Archive for the 'human rights' Category

Suspicious Death of Investigative Journalist John Williams Ntwali in Rwanda

January 24, 2023
John Williams Ntwali.
John Williams Ntwali. © Private

Human Rights Watch and others demand that the Rwandan authorities allow an effective, independent, and transparent investigation into the suspicious death of John Williams Ntwali, a leading investigative journalist and editor of the newspaper The Chronicles. Ntwali was regularly threatened due to his work as a journalist exposing human rights abuses in Rwanda and had expressed concern about his safety to Human Rights Watch and others.

John Williams Ntwali was a lifeline for many victims of human rights violations and often the only journalist who dared report on issues of political persecution and repression,” said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “There are many reasons to question the theory of a road accident, and a prompt, effective investigation, drawing on international expertise, is essential to determine whether he was murdered.

News of Ntwali’s death emerged in the evening of January 19, 2023. Police asked Ntwali’s brother to identify his body at Kacyiru Hospital morgue, telling him that Ntwali had died in a road accident the night of January 17 to 18. The police told the New Times website that Ntwali died in a motorbike accident in Kimihurura, Kigali, on January 18 at 2:50 a.m., but to date, have not provided details of the accident such as a police report, its exact location, or information on the others involved. Human Rights Watch is not aware of any reports about an alleged accident coming to light until the evening of January 19.

Ntwali was regularly threatened and attacked in the pro-government media for his investigative reporting. He played a leading role in covering and bringing attention to the plight of Kangondo neighborhood residents, who are in a long-standing dispute with authorities over land evictions. Recently, he also published videos on his YouTube channel about people who had suspiciously “disappeared.” His last video, posted on January 17, was about the reported disappearance of a genocide survivor who had spoken out about being beaten by police officers in 2018.

Ntwali was also one of only a few journalists independently covering high profile, politicized trials of journalists, commentators and opposition members, and posting videos about their conditions in prison. In June 2022, he told Human Rights Watch about the torture wounds he had seen on some of these critics and opponents. He also told Human Rights Watch:

I don’t know what’s going to happen to me after CHOGM [the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting which took place in Kigali in June 2022]. I’m told that after CHOGM, they won’t play around with us anymore. I’ve been told five or six times. I receive phone calls from private numbers. Some [intelligence] people have come to my house twice to tell me. NISS [National Intelligence and Security Services] has told me: ‘If you don’t change your tone, after CHOGM, you’ll see what happens to you.’

On July 12, he told a friend he had survived a number of “staged accidents” in Kigali. “He was telling me about ordeals and threats he faces for his journalism,” his friend told Human Rights Watch.

Given these circumstances, Rwanda has a legal obligation to ensure a prompt, effective investigation that is capable of determining the circumstances of Ntwali’s death and identifying those responsible, with a view to bringing them to justice. An effective investigation must be independent, impartial, thorough, and transparent, conducted in full compliance with the Revised United Nations Manual on the Effective Prevention and Investigation of Extra-legal, Arbitrary and Summary Executions (The Minnesota Protocol on the Investigation of Potentially Unlawful Death).

Because Rwandan authorities have consistently failed to ensure credible investigations into and accountability for suspicious deaths of political opponents or high-profile critics, such as Kizito Mihigo in February 2020, foreign experts such as the United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions should be involved in the investigation, Human Rights Watch said. All Rwandan authorities should fully support and cooperate with the investigation, and the Commonwealth, which Rwanda currently chairs, should publicly call for such an investigation. See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2021/02/16/call-for-independent-investigation-into-rwandan-singer-kizito-mihigos-death/

Rwandan authorities have long targeted Ntwali. He was arrested in January 2016, in the lead up to the 2017 elections, and accused of raping a minor. Judicial officials later changed the charge to indecent assault and eventually dropped the case for lack of evidence.

At the time, Ntwali had been investigating several sensitive issues, including the death of Assinapol Rwigara, a businessman and father of would-be independent presidential candidate Diana Rwigara, whose candidacy to the 2017 elections was later rejected. The police said that Assinapol Rwigara died in a car accident in February 2015, but his family contested the authorities’ version of events.

Ntwali had also been arbitrarily arrested several other times and his website was blocked by a government regulator, apparently in retaliation for his reporting that was critical of the government.

“It is an embarrassment for the Commonwealth and a problematic message about its values that the country that presides over it is a place where the suspicious deaths of journalists and activists can be swept under the carpet,” Mudge said. “Rwandan authorities should not only not harm journalists but should be actively protecting them, and Rwanda’s partners should be holding the government to account in full for its obligations under international human rights law.”

https://www.hrw.org/news/2023/01/20/rwanda-suspicious-death-investigative-journalist

https://www.reuters.com/world/africa/john-williams-ntwali-rare-rwandan-journalist-critical-govt-dies-2023-01-20/

and also; https://www.hrw.org/news/2023/02/09/no-clarity-over-journalists-death-rwanda

Human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko shot dead in eSwatini

January 23, 2023

On 22 January 2023 Freedom Under Law (FUL) said that the news that eSwatini human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko has been gunned down in cold blood comes as no surprise. The eSwatini government said Maseko was brutally shot and killed by unknown criminals at his home in Mbabane on Saturday night. See: https://www.trueheroesfilms.org/thedigest/laureates/03464020-c1e6-11ea-a3f7-933e766692a6

A ceaseless and fearless human rights lawyer, an outspoken critic of the regime in his beloved eSwatini, Thulani had all too long suffered at the hands of a heedless regime. But he lived by the motto: ‘My head is bloody, but unbowed … I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul’.

“Sadly, and to the shame of those engaged in the administration of justice in his country, all too often he was a lone beacon of light,” FUL chair judge Johann Kriegler said. He said no-one could be misled by the cynical message of condolence put out on behalf of the eSwatini government.

His passing has not only left his family bereft of a loved one; his country has been left the poorer, its human rights conscience brutally stifled.

FUL said in paying tribute to Maseko that it respectfully suggested it would be fitting if the Law Society of eSwatini were to mark his passing by observing January 21 every year as a day of mourning his death and rededication to the rule of law. “To his widow and family we express our grateful condolences. They have paid a bitter price on behalf of all who try to serve the principles for which their dear one lived.

According to the eSwatini government, Maseko was shot by “unknown criminals”. “[His] demise is a loss to the nation, and his footprints as a human rights lawyer are there as proof of his contributions to the country. He will be surely missed,” it said in a statement.  Spokesperson Alpheous Nxumalo said the country’s security forces had assured the government that they were already at work looking for the killers and would not rest until they have been brought to book. “Government also wants to warn against speculations and insinuations, peddled particularly on social media platforms in instances like these. Again, government distinctively disassociates… and the country’s authorities from these heinous acts.”

Maseko chaired the Multi-Stakeholders Forum, a collaboration of political parties and civil society groups working to amplify calls for democratic reforms. 

In 2018, Maseko took Swaziland’s King Mswati III to court for changing the country’s name. He had argued that the resources to be channelled to the name change should rather go towards improving living standards of the poor, according to reports by City Press. In 2014, Maseko was sentenced to two years in prison, with the editor of news magazine The Nation, Bheki Makhubu, for contempt of court over articles critical of the government and judiciary. The Nation published articles co-authored by the two men which were critical of the chief justice and suggested that he may have abused his powers. See also: https://lawyersforlawyers.org/en/lawyers/thulani-maseko/

A very impressive group of NGOs and individuals co-signed a statement condemning his killing: https://www.fidh.org/en/issues/human-rights-defenders/eswatini-condemnation-of-assassination-of-renowed-hrd-thulani-maseko

https://www.businesslive.co.za/bd/national/2023-01-22-human-rights-lawyer-thulani-masekos-murder-is-no-surprise-says-freedom-under-law/

https://www.hrw.org/news/2023/01/25/eswatini-activist-rights-lawyer-brutally-killed

https://www.news24.com/news24/southafrica/news/human-rights-lawyer-thulani-maseko-shot-dead-outside-home-in-eswatini-20230122

https://www.frontlinedefenders.org/en/case/case-history-thulani-maseko

Mongolian human rights defender Munkhbayar Chuluundorj gets support from over 100 NGOs

January 18, 2023

On 12 January 2023, over 100 Groups urged world leaders to jointly press for all charges against Mongolian writer and activist Munkhbayar Chuluundorj to be dropped and for him to be freed.

We urge the Mongolian government to immediately release Mr. Munkhbayar Chuluundorj who was arbitrarily arrested in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, by the General Intelligence Agency (GIA) of Mongolia on February 17, 2022.

Mr. Munkhbayar Chuluundorj is an award-winning Mongolian journalist, poet, and human rights activist known for defending the linguistic, cultural, and historical identities of Southern Mongolians.

Mr. Munkhbayar Chuluundorj was detained in Ulaanbaatar on politically motivated charges related to his public criticism of the Mongolian government’s close ties with China and the shrinking rights in Southern Mongolia. His arrest and sentencing took place amid China’s increasingly severe policies in Southern Mongolia that aim to remove learning in the Mongolian language for several key subjects. …

Mr. Munkhbayar Chuluundorj was sentenced to 10 years in prison on June 28, 2022, for “collaborating with a foreign intelligence agency” against the People’s Republic of China. On December 21, 2022, the Supreme Court of Mongolia heard his appeal and upheld the lower court’s original decision. There is no evidence linking Mr. Munkhbayar Chuluundorj to the charge and his lawyer, Ms. Baasan Geleg, has dismissed the national security charge against him as entirely baseless.

In September 2022 two handwritten letters from Mr. Munkhbayar Chuluundorj – penned in the detention center in June 2022 – were received by the Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center. In the letters, he pleaded his innocence and detailed how he believed the evidence against him had been fabricated in relation to his work to better the conditions of Mongolians.

Land-locked Mongolia is highly dependent on China for imports and there has been an increase in economic influence, including vast loans via Xi Jinping’s ‘Belt and Road Initiative’, in recent years that have pushed Mongolia into major indebtedness to China. These debts are further exacerbated by a program of cultural propaganda such as the establishment of Confucius Institutes, television and radio broadcasts, and cultural centers.

Growing concern about the Mongolian state’s harassment, intimidation, and reprisals against human rights defenders is growing. In October 2022, the UN Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights raised the issue of human rights defenders and recommended Mongolia put in place protection safeguards and ‘urgently investigate cases in which human rights defenders are criminalized’. Later in the same month, the Japanese “Parliamentary Support Group for Southern Mongolia” published a statement regarding the sentence of Mr. Munkhbayar Chuluundorj.

Rights groups are calling on like-minded governments – both jointly and bi-laterally – and the UN Human Rights Council to call for the immediate release of Mr. Munkhbayar Chuluundorj.

https://www.nchrd.org/

Pro-Israel lobby in USA seems to control Harvard’s human rights centre

January 10, 2023

Kenneth Roth wrote in the Guardian of 10 January 2023 “I once ran Human Rights Watch. Harvard blocked my fellowship over Israel. I was told that my fellowship at the Kennedy School was vetoed over my and Human Rights Watch’s criticism of Israel”.

Kenneth Roth said Harvard’s move was a reflection of ‘how utterly afraid the Kennedy School has become of any criticism of Israel’.

. ..If any academic institution can afford to abide by principle, to refuse to compromise academic freedom under real or presumed donor pressure, it is Harvard, the world’s richest university. Yet the Kennedy School’s dean, Douglas Elmendorf, vetoed a human rights fellowship that had been offered to me because of my criticism of Israel. As best we can tell, donor reaction was his concern.

Soon after I announced my departure from Human Rights Watch [see: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2022/04/27/after-almost-30-years-kenneth-roth-will-leave-human-rights-watch/], the Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy reached out to me to discuss offering me a fellowship. ..

.. in anticipation of my stay at the school, I reached out to the dean to introduce myself. We had a pleasant half-hour conversation. The only hint of a problem came at the end. He asked me whether I had any enemies.

It was an odd question. I explained that of course I had enemies. Many of them. That is a hazard of the trade as a human rights defender.

I explained that the Chinese and Russian governments had personally sanctioned me – a badge of honor, in my view. I mentioned that a range of governments, including Rwanda’s and Saudi Arabia’s, hate me. But I had a hunch what he was driving at, so I also noted that the Israeli government undoubtedly detests me, too.

That turned out to be the kiss of death. Two weeks later, the Carr Center called me up to say sheepishly that Elmendorf had vetoed my fellowship. He told Professor Kathryn Sikkink, a highly respected human rights scholar affiliated with the Kennedy School, that the reason was my, and Human Rights Watch’s, criticism of Israel.

That is a shocking revelation. How can an institution that purports to address foreign policy – that even hosts a human rights policy center – avoid criticism of Israel. Elmendorf has not publicly defended his decision, so we can only surmise what happened. He is not known to have taken public positions on Israel’s human rights record, so it is hard to imagine that his personal views were the problem.

But as the Nation showed in its exposé about my case, several major donors to the Kennedy School are big supporters of Israel. Did Elmendorf consult with these donors or assume that they would object to my appointment? We don’t know. But that is the only plausible explanation that I have heard for his decision. The Kennedy School spokesperson has not denied it.

Some defenders of the Israeli government have claimed that Elmendorf’s rejection of my fellowship was because Human Rights Watch, or I, devote too much attention to Israel. The accusation of “bias” is rich coming from people who themselves never criticize Israel and, typically using neutral sounding organizational names, attack anyone who criticizes Israel.

Moreover, Israel is one of 100 countries whose human rights record Human Rights Watch regularly addresses. Israel is a tiny percentage of its work. And within the Israeli-Palestinian context, Human Rights Watch addresses not only Israeli repression but also abuses by the Palestinian Authority, Hamas and Hezbollah.

In any event, it is doubtful that these critics would be satisfied if Human Rights Watch published slightly fewer reports on Israel, or if I issued less frequent tweets. They don’t want less criticism of Israel. They want no criticism of Israel.

The other argument that defenders of Israel have been advancing is that Human Rights Watch, and I, “demonize” Israel, or that we try to “evoke repulsion and disgust”. Usually this is a prelude to charging that we are “antisemitic”.

Human rights advocacy is premised on documenting and publicizing governmental misconduct to shame the government into stopping. That is what Human Rights Watch does to governments worldwide. To equate that with antisemitism is preposterous. And dangerous, because it cheapens the very serious problem of antisemitism by reducing it to criticism of Israel. See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2022/02/04/amnesty-joins-debate-on-apartheid-versus-palestinians-but-reactions-debase-struggle-against-real-antisemitism/

The issue at Harvard is far more than my own academic fellowship. I recognized that, as an established figure in the human rights movement, I am in a privileged position. Being denied this fellowship will not significantly impede my future. But I worry about younger academics who are less known. If I can be canceled because of my criticism of Israel, will they risk taking the issue on?

The ultimate question here is about donor-driven censorship. Why should any academic institution allow the perception that donor preferences, whether expressed or assumed, can restrict academic inquiry and publication? Regardless of what happened in my case, wealthy Harvard should take the lead here.

To clarify its commitment to academic freedom, Harvard should announce that it will accept no contributions from donors who try to use their financial influence to censor academic work, and that no administrator will be permitted to censor academics because of presumed donor concerns. That would transform this deeply disappointing episode into something positive.

See also the reaction by Gerald L. Neuman: https://hrp.law.harvard.edu/staff-reflections/hks-kenneth-roth-and-the-message-to-human-rights-defenders/

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2023/jan/10/kenneth-roth-human-rights-watch-harvard-israel

Sports washing: autocracies can afford more big events

January 10, 2023

I have been paying attention to the phenomenon of sports washing on several occasions in the past. See e.g. https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/tag/sports-washing/. It pleases me to see that the Economist on 19 November 2022 underpinned this concern by showing that over the last years autocratic regimes have increased their share of the pie.

According to data compiled by Adam Scharpf, of the University of Copenhagen, and two colleagues, the share of international sporting events hosted by autocracies fell from 36% in 1945-88 to 15% in 1989-2012. Since then, it has rebounded to 37%. Although the total number of democracies in the world has also declined from the post-cold-war high, only a few recent autocratic hosts are lapsed democracies.

Ironically, this trend stems largely from democratic decision-making. Studies have shown that big sporting events tend to be bad deals for host countries. Cities have to build costly stadiums that are rarely used afterwards, and that fail to spark economic development in surrounding areas. As a result, governments accountable to their taxpayers have become less enthusiastic about being the host. This year’s Winter Olympics wound up in Beijing almost by default, after all four cities in democratic countries that had bid backed out. The only alternative was Almaty, Kazakhstan.

Autocrats, in contrast, are free to squander public funds. The main threat they face as hosts is that protesters or the press will highlight human-rights violations. But rather than encouraging reform, the international spotlight seems to lead such regimes to become even more repressive in the run-up to sporting events.

Using “repression scores” calculated by other scholars that measure how much violence states inflict on their citizens, Mr Scharpf has shown that hosts of the Olympics and football tournaments tend to crack down two years before opening ceremonies. Once the world starts watching, they ease off. All this is illustrated by graphics.

https://www.economist.com/graphic-detail/2022/11/17/international-sporting-events-are-increasingly-held-in-autocracies

2023: it can only get better for human rights

January 3, 2023

It seems bold to be so optimistic, but lets not forget that the assertion starts from a very low base: 2022 was probably one of the worst years with the Ukrainian war, further repression in Russia, death sentences for protesters in Iran and no let up in China.

Also remarkable wss the relatively poor observance of internatioanl Human Rights Day on 10 December 2022. Usually I make selection of events (e.g. https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2021/12/10/human-rights-day-2021/ and https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2019/12/17/human-rights-day-2019-anthology-part-ii/), but this year there was little to report. Just these:

In an interview with Global Solutions of 9 December the “new” High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Turk, [see also:https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2022/09/15/new-high-commissioner-for-human-rights-volker-turk-the-man-for-an-impossible-job/] gives an answer to the question: 10 December marks Human Rights Day; With this milestone – and your new role – in mind, what’s your vision for human rights?

I think we have to start with where we are with the world and we are at a very peculiar moment.  We have all lived through these multiple crises. We have seen the geopolitics, the divisions, the fragmentation, and all these things that have preoccupied us at a time when you would hope that the international community would come together and craft something that would respond to the big challenges that we face.

So for me, human rights is the force that comes in and unifies us.  Because it brings us back to human dignity and to what makes us all connected with each other. Let’s not forget that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights emerged out of the ashes of the Second World War.  It provided the inspiration and the motivation that the world needed at that time.  So, I think we need to almost counter intuitively go back to the basics of what this unifying force – this concentration on the human being – was.  We need to regain the universality and the indivisibility of the human rights regime.

Secondly, we also need to look at human rights in the 21st century, for example in the digital transformation that we’re seeing. Take the letter I wrote to Twitter’s Elon Musk, for instance. Social media platforms play a very important role. We know the role Facebook played in Myanmar, for example, when the Rohinga crisis happened, in allowing disinformation and hatred to spread. So, human rights needs to look at the type of issues that we face today.

And the third area that I hope we can achieve next year, is we have to look at the human rights ecosystem as a whole. So, what is the role of the treaty bodies, of the special procedures mandate-holders, of the Human Rights Council, Universal Periodic Review process, and of my own office too – and how do we strategically deal with different situations?

Freedom House took the occasion to consider that Political prisoners and the victims of human rights abuses have taken a back seat when global summits and events occur. But it is exactly because of those events that we should be giving the victims of such abuses our full attention...

Symbolic dates like International Human Rights Day offer space to reflect on and advocate for the rights of the brave people who have been imprisoned or experienced retaliation for standing up to repressive, authoritarian rule. But political prisoners and others fighting for freedom deserve our attention for more than one day of the year. We cannot allow their plight to be sidelined because it is inconvenient to think about them during an event like the World Cup.

The World Cup is one of several events in recent months that has drawn criticism for the human rights controversies surrounding it. In what was meant to be a historic summit to discuss the imminent threats posed by climate change, the latest United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27), held in Egypt in early November, instead became a spotlight on the host country’s abysmal human rights record. The large number of human rights defenders and activists currently detained or imprisoned in Egypt was difficult to ignore, and one case in particular stood out for its perilously high stakes. British-Egyptian democracy activist Alaa Abdel Fattah, imprisoned for his activism, endured a six-month hunger strike, now over, which resulted in the Egyptian authorities denying his family the ability to contact him as the conference took place. They desperately pleaded with the authorities for proof he was alive, and his sister Sanaa took the stage at official summit events to advocate for her brother’s release. She faced threats from Egyptian officials who accused her of calling on foreign entities to intervene in the country’s internal affairs.

Participating governments could have added to this pressure and set the stage for the release of Abdel Fattah and numerous other political prisoners, by conditioning Egypt’s hosting role on freeing political prisoners ahead of COP27. Instead, the conference’s setting appeared hypocritical, as climate justice depends in large part on respect for democracy and human rights.

Similarly, this fall’s G20 summit saw leaders of multiple countries that hold political prisoners convene for strategic discussions. The lives and freedoms of imprisoned human rights defenders, journalists, and prodemocracy activists in Saudi Arabia, China, Turkey, Russia, Mexico, India, and even the host state Indonesia, were superseded by “other priorities.” In Indonesia, human rights defender Victor Yeimo, who has spoken out on the rights abuses occurring in West Papua, was arrested in May 2021, reportedly due to his involvement in antiracism and self-determination protests two years prior. Charged with crimes including treason, he remained in detention while the G20 met. His case and others across the various member states should have been highlighted, as respect for international human rights principles and commitment to strong democracies are key to long-term national and global security and economic stability.

Scott Walker, a Researcher at the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law, a and a Research Assistant within the Faculty of Law, Monash University.decided to draw attention to an important case concerning climate justice; On 10 December 2022 the world marks Human Rights Day commemorating the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights(UDHR) in 1948.  This year’s theme is dignity, freedom, and justice for all, in anticipation of the 75thanniversary of the UDHR in 2023. It gives us cause to reflect on the mobilising force that the UDHR has become in the struggle for human rights across the world. Yet, there is always more work to be done to truly achieve a world in which dignity, freedom, and justice is a lived reality for all. To do so we must utilise human rights both as a guidepost for advocacy and a tool for concrete, on the ground change to address some of the most pressing and ongoing challenges facing our world; including the immediate and catastrophic impacts of climate change

Here in Australia, the path to domestic enshrinement of human rights has been a meandering one: only two States (Victoria and Queensland) and one Territory (the Australian Capital Territory) have Human Rights Acts. Yet, the capacity of these Human Rights Acts to achieve real and meaningful change in people’s lives is profound. Increasingly, people on the frontline of the climate crisis are also turning towards human rights to achieve justice. The potential impact of human rights-based climate litigation was recently demonstrated in the decision of the Land Court of Queensland in Warratah Coal Pty Ltd v Youth Verdict Ltd. In this case, the Court recommend against the grant of a mining lease and environmental authority to allow Warratah Coal to mine thermal coal in Queensland’s Gallilee Basin.  This case deserves closer examination to illustrate the way in which human rights enshrined in law can be mobilised in claims for climate justice.  

On 10 December 2022, the Human Rights Campaign Foundation (HRCF), the educational arm of the nation’s largest lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ+) civil rights organization, announced this year’s recipients of 20 Global Innovation Small Grants as a part of the organization’s Global Partnerships Program. The grants range from $1,000 to $5,000 and are awarded to organizations around the world working to improve the lives of LGBTQ+ people in these countries. This announcement coincides with International Human Rights Day, which is celebrated annually around the world, marks the December 10 anniversary of the United Nations adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. The declaration was the first of its kind and recognized that “every human being is born free and equal in rights and dignity.” The grants support members of of HRC’s growing global alumni network, which now consists of some 200 LGBTQ+ advocates in close to 100 countries. All of them have participated in one of the HRC Foundation’s global programs, including the flagship annual Innovative Advocacy Summit.


The Network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders, December 9, 2022 Ahead of International Human Rights Day on December 10, CHRD celebrated the courage and bravery of human rights advocates and calls on the Chinese government to stop violating its obligations to protect human rights and free those detained for exercising their human rights. We urge the international community to keep hope alive and continue supporting defenders on the forefront. 

In recent years. Xi Jinping, the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, has suffocated civil society and space for free expression, jailed COVID whistleblowers, journalists, lawyers, labor organizers and feminists, LGBTQ+ activists and religious practitioners. Yet we are encouraged by the glimmers of hope that have emerged in the recent protests. The protests demanding political changes began with spontaneous gatherings to pay tribute to Uyghur victims in the Urumqi FireThe rapidly spreading protests, led by youth, likely proved to be the last straw in forcing the Chinese Party-State to reverse course on its draconian “zero-COVID” measures. 

Reasons for hope: Young people have brought new vitality to the fight for human rights

The scope of this short-lived wave of protests in cities across China was enormous, comparatively speaking. Thus far, there have been at least 68 protests across 31 cities since November 25according to the Australia Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI). And it has largely been young people who have led the protests. The Urumqi apartment complex fire, which took the lives of at least ten Uyghur women and children, as rescue was obstructed by barriers thought to be erected for COVID lockdown but likely for  “counter-terror” measures, brought people into the streets to mourn the loss of lives, to assemble and speak out against the devastating zero-COVID control and the political system that made such control possible.   

https://freedomhouse.org/article/imprisoned-not-forgotten-rights-abuses-and-global-events-hide-th

https://genevasolutions.news/human-rights/volker-turk-it-s-my-duty-to-be-the-voice-of-human-rights

Iran out of UN Commission on the Status of Women

January 3, 2023
The United Nations headquarters building is seen from inside the General Assembly hall.

Members of the United Nations voted to remove Iran from the Commission on the Status of Women, a body overseen by the Economic and Social Council. | Pool photo by Eduardo Munoz

On 14 December 2022 Politico reported on another setback for Iran in the diplomatic area: A U.S.-led effort to push Iran off a United Nations panel that promotes women’s rights succeeded on Wednesday, the latest move in a broader Western campaign to punish Iran for its crackdown on widespread protests.

The resolution to oust Iran from the Commission on the Status of Women passed with 29 votes in favor and eight against. Yet of the 54 countries eligible to vote, at least 16 abstained — a sign of the wariness about setting a precedent of the U.S. dictating who’s deserving of U.N. panel memberships. Some countries had also questioned why Iran was singled out when other past and present panel members have spotty records on women’s rights.

Iran received vocal support from coiuntries such as Russia and China, some of which noted that there were no formal procedures to push Iran off the commission. Abstainers included countries such as India, the Solomon Islands and Indonesia. Many did not make public statements during the debate.

The vote was held by the U.N.’s Economic and Social Council, which oversees the women’s rights commission. The commission was established in 1946, and its past activities include laying the groundwork for a landmark treaty that has served as an international bill of rights for women. It also urges countries to update their legal frameworks to provide equal rights for women.

Wednesday’s vote followed a campaign by women’s rights activists, including many in the Iranian diaspora, to get Iran off the commission as it has tried to suppress protests. Hundreds have been killed in the crackdown. Iran also has begun executing protesters as part of its attempt to end the demonstrations, which have often been led by young people and women.

See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2022/11/23/un-human-rights-council-holds-special-session-on-iran-on-24-november/

https://www.politico.com/news/2022/12/14/u-n-member-states-vote-to-oust-iran-from-womens-rights-panel-00073886

Now it is the turn of the Moscow Helsinki Group to be liquidated

January 3, 2023

Tanya Lokshina, Associate Director, Europe and Central Asia Division, reported on 21 December 2022 on how the Moscow Helsinki Group MHG), Russia’s oldest Human Rights Group, faces ‘Liquidation’

Moscow Helsinki Group’s logo
Moscow Helsinki Group’s logo.  © 2022 Moscow Helsinki Group

Last week, Russia’s Justice Ministry filed a petition with the Moscow City Court seeking “liquidation” of the Moscow Helsinki Group (MHG), a leading Russian human rights organization.

On 12 May Tanya Lokshina received one of MHG’s annual awards for contributions to human rights and the Russian human rights movement. She writes: “By then, in the aftermath of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the authorities had shut down Human Rights Watch’s Moscow office, along with the offices of 14 other foreign nongovernmental organizations. I had already left the country with the rest of our team, and my 9-year-old son received the beautifully framed award on my behalf. I first saw it several weeks later, when he joined me in Tbilisi, Georgia, where I had relocated to continue my work. I generally don’t display awards and diplomas, but receiving one from MHG was so special that it now hangs on my wall.”

MHG was founded in 1976 by Soviet dissidents to expose governmental repression. It lasted nine months before the government jailed or forced practically all its members into exile. After the USSR’s collapse, the group revived in the 1990’s under the leadership of Lyudmilla Alexeeva, a legendary human rights defender, and has been working tirelessly to expose abuses, build up a country-wide human rights movement in Russia, and advocate for the rule of law. [see also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2018/12/10/russian-human-rights-defender-ludmila-mikhailovna-alexeeva-is-no-longer/]

The liquidation lawsuit is based on the Justice Ministry’s ad hoc inspection of MHG. The liquidation petition cites several supposed violations of Russia’s stifling legislation on nongovernmental organizations, including the group being registered in Moscow but operating elsewhere in Russia, and the group’s charter lacking information on the location of its executive body. These are obviously bureaucratic pretexts that could not justify such a drastic move.

This year, Moscow courts liquidated four other major human rights groups in addition to Memorial, so it’s hard to find optimism for a fair trial for MHG. But it’s not hard to be optimistic about Russia’s human rights movement. It outlasted the Soviet Union; it will outlast today’s oppressors. See: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2022/12/12/foreign-agent-law-in-russia-from-bad-to-worse/.

And it goes on, the Andrei Sakharov Foundation, see: 24 January 2023 HRW post: https://www.hrw.org/news/2023/01/24/russia-designates-another-rights-organization-undesirable

https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/12/21/russias-oldest-human-rights-group-faces-liquidation

Foreign Agent law in Russia from bad to worse

December 12, 2022

A new law entered into force in Russia that drastically expands the country’s oppressive and vast “foreign agents” legislation, Human Rights Watch said on 1 December 2022. The law is yet another attack on free expression and legitimate civic activism in Russia, and should be repealed:

Adopted in July 2022, the law’s entry into force was delayed until December 1. The law expands the definition of foreign agent to a point at which almost any person or entity, regardless of nationality or location, who engages in civic activism or even expresses opinions about Russian policies or officials’ conduct could be designated a foreign agent, so long as the authorities claim they are under “foreign influence.” It also excludes “foreign agents” from key aspects of civic life. 

“For more than a decade, Russian authorities have used ‘foreign agents’ laws to smear and punish independent voices,” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “This new tool in the government’s already crowded toolbox makes it even easier to threaten critics, impose harsh restrictions on their legitimate activities and even ban them. It makes thoughtful public discussion about Russia’s past, present, and future simply impossible.” See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2022/05/21/kasparov-and-khodorkovsky-are-now-also-foreign-agents/

In Russia, the term “foreign agent” is tantamount “spy” or “traitor.” The foreign agent designation remains extra-judicial, with no possibility to contest it in court before the designation is made. Those designated must comply with all requirements the day after the authorities add them to the registry, even if they challenge the designation in court.

When the first foreign agent law was adopted in 2012, only registered organizations could be designated “foreign agents.” Successive amendments gradually expanded the application from registered organizations, to media, to other categories of individuals, and to associations without legal entities.

The July law, On Control Over Activities of Entities/Persons Under Foreign Influence, replaces these with a consolidated, simplified, but endlessly broad definition to cover any person – Russian, foreign or stateless; any legal entity, domestic or international; or any group without official registration, if they are considered to have received foreign support and/or are considered to be “under foreign influence” and engaged in activities that Russian authorities would deem to be “political.” It also covers anyone who gathers information about Russia’s military activities or military capabilities, or creates or publicly disseminates information or funds such activities.

The law defines “foreign influence” as “support” from foreign sources that includes funding, technical assistance, or other undefined kinds of assistance and/or open-ended “impact” that constitutes coercion, persuasion, and/or “other means.”

Under this definition, any interaction with a foreign element can potentially be construed as “foreign influence,” Human Rights Watch said. There is also no requirement for any causal link between “foreign influence” and the “political” or other activities for the designation to be applicable.

Foreign sources include not only foreign states or foreign entities, but also international organizations, presumably including such multilateral organizations as the United Nations. The law considers Russian nationals or organizations “foreign sources” if they are respectively considered by the Russian authorities to be under “foreign influence” or to be beneficiaries of “foreign funding.”

To avoid the “foreign agent” label, an organization needs to ensure that no source of any donation was at any stage “tainted” by “foreign influence,” including indirectly.

In defining what constitutes “political” activities of a foreign agent, the law consolidates provisions of earlier iterations of “foreign agent” amendments to include “opinions about public authorities’ decisions or policies.” For example, a journalist who publishes a commentary about urban development plans could fall under the definition of foreign agent activity.

The new law also excludes “foreign agents” from key aspects of public life. These include bans on joining the civil service, participating in electoral commissions, acting in an advisory or expert capacity in official or public environmental impact assessments, in independent anti-corruption expertise of draft laws and by-laws, or electoral campaigns or even donating to such campaigns or to political parties.

Foreign agents are also banned from teaching or engaging in other education activities for minors or producing informational materials for them. They cannot participate in organizing public assemblies or support them through donations and are barred from a number of other activities.

The law expands the notion of a person or entity affiliated with a “foreign agent,” which was first introduced in 2021 in relation to electoral candidates. A person remains “affiliated” up to two years after they sever ties with the foreign agent, even if the “affiliation” started before the law entered into force, and even if the “affiliation” started before the entity was designated a foreign agent.

Since the adoption of the first “foreign agents” law, hundreds of civic groups and activists, including those that work on human rights, the environment, election monitoring, and anti-corruption, have been designated “foreign agents.” A large number of organizations had to close down because they either sought to avoid the toxic label or were unable to bear the hefty fines imposed for not complying with the law’s burdensome, arbitrary labelling and reporting requirements. The authorities used the “foreign agents” law as a legal pretext to close down other groups, such as the human rights group Memorial, one of the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize laureates. See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2021/12/29/russias-supreme-court-orders-closure-emblematic-memorial/

This new ‘foreign agents’ law is an unrestrained attack on Russian civil society aimed at gagging any public criticism of state policies,” Denber said. “It should be scrapped.”

https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/12/01/russia-new-restrictions-foreign-agents

HURIDOCS – who will continue Friedhelm Weinberg’s excellent leadership?

December 12, 2022

After more than 10 years, Friedhelm Weinberg will be leaving HURIDOCS in early 2023. Having worked with him in person on many occasions, I can testify that his leadership has been most impressive, for the NGO itself [see e.g. https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/category/organisations/huridocs/] and the in the area of networking with others, such as the MEA and THF [see e.g. his: https://youtu.be/zDxPbd9St9Y]. In his own announcement, he modestly refers to all his colleagues:

It has been an incredible decade with HURIDOCS, working with amazing colleagues and partners at the intersection of human rights and technology. Together, we have drastically increased support to activists to leverage technology for documentation, litigation and advocacy work. We have pioneered flexible, reliable and robust software tools such as Uwazi, while responsibly sunsetting the past generation of open source software.

None of this would have been possible without the team we have built, and that was collaborating remotely across the globe well before 2020. It’s a committed, humorous and professional bunch, and I have learned so much with every single one of them, as we made things happen and as we hit walls and then picked each other up. I am also grateful to our board that brings together wisdom from leading NGOs, technology companies, the financial sector, but, more importantly, people that were generous with guidance, encouragement and critique.

It has also been a decade of many heartbreaks. From partners whose offices have been raided, that have been declared foreign agents, threatened, attacked. From wars and conflicts breaking out, affecting people we work with. From the difficulties of all we’re doing sometimes not being enough. From worrying how to raise the money to sustain and grow a team that can rise to these challenges.

It is a bittersweet departure, because it has been life-affirming – and yet it is for a perspective that fills me with warmth and excitement. For a while, I will be with our children, with the second one due to arrive in early 2023. 

As I have made the decision to leave HURIDOCS, I also have felt really down and much of the stress built up over a decade manifested physically. Seeking treatment, I have been diagnosed with burnout and depression, and have been recovering with the support from specialists, friends and family. This is neither a badge of honor nor something I want to be shy about, it’s just the reason you haven’t seen much of me recently in professional circles. It’s getting better and I am grateful to have the time and space for healing.

Currently, Nancy Yu is leading HURIDOCS as Interim Executive Director, as Lisa Reinsberg as the Board Chair holds the space and directs the succession process. I am grateful to both of them to step up and step in, as well as the team, our partners and funders for a decade of working together to advance human rights.

As the search for his successor has started, please have a look at the recruitment announcement and consider applying or sharing it with suitable candidates: https://lnkd.in/e7Y7smqT

https://www.linkedin.com/feed/update/urn:li:activity:7005479545189322752/