Human Rights Watch – Informed Comment Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion Sun, 09 May 2021 05:15:10 +0000 en-US hourly 1 From Myanmar to Israel, what are the Offenses of ‘Apartheid’ and ‘Crimes Against Humanity?’ and How can we Make sure they are Prosecuted? Tue, 04 May 2021 04:01:08 +0000 By Clive Baldwin | Senior Legal Adviser | –

( Human Rights Watch) – The use of the word ‘apartheid’ in its legal meaning can sometimes, but not always, generate considerable power and attention. The related crime against humanity of persecution never seems to attract the same interest.

Our finding in 2020 that the Myanmar authorities were committing the crime against humanity of apartheid against ethnic Rohingya received considerable coverage of the facts of their mistreatment, though less about the crime itself.

Our new findings that Israeli authorities were committing the crime against humanity of persecution against Palestinians received limited attention. But our finding that they were also committing the crime of apartheid has received an extraordinary amount of attention — both support and criticism.

But in researching the law for both crimes, it has become clear that in terms of justice, they are ‘forgotten’ crimes against humanity, and are rarely prosecuted.

There is no doubt about the legal status of both crimes. For 50 years apartheid has been treated as a crime against humanity, as set out in two treaties that states have ratified and often incorporated into their domestic law. But the crime has not resulted in a single conviction. It has never apparently been prosecuted in a court. Persecution, the worst forms of discriminatory abuses, has been an international crime for at least 70 years, but has rarely been prosecuted outside of armed conflicts.

The prohibition of apartheid in international law goes beyond its status as an international crime. A general prohibition of apartheid is a peremptory norm of international law, the International Law Commission has said. The 1965 International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) requires all states parties to “particularly condemn racial segregation and apartheid and undertake to prevent, prohibit and eradicate all practices of this nature in territories under their jurisdiction.” In the law of armed conflict, the 1977 Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions identifies “practices of apartheid and other inhuman and degrading practices… based on racial discrimination” as a grave breach of the treaties.

But it is as a crime against humanity that apartheid is most clearly prohibited under international law. This was first stated in the 1968 Convention on the Non-Applicability of Statutory Limitations to War Crimes. In 1973 the UN General Assembly adopted a specific treaty, the Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid, which came into force in 1976. This treaty set out a definition of apartheid as a crime against humanity, consisting of ‘inhuman acts committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them’.

And crucially, the 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court lists apartheid as one of the 11 distinct crimes against humanity, defining it as inhumane acts ‘committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime.’

Persecution as a crime against humanity dates back at least to the 1945 Charter of the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg, which included ‘persecutions on political, racial or religious grounds’. This crime was also part of the statutes of the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda tribunals.

Persecution was also incorporated as a distinct crime against humanity in the Rome Statute, defined as “the intentional and severe deprivation of fundamental rights contrary to international law by reason of the identity of the group or collectivity.” The statute broadened the scope of the crime to include persecution on political, racial, national, ethnic, cultural, religious, gender or other grounds that are “universally recognized as impermissible under international law”. But it also limited this crime, allowing it to be prosecuted only “in connection” with other crimes against humanity in the Rome Statute.

The customary law definition of the crime of persecution contains no such limitation. The late international scholar and judge Antonio Cassese said the crime under customary international law consists of acts that result in grave violations of fundamental rights that are part of a widespread or systematic practice and that are committed with discriminatory intent.

For either persecution or apartheid to qualify as a crime against humanity, they must have been committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack against a civilian population. The Rome Statute defines this as being the commission of multiple such acts in line with a state or organizational policy.

Despite their clear status as international crimes, with definitions, it seems difficult to understand at first why these crimes are not being prosecuted. The situations they are designed to address, the worst forms of discrimination, still, sadly, exist.

It seems that the lack of court rulings itself is one of the biggest barriers to investigating these crimes. The result is a lack of judicial interpretations of key terms like ‘domination’ for apartheid. Until criminal investigators, prosecutors, lawyers and courts are comfortable with the definitions of the crimes, prosecutions are not likely to happen. It has become a vicious circle – no court rulings on the crimes means no judicial guidance, which deters any criminal investigations, which leads to a continuing lack of court rulings.

But we’ve found in our research that it is possible to apply the definitions of both crimes and to determine whether the crimes are taking place. We were not assessing which individuals may be responsible – as a prosecutor’s office and criminal court would do. But the current definitions of both crimes give an indication of the evidence needed for a prosecution.

Proving persecution requires showing severe and intentional deprivation of rights of a group, plus evidence that such severe deprivation of rights was committed with discriminatory intent and pursuant to a state policy, and was widespread or systematic.

For the crime of apartheid, taking the definitions in both treaties, we found that three key elements emerge. These are an intent to maintain a system of domination by one racial group over another; systematic oppression by one racial group over another, and in this context inhumane acts, carried out on a widespread or systematic basis . The inhumane acts are listed in both treaties, but neither domination nor systematic oppression in this crime has yet been defined in judicial rulings.

The meaning of the term ‘racial group’ in the crime of apartheid, or persecution on racial grounds, can be assessed with reference to the definition of racial discrimination in ICERD. It means not just treatment on the basis of genetic traits but also treatment on the basis of descent and national or ethnic origin.

However, the lack of clear legal guidance on the interpretation of these crimes is not the only reason so few prosecutions have taken place. Part of the reason is that words like ‘apartheid’ are still not generally understood as referring to crimes, but rather as descriptive terms.

One issue is that the word ‘apartheid’ is still associated by many with the situation decades ago in its country of origin, South Africa. But like all international crimes the crime of apartheid is not frozen in its origins. It has become a universal legal term. The Rome Statute was drafted in the late 1990s, after the end of apartheid in South Africa.

Another problem may be the common use of the term “apartheid state”. This is not found in international legal definitions but may give the impression that the entire country would need to be responsible for apartheid for it to be a crime. All crimes against humanity under the Rome Statute require evidence of a state or organizational policy, but for other crimes there is no equivalent use of terms like ‘persecution state’ or ‘torture state’. The ICC definition of the crime mentions the context of an ‘institutionalized regime’, but it is clear this is not necessarily the same as a state. It is individuals who commit international crimes, and it is individuals who should be prosecuted.

The Rome Statute itself probably deters prosecution of the crime of persecution by not treating it as a stand-alone crime, making it appear as a second class, ‘add-on’ crime. This could be rectified by a new convention on crimes against humanity, removing this limitation on the definition. Human Rights Watch and others have been pushing for that change, and such a convention is currently being debated in the UN General Assembly’s 6th Committee.

Another likely barrier to prosecutions is that criminal investigation of possible crimes of persecution or apartheid needs a different type of expertise from that often seen in police forces and prosecutors’ and judges’ offices. It requires an understanding of and ability to document and prove discrimination, and deliberate discriminatory intent, as well as to document the factual abuses. As a former discrimination lawyer, I’ve found that the type of evidence needed to prove discrimination in court can be very different from that needed to prove a crime like torture.

The offices of prosecutors and investigators dealing with international crimes should engage experts in discrimination when investigating apartheid and persecution. Documenting the level of discrimination necessary for apartheid or persecution should be possible, though, even at criminal levels of proof. These crimes are the worst, most obvious forms of discrimination. They will be prosecutable only when the evidence of intentional abusive discrimination by state officials is clear and obvious – and in the worst cases, it should be.

But the quest for clearer legal understanding of these crimes cannot rely on prosecutors and the criminal justice system alone. Developing ‘soft law’ and a greater public discussion of these crimes will give some guidance to those investigating, prosecuting, defending, and judging the crimes. The ICERD Committee, and other human rights bodies addressing discrimination, can and should play leading roles in setting out what the crimes of apartheid and persecution mean in practice. Human Rights Watch has called for a UN global envoy for the crimes of persecution and apartheid to identify what steps states, and judicial institutions, should take to prosecute these crimes fairly.

There is a vital need to ensure that these two crimes against humanity are much more clearly understood, and are called by their name when they are being committed — and that those responsible are prosecuted. This is crucial for the victims, and also so that those most responsible know they may face justice for many years to come. The crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution should no longer be forgotten.

Via Human Rights Watch


Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

Al Jazeera English: “Will Israel be held accountable for ‘apartheid’ of Palestinians? | Inside Story”

US Resuming Arms Sales to United Arab Emirates is Disastrous, Given its Wars on Yemen, Libya Tue, 20 Apr 2021 04:01:22 +0000 By Afrah Nasser | – Yemen Researcher, Middle East and North Africa Division | –

( Human Rights Watch) – United States President Joe Biden called in early February for “ending all American support for offensive operations in Yemen, including relevant arms sales.” At the time, I, like many human rights advocates who have been documenting abuses committed during the armed conflict in Yemen, thought we were finally moving in the right direction after years of work. But now, after a review of arms sales to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the Biden administration has backed out of its pledge, announcing it will resume the proposed arms deal with the UAE, a party to the conflict in Yemen.

Despite announcing the withdrawal of most of its ground troops in mid-2019, the UAE has continued its air operations and support for abusive local Yemeni ground forces, according to United Nations investigators. The UAE’s huge influence inside Yemen remains clear. I am regularly overwhelmed by messages from people in southern Yemen telling me about egregious abuses regularly committed by UAE-backed local forces.

In February, Human Rights Watch reported on the agonizing detention of a Yemeni journalist who was first threatened by an official from the UAE and detained and mistreated by UAE-backed forces.

Any re-examination of US arms sales to the UAE should have determined that the risk they could be used to commit laws-of-war violations is high, especially given the evidence that the Saudi and UAE-led coalition have already used US weapons in bombings unlawfully harming civilians and civilian sites in Yemen since the beginning of the war in 2015. Many of those attacks may amount to war crimes.

The UAE’s violations extend beyond Yemen. In Libya, the UAE has conducted unlawful strikes and provided military support to abusive local forces. Human Rights Watch identified an apparently unlawful UAE drone attack that hit a biscuit factory in November 2019, killing 8 civilians and wounding 27.

Resuming arms sales without first ensuring that the UAE is taking meaningful steps towards accountability for previous unlawful attacks just creates a situation in which those violations could happen again, with no one being held responsible. In resuming these arms sales, the US government once again risks complicity in future violations.

Via Human Rights Watch

Featured illustration via Wikimedia:

Nederlands: F-35 Lightning II.
Date 26 July 2013, 17:30:44
Source bron: Ministerie van Defensie.
Author US Air Force / Ministerie van Defensie

President Biden Needs a Middle East-Wide Human Rights Policy Tue, 13 Apr 2021 04:02:16 +0000 Published in: Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN)

By Iran Researcher Tara Sepehri Far | @sepehrifar


On the campaign trail and during his first three months in office, President Biden promised a US return to a multilateral foreign policy that supports human rights. That is an important vision for the Middle East, a region often destabilized by authoritarians and corruption and waves of struggles for better protection of human rights. This region will put to the test the administration’s willingness to redefine human rights as a US interest.

The President is off to a moderate start. He quickly began course corrections for some of the harm done during the previous administration. The US State Department reversed President Trump’s last-minute decision to designate the Houthi rebel group in Yemen a terrorist organization. That designation, which many human rights and humanitarian groups criticized, was a serious threat to humanitarian aid in Yemen where six years of conflict has left “5 million people are on the verge of famine,” according to the UN.

The US suspended arms sales for “offensive weapons” to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for their role in that destabilizing conflict. It also declassified an intelligence report on the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist living in the US who was brutally murdered in a Saudi consulate in 2018.

These actions show a willingness to incorporate human rights issues into decision making. But human rights is far from a central organizing principle of the new administration’s foreign policy – at least so far.

The State Department notified Congress of a major arms sale to Egypt the same week Egypt detained the family of an Egyptian-American human rights activist and his family. President Biden declined to sanction Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman when US intelligence clearly showed he “approved” the decision for state agents to murder Khashoggi.

On April 2, the administration lifted the Trump-era sanctions on the International Criminal Court (ICC)’s prosecutor and another senior official in the prosecutor’s office, which constituted a serious obstacle to the court’s ability to carry out its crucial mandate. The Trump administration had imposed these sanctions to thwart investigations in Afghanistan and Palestine. While repealing the executive order that authorized the sanctions, however, the Biden administration made clear it continues to oppose the “ICC’s actions” in the Afghanistan and Palestine situations. The court’s prosecutor recently opened a formal Palestine investigation, which could provide a long-awaited path to justice for victims.

Changing course on some of the deeply ingrained instincts that have shaped many powerful officials and senior politicians’ views on foreign policy for years will not be easy. To begin to address crises in the region, however, it will be critical for the President to make clear across the government that human rights concerns will be addressed consistently and taken into consideration on par with other US interests. Keeping two broad principles in mind could help bridge vision and reality. First, once and for all, end the US role in fueling serious abuses in Middle East conflict zones. Second, robustly and unapologetically support civic space and freedoms of expression and assembly across the region.

On stepping back from enabling human rights abuses, the US should not supply weapons that will be used to commit war crimes and other serious abuses. Given the level of abuses over the years by the armed forces of the UAE and Saudi Arabia in Yemen, the US should put an embargo on arms to these countries until the US can verify that they have stopped carrying out systematic human rights violations.

Beyond violent conflict, people in the Middle East are dealing with an array of rights restrictions and have limited civic space to change the status quo. One of the most common violations is the prosecution and imprisonment of activists for peaceful dissent.

In Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran, UAE, and Bahrain, being jailed for dissent is common. Courts across the region fall grossly short of fair trial standards, and there is limited if any redress for abuses people face in domestic judicial systems.

Women across the region trying to change laws and practices that limit their agency face harassment, intimidation, and arrest. Most countries in the region have some version of discriminatory personal status laws that do not grant women equal rights with men in marriage, divorce, child custody, and inheritance along with other existing barriers to full and equal participation in society. The same is true for ethnic and religious minorities as well as the LGBTQ community across Middle Eastern countries.

These are all issues the US should consider when engaging with Middle East partners. US support would be powerful for activists in their uphill and risk-filled efforts to curb these abusive practices. The US can start by prioritizing the protection of civic space across the region. For instance, the US can and should hold accountable government officials and others who threaten, prosecute, or harm human rights defenders and other peaceful activists across the region, utilizing tools such as the Khashoggi Ban and Global Magnitsky sanctions (as opposed to broad sectoral sanctions that harm people in the region.).

The US can also help break through the isolation of civil society across the region by supporting regional cooperation and solidarity among those working on similar rights issues. This might have to happen with indirect US involvement, such as support for academic engagement and convening spaces.

But, at minimum, the US should move from a single focus on support for civil society in countries that have an adversarial relationship with the US like Iran to encouraging a civil society empowerment planning that has a regional breadth. Those who are working in these extremely challenging environments on the ground to push for rights improvement in their country can also be empowered to develop initiatives that seek to overcome existing regional tensions.


Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

Forbes: “Jamaal Bowman calls on Biden demand end to Saudi Arabia’s blockade of Yemen”

Biden lifts outrageous US Sanctions on Int’l Criminal Court; now it should Join Treaty of Rome on Human Rights Sun, 04 Apr 2021 04:01:20 +0000 Human Rights Watch – (Washington, DC) – US President Joe Biden’s cancellation of punitive sanctions targeting the International Criminal Court (ICC) removes a serious obstacle to the court’s providing justice to the victims of the world’s worst crimes, Human Rights Watch said today. On April 2, 2021, Biden revoked a June 2020 order by then-President Donald Trump authorizing asset freezes and entry bans to thwart the ICC’s work.

In announcing the repeal of the executive order, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that “[t]hese decisions reflect our assessment that the measures adopted were inappropriate and ineffective.” The State Department also lifted existing visa restrictions.

“The Trump administration’s perversely punitive sanctions against the ICC showed stark contempt for the victims of grave international crimes and the prosecutors who seek to hold those responsible to account,” said Richard Dicker, international justice director at Human Rights Watch. “In removing this unprecedented threat to the global rule of law, President Biden has begun the long process of restoring US credibility on international justice through the ICC.”

The Trump administration put the sweeping executive order into effect in September, when it imposed sanctions on the court’s prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, and another senior official, Phakiso Mochochoko. It had repeatedly threatened action to thwart ICC investigations in Afghanistan and Palestine. In 2019, the Trump administration had revoked the prosecutor’s US visa.

Human Rights Watch had urged the Biden administration to rescind Trump’s executive order as a matter of priority. The Trump administration’s order was a threat to the global rule of law and the court’s work in bringing justice to victims.

It also created apprehension and uncertainty for nongovernmental organizations, consultants, and lawyers who work with the ICC in investigative and adjudicative capacities. Several academics and practitioners who provided expertise to the Office of the Prosecutor or represented victims before the court challenged the constitutionality of the executive order in two lawsuits in US federal court.

Several US lawmakers spoke out after the order was used to sanction the two ICC officials, as did ICC member countries, the European Union, and nongovernmental organizations in the US and globally. Significantly, ICC member countries repeatedly affirmed their collective support for the court, including during their most recent annual meeting, in December.

Even while repealing the order, though, the Biden administration made clear it continues to oppose the “ICC’s actions” in the Afghanistan and Palestine situations. In response to the ICC prosecutor’s March decision to open a Palestine investigation, Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterated US opposition to such an inquiry, contesting the court’s jurisdiction over the situation. The prosecutor’s investigation provides a long-awaited path to justice for both Palestinian and Israeli victims of serious international crimes, Human Rights Watch said.

ICC member countries should act on the lessons of the executive order’s repeal and voice their support for the court. The countries that created the ICC should stand ready to protect its crucial role against any action aimed at undermining its independence as a court, Human Rights Watch said.

With the punitive sanctions no longer in place, the US government should review its future engagement with the ICC. A US State Department spokesperson had previously indicated that the administration might consider resuming cooperation with the court in “exceptional cases.” While differences will remain between Washington and the court, the Biden administration should seek regularized cooperation with the ICC. Justice through the ICC can advance important US policy interests, as the February 4 conviction of Dominic Ongwen, a former leader of the brutal Lord’s Resistance Army, demonstrated. The Ongwen case highlighted the very constructive role that can be played by the US, which provided essential support for his surrender to the court in 2015.

While the US should work toward joining the court’s founding treaty, the Rome Statute, even as a non-member it can advance ICC cases by providing evidence, cooperating in the arrest of fugitives, calling for and endorsing UN Security Council actions to support the court, and engaging in discussions at the Assembly of States Parties that consists of the ICC’s 123 member countries.

“The ICC has its limitations, but its role as a court of last resort for the worst crimes is needed now more than ever,” Dicker said. “The Biden administration should back the ICC to ensure that victims get a chance for justice and that cooperation should be the rule, not the exception.”

Via Human Rights Watch

Featured Photo, Creative Commons:

Building of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague in 2019.
Date 12 May 2019
Source Own work
Author OSeveno

Via Wikimedia.

Israel’s Discriminatory Vaccine Push Underscores Need for Action on behalf of Palestinians Tue, 23 Mar 2021 04:02:43 +0000 Human Rights Watch Statement – Item 7 General Debate

( Human Rights Watch ) – As millions of Israelis slowly return to normalcy, with the majority of citizens vaccinated, millions of Palestinians just a short distance away in the occupied territory return to lockdown, with the prospect of mass vaccination nowhere in sight. The Israeli government exercises primary control of the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea; yet, while it has vaccinated the majority of its citizens, including those living in unlawful settlements in the West Bank, it has failed to provide vaccines for the vast majority of the nearly 5 million Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The Fourth Geneva Convention obliges Israel to ensure access to vaccines to Palestinians in the occupied territory. Israeli authorities claim that responsibility for vaccinating this population, under the Oslo Accords, falls on the Palestinian Authority (PA). However, the PA’s activities, particularly given its limited authority and economic means, do not absolve the Israeli government of its responsibilities under international law, as it remains the occupying power. Moreover, the Israeli government maintains exclusive control over Area C of the West Bank, encompassing more than 60 percent of the West Bank, leaving it no excuse not to vaccinate Palestinians living there.

After more than 50 years of occupation with no end in sight, Israel’s duties go beyond offering spare doses. At a minimum, it should ensure Palestinians in the occupied territory have access to vaccine equivalent to what it is providing to its own citizens.

Israel’s discriminatory vaccination policy underscores the repressive nature of its rule and the need for international action to address its serious abuses. We encourage the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to publicly provide the annual update of the database of businesses facilitating Israeli settlements in the coming months as mandated by the Human Rights Council and transmit it to the Council for discussion. Furthermore, following the International Criminal Court prosecutor’s decision to open a Palestine investigation, ICC member states should speak out in support of the court and its staff, and make clear they will protect its independence from any political pressure.

Given the flexibility of the lead sponsors in merging and presenting under item 2 the resolutions on the human rights situation in the OPT and on accountability, we urge all Council members, particularly from the Western Group, to support the text on its merits. Failure to do so would suggest that these states are less concerned with the agenda item than with shielding Israel from accountability.


Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

CIHRS “Palestine: Israeli Health Apartheid during COVID19”

World Leaders, including President Biden, need to Step up on Yemen, before Millions Die Tue, 02 Mar 2021 05:03:45 +0000 Afrah Nasser | –

( Human Rights Watch) – Imagine what it is like to live in the world’s worst humanitarian crisis: You are in a daily struggle for survival and you don’t know where your next meal will come from. This is the reality for many in Yemen, where an unmitigated humanitarian emergency fueled by years of armed conflict has pushed millions of people into the “worst famine the world has seen in decades,” according to the United Nations.

The humanitarian crisis has been exacerbated by Yemen’s economic collapse. The sharp depreciation of the Yemeni rial, which makes imported food, oil and other necessities more expensive, has dramatically reduced households’ purchasing power and harmed the livelihoods of millions of Yemenis.

Yemen’s international donors need to grapple with these harsh realities when they meet on March 1 for a high-level humanitarian pledging event on Yemen organized by the UN, Switzerland, and Sweden.

Many Yemenis and humanitarian workers are concerned that donors will again fail to meet the challenge. Last year’s pledges were US$1.35 billion, $1 billion less than what the UN said it needed to continue operating its aid programs. A number of countries, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Kuwait have not even fulfilled the amounts pledged.

But the level of support is not the only issue. Last September Human Rights Watch documented that the parties to the conflict, notably the Houthi armed group, which controls much of the country, as well as the Yemeni government and affiliated forces, and the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council, have at times severely restricted the delivery of desperately needed humanitarian aid.

As much as it is critical to address the shortfalls in humanitarian aid pledged to Yemen, donors should pressure parties to the conflict to lift obstacles on humanitarian aid and allow aid agencies to have safe and unimpeded access to populations at risk. Mitigating Yemen’s economic collapse should also be at the heart of discussions by Yemen’s donors and supporters.

Via Human Rights Watch


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The National: “US pledges $191 million in Yemen aid as UN urges donors to give more”

Saudi Arabia: Proposed Reforms Neglect Basic Rights: Ongoing Repression, Absence of Civil Society Impede Progress Fri, 26 Feb 2021 05:02:49 +0000 ( Human Rights Watch) – (Beirut) – Saudi Arabia recently announced a series of important and necessary reforms, but ongoing repression and a lack of respect for basic rights are major barriers to progress, Human Rights Watch said today. The repression of independent civil society and critical voices that can provide objective feedback decreases the chances that reform efforts will be successful.

While Saudi authorities have released some unjustly detained dissidents and activists, including the women’s rights activists Loujain al-Hathloul and Nouf Abdelaziz, they remain subject to restrictions that hamper their ability to speak out without fear of reprisal. Prominent clerics, public intellectuals, academics, and human rights activists arrested since 2017 remain behind bars. Saudi authorities’ arbitrary and abusive targeting of dissidents and activists and the total lack of accountability for those responsible for arrests and torture demonstrate that the rule of law in Saudi Arabia is weak and that Saudi leadership undermines it at will.

“Announcing reforms doesn’t halt the authorities’ no-holds-barred repression of civic activism, which fundamentally undermines these measures,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “When the government brutally punishes citizens and residents who dare provide honest critical feedback, it can’t credibly spin proposed reforms as genuine efforts to improve people’s lives.”

Women’s Rights Reforms

On February 8, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced plans to introduce significant changes to Saudi Arabia’s judicial system, including the promulgation of a personal status law (or family law). In the absence of a codified family law that meets international standards, women in Saudi Arabia face discrimination in marriage, divorce, decisions relating to children, including child custody, and inheritance.

The details of the drafting process have yet to be published and it is unclear when the law is expected to be finalized and come into effect. There are serious concerns, however, that without the effective participation of women’s rights advocates, the discrimination in practice may simply be codified into law. As processes to adopt new family laws in the region have shown, women’s rights and civil society participation is crucial both to ensuring that progressive laws are adopted and to raising awareness of and compliance with such laws.

In 2019, Saudi Arabia introduced significant women’s rights reforms, including lifting travel restrictions and allowing Saudi women to drive, register their children’s birth, and providing new protections against employment discrimination and sexual harassment.

But even as these reforms were announced, women activists who championed them remained on trial or in detention. The majority have since been provisionally released or convicted and conditionally released. But Nassima al-Sadah and Samar Badawi, prominent women’s rights activists arrested during the 2018 crackdown, remain behind bars. Without independent women’s rights groups to monitor the implementation of these reforms and given that criticizing the government leads to arbitrary arrests and prison terms, it is unclear how well they are being carried out.

The introduced reforms are also incomplete. Saudi women still require a male guardian’s approval to marry, be released from prison, or obtain certain sexual and reproductive health care. Men can still file cases against their daughters, wives, or female relatives for “disobedience,” which can lead to their forcible return to their male guardian’s home or imprisonment.

Work Sponsorship Reforms

The Saudi authorities announced reforms in October 2020 to the notorious kafala (sponsorship) system, which ties the legal status of millions of migrant workers to individual sponsors, facilitating abuse and exploitation, including forced labor. The limited reforms will reportedly allow a migrant worker to change employers under some circumstances and cancel the requirement for permission from their employers – an exit permit – to leave the country.

Few details have been announced, but the reforms are to be rolled out in March 2021. Saudi Arabia still bars trade unions and strikes, and the authorities have not consulted with migrant worker groups on these upcoming reforms.

The 3.7 million domestic workers excluded from the labor law are also excluded from these modest changes. Many face serious abuses including long working hours without a day off, forced confinement, and physical and sexual abuse.

Some abusive kafala elements are slated to remain. Migrant workers – and their dependents – will still need employers to facilitate entry, residence, and employment in the country, including applying for and renewing residency and work permits.

Employers will still be able to cancel these permits so workers can find themselves undocumented through no fault of their own when employers fail to carry out such processes, and it is the workers who suffer the consequences. Migrant workers will also still need their employer’s permission to change jobs if they have not finished their contract or worked less than a year. The government will also continue to impose harsh penalties for “absconding” – leaving an employer without permission or remaining in the country beyond the grace period after their residence permit expires or is revoked. The penalties include fines, detention, deportation, and a ban on re-entry.

Criminal Justice Reforms

Saudi Arabia applies Shari’a (Islamic law) as its national law. In the absence of a written penal code or narrowly worded regulations, judges and prosecutors can convict people on a wide range of offenses under broad, catch-all charges such as “breaking allegiance with the ruler” or “trying to distort the reputation of the kingdom.” Detainees, including children, commonly face arbitrary arrest and systematic violations of due process and fair trial rights.

As part of the justice reforms announced on February 8, 2021, the country’s first written penal code for discretionary crimes and a law of evidence are being prepared, though apparently without any participation by civil society. The crown prince said the changes are meant to “increase the level of integrity and efficiency of judicial institutions.” Details are yet to be published and it is unclear how closely these laws will comply with international standards. In particular, there are concerns that many arbitrary charges will simply be codified as wide-ranging, catch-all offenses that criminalize the rights to freedom of expression, association, and assembly, among other rights.

It is not the first time Saudi officials have claimed to be embarking on changes meant to increase the independence and effectiveness of the Saudi legal system. In 2017, King Salman issued a royal decree severing the Bureau of Investigation and Prosecution (BIP) from the Interior Ministry and re-establishing it as the Public Prosecution, an “independent” entity reporting directly to the king.

The Saudi prosecution service is a major tool of Saudi repression and has been used to oppress peaceful Saudi dissidents since 1988 through various means, including harassment, endless summonses for interrogation, arbitrary detention, and prosecution in blatantly unfair trials on spurious charges. These practices accelerated and increased following the 2017 reorganization.

Saudi Arabia has introduced important changes to its use of corporal punishment and the death penalty. In April 2020, Saudi authorities announced an end to flogging for some crimes and retroactive application of a 2018 legal change halting the death penalty for alleged child offenders for certain crimes. In January 2021, the Saudi Human Rights Commission announced a moratorium on the death penalty for drug-related offenses, crediting it with reducing executions by 85 percent in 2020. And in February 2021, the Commission announced that the Saudi judiciary had commuted the death sentences of three men for protest-related crimes when they there children.

Both the previous reforms and those recently announced have been introduced or are being drafted without public consultation, accompanied by a complete shutdown of what had already been a narrow space for civil society in Saudi Arabia. It leaves no one inside the country to monitor and report on government performance, ensure that the government is delivering on its promises, or advocate for further necessary changes.

To demonstrate that Saudi Arabia is truly reforming, King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman should introduce new reforms to ensure that Saudi citizens enjoy basic human rights, including freedoms of expression, association, and assembly, as well as an independent judiciary and due process of law.

The authorities can signal this commitment immediately, Human Rights Watch said, by releasing anyone detained arbitrarily or on charges based solely on their peaceful ideas or expression, dropping all charges against detainees that do not resemble recognizable crimes, and providing justice for abuses such as torture or arbitrary punishments.

“Saudi Arabia’s top-down reform dictates will never succeed without public consultation, in which people can share their views without fearing arrest,” Page said. “The upcoming reforms could very well entrench existing discrimination and criminalization of freedoms unless the very people who could help the government succeed are released from jail cells and those silenced are allowed to speak up.”

Via Human Rights Watch


Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

The British Academy: “Why history? The Son King: Reform and Repression in Saudi Arabia”

]]> Saudi Arabia releases Women’s Rights Activist Loujain al-Hathloul but Bans her Travel Fri, 12 Feb 2021 05:02:23 +0000 (Beirut) – Saudi authorities released from prison the prominent women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul on February 10, 2021, Human Rights Watch said today. However, she is banned from travel and has a suspended sentence, which allows the authorities to return her to prison at any time for any perceived criminal activity.

In late December 2020, following a rushed trial, Saudi Arabia’s terrorism court convicted al-Hathloul on a host of charges tied to her peaceful activism and sentenced her to five years and eight months in prison. Two years and 10 months of this sentence were suspended. Al-Hathloul had been in detention since her arrest in May 2018, where she endured torture and other ill-treatment, solitary confinement, and long periods of incommunicado detention.

“Loujain al-Hathloul’s wrongful imprisonment has ended, but she’s still not free,” said Adam Coogle, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “With al-Hathloul banned from travel and threatened with more prison time if she does not stay silent, her ordeal remains a flagrant miscarriage of justice.”

Al-Hathloul and other activists have publicly advocated for an end to discrimination against women in Saudi Arabia for years, including abolishing the abusive male guardianship system and the driving ban on women. Saudi authorities arrested al-Hathloul along with other prominent Saudi women’s rights activists in May 2018, just weeks before lifting the driving ban and marking the beginning of total suppression of the country’s women’s rights movement. For the first three months, the authorities held al-Hathloul incommunicado, without access to her family and lawyer.

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. The authorities again subjected al-Hathloul to almost three months of incommunicado detention in mid-2020, prompting her to go on a two-week hunger strike in October, her second since her arrest.

The Specialized Criminal Court, which often hands down lengthy prison sentences to human rights activists following grossly unfair trials, opened al-Hathloul’s case on December 10, 2020, after having suspended her trial at the regular criminal court for over a year and a half. The court convicted her on December 28, 2020.

The charges against her include sharing information about women’s rights in Saudi Arabia with Saudi activists abroad, diplomats, international bodies, and human rights organizations. They also include “exploiting” her previous detention in late 2014 by mentioning it when applying for a job at the United Nations, attempting to provide mental health support to people deemed “hostile” to the state, and not being deterred by measures taken against her previously.

“Saudi Arabia should quash the convictions against Loujain al-Hathloul that essentially deem her women’s rights activism ‘terrorism,’ lift the travel ban, and end her suspended sentence,” Coogle said. “The Saudi authorities should also immediately and unconditionally release all human rights activists detained for advocating for human rights.”


Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

CBC News: “Women’s rights activist Loujain Alhathloul released after 1,001 days in Saudi prison”

Israel must Provide Vaccines to Occupied Palestinians: HRW says Over 4.5 Million in West Bank, Gaza Excluded From Vaccination Push Mon, 18 Jan 2021 05:03:47 +0000 ( Human Rights Watch) – (Jerusalem) – Israeli authorities should provide Covid-19 vaccines to the more than 4.5 million Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, Human Rights Watch said today. While Israel has already vaccinated more than 20 percent of its citizens, including Jewish settlers in the West Bank, it has not committed to vaccinate Palestinians living in the same occupied territory under its military rule.

Israel’s duties under the Fourth Geneva Convention to ensure medical supplies, including to combat the spread of pandemics, are heightened after more than 50 years of occupation with no end in sight. These responsibilities, alongside its obligations under international human rights law, include providing vaccines in a nondiscriminatory manner to Palestinians living under its control, using as a benchmark what it provides for its own citizens. The Palestinian authorities’ own obligations to protect the right to health of Palestinians in areas where they manage affairs do not absolve Israel of its responsibilities.

“Nothing can justify today’s reality in parts of the West Bank, where people on one side of the street are receiving vaccines, while those on the other do not, based on whether they’re Jewish or Palestinian,” said Omar Shakir, Israel and Palestine director at Human Rights Watch. “Everyone in the same territory should have equitable access to the vaccine, regardless of their ethnicity.”

Israeli authorities had, as of January 14, 2021, provided doses of the vaccine to more than 2 million Israeli citizens. Priority has been given to health workers, at-risk groups, and those over age 60, the vast majority of whom have received doses of the vaccine. The vaccination drive covers Palestinian citizens of Israel, as well as residents of occupied East Jerusalem, which Israel annexed in 1967. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said that the government will vaccinate all of its citizens over age 16 by the end of March. He declared on January 7 that “we will vaccinate the entire relevant population and everyone who wants to will be able to be vaccinated.”

Everyone, that is, except Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and West Bank (outside East Jerusalem). Israeli authorities claim that responsibility for vaccinating this population, under the Oslo Accords, falls on the Palestinian Authority. Israel’s Health Minister told Sky News that “they have to learn how to take care of themselves” and that “I don’t think that there’s anyone in this country, whatever his or her views might be, that can imagine that I would be taking a vaccine from the Israeli citizen, and, with all the good will, give it to our neighbors.”

However, the Fourth Geneva Convention obliges Israel, as the occupying power, to ensure the “medical supplies of the [occupied] population,” including “adoption and application of the prophylactic and preventative measures necessary to combat the spread of contagious diseases and epidemics” to “the fullest extent of the means available to it.” Israel remains the occupying power in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Gaza under international humanitarian law, given the extent of its control over borders, the movement of people and goods, security, taxation, and registry of the population, among other areas.

This obligation, as well as the customary international law requirement rooted in Article 43 of the Hague Resolutions of 1907 to ensure public order and safety for the occupied population, increases in a prolonged occupation. Under these circumstances, the needs of the occupied population are greater, and the occupier has more time and opportunity to assume responsibility to protect rights.

The longer an occupation, the more military rule should resemble an ordinary governing system that respects the standards of international human rights law that apply at all times. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which Israel ratified in 1991 and the State of Palestine acceded to in 2014, requires states to take steps necessary for the “prevention, treatment and control of epidemic, endemic, occupational and other diseases.” The United Nations body responsible for monitoring this treaty has confirmed that Israel is obliged to respect this treaty in the occupied territory, and to protect the right to health and other rights of the population there.

After more than 53 years of occupation, Israeli authorities have the obligation to fully respect the human rights of Palestinians in the occupied territory, including their right to health, using as a benchmark the rights they grant to Israeli citizens, as Human Rights Watch has set out. The fact that Israeli citizens, including settlers in the West Bank, are receiving vaccines at one of the most rapid rates in the world indicates that Israel has the ability to provide the vaccines to at least some Palestinians in the occupied territory, but has chosen to leave them unprotected.

The Israeli Supreme Court in a 1991 case ruled that the authorities, in their drive to supply gas masks to all Israelis amid the prospect of a chemical attack in the lead-up to the Gulf War, should “exercise equality” and not “discriminate” between residents of the West Bank. The court wrote, “[w]hen the Military Commander has reached the conclusion that protective kits must be distributed to Jewish residents in the area, protective kits must also be distributed to the area’s Arab residents.”

The Oslo Accords do not erase Israel’s obligations under international humanitarian and human rights law, as it remains the occupying power. Palestinian authorities also have responsibilities toward residents in the parts of the occupied territory where Palestinian authorities manage affairs. However, given their limited authority and economic means, their activities do not absolve the Israeli government of its responsibilities. While the Israeli government maintains primary control, sidelining Palestinian authorities, it should not be able to suddenly assign sole responsibility to those authorities when it wants to offload its responsibilities for the health of people under occupation. Israeli and Palestinian authorities in the occupied territory should cooperate to ensure that everyone receives vaccines, without discrimination.

Moreover, the Israeli government also maintains exclusive control over Area C of the West Bank, encompassing more than 60 percent of its territory, leaving it no excuse not to vaccinate Palestinians living there.

The Palestinian Authority reported 5,817 active Covid-19 cases in the West Bank, excluding East Jerusalem, as of January 14, and over 100,000 cases and 1,000 deaths in these areas since the beginning of the pandemic. Hamas authorities reported 7,000 active Covid-19 cases in Gaza, as of January 14, and a total of more than 45,000 cases and 400 deaths.

The Palestinian Authority health minister, Mai Alkaila, said on January 9 that the Palestinian Authority has reached agreements with several companies and the World Health Organization (WHO) to procure a sufficient supply of vaccines to eventually cover the majority of Palestinians in the occupied territory, but that “there is no specific date” for the arrival of even the first doses.

The Palestinian Authority’s Foreign Ministry has called on the international community to pressure Israel to provide vaccines to Palestinians in the occupied territory, saying that the Palestinian Authority’s efforts to procure vaccines do not exempt Israel from its responsibilities under the law of occupation. Israeli authorities said in a January 12 submission to the Israeli High Court of Justice that they provided 100 vaccine doses to the Palestinian Authority in response to a Palestinian request and planned to send another shipment, but the Palestinian Authority has denied reports of having received any quantity of vaccines from Israel. In any event, 100 vaccine doses pales in comparison to the more than 2 million doses that Israel has already provided to Israeli citizens.

The submission came in response to a lawsuit by the family of an Israeli soldier whose body apparently is being held by Hamas authorities in Gaza. The suit seeks to require the Israeli authorities to withhold vaccines from Gaza until the body is returned. Israeli authorities have, based on unconfirmed reports in Israeli media, linked provision of the vaccine to Gaza to the release of the soldier’s body, as well as of two Israeli civilians and the body of another soldier apparently held by Hamas authorities there. Hamas authorities should immediately release the civilians and return the soldiers’ bodies, but Israeli authorities should not use vaccines as bargaining chips, Human Rights Watch said. The lives of Palestinian residents of Gaza should not be sacrificed because of the conduct of Hamas authorities over which they have limited, if any, control.

The Independent newspaper said in a January 8 report that Israeli authorities had denied informal requests from the WHO and the Palestinian Authority to provide vaccinations to Palestinian health workers, although Israel has denied receiving such a request.

“The virus does not discriminate in who it infects, but the government of Israel discriminates in who it chooses to inoculate against it,” Shakir said.

Via Human Rights Watch


Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

Sky News: “COVID-19: Israel vaccine a success but why haven’t the Palestinians got the jab?”