By Libby Hogan
When Tang Seng heard gunshots close to his village in Myanmar, he had a choice: carry his grandmother away from the fighting on his back or run for help. She asked him to kill her and leave her there but he refused.
Tang Seng walked out of his village carrying Supna Hkawn Bu to a makeshift camp for the displaced, where they remain with their family. She has had to flee from conflict five times in her life and didn’t speak for two days when they first arrived.
War in Myanmar is synonymous with the Rohingya crisis but Tang Seng and his grandmother are not Rohingya refugees. They are from the country’s north, in the state of Kachin, where another brutal but far less well publicised conflict is playing out between the largely Christian minority group and government militias.
The humanitarian crisis in Syria is worse this year than ever before in the country’s seven-year-old civil war, a United Nations official said on Friday.
“We see in 2018 the humanitarian situation inside Syria being the worst we have seen since the war started: a very dramatic deterioration, massive displacement, disrespect of protection of civilians and people’s lives still being turned upside down,” Panos Moumtzis, U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator for the Syria crisis, said in Beirut.
Syria is the worst place in modern history in terms of attacks on healthcare workers and facilities, accounting for 70 percent of all such attacks worldwide, he said.
U.N. data shows 89 healthcare workers died in 92 confirmed military attacks on healthcare facilities between Jan 1 and May 4, compared to 73 killed in 112 attacks in the whole of 2017, U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator for the Syria crisis.
The two areas which saw the most healthcare attacks in 2018 were Eastern Ghouta and Idlib.
Eastern Ghouta had been the largest rebel-held pocket near the capital Damascus, but came back under government control in mid-April after a fierce offensive.
Idlib, in northwest Syria, is the largest remaining area under opposition control, containing around 2.5 million people.
Idlib’s population has ballooned over the course of the conflict, with people there from fighting inn other areas. The government has also transferred a large number of rebel fighters and their families to Idlib as part of surrender deals elsewhere in Syria.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has vowed to take back every inch of Syria.
Moumtzis said the U.N. does not want to see a repeat of what happened in Ghouta happen in Idlib. He urged the warring sides to come to a peaceful solution.
Moumtzis also said he was concerned about poor aid access in Syria.
In 2017, 27 percent of requests made by the U.N. to Syrian authorities for permission to deliver aid were granted. In the first four months of 2018 only seven percent were granted, Moumtzis said.
The number of people designated by the U.N. as living in besieged areas has fallen dramatically this year to stand at 11,100, after the Syrian government took back control of almost all rebel-held pockets around the capital Damascus.
But 2.05 million people in need of humanitarian assistance still live in hard-to-reach areas, the U.N. said.
Published on Reuters on May 18, 2018
By Fabiana Frayssinet
Child labour has been substantially reduced in Latin America, but 5.7 million children below the legal minimum age are still working and a large proportion of them work in precarious, high-risk conditions or are unpaid, which constitute new forms of slave labour.
For the International Labor Organisation (ILO) child labour includes children working before they reach the minimum legal age or carrying out work that should be prohibited, according to Convention 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labour, in force since 2000.
The vast majority of these children work in agriculture, but many also work in high-risk sectors such as mining, domestic labour, fireworks manufacturing and fishing.
Three countries in the region, Brazil, Mexico and Paraguay, exemplify child labour, which includes forms of modern-day slavery.
Cambodian authorities should quash the politically motivated “insurrection” convictions against 11 members, supporters, and activists of Cambodia’s now dissolved main opposition party, Human Rights Watch said today. Cambodia’s Court of Appeal is scheduled to announce its decision on an appeal by the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) members, who had received sentences of from 7 to 20 years, on May 10, 2018.“The prosecution of 11 CNRP members was one of the first of many bogus cases brought against the opposition after the party nearly won the disputed 2013 elections,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Prime Minister Hun Sen and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party apparently decided to lock up political opponents to stave off defeat at the ballot box.”
Zimbabwe’s colonial-era public health laws must be revised to guarantee the human rights, and the dignity and equality of everyone, including adolescent girls who bear the brunt of existing discrimination, Amnesty International said today, ahead of the parliamentary debate on the Public Health Act Amendment Bill.
The organization warned that Article 35 of the Bill, as it stands now, could put adolescent girls’ health at further risk, as it implies that anyone under 18 years of age will not have legal capacity to consent to receiving health services and information.
“For too long adolescent girls in Zimbabwe have suffered the consequences of inconsistent laws which are used to deny them their sexual and reproductive rights. This, combined with the shame and stigma around adolescent sexual health services, means young girls face an increased risk of unwanted pregnancies and HIV infection,” said Muleya Mwananyanda, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for Southern Africa.
Saudi Arabia is detaining thousands of people for more than six months, in some cases for over a decade, without referring them to courts for criminal proceedings, Human Rights Watch said today. Saudi Arabia’s attorney general should promptly charge or release all criminal defendants and stop holding people arbitrarily.Human Rights Watch analyzed data from a public online Interior Ministry database, which revealed that authorities have detained 2,305 people who are under investigation for more than six months without referring them to a judge. The number held for excessively long periods has apparently increased dramatically in recent years. A similar Human Rights Watch analysis in May 2014 revealed that only 293 people had been held under investigation for that period.
By Satoshi Matsui
Three years have passed since roughly 9,000 people died in a massive earthquake in Nepal. In the aftermath of the disaster with no way to earn money, there has been no end to cases of women and children falling victim to human trafficking across the Indian border.
"I was locked in a dark room all day, and there were days where I would be forced to service 20 people. I wasn't allowed to even see the light of the sun, and I thought about dying over and over again," a 24-year-old Nepali woman who fell victim to trafficking and was forced into prostitution for roughly nine months in New Delhi said in a quivering voice. She was rescued by a nongovernmental organization (NGO) in May 2017.
The woman comes from the eastern part of Nepal. The farm where she lived and worked was destroyed by the April 2015 earthquake, and she lost her job. She worked as a cook at a hotel after that, but once rent was deducted from her monthly paycheck, she was only left with 500 Nepalese rupees (approximately 510 yen) to buy food.
With few options, a male acquaintance told her that he knew of a safe job in India where she could make money, and she crossed the border in a bus accompanied by the man. But where they eventually arrived was a brothel in New Delhi.
"They watched me carefully and I couldn't escape," she said. "There are many women who are suffering in the same conditions."
According to Indian authorities, the number of Nepali victims rescued on the border rose to 336 in 2015, the year of the quake, while there had only been 33 cases the previous year. In 2016, that number further grew to 501, and ballooned to 607 people in 2017. The majority of those who have been rescued are women aged 16 or younger, and many of them were about to be sold into prostitution.
The Nepali government is also taking countermeasures against the alarming trend, and has already saved roughly 13,600 people before they could fall victim to human trafficking during the 2016 fiscal year.
"The overall number of cases of human trafficking is growing," said Santosh Sedhai, head of investigations for NGO Rescue Foundation, which is leading efforts to save victims. "The traffickers have already thought of how to escape capture." Concerning the present conditions in Nepal three years after the deadly quake, he added, "The tourism industry has recovered, but there are many victims still struggling to make a living. Support for victims and economic growth are important issues."
Published on The Mainichi on April 29, 2018
By Libby Brooks
Scotland has taken control of its welfare system in a transfer of power from Westminster that campaigners have praised for recognising social security as a human right.
The first devolved welfare system also offers automatic split payments of universal credit to protect women’s financial autonomy and aims to end unnecessary disability assessments.
As the Holyrood parliament unanimously passed the final stage of the social security (Scotland) bill on Wednesday evening, the director of the Poverty Alliance, Peter Kelly, said it offered the possibility of the new welfare system playing a very different role in Scotland.
“With almost daily reports of the impact of the cuts to social security at the UK level, such as the freeze on levels of many UK benefits or the roll out of universal credit, it is time to show that a different approach is possible.”
The new powers, part of the package promised to the Scottish parliament after the 2014 independence referendum, account for 15% of Scotland’s total benefits bill and will affect 1.4 million people.
Eleven benefits are being wholly transferred, including disability living allowance and personal independence payments, along with the opportunity to top up existing payments and create new ones.
The bill was passed after an intense afternoon of debate, which showcased the cross-party and third sector expertise that has shaped the landmark bill, alongside the input of ordinary Scots canvassed in a country-wide consultation.
There were a number of significant last-minute amendments to the legislation, including the removal of any time limit on terminal illness. It was brought by the social security minister, Jeane Freeman, after senior medical professionals called for its inclusion. Current rules for disability benefits and universal credit say a patient must have six months or less to live before their illness is classed as terminal.
The feminist campaign group Engender welcomed the success of Labour MSP Mark Griffin’s amendment on split payments, in particular for those 89% of domestically abused women who experience financial restrictions by their partner.
Both the Poverty Alliance and the Child Poverty Action Group Scotland called on Freeman to reconsider Griffin’s unsuccessful amendment to top up child benefit by £5 a week, which he insisted would lift 30,000 children out of poverty. The Scottish government argued that the framework bill for the new powers was not the appropriate place for such a change.
Presenting the final bill to Holyrood, Freeman said: “The devolution of social security represents the greatest single increase in the responsibilities of this parliament since devolution. Today we write a new chapter in our history, a system built for the people of Scotland, designed in partnership with the people of Scotland, a system with dignity, fairness and respect at its heart, a system quite unlike any other that has gone before.”
The new system will include an unprecedented degree of independent scrutiny, put in place after anti-poverty groups expressed concerns about the extent to which the detail of new benefits is being left to regulations, rather than included within primary legislation, which could make it easier for subsequent governments to cut payments or change eligibility criteria.
Published on The Guardian on April 25, 20`8
Testimony of Maria Burnett, East and Horn of Africa Director, at the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission.
Co-Chairman Hultgren and members of the Commission, thank you for the invitation to testify today.
Thousands of Eritreans, many of them young, flee Eritrea every month. This means Eritrea is losing a significant percentage of its population – by far the largest of any country not wracked by active conflict. UNHCR reported that at the end of 2016 there were 459,000 Eritreans who had claimed asylum worldwide in African states, in the Middle East, in Europe and here in the United States. Eritrea does not release population statistics, but estimations put that at more than 10% of Eritrea’s current population.
Based on Human Rights Watch research, Eritreans’ most predominant impetus for flight is to escape what is known as “national service.” By a proclamation issued in 1995, all Eritreans are subject to 18 months of national service, including six months of military training. Eritrean law requires Eritreans leaving the country to hold an exit permit which the authorities only issue selectively, severely punishing those caught trying to leave without one, including with jail time.
To be clear, limited terms of national conscription do not, in themselves, constitute human rights violations. But it is not limited in Eritrea. The Eritrean government disregards the proclamation’s time limits. Many conscripts are forced to serve indefinitely. Human Rights Watch has interviewed hundreds of Eritreans who were forced to serve a decade or more before they decided to flee -- in one recent case, a man had been in forced national service for over 17 years.
While some fortunate conscripts are assigned to civil service jobs or as teachers, many are placed in military units assigned to work on “development” projects in agriculture and infrastructure. None have a choice about their assignments, the locations or length of their service.
In the past few years, more and more unaccompanied children have fled Eritrea. When interviewed in Europe, they’ve explained they feared being forced into possibly indefinite military service. Many children told us they had observed what had happened to their fathers, older siblings, or other close relatives who had been conscripted and didn’t want to suffer the same fate.
It’s not just the length of time that causes so many conscripts to flee. What happens to them during their years of service is also devastating.
Pay during national service is below subsistence, although the Eritrean government has recently announced increases for some conscripts. The United Nations Commission of Inquiry in 2015 correctly called Eritrea’s national service a form of “enslavement.” During service, commanders subject conscripts to physical abuse, including torture.
An 18-year-old boy, interviewed by Human Rights Watch summed up what many have told us: “We love our country, but when you finish Grade 12, you become a soldier for life. You cannot feed your family and you’re the property of the army. And I did not want that, so I was forced to flee.”
The abuses in national service are long standing and well-documented, and recent interviews reveal that, sadly, nothing has changed in recent years.
National service may be the leading cause of the Eritrean exodus but there are others of significance.
Citizens cannot express their views or question government policies affecting them. There is no legislative representation, no independent press, no independent non-governmental organizations to which citizens can turn. The judiciary is tightly controlled by the government. President Isaias has refused to implement a constitution approved by referendum in 1997 that confers some citizens’ basic rights.
Eritreans who criticize or question government policies during government-called community assemblies, or in more limited fora, have been punished without trial or means of appeal. Suspicion alone may be enough to lead to arrest; often a prisoner is not told what “crime” he or she has committed. Indefinite imprisonment is a usual punishment, sometimes accompanied by physical abuse. Imprisonment can be incommunicado; relatives are not told of the whereabouts of a prisoner, much less allowed to visit.
Relatives of those that speak out are also punished. They are denied government ration cards to buy scarce but essential provisions.
Eritreans are punished for having the “wrong” religious beliefs. Since 2002, the government has “recognized” only four religious groups: Sunni Islam and the Eritrean Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Evangelical (Lutheran) churches.
At times, security personnel raid private homes where devotees of unrecognized religions meet for communal prayer. Arrests and imprisonment of attendees usually follow; so, sometimes, does physical abuse. Repudiation of his or her religion is typically the price of a prisoner’s release.
Even adherents and leaders of the “recognized” religions are not necessarily immune from punishment. [as Father Thomas will already have explained to the Commission in detail.]
But unfortunately, abuses do not stop when people leave Eritrea. Fleeing Eritreans are often victimized by their smugglers especially those trying to reach the Mediterranean Sea to get to Europe. Abuses are rampant in Sudan, Egypt and Libya en route and hundreds have died trying to cross the Mediterranean. Those who survived have told Human Rights Watch interviewers of horrific stories about the dangers they encountered during their journey but insisted it was worth their escape from oppression. One boy, interviewed in Italy after his three-month journey from Eritrea, told Human Rights Watch: “I fled my country [Eritrea] because of all the problems I had while I was in the army. I don’t want to be a soldier but they beat me and tortured me when I was caught trying to escape. When I finally got out I thought I would be free, but I was beaten and tortured even worse in Sudan and Libya by smugglers. Crossing the sea was terrifying, but I am so relieved to finally be here.”
There are steps that the Eritrean government could take to stem migration, and importantly address the human rights crisis that has wracked the country. Eritrea could end indefinite national service and begin the process of demobilizing conscripts. It could penalize military commanders and security officers who authorize torture and other forms of severe physical punishment. It could unconditionally release political prisoners or bring anyone it considers an offender before a truly independent court of law. It could stop interference with all forms of peaceful religious expression. It could allow establishment of an independent press and non-governmental organizations. It could publicly affirm – and enforce – rights to freedom of expression, opinion, religion, association, and movement.
Unfortunately, the Eritrean government has steadfastly refused to change. In the absence of willingness by the Eritrean government to end its abuses and bring abusers to justice, other countries should investigate and prosecute individuals suspected of committing serious crimes under the principle of universal jurisdiction and in accordance with their national laws.
Countries concerned by human rights abuses of Eritreans, and their efforts at migrating should work to undercut the Eritrean government’s public excuses for repression and protect the Eritreans who have fled from being repatriated to suffer further abuse.
With a new Secretary of State confirmation underway we expect to see some change at senior State Department levels [and this could mark the beginning of a new approach on Eritrea.] During Mike Pompeo’s confirmation hearing he said he was a “talent hawk.” If that is the case, we hope he will fill the position for Africa Assistant Secretary quickly and nominate someone who is well versed in issues and challenges related to the Horn of Africa – and not just counterterrorism or security related ones.
In 2002 an international boundary commission was established to demarcate the border between Eritrea and Ethiopia. The United States was a guarantor of an armistice agreement ending a 1998-2000 border war that established the international commission. While both sides agreed to accept the findings of the international commission as binding, Ethiopia refused to accept the findings when the final decision was to award a key piece of territory to Eritrea. President Isaias uses the border issue – of “no peace, no war” – as the principal excuse for his repressive policies. While both sides have been firmly entrenched in their positions, there may be an opening for reconsideration as Ethiopia’s new prime minister Dr Abiy Ahmed recently expressed his desire to resolve disputes with Eritrea after, in his own words “years of misunderstandings.”
The United States and other countries should urgently take steps to protect the Eritreans who have managed to flee the government’s oppression, should take into consideration the pattern of serious human rights abuses in Eritrea in examining asylum claims, and ensure that no one is returned to a threat of persecution or torture.
Last September, the U.S Departments of Homeland Security and State announced an intent to repatriate about 700 Eritrean individuals. The government should take care to ensure that all of those individuals have a genuine opportunity to advance any claims for protection in light of human rights conditions in Eritrea, if they have not done so already.
By shedding light on what’s happening to Eritreans in Eritrea and in countries of potential asylum, this Commission is performing a welcome and important public service.
Published on HRW on April 19, 2018