UN Rights Expert To Assess Human Rights Situation in Myanmar

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, will undertake her fifth information-gathering visit to the country from January 9 to 20th. Ms. Lee plans to visit Kachin State  and Rakhine State, in addition to Nay Pyi Taw and Yangon in order to assess recent developments.

“The events of the last few months have shown that the international community must remain vigilant in monitoring the human rights situation there. “Apart from what is happening in Rakhine, the escalation in fighting in Kachin and Shan, with its inevitable negative impact on the situation of civilians, is causing some disquiet regarding the direction that the new government is taking in its first year of administration,” Lee said.

During the 12-day visit, at the invitation of the Myanmar government, the Special Rapporteur will address a broad range of human rights issues with the authorities and various stakeholders, including political and community leaders, civil society representatives, as well as victims of human rights violations and members of the international community.

In line with her mandate from the UN Human Rights Council, Ms. Lee has proposed benchmarks to the Myanmar government ahead of her visit to help monitor and assess progress in the situation of human rights in Myanmar. By the end of her visit, she hopes to arrive at mutually agreed benchmarks with the government, which will include priority areas for technical assistance and capacity building.

“My main objective, as Special Rapporteur, has always been to work closely with the authorities and people of Myanmar, for the promotion and protection of human rights in the country,” Lee noted.

“I look forward to the good cooperation which the Government has always extended to my mandate. I especially hope for the constructive and frank exchange of views which always take place during my visits to lead to real and meaningful change for the people of Myanmar,” she said.

Following her country visit, Lee will present a report to the UN Human Rights Council in March 2017.

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Chinese Lawyer Held Incommunicado At Risk For Torture

Missing prominent rights activist Jiang Tianyong in an undated photo.

Chinese authorities confirm that Beijing human rights lawyer Jiang Tianyong, last heard from on November 21st 2016, has been placed under “residential surveillance in a designated location” on suspicion of “inciting subversion of state power”. His whereabouts remain unknown and, without access to a lawyer, is at risk of torture or other ill-treatment, according to Amnesty International.

Jiang Tianyong is a well-known human rights lawyer, whose activism resulted in him being disbarred in 2009. He has since continued his work as a human rights defender, despite suffering ongoing harassment, detention and physical beatings

He has been placed under “residential surveillance in a designated location” on suspicion of “inciting subversion of state power” according to a notification received by his father-in-law on December 23rd 2016 from the Changsha City Public Security Bureau. On December 29th a visitation request, made by Jiang Tianyong’s lawyer two days prior, was rejected by the Public Security Bureau because the case involved “endangering national security”.

To date, no information about Jiang Tianyong’s whereabouts has been provided.

On December 16th, mainland Chinese media reported that Jiang Tianyong had been placed under police custody for allegedly having “illegally possessed multiple secret state documents, colluded with overseas institutions, organizations and individuals, and is suspected of illegally providing state secrets abroad”. The reports cited unspecified public security authorities.

Xie Yang, the detained lawyer whose wife Jiang Tianyong was visiting when he initially disappeared, is one of ten lawyers and activists who remain in detention on subversion charges following an unprecedented mass crackdown that started on July 9th 2015. Amnesty International is aware of at least 248 lawyers and activists who have been questioned or detained by state security agents since the crackdown began.

Jiang Tianyong has been involved in some high profile cases and has supported other human rights defenders, including human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng, who was imprisoned and consistently harassed due to his human rights work, and blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng, who exposed forced abortion practices on villagers by local officials in Dongshigu Village in Linyi, Shandong.

The most recent detention of Jiang Tiangyong was in March 2014, after he and three other lawyers went to investigate a “black jail”, or unofficial detention facility, in Jiansanjiang, Heilongjiang which allegedly detained Falun Gong practitioners. He was beaten while detained and had eight ribs fractured as a result.

Previously, in May 2012, Jiang Tianyong was detained by public security officers while on his way to visit Chen Guangcheng in Chaoyang Hospital, Haidian District, Beijing. Detained for nine hours, Jiang Tianyong was beaten so badly that his left eardrum was perforated and the hearing in his right ear was temporarily impaired.

Amnesty is urging the Chinese authorities to immediately disclose Jiang Tianyong’s whereabouts and calls on the authorities to immediately release Jiang Tianyong unless there is credible evidence that he may have committed an internationally recognized offence and is granted a fair trial in line with international human rights standards. The human rights groups also urges authorities to ensure that Jiang Tianyong is protected from torture and other ill-treatment and that he is allowed access to his family, a lawyer of his choice and adequate medical care.

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Myanmar: Protect Civilians in Northern Fighting, Ensure Aid

Military and ethnic armed groups in northern Myanmar should commit to protecting civilians and expediting aid in the face of escalating rights abuses and civilian displacement, Human Rights Watch says.

On December 17th Myanmar army forces captured a key stronghold of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) on Gidon mountain in Kachin State. Government airstrikes and shelling were confirmed to have hit close to several camps for internally displaced people near the KIA headquarters of Laiza, causing damage to shelters and forcing the evacuation of more than 400 people.

“While international attention has rightly focused on the crisis in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, expanded fighting in northern Myanmar has resulted in a spike in rights abuses and civilian displacement,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “There is a critical need for the army and armed groups to end abuses and ensure civilian protection, especially for highly vulnerable villagers and displaced people close to the front lines.”

On November 20th, armed groups comprising the Brotherhood of the Northern Alliance – the Kachin Independence Army, Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), Ta-ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), and the Arakan Army (AA) – carried out attacks against the police, firing unguided rockets into civilian areas near the Myanmar-China border town of Muse and other locations on the main highway. The Myanmar government said that 10 civilians died in these attacks. The alliance also seized the town of Mong Ko on the Chinese border for several days before being driven out in early December by airstrikes from helicopter gunships, jets, and heavy artillery.

The military has committed serious violations of the laws of war in Kachin and Northern Shan States, including summary executions, torture and ill-treatment, forced labor, and looting of civilian properties. Ethnic armed groups have also committed laws-of-war violations, including summary executions, abductions and forced recruitment of civilians, and indiscriminate firing into civilian areas. Many of these abuses on both sides are apparent war crimes.

Human Rights Watch research in August and October documented numerous abuses, including the summary executions of seven men in the town of Mong Yaw in Northern Shan State in June. The army admitted killing five of the men, and after a criminal investigation a court martial convicted seven officers and ranking soldiers, sentencing them to five years in prison.

Fighting in Northern Shan State has steadily increased since 2009, particularly in Kyaukme, Hsipaw, and Namtu townships. It has involved various ethnic armed groups that have fought each other, the military, and pro-government militias. The forces have vied over territory and the drug trade and its various revenue-raising enterprises.

As a result of this fighting, villagers have become displaced for weeks or months before returning to their homes; in some cases, families have been displaced several times over the year. Police officials in Muse, Northern Shan State, have estimated that since the attacks on November 20, there have been 170 clashes, with fighting in Muse again reported on December 20.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Rangoon reported that between 2,000 and 4,000 people have been internally displaced by the recent fighting in Northern Shan State and an estimated 15,000 refugees have crossed into China. About 100,000 people remain displaced by the conflicts in Kachin and Northern Shan States since heavy fighting began in 2011. Many small settlements for internally displaced people are in areas of active conflict, increasing their vulnerability. Since early 2016, aid organizations have reported increased restrictions by military authorities on movement and access to displaced populations in Kachin and Northern Shan States.

On December 12th, the United States embassy in Rangoon issued a statement on fighting in Kachin and Northern Shan States calling for “restraint from all sides and urging immediate, unfettered humanitarian access to all those affected by conflict throughout the country.” This followed a December 1 statement from several local nongovernmental organizations and international relief organizations based in northern Myanmar urging the “removal of all impediments and restrictions, formal or informal, to the movement of humanitarian aid including personnel, goods, and services to ensure timely response to humanitarian needs.”

The existing regional peace process has seen little progress, Human Rights Watch said. Three Northern Alliance members – the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, the Ta-ang National Liberation Army, and the Arakan Army –  have been excluded from the official ceasefire process.

“Nongovernmental groups in conflict areas in Myanmar’s north are routinely documenting serious abuses with very little action by the central government to ensure that abuses stop and civilian protection becomes a priority,” Adams said. “Myanmar’s many friends and donors should demand full and unfettered access for humanitarian groups and that all parties facilitate the delivery of urgently needed aid.”

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Chinese Activist Arrested For ‘’Leaking State Secrets’’

Huang Qi, founder of Sichuan-based website 64 Tianwang, who has not been heard from since he was taken away on November 28th, has been formally arrested for “leaking state secrets”, according to Amnesty International. He still does not have access to a lawyer.

The family of Huang Qi received a written notification from the Mianyang City Public Security Bureau on December 16th, more than two weeks after he first went missing, that he was being detained at Mianyang City Detention and has been formally arrested for “leaking state secrets”. No further explanation about the allegations were provided.

Huang Qi, 53, was taken from his home in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, by 15 public security officers from three cities in Sichuan: Mianyang, Neijiang and Chengdu, on November 28th. Huang Qi’s detention has occurred amid a recent crackdown on human rights defenders in China and, without access to a lawyer of his choice, there are still fears that he could be subjected to torture or ill-treatment. Further concerns for his wellbeing have been raised as Huang Qi suffers from acute nephritis, a kidney disorder, and needs daily medication.

Pu Wenqing, Huang Qi’s 83-year-old mother, returned home on December 16th after having not been heard from since she was taken to a hospital in Sichuan on November 30th. The circumstances surrounding her hospital visit remain unclear, however sources confirm that she now remains under tight surveillance.

“64 Tianwang”, founded by Sichuan activist Huang Qi and his wife Zeng Li in 1998, is one of the few major mainland-based websites that reports and documents petitioners’ protests in China. Most of the website’s contributors were first petitioners before becoming citizen journalists to report on other petitioners’ protests and arrests.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) announced in November that “64 Tianwang” had won the 2016 Press Freedom Award, along with detained Chinese bloggers Lu Yuyu and Li Tingting and Syrian reporter Hadi Abdullah. 

“One of the few major independent news websites in China, 64 Tianwang and its citizen-journalists are still being systematically hounded by the Chinese authorities 12 years after its founder, Huang Qi, was awarded RSF’s Press Freedom Prize in the cyber-dissident category,” RSF editor-in-chief Virginie Dangles said. “Huang’s abduction is part of an ongoing crackdown on human rights defenders in China and fears are growing that the authorities may be mistreating and torturing him. We call for his immediate and unconditional release.”

This is the third time Huang Qi has been detained this year. He was first taken away for “forced travel” – a common practice where state security police take activists and petitioners outside of their towns during sensitive periods – following protests by land eviction victims July 22-24th at the G20 Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors meeting in Chengdu. The second occasion was on October 24th when Huang Qi was questioned by the public security officers from Chengdu, during the Sixth Plenum of the 18th Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee in Beijing October 24-27th. He was released the following day.

Over the years, Huang Qi and other “64 Tianwang” contributors have been frequently detained or harassed by the Chinese authorities. Huang Qi has been imprisoned twice. He was first detained in June 2000 – the 11th anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown – before being convicted of “inciting subversion of state power” and sentenced to five years in May 2003. He was again detained and later imprisoned for three years after exposing the substandard building scandal following the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake in Sichuan.

According to “64 Tianwang”, their journalists, who are mostly petitioners turned citizen journalists, have been questioned or placed under brief detention more than 100 times since President Xi Jinping took power in 2012, and at least 30 have been imprisoned or criminally detained. Eight of “64 Tianwang”’s journalists are currently in prison, including Wang Jing, Zhang Jixin, Li Min, Sun Enwei, Li Chunhua, Wei Wenyuan, Xiao Jianfang and Yang Dongying.

Huang Qi’s disappearance coincided with the disappearance of Beijing human rights lawyer Jiang Tianyong, who was last heard from on November 21st and is said to also be in police custody for allegedly “leaking state secrets”, as well as the detention of Hubei-based “Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch” website founder Liu Feiyue, who is criminally detained on suspicion of “subverting state power” on November 18th.

China is ranked 176th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2016 World Press Freedom Index, while President Xi Jiping is on RSF’s list of press freedom predators.

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Overhaul of Police Law Needed to Curb Abuses in China

The Chinese government should significantly revise the country’s draft Police Law to bring it into conformity with international standards, Human Rights Watch said on Thursday in a submission to the National People’s Congress Standing Committee.

“Police abuses caught on tape and widely viewed have made the force deeply unpopular,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “But the draft revisions to the Police Law do little to make the police more accountable, and actually expand the force’s powers in ways that could exacerbate abuses.”

Human Rights Watch has for many years documented a range of police abuses, including the use of torture against criminal suspects, pervasive surveillance and censorship, repression of ethnic minorities, violence and detention against peaceful activists, harassment of non-governmental organizations, violence against journalists, and the use of force to break up peaceful protests.

Additionally, procurators and judges rarely question or challenge police conduct, and internal oversight mechanisms remain weak. The extraordinary power of the police is reflected in their enormous power over the justice system and the pervasive lack of accountability for police abuse, Human Rights Watch said.

Wide police powers continue unchecked and Human Rights Watch notes that in recent years incidents of police abuse such as the Qing’an police shooting, the death in custody of environmentalist Lei Yang and the abusive behavior caught on tape of an officer checking the identity cards of two Shenzhen shoppers, have generated strong public criticism of the police force in China.  The proposed revisions to the Police Law serve as an important opportunity to address those criticisms, and to make reforms that bring the law into conformity with international standards.

Governments have a responsibility to investigate and prosecute crimes and ensure public safety. But this responsibility should not be used as a pretext to limit rights guaranteed by China’s constitution and international law, including the freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly, and personal security.  Specifically, Human Rights Watch is concerned that the draft revisions will:

  • Allow police to use firearms under conditions that go well beyond those permitted by international standards, including against people peacefully advocating for human rights or criticizing the Communist Party;
  • Empower police to carry out unspecified “network controls” on the internet and other telecommunications, which may include network suspension; and
  • Fail to impose meaningful curbs on wide existing police powers.

Human Rights Watched urged the Chinese government to revise the proposed revisions to: amend provisions on firearm use to bring them in conformity with the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials; excise article 29 of the Draft Revisions on “network controls”; and impose strict limits on police power, in conjunction with a review and revisions of other relevant laws, including the Criminal Procedure Law.

As a first step to improve accountability, the Chinese government should establish an independent Civilian Police Commission with power to conduct investigations with respect to alleged police misconduct, including deaths in custody and police abuse.

“The Chinese government needs to impose strict limits to curb police powers and procedural safeguards that actually protect citizens from abuses,” Richardson said. “The revisions to the Police Law provide an opportunity for real reform – if the authorities choose to seize that chance.”

 

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In Landmark Decision, UN Body Declares Detention of Five Cambodian Human Rights Defenders Arbitrary

In a landmark decision, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) has recognized the arbitrary nature of the detention of human rights defenders Ny Chakrya, Ny Sokha, Yi Soksan, Nay Vanda and Lim Mony. Human rights organizations welcomed the decision and call upon the Cambodian authorities to implement the Opinion of the WGAD by releasing the five human rights defenders immediately and providing them appropriate compensation.

On November 21st 2016, the WGAD ruled that the ongoing detention of Chakrya, Deputy Secretary-General of the National Election Committee (NEC), and four staff members of the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC), Ny Sokha, Yi Soksan, Nay Vanda and Ms. Lim Mony, was “arbitrary.”

Following a submission made by the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) and the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO) in June 2016, the WGAD’s Opinion No. 45/2016 ruled that the five human rights defenders (HRDs) “have been discriminated against based on their status as human rights defenders, and in violation of their right to equality before the law and equal protection of the law under article 26 of the ICCPR.”

This is the first time ever that the WGAD – or any other UN mechanism receiving individual complaints – has referred to HRDs as a protected group that is entitled to equal legal protection under Article 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The ruling also recognized the violation of the five HRDs’ “rights to offer and provide professionally qualified legal assistance and other relevant advice and assistance in defending human rights.”

In addition, the WGAD found that the targeting of ADHOC staff members for having provided “legitimate legal advice and other assistance” violated the five HRDs’ right to freedom of association. It ruled that violations of fair trial rights (including the fact that the five were denied legal counsel from the beginning of their questioning), unjustified pre-trial detention and statements made by the Cambodian authorities which denied the five the presumption of innocence – all of which contravene Cambodia’s international human rights obligations in respect to the right to a fair trial – are also serious enough to consider their ongoing detention as arbitrary.

The WGAD concluded that “the deprivation of liberty of Ny Sokha, Nay Vanda, Yi Soksan, Lim Mony and Ny Chakrya, being in contravention of articles 7, 9, 10, 11 and 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and of articles 9, 10, 14, 22 and 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, is arbitrary.”

“We welcome this landmark Opinion adopted by the Working Group, and now call upon the Cambodian authorities to act on the ruling and immediately release Ny Chakrya, Ny Sokha, Yi Soksan, Nay Vanda and Lim Mony and drop all charges against them,” declared Cambodian civil society organizations CCHR, ADHOC and LICADHO along with international human rights groups the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders.

The five human rights defenders have now been in pre-trial detention on charges of bribery for 234 days since their arrest in April 2016. Their deprivation of liberty infringes on both international human rights law and Article 205 of Cambodia’s Criminal Procedure Code, which sets out the conditions under which provisional detention can be ordered.

On November 30th 2016, the Cambodian Supreme Court upheld a previous decision adopted by the Court of Appeals on June 13th 2016 to refuse to release the five HRDs on bail. On November 28th 2016, the Court of Appeals upheld the extension of the pre-trial detention for another six months and refused to close the investigation.

All five detainees are being held alongside convicted criminals, contrary to Article 10(2)(a) of the ICCPR, and Article 26 of Cambodia’s Law on Prisons.On September 22th 2016, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court convicted Ny Chakrya on charges of defamation, malicious denunciation, and publication of commentaries intended to unlawfully coerce judicial authorities and sentenced him to six months in prison. The charges stemmed from a criminal case dating back to the time when he was Head of the Human Rights Section at ADHOC. Ny Chakrya’s conviction was upheld by the Court of Appeal on December 14th 2016.

“These cases bear all the hallmarks of politically-motivated harassment of human rights defenders because of their legitimate human rights activities, and are illustrative of the Cambodian Government’s deliberate effort to eliminate all dissenting voices. We urge the Cambodian authorities to stop the harassment of all human rights defenders in the country,” the organizations said.

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On Fourth Anniversary of Enforced Disappearance, Where is Sombath Somphone?

Sombath Somphone in an undated photo courtesy of PADETC.

On the fourth anniversary of the enforced disappearance of prominent Lao civil society leader Sombath Somphone, civil society groups are condemning the Lao government’s ongoing failure to adequately investigate Sombath’s disappearance. The Lao government has made no progress accounting for Sombath Somphone, who was forcibly disappeared on December 15th 2012, Human Rights Watch said Thursday. Four years after he was stopped at a police checkpoint in the capital, Vientiane, the government needs to provide information on his fate or whereabouts.

“Since the start, the Lao government’s investigation of Sombath Somphone’s disappearance has been a pattern of delay, denial, and cover-up,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Four years on, Sombath’s family is no closer to learning the truth about his fate than they were in the weeks after he went missing.”

A police closed-circuit television (CCTV) camera on the evening of his arrest shows police stopping Sombath’s jeep and leading him into the checkpoint. The footage shows unidentified individuals bringing Sombath out within minutes and putting him into another vehicle, which then drives away. Another individual later drives away in Sombath’s jeep.

The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) said “We urge the authorities to act to conduct an effective investigation with a view to determining his fate or whereabouts. In particular, we condemn the Lao PDR government’s inaction after the discovery of new video evidence made public 12 months ago.”

Last December, Sombath’s family released new CCTV footage obtained from the same area as the police checkpoint that shows Sombath’s jeep being driven back to the center of Vientiane. At a minimum, this should have prompted a review of other CCTV cameras along the main route the car was taking back into the city.

Since this new evidence was made public by Sombath’s family, the Lao authorities have failed to take any initiative with regard to the investigation, or present any new findings. Police issued their last report on the case on June 8th 2013. “After four years, it is apparent that the government has not undertaken a serious and competent investigation into Sombath’s enforced disappearance,” FIDH said.

There is no evidence of any serious government investigations into the enforced disappearance, Human Rights Watch said. Lao authorities have not organized a specific briefing on the status of the case for Sombath’s family since June 2013.

An enforced disappearance is defined under international law as the arrest or detention of a person by state officials or their agents followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty, or to reveal the person’s fate or whereabouts. Enforced disappearances inflict unbearable cruelty not just on the victims, but on family members, who often wait years or decades to learn of their fate. Under international law, “disappearances” are considered a continuing offense, one that is ongoing so long as the state conceals the fate or the whereabouts of the victim.

Laos signed the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance in September 2008, but has yet to ratify it. International donor agencies should press the government to ratify the treaty and adopt national legislation to implement its requirements.

The government’s continued failure to seriously investigate cases of enforced disappearance violates its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Laos is a party. The covenant states that governments must provide an “effective remedy” for violations of basic rights, including the right to liberty and security of person.

“Over decades of his work in grassroots rural development, Sombath inspired thousands of Lao farmers and their families with simple yet innovative techniques to help them farm better and live better,” Robertson said. “But today, Sombath’s uncertain fate prompts fear among Lao civil society groups that their survival is at the whim of the government.”

 

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Refer North Korea to the International Criminal Court

On the eve of international human rights day, advocacy groups urged member states of the United Nations Security Council to refer the cases of gross human rights violations and crimes against humanity in North Korea to the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Under Article 13(b) of the Rome Statute, the ICC may exercise its jurisdiction with respect to crimes against humanity committed by a national of a non-member state if the case is referred to it by the UN Security Council.

As many as 100,000 are currently imprisoned in North Korean concentration camps or gulags, according to HRF. Hundreds of thousands more are deprived of food and other basic needs, and continue to suffer in abhorrent conditions.

Human Rights Foundation (HRF) called on the Council to discuss the issue of North Korea at its meeting on Friday, December 9th and refer the Kim regime to the ICC for investigation and prosecution. “As you know, the [Commission of Inquiry] on North Korea concluded that the Kim regime was responsible for ‘systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations’ that ‘entailed crimes against humanity based on State policies,’” says the letter signed by Thor Halvorssen, president of HRF. “We respectfully call upon you to heed the call of the international community and, on behalf of the people of North Korea, refer Kim Jong-un to the International Criminal Court, so that he can be held accountable for the crimes against humanity and the suffering of millions of people under his family’s dynastic rule.”

A grim array of human rights abuses, driven by “policies established at the highest level of State,” have been and continue to be committed in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), according to a United Nations-mandated report released in 2014 which also calls for urgent action to address the rights situation in the country, including referral to the ICC. It also recommended that the Security Council press for individual sanctions for those responsible for rights violations. These recommendations were later endorsed by resolutions adopted by the Human Rights Council and General Assembly, most recently last month when the third committee of the General Assembly adopted its resolution on North Korea with “yes” votes from 112 states.

Human Rights Watch said that United Nations Security Council members should demand justice for the countless victims of human rights violations by the North Korean government: “The Security Council’s spotlight on North Korea’s horrific rights record should spur calls for accountability for the government’s crimes against humanity,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Only intensified international pressure from UN member states has a hope of compelling North Korea to cease the severe rights violations that underpin Kim Jong-Un’s rule.”

Friday’s debate marks the third straight year that the Security Council has formally discussed North Korea’s rights violations as posing a threat to international peace and security. Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, will brief the council members on the rights situation in North Korea, including the work of the UN Human Rights Office in Seoul to gather evidence of the abuses for which the government and North Korean leaders are responsible. Spain, as current president of the Security Council, needed the support of at least eight other members for this discussion to take place. Nine council members, including Spain, formally requested the meeting in a December 1st letter to the Spanish presidency.

Established by the UN Human Rights Council in March 2013 the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (COI) investigated for one year human rights violations  in North Korea, aiming to ensure full accountability, in particular where these violations may amount to crimes against humanity. “The gravity, scale and nature of these violations reveal a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world,” the Commission said in the report, which is unprecedented in scope.

In a 400-page set of linked reports and supporting documents, culled from first-hand testimony from victims and witnesses, the COI documented in great detail the “unspeakable atrocities” committed in the country. It described crimes such as “extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, forcible transfer of populations, enforced disappearance and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation.” 

The 2014 COI report specifically stated that they found “systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations” that “entailed crimes against humanity based on State policies.” The responsibility for these crimes reaches many organs of the North Korean government, and traces its way to the Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un. “Crimes against humanity are ongoing in the [DPRK] because the policies, institutions and patterns of impunity that lie at their heart remain in place,” the report said.

“The fact that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea…has for decades pursued policies involving crimes that shock the conscience of humanity raises questions about the inadequacy of the response of the international community,” the report stated. “The international community must accept its responsibility to protect the people of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea from crimes against humanity, because the Government of the DPRK has manifestly failed to do so.”

Halvorssen called for action: “In light of this grave situation, we believe it is no longer bearable for the Security Council to remain silent regarding the crimes against humanity of North Korea’s regime. As you are aware, in a 2014 resolution of the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly Third Committee, it was recommended that the Security Council consider referring ‘the situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to the International Criminal Court.’ Additionally, last month, the Third Committee unanimously passed a North Korean human rights resolution calling for referring the Kim regime to the ICC.’’

In June 2015, following a resolution of the Human Rights Council, High Commissioner Zeid opened an office in Seoul to continue to gather information about North Korea’s human rights abuses and crimes against humanity. In March 2016, the Human Rights Council created a group of independent experts on accountability to more closely examine how to deliver truth and justice to victims in North Korea. The group will present its findings to the Human Rights Council in March 2017.

Last week, the Security Council expressed deep concern for the suffering of North Koreans in a resolution condemning North Korea’s September 9 nuclear test. The resolution states that the council “reiterates the deep concern at the grave hardship that the people of the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] are subjected to, condemns the DPRK for pursuing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles instead of the welfare of its people while people in the DPRK have great unmet needs, and emphasizes the necessity of the DPRK respecting and ensuring the welfare and inherent dignity of people in the DPRK.”

“The Security Council should explore ways to translate these important annual discussions on North Korean abuses into action that would lead to accountability for the appalling crimes its leadership has perpetrated,” Robertson said. “The council discussion of Pyongyang’s disastrous human rights record shows that crimes against humanity cannot be ignored, and that those responsible for atrocities in North Korea should face justice.”

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China’s Secretive Detention System Relies on Solitary Confinement, Torture

The Chinese government must immediately abolish a secretive detention system used to coerce confessions from corruption suspects, Human Rights Watch said Tuesday in a new report. The 102 page report details abuses against shuanggui detainees, including prolonged sleep deprivation, being forced into stress positions for extended periods of time, deprivation of water and food and severe beatings.

The Communist Party-run system, known as shuanggui, has no basis under Chinese law but is a key component of President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign.

“President Xi has built his anti-corruption campaign on an abusive and illegal detention system,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “Torturing suspects to confess won’t bring an end to corruption, but will end any confidence in China’s judicial system.”

Detainees are also subject to solitary and incommunicado detention in unofficial detention facilities. After “confessing” to corruption, they are typically brought into the criminal justice system, convicted and sentenced to often lengthy prison terms.

The report is based on 21 Human Rights Watch interviews with four former shuanggui detainees, as well as family members of detainees; 35 detailed accounts from detainees culled from over 200 Chinese media reports and an analysis of 38 court verdicts from across the country.

The Chinese Communist Party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) oversees the shuanggui system, to which all of the party’s 88 million members are subject. The CCDI and its lower-level offices, local Commissions for Discipline Inspection (CDIs), typically target government officials, but those detained also include bankers, university officials and entertainment industry figures, among others. Bo Xilai, a former member of the party’s powerful Politburo, was reportedly held under shuanggui, where he said he confessed under “improper pressure” and was later sentenced to life in prison.

The start of a shuanggui investigation is often marked by an individual’s disappearance – family members are given no notification of the person’s detention or location, no information about the alleged infraction, or the length of detention. Detainees have no access to lawyers.

Although there are time limits for shuanggui, CDI investigators can seek repeated extensions, permitting detainees to be held indefinitely, often until they confess. Shuanggui facilities are typically rooms in hostels with special features, such as padded walls or a lack of windows, to prevent suicides or escapes. Detainees are guarded round-the-clock by shifts of officials, often put together in an ad hoc fashion for this purpose, and subjected to interrogations by CDI officers.

A former shuanggui detainee told Human Rights Watch, “If you sit you have to sit for 12 hours straight, if you stand then you have to stand for 12 hours as well. My legs became swollen, and my buttocks were raw and started oozing pus.”

While President Xi has characterized the fight against corruption as a “matter of life and death” for the Communist Party, the same is true for shuanggui detainees: there have been at least 11 deaths in shuanggui custody reported by the media since 2010. In most cases, authorities claimed these were suicides, but family members often suspected mistreatment, and the lack of comprehensive, impartial investigations into these deaths deepens these suspicions.

While former detainees reported that the harsh conditions in shuanggui prompted suicidal thoughts, they also said the constant surveillance and the room’s modifications, designed to prevent suicide attempts, made it difficult to put such thoughts into action.

Some CDIs, concerned about the reputational damage caused by deaths in custody, have partnered with hospitals and doctors to provide medical care for detainees whom the CDIs know will be subjected to torture and other ill-treatment.

CDIs are supposed to hand over evidence of crimes to the procuratorate, the state investigators and prosecutors who are responsible for investigating official crimes. Instead, Human Rights Watch found that procurators work together with CDI officers and participate directly in shuanggui. Such “joint investigations” extract confessions during shuanggui – where detainees have no procedural protections – and then use those confessions in formal legal proceedings. If in those proceedings detainees retract their confessions, claiming that they were made under duress, the procurators typically threaten to send them back to shuanggui. Judges commonly reject detainee objections in court on the grounds that shuanggui and its practices are outside of the scope of the judicial system.

“In shuanggui corruption cases, the courts function as rubber stamps, lending credibility to an utterly illegal Communist Party process,” Richardson said. “Shuanggui not only further undermines China’s judiciary – it makes a mockery of it.”

The shuanggui system has been a highly effective tool for Communist Party investigators: once they obtain a confession, there is little suspects can do to exonerate themselves. Acquittals are extremely rare, and, except in cases of detainee deaths, few investigators face punishments for abuses. Some interviewees told Human Rights Watch that those who tormented them and their families were promoted for their “effectiveness” in handling corruption cases.

Beijing-based lawyer Du Qing told Human Rights Watch ‘’I had a case, the client said for the first eight days he could only sleep for an hour [each day]. For the remaining 23 hours he was forced to stand, and he had to hold a book on his head without it falling off. He stood for eight days and couldn’t stand it, and confessed to everything and to whatever they said. After he said it, he was allowed two hours of sleep every day. At that point his feet were swollen like an elephant’s, and he could no longer urinate.’’

China has a serious problem with corruption, but successfully combating it requires an independent judicial system, a free media, and robust protections for the rights of suspects, Human Rights Watch said.

“Eradicating corruption won’t be possible so long as the shuanggui system exists,” Richardson said. “Every day this system threatens the lives of party members and underscores the abuses inherent in President Xi’s anti-corruption campaign.”

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Myanmar Must End Prosecutions For Criticizing Government

Myanmar authorities continue to arrest and charge individuals, including members of the ruling party, for criticizing the military and government, Human Rights Watch said Monday.

On November 18th 2016, National League for Democracy (NLD) member Myo Yan Naung Thein was charged with defamation for a Facebook post criticizing the military for “failing to defend the country” against attacks in Rakhine State and calling for the commander-in-chief of the armed forces to resign. He is being held without bail, and faces up to three years in prison under Burma’s Telecommunications Law.

“No one seems safe from prosecution under Myanmar’s overly broad laws criminalizing free speech,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “It’s crucial that the NLD, many of whose members spent long years in prison for their political views, act to end these prosecutions and amend the law.”

Section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law is a vaguely worded provision that criminalizes “extorting, coercing, restraining wrongfully, defaming, disturbing, causing undue influence or threatening any person by using any telecommunications network.” A member of parliament who serves on the Parliamentary Commission for the Assessment of Legal Affairs and Special Issues recently announced that the commission was preparing to review the law in light of criticism of its continued use.

In recent months, the authorities have used section 66(d) to arrest individuals who allegedly insulted or defamed NLD leaderAung San Suu Kyi, President U Htin Kyaw, or the military. In September, Aung Win Hlaing was sentenced to nine months in prison for calling the president an “idiot” and “crazy” on Facebook. On November 11th, Ko Hla Phone was sentenced to two years in prison for allegedly posting digitally altered images of former president Thein Sein and Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing on social media. Section 66(d) is also now being used to prosecute the chief executive officer and chief editor of Eleven Media, Than Htut Aung and Wai Phyo, for an article that suggested that Rangoon Region Chief Minister U Phyo Min Thein had accepted an expensive watch from a prominent businessman.

Human Rights Watch says that defamation – a false statement of fact that harms someone’s reputation – should not be a criminal offense, as criminal penalties are always a disproportionate punishment for harm to someone’s reputation. Defamation cases involving public figures are particularly problematic, allowing those in power to penalize their critics or those who seek to expose official wrongdoing. The United Nations Human Rights Committee has made clear that speech that is considered insulting, even speech that insults those in a position of power, should never be the basis of a criminal prosecution.

“Exposure of corruption and criticism of the government, however crudely worded, are essential elements of a rights-respecting democracy, and should not be the basis of criminal prosecutions,” Robertson said. “The Myanmar parliament should move quickly to amend section 66(d) to bring it in line with international standards for the protection of free expression.”

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