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Human Rights Watch - Defending Human Rights Worldwide


France: Positive Move to Protect Schools

Tuesday, February 21, 2017 - 03:00

(Paris) – French President François Hollande’s announcement on February 21, 2017, that France has endorsed the Safe Schools Declaration is a strong signal to the international community and strengthens the legal protection for children and their education, UNICEF France and Human Rights Watch said today. By endorsing the declaration, a commitment to protect schools in times of conflict, France recognizes the importance of educational institutions to a country’s future. Expand French President François Hollance annonces France's endorsement of the Safe Schools Declaration during the opening of the "Protect Children From War" inter-ministerial Conference co-organized by France and UNICEF in Paris, February 21, 2017. © 2017 Human Rights Watch The decision followed several months of efforts by UNICEF France and Human Rights Watch to raise the French authorities’ awareness of the importance of this declaration to protect children caught up in conflicts. “When troops attack or occupy schools, students and teachers are put in grave danger or are pushed out and deprived of their right to learn,” said Bénédicte Jeannerod, France director at Human Rights Watch. “By upholding its support to this declaration, France can use both its international leadership abilities and its instructions to its own peacekeeping troops to protect students and school staff in conflict zones around the world.” France becomes the 58th country and the first permanent member of the United Nations Security Council to endorse this declaration, opening the way for other countries to do the same. In 2016, Human Rights Watch and UNICEF France carried out communication campaigns to inform and mobilize the general public to support a government move to endorse the declaration. Two films (one by Human Rights Watch and one by UNICEF France) were created and broadcast on social media. width="640" height="360" src="//" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen> Around the world, schools are attacked or being occupied by military forces and armed groups in conflict zones. It endangers the lives of students, their teachers, and denies hundreds of thousands of children their right to education. “Protecting schools can guarantee a better future for a country embroiled in conflict,” said Sébastien Lyon, director of UNICEF France. “Once the fighting is over, having an educated populace and functional education infrastructures can strengthen recovery and rebuilding and improve the chance of keeping the peace.” The announcement of France’s endorsement of this declaration comes at a time when an international conference co-organized by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and UNICEF on protecting children from war is being held in Paris, on February 21. Its aim is to mobilize the attention and efforts of the international community to intensify collective action to prevent and put an end to serious attacks on children in armed conflicts. Currently, one child in 10 lives in a country or zone affected by armed conflict. In recent years, schools have been deliberately attacked in several crises and continue to be occupied, destroyed, and used by armies in conflict zones, depriving many children of their education. Yet, even in conflict, the best interests of the child should be a priority, UNICEF France and Human Rights Watch said. The Safe Schools Declaration is a non-binding agreement proposed for support by countries around the world that was opened for endorsement at an international conference in Oslo, Norway, in May 2015. Und[...]

How US Intelligence Surveillance May Affect Immigrants

Tuesday, February 21, 2017 - 00:01

Recent reports that the US monitored calls between members of President Trump’s campaign staff and Russian intelligence personnel have renewed controversy about the surveillance powers of the National Security Agency (NSA) and Federal Bureau of Intelligence (FBI), and how those bodies handle the information they collect. But anyone concerned about the scope or legality of the US government’s warrantless intelligence surveillance should also worry about the way these programs may affect the country’s border and immigrant communities. Expand A general view shows part of the Loma Blanca neighborhood as a section of the border fence marking the boundarie with El Paso, U.S. is seen on the background, in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico January 18, 2017.  © 2017 Reuters The US currently has two main “foreign” surveillance powers it can—in practice—use to obtain and sift through information on people within its borders without a warrant. (We do not yet know whether either of these was the legal basis for intercepting the conversations with Trump’s campaign staff).  The first, Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, is scheduled to expire at the end of this year, setting the stage for an intense debate in Congress about reforming surveillance. Under Section 702, the NSA (with telecommunications companies’ help) automatically searches virtually all the Internet communications flowing over the fiber optic cables that connect the US to the rest of the world—a practice known as “upstream” scanning.  As of 2015, 26 percent of people in the United States were first- or second-generation immigrants.  Upstream monitoring, as we currently understand it, means that whenever any of these tens of millions of people—or anyone else in the US—sends an email to a friend or family member in another country, the US government is likely searching those communications to see if they contain e-mail addresses or other “selectors” of interest. This kind of suspicionless, warrantless, disproportionate monitoring violates human rights. In addition to Section 702, Executive Order 12333 allows the NSA and other US agencies to vacuum up the communications of US citizens and lawful permanent residents in the course of foreign surveillance. Leaked documents indicate that pursuant to EO 12333, the US has grabbed records of potentially all telephone calls in countries including Mexico and the Philippines. In other words, if you are in El Paso, Texas and have called your mother in Juárez, Mexico, US intelligence agencies probably have a record of your call. They can use this data to map social networks—and share it for law enforcement purposes. The US’ vast warrantless surveillance powers are not only an issue for legal wonks or the technically savvy: they may be affecting people and communities throughout the United States and the world. Congress and the judiciary should regard them as direct threats to both US democracy and human rights. [...]

Theresa May Should Come Clean on UK Arms Sales to Saudi Arabia

Wednesday, December 28, 2016 - 00:00

The admission by the UK government that the Saudi-led coalition used UK-made BL-755 cluster munitions during the armed conflict in Yemen, comes months after Amnesty International and British media outlets reported that these weapons had been used in the country. Unexploded remnants of cluster munitions have proved deadly for Yemenis, killing or injuring at least 85 civilians, including children. After 20 months of war, the British government has finally raised the issue with Saudi Arabia, which responded by vowing to stop using this particular weapon in its ongoing Yemen campaign. But the UK's mea culpa doesn't go far enough, especially as UK officials deny another, much larger accusation - the sale of other weapons, including precision-guided munitions, which the Saudis and their allies have used in unlawful strikes against civilians and civilian structures in Yemen. Expand A UK-manufactured bomb struck storage hangars in Hodaida on January 6, 2016. The hangars stored school furniture, car parts, dry and canned food. Two of them contained production workshops for zinc sheeting and metal fencing grates. © 2016 Priyanka Motaparthy/Human Rights Watch Since March 2015, the UK has approved £3.3 billion in military sales to Saudi Arabia, according to the London-based Campaign Against Arms Trade. Yet in November, the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office concluded, despite considerable evidence to the contrary, that there was no "clear risk" of serious Saudi breaches of international humanitarian law in Yemen. The US government has recently halted a sale of precision munition guidance systems to Saudi Arabia because it saw "systemic, endemic problems in Saudi Arabia's targeting." Why are UK officials not prepared to do the same? Over the course of the war, Human Rights Watch has documented numerous coalition strikes that destroyed homes, markets, schools, civilian factories, and hospitals. During my own most recent trip, I visited a village water drilling site and a prison, both targeted with US-made precision-guided weapons.  Human Rights Watch has also documented how the coalition used US-supplied weapons in some of the war's deadliest strikes, including the horrific October bombing of a funeral hall that killed more than 99 civilians, and a midday strike on a market in Mastaba that killed at least 97 civilians.     Last week, the SNP's leader at Westminster, Angus Robertson, questioned Theresa May on Saudi arms sales and the Yemen conflict, asking her: "What will it take for the UK to adopt an ethical foreign policy when it comes to Yemen?" May responded by saying that when breaches of international humanitarian law are alleged, "we require those to be properly investigated." But Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and numerous media outlets have not only provided evidence of such violations, in some cases personally delivering information to key ministers, but also linked some of these attacks to UK weapons. Cluster munitions are important, but only a small part of the alleged violations. So where do the other "required" investigations stand? May and her government will have an increasingly tough time deflecting such questions and avoiding serious scrutiny. Earlier this month, two Parliamentary committees wrote to foreign secretary Boris Johnson requesting an urgent review of the government's position on arms sales to Saudi Arabia, and an immediate suspension of arms sales, pending a fully independent investigation of possible war crimes. This cannot come soon enough for the Yemeni civilians who have already suffered so much. [...]

China: Secretive Detention System Mars Anti-Corruption Campaign

Tuesday, December 6, 2016 - 00:05

(Hong Kong) – The Chinese government should immediately abolish a secretive detention system used to coerce confessions from corruption suspects. 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.” width="640" height="360" src="//" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen> The Chinese government should immediately abolish a secretive detention system used to coerce confessions from corruption suspects. The 102-page report, “‘Special Measures’: Detention and Torture in Chinese Communist Party’s Shuanggui System,” 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. 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. While there have been commentaries and analyses on the shuanggui system, the Human Rights Watch report is the first to contain firsthand accounts from detainees, as well as drawing on a wide variety of secondary, official sources. Shuanggui not only further undermines China’s judiciary – it makes a mockery of it. Sophie Richardson China Director, Human Rights Watch 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.   Expand [...]

What Does Hungary's Migrant Quotas Referendum Mean for Europe?

Thursday, October 6, 2016 - 06:13

This weekend the Hungarian government held its anti-migrant referendum, asking people if the European Union should be able to require it to house asylum seekers from overwhelmed Greece and Italy. The country had been asked to find a home for 1,294 people who’ve fled war—a miniscule number considering its population of 10 million. But rather than accept it, the Hungarian government called a referendum and spent millions trying to whip up sentiment against migrants and asylum seekers. In the lead-up to the vote, the government spent 16 million Euros of taxpayers’ money on a four-month long hate campaign, including thousands of billboards nationwide, booklets sent to 4 million households, and TV and radio ads spewing out both distorted facts and outright lies. Expand Hungarian police patrol the border with Serbia in Röszke, Hungary. The Hungarian government put up the razor-wire fence in an effort to stem the flow of refugees and migrants into Hungary. September 3, 2015. But still the government didn’t win. While those who did vote chose almost unanimously to reject the EU deal, many people heeded a boycott call by opposition groups and fewer than 40 percent of the electorate bothered to turn up at polling stations. This left Hungary without the necessary 50 percent turnout required for the referendum to be valid. Despite the months of propaganda, many Hungarians appear not to have bought the government’s argument. Never one to let facts get in the way of politics, Prime Minister Viktor Orban quickly took to the airwaves in a live television speech to the nation, spinning the defeat as an “outstanding victory” and saying he’s now determined to amend the constitution to reflect “the will of the people.” After his speech, there were fireworks over the Danube River in the colours of the Hungarian flag. Some are now asking what the referendum result means for a continent that appears unable—or unwilling—to deal with the refugee crisis on its doorstep. From a legal perspective, the referendum was a meaningless exercise to start with. Even if voters had supported the referendum and turned up in sufficient numbers, it would have had no legal impact on the EU relocation deal, which is binding on all member states. An attempt by Hungary to challenge the deal at the EU Court of Justice, begun in December, is still pending. More troubling is the possibility that another EU government could seek to emulate Hungary and concoct a moot referendum of their own to justify months of state-funded xenophobic rhetoric and whip up sentiment against asylum seekers and migrants in their territory. EU institutions, including the European Commission and Council, have remained virtually silent on the Hungarian government’s hate and disinformation campaign, the referendum, and the abuses committed against asylum seekers and migrants on Hungary’s border with Serbia. The Commission has taken a first step on enforcement proceedings on some aspects of Hungary’s abusive asylum system, but it’s unclear whether it will follow through. Despite the positive outcome of the referendum, it’s unlikely to improve the situation of asylum seekers and migrants in Hungary. During the campaign for the referendum, Orban and his government spent months relentlessly stirring up xenophobic sentiments, casting asylum seekers and migrants as “intruders” and “potential terrorists.” Billboards warned — falsely — that sexual abuses against women in Europe have skyrocketed since the migration crisis began, while a booklet spouted the preposterous claim that European cities with large migrant populations have “no go” areas which police cannot control. The government has made it painfully clear that asylum seekers and migrants are not welcome in Hungary. This means that the current practices of denying p[...]

15 Years Behind Bars in Eritrea

Monday, September 19, 2016 - 08:46

This week marks 15 years since Eritrea’s opposition politicians and independent journalists saw freedom. In September 2001, Eritrean security forces arrested 11 government officials, 10 journalists, and numerous other dissidents, all of whom had one thing in common – they had criticized President Isaias Afeworki’s leadership. None of them have been seen since. Expand Eritrean refugees hold placards during a protest against the Eritrean government outside their embassy in Tel Aviv, Israel May 11, 2015. None have been charged with a crime. They have now been held in incommunicado and indefinite detention for fifteen years. They have never been visited by family members. International calls for their release have been wholly ignored. Information from prison guards and others over time has trickled out, suggesting that several have died in captivity. In June, Osman Saleh, Eritrea’s foreign minister gave hope to family members and friends when he stated to Radio France Internationale (RFI) that “they are alive”. Eritrea is one of the worse abusers of human rights in Africa. It has no functioning legislature, no opposition parties, and no independent media. National service, where people are forced to work for the military or in other government positions, is intended to last for 18 months but is often much longer –a decade or more – and harsh, with almost non-existent pay. Arbitrary detention is commonplace, particularly for those who try to evade national service. Many Eritreans report torture in detention. There is no rule of law, and there are restrictions on movement within many parts of Eritrea – for Eritreans and foreigners alike. Thousands of Eritreans flee their country each year to Ethiopia, Sudan, and Europe seeking a better future. In June 2016, a UN Commission of Inquiry determined that abuses committed by the Eritrean regime are likely to constitute crimes against humanity. The Commission of Inquiry report will be presented to the UN General Assembly for consideration on October 27. Over the past two years, the EU and several countries have broken with the isolationist approach historically adopted on Eritrea and opened renewed dialogue and partnerships. On this anniversary of Eritrea’s crackdown, the EU and Eritrea’s other new-found friends should push for information about the whereabouts of those arrested in September 2001. If they are still alive, they should be charged and tried fairly and impartially, or released immediately.  For their family members, information about their well-being and whereabouts is long overdue. And for the Eritrean government, the move would signal they are serious about starting to implement reforms that they have spoken about but not delivered on.  It would be a particularly important signal to give ahead of the UN General Assembly’s debate. [...]

Kenya Is Abandoning Somali Refugees

Tuesday, September 13, 2016 - 11:11

After 25 years of vicious conflict that has cost countless lives and displaced millions of people, peace has finally broken out in south-central Somalia — at least that's what Kenya says. And the UN refugee agency, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has joined Kenya to tell the world it should now focus on helping as many refugees as possible to return home. But I recently spoke with some of the estimated 320,000 Somali refugees in Dadaab, Kenya, the world's largest refugee camp. And it's clear that peace is the last thing some of those signing up for UNHCR's $400 repatriation cash handout are discovering. Expand A newly arrived Somali refugee is forced out of the queue outside a reception centre in the Ifo 2 refugee camp in Dadaab, near the Kenya-Somalia border, in Garissa County, Kenya, July 28, 2011 © 2011 Reuters A number of refugees told me they had returned destitute to destroyed Somali villages without health care provision and schools, or faced danger as armed groups continue to clash in and around their villages, including towns. After doing their best to survive, they fled back to Kenya, once again as refugees. One of them is "Amina," a 38-year-old single mother. After a decade in Dadaab, she decided to try her luck and returned in January 2015 with her five children to her village, Bula Gudud, in the Lower Juba region, hoping to rebuild her life. She told me: "After two days back home, fighting broke out between government troops and al-Shabab [armed Islamist group]. I could hear the bullets. My children were so scared. They just ran around, trying to get out of the house." The following day, Amina fled to the closest city, Kismayo. She had no relatives there but hoped she'd find safety and work to feed her children. She found neither. She and her family barely survived for nine months with other displaced civilians in Kismayo's appalling internally displaced persons' camps. After a man in a government uniform raped her, a common occurrence in the unprotected and aid-starved camps across the country, Amina gave up and 10 months ago begged her way back to Dadaab. But her ordeal didn't end there. The Kenyan authorities have refused to re-register her and her children as refugees, and UNHCR has not reactivated her ration card or given her any food. "If we send 1,000 people home under the voluntary repatriation agreement but we then register 1,000 new arrivals, we would not get the job done," a Kenyan government official in Dadaab told me Kenya, Somalia and the UNHCR had signed an agreement in November 2013 on the "voluntary repatriation" of Somali refugees. It says that both countries and the UN would make sure that Somalis return voluntarily and safely and would get help to resettle back home. A few months later UNHCR said that "the security situation in many parts of ... Somalia [is] volatile [and] protracted ... conflict has had devastating consequences, including massive displacement, weakened community structures, gross human rights violations and the breakdown of law and order". But Kenya has repeatedly referred to this agreement as evidence that it is time for all Somalis to go home, stressing that the UN agency should help Kenya "expedite" refugee repatriation. Somali refugees have a collective memory of previous repeated attempts by Kenyan security forces to coerce "voluntary" returns. In late 2012, Kenyan police in Nairobi unleashed appalling abuses in an effort to enforce an illegal directive to drive tens of thousands of urban Somali refugees into the Dadaab camps and from there back to Somalia. In April 2014, Kenyan security forces, primarily police, carried out a second round of abuses against Somalis in Nairobi and then deported 359 a month later without allowi[...]

Provide Genuine Refuge to World’s Displaced

Tuesday, September 13, 2016 - 04:35

Expand Asylum seekers behind a metal fence in the ‘Hangar 1’ detention center, in Röszke, Hungary. September 9, 2015. © 2015 Zalmaï for Human Rights Watch (New York) – The massive refugee crisis demands an unprecedented global response. At two summits on September 19 and 20, 2016, at the United Nations, world leaders should take bold steps to share responsibility for millions of people displaced by violence, repression, and persecution. Leaders will gather in New York to discuss providing greater support to countries where refugees first land, just as many of those countries are at breaking point. There is a grave risk to the bedrock foundation of refugee protection, the principle of nonrefoulement – not forcibly returning refugees to places where they would face persecution and other serious threats. People are fleeing violence in Afghanistan, Burma, Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Honduras, Iraq, Somalia, and Syria, among others. “Millions of lives hang in the balance,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “This is not just about more money or greater resettlement numbers, but also about shoring up the legal principles for protecting refugees, which are under threat as never before.” This year, Human Rights Watch has documented Turkish border guards shooting and pushing back civilians who appear to be seeking asylum; Jordan refusing entry or assistance to Syrian asylum seekers at its border; Kenya declaring that it will close the world’s largest refugee camp in November and pushing Somalis to return home despite potential danger; and Pakistan and Iran harassing and deregistering Afghan refugees and coercing them to return to a country in conflict. The UN General Assembly has convened the September 19 summit “with the aim of bringing countries together behind a more humane and coordinated approach” to refugees. The final statement, already drafted, is a missed opportunity to widen the scope of protection and limits expectations for concrete, new commitments. However, it affirms refugee rights and calls for more equitable responsibility sharing. Given the scale of the refugee crisis and populist backlash in many parts of the world, this affirmation should be the basis for collective action, Human Rights Watch said. On September 20, US President Barack Obama will host a “Leader’s Summit” to increase commitments for aid, refugee admissions, and opportunities for work and education for refugees. Governments are expected to make concrete pledges toward goals of doubling the number of resettlement places and other admissions, increasing aid by 30 percent, getting 1 million more refugee children in school, and granting 1 million more adult refugees the right to work. Though the participants have not been announced, 30 to 35 countries are expected to attend. Canada, Ethiopia, Germany, Sweden, and Jordan will join the United States as co-facilitators. Boost Humanitarian Aid to Countries of First Arrival The vast majority of the world’s 21.3 million refugees are in the global south, where they often face further harm, discrimination, and neglect. Human Rights Watch called on countries of first arrival like Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Thailand, Kenya, Iran, and Pakistan, to commit to proposals to provide refugees with better access to work and education. The world’s richest nations have largely failed to help countries on the front lines of the displacement crisis. As of September 9, UN aid appeals were 39 percent funded, with some of the worst-funded in Africa; the appeal for refugees from South Sudan stands at 19 percent. The regional refugee response plans for Yemen and Syria are funded at 22 and 49 percent. Increase Numbers Resettled [...]

What Olympic Fans Won’t See in Rio de Janeiro

Thursday, August 11, 2016 - 10:57

Residents of Mangueira, a poor neighbourhood atop a hill outside Rio de Janeiro, watched from their rooftops as the Olympics' opening-ceremony fireworks erupted from Maracanã stadium. They don't always have clean water or proper sanitation, but some of Rio's poorest people –residents of "favelas" like Mangueira – enjoy the best views in the city. Expand Residents of the Mangueira favela watch the Olympics’ opening-ceremony fireworks at Maracanã stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on August 5, 2016.  © 2016 Tércio Teixeira Only a few years ago it seemed possible that these favelas – once deemed no-go areas – could be toured by Olympic visitors. Thanks largely to a profound change in strategy that also led to a sharp decrease in killings by police, Rio had made real progress in reducing crime. And in its bid to host the Olympics, the Brazilian government vowed that the games would act "as a big catalyst" for long-term security improvements in Rio de Janeiro. For a while, that promise seemed attainable. But in 2013, progress stalled. Homicides bounced back after several years of decline. Soon after, killings by police began to rise again. Last year, Rio police killed 645 people, three-quarters of them black, according to the cops' own figures. What happened? To find out, I just spent six months interviewing more than 30 police officers and dozens of other officials. They speak of an ambitious policing programme that began well but is now crumbling under the weight of impunity and corruption. Expand Policemen patrol the Rocinha Slum in Rio de Janeiro on September 14, 2012. © 2012 Reuters For many decades, Rio de Janeiro has been a city divided between favelas and the more-affluent neighbourhoods that favela residents call the "asphalt," where residents enjoy proper streets, mail delivery, rubbish collection, and all the basic public services that most people in the 21st Century take for granted. Drug gangs armed with automatic weapons control most of Rio´s favelas. Police engage them in military-style raids that often kill suspects and bystanders. While some of these killings have doubtless been in legitimate self-defence, many others have been extrajudicial executions. width="640" height="360" src="//" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen> Rio de Janeiro state promised improvements in public security in preparation for the Olympics, but it has not done enough to address extrajudicial executions by police, a central obstacle to more effective law enforcement.  Two police officers – whom I'll call Danilo and João – told me they had taken part in several operations designed to kill, not arrest, suspected gang members. During one of such incidents, an officer approached an injured man who was lying on the ground and shot him dead point-blank, Danilo recollects. In another, João´s unit ambushed suspects, fired at them without warning, and let an injured man bleed out onto the ground for 40 minutes before finally taking him to the hospital, where he died, according to João. He admitted such operations do nothing to dismantle drug organisations. "We go into the favela, kill 20 criminals, and another 20 take their place tomorrow. It´s like trying t[...]

After Thousands Dead, UK Foreign Office Steps Back from its Denial of Yemen War Crimes

Wednesday, July 27, 2016 - 12:44

Over the past 16 months, I have made multiple trips to Yemen to document the devastating, ongoing war where fighters on the ground and the Saudi Arabia-led coalition from the air have committed war crimes and other serious violations of the laws of war. Expand People stand around a crater caused by a Saudi-led air strike on the outskirts of Yemen's capital Sanaa, December 29, 2015.  © 2015 Reuters Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have together documented more than 69 unlawful coalition air strikes that killed more than 900 civilians, plus another 19 attacks using internationally banned cluster munitions. After each of these trips, I have flown to Washington DC, London, Paris, Brussels, Geneva, and other capitals to push policymakers to urge Saudi Arabia's allies to help stop the abuses. Of all these meetings, the most frustrating have been those with UK officials. In August last year, after presenting a new Human Rights Watch report that documented 12 unlawful air strikes that killed at least 59 civilians in Yemen, diplomats from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) told me that they had read our report with interest, but their analysis differed. Foreign Office officials had looked into each of the incidents we had documented, they said, and in their view the Saudi-led coalition had not committed a single laws of war violation since entering the conflict in March that year. British officials saying they could not confirm our findings would be one thing – their embassy in Sanaa, Yemen's capital, is closed, all their citizens other than a few aid workers had been evacuated, and monitoring events on the ground is extremely difficult. But FCO officials went much further, and said they had assessed the same incidents we had researched and found not a single violation. This was astounding, given the extensive evidence of violations that we, the United Nations, other organisations and the media have documented. Since then, the evidence of unlawful coalition attacks has increased, as has information on the coalition's use of UK bombs and cluster munitions, including weaponry transferred since the war began. The coalition's attacks have killed civilians in homes, markets, hospitals, schools, businesses, and mosques. Only last week did the Foreign Office issue six corrections to ministerial statements made in parliament which asserted that the Saudi-led coalition was not violating the laws of war in Yemen. Now, instead of claiming "there has not been a breach of IHL [international humanitarian law] by the coalition", it claims much more modestly: "[We] have not assessed that there has been a breach of IHL by the coalition." The idea that the Foreign Office has not reached a conclusion on the matter is hard to square with the confident assessment of FCO officials who spoke with us in 2015, claiming that there were no violations. These corrections also fly in the face of testimony government officials gave to the international development select committee earlier this year. As the committee chairman, Stephen Twigg MP, noted: "Only last week in its response to our report, the government insisted that, with regard to the information available to them, they have assessed that the key test on the risk of violations of IHL had not been met." In a letter to the new foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, Mr Twigg has now urged the FCO to correct the evidence it submitted to the committee. Based on my conversations with British officials over the past year and a half, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that this is a face-saving exercise to erase the indefensible position that the UK government held while their Saudi allies were usin[...]