Human Rights Watch – Informed Comment Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion Tue, 27 Oct 2020 05:39:32 +0000 en-US hourly 1 in Conflict with Armenia, Azerbaijan used Cluster Munitions in Nagorno-Karabakh Sun, 25 Oct 2020 04:01:56 +0000 ( Human Rights Watch ) – Azerbaijan has repeatedly used widely banned cluster munitions in residential areas in Nagorno-Karabakh, Human Rights Watch said today. During an on-site investigation in Nagorno-Karabakh in October 2020, Human Rights Watch documented four incidents in which Azerbaijan used cluster munitions.

Fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia and the de-facto authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh dramatically escalated on September 27, 2020. Two humanitarian ceasefires brokered by members of the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe have failed to halt the fighting. According to authorities from all parties, scores of civilians have been killed or injured in attacks in Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Azerbaijan.

“The continued use of cluster munitions – particularly in populated areas – shows flagrant disregard for the safety of civilians,” said Stephen Goose, arms division director at Human Rights Watch and chair of the Cluster Munition Coalition. “Cluster munitions should never be used by anyone under any circumstances, much less in cities, due to the foreseeable and unacceptable harm to civilians.”

In the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, Human Rights Watch is investigating whether all sides of the conflict adhere to international humanitarian law, which requires armed forces to distinguish between combatants and civilians, and between military objects and civilian objects, at all times. As such, indiscriminate attacks are prohibited, including attacks which employ a method or means of combat which cannot be directed at a specific legitimate military target. Human Rights Watch has made repeated requests to the Azerbaijani government for access to conduct on-site investigations, but access has not yet been granted.

Human Rights Watch examined remnants of the rockets, impacts, and remnants of submunitions that exploded, as well as dud submunitions that failed to function at several locations in Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh’s administrative center, which is called Khankendi in Azerbaijan. Human Rights Watch also examined photographs taken in the town of Hadrut of a rocket, impacts, and remnants of submunitions that exploded, and a dud submunition that failed to explode. Human Rights Watch also spoke to six people who witnessed the attacks. Azerbaijani officials have accused the Armenian side of using cluster munitions in this conflict, but Human Rights Watch has not independently verified those claims.

Residents of Stepanakert told Human Rights Watch that attacks using cluster munitions began on the morning of September 27 in a residential area no more than 200 meters from the office of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

A 69-year-old woman who was in her apartment on the fourth floor of a building next to where Human Rights Watch observed scores of the distinctive impacts of the M095 submunitions said the building began to shake around 7:15 a.m.: “The children started to scream and everyone was panicking when the bombs started coming down. We opened the windows and saw that the cars were burning. We saw that they had small pink things that were making them burn, so we ran down to the basement.”

She said that a number of submunitions did not explode and that people in the neighborhood covered them with sand from the children’s playground until emergency responders came the next day to secure and remove them. She said glass broken from the blasts injured a number of people in the neighborhood. Another resident told Human Rights Watch that dozens of vehicles were damaged.

On October 12, Human Rights Watch visited the site and, in addition to the distinctive impacts of the submunitions, Human Rights Watch observed several damaged and burned vehicles and numerous broken windows in nearby apartments and a shop located in the courtyard. However, the exact damage to the area done by the submunitions is unknown because another subsequent attack was carried out with a different munition in roughly the same location.

At least one more LAR-160 cluster munition rocket was fired roughly into the same area several hundred meters away. Human Rights Watch observed the remnants of a LAR-160 rocket, scores of the distinctive impacts of the M095 submunitions, the remnants of the pink-colored stabilization ribbons, and submunition fragments. Numerous buildings, private business, and markets had varying degrees of damage from the attack.

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The distinctive, ring-shaped, pre-formed fragments of an Israeli-made M095 submunition near a shop in Stepanakert. © 2020 Human Rights Watch

Human Rights Watch spoke to one worker for a nongovernmental group who observed a fire in a shop following an attack in this second neighborhood when he visited the site at approximately 11:20 p.m. on October 3. Human Rights Watch also reviewed a photograph taken by this witness that, according to the photograph’s metadata, was captured on October 3 at 11:20 p.m.

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Body of a LAR-160 series Israeli-made rocket in a residential neighborhood in Stepanakert. © 2020 Human Rights Watch

A video uploaded on the Telegram channel “Re:public of Artsakh” on October 4, captured another cluster munition rocket attack on Hakob Hakobyan Street in Stepanakert. Human Rights Watch spoke to two people who live on Hakob Hakobyan Street and witnessed the attack. One 55-year-old resident said that she was in her fourth-floor apartment during the attack. She said that some of the explosions occurred on the roof and ruptured the water pipes on the top of the building, causing water to run down from the upper floors. As a consequence, the water was shut off to the building.

The distinctive pattern of a M095 dual-purpose submunition impact on the ground along with its pink-colored ribbon in Stepanakert near Karabakh Telecom’s main building. © 2020 Human Rights Watch.

Rescue services were able to clear the submunitions from the top of the building after several days and access to water was restored but there has been no electricity in the building since the attack. An individual familiar with the electrical grid told Human Rights Watch that they were working to restore electricity in the area but could only provide electricity to basements and shelters for the time being.

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Damage to a private vehicle near Karabakh Telecom from an Israeli-made dual-purpose M095 submunition that produces a jet of molten metal intended to destroy vehicles and materiel. © 2020 Human Rights Watch

Human Rights Watch was not able to identify any military equipment or bases in the three neighborhoods where the attacks took place. Even if there had been, given the indiscriminate effects of cluster munitions, their use in a residential civilian setting is not permitted under the laws of war.

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Workers attempt to repair damaged electrical lines in Stepanakert near the Karabakh Telecom building which is surrounding by residential buildings. © 2020 Human Rights Watch

Human Rights Watch also examined 35 photographs and one video shared directly with Human Rights Watch from the town of Hadrut of a LAR-160 rocket and its fuse, impacts, and remnants of M095 submunitions that exploded, and dud submunitions that failed to explode in and around a home. According to the metadata of the media, they were recorded on October 3. Human Rights Watch verified the location of the video and photographs as taken in the town of Hadrut. On October 4, a video was uploaded on YouTube by the Armenian Service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that showed the same house and remnants.

Cluster munitions have been banned because of their widespread indiscriminate effect and long-lasting danger to civilians. Cluster munitions typically explode in the air and send dozens, even hundreds, of small bomblets over an area the size of a football field. Cluster submunitions often fail to explode on initial impact, leaving duds that act like landmines.

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Two unexploded Israeli-made M095 submunitions, one of which is armed, in a residential area in the town of Hadrut following an attack on the city. © 2020 Union of Informed Citizens

The 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions comprehensively prohibits cluster munitions and requires their clearance as well as assistance to victims. Armenia and Azerbaijan are not among the treaty’s 110 states parties. Both say that they cannot accede to the treaty until the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh is resolved. Both should take the necessary steps to join the Convention on Cluster Munitions without delay, Human Rights Watch said.

Regardless of specific treaty obligations, all parties to the conflict are bound by the Geneva Conventions and customary international law and must abide by the fundamental principles of international humanitarian law, which requires armed forces to distinguish between combatants and civilians, and between military objects and civilian objects, at all times. It is also forbidden to carry out indiscriminate attacks or attacks that cause excessive civilian damage to the anticipated concrete military advantage.

“The repeated use of cluster munitions by Azerbaijan should cease immediately as their continued use serves to heighten the danger for civilians for years to come,” Goose said.

Additional information about cluster munitions attacks in Nagorno-Karabakh

Human Rights Watch identified the remnants of Israeli-produced LAR-160 series cluster munition rockets and unexploded M095 dual-purpose submunitions in Stepanakert and Hadrut. Each rocket carries 104 submunitions and each submunition is equipped with a self-destruct mechanism. Azerbaijan received these surface-to-surface rockets and launchers from Israel in 2008–2009. Neither Armenia, nor Nagorno-Karabakh de-facto authorities, are known to stockpile cluster munitions but they possess multi-barrel rocket launchers capable of delivering these weapons.

Human Rights Watch identified the Israeli-produced M095 dual-purpose submunition in each location. When this submunition detonates on impact, it produces lethal pre-formed metal fragments and a jet of molten metal intended to destroy vehicles and materiel. Human Rights Watch observed hundreds of the distinctive impacts of M095 submunitions as well as remnants of the pink-colored nylon stabilization ribbons in three neighborhoods in Stepanakert.

On October 13, Human Rights Watch visited the site where the witness saw and photographed the burning shop at 11:20 p.m. on October 3 and observed the same scorched building visible in the photograph and at least three pink stabilization ribbons a few meters away from the building as well as numerous distinctive impacts consistent with M095 submunitions. Human Rights Watch found remnants of a LAR-160 rocket 10 meters from the building and observed impacts to the roof of the building that were consistent with kinetic damage. According to available satellite imagery, the attack took place between September 27 and October 8. On October 8, the imagery shows damage to the building that is consistent with fire.

In the attack on Hakob Hakobyan Street, the distinctive auditory signature of at least three separate rockets dispersing payloads of submunitions, and their subsequent detonations can be heard in the video of the attack, believed to have been filmed by a vehicle’s dashcam. On October 12, Human Rights Watch visited the site where the video was taken and counted over 100 individual impacts on the same street. Human Rights Watch also observed scores of submunition impacts on immediately adjacent streets and on rooftops of office and residential buildings on several adjacent streets within a 100-meter radius. In a separate visit on October 13, Human Rights Watch found the remnants of a LAR-160 series rocket less than 100 meters from the location the video of the attack was taken. Human Rights Watch observed damage to power lines, children’s playgrounds, vehicles, businesses, homes, the main post office, and the Karabakh Telecom building.

Via Human Rights Watch


Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

Reuters: “New clashes in Nagorno-Karabakh after Washington talks”

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Russia and Syria are committing War Crimes, Targeting Civilian Infrastructure Fri, 16 Oct 2020 04:03:35 +0000 ( Human Rights Watch ) – The Syrian and Russian armed forces’ repeated attacks on civilian infrastructure in Idlib in northwest Syria were apparent war crimes and may amount to crimes against humanity, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Dozens of unlawful air and ground strikes on hospitals, schools, and markets from April 2019 to March 2020 killed hundreds of civilians. The attacks seriously impaired the rights to health, education, food, water, and shelter, triggering mass displacement.

Syrian and Russian Strikes on Civilian Infrastructure

The 167-page report, “‘Targeting Life in Idlib’: Syrian and Russian Strikes on Civilian Infrastructure,” details abuses by Syrian and Russian armed forces during the 11-month military campaign to retake Idlib governorate and surrounding areas, among the last held by anti-government armed groups. The report examines the abusive military strategy in which the Syrian-Russian alliance repeatedly violated the laws of war against the 3 million civilians there, many displaced by fighting elsewhere in the country. It names 10 senior Syrian and Russian civilian and military officials who may be implicated in war crimes as a matter of command responsibility: they knew or should have known about the abuses and took no effective steps to stop them or punish those responsible.

Human Rights Watch: “Targeting Life in Idlib: Apparent War Crimes by Syrian–Russian Alliance”

“The Syrian-Russian alliance strikes on Idlib’s hospitals, schools, and markets showed callous disregard for civilian life,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “The repeated unlawful attacks appear part of a deliberate military strategy to destroy civilian infrastructure and force out the population, making it easier for the Syrian government to retake control.”

Human Rights Watch documented 46 air and ground attacks, including the use of cluster munitions, that directly hit or damaged civilian objects and infrastructure in Idlib in violation of the laws of war. The strikes killed at least 224 civilians and wounded 561. These were only a fraction of the total attacks during that time in Idlib and surrounding areas. The offensive displaced 1.4 million people, most in the final months of the operation.

How five researchers exposed the abusive military strategy behind repeated attacks on civilians in northern Syria — without ever visiting the sites. Explore a new interactive feature and learn how we reached the truth.

Human Rights Watch interviewed over 100 victims and witnesses of the 46 attacks, as well as healthcare and rescue workers, teachers, local authorities, and experts on the Syrian and Russian militaries. Human Rights Watch also examined dozens of satellite images and over 550 photographs and videos taken at the attack sites, as well as logs of flight spotters. Human Rights Watch provided a summary of its findings and questions to the Syrian and Russian governments but has not received a response.

The documented strikes, most in and around four urban areas – Ariha, Idlib City, Jisr al-Shughour, and Maarat al-Nu’man – damaged 12 healthcare facilities and 10 schools, forcing them to shut down, in some cases permanently. The attacks also damaged at least 5 markets, 4 displaced people’s camps, 4 residential neighborhoods, 2 commercial areas, and a prison, church, stadium, and nongovernmental organization office.

Human Rights Watch found no evidence of military objectives, including personnel or materiel, in the vicinity at the time of any of the attacks, and no residents interviewed knew of any advance warning. The overwhelming majority of attacks were far from active fighting between Syrian government forces and anti-government armed groups.

The repeated attacks on civilian infrastructure in populated areas in which there was no apparent military objective suggests that these unlawful attacks were deliberate. The attacks appear intended to deprive civilians of the means to sustain themselves and to force them to flee, or to instill terror in the population, Human Rights Watch said.

A resident of Idlib City, Ayman Assad, described the impact of the airstrikes: “We are terrified. I don’t feel safe at my place of work, and at the same time I am constantly worried about my family, especially my two children who are going to school every day. Schools, markets, homes, hospitals, everything is a target. They are targeting life in Idlib.”

Most of the attacks documented appeared to involve explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas. The use of such weapons in populated areas can indiscriminately kill and wound large numbers of civilians, and damage and destroy civilian objects and infrastructure. They also have reverberating effects – disrupting essential services, such as health care, education, and access to food and shelter. Long-term impacts include serious psychological harm to the people affected. Warring parties should avoid the use of these weapons in populated areas, Human Rights Watch said.

Prior to a ceasefire in March, government forces regained control of nearly half the territory in and around Idlib, including hundreds of depopulated towns and villages. Since then, some people have returned to areas still controlled by anti-government armed groups, where they found a decimated infrastructure and limited access to food, water, shelter, health care, and education. The Covid-19 pandemic has placed the area’s destroyed healthcare system under immense strain, further imperiling civilians.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron played a key role in getting Turkey, Russia, and Syria to agree to a ceasefire.

Any resumption of fighting would expose civilians to renewed attacks from explosive weapons and the added risk of Covid-19, possibly triggering mass displacement with catastrophic humanitarian consequences. Displaced people could seek to cross Syria’s northern border, where Turkish forces have previously pushed back, shot, and forcibly returned asylum seekers, Human Rights Watch said.

International humanitarian law, or the laws of war, requires all warring parties to direct attacks on military objectives, avoid harming civilians or civilian objects, and not carry out attacks that cause indiscriminate or disproportionate civilian harm. Populations also remain protected by international human rights law, including the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which protects the rights to health, education, and an adequate standard of living.

Given the deadlock within the United Nations Security Council, the General Assembly should adopt a resolution or statement calling on its member states to impose targeted sanctions on those civilian and military commanders credibly implicated in war crimes, crimes against humanity, or other serious violations committed. Concerned governments should pursue criminal cases under the principle of universal jurisdiction and impose unilateral targeted sanctions against commanders and officials implicated in war crimes, including as a matter of command responsibility.

To address the humanitarian situation, particularly in light of the pandemic, the Security Council should reauthorize cross-border aid deliveries across all three previously authorized border crossings in the northwest and northeast. If the Security Council proves unable to reauthorize cross-border deliveries due to the threat of veto by Russia, the General Assembly should pass a resolution to support the UN continuing cross-border deliveries to areas not under the Syrian government’s control.

“Concerted international efforts are needed to demonstrate that there are consequences for unlawful attacks, to deter future atrocities, and to show that no one can elude accountability for grave crimes because of their rank or position,” Roth said. “As long as impunity reigns, so too will the specter of renewed unlawful attacks and their devastating human toll.”

Via Human Rights Watch

Israel’s Systematic Repression of Palestinians Continues during Pandemic: UN Sat, 10 Oct 2020 04:03:24 +0000 Item 7, General Debate – UN Human Rights Council 45

Israeli authorities have continued to systematically repress and discriminate against Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. Between March and August, Israeli authorities demolished 389 Palestinian homes and other structures in the West Bank, the majority for lacking building permits that Israeli authorities make virtually impossible to obtain, displacing 442, according to OCHA.

OCHA found that this represented the highest demolition rate in four years. International law prohibits an occupying power from destroying property unless “absolutely necessary” for “military operations.”

On May 30, Israeli border police in the Old City of Jerusalem fatally shot an unarmed 32-year-old Palestinian man with autism, Eyad al-Hallaq, in a “closed space” where he did not “endanger” anyone, according to what an officer on the scene reportedly told Israeli investigators. Israeli authorities have yet to announce the results of their investigation.

On June 23, border police shot and killed 26-year-old Ahmed Erekat after his car crashed into a checkpoint and he exited the vehicle in circumstances where he did not appear to pose an imminent threat to life. Authorities characterized the incident as a car-ramming attack; his family challenges that characterization and says it must have been accidental. Regardless, international human rights law standards on the use of force during law enforcement permit the intentional use of lethal force only when strictly unavoidable to protect life.

Furthermore, the strong evidence that serious crimes have been committed in Palestine since 2014 underscores the need for International Criminal Court scrutiny over the situation through a formal investigation.

Amid US government attempts to undermine the court’s work through the use of punitive measures against the court’s personnel, we encourage states to speak out to reaffirm their commitment to the court’s mandate and independence.

The continued entrenchment of Israel’s illegal settlements in the West Bank also highlights the urgency of the continued updating and public reporting of the database of businesses contributing to those settlements. The Human Rights Council has already decided that the database is to be updated annually and should ensure appropriate resourcing and clear timeframes for that reporting. We look forward to the High Commissioner’s annual updates of the database as mandated by resolution 31/36.

Reprinted at Human Rights Watch

Item:7 General Debate – 27th Meeting, 45th Regular Session Human Rights Council
30 Sep 2020 – General debate Item 7: Human rights situation in Palestine and other occupied Arab territories

Saudi Arabia: ‘Image Laundering’ Conceals Abuses Sun, 04 Oct 2020 04:03:07 +0000 (Human Rights Watch) – (Beirut) – The Saudi government has spent billions of dollars hosting major entertainment, cultural, and sporting events as a deliberate strategy to deflect from the country’s image as a pervasive human rights violator, Human Rights Watch said today. On October 2, 2020, Human Rights Watch launched a global campaign to counter Saudi government efforts to whitewash its dismal rights record.

The two years since the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in October 2018 has brought no accountability for top-level officials implicated in the murder. Since then, the government of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has aggressively organized and bankrolled high-profile events featuring major international artists, celebrities, and sports figures, with plans for many more. Saudi Arabia also currently holds the presidency of the G20, a forum for international economic cooperation, and will host the G20 leaders’ summit in late November.

“Saudi citizens and residents should enjoy top-notch entertainment and sporting events, but they also should enjoy basic rights such as free expression and peaceful assembly,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “So, when Hollywood A-listers, international athletes, and other global celebrities take government money to perform in Saudi Arabia while staying silent on the government’s atrocious rights record, they are boosting the kingdom’s strategy of whitewashing Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s abuses.”

The investment in major entertainment, cultural, and sports events is tied to Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030, a plan to overhaul the country’s economy and attract foreign investors and tourists. Among the programs it has developed to realize its vision is one focused on creating more leisure and recreational options to “enhance the image of the Kingdom internationally.”

Under Vision 2030, Saudi Arabia has invested heavily in creating a local entertainment industry and attracting top talent from across the globe. In May 2016, it created the General Entertainment Authority, with plans to invest US$64 billion in music, entertainment, sports, art, and film, among others. The Sports, Tourism, and Culture ministries are also involved.

Human Rights Watch: “Saudi Arabia Reputation Laundering”

Among those who have performed since 2018 are: Enrique Iglesias, Mariah Carey, Andrea Bocelli, Janet Jackson, 50 Cent, Jennifer Lopez, and David Guetta. Major sporting events include the 2020 Dakar Rally, the Saudi Invitational Golf Tournament, and WWE pay-per-view professional wrestling events. The country will also host a Formula 1 race beginning in 2023.

Such events can serve to counteract negative scrutiny of the Saudi government’s human rights violations, including the Khashoggi murder, and undermine efforts to hold Saudi officials accountable, Human Rights Watch said.

Mohammed bin Salman’s creation of an entertainment industry has been adopted alongside advancements for women and youth. While extensive and important, these changes have also helped obscure a dramatic curtailing in civil and political rights since Mohammed bin Salman became crown prince in 2017. While the emerging entertainment industry was being lauded internationally, Saudi authorities were simultaneously carrying out waves of arbitrary arrests of dissidents, activists, intellectuals, and royal family members.

Likewise, promoting cultural and social life has helped Saudi Arabia avoid scrutiny of its role in the armed conflict in Yemen. Under Mohammad bin Salman’s leadership as defense minister, the Saudi-led coalition has since 2015 bombed homes, markets, schools, hospitals, and mosques in unlawful attacks that have killed hundreds of civilians, some of which may amount to war crimes.

Human Rights Watch will seek to counter Saudi efforts to whitewash abuses through an outreach campaign to inform the entertainment and sports industries about Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, including top celebrities, performers, and sports figures. The campaign will also seek out organizers and participants in major international events sponsored by the Saudi government, calling on them to speak out publicly on rights issues or, when laundering is the primary purpose, not to participate.

Since Khashoggi’s murder, a number of celebrities and social media influencers have declined trips to Saudi Arabia, citing its terrible human rights record. They include: Nicki Minaj, Emily Ratajkowski, Martha Hunt, John Cena, and Daniel Bryan. Richard Branson suspended his partnership with Saudi Arabia for his space tourism venture. In March 2019, the talent agency Endeavour returned a $400 million investment by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund.

“The Saudi government has gone all-out in the past two years to bury Jamal Khashoggi’s murder under public spectacles and sporting events,” Page said. “Until there is real accountability for this and other crimes by the Saudi leadership, those silently benefiting from the kingdom’s largess risk being an accomplice in whitewashing Saudi abuses.”

The Business of Image Laundering

Bolstering reputation is big business. Public relations firms explicitly sell the promise of a better reputation, but many other business relationships, especially those involving prominent entertainers, athletes, and politicians, also offer valuable reputational benefits. Governments have long recognized the soft power of public relations firms and celebrities to shape perceptions of their policies. While that power can be used for beneficial purposes, such as to boost tourism or local products, when leaders turn to public relations firms or celebrities to whitewash poor human rights records, it can deflect efforts to hold them accountable for these abuses.

The United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights call on businesses to conduct due diligence to identify and mitigate human rights risks related to their activities. Such due diligence should include the risk of laundering the reputations of governments, businesses, or individuals responsible for ongoing or recent serious rights abuses. A credible due diligence process would identify if the business’ client or an affiliate of the event in which it is participating has engaged in abusive activity, evaluate the risk of the business relationship laundering abuses, and develop a strategy to mitigate that risk.

The reputation-laundering process can take many forms, including cases in which a business relationship involves or creates significant risk of covering up, justifying, or denying specific human rights violations or undermining efforts for accountability. If an event is part of a deliberate effort to distract from specific rights abuses, it may also be considered reputation laundering.

In keeping with their human rights responsibilities under the UN guidelines, businesses should not deliberately enter into a business relationship whose sole or primary purpose is to deny or cover up human rights violations. When a business relationship predominantly serves another purpose, but there is a significant risk of such reputation-laundering as a result of the relationship, the business should seek to mitigate this impact. This could be done by speaking out about those abuses that the business relationship risks helping obscure.

Businesses should also refrain from activities that would bolster the reputation of government entities or officials recently and credibly accused of serious abuses. Finally, businesses should not agree to any explicit or implicit contractual terms that restrict their ability to speak out in public or in private about such abuses, as distinct from standard confidentiality requirements.

Saudi Arabia’s Image-Enhancing Efforts

The Saudi government has recognized that hosting global celebrities and major entertainment and sporting events is a powerful means to launder its reputation and convince international investors to invest in the country despite pervasive human rights violations. The government has already poured hundreds of millions of dollars into this strategy, aimed at offsetting the scrutiny and reporting of human rights organizations and domestic activists on human rights. But the expansion of entertainment options for Saudi citizens and greater tolerance for diverse artistic expression does not offset the deterioration of civil and political rights over the same period.

Saudi Arabia’s strategies around cultivating public entertainment events are explicitly laid out in its Vision 2030 plan, which commits to “enhanc[ing] the role of government funds … creating partnerships with international entertainment corporations” and even providing land and venues “suitable for cultural and entertainment projects.”

Saudi government bodies have dramatically increased the number of high-profile public entertainment events hosted in the country, which have included international celebrities, artists, and athletes. These bodies include the General Entertainment Authority and the Tourism, Sports, and Culture ministries. This increase in public entertainment events is tied to one of the 13 programs developed to help realize Vision 2030 and achieve its strategic goals. The Quality of Life Program’s “delivery plan” lists multiple leisure and recreational initiatives, in part aimed at creating“a positive image of the kingdom internationally.” The delivery plan also references “enhancing the image of Saudi Arabia through the use of sports diplomacy,” and creating a film industry to help increase the country’s “soft power through film production.”

The General Entertainment Authority was created in 2016 to organize and develop the entertainment sector and support its infrastructure. It plans to invest billions of dollars in music, entertainment, sports, art, and film, among others. The authority is headed by Turki Al al-Sheikh, a close adviser to Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. Al-Sheikh has repeatedly thanked Mohammad bin Salman publicly for his support of these entertainment events. Since the Khashoggi murder in October 2018, Saudi Arabia has dramatically increased the number of high-profile festivals and concerts by well-known artists.

Recent prominent events and performers include:

  • Saudi Invitational Golf Tournament concert (January 2019): Mariah Carey and DJ Tiesto
  • Jeddah World Fest (July 2019): Janet Jackson, Liam Payne, Chris Brown, 50 Cent, Tyga, Future, and Steve Aoki
  • Riyadh Season (October-December 2019): BTS, Pitbull, Jennifer Lopez, Usher, Akon, and Gipsy Kings by Andre Reyes
  • Diriya Season (November-December 2019): Imagine Dragons, Clean Bandit, Maluma, Marshmello, Pitbull, Shaggy, Lil Wayne, Future, Usher, Akon, Calvin Harris, Major Lazer, and Swedish House Mafia
  • Saudi Invitational golf tournament concert (January 2020): Bryan Adams, Gipsy Kings, and Dimitri Vegas & Like Mike
  • Winter at Tantora Festival (February-March 2020): Yanni, Enrique Iglesias, and Gipsy Kings Winter (featuring Nicolas Reyes & Tonino Baliardo), Craig David and Lionel Richie, Jose Carreras, Andrea Bocelli, and Jamirouqai

Hosting major sporting events has emerged as a major part of Saudi Arabia’s strategy, which Human Rights Watch has called “sportswashing” – an effort to distract from serious human rights abuses by hosting events that celebrate human achievement. However, Saudi Arabia’s newfound enthusiasm for sports comes as major sport federations like the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) adopt human rights policies, and as the rules of sport increasingly require adherence to international human rights standards. As businesses, many sports bodies are increasingly under pressure from fans and sponsors not to bring major events to rights-abusing hosts. In 2019, Saudi Arabia’s bid to host an expanded 2022 football World Cup failed in part due to human rights concerns.

Beginning in January 2020, Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund attempted to purchase the English Premier League football club Newcastle United F.C., but the bid stalled and was eventually rejected by the Premier League. Human Rights Watch called on the Premier League to take human rights into consideration as it evaluated the sale and to adopt a comprehensive human rights policy.

Major sporting events hosted by Saudi Arabia include:

  • World Heavyweight Title boxing rematch between Andy Ruiz Jr. and Anthony Joshua, in December 2019
  • WWE pay-per-view events: WWE Super ShowDown 2020, WWE Crown Jewel 2019, WWE Super ShowDown 2019, WWE Crown Jewel 2018, and WWE Greatest Royal Rumble
  • Spanish Super Cup (January 2020), including Real Madrid, Barcelona, Atlético Madrid and Valencia
  • Italian Super Cup (2018, 2019)
  • 2020 Dakar Rally (January 5-17, 2020)
  • Diriyah E-Prix Formula E Championship (December 2018; November 2019)
  • Saudi International Golf Tournament (February 2020)
  • Formula 1 Race, starting in 2023

In addition to hosting domestic entertainment and sporting events, Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund has invested millions of dollars in related ventures outside Saudi Arabia. In April 2020, the investment fund purchased a 5.7 percent stake in Live Nation, the parent company of Ticketmaster, a United States ticket sales and distribution company, for $500 million, as well as an 8 percent stake in Carnival Corp., the world’s largest cruise operator, for $370 million.

Abuses under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman

Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 immediately cast him in the role of reformer when it launched in 2016. In June 2017, King Salman elevated his son to crown prince, making him next in line to the Saudi throne and de facto day-to-day ruler of the country. Positive changes for women and youth, combined with a major push for foreign direct investment into the world’s largest oil producing country and lavishly funded public relations efforts, promoted a positive image for the crown prince on the international political scene. During the crown prince’s visits to the United Kingdom and US in March 2018, officials, businesspeople, and celebrities alike lauded him.

A darker reality lay behind the glamor and pomp and the advancements for Saudi women and youth, as the Saudi authorities moved to sideline anyone who could stand in the way of Mohammed bin Salman’s political ascension. In mid-2017, around the time of his promotion to crown prince, authorities quietly reorganized the country’s prosecution service and security apparatus, the primary tools of Saudi repression, and placed them directly under the royal court’s oversight.

The authorities then began a series of arrest campaigns. They targeted prominent clerics, public intellectuals, academics, and human rights activists in September 2017, leading businesspeople and royal family members accused of corruption in November 2017, the country’s most prominent women’s rights advocates beginning in May 2018, and prominent intellectuals and writers in April and November 2019. The arrest waves were often accompanied by defamation and slander of those arrested in the country’s pro-government media.

Detaining citizens for peaceful criticism of the government’s policies or human rights advocacy has long been the Saudi Arabian government’s practice. However, the post-2017 arrests were notable for the sheer number and range of people targeted over a short period, and new repressive practices.

These included holding people at unofficial detention sites, such as holding so-called corruption detainees at the five-star Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Riyadh from late 2017 into early 2018, and the prominent women’s rights activists at what they described as a “hotel” or “guesthouse” during mid-2018. There are credible allegations of rampant torture and mistreatment at those sites.

Abusive practices have also included long-term arbitrary detention – two years in some cases – without charge, trial, or any clear legal process. Some of the so-called corruption detainees arrested in late 2017 remain in detention without charge or trial, including Turki bin Abdullah, the son of the late King Abdullah and former governor of Riyadh, and Adel al-Fakih, a former government minister.

The authorities also targeted family members of prominent Saudi dissidents and activists, including imposing arbitrary travel bans. Omar Abdulaziz, a Canada-based Saudi dissident, said that Saudi authorities detained his two brothers in August 2018 to silence his online activism.

Other abusive practices have included extorting financial assets in exchange for releasing detainees, outside of any legal process, and seeking the death penalty for acts that do not resemble recognizable crimes. Saudi prosecutors are currently seeking the death penalty against a reformist religious thinker, Hassan Farhan al-Maliki, on vague charges relating to the expression of his peaceful religious ideas, and against a well-known cleric, Salman al-Awda, on charges stemming solely from his peaceful political statements, associations, and positions. Both were detained during the September 2017 crackdown.

The Saudi authorities have allegedly used commercially available surveillance technologies to hack into the online accounts of critics of the government and dissidents. Citizen Lab, an academic research center based in Canada, concluded with “high confidence” that in 2018, the mobile phone of a prominent Saudi activist based in Canada was infected with spyware. It allowed full access to a victim’s personal files, such as chats, emails, and photos, as well as the ability to surreptitiously use the phone’s microphones and cameras to view and eavesdrop.

Finally, Mohammed bin Salman, as defense minister, oversees all Saudi military forces and has served as the commander of the international coalition that has been carrying out a military campaign in Yemen, according to the Saudi Defense Ministry website. Since March 2015, the Saudi-led coalition has carried out scores of indiscriminate and disproportionate airstrikes on civilians and civilian objects in Yemen, hitting homes, schools, hospitals, markets, and mosques. Many of these violations of international humanitarian law may amount to war crimes.

The coalition previously maintained a naval and air blockade on Yemen that had severely restricted the flow of food, fuel, and medicine to civilians. Millions of civilians face hunger, disease, and lack of medical care, exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Via Human Rights Watch

U Toronto Dumping of Legal Scholar critical of Israel has Chilling effect on Research, Academic Freedom Thu, 01 Oct 2020 04:01:34 +0000 By Farida Deif | –

( Human Rights Watch ) – The University of Toronto’s law school allegedly rescinded a job offer for director of the law school’s International Human Rights Program in response to external pressure about the candidate’s scholarship and work on Israeli government violations of international law. If true, not only does this do serious harm to the academic freedom, integrity, and reputation of the university’s human rights program, it creates a dangerous chilling effect on other scholars’ rights to research and advocacy.

The candidate, Dr. Valentina Azarova, was the university hiring panel’s unanimous top choice.

After the university reversed their decision, the chair of the program’s law faculty advisory committee resigned from the committee. Another member of the hiring panel quit his job with the program and the rest of the faculty advisory committee resigned.

Human Rights Watch has been in contact with both Dr. Azarova and the university. The position of the university is that “ no offer of employment was made,” but that“exploratory discussions occurred with one candidate.” News reports have published internal faculty emails that explicitly refer to an “offer.” The university claims it could not wait to obtain a work permit for Dr. Azarova, a non-citizen, but yet was pursuing a temporary contract for her as a workaround. The statement also denied that outside influence was a factor in their decision not to proceed with an offer of employment.

International legal academics, including Israeli and Jewish scholars, have written individually in support of Dr. Azarova’s scholarship. Other letters of support have well over 1,300 signatories, including former and current United Nations Special Rapporteurs. The program’s alumni association, the Canadian Association of University Teachers, Amnesty International, and others have called for external investigations.

For full disclosure, the spouse of Dr. Azarova is my colleague at Human Rights Watch. But this controversy is about more than the individuals involved; it speaks to the core of what academic freedom means and the principle that no country should be off limits for critique of its rights record. We have extensively documented and sought to address threats that undermine these principles. Human Rights Watch believes that our academic partnership with the law school, which has been a tremendously fruitful one over the past five years, also needs to be based on these values for it to continue.

The University of Toronto should urgently conduct an independent external review, make its findings public immediately, and swiftly address any improprieties. No one should pay such a price simply for exposing human rights violations by any country, including Israel.

Farida Deif is the Canada Director at Human Rights Watch. Based in Toronto, she monitors human rights abuses in Canada and advocates for a rights-respecting Canadian foreign policy. Prior to joining Human Rights Watch, Deif worked at the United Nations with UNICEF, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and UN Women where she recently served as the Deputy Manager of the UN Trust Fund to End Violence against Women. She is a gender-based violence expert with over 13 years of experience in both documenting violence against women and girls as a researcher and in developing and supporting targeted programs to address these abuses as a development practitioner. From 2003-2008, she was the Middle East and North Africa Researcher in the Women’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch, where she researched and wrote on a range of issues from the arbitrary detention of women and girls to gender-related killings. She participated in Human Rights Watch’s first fact-finding missions to Libya and Saudi Arabia and has published extensively on human rights abuses across the region. She holds a graduate degree from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and l’Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris and obtained an undergraduate degree from Carleton University in Ottawa. She speaks Arabic, English, and French.

Via Human Rights Watch

Featured Photo: University of Toronto Law School, h/t Wikimedia.

Qatar: Significant Reforms for Gulf Labor give Workers new Freedoms Sat, 26 Sep 2020 04:02:22 +0000

Enforcement Needed, Other Provisions in Effect Still Carry Risk of Abuse

( Human Rights Watch ) – (Beirut) – The success of the significant labor reform measures that Qatar introduced on September 8, 2020, will depend on how well the government enforces and monitors them, Human Rights Watch said today. The reforms will allow migrant workers to change jobs without employer permission and set a higher minimum wage for all workers, regardless of nationality.

Qatar is the first country in the Arab Gulf region to allow all migrant workers to change jobs before the end of their contracts without first obtaining their employer’s consent, one of the key aspects of the kafala (sponsorship) system that can give rise to forced labor. Qatar is the second country in the Gulf region to set a minimum wage for migrant workers, after Kuwait. The changes also apply to migrant workers who are excluded from labor law protections, such as domestic workers. However, other legal provisions that facilitate abuse and exploitation of migrant workers remain.

“Qatar’s new labor reforms are some of the most significant to date and could, if carried out effectively, considerably improve migrant workers’ living and work conditions,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “While these changes bring Qatar a concrete step closer to meeting its reform promises, the test will be in how effectively the government carries them out and consistently applies them.”

Over the past 10 years, Human Rights Watch, other human rights and migrant rights organizations, United Nations experts, trade unions, and media organizations have documented how the kafala system across the region underpins migrant workers’ vulnerability to a wide range of abuses, from passport confiscation to delayed wages and forced labor. These groups have revealed how key elements of the system allow migrant workers to remain trapped in employment situations where their rights to fair wages, overtime pay, adequate housing, freedom of movement, and access to justice are at risk. One such element is employer control over a migrant worker’s ability to change or leave their jobs.

Amendments to Qatar’s 2015 law on the entry, exit, and residence of expatriates, which applies to all migrant workers, regardless of their inclusion in the labor law, removed language that had previously required them to first obtain permission, in the form of a “No Objection Certificate” (NOC), from their employer in order to change jobs. This means that migrant workers can now change jobs without employer permission at any time during their employment, including during the probation period, as long as they notify their employers in accordance with Labor Ministry procedures within a prescribed notice period.

The amendments require that if the employee changes jobs within the probation period, which cannot exceed six months, the new employer is required to reimburse the previous employer’s recruitment costs, but only up to two months of the workers’ basic wage.

Qatar also amended certain provisions of the labor law to allow migrant workers to terminate their employment contracts at will, both during the probation period and after, as long as they notify their employers in writing within a prescribed notice period. If either the employer or worker terminates the contract without abiding by the notice period, they would be required to pay compensation to the other party equivalent to the worker’s basic wage for the notice period or the remaining part of the notice period.

Some migrant workers, including domestic workers, are not governed by the labor law, but new Labor Ministry instructions make clear that new rules for terminating employment contracts and changing jobs are consistent for all workers.

Qatar introduced some earlier changes as well. In January, it extended the right to leave the country without employer permission to migrant workers not covered by the labor law. The government had previously provided this right to most migrant workers in 2018, but not to those in government, oil and gas, agriculture, or domestic workers. However, employers can still apply for exceptions for a few workers, and domestic workers are required to inform employers that they wish to leave at least 72 hours in advance.

“Qatar has removed another key element of employer control, this time over workers’ ability to leave or change jobs, but authorities should now look to remove all remaining elements that tie migrant workers’ legal status to their employer,” Page said.

Migrant workers – and their dependents – still must rely on their employers to facilitate entry, residence, and employment in the country, meaning employers are responsible for applying for, renewing, and canceling their residency and work permits. Workers can find themselves undocumented through no fault of their own when employers fail to carry out such processes, and it is they, not their employers, who suffer the consequences.

Qatar continues to impose harsh penalties for “absconding” – when a migrant worker leaves their employer without permission or remains in the country beyond the grace period allowed after their residence permit expires or is revoked. The penalties include fines, detention, deportation, and a ban on re-entry.

Moreover, these remaining provisions can continue to drive abuse, exploitation, and forced labor practices, particularly as workers, especially laborers and domestic workers, often depend on the employer not just for their jobs but for housing and food. In addition, passport confiscations, high recruitment fees, and deceptive recruitment practices are ongoing and largely go unpunished, and workers are banned from joining trade unions or striking.

In 2017, Qatar entered a three-year technical cooperation program with the International Labour Organization (ILO), aimed at extensively reforming migrant workers’ conditions, including by reforming the kafala system. Qatar committed to implementing a contractual system to replace the kafala system, including to undertake the renewal of residence permits directly with migrant workers instead of through employers.

Qatar should allow migrant workers to renew their residence permits directly with the government, decriminalize the act of “absconding,” and amend the labor law to guarantee migrant workers’ right to strike and to form trade unions. In the meantime, and to ensure effective implementation of the introduced reforms, Qatar should introduce an amnesty that enables undocumented workers to regularize their status and relaxes their financial and legal obligations, Human Rights Watch said.

Qatar also passed legislation establishing a basic minimum wage of 1,000 QAR (US$274) that would apply to all workers, regardless of nationality or sector, replacing the temporary basic minimum wage of 750 QAR ($205). Under the new legislation, if the employer does not provide food and accommodation, they are required to provide allowances of 300 QAR ($82) for the former and 500 QAR ($137) for the latter, totaling a minimum of 1,800 QAR ($494).

The wage law, which will enter into force six months after its publication in the official gazette on September 8, also establishes a national minimum wage commission appointed by the Labor Ministry to review the amount at least once a year, taking into account economic factors, including economic growth, competitiveness, and productivity, as well as the needs of the workers and their families. The ministry is not obligated to appoint worker representatives to the commission, however. has remarked that the accommodation and food allowances are too low. Qatar should ensure that its periodic review of the minimum wage involves genuine worker representation to ensure that it is a “living wage” in which workers and their families can enjoy the right to a decent standard of living, Human Rights Watch said.

Qatar also introduced amendments to the labor law that set stricter penalties for employers who fail to pay their workers’ wages and increase the number of labor dispute resolution committees, designed to give workers an easier and quicker way to pursue grievances against their employers. While these steps are important, they do not go far enough to tackle wage abuse. A recent Human Rights Watch report on wage abuse found that employers across Qatar frequently violate workers’ right to wages and that efforts to improve the situation have largely failed.

“Setting a nondiscriminatory basic minimum wage will mean little for migrant workers as long as employers can withhold, delay, and deduct from their wages without consequence,” Page said. “The only way to successfully tackle wage abuse is by creating effective wage protection systems and consistently penalizing those who fail to comply.”

The New Provisions

On August 30, Qatar amended some provisions of its 2015 law on the entry, exit, and residence of expatriates to allow all migrant workers to change jobs in accordance with Labor Ministry procedures, removing language that had previously required migrant workers to first obtain permission in the form of a “No Objection Certificate” (NOC) from their employer. Qatar also amended certain provisions of the labor law, setting out how migrant workers governed by the labor law can leave their jobs or change employers. These reforms came into effect immediately after the laws were published in the official gazette on September 8.

The amendments also removed the need for Labor and Interior Ministry approval for job change applications, which lacked a transparent process based on clear criteria. The Labor Ministry instructions on changing jobs state that workers can now independently process their job transfer and not incur any related fees. According to the instructions, the worker is required to notify their employer of their desire to change jobs and submit required documents through the Labor Ministry’s electronic notification system. Yet changing jobs is still a government-regulated process.

The amendments provide that the new employer is required to reimburse the previous employer’s recruitment costs, up to two months of the worker’s basic wage, only when the worker changes jobs during their probation period. Houtan Homayanpour, head of the ILO Project Office for Qatar, told that reimbursement for job change during the probation period is a matter of concern between the two employers, not the worker. He noted that the worker is not required to provide proof of such payment, and that disputes arising from that process will not interfere with the employee’s ability to change jobs.

A ministerial decree issued on September 21 further amended the 2015 law on the entry, exit, and residence of expatriates to allow migrant workers 90 days from the time of expiry of their residence permits to change jobs without employer permission “unless the permit has expired for reasons beyond the control of the expatriate”.

The labor law amendments provide that migrant workers covered by the law can now terminate their employment contracts at will, both during the probation period and after, as long as they notify their employers in writing within a prescribed notice period. The changes stipulate that a migrant worker must submit a one-month written notice if changing jobs within two years or a two-month notice if they have worked for their employer longer.

If either the employer or worker terminates the contract without abiding by the notice period, they would be required to pay compensation to the other party equivalent to the worker’s basic wage for the notice period or the remaining part of the notice period.

If the migrant worker leaves the country without giving notice or paying the compensation required in case they failed to provide notice, Qatari authorities can ban the worker from acquiring a work permit for one year from the date of their departure.

Qatar’s Labor Ministry instructions on changing jobs have attempted to include a safeguard – they state that if the employer fails to fulfill their legal obligations toward the worker, the worker is not obliged to observe the notice period to change jobs. This reflects part of a legal provision in the labor law that remains in cases in which a worker on a full-time job can quit if their employer breaks their obligations under the employment contract, endangers the worker’s health, assaults the worker, or misrepresents contract terms. Previously, this was the only way in which workers on fixed-term contracts could quit their jobs. The new amendments now allow workers to leave their employer or change jobs without needing to show a breach of obligations.

This provision is still helpful for workers who face abuse, as it entitles them to terminate without notice and presumably, the worker would not need to pay compensation to their employer.

Likewise, under the 2017 domestic workers law, domestic workers could previously terminate their contracts only if they could prove that their employer broke contractual obligations, physically harmed them, endangered their health, or misrepresented the contract terms, but under the new Labor Ministry instructions, domestic workers can also terminate their contract with or without notice, and in cases in which they face a breach of contract, they can still terminate contracts at any time, without notice, and maintain their right to end-of-service benefits. The instructions also state that an updated standard employment contract for domestic workers reflecting these rules is forthcoming.

Remaining Factors that Facilitate Labor Abuses

Human Rights Watch research has shown that abuses against migrant worker rights in Qatar are serious and systemic and that the violations often stem from its labor governance system, the criminalization of “absconding” – the routine confiscation of worker passports by employers, and the payment of recruitment fees by workers, which can keep them indebted for years. In conjunction with the prohibition on worker strikes, and the ineffective implementation and enforcement of laws designed to protect migrant workers’ rights, these factors have contributed to abuse, exploitation, and even forced labor.

Human Rights Watch spoke to over 80 migrant workers between January 2019 and February 2020 regarding their experiences working in Qatar. They were employed by diverse employers in various fields and include workers in professional occupations, as well as workers in low-paid jobs such as construction and domestic work.

An overwhelming majority said they experienced one or more of a wide range of labor abuses. Migrant workers cited several barriers to seeking redress or better working conditions, including the now-lifted need for employer approval to change jobs. They also cited the excessive control individual employers have over migrant workers’ legal status in the country, which allows employers to threaten and extort migrant workers to keep them working in abusive conditions and which deters workers from standing up to abusive employers for fear of retaliation.

“He bought my ticket home, but he didn’t pay my salary from January 2019 to October 2019,” a worker said of an abusive employer. “I couldn’t go to labor court because my ID was expired and I was scared I would be put in jail. My employer told me the moment I step outside I will be jailed.”

Migrant Workers’ Lack of Control Over Their Legal Status

Most workers interviewed expressed a fear of falling into irregular migration status, which could lead to arrest, detention, and deportation.

Employers are responsible for obtaining, renewing, and canceling work and residency permits for migrant workers, leaving workers dependent on them for their legal residency.

Employers are required to secure or renew residence permits for their workers within 90 days of a migrant worker’s arrival or of the expiration of the permit. An employer’s failure to secure or renew the permit within the prescribed time leaves the worker under threat of arrest, detention, and deportation, restricting their freedom of movement and discouraging them from seeking legal assistance. An employer can also cancel a worker’s residency permit at any time, which also limits the worker’s ability to remain in the country legally up to 90 days.

A worker who does not leave the country within the prescribed 90 days can be sentenced to a maximum of 3 years in prison or a maximum fine of 50,000 QAR, or both. They can be fined a further 200 QAR for each day they overstay their visa.

“I still don’t have a Qatar ID or a health card,” said a Ghanaian migrant worker who arrived in Qatar in September 2018 and who told Human Rights Watch in April 2019 that his company pays him late and sometimes doesn’t pay him at all. “If the police arrest me, they will deport me. And the sponsor will abandon me, and I won’t be given the money I am owed.”

One Kenyan migrant worker said that when he arrived in Qatar in October 2018, his company confiscated his passport and housed him in dismal accommodations with 10 to 12 people in 1 room. He said he works 12-hour days, rarely gets paid on time and some months not at all, and gets no days off, all of which violate Qatari law. For six months, he said, he waited for the company to issue him a residency permit, confining himself to his labor camp for fear of being arrested. “All you could do was go to work and back, no moving around, not even to the supermarket,” he said.

Migrant workers cited not having valid Qatari residence permits as a barrier to seeking justice. One migrant domestic worker from Kenya who arrived in Qatar in April 2019 said her employer had only paid her half her salary as of December:

She also took my passport and she never got me a QID [Qatari identity card], she hasn’t even taken me yet to get my fingerprints for the QID, so I can’t leave the house to complain about her to the labor court. How can I complain when I don’t even have a residency permit?

One migrant worker said that his employer had intentionally refused to renew his residency permit as retaliation for seeking redress for unpaid wages:

Twice I have been picked up by the police for having an expired QID – it’s not my fault, the company refused to renew my ID card after we [my colleagues and I] launched a case [at the labor dispute settlements committee] against them.

Workers’ dependence on employers for their legal status in the country could undermine the recent reforms and hinder a migrant worker’s ability to transfer to another job.


While an employer can cancel their migrant worker’s residence permit at any time by initiating repatriation procedures without providing justification, a worker who leaves their employer without permission can be punished with imprisonment, fines, deportation, and bans for “absconding.” Employers can also be punished for not reporting to the authorities when their workers have “absconded.”

Human Rights Watch documented three cases over the past year in which employers filed false “runaway” cases, also known as “absconding” charges, against migrant workers in their employ after the workers submitted abuse complaints against them to the Labor Ministry, intentionally placing them at risk of arrest and deportation in retaliation.

“After all these years that I’ve lived and worked in this country, I know now, if I try to stand up to my employers, I will lose,” said one Indian migrant worker who lived and worked in Qatar for 13 years without incident but whose most recent employer had him deported as a runaway because he complained to the Labor Ministry about his wages being delayed for months at a time.

“My boss went to the police and told them I was a runaway, even though I was at home,” said a Filipino general cleaner who said she had stopped working and submitted a complaint at the Labor Ministry after her wages were not paid or delayed and that she experienced other abuses for over a year with her previous employer. “She is doing all this because I launched a case against her.” While the worker has since been able to clear the charges against her, her employer evicted her and other workers who complained from their accommodations, leaving them to fend for themselves without a job while they awaited the outcome of the labor case.

Threats, Extortion, and the Fear of Retaliation

Several migrant workers said they had continued to work for their employers despite abusive working conditions, either because of their employer’s threats or extortion or because they feared their employers would retaliate against them, including by refusing to regularize their status in the country or by filing a “runaway” case against them. While Qatar has introduced measures aimed at improving workers’ access to justice, the right to pursue compensation is often ineffective for migrant workers whose immigration status is controlled by an employer often responsible for the abuse.

“I’m afraid of my sponsor, and what will happen to me if I go to complain,” said a laborer from Bangladesh. He said his employer had demanded that he pay him 4,000 riyals ($1,098) to issue him a residency permit and threatened to submit a runaway case against him if he did not.

“We don’t want to criticize them because what we do helps our families [back home] and we don’t want to lose these jobs,” said a cleaner from the Philippines who said her employer made unfair deductions from her wages.

“When we complain [about our working conditions], they threaten to cancel our permits and send us home,” said a security guard from Kenya who said he had experienced passport confiscation, unpaid and delayed wages, and dismal housing conditions. “I cannot fight a big company like this.”

One Indian migrant worker who had worked as a personal driver since he arrived in Qatar in 2016 said in October 2019 that his employer exploited the control he had over his legal status in the country by subjecting him to both threats and extortion:

    “Since the start of 2019, my employer stopped paying me properly. Sometimes it was delayed, sometimes only half salary. He kept saying he will pay soon. It was very bad because my family in India is very poor, they needed money. But I kept driving for him because I thought one day he will pay. In October 2019, I asked my employer to renew my QID, since it was expiring, he said I have to pay him QAR 5,000 if I want it renewed. He was blackmailing me. And I am so scared of driving without a QID – I don’t want to end up in jail.

    I told him to just cancel my visa so I can go home, and he threatened to blacklist me from working in Qatar again. Eventually he told me I can go home, but on the condition that I agree that all my salary with him is settled. He bought my ticket home, but he didn’t pay my salary from Jan 2019 to Oct 2019. I couldn’t go to labor court because my ID was expired, and I was scared I would be put in jail. My employer told me the moment I step outside I will be jailed.”

via Human Rights Watch


Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

Al Jazeera English: “Qatar announces reforms to labour laws”

Yemen: Aid Obstruction Puts Millions of Children and Adults at Risk Tue, 15 Sep 2020 04:14:38 +0000

Foreign Donor Funding Critical Amid Houthi, Government Interference

(Human Rights Watch) – The Houthi armed group and other authorities are severely restricting the delivery of desperately needed aid in Yemen, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The situation is exacerbating the country’s dire humanitarian situation and weakening its response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Obstruction of Aid in Yemen During Covid-19

The 65-page report, “Deadly Consequences: Obstruction of Aid in Yemen During Covid-19,” details systematic interference in relief operations by Houthi authorities, Yemen’s internationally recognized government and affiliated forces, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)-backed Southern Transitional Council. Despite increased needs, donors slashed funding in June 2020, partly because of the obstruction, forcing aid agencies to cut food, health care, and water and sanitation support to millions of people in need. The parties to Yemen’s five-year-long armed conflict should immediately end the obstruction. Donors should increase funding to aid agencies while pressuring the local authorities to respect the humanitarian principles of independence and impartiality. The United Nations should establish an independent inquiry into the extent of obstruction and shortcomings in the humanitarian community’s response.

“Millions have been suffering in Yemen because the Houthis and other Yemeni authorities have denied the UN and other aid agencies unhindered access to people in need,” said Gerry Simpson, associate crisis and conflict director at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. “Yemen’s decimated healthcare sector and the unchecked spread of Covid-19 make the obstruction and recent donor aid cuts catastrophic.”

Human Rights Watch, in May and June, interviewed by phone 10 Yemeni healthcare workers, 35 aid workers from UN and international nongovernmental organizations, and 10 donor representatives about aid obstruction and the Covid-19 response in Yemen.

A decade of political and economic crisis and over five years of conflict between the Houthis and a coalition of countries led by Saudi Arabia and Yemen’s internationally recognized government have crippled Yemen’s health care and other social services, triggering cholera and other disease outbreaks and widespread malnutrition. The UN calls Yemen the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, with 80 percent of the country’s 30 million people needing some form of aid. While funding the aid effort, the Unites States, United Kingdom, France, Canada, and others have sold arms to the Saudi-led coalition, worsening Yemen’s humanitarian crisis.

UN agencies and nongovernmental aid organizations have continued to reach millions in need, despite obstruction by the authorities. Aid workers described the wide range of obstacles they face, including hundreds of regulations severely restricting their work, lengthy delays in approving aid projects, the blocking of aid assessments to identify people’s needs, attempts to control aid monitoring, dictating or interfering with aid recipient lists to divert aid to authority loyalists, and violence against aid staff and their property.

Since late 2019, the UN and donor countries have increasingly pressed the Houthis to help agencies do their work, which, in mid-2020, resulted in the Houthis signing a backlog of project agreements that profess non-interference with aid agencies’ independence. But aid workers question whether officials will honor the agreement or, as they have in the past, make some concessions while introducing new restrictions.

In early June, the UN called for a massive scale-up in all health operations, including for Covid-19, saying that the virus in Yemen is “likely to spread faster, more widely and with deadlier consequences than almost anywhere else.”

As of August 30, the Yemeni government had confirmed 1,950 cases of Covid-19 and 564 Covid-19-related deaths. However, the real number is almost certainly much higher, given limited testing, a population with weakened immune systems, and a collapsing healthcare system that has repeatedly come under attack by warring parties. The Houthis have reportedly warned medical professionals not to report Covid-19 cases.

The Houthis on July 14 and August 13 responded to a letter setting out the Human Rights Watch findings, saying that aid obstruction allegations were baseless and that aid agencies alleging obstruction were following “political orders” from the US. Human Rights Watch has not received replies from the Yemeni government or the Southern Transitional Council.

Donor support to UN aid agencies collapsed in June, partly in response to the aid obstruction. As of late August, aid agencies had received only 24 percent of the US$3.4 billion they had requested for the year. A new fuel crisis, triggered in June by disagreements between the Houthis and the Yemeni government over how to regulate taxation of imported fuel, on which hospitals and water pumps depend, has further reduced Yemenis’ access to food, hospital care, and water supplies.

International humanitarian law forbids parties to a conflict from withholding consent for relief operations on arbitrary grounds and requires them to allow and facilitate rapid and unimpeded impartial aid to civilians in need. Unnecessary delays or obstruction of aid may also violate the rights to life, to health, and to an adequate standard of living, including food and water.

“Millions of Yemenis depend on the authorities letting aid flow freely for health care and other necessities,” Simpson said. “Donors should engage at the highest level possible with the Houthis and other authorities and press for an end to aid blockages and diversions and continue to support humanitarian groups that reach people in need, despite the enormous challenges.”

Via Human Rights Watch

Why is Saudi Arabia Holding its Prominent Political Prisoners Incommunicado? Mon, 07 Sep 2020 04:01:20 +0000 (Beirut) – Saudi Arabia has denied some prominent detainees contact with their family members and lawyers for months, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter requesting access to the country and private prison visits with detainees. The situation raises serious concerns for the detainees’ safety and well-being.

Saudi authorities have banned in-person visits with prisoners across the country since March 2020 to limit the spread of Covid-19. But Saudi activists and other sources say that the authorities have also unduly denied numerous imprisoned dissidents and other detainees regular communication with the outside world.

“Saudi authorities appear intent on making certain detainees and their loved ones suffer even further by denying them the ability to hear each other’s voices and know for certain they are ok,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “All prisoners should be allowed unfettered communication with their families and the world outside their prison cells, but especially so during these trying times.”

A family member of a leading women’s rights activist told Human Rights Watch they have not received phone calls from their detained relative in over two months. A relative of a prominent imprisoned cleric, Salman al-Awda, said the family has not heard from him since May.

Family members of another prominent women’s rights activist, Loujain al-Hathloul, said that the authorities finally allowed her parents to visit on August 31, after she spent almost three months in incommunicado detention. They said she had begun a hunger strike six days before the visit after learning that some other detainees had been allowed to call their families. Saudi authorities have detained all three for over two years or longer in what informed sources indicate are abusive conditions, while they face repeatedly adjourned trials based on charges that violate their basic rights.

Prominent women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul had been on hunger strike for six days before Saudi authorities finally allowed her parents to visit on August 31, according to family members. Al-Hathloul had spent almost three months before that in incommunicado detention. h/t Wikipedia.

According to lawyers representing the former crown prince, Mohammed bin Nayef, he has been detained without charge since his arrest in March, and his current whereabouts are unknown. While the prince has occasionally been allowed to make calls to family members, some of which were reportedly made under duress, the lawyers said that he has been denied visits with family members since his arrest and his personal doctor since his initial period of detention. The lawyers said they do not know whether the prince has received treatment for his diabetes and that there are serious concerns about his well-being and health.

Saudi authorities arrested al-Hathloul along with a number of other prominent Saudi women’s rights activists in May 2018, marking the beginning of a brutal crackdown on the women’s rights movement in Saudi Arabia. For the first three months, the authorities held her incommunicado, without access to her family and lawyer. In August, the authorities embarked on a second wave of arrests.

In November 2018, human rights organizations began reporting accusations that Saudi interrogators had tortured al-Hathloul and at least three other detained women, including with electric shocks and whippings, and had sexually harassed them.

Saudi Arabia brought charges against several women’s rights advocates, including al-Hathloul, that appear almost entirely related to their human rights activities and opened their trials in March 2019. As of August 2020, more than a year since, none of them had been sentenced and no new hearing dates have been set.

Al-Awda, 63, was among the first of dozens of people detained in mid-September 2017 by the Presidency of State Security, an agency established only months before, following Mohammad bin Salman’s appointment as crown prince. Al-Awda was held in solitary confinement, with no lawyer and a limited ability to contact family members.

In September 2018, Saudi prosecutors sought the death penalty against him on a host of vague charges related to his political statements, associations, and positions. None of the charges refer to specific acts of violence or incitement to violence. His relative said that he remains in solitary confinement, that his trial has been suspended since late 2019, and that his hearings have been postponed numerous times without explanation. Since May, Saudi prison authorities have denied him all contact with his family, leaving them seriously concerned for his health.

Contact with the outside world is an essential right of prisoners. International standards dictate that prisoners must be allowed to “communicate with their family and reputable friends at regular intervals, both by correspondence and by receiving visits.”vLimitations on contact and movement should be proportionate and measured, and a prosecutor or prison director may not arbitrarily withdraw a prisoner’s rights to such contact. International standards require that “communication of the detained or imprisoned person with the outside world, and in particular his family or counsel, shall not be denied for more than a matter of days.”

Even before the pandemic, Human Rights Watch had documented that prison administrations would often halt prisoners’ communications with relatives without explanation and would heavily monitor calls when they do allow them, cutting the lines if prisoners tried to discuss their cases or complain about detention conditions. Some prisoners also said that phone calls are usually restricted to 2 to 10 minutes.

Saudi Arabia has recorded a steady rise in Covid-19 cases since March 2, with 303,973 cases and 3,548 deaths recorded by August 20. Infectious diseases like Covid-19 pose a serious risk to populations in closed institutions like prisons and detention centers. In Saudi Arabia’s prisons, where human rights groups have long documented ill-treatment, overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, and denial of adequate medical care, it is virtually impossible to adequately protect the mental and physical health of already vulnerable prisoners in case of an outbreak.

On April 24, a leading Saudi human rights figure, Abdullah al-Hamid, 69, died while serving a long prison term. The Saudi human rights organization ALQST reported that al-Hamid’s health condition had deteriorated in recent months, and that the authorities had delayed a heart operation a doctor told al-Hamid he needed in early 2020. ALQST said that authorities took steps to prevent al-Hamid from discussing his health condition with his family. He suffered a stroke on April 9 and remained hospitalized in a coma until his death.

On July 19, a writer and journalist, Saleh al-Shehi, died in the hospital two months after his release from detention. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has called for an independent international investigation to determine whether there is a link between his detention conditions and his death from an illness that has not been formally identified but that some local media outlets said was Covid-19. Saudi authorities released Al-Shehi from prison on May 19 without explanation after he had served two and a half years of a five-year sentence on speech-related charges.

Saudi authorities should promptly allow independent international monitors to enter the country, regularly monitor prison and detention facilities, carry out impartial investigations into allegations of torture and suspicious deaths in detention, and conduct private and regular visits with prisoners, Human Rights Watch said.

“Following the devastating deaths of prominent detainees in suspicious circumstances, Saudi Arabia’s allies should demand that they immediately release all those unjustly detained for exercising their basic rights before it’s too late,” Page said. “The families of detainees held incommunicado should not have to spend another day anxiously wondering what has become of their relatives.”

Saudi Arabia must stop Executing Children: Human Rights Watch Wed, 02 Sep 2020 04:03:13 +0000 By Bill Van Esveld | –

( Human Rights Watch) – On August 26, the Saudi Human Rights Commission announced the judiciary would review three death sentences in accordance with a recent decree to halt capital punishment for child offenders. Ali al-Nimr, Dawoud al-Marhoun, and Abdullah al-Zaher were sentenced to death for allegedly committing crimes when they were children.

Under the decree, the commission stated, the 3 detainees will be resentenced based on the Saudi Juvenile Law, which has a maximum 10-year prison penalty. They will have completed 10 years in prison by 2022.

The statement concludes, “Human rights are a key pillar of the Vision 2030 platform for transformation,” a reform initiative led by the king and the crown prince, Mohamed bin Salman. Saudi human rights pronouncements count for little: the government has assassinated critics, persecuted women’s rights advocates, mistreated migrant workers, and committed countless laws-of-war violations against civilians in Yemen. But not executing three child offenders is a positive decision.

Ali al-Nimr is one of at least three Saudi men currently on death row for protest-related crimes committed when they were children. © 2011 Eshaparvathi/Creative Commons.

Saudi Arabia should now immediately halt all death sentences and tackle pervasive injustice in the justice system. The cases of al-Nimr, al-Marhoun, and al-Zaher are chilling. They were between 15 and 17 when arrested in connection with demonstrations in 2011 by the country’s minority Shia citizens against systematic governmental discrimination. They were held incommunicado and detained without charge or trial for up to 22 months.

Lawyers for al-Zaher and al-Marhoun said both boys were beaten and threatened with more if they did not sign confessions written by their interrogators. Al-Marhoun had trouble speaking and eating because of the beatings, a relative said. They confessed to throwing Molotov cocktails at police, but no evidence was presented of police injuries. Al-Nimr was also convicted of “crimes” like “breaking allegiance with the ruler” and “repeating some chants against the state.”

Courts convicted them almost solely on the basis of these alleged coerced confessions.

If Saudi’s rulers genuinely want to imagine what a rights-respecting country will look like in 2030, it is one where trials are fair, children are safe from abuse, officials who violate rights are appropriately punished, and the death penalty is a thing of the past.

Bill van Esveld is Associate Director, MENA, Children’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch @billvanesveld

Via Human Rights Watch