media, and blocked the websites of media outlets that are now forced to operate from abroad. The government also has intimidated, harassed, and imprisoned independent journalists, human rights defenders, pro-democracy activists, and other members of civil society.

While more than a dozen unjustly imprisoned human rights defenders and government critics have been released since the end of 2015, their convictions stand, and some of them face travel restrictions and are unable to work without undue government interference.

Dozens of other activists remain behind bars, and the authorities continue to use politically motivated charges to jail government critics. Among them, Ilgar Mammadov, leader of the political opposition REAL party, has been in prison on trumped-up charges since 2013. The Azerbaijani government has refused to comply with a May 2014 judgment on his case by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), which concluded that the government detained him without evidence to silence and punish him for criticizing the authorities.

The Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers issued more than a dozen resolutions calling for Mammadov’s immediate release. After the government’s persistent failure to release him, on October 25, the Committee of Ministers decided to trigger unprecedented legal proceedings against Azerbaijan, which could ultimately result in a challenge to Azerbaijan’s membership in the Council of Europe.

On November 16, the European Court issued a second judgment on Mammadov’s case, finding serious violations of his right to a fair trial and concluding that “his conviction was based on flawed or misrepresented evidence and his objections in this respect were inadequately addressed.”

Azerbaijani authorities have also targeted journalists and the media. Mehman Huseynov, a well-known journalist and blogger, was sentenced to two years in prison on bogus defamation charges in May after reporting that several police officers arbitrarily detained and beat him. Another journalist, Afgan Mukhtarli, was kidnapped in May by unidentified people in neighboring Georgia and taken to Azerbaijan, where the authorities pressed bogus criminal charges against him.

Nongovernmental organizations in Azerbaijan face serious obstacles to operating due to laws and regulations that require both donors and grantees to separately obtain government approval for every grant under consideration. In January the government made it easier for groups to apply to register their funding, but the government has continued to use broad discretion to deny its approval.

“EU leaders should not stay silent as Azerbaijan stands at odds with the basic objectives of the Eastern Partnership project,” said Philippe Dam, Europe and Central Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “They should put Aliyev on notice that he has to demonstrate a commitment to human rights and to deliver on tangible reforms.”

Since February 2017, the EU and Azerbaijan have been negotiating a new partnership agreement to enhance political and economic ties between them. The new agreement would replace the 1999 Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, which guided their bilateral relations in political dialogue, trade, investment, and economic, legislative, and cultural cooperation.

“For civil society organizations operating inside Azerbaijan, it is essential for EU leaders to voice their concerns and call for the release of Ilgar Mammadov and others wrongfully detained,” said Rasul Jafarov, of Human Rights Club, one of the signatories of the letter. “That is the least civil society expects to remain a critical part of the EU-Azerbaijani relations.”

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Indonesia: No End to Abusive ‘Virginity Tests’

Indonesia: No End to Abusive ‘Virginity Tests’


Members of the Indonesian Air Force parade during celebrations marking the 70th anniversary of the Air Force at Halim Perdanakusuma airbase in Jakarta, Indonesia on April 9, 2016.

© 2016 Beawiharta/Reuters

(Jakarta) – Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo should order Indonesia’s police chief and armed forces commander to immediately ban so-called “virginity tests” of female applicants, Human Rights Watch said today. By ending the practice, the Indonesian government would be abiding by its international human rights obligations and honoring the goals of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women on November 25, 2017.

Senior military and police officers with knowledge of the “virginity testing” policy told Human Rights Watch that the security forces continue to impose these cruel and discriminatory “tests,” which are officially classified as “psychological” examinations, for “mental health and morality reasons.”

“The Indonesian government’s continuing tolerance for abusive ‘virginity tests’ by the security forces reflects an appalling lack of political will to protect the rights of Indonesian women,” said Nisha Varia, women’s rights advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “These tests are degrading and discriminatory, and they harm women’s equal access to important job opportunities.”

Virginity testing is a form of gender-based violence and is a widely discredited practice, Human Rights Watch said. In November 2014, the World Health Organization issued guidelines that stated, “There is no place for virginity (or ‘two-finger’) testing; it has no scientific validity.” Human Rights Watch first exposed the use of “virginity tests” by Indonesian security forces in 2014, but since then the government has failed to take the necessary steps to prohibit the practice.

An Indonesian military doctor told Human Rights Watch that senior military personnel were well-aware of the arguments against “virginity tests,” but were unwilling to abolish them. The doctor suggested that stopping the tests required the direct and explicit intervention of Indonesian Armed Forces commander Gen. Gatot Nurmantyo to order an end to the practice. “The military is a top-down organization. We have to follow orders.”

Jokowi should declare an immediate prohibition of “virginity tests” by the military and police and create an independent monitoring mechanism to ensure that security forces comply, Human Rights Watch said.

The testing includes the invasive “two-finger test” to determine whether female applicants’ hymens are intact, findings that are scientifically baseless. While Human Rights Watch found that applicants who were deemed to have “failed” were not necessarily penalized, all of the women with whom we spoke with described the test as painful, embarrassing, and traumatic.

Several Indonesian military and police officers told Human Rights Watch that both security forces have also sought to justify the “two-finger test” as means of determining if applicants are pregnant. The “two-finger test” cannot determine pregnancy status, and employment discrimination based on pregnancy status is in any event a form of sex discrimination prohibited by Indonesia’s international legal obligations.

All branches of the Indonesian military – air force, army, and navy – have used “virginity tests” for decades and, in certain circumstances, also extended the requirement to the fiancées of military officers. In May 2015, then-commander of Indonesia’s armed forces, General Moeldoko, responded to criticism of “virginity tests,” by saying to the media, “So what’s the problem? It’s a good thing, so why criticize it?”

Indonesian military spokesman Faud Basry that same month asserted that “virginity tests” are a means of screening out inappropriate female recruits. “If they are no longer virgins, if they are naughty, it means their mentality is not good,” Basry told The Guardian. Current Indonesian Armed Forces chief Nurmantyo has taken no steps to ban the practice.

Human Rights Watch has documented the use of abusive “virginity tests” by security forces in Egypt, India, and Afghanistan as well as in Indonesia and criticized calls for “virginity tests” for school girls in Indonesia.

The Indonesian government’s continuing tolerance for abusive ‘virginity tests’ by the security forces reflects an appalling lack of political will to protect the rights of Indonesian women.

Nisha Varia

Advocacy Director, Women’s Rights Division

“Virginity tests” have been recognized internationally as a violation of human rights, particularly the prohibition against “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment” under article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and article 16 of the Convention against Torture, both of which Indonesia has ratified. The United Nations Human Rights Committee, the international expert body that monitors compliance with the ICCPR, states in a General Comment that the aim of article 7 is “to protect both the dignity and the physical and mental integrity of the individual.” Coerced virginity testing compromises the dignity of women and violates their physical and mental integrity.

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and other human rights treaties prohibit discrimination against women. Because men are not subjected to virginity testing, the practice constitutes discrimination against women as it has the effect or purpose of denying women on a basis of equality with men the ability to work as police officers.

“Indonesian women who seek to serve their country by joining the security forces shouldn’t have to subject themselves to an abusive and discriminatory ‘virginity test’ to do so,” Varia said. “The Indonesian police and military cannot effectively protect all Indonesians, women and men, so long as a mindset of discrimination permeates their ranks.”

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Philippines Lifts Ban on 51 Contraceptives

Philippines Lifts Ban on 51 Contraceptives


Women listen during a family planning lecture by a Likhaan NGO health worker at a reproductive health clinic in Tondo, metro Manila, Philippines on January 12, 2016.

© 2016 Janis Alano/Reuters

The Philippine Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has effectively lifted a supreme court order in 2015 temporarily banning 51 female hormonal contraceptive products by determining that they do not induce abortion.

The FDA action meets a court condition that allowed for the automatic lifting of the ban after the FDA’s “re-certification” of those contraceptives. This will help address a significant shortfall in available types of birth control for Filipino women, particularly those with low incomes. The distribution ban forbade the sale of hormonal contraceptives – including drugs and devices – by drug stores and clinics.

However, in June, the Department of Health identified the ban as a key stumbling block to attaining President Rodrigo Duterte’s goal for his Executive Order No. 12, which aims to achieve “zero unmet need” for modern family planning. The ban also fueled campaigns by some local politicians to completely outlaw contraceptives in their communities. They included Sorsogon City, whose mayor, Sally Lee, has banned the sale and distribution of all contraceptives in her city since February 2015.

The FDA decision complements the government’s efforts to improve delivery gaps in reproductive health services that have hurt Filipino women, particularly the poor. Those efforts include Duterte’s executive order, issued in January, for the “strict implementation” of the country’s landmark reproductive health law. This law requires the national distribution of contraceptive products, comprehensive sexuality education in schools, and provides for a more efficient system to decrease the incidence of maternal death.

The challenge now is for the government to ensure that these hormonal contraceptives – many of them stored in warehouses for more than two years now – are distributed before they expire next year. It should also resist the expected attempts by the Catholic Church and conservative lawmakers to frustrate the full implementation of the reproductive health law by defunding the Department of Health, as they did in 2016.

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‘Shocking’ Detention of Australia’s Aboriginal Children

‘Shocking’ Detention of Australia’s Aboriginal Children


A still from the Australian Broadcasting Company’s program “Four Corners,” showing 17-year-old Dylan Voller strapped into a mechanical restraint chair on March 2015 in the Northern Territory.

© 2016 Australian Broadcasting Company

The camera shows a slightly built 13-year-old boy pacing in a tiny cell, pausing every so often to lean against the wall, his head buried in his arms, his body trembling. Three guards rush in and quickly overpower the boy, stripping him naked. It was one of at least five instances when detention center guards in Australia’s Northern Territory used excessive force against him between October 2010 and August 2014, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s “Four Corners” reported last year.

These and other images appalled many Australians. Perhaps most disturbing of all was a photograph of the same boy, Dylan Voller, at age 17, strapped tightly to a restraint chair, a hood over his head; he had been left in that position alone in a cell for two hours. Within 12 hours of the “Four Corners” report, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced the establishment of a Royal Commission to examine the treatment of detained children in the Northern Territory – the majority of whom, like Voller, are Aboriginal.

The commission released its findings on Friday, concluding that the territory’s youth detention centers are “not fit for accommodating, let alone rehabilitating” the children they lock up, and calling for their closure.

The “systemic and shocking failures” identified by the commission could be a checklist of the worst practices in juvenile detention.

Guards verbally abused the boys and young men, including with racial slurs, and sometimes deprived them of food, water, and the use of toilets, the report found.

Bored staff dared children to eat bird excrement, rat feces, and cockroaches for rewards and coerced youth to fight each other. Staff also employed disproportionate and often dangerous use of force when restraining children. Guards were captured on video lifting and throwing children to the ground by the neck, among other abusive practices.

Some girls were strip searched by male guards and, the commission found, subjected to “inappropriate sexual attention by staff.” They also had less access than boys to showers and toilets, recreation, and education.

Isolation of 21 or more hours per day, sometimes for weeks, was used as punishment, contrary to law and in ways highly damaging to youths’ mental health.

Failures to safeguard against self-harm, inadequate security, unsanitary facilities – the list goes on, documented extensively in four thick volumes. Much of this was already known to local authorities, who failed to act.

Australian federal and territory officials should immediately put an end to these practices and ensure the individuals responsible are held accountable, including by bringing criminal charges as appropriate. They should take the commission’s recommendations as a roadmap for a thorough overhaul of the Northern Territory’s juvenile detention system. 

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China: Release Gravely Ill Critics

China: Release Gravely Ill Critics


Protesters chant slogans to mourn the death of Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, outside China’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong, China on July 15, 2017. 

© 2017 Bobby Yip/Reuters

(New York) – The Chinese government should immediately and unconditionally release from detention rights activist Huang Qi and bookseller Yiu Mantin, who are seriously ill, Human Rights Watch said today. Authorities should also allow the two, who have been held in violation of their basic rights, to seek proper treatment wherever they wish, in China or abroad.

In recent years, a number of prominent dissidents have become seriously ill in detention, been denied adequate care, and died either in detention or shortly after being released. On November 7, 2017, dissident writer Yang Tongyan died less than three months after being released on medical parole, and on July 13, Nobel Peace Laureate Liu Xiaobo died three weeks after he was transferred to a hospital.

“Neither of these peaceful advocates should have been detained in the first place, and to continue to do so even when they are gravely ill is cruel and inhumane,” said Sophie Richardson, China director. “Authorities should immediately release Huang Qi and Yiu Mantin and allow them to seek medical care freely.” 

The considerable reputational damage brought by the death of Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo in state custody just months ago has not deterred Chinese authorities from keeping seriously ill dissidents in prison.

Sophie Richardson

China Director

Huang, 54, a veteran activist and founder of the human rights website 64 Tianwang, has been detained since November 2016 for “illegally leaking state secrets abroad.” Huang suffers from several health conditions for which he was not given adequate treatment, including possible imminent kidney failure, signs of emphysema and inflammation in the lungs, Huang’s mother said in a public letter appealing for Huang’s release. Huang’s lawyer has applied for medical parole on his behalf three times, but authorities denied each application without giving a reason. In November, Huang told his lawyer that he had been repeatedly beaten by fellow detainees at the Mianyang City Detention Center. At least one officer at the center was aware of the violence but failed to intervene to stop it. Huang was also denied basic necessities such as toothpaste and toilet paper. Huang was previously imprisoned from 2000-2005 on subversion charges and from 2008-2011 for “illegally holding state secrets.”

Yiu, 76, a Hong Kong publisher and chief editor of Morning Bell Press, has been serving a 10-year sentence on smuggling charges in a Guangdong jail since October 2013. Yiu was preparing to publish a book critical of Chinese President Xi Jinping shortly before he was arrested. Yiu suffers from heart disease, liver disease, asthma, and other health issues. He has fainted several times since being detained. Prison authorities transferred Yiu to a prison-affiliated hospital about two years ago due to his poor health. Yiu’s wife said prison authorities had not given her any medical examination records about Yin since 2015 and she is uncertain about his condition. Yiu’s lawyer has repeatedly sought medical parole for him but it has not been granted.

Conditions in China’s detention facilities and prisons are poor and usually marked by minimal nutrition and rudimentary health care. Human Rights Watch has also long documented police torture and ill-treatment of detainees in police-run facilities. There have been repeated instances where seriously ill detainees were not sent to hospitals until their conditions had deteriorated significantly.

Failure to provide prisoners access to adequate medical care violates the right to the highest attainable standard of health found in international human rights law. The UN Standard Minimum Rules on the Treatment of Prisoners provides that “[s]ick prisoners who require specialist treatment shall be transferred to specialized institutions or to civil hospitals.” China’s Criminal Procedure Law stipulates that medical parole can be granted to criminal offenders who are “seriously ill,” but in practice, authorities have rarely granted it to political dissidents.

Since President Xi Jinping assumed power in 2013, several dissidents and activists have been denied adequate medical treatment and died in detention or shortly after being released. They include:

  • Cao Shunli: In March 2014, Cao Shunli, 52, an activist who had tried to participate in China’s Universal Periodic Review, a process run by the United Nations Human Rights Council, died in a Beijing hospital after being arbitrarily detained in September 2013. Her family members had repeatedly warned that she was becoming gravely ill and had fought to have her released on medical parole, but authorities only transferred her when she fell into a coma. She died days later.
  • Goshul Lobsang: Tibetan activist Goshul Lobsang, 42, died in March 2014, five months after being released on medical parole. After his arrest in June 2010, Goshul Lobsang was sentenced to 12 years in prison on charges relating to the 2008 protests in Tibet. During his three years in detention, Goshul Lobsang was reportedly subjected to severe torture and deprived of sleep and food.
  • Tenzin Choedak: In December 2014, Tibetan environmental activist Tenzin Choedak, 33, died in a Lhasa hospital, three days after he was released in extremely weak condition. Tenzin Choedak had been sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2008 on the charge of acting as a ringleader during the unrest in Tibet earlier that year. While in prison, Tenzin Choedak reportedly suffered chronic diseases and brain injury because of severe torture.
  • Tenzin Delek Rinpoche: In July 2015, Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, 65, a revered Tibetan lama who was serving a life sentence for “inciting separation of the state” following a trial that fell far short of international standards, died in detention after months of increasingly serious allegations that his health was deteriorating. Throughout his 13 years in detention, credible reports repeatedly emerged that Tenzin Delek Rinpoche was being tortured.
  • Zhang Liumao: In November 2015, activist Zhang Liumao, 43, died at the Guangzhou No. 3 Detention Center after he was arrested three months earlier on suspicion of “picking quarrels and proving trouble,” a catch-all charge frequently leveled against activists. The state media reported that Zhang died of complications from cancer, but Zhang’s family lawyer, who examined Zhang’s body, said that it was bruised and bloody with apparent signs of torture.
  • Liu Xiaobo: In July 2017, after serving nearly nine years of his 11-year prison sentence for “inciting subversion,” Nobel Peace laureate and public intellectual Liu Xiaobo died from liver cancer in a Shenyang hospital. Less than a month before his death, the authorities said they had “released” him on medical parole, but they heavily guarded him and his wife, Liu Xia, isolating them from family and supporters, and denied Liu’s request to seek treatment outside the country. Very little is known about the conditions of Liu’s imprisonment. Although the authorities allowed his closest family, including Liu Xia, some visits, they silenced the family by holding Liu Xia under house arrest.
  • Yang Tongyan (pen name: Yang Tianshui): Dissident writer Yang Tongyan, 56, was released on medical parole after being diagnosed with a brain tumor in August 2017, four months short of serving the full term of a 12-year prison sentence for “inciting subversion of state power.” After being denied permission to travel abroad for treatment, Yang died on November 7, less than three months after his release. During Yang’s imprisonment, his lawyers had applied for his medical parole several times, but they were all denied.

“The considerable reputational damage brought by the death of Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo in state custody just months ago has not deterred Chinese authorities from keeping seriously ill dissidents in prison,” Richardson said. “The ruthlessness and arrogance of the Chinese government should be met with international condemnation.”

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Raising Sons in a Sexist World

Raising Sons in a Sexist World


A boy looks at a writing on the ground during a protest in support of women’s rights, in New York City, U.S. on October 7, 2017. 

© 2017 Reuters

“Why would anyone do that?”

My son asked this as he looked at the photo of Al Franken, Senator of our home state of Minnesota, posing with his hands over radio host Leeann Tweeden’s breasts as she slept, a stupid grin on his face. My son stood silently, shaking his head, as I described Tweeden’s account of Franken forcibly kissing her.

My teenage son isn’t naïve. He and his younger brother know about the outpouring of #MeToo stories. For years, they’ve heard about how women face violence, harassment, and discrimination in all corners of the world. I’m their mom, I work on women’s rights at Human Rights Watch, and I talk about it.

But the Franken story hits close to home.

A few months ago, I took my sons to Washington, and like many tourists do, we took a Capitol tour guided by Senate staff – in our case a Franken employee. Franken’s staffer pointed out statues of women suffragists and Rosa Parks. The kids and I talked about Franken, and took pride in our Senator supporting women’s rights causes.

And now this.

If these are the only incidents, it may be that Franken’s actions were less menacing than what victims have described about Harvey Weinstein, Roy Moore, and too many other men in positions of power. But they’re horrifying nonetheless.

What Tweeden describes represents the lower-level, ongoing harassment women frequently face – harassment that wears us down and forces some women to give up on the career of their dreams, change jobs, or leave the workforce altogether.

Franken has apologized. There will be an ethics investigation, and perhaps more. It matters that Franken and men like him, and the institutions they work for, examine their actions and take responsibility. Beyond any single case, we need systems to prevent sexual harassment, support survivors, and hold perpetrators accountable. 

My colleagues and I at Human Rights Watch work every day to fight harassment, violence, and discrimination against women around the world. We push for policy reforms and justice. We face the challenge of government apathy, or officials being perpetrators themselves. Sometimes we face well-meaning people who just don’t get it.

Many of us are also parents, facing the daily challenge of raising our kids in a sexist world. How can I ensure that my sons are not among the next generation of abusers?

As my son stared at the photo of Franken, I searched his face. To my relief, I saw signs that he gets it.

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Cambodia: Supreme Court Dissolves Democracy

Cambodia: Supreme Court Dissolves Democracy


Police officers stand guard at the Supreme Court during a hearing to decide whether to dissolve the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, November 16, 2017. 

© 2017 Samrang Pring/Reuters

(New York) – Cambodia’s government-controlled Supreme Court on November 16, 2017, dissolved the main opposition party and imposed political bans of five years on 118 of its members, Human Rights Watch said today.

30 Years of Hun Sen

Violence, Repression, and Corruption in Cambodia

“Hun Sen’s actions to remove the main opposition party and its members is a naked power grab, canceling the votes of millions of Cambodians in previous elections and rendering next year’s national elections meaningless,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Democracy died in Cambodia today and it’s hard to see it reviving so long as Hun Sen, in power for 32 years, remains as prime minister. This is a watershed moment, requiring a strong and concerted international response. It’s time for action, not words.”

Democracy died in Cambodia today and it’s hard to see it reviving so long as Hun Sen, in power for 32 years, remains as prime minister. This is a watershed moment, requiring a strong and concerted international response. It’s time for action, not words.

Brad Adams

Asia Director

The court ruling should lead to quick action by Cambodia’s donors and trade partners to impose targeted sanctions, including asset freezes and travel bans, on Prime Minister Hun Sen and senior members of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and armed forces.

The removal of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) means there will be no significant opposition party to challenge the CPP in 2018 national elections.

The European Union, Japan, and other donors should immediately suspend all financial and technical election assistance for the 2018 elections unless the CNRP is fully reinstated and permitted to compete.

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Burma: Widespread Rape of Rohingya Women, Girls

Burma: Widespread Rape of Rohingya Women, Girls

Burmese security forces have committed widespread rape against women and girls as part of a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Rohingya Muslims in Burma’s Rakhine State.

(New York) – Burmese security forces have committed widespread rape against women and girls as part of a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Rohingya Muslims in Burma’s Rakhine State, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

“All of My Body Was Pain”

Sexual Violence against Rohingya Women and Girls in Bur

The 37-page report, “‘All of My Body Was Pain’: Sexual Violence Against Rohingya Women and Girls in Burma,” documents the Burmese military’s gang rape of Rohingya women and girls and further acts of violence, cruelty, and humiliation. Many women described witnessing the murders of their young children, spouses, and parents. Rape survivors reported days of agony walking with swollen and torn genitals while fleeing to Bangladesh.

“Rape has been a prominent and devastating feature of the Burmese military’s campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya,” said Skye Wheeler, women’s rights emergencies researcher at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. “The Burmese military’s barbaric acts of violence have left countless women and girls brutally harmed and traumatized.” 

Rohingya women refugees who crossed the Naf River from Burma into Bangladesh continue inland toward refugee camps.


Rohingya women refugees who crossed the Naf River from Burma into Bangladesh continue inland toward refugee camps. Tek Naf, Cox’s Bazar district, Bangladesh. @2017 Anastasia Taylor-Lind


@2017 Anastasia Taylor-Lind, Tek Naf, Cox’s Bazar district, Bangladesh

Since August 25, 2017, the Burmese military has committed killings, rapes, arbitrary arrests, and mass arson of homes in hundreds of predominantly Rohingya villages in northern Rakhine State, forcing more than 600,000 Rohingya to flee to neighboring Bangladesh. Human Rights Watch has found that these abuses amount to crimes against humanity under international law. The military operations were sparked by attacks by the armed group the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) on 30 security force outposts and an army base that killed 11 Burmese security personnel.

Human Rights Watch interviewed 52 Rohingya women and girls who had fled to Bangladesh, including 29 rape survivors, 3 of them girls under 18, as well as 19 representatives of humanitarian organizations, United Nations agencies, and the Bangladeshi government. The rape survivors came from 19 villages in Rakhine State.

Burmese soldiers raped women and girls both during major attacks on villages and in the weeks prior to these attacks after repeated harassment, Human Rights Watch found. In every case described to Human Rights Watch, the rapists were uniformed members of Burmese security forces, almost all military personnel. Ethnic Rakhine villagers, acting in apparent coordination with Burmese military, sexually harassed Rohingya women and girls, often in connection with looting.

Fifteen-year-old Hala Sadak, from Hathi Para village in Maungdaw Township, said soldiers had stripped her naked and then dragged her from her home to a nearby tree where, she estimates, about 10 men raped her from behind. She said, “They left me where I was…when my brother and sister came to get me, I was lying there on the ground, they thought I was dead.”

All but one of the rapes reported to Human Rights Watch were gang rapes. In six reported cases of “mass rape,” survivors said that soldiers gathered Rohingya women and girls into groups and then gang raped or raped them. Many of those interviewed also said that witnessing soldiers killing their family members was the most traumatic part of the attacks. They described soldiers bashing the heads of their young children against trees, throwing children and elderly parents into burning houses, and shooting their husbands.

Humanitarian organizations working with refugees in Bangladesh have reported hundreds of rape cases. These most likely only represent a small proportion of the actual number because of the significant number of reported cases of rape victims being killed and the deep stigma that makes victims reluctant to report sexual violence, especially in crowded emergency health clinics with little privacy. Two-thirds of rape survivors interviewed had not reported their rape to authorities or humanitarian organizations.

Many reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder or depression, and untreated injuries, including vaginal tears and bleeding, and infections.

“One tragic dimension of this horrific crisis is that Rohingya women and girls are suffering profound physical and mental trauma without getting needed health care,” Wheeler said. “Bangladeshi authorities and aid agencies need to do more community outreach among the Rohingya to provide confidential spaces to report abuse and reduce stigma around sexual violence.”

Burmese authorities have rejected the growing documentation of sexual violence by the military.  In September, the Rakhine state border security minister denied the reports. “Where is the proof?” he said. “Look at those women who are making these claims – would anyone want to rape them?”

Human Rights Watch previously documented widespread rape of women and girls during military “clearance operations” in late 2016 in northern Rakhine State, allegations the Burmese government crudely rejected as “fake rape.” In general, the government and military have failed to hold military personnel accountable for grave abuses against ethnic minority populations.  Multiple biased and poorly conducted investigations in Rakhine State largely dismissed the allegations of these abuses.

Burma’s government should end the violations against the Rohingya immediately, cooperate fully with international investigators, including the Fact-Finding Mission established by the UN Human Rights Council, and allow humanitarian aid organizations unimpeded access to Rakhine State.

Bangladesh and international donors have acted quickly to provide relief for the refugees, and are expanding assistance for rape survivors. Concerned governments should also impose travel bans and asset freezes on Burmese military officials implicated in human rights abuses; expand existing arms embargoes to include all military sales, assistance, and cooperation; and ban financial transactions with key Burmese military-owned enterprises.

The UN Security Council should impose a full arms embargo on Burma and individual sanctions against military leaders responsible for grave violations of human rights, including sexual violence. The council should also refer the situation in Rakhine State to the International Criminal Court. It should request a public briefing from the UN special representative of the secretary-general for sexual violence in conflict, who just returned from the Rohingya camps in Bangladesh.

“UN bodies and member countries need to work together to press Burma to end the atrocities, ensure that those responsible are held to account, and address the massive problems facing the Rohingya, including victims of sexual violence,” Wheeler said. “The time for consequences is now, otherwise future Burmese military attacks on the Rohingya community appear inevitable.”

Selected accounts from Human Rights Watch interviews

  • Fatima Begum, 33, was raped one day before she fled a major attack on her village of Chut Pyin in Rathedaung Township during which dozens of people were massacred. She said: “I was held down by six men and raped by five of them. First, they [shot and] killed my brother … then they threw me to the side and one man tore my lungi [sarong], grabbed me by the mouth and held me still. He stuck a knife into my side and kept it there while the men were raping me. That was how they kept me in place. … I was trying to move and [the wound] was bleeding more. They were threatening to shoot me.”
  • Shaju Hosin, 30, saw one of her children killed when she fled their home village of Tin May, Buthiduang Township. She said: “I have three kids now. I had another one – Khadija – she was 5-years-old. When we were running from the village she was killed, in the attack. She was running last, less fast, trying to catch up with us. A soldier swung at her with his gun and bashed her head in, after that she fell down. We kept running.”
  • After her village was attacked, Mamtaz, Yunis, 33, and other women and men fled to the hills. Burmese soldiers trapped her and about 20 other women for a night and two days without food or shelter on the side of a hill. She said the soldiers raped women in front of the gathered women, or took individual women away, and then returned the women, silent and ashamed, to the group. She said, “The men in uniform, they were grabbing the women, pulling a lot of women, they pulled my clothes off and tore them off…. There were so many women … we were weeping but there was nothing we could do.” 
  • Isharhat Islam, 40, was raped by soldiers during military operations in her village Hathi Para (Sin Thay Pyin) in October 2016 and then again during the recent military operations. She described the stigma she faces, saying, “I have had to deal with disgust, others looking away from me.”
  • Three of Toyuba Yahya’s six children were killed just outside her house in Hathi Para (Sin Thay Pyin) village in Maungdaw Township. Then seven men in military uniform raped her. She said that soldiers killed two of her sons, ages 2 and 3. by beating their heads against the trunk of a tree outside her home. The soldiers then killed her 5-year-old daughter. She said: “My baby … I wanted him to be alive but he slowly died afterward … My daughter, they picked her high up and then smashed her against the ground. She was killed. I do not know why they did that. [Now] I can’t eat, I can’t sleep. Instead: thoughts, thoughts, thoughts, thoughts. I can’t rest. My child wants to go home. He doesn’t understand that everything has been lost.”

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Burma: Withdraw Protest Ban in Yangon

Burma: Withdraw Protest Ban in Yangon


Students attend a protest to mark the 55th anniversary of the military’s suppression of student protests in 1962 at Yangon University, Yangon, Burma on July 7, 2017.

© 2017 Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun

A Burmese ministry’s ban on assemblies and processions in central Yangon deprives people of their basic right to peaceful protest, Human Rights Watch said today. Burma’s friends and donors should remind the government of its stated commitments to protect basic rights such as freedom of assembly, association, and expression.

The ban, reportedly set forth in a directive issued in early November 2017 by Yangon Region Security and Border Affairs Minister Col. Aung Soe Moe, instructs police in 11 townships in Yangon to deny all applications for processions or assemblies to avoid “public annoyance and anxiety.” The directive sets aside one small area of Yangon for all protests.

The directive should be withdrawn and the police should instead be instructed to ensure that assemblies take place in safety, and to manage traffic to minimize any disruption.

Brad Adams

Asia Director

“There is no legitimate reason for imposing a ban on all protests in major sections of Burma’s largest city,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “This directive was issued by a military officer and should be seen by the civilian government as a direct challenge to its commitment to basic rights for Burmese citizens. The government needs to reverse this ban and uphold the rule of law and refuse to capitulate to arbitrary actions by the military.”

Under international human rights law, governments are obligated to facilitate peaceful assemblies within sight and sound of their target audience.

The directive, which precludes protests near Yangon’s City Hall, most government offices, and many foreign embassies, makes it impossible for those protesting against government policies or acts of foreign governments to demonstrate anywhere near the target of their protests.

While governments can impose reasonable time, place, or manner restrictions on specific assemblies, they have the burden of showing that doing so is necessary to protect a legitimate interest, and that the restriction is a proportionate response to the perceived risk. The stated justifications for the ban, which include public nuisance and traffic congestion, are insufficient to justify the broad and open-ended burden placed on the right to peaceful assembly. As United Nations human rights experts have made clear, a certain level of disruption to ordinary life caused by assemblies, including disruption of traffic, annoyance, and even harm to commercial activities, must be tolerated if the right to peaceful assembly is not to be deprived of substance.

More importantly, a blanket ban on all assemblies in a given area is by nature disproportionate because it precludes consideration of the specific circumstances of each proposed assembly.

The directive also appears to conflict with Burma’s Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law, enacted in October 2016. That law, while flawed, was a step forward in protection of freedom of assembly in Burma. Unlike the assembly law it replaced, which required organizers to get government “consent” for any assembly or procession, the 2016 law requires only that organizers give notice of a planned assembly or procession 48 hours in advance. It does not authorize the police to deny permission for the protest or procession, and only the Ministry of Home Affairs – also controlled by the military – is authorized to issue bylaws, regulations, and orders governing the implementation of the law.

“Central Yangon should not become a protest-free zone,” Adams said. “The directive should be withdrawn and the police should instead be instructed to ensure that assemblies take place in safety, and to manage traffic to minimize any disruption.”

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