News

Is China Using COVID-19 as an Excuse to Silence Its Dissenters?

By: Madison Kenyon

Impunity Watch Staff Writer

BEIJING, China — On December 31, 2019, the government in Wuhan, China announced that health authorities were in the process of treating dozens of individuals who all had similar symptoms. A few days later, the Wuhan government confirmed that these individuals had all been infected with a new virus: COVID-19. Now about five months later, the spread of the virus seems to be slowing down in cities throughout China, and thus China has begun lifting its lockdown measures.

Despite the Chinese government lifting many of its lockdown measures, over 200 cities in China now require its citizens to download software that tracks citizens’ movements. Specifically, in order to freely move throughout different Chinese regions, a citizen must download either the WeChat or Alipay App which contains this software. After downloading this, the citizen is required to answer a list of personal information questions, including: name, Chinese ID number, phone number, residential address, their place of work, their travel history, and their purpose for being in the region. Next, the citizen is required to answer a list of health questions, ranging from “Do you have any symptoms? to “Have you been in contact with someone with COVID-19?” Based on the answers to these questions, each citizen is administered a different colored scanning code – either green, yellow, or red. Those who receive a green code can move around the city freely. However, those that receive a yellow code must self-quarantine for seven days, and those with a red code must self-quarantine for 14-days.

Although these cities have not technically made it a requirement for its citizens to download this software, they have implicitly done so since citizens may not travel throughout the city without a colored code. Specifically, a citizen is required to scan into every public place they enter. The government argues this is necessary to track the travel history of someone who becomes infected with COVID-19 and track who the infected person has been in contact with.

On the outside, this appears to be a creative way to track and maintain the spread of COVID-19. However, this tracking technology concerns many human rights activists. For starters, there is no end-date for the use of this technology. Many believe the Chinese government will continue to use the “health-scare” justification to track its citizens far after this global pandemic is over. Second, there has not been much transparency from the Chinese government as to how it reaches its decision in the color code it provides to each individual. Due to this, many believe that China will use this color-coded system to silence the government’s dissenters by giving them red codes and forcing them into isolation. This is especially troublesome since this pandemic broke out amid the Hong Kong protests. As Sophie Richardson, the China Director at Human Rights Watch, stated, “This is viewed as scary stuff from a human rights perspective…It is yet another way to gather information about people to potentially use it against them in ways which there’s no legal basis.”

It will surely be interesting to see if these predictions by human rights activists come true.

For further information, please see:

CNN – China is Fighting the Coronavirus with a Digital QR Code. Here’s How it Works – 16 Apr. 2020

ABC News – China Rolls Out Software Surveillance for the COVID-19 Pandemic, Alarming Human Rights Advocates – 14 Apr. 2020

N.Y. Times – A Timeline of the Coronavirus Pandemic – 14 Apr. 2020

Business Insider – As China Lifts Its Coronavirus Lockdown, Authorities are Using a Color-Coded Health System to Dictate Where Citizens Can Go. Here’s How It Works. – 7 Apr. 2020

Appellant’s Brief Released in Ntaganda Case

By: Andrew Kramer

Impunity Watch Staff Writer

THE HAGUE, The Netherlands – On April 8, 2020, the International Criminal Court (“ICC”) released the public redacted appellate brief of former Congolese militia leader and convicted war criminal Bosco Ntaganda. The brief was originally filed on February 10, 2020 but was unavailable to the public. Ntaganda is currently appealing only his 30-year sentence of imprisonment.

Bosco Ntaganda looks on in an ICC courtroom during trial. Photo Courtesy of CNN.

Ntaganda raised twelve grounds on appeal, generally asserting that the Trial Chamber failed to assess mitigating factors properly when determining his sentence. Grounds one through four claim the Trial Chamber failed to properly assess Ntaganda’s “limited” degree of participation in various crimes committed, including rape and sexual slavery. Grounds seven through twelve claim the Trial Chamber failed to properly assess mitigating conduct of Ntaganda, both during the commission of the crimes and in the courtroom. These grounds assert the Court did not properly consider that Ntaganda saved the lives of enemy soldiers, protected civilians from attacks on occasions, protected an individual from harm, contributed to reconciliation with the Lendu community, and cooperated with the Court. 

The remaining grounds assert the Court erred in assessing aggravating factors. Ground five asserts the Court considered an improper aggravating circumstance in determining its sentence, which it claims fell outside the scope of the crimes charged. Ground six asserts the Court “double-counted” certain aggravating factors to arrive at its sentence.

This is a robust brief submitted on behalf of Ntaganda. While he may find little sympathy from the Appeals Chamber for his “limited role and knowledge” in crimes of sexual violence and slavery, a merit which the Court may more thoroughly address is the question of what constitutes a proper aggravating factor. The degree of relation of the factor to the crime, relations to an uncharged crime, and how to apply the factor in a sentencing decision are all areas which the Court might provide clarity.

There is not much precedent for the appellate process of the ICC. Only two other cases have reached decision by the Appeals Chamber, both of which confirmed the Trial Chamber’s findings. In the only appellate decision, which upheld a sentence of imprisonment, the case of The Prosecutor v. Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, the Appeals Chamber declined to reduce a prison sentence, partially because the appellant had already served most of it. If the present case reaches a decision on the merits, it could solidify sentencing procedure, and depending on the outcome, empower or restrain the Trial Chambers in their sentencing decisions.

Once the Prosecutor responds to the Appellant’s brief, a hearing date will be set. The COVID-19 outbreak will likely slow progress of this appeal process, as all ICC staff members based in The Hague will be working remotely until at least April 28.  

For further information, please see:

International Criminal Court – Public Redacted Version of “Sentencing Appeal Brief” – 10 Feb. 2020

International Criminal Court – Case information Sheet: Situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo – 7 Nov. 2019

International Criminal Court – The Prosecutor v. Thomas Lubanga Dyilo – 15 Dec. 2017

Cameroonian Government Accused of Additional Human Rights Violations

By: Katherine Davis

Impunity Watch Staff Writer

YAOUNDE, Cameroon – On March 30, 2020, Human Rights Watch (HRW) raised concerns about human rights violations in Cameroon in a shadow report to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR). The report highlights violations of arbitrary arrest, detention, torture, and other ill treatments; the right to life, the right to equal protection under the law, and violations of freedom of speech and assembly, all of which were not included in the 6th Periodic Report of Cameroon (“the Report”). HRW urges the ACHPR to consider these violations during its 66th Ordinary Session for the discussion of the Report.

Cameroon Renaissance Movement members march in protest of arbitrary arrests. Photo Courtesy of Joel Kouam, BBC News, Pidgin.

In early 2019, Cameroonian security forces arrested hundreds of members of the Cameroon Renaissance Movement, including their leader, Maurice Kamto, his closest advisors, and hundreds who joined in protest. These individuals were denied access to their attorneys and then charged “with a number of offenses including hostility against the homeland, threats to public order and rebellion.”

HRW says the Report makes no mention of these arbitrary arrests and detentions or of the violent dispersals of demonstrators. According to the shadow report, “the government of Cameroon failed to uphold those freedoms for opposition members arrested during and following peaceful demonstrations.”

In addition to the depravation of basic legal rights, HRW has also notes various human rights violations by the government of Cameroon. Since late 2016, security forces have been killing civilians, burning dozens of homes and villages, and torturing and detaining individuals to extract confessions regarding opposition forces. None of which was reported to the ACHPR by the Cameroonian government, according to HRW.

“Cameroon has submitted 6 reports in the last 18 years. Cameroon’s 6th period report fails to provide any comprehensive account of efforts to mitigate further abuses by security forces against civilians and to ensure that military operations are conducted with respect for human rights,” writes HRW.

HRW urges the government of Cameroon to promptly investigate these allegations, to develop and implement safeguards in accordance with the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and to provide appropriate medical care to victims of torture. They also strongly encourage ACPHR to consider the absence of these violations in their upcoming discussions during the 66th Ordinary session.

Originally scheduled to begin on April 22, ACHPR’s 66th Ordinary Session has been tentatively rescheduled for May/June 2020 due to the global COVID-19 pandemic. As of April 11, 2020, the ACHPR has not commented on HRW’s allegations.

For further information, please see:

Human Rights Watch – Shadow Report to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights in Response to the 6th Periodic Report of Cameroon – 30 Mar. 2020

African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights – Cameroon: 4th – 6th Periodic Report, 2015 – 2019 – 3 Jan. 2020

BBC News, Pidgin – Opposition say Cameroon Police Arrest About 100 Party Mimbas wey March – 2 Jun. 2019

The Guardian – Hundreds of Opposition Members Arrested in Cameroon – 4 Jun. 2019

African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights – Press Statement of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the postponement of the 66th Ordinary Session in light of the global Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic – 17 Mar. 2020

Inter-American Court of Human Rights Officially Condemns Cuba for Restrictions on Free Expression

By: Ben Kaufman

Journal of Global Rights and Organizations, Associate Articles Editor

HAVANA, Republic of Cuba – In response to a renewed wave of imprisonment of critical journalists in Cuba, the Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression issued a condemnation of the Cuban government’s crackdown on journalists and other citizens. This condemnation comes after a series of requests for inspections and records concerning the arrests, detention, and state pressure to self-exile of journalists in the last year.

Despite anticipation for a more engaged press and civil society launched by the words of President Raul Castro in 2010 concerning reforms, journalists have felt increasing pressure by the state to cease dissenting and critical coverage or to leave the state entirely. A representative of the Cuban Prisoner Defenders and member of the Patriotic Union of Cuba told the Guardian that journalists were being increasingly pressured to choose the exile option as a result of prisons overfilled with political prisoners. “We have found a variety of cases. Cases where the activist cannot be broken and is put on a plane, cases where the activist has a weak point, through their child or mother, and they attack there hard, leading the activist to give in and he goes to Guyana to beg.”

The official condemnation specifically refers to the arrest of Roberto Jesús Quiñones Haces – a Cuban lawyer and journalist who was arrested on April 22, 2019 for trying to report on the trial of Cuban pastors who were educating their children at home for Cubanet. Quiñones Haces was charged with resistance and disobedience and was sentenced by the Municipal Court of Guantánamo to one year in prison. He has been in prison since September 11, 2019. The condemnation includes statements by his family that his condition has deteriorated due to poor hygienic conditions. Furthermore, the condemnation refers to the disciplinary process stemming from his reporting from prison on October 1, 2019.

Pursuant to Resolutions 34/18, 42/22, 34/5 of the Human Rights Council and Article 18 of the IACHR Statute, the condemnation states that the Office of the Special Rapporteur sent a letter to the Cuban government seeking information on Quiñones Haces’s punishment, concerns regarding the lack of due process by the Cuban government, and the “motivation of the judgment against said independent journalist.” In its response to that letter, the Cuban government denied the allegations and reiterates that the motivation behind his punishment was “‘the disobedience, disrespect, and resistance of police authorities on April 22, 2019,’ when he intended to cover a trial.”

The condemnation further references artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara who was arrested on March 1 for his attendance at a protest in front of the Cuban Institute of Radio and Television to protest a film broadcasted on Cuban television which censored a gay kiss. Otero’s 21 prior arrests for activities associated with freedom of expression and association were of chief concern to the Office of the Special Rapporteur. In urging the Cuban government to end its harassment of members of civil society, the condemnation also refers to the situations of journalists Rolando Rodríguez Lobaina and Luz Escobar who have been detained and are barred from leaving the country.

Directly accusing Cuban authorities of being “the main source of threats and attacks against the press in the country,” the condemnation refers Cuba to its obligations under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, as well as Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to protect journalistic work, artistic work, and the defense of human rights.

For further information, please see:

OAS – The Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression condemns increased criminalization and harassment of journalists, activists, and artists who exercise freedom of expression in Cuba – 17 Mar. 2020

The Guardian – Cuba is driving dissidents off island with threats of violence and jail, report finds – 19 Jun. 2019

Radio Television Marti – Roberto Jesús Quiñones Haces humillado en prisión – 26 Dec. 2019

CPJ – Connecting Cuba: More space for criticism but restrictions slow press freedom progress – 28 Sep. 2016

Human Rights Violations in Tehran as COVID-19 Continues to Spread

By: Dianne Jahangani

Journal of Global Rights and Organizations, Associate Articles Editor

TEHRAN, Iran – The world is currently at war. For the first time in history, all 195 nations have the same exact enemy. The only caveat is that this time, the enemy is invisible, which makes defeating it so much more difficult.

It seems as though the world has been put on pause. For the past few weeks, every single headline on every single news outlet is about COVID-19, ranging from how many people have been infected to how many people have died, or what progress has been made on finding a cure and what the United States government is currently doing to combat the unforeseen effects of this virus.

One would think that in a time of grief, nations would come together to help fight this virus. However, human rights violations have not subsided; in fact, some may argue they have gotten worse.

History has demonstrated that even if a leader is deemed to be unfavored, during times of war, the people will always support him to defeat the enemy, since many naturally look to their leader to protect them. However, in many cases, the leader does not act in the best interest of the people or the public, which leads to a significant increase in human rights violations. In fact, statistically speaking, during times of war, human rights violations typically exceed the average amount. This phenomenon is exactly what is currently occurring in Iran.

On March 31, the United Nations released a statement stating that history has shown that the effects of sanctions against a country include dramatic and detrimental impacts on economic, social, and cultural rights. The statement further emphasized that economic sanctions need to be lifted to prevent hunger crises in countries that have been hit hard by COVID-19.

Iran has become one of the worst effected countries by this pandemic, reporting over 58,000 cases and 4,000 deaths. Additionally, Iran is subject to many sanctions imposed by the United States, which further causes Iran’s economy to suffer. With this new outbreak, the United States does not have any plans to release Iran from its sanctions; however, understanding the reality of the difficulty COVID-19 has imposed on all countries, the United States has indicated that it would be more than willing to assist Iran in this time of crisis. Yet, on March 22, the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran vocally expressed its strong opposition towards receiving aid and resources from foreign nations such as the United States, but still requested that the U.S. remove its sanctions. This refusal by Iran demonstrates the lack of political leadership within the country, further exacerbated by the rising death toll and number of cases increasing exponentially each day.

According to the Health Ministry, “one person dies in Iran every 10 minutes from the coronavirus, and someone is infected every 50 minutes.” Iran does not have enough medical supplies or resources to combat this virus on its own. By refusing to accept aid during the peak of the pandemic, the Iranian government is leaving its people vulnerable to the virus. This is a significant human rights violation.

According to the World Health Organization, international human rights law guarantees “everyone the right to the highest attainable standard of health and obligates governments to take steps to prevent threats to public health and to provide medical care to those who need it.” The Iranian government’s actions are directly contradicting the words of the World Health Organization. The number of infected and dead continues to rise in Iran due to the Supreme Leader and his affiliates pushing conspiracy theories, rather than analyzing concrete data to resolve the pandemic. In many of his public statements, Ayatollah Ali Khameni blames the U.S. for the outbreak of COVID-19, despite Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stating in a White House briefing that “the whole world should know that humanitarian assistance to Iran is wide open … they’ve got a terrible problem there and we want that humanitarian, medical assistance to get to the people of Iran.”

Khameni publicly commented on his refusal to accept aid and medication, stating that he believes the virus is naturally structured to further spread amongst the Iranian people.

The Iranian government is violating human right laws as it continues to deprive its people of basic necessities such as medications, proper hospital care, and other such medical supplies. The fact is that people are dying every 10 minutes, and the government continues to deny foreign aid. The Iranian people have the right to life and the government is infringing upon this right.

For further information, please see:

Aljazeera – Trump grilled on punishing Iran sanctions amid coronavirus crisis- 3 Apr. 2020

Aljazeera – Iran leader refuses US help; cites coronavirus conspiracy theory – 23 Mar. 2020

France 24 – Iran’s Khamanei refuses US help to fight coronavirus, citing conspiracy theory– 22 Mar. 2020

TIME – Iran Leader Refuses U.S. Help to Fight COVID-19, Citing Conspiracy Theory – 22 Mar. 2020

The Philadelphia Inquirer – Iran leader refuses U.S. help, citing coronavirus conspiracy theory – 22 Mar. 2020

Human Rights Watch – Human Rights Dimensions of COVID-19 Response – 19 Mar. 2020

Business Insider – The coronavirus has caused a full breakdown in Iran, with an unknown death toll, infected leaders, and massive burial pits visible from space – 17 Mar. 2020