Tunisian Authorities Pledges to Stop Forced Anal Examinations for Homosexuality

By: Adam King
Impunity Rights News Reporter, Africa

Tunisian authorities recently announced a change to compulsory anal examinations for accusations of homosexuality. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

TUNIS, Tunisia – Tunisian authorities recently announced that it would be ending its current practice of forcing those who face accusations of homosexuality to undergo mandatory anal testing.  In Tunisia, a judge has the power to compel a defendant accused of homosexuality to undergo an anal examination to collect evidence against the defendant. Under the new policy, defendants would be able to refuse the examination.  According to Mehdi Ben Gharbia ( a Tunisian politician), “judges can still request that a suspect undergo the test but that person has every right to refuse, without his refusal being held up as proof of homosexuality”.

The United Nations and other human rights organizations have equated the practice of mandatory anal exams to torture. In March 2016, Human Rights Watch released a report detailing instances of forceful abuse of the anal examination protocol against Tunisian citizens.  One victim recalled his experience with the examination process,

“[T]he policeman took me outside to a small garden. He hit me. He slapped me on the face and punched me on the shoulder and said “You will do the test.” The doctor was not watching, but he knew I was being beaten. The policeman pushed me back into the room and said to the doctor, “He will do the test…..He entered one finger inside my anus, with cream on it. He put his finger in and was looking. While putting his finger in, he asked “Are you ok now?” I said, “No, I’m not okay.” It was painful…Then he put in a tube. It was to see if there was sperm. He pushed the tube far inside. It was about the length of a finger. It felt painful. I felt like I was an animal, because I felt like I didn’t have any respect. I felt like they were violating me. I feel that up to now. It’s very hard for me.”

Amnesty International covered the issue of abuse against homosexual and transgender persons in Tunisia originally in 2015. In their report, they detailed the challenges that homosexual and transgender persons faced when trying to seek redress for the harms against them,

“In some cases, instead of duly investigating these homophobic and transphobic crimes – as is their obligation under international law – the police warned or openly threatened survivors, including lesbian women, to drop their complaints if they did not wish to be prosecuted themselves. In other cases police officers have exploited LGBTI people’s fears of prosecution to subject them to blackmail, extortion and, at times, sexual abuse. Gay men and transgender individuals who do not want to be arrested are often forced to bribe police officers and give up their phones or other valuables.”

While this measure will provide more protection to those accused of homosexuality, there are still some uncertainties around the proposal.  First, there is no set date when the measure will go into effect.  The policy is the proposition stage, with no indication as to how soon the measure will be enacted. The Tunisian medical council actually banned the practice in April of 2017, but that ban served more as a declaratory opinion rather than a legally binding mandate. Second, while the refusal of taking the exam is claimed to not be used as evidence against a defendant, the subjective outcomes may be different. As the victim detailed in the Human Rights Watch report, the coercion and violence can be used to compel a defendant to take the examination long before he comes in front of a judge.  This leaves an open question as to whether the change will adequately protect those accused of homosexuality. 

While much progress has been made since the coup of former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the progress is still met with staunch opposition.  Tunisia is still a Muslim country that adheres to the pillars of Islam.  The measure also does not have broader implications for the acceptance of homosexuality in Tunisia. The measure for example does not make homosexuality legal in Tunisia, “Homosexuality is still punishable by three years in jail under Article 230 of Tunisia’s criminal code, which President Beji Caid Essebsi has said would not be repealed.”

For more information, please see:

Daily Mail UK — ‘Tunisia vows to ban anal examinations on ‘suspected homosexuals’ to determine if they are gay’ — 22 September 2017

Independent — ‘Tunisia medical council bans forced anal tests for homosexuality after nearly decade of abuse’ — 12 April 2017

Independent — ‘Tunisia is jailing men for having gay sex and forcing them to undergo anal exams, human rights group claims’ — 30 March 2016

Human Rights Watch — ‘Tunisia: Men Prosecuted for Homosexuality, Abuses in Detention, Prison’ — 29 March, 2016

Amnesty International — ‘Challenging Tunisia’s homophobic taboos’ — 30 September 2015

Upcoming Liberia Elections Signal New Chapter for Democracy

By: Adam King
Impunity Rights News Reporter, Africa

President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf addressing UN General Body. Photo courtesy of UN News Centre.

MONROVIA, Liberia – Democracy hasn’t come easy for Liberia: a country ravaged with civil warfare aplenty.  October 10, 2017 will mark a historic achievement for Liberia. President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly, proclaimed the achievement:

“The [legislative and presidential polls] will mark the first time in 73 years that political power will be handed over peacefully, and democratically, from one elected leader to another….Democracy is on the march in Liberia and, I believe, on an irreversible path forward on the African continent.”

Liberia has gone almost a century without a peaceful transition of power from one government to the other.  President Sirleaf’s achievement in being the first woman to be elected in a democratic election on the African continent is right on par with the anticipated peaceful transition of power.  Former United States President Barack Obama underscores the importance of a peaceful transition of power in his farewell address:

“In 10 days, the world will witness a hallmark of our democracy:  the peaceful transfer of power from one freely elected president to the next…it’s up to all of us to make sure our government can help us meet the many challenges we still face…But that potential will be realized only if our democracy works.  Only if our politics reflects the decency of the our people.  Only if all of us, regardless of our party affiliation or particular interest, help restore the sense of common purpose that we so badly need right now.”

President Sirleaf echoed Mr. Obama’s sentiments in the view that she has for Liberia going forward:

“Liberia’s transformation was powered by a world community that made a shared commitment to deliver peace to a country, and a subregion, beset by civil conflict and cross border destabilization. The UN and its partner nations were of one mind, and from that global unity, a new Liberian democratic state was born. Liberia is a post conflict success story. It is your post conflict success story.”

President Sirleaf assumed the presidency at a time when Liberia was facing stagnant development and civil war. Despite those challenges, Liberia has erected a new foundation through government restructuring and citizen engagement. President Sirleaf commented on some of the initiatives that have helped to revitalize the country:

“Further, previously dysfunctional public institutions now have the capacity to respond to the needs of our citizens through decentralized county service centers with ownership by strong local governments. And from the tragedy of the health crisis, we are strengthening our healthcare systems, prioritizing prevention and delivering capacity at the community level.”

Much remains to be seen as to how Liberia will fair upon the departure of President Sirleaf.  The local election commissions in Liberia are taking sizable precautions to safeguard the electoral process.  In addition to training for its volunteers, the government will be providing upwards of 6,000 security servicemen to assist with order on election day.  The field of candidates for the presidency is quite extensive (upwards of 20), leaving doubt as to what direction Liberia will take once the new president is elected and assumes power. While President Sirleaf has ushered in some notable achievements in here tenure, it has not all been free of scrutiny.   

The tenure of President Sirleaf herself has also been questioned by some.  Most recently, President Sirleaf proposed a law entitled the “Presidential Transition Act”.  According to the Liberian Observer, the act contained provisions related to peaceful transitioning of the government and protection provisions for the president and vice president including vehicles, security and dependent benefits. There were other parts of the law that were more controversial.  Some have argued that this bill could be used to shield President Sirleaf from charges of corruption for example.  President Sirleaf has since withdrawn the bill as of September 17, 2017.

For more information, please see:

Front Page Africa — 6,000 Security Officers to Guard Polling Stations on During Elections — 20 September 2017

Liberian Observer — Ellen Dispels Notion of Living in Fear after Tenure — 20 September 2017

UN News Centre — “Upcoming elections will signal Liberia’s ‘irreversible course’ towards democracy, President Sirleaf tells UN” — 19 September 2017

United Nations — “Focusing on People: Striving for Peace and Decent Life for All on a Sustainable Planet” — 19 September 2017

Bloomberg — Liberia Elections Body Says 20 Candidates Will Vie for President — 31 July 2017

Los Angeles Times — Read the full transcript of President Obama’s farewell speech — 10 January 2017

Syrian Activist and her Daughter Murdered in Turkey

By Jenilyn Brhel
Impunity Watch Reporter, Europe

ISTANBUL, Turkey – A Syrian activist and her daughter, a journalist, were fatally stabbed in their home on September 21st in Istanbul’s Uskudar neighborhood.

Orouba Barakat and her daughter, Halla. Photo Courtesy of BBC News.

Orouba Barakat, 60, and her daughter, Halla, 23, were found stabbed to death in their Istanbul apartment.

Orouba was a prominent activist for the Syrian National Coalition, although she was critical of some of the opposition groups. She left Syria in the 1980s and worked for some time covering economic and political affairs for Arab newspapers. She had recently been investigating allegations of torture in prisons run by the Assad regime.

Halla was born in North Carolina. She was a freelance journalist for Orient News, TRT World and ABC News. Friends contacted police when Halla did not show up for work.

In the weeks leading up to their deaths, both women had received threats from Syrian regime supporters. A Turkish newspaper, The Cuhhiryet, published details indicating there were similarities between the killings of the mother and daughter and those known to have been committed by the Islamic State.

Family members believe that the killings were perpetrated by the Assad government. Orouba and Halla had been critical of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime.

Orouba’s sister, Shaza, said of the killings “We accuse the Syrian regime, the gangs, because we are against the unjust government, this deadly oppressor, which has killed three quarters of the Syrians and displaced the rest, and destroyed all of Syria.”

Another relative, Suzanne Barakat, noted that the women “were vocal activists in the Syrian revolution, speaking truth to power, and raising awareness about the atrocities committed by the Assad regime.”

There have been four other Syrian journalists murdered in Turkey since 2015.

The US State Department released the following statement concerning the murders: “The United States is deeply saddened by the deaths of Arouba and Halla Barakat. Halla served as a journalist for Orient News and we remember the courageous work of her mother, Orouba, a Syrian activist who reported on the Syrian regime’s atrocities. The United States condemns the perpetrators of these murders and we will closely follow the investigation.”

Orouba and Halla had been friends with American humanitarian worker Kayla Mueller, who was taken hostage by ISIS in Aleppo, Syria in 2013 and killed 18 months later.

Before their deaths, Orouba and Halla were preparing to start a charity for Syrian women living in refugee camps in Turkey in Mueller’s honor.

For more information, please see:

ABC News – Syrian-American Journalist and her Mother, Friends of ISIS Hostage Kayla Mueller, Killed in Turkey – 22 September 2017

BBC News – Syrian Activist and Journalist Daughter ‘Murdered’ in Istanbul – 22 September 2017

New York Times – Syrian Activist and her Daughter Fatally Stabbed in Turkey – 22 September 2017

People – American Journalist and Activist Mom Found Strangled and Stabbed in Turkey: Reports – 22 September 2017

Washington Post – Syrian Activist, Journalist Daughter Found Dead in Turkey – 22 September 2017

Saudi Arabia Lifts Ban on Skype and WhatsApp

Matthew Sneed
Impunity Watch Reporter, The Middle East

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – On September 20, Saudi Arabian officials announced that the kingdom was lifting its ban on video calling apps such as Skype and WhatsApp. Apps such as these were previously banned under the country’s Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP), when the government argued that it was trying to “protect society from any negative aspects that could harm the public interest.”

Saudi Arabia lifts its ban on voice internet apps such as Skype and WhatsApp. Photo courtesy of Reuters.

The decision is motivated by Saudi Arabia’s economic interests as the look to expand their revenue sources. While the countries financial strength lies in oil, it hopes the removal of the ban will spark technology entrepreneurship in the region. The nation’s Information Ministry supported the decision and stated, “Digital transformation is one of the key kick starters for the Saudi economy, as it will incentivize the growth of internet-based businesses, especially in the media and entertainment industries.”

The goal to promote long term development may damage local companies in the telecommunications industry. Saudi Telecom, Etihad Etisalat, and Zain Saudi, the three main telecom operators in Saudi Arabia, will likely see a decrease in their revenue from phone calls and texts made by the millions of expatriates in the country. Ghanem Nuseibeh, the founder of the Cornerstone Global Associates management consultancy stated, “Any phone company would rather have people using their telephone lines but this is an important message from the Saudi government that they have to move into the 21st century and not be left behind.”

Prior to its removal, Saudi citizens used virtual private networks (VPNs) to get around the ban. The VPNs tricked the computer into thinking it was someplace else so that it could access the apps banned by the nation’s internet laws. Many are happy this method is no longer needed. One anonymous international student was happy she could now easily talk to those outside the country, “It feels like we can communicate with the outside world,” because “Sometimes it felt like we had no connection here.” The ban was supposed to be officially lifted at midnight on September 21, but some citizens claim they could already access the apps on the mobile devices prior to that date.

The government still imposes tight regulations over other aspects of the internet. Websites that feature gambling, pornography, or that are critical of government actions remain banned. The country often still appears on “internet enemies”, the list compiled by Reporters Without Borders names countries who restrict internet access.

For more information please see:

BBC – Saudi Arabia to lift ban on internet calls – 20, Sept. 2017

The Telegraph – Saudi Arabia lifts ban on skype and whatsApp voice calls – 20, Sept. 2017

Independent – Saudi Arabia set to lift ban on video calling apps Skype and WhatsApp – 20, Sept. 2017

Reuters – Saudi Arabia to lift ban on internet calls – 20, Sept. 2017

Congress Considers Major Change to the Americans with Disabilities Act

By Sarah Purtill
Impunity Watch Reporter, North America

WASHINGTON, D.C., U.S. – Currently, Congress is contemplating the ADA Education and Reform Act of 2017 (H.R. 620). H.R. 620’s protestors believe it would place major increases on the burden of people with disabilities. As the American’s with Disabilities Act (ADA) stands now, owners of businesses open to the public – such as hotels, restaurants and movie theaters – must make sure their businesses are accessible for people with disabilities. When a business fails to comply with these rules, a person with disabilities can either take them to court or file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice.

H.R. 620 would change this process and allow businesses to delay fixing the problem for months at a time. The process under the new bill includes many more steps. These steps start with a written notice to the business owner of the inability of the disabled person to access their business. After that, the business has two months to respond and then another four months to actually begin addressing the violation. During that six-month period, the person with disabilities sees no relief.

In the 1990’s when the American’s with Disabilities Act was passed, it contained a provision that required businesses to “remove architectural barriers and other obstacles that impede access to the establishment,” according to the American Civil Liberties Union. This provision is known as Title III. The provision makes it possible for people with disabilities to have access to businesses such as groceries stores or shopping malls as well as facilities such as public restrooms and libraries.

Crowd comes together to support disability rights. Photo Courtesy of Getty Images.

The goal of H.R. 620 is to allow for businesses to opt out of Title III. By allowing businesses to opt out of Title III, the responsibility falls on the person with disabilities to make sure businesses have the proper accommodations. Essentially, the person with disabilities has to invest a considerable amount of time and effort to get the necessary accommodations from a business. Whereas, the way the bill stands now, businesses are much more likely to fix a problem sooner in order to settle cases or appease the U.S. Department of Justice.

Supporters of H.R. 620 believe that amending Title III would reduce the number of frivolous and unwarranted lawsuits. After Title III was instituted, there were many lawsuits against businesses for failure to comply with Title III. Those against H.R. 620 believe that there are many reasons for why the amendment is unwarranted.

Currently, the ADA offers free educational resources to businesses that explain how they can comply with Title III. According to Rewire, “an analysis of ADA lawsuits in 2016 identified just 12 individuals and one organization that have filed more than 100 lawsuits each.” Those who oppose H.R. 620 believe that shows most law suits are not abusing Title III. They also say that the ADA already has methods to deal with those frivolous lawsuits.

The passage of H.R. 620 will have a major impact on the lives of people with disabilities. Many believe their civil rights are on the chopping block. With 18 co-sponsors, the bill was voted to advance by the House Judiciary Committee on September 7th, 2017. Now, many wait to see if this bill will become a reality and if it does, how it affects their lives.

For more information, please see:

Romper – What is HR 620? It Could Threaten the Civil Rights of People with Disabilities – 14 September 2017

Human Rights Watch – Will the US Weaken its Disability Laws? – 13 September 2017

Action Together Massachusetts – Action: Protect the American Disabilities Act – Oppose H.R.620 – 12 September 2017

Rewire – Congress Makes Progress in Destroying the Americans with Disabilities Act – 11 September 2017

Rewire – The Americans with Disabilities Act is Under Attack in Congress – 30 May 2017

Universal Rights Group: Analysis of high level speeches to UNGA72 – What are the World’s Human Rights Priorities in 2017-2018?

What are the world’s human rights priorities in 2017 and what to look out for in 2018?
Human rights analysis of high level speeches at the 72nd session of the United Nations General Assembly
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What are the human rights situations and issues that keep world leaders up at night in 2017? What are the human rights priorities of governments for the next twelve months?

The best place to get a sense of both is the general debate of the UN General Assembly (GA) in New York, held each year in October, where the world’s presidents, prime minsters, foreign ministers and assorted dignitaries meet to pronounce on global developments, crises, and trends.

With that in mind, today the Universal Rights Group NYC launches the first of what will become an annual analysis of the speeches of world leaders at the UNGA – a human rights-orientated analysis designed to pick out key words, key themes and key ideas from the nearly 200 high level speeches delivered every year at beginning of each GA session.

Every year, the general debate focuses on a different main theme – although leaders are of course free to address any issue. This year, the 72nd session of the GA (GA72) addressed the overall theme: ‘Focusing on People: Striving for Peace and a Decent Life for All on a Sustainable Planet.’

The debate, chaired by the incoming President of the GA, Miroslav Lajcak of Slovakia, began on 19th September and ended yesterday afternoon, 25th September 2017. It saw the participation of over 197 high-level dignitaries, including UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, two kings, two princes, one emir, 69 presidents, 35 prime ministers, eight vice presidents, and 58 ministers.

URG NYC’s detailed analysis of their 196 speeches identified reference to 1,874 human rights-related topics or subjects. When clustered and prioritised (only themes raised by at least four different speakers were included in the final analysis), it was possible to identify around 107 broad themes.

The results of this groundbreaking assessment are presented below via two ‘word clouds,’ one summarising key thematic human rights issues and one relaying the most talked about country-specific human rights situations (i.e. situations of alleged violations). For each, the size of the word reflects the total number of mentions of the given theme or situation.

Key findings from URG NYC’s analysis include:

  • The most widely referenced human rights topic, by States in 2017, was sustainable development / SDGs / 2030 Agenda and human rights. This mirrors an increased focus on the relationship between implementation of the SDGs and implementation of human rights obligations – something the Secretary-General has termed ‘two converging agendas’ – at the Human Rights Council in 2017.
  • Again mirroring developments at the Council, URG’s analysis of speeches at the GA found a strong focus on the prevention of human rights violations and strengthening the UN’s response to emerging crises.
  • Other key human rights issues and priorities for 2017-2018, include: the human rights dimension of climate change, terrorism, extreme poverty, and preventing violent extremism/radicalisation…
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Copyright © 2017 Universal Rights Group, All rights reserved.

Turkish government continues journalistic suppression, prosecution of reporters

By: Justin D. Santabarbara
Impunity Watch Reporter, Middle East 

ISTANBUL, Turkey – On 2 September, Turkish security officials arrested Çagdas Erdogan for allegedly photographing the National Intelligence Agency building. Upon the initial court appearance on 3 September, Turkish officials accused Erdogan of being a member of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The PKK has long been categorized as a domestic terrorist organization by the Turkish government. Moreover, the charges against Erdogan are tailed toward committing acts of terrorism as a member of the PKK, rather than a photojournalist who took illegal pictures. Moreover, Turkish prosecutors have carefully made the distinction between the charges placed against Erdogan and less severe “mistakes”.

Turkish photojournalist Cagdas Erdogan. Photo courtesy of Twitter @cgd_erd.

The International Committee to Protect Journalists has vocally expressed its displeasure with the investigation. “Photographing a building is not even a crime, much less an act of terrorism,” exclaimed the Committee’s Executive Director, Robert Mahony, at a recent press conference. Additionally, the International Committee to Protect Journalists has launched a number of other initiatives, including appealing to the international human rights community for support and requesting that sanctions be placed against the Turkish government for suppressing members of the media. Further, Erdogan’s extensive photojournalistic coverage of the Kurdish conflict is said to have subjected him to additional scrutiny. Aside from his alleged membership in the PKK, Erdogan is said to have been critical of the Turkish government’s treatment of the Kurdish population and the rejection of their participation in the policymaking process. Erdogan’s work is not only highly critical of the collective Turkish government, but also the security forces’ gross violation of human rights in the Kurdish regions – alleging the involvement of enforced disappearances and torturous detainment of Kurds, regardless of their purported membership in the PKK.

Erdogan’s prosecution marks the continuation of a concerted effort by the Turkish government to suppress journalistic interests under a veil of national security. There is little determinative evidence of a time frame for prosecutions against journalists. For example, Turkish prosecutors just tried thirty journalists after they were held for 414 days after their arrest. Although the trials continue to be pending, past cases have shown that prosecutors often seek lengthy prison terms, despite criticism from the international community.

Though the majority of the cases receive adverse dispositions, there are limited instances in which the international pressures influence a humanitarian release, such as the release of French journalist Loup Bureau on 18 September, who spent seven weeks in Turkey after his arrest for criticism of the Turkish government. Although the future remains uncertain for Erdogan, an intense effort by the international community has shown to have positive effects, when conducted appropriately. It will be important to note how long the Turkish government waits before progressing in the trial.

For more information, please see:

France 24 – French journalist Loup Bureau arrives home after being released from Turkish jail – 18 September 2017

Turkish Minute – 30 Zaman journalists appear in court after 414 day detention – 18 September 2017

British Journal of Photography – Cagdas Erdogan arrested in Istanbul – 14 September 2017

 

ICC Asked to Investigate Crimes Against Humanity in Burundi

By: Ethan Snyder
Impunity Watch Reporter, Africa

2015 demonstration amid failed coup d’état in Burundi. Photo Courtesy of BBC News.

BUJUMBRA, Burundi – On Monday, September 4, the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Burundi called upon the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate alleged crimes against humanity. Established in 2016, the commission was charged with examining reports of human rights violations from April 2015 to present.

President Nkurunziza announced in April 2015 that he intended to seek incumbency for a third term in conflict with Burundi’s Constitution. After an unsuccessful coup and increasing political unrest, security forces cracked down violently on suspected opposition throughout the country. It is estimated that more than 350,000 people have fled to neighboring countries that include the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda.

The commission interviewed approximately 500 witnesses who corroborated allegations of sexual violence, detention of opposition and journalists, extrajudicial executions, torture, and inhuman or degrading treatment. The Burundian government denies all allegations relating to state agents being responsible for crimes against humanity.

Chair of the Commission of Inquiry, Fatsah Ouguergouz, announced that the commission is “struck by the scale and the brutality of the violations” and that they are concerned by the “lack of will on the part of the Burundian authorities to fight against impunity and guarantee the independence of the judiciary.”

Despite multiple requests over the year-long period of investigation, the U.N. Commission was not allowed to go to Burundi and was forced to conduct the majority of their inquiry from neighboring countries.

Burundi’s lower house of parliament passed a law in 2016 to withdraw from the Rome Statute – the treaty that established the ICC. Burundi would be the first country to withdraw from the ICC. Many countries on the continent have threatened similar action citing a disproportionate number of cases and charges being brought against African nations for human rights violations. Burundi is projected to exit the ICC by October of 2017.

The ICC continues to have jurisdiction to investigate allegations of human rights violations in Burundi until their formal exit. If Burundi successfully withdraws from the Rome Statute, the ICC investigation would require a resolution from the U.N. Security Council referring the case to the ICC to continue its inquiry.

Presently, only African states have been charged in the six cases that are either ongoing or about to begin since the court was established. There are preliminary investigations that have been opened into events elsewhere in the world.

The Burundi commission noted that “[t]here is a climate of pervasive fear in Burundi. Victims have been threatened, even in exile.” Many witnesses have reported that they have been threatened or confronted by supporters of the Nkurunziza regime after fleeing to nearby countries.

Although Burundi has a history of high ethnic tensions, the commission does not find that the human rights violations are ethnically motivated.

For more information, please see: 

Human Rights Council: Interactive Dialogue on Burundi – Oral Briefing by Fatsah Ouguergouz – 19 September 2017

Africa News – UN asks ICC to investigate Burundi ‘crimes against humanity’ – 5 September 2017

New York Times – U.N. Group Accuses Burundi Leaders of Crimes Against Humanity – 4 September 2017

United Nations Human Rights: Office of the High Commissioner – Burundi: Commission of inquiry calls on the International Criminal Court to investigate possible crimes against humanity – 4 September 2017

Human Rights Watch – Burundi’s refusal to cooperate with inquiry in contempt of membership on UN rights body – 4 September 2017

United Nations Human Rights: Office of the High Commissioner – Burundi: UN investigation urges strong action in light of gross, widespread and systemic human rights violations –  20 September 2016

Syria Justice and Accountability Centre: De Mistura versus the Commission of Inquiry: Where does the Syrian conflict actually stand?

SJAC Update | September 27, 2017
UN Special Envoy to Syria Staffan De Mistura prepares to brief press | Photo Credit: U.S. Department of State

De Mistura versus the Commission of Inquiry: Where does the Syrian conflict actually stand?

On August 30, UN Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura delivered a Security Council briefing regarding the situation in Syria, wherein he spoke of de-escalating violence, advancing the political process, and combatting terrorism. In doing so, the Special Envoy painted an illusorily warm portrait of the current situation. The same week, the UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) on Syria released its latest report, highlighting a tenuous de-escalation process, widespread human rights and humanitarian law violations committed by government forces, and a peace negotiation process lacking inclusion and consensus. The stark contrast in perception of the Syrian peace process’ nature and prospects from two entities of the United Nations is concerning. De Mistura’s briefing fails to acknowledge the realities of the conflict and the peace negotiation process as they stand today. To underscore these inconsistencies, we have juxtaposed statements made by the Special Envoy with conflicting information provided by the COI’s most recent report.

  1. Praising de-escalation zones without acknowledging the risk to civilians. 

Both the Homs and Ghouta de-escalation agreements include the evacuation of fighters. Although neither agreement mentions the evacuation of civilians, in the past, civilians have been forced to evacuate alongside fighters after a truce or local ceasefire agreement. Given the past trends and significant harm on local populations, De Mistura’s statement fails to acknowledge the risks and condemn any attempt to coerce civilians to leave their homes: “Following a series of agreements with armed groups, including with the active support of Egypt and the Russian Federation, we have seen a significant reduction of violence in parts of the Ghouta de-escalation zone, although not in all of it.” 

The COI Report, while discussing truces (local agreements between the government and fighting factions that differ from broader de-escalation zones), nonetheless acknowledged the forced displacements that have occurred: “In May, pro-Government officials and mediators on one side, and armed group members and/or local council representatives on the other, negotiated and implemented truces in Barza, Tishreen and Qabun, in eastern Damascus . . . All truces mentioned above have incorporated evacuation agreements, which has led to the forced displacement of thousands of civilians from those areas.” The COI report then calls upon all parties to end the forcible displacement of civilians.

It must also be noted that the Ghouta de-escalation agreement provided for the release of 1,500 detainees – yet few have in fact been released. While the reduction in violence due to the de-escalation agreement is praiseworthy, De Mistura should use his position to exert pressure to ensure that the parties abide by international humanitarian law and the terms of the agreement itself.

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The Syria Justice and Accountability Centre (SJAC) is a Syrian-led and multilaterally supported nonprofit that envisions a Syria where people live in a state defined by justice, respect for human rights, and rule of law. SJAC collects, analyzes, and preserves human rights law violations by all parties in the conflict — creating a central repository to strengthen accountability and support transitional justice and peace-building efforts. SJAC also conducts research to better understand Syrian opinions and perspectives, provides expertise and resources, conducts awareness-raising activities, and contributes to the development of locally appropriate transitional justice and accountability mechanisms. Contact us at info@syriaaccountability.org.

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According to UN Report, Migrant Children Endure Severe Human Rights Abuses

By Jenilyn Brhel
Impunity Watch Reporter, Europe

GENEVA, Switzerland – According to a September 5th report released by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), more than 75 percent of migrant children attempting to reach Europe are victims of severe human rights abuses.

Young Child Awaiting Rescue. Photo Courtesy of Yahoo! News UK.

The findings are based on testimonies obtained from over 22,000 migrants and refugees, including 11,000 children, given to the International Organization for Migration, the UN’s Migration Agency.

Afshan Khan, UNICEF Europe Regional Director, said of the findings, “the stark reality is that it is now standard practice that children moving through the Mediterranean are abused, trafficked, beaten and discriminated against.”

The victims reported being subjected to a myriad of abuses, including sexual exploitation, forced labor, child marriage and beatings.

A 17-year-old girl from Nigeria reported being raped, held captive and threatened with violence. An Afghan boy recalled being forced into labor and beaten if he stopped working. Another child said, “if you try to run, they shoot you. If you stop working, they beat you. We were just like slaves. At the end of the day, they just lock you inside.”

UNICEF reports that children originating from sub-Saharan Africa are particularly at risk. Those travelling from Libya along the Mediterranean route are vulnerable due to the route being laden with crime and a lack of policing. The risk also increases for children who are travelling alone and over long periods of time.

The UNICEF report comes amid a substantial increase in the number of children migrating to Europe in recent years. Between 2010 and 2011, 66,000 children travelers were reported. That number has now surged to over 300,000.

The children making these harrowing journeys are often unaccompanied. Of those under 18 years of age arriving to Italy via the Mediterranean Sea passages from North Africa in 2016, 92% were alone.

“For people who leave their countries to escape violence, instability or poverty, the factors pushing them to migrate are severe, and they make perilous journeys knowing that they may be forced to pay with their dignity, their wellbeing or even their lives,” said IOM Regional Director for the European Union, Norway and Switzerland, Eugenio Ambrosi.

UNICEF’s report has prompted calls for the European Union and other parties to “put in place lasting solutions that include safe and legal migration pathways, establishing protection corridors and finding alternatives to the detention of migrant children,” said Khan.

For more information, please see:

ABC News – CORRECTION: United Nations – Children Migrants Story – 12 September 2017

Abdolu Agency – UNICEF says Many Young Migrants Face Exploitation – 12 September 2017

UNICEF – Up to Three Quarters of Children and Youth Face Abuse, Exploitation and Trafficking on Mediterranean Migration Routes – 12 September 2017

UN News Centre – Abuse, Exploitation and Trafficking ‘Stark Reality’ for Migrant Children Trying to Reach Europe – 12 September 2017

Reuters – ‘Just Like Slaves’; African Migrant Children Face Highest Risk of Abuse: Report – 11 September 2017

Yahoo! News UK – Young Migrants Face Abuse on Way to Europe – UN – 11 September 2017

Aung San Suu Kyi Speaks Publicly About the Rohingya Refugee Crisis

By: Brian Kim
Impunity Watch Reporter, Asia 

NAYPYIDAW, Myanmar – Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de facto leader finally spoke publicly on the Rohingya refugee crisis on Tuesday, September 19th. During her statement, she mentioned that she “feels deeply” for the suffering of “all people” who are impacted by the Rakhine state conflict. She went further and condemned any “human rights violations.”

Aung San Suu Kyi finally speaks publicly about the crisis against Rohingya Muslims. Photo courtesy of NPR.

She commented that the government does not fear “international scrutiny” over the crisis and the intention of the government is not to “apportion blame or to abnegate responsibility.” Aung San Suu Kyi, who does not have control over the military, maintained that the country’s military is not responsible for the attacks against the Rohingyas.

This was Aung San Suu Kyi’s first statement since the violence started last month.

On September 18th, leaders from the UK, US, France, Canada and Australia called upon the Myanmar’s leader to end the violence against the Rohingya.

According to the United Nations, over 370,000 Rohingya – Muslims, who live in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, have resettled to Bangladesh since August 25th. The United Nations high commissioner for human rights stated that the crisis in Myanmar seems to be “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”

Myanmar’s presidential office cited numerous reasons and announced that Aung San Suu Kyi will not be attending the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York City.

The Nobel Peace Prize laureate’s recent speech in the nation’s capitol drew criticisms from the international community. Many have stated that Aung San Suu Kyi did not denounce the crimes against the Rohingya community. Moreover, Amnesty International described her speech as a “mix of untruths and victim blaming.”

NPR – Aung San Suu Kyi To Skip U.N. Meeting As Criticism Over Rohingya Crisis Grows – 13 September, 2017

Aljazeera – Aung San Suu Kyi condemns ‘all human rights violations’ – 19 September, 2017

CNN – Aung San Suu Kyi breaks silence on Rohingya, sparks storm of criticism – 19 September, 2017

“Not one less:” Thousands Protest in Mexico Following the Murder of Mara Castilla

By: Karina Johnson
Impunity Watch Reporter, North America

PUEBLA, Mexico On Sunday, September 17, thousands marched in the streets of Mexico City and Puebla after the body of Mara Fernanda Castilla—a 19-year-old university student gone missing the week before—was found.

Protestors marching against femicides in Mexico. Photo Courtesy of CNN Español.

Mara had gone missing on September 8, after hailing a driver from a popular ride-sharing app called Cabify; she got in the vehicle and the driver drove to her home. Security footage showed that the driver idled in front of her house, ended the ride, and drove away, but Mara never got out of the car.

Her body was found a week later in a ditch near a motel.  She had been raped and strangled.

The Cabify driver has been arrested for deprivation of liberty and murder.

Sunday’s marches took place throughout the states of Mexico and Puebla, with people protesting a perceived disregard from the Mexican authorities toward femicides—killings of women and girls specifically due to their gender, usually accompanied with sexual violence.  As per the Observatorio Ciudadano Nacional del Feminicidio, only 25% of reported murders are investigated as femicides.

According to Luis Ernesto Derbez, director of Universidad de la Américas Puebla (UDLAP), in an interview with Forbes Mexico, a lack of judicial infrastructure is one of the greatest problems in combating impunity in Mexico today.  This means that less than 1% of reported crimes are seen through to their conclusion. The population ratio of judges to people is approximately 4.2 judges per every 100,000 people, while the international average is closer to 16.23 judges per 100,000 people.  UDLAP has conducted a multi-year study called the Global Impunity Index (Índice Global de Impunidad), in which Mexico scored 4th highest impunity in the world.

Mara was a political science major at Universidad Popular Autónoma del Estado de Puebla. She is the 82nd victim of femicide in the state of Puebla this year.

For more information, please see:
Al-Jazeera – “Mexicans march against femicide after teen’s murder” – 18 September 2017

BBC Mundo – “Femicidio en México: Mara Castilla, el asesinato de una joven de 19 años en un taxi que indigna a un país violento” – 18 September 2017

El País – “Mara no se fue, a Mara la mataron” – 18 September 2017

The Guardian – “Outrage as Mexican student killed after using ride-hailing service” – 18 September 2017

Observatorio Ciudadano de Derechos Sexuales y Reproductivos – “Feminicidios en Puebla al 17 de septiembre de 2017” – 17 September 2017

CNN Español – “El trágico fin de Mara Castilla, la joven mexicana que desapareció tras tomar un coche de Cabify” – 16 September 2017

Forbes México – “México es el cuarto país con mayor impunidad en el mundo” – 28 August 2017

Immigrants seek refuge in Colombia as Venezuela’s government collapses

By: Emily Green
Impunity Watch Reporter, South America

BOGOTA, Colombia – Colombia, usually an exporter of immigrants, is experiencing the other side of a migrant crisis. Venezuelan refugees flee their homes and bring Colombia the first wave of massive immigration in its history as an independent nation.

Immigrants leaving Venezuela. Image Courtesy of US News.

Venezuelan immigrants have been forced to leave the country amid the collapse of President Maduro’s government. Their once prosperous economy is collapsing and has driven masses of people from their homes. Colombia shares 1,300 miles of border with Venezuela and has been a popular destination for its dispersed neighbors.

Besides the proximity, Venezuelans make the move to Colombia because of the economic opportunity. Several refugees remark that at least in Colombia they can find food with the little money they earn. At home, the Maduro regime has destroyed the free market and shelves remain empty.

On the Pope’s visit to Colombia a few weeks ago, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos pledged that Colombia will accommodate thousands of Venezuelan exiles while it works to find a political solution for their country’s crisis. The President assured the Pope, “Colombia will always be a welcoming land.”

Now that Venezuelans have arrived in the promised amount, Colombia is starting to see the effects. Local authorities report street brawls over food donations. The amount of charity is scarce compared to the amount of need. The mayor of a popular city for immigrants, Cücuta, actually had to ban food donations in public spaces to avoid this violence.

This massive migration is putting a strain on Colombia’s job market as well. Immigrant professionals and students move on to Peru or Chile where there are better job opportunities. This leaves the rest of the refugees as day laborers in Colombia where they make a fraction of what Colombian workers make.

Approximately 3,500 Venezuelans enter Colombia daily. If this level of immigration persist, Colombia will experience an unprecedented population increase of 3% next year. However, this number is surely even larger because Venezuelans who cross the border illegally are not accounted for. Because of this, the Colombian government has drastically understated the effect this immigration crisis will have on their country.

Colombia is not the only destination for Venezuelans. “Since Venezuela’s economic crisis began in 2014, an unprecedented number of Venezuelans have fled the country.” Most have fled to Colombia, but Brazil has also received tens of thousands. The number of Venezuelans seeking asylum in Costa Rica, Panama and Mexico has also increased significantly. Refugees arrive in hopes of gaining refugee status, temporary work, and medical services.

These immigrants have suffered food shortages and a severe lack of medical supplies under their socialist ruler. In many cases, their neighboring countries are their only hope for survival.

For further information, please see:

US News – The Venezuelan Diaspora – 18 September 2017

Bloomberg – Trump and Santos to Weigh Plans to Pressure Venezuela Government – 18 September 2017

PanAm Post – Venezuela’s Socialist Collapse Has Unleashed a Migrant Crisis in Colombia – 17 September 2017

Q Costa Rica – Venezuela Asylum Requests Soar in Costa Rica, Panama, Mexico – 14 September 2017

ABC News – Colombian leader promises Pope to take in exiles – 10 September 2017

North Korea Threatens Additional Nuclear Tests

By: Brian Kim
Impunity Watch Reporter, Asia 

PYONGYANG, North Korea – On Tuesday, September 19th, President Donald Trump made his first appearance before the United Nations General Assembly. During the speech, President Trump stated that the North Korean leader, Kim Jung Un is “on a suicide mission.”  He further stated that the United States would “have no choice but to totally destroy” the country.

An activist protests outside the North Korean embassy in Germany. Photo courtesy of CNBC.

Following the speech, Kim Jung Un stated that President Trump has “made unprecedented rude nonsense one has never heard” and said that “a frightened dog barks louder.” Kim has said that he is considering the highest level of retaliation against the United States for President Trump’s comments made during the United Nations Assembly meeting.

Ri Yong Ho, North Korean Minister of Foreign Affairs, announced that North Korea is considering a hydrogen bomb test in the Pacific Ocean. The Minister of Foreign Affairs described the possible test as “the most powerful detonation of an H-bomb in the Pacific.”

Since the exchange, United States Air Force B-1B Lancer bombers flew over waters east of North Korea. The military exercise, according to the Pentagon, is to display the range of military options available. It is reported that the flight was the farthest north of the demilitarized zone that any United States fighter bomber had flown in the 21st century.

President Trump met with South Korean President, Moon Jae-in, and the Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, to continue its discussion on imposing new sanctions against North Korea.

Soon after President Trump issued a new executive order which expanded United States sanctions on North Korea, China’s central bank also ordered financial institutions to implement United Nations sanctions rigorously. President Trump thanked China’s president Xi Jinping on his bold move against North Korea.

For more information, please see:

Business Insider – North Korea suggests testing a hydrogen bomb in the Pacific after Kim Jong Un calls Trump ‘mentally deranged’ – 21 September, 2017

CNBC – North Korea may detonate nuclear bomb in Pacific, foreign minister tells reporters – 21 September, 2017

The Guardian – Japan braces as North Korea threatens hydrogen bomb test in Pacific – 22 September, 2017

Reuters – Trump cranks up North Korea threats as Pyongyang holds anti-U.S. rally – 23 September, 2017