International Human Rights Weekly News Roundup

In focus

A ‘systemic failure’: investigation confirms NYPD mishandled Floyd protests

By  Lauren Y. T. Ng, Sarah Mui and Vittoria Lucchese

The New York Police Department (NYPD) has come under scrutiny in a recently published report by the New York City Department of Investigation (DOI).  

With the aim to examine the police response to the protests erupting in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, the report underscored several shortcomings with regards to the NYPD’s conduct.  The Mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio, commissioned the investigation, which revealed that the NYPD lacked a clear strategy, neglected to consider measures of proportionality and employed excessive use of force towards demonstrators.  The cumulation of these considerations, among others, were believed to have fuelled escalating tensions between the police and protestors, failing to consider the context of the protests, centring on police brutality.  

The report highlighted examples well-documented by journalists during the Floyd protests, including indiscriminate mass arrests of protestors in the absence of violence and the employment of physical force using pepper spray, batons and tasers.  These actions are considered to be in violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, namely article 19 (the right to freedom of expression) and article 21 (the right of peaceful assembly), to which the US is a party and ratifying member of.  

In response to the DOI’s report, De Blasio released a video on Twitter expressing his remorse towards the actions of some of the individual police officers who “did something wrong”, affirming that “we have to do better”.  Expectedly, these remarks were not met without criticism.  Department officials countered that the outcome of the protests were largely a result of the mixed messages imparted by elected leaders, with little awareness of the reality in regards to the situation on the ground.  Comparatively, the US program director of Human Rights Watch (HRW), Laura Pitter, criticized the apology as a “woefully inadequate response to the scale of police misconduct and abuse”, advocating for a deeper level of accountability, including “addressing the structural problems with policing in New York City”.  

Nevertheless, the DOI outlined a series of recommendations to improve accountability and police-community relations, such as promoting transparency, expanding methods of training to reduce indiscriminate policing, and incorporating policies to facilitate constructive communication with demonstrators.  However, the HRW has made further calls beyond the scope of police force – urging the US to reduce its reliance on criminalisation and policing in addressing societal problems; and alternatively, shifting its funding to focus on services promoting access to education, health care and mental health support.  

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Custodial Torture in India: Disregarding the International Mandate

By Mani Munjal and Aakarsh Banyal

Image by Chase Baker (Unsplash)

Introduction

In the wake of outrage surrounding the death of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer, India witnessed a similar occurrence: the custodial torture and death of a father and his son over an alleged violation of pandemic control rules. This incident has initiated a national outrage against the effectiveness of the legal safeguards in upholding the internationally recognised human rights.

This blog seeks to provide a background of India’s engagement at national and international fora with the subject of prevention of torture. This will be followed by a critique of India’s ‘Prevention of Torture Bill’ (“Bill”) which was introduced to further the tenets of the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (“UNCAT”). The UNCAT build on the principles enshrined in Article 7, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (“ICCPR”), which provides that no one shall be subjected to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. 

India’s efforts and policy considerations

India’s signing of the UNCAT in 1997 prompted the Ministry of Home Affairs to introduce the Bill in the Lower House of Parliament in 2010. However, even after undergoing several rounds of discussion and recommendations, the Bill lapsed with the dissolution of the Lower House. The reintroduced Bill in 2018 suffered the same fate. In addition, pursuant to Article 2 of the ICCPR, India was obligated to undertake necessary steps to legislate on issues concerning violation of human rights. 

The urgent need for an anti-torture law was acknowledged by the Law Commission of India in its 273rd Law Commission Report. Reflecting the remarks of a Select Committee of the Upper House of Parliament, the Report recommended amendments to existing laws such as the Indian Evidence Act 1872 and Criminal Procedure Code 1973. However, these recommendations have not been implemented by the Central Government. 

In 2017, at India’s Universal Periodic Review, the Indian leadership posited that “torture is alien to Indian culture and has no place in the governance of the nation”. However, no steps have been taken to address the problem as of date. In 2019, the National Human Rights Commission of India recorded more than 1700 deaths of individuals under police or judicial custody in a single year. It is clear that the lack of a legal framework governing this issue is providing tacit approval to widespread human rights violations, and also reducing India’s standing at the international front as a guardian of human rights. 

India’s failure to proclaim an anti-torture law also entails key diplomatic considerations. Article 3 of the UNCAT prohibits extradition, inter alia, of individuals to States where “there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.” This implies that State parties to the UNCAT can rely on the aforementioned provision to deny extradition of individuals to India on account of the absence of legal safeguards to protect individuals in custody coupled with a high number of deaths caused by custodial torture, as shown earlier. 

Presently, India has ratified the ICCPR but has been unable to ratify the UNCAT, standing as mere signatory. Ratification of the UNCAT would further strengthen India’s bid for a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council as the move exhibits utmost reverence to the idea of peace-making and ensuring protection for individuals. 

Analysis of the Prevention of Torture Bill

At this point, it is pertinent to review the Bill as it is the closest legislative effort towards penalising custodial torture. A brief analysis of the Bill uncovers a multitude of legislative imperfections, some of which are inconsistent with the UNCAT. 

Firstly, pursuant to Section 3, the definition of ‘torture’ is constrained. This is because only instances which amount to grievous hurt or pose a threat to life, limb or health are classified as torture. Per contra, the UNCAT, contains no such restrictions. Furthermore, unlike the UNCAT, Section 3 also does not encompass instances of mental trauma and suffering.

Secondly, the Bill penalises only those torturous acts which are committed to extract information or on the ground of religion, race, place of birth, residence, caste, community, or language, whereas the UNCAT seeks to denounce all torturous acts, regardless of prejudice. 

Thirdly, the doctrine of proportionality suggests that the punishment ought to be commensurate with the seriousness of the offence. The Indian Supreme Court has also alluded to this doctrine in several judgments. However, the Bill contains no such differentiation in punishment on the basis of the resulting outcome. For instance, under this Bill, the present case of torture that resulted in the victims’ death would be penalised just as a milder act inflicting grievous hurt would. 

Fourthly, the Bill fails to provide for any independent investigation mechanism. This poses the risk of diluting the principles of natural justice and opens up the possibility of suppression of information, leading to ineffective investigations.

Fifthly, the Bill provides for a limitation period of six months to file a complaint. This practice is inconsistent with the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 wherein no time limit has been stipulated for offences which are punishable with imprisonment that may extend to ten years. There seems to be no reasonable justification to draw such a distinction between torture and other crimes.

Although a meaningful endeavour to safeguard an individual’s freedoms, the Bill is swathed with legislative deficiencies that allow an accused to escape liability for internationally reprehensible conduct recognised under the UNCAT, the same Convention the Anti-Torture Bill seeks to ratify.

Conclusion

Despite the Convention being in consonance with the ethos of according paramount reverence to an individual’s life and liberty, India has been unable to keep up with the current international human rights standards of torture prevention as laid down in the Convention. The need of the hour is to initiate a discourse that is geared towards enacting a legislation that shifts the dynamic from “Crime and Impunity” to “Crime and Punishment” for internationally reprehensible acts that impinge on an individual’s right to life and liberty.

Mani Munjal and Aakarsh Banyal are students of law at Symbiosis Law School, Pune, India. Their areas of interest include Public International Law, Human Rights Law and Security Studies.

International Human Rights Weekly News Roundup

By Andrea Vremis, Dan O. Eboka and Dechen D. Piy

“Working together we recover better by standing up for Human Rights” Bachelet’s words on International Human Rights Day

Photo by Mathias P. R. Reding 

December 10th marks the annual anniversary for Human Rights Day, commemorating the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) by the UN General Assembly (Resolution 217 (III) A of December 10, 1948), establishing, for the first time, fundamental human rights to be universally protected. 

In marking the occasion, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, said in her video message, “this year’s Human Rights Day falls at a time we will never forget,” referring to the COVID-19 pandemic which has affected the whole world, resulting in a health crisis, an economic crisis, and a human rights crisis. 

The pandemic has disproportionately affected the human rights of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged members of society. It uncovered extra layers of vulnerability to children, people with disabilities, the elderly, women and girls, people with HIV/AIDS, people residing in conflict zones, and minorities. COVID-19 has also had a “devastating impact” on economies everywhere, affecting employment and income as well as education, health and food supply for “hundreds of millions of people”. It has particularly affected women and girls disproportionately, and has exacerbated gender inequalities across spheres, from “health to the economy, security to social protection”. Unpaid domestic work has increased, with the burden falling especially on women due to lockdown restrictions. Gender-based violence has also “increased exponentially” due to lockdowns and other isolation measures. It has forced many women and girls to isolate with their abusers, while shelters and other support services were disrupted or became inaccessible due to the restrictive measures. 

While our response to the pandemic must have a human rights-based approach, there is a general consensus in the human rights community that the pandemic has further exposed various issues with our current system of human rights implementation. Bachelet highlighted these issues as “lessons” learned from the COVID-19 crisis in regard to ending discrimination, reducing inequalities, ensuring participation and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). She ended her message with a call for action: “we can recover better… by standing up for human rights”.

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Spotlight on Médecins Sans Frontières UK

Each month, the HRC Blog features a significant individual or team from the Human Rights community to go under the Spotlight, answering questions put by students from the University of Essex.  This month, we feature the team from Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) UK.

About MSF UK

Doctors-Without-BordersMSF is an international, medical humanitarian organisation working to save people’s lives in conflict zones, natural disasters and epidemics.  Independent, neutral and impartial, MSF aims to alleviate suffering, protect life and restore respect for human rights irrespective of religion or political affiliation.  As COVID-19 continues to spread, MSF teams are responding to the pandemic in more than 70 countries where they already have programmes, while opening projects in new countries as required.  In Yemen, for example, MSF is supporting the Ministry of Health to run Sanaa’s principal centre to treat coronavirus and is working across the country to support a collapsed health infrastructure during what the UN has described as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

Students’ Questions Answered

The students at Essex are really excited to have the opportunity to send in their questions to the team at MSF, to learn more about their humanitarian work and some of the challenges they face, particularly during this year of the COVID-19 pandemic.  We are honoured to have two members of the their team to share their expertise:

Elizabeth Harding (EH) is MSF UK’s humanitarian representative, having previously held operational positions in Sudan, South Sudan, Philippines, Myanmar, India, Somalia and Ethiopia.

Roz Scourse (RS) is a policy advisor for MSF’s Access Campaign which works to bring down barriers that keep people from getting the treatment they need to stay alive and healthy.

 

 

COVID-19

Coronavirus_greenWhat are the challenges MSF face in terms of humanitarian access in the COVID-19 context? For example, have you had any problems accessing countries that may have locked their borders?  

(EH): Finding ways to continue with our regular medical activities has been a challenge in the COVID-19 context. Challenges with getting staff and supplies to where they were needed were particularly acute in the first few months of the pandemic. In fact, most of the issues that we had regarding getting and maintaining access was more of an exacerbation of our challenges in ‘normal times’.  

In terms of the threat that Covid-19 poses for the people we serve, we know that social distancing is impossible in cramped camps like Moria on Lesbos, and hand hygiene is undoubtedly more challenging where there is no running water, for example. COVID-19 has shown how people who are already vulnerable are facing additional risks.  

 

 

What would you see as some of the solutions that need to be put in place during the pandemic so that much needed aid reaches those most in need? 

(EH): We need to ensure that regular health services continue, and that people can access them. Despite the pandemic, babies are still being born, children are still catching preventable diseases, and conflict is still causing life-threatening injuries. It’s crucial that these medical needs are not overlooked or deprioritised as this would have a lasting impact. 

Blockages like insecurity, fear and movement restrictions present challenges but we are finding ways to adapt and minimise their impact. For example, rather than implementing mass vaccination campaigns at fixed sites where people would gather, our team in Burkina Faso used a door-to-door strategy to ensure that measles vaccinations could continue.  

 

 

Dr Theo - MSF Congo

Dr Theo – MSF Congo – ebola intervention Image courtesy of Carl Theunis/MSF

How has your experiences of dealing with other exceptional circumstances/disasters, such as “Ebola” or “terrorism”, helped in your response to COVID-19? 

(EH): MSF has a long history of responding to epidemics and has been able to use this experience when responding to COVID-19. A crucial lesson learned from our experience responding to Ebola is that interventions must be targeted to the context – one size does not fit all.  

Ebola also showed us that any intervention must be based in community acceptance. Community acceptance of the intervention and any necessary restrictions is the cornerstone for any public health intervention. An understanding of the need to be tested and treated is crucial.

But clearly there are unique elements to this pandemic too. COVID-19 is affecting countries around the world, rather than existing as an outbreak in a single region. This brings with it more challenges in terms of the different reactions of different states and availability of supplies. 

 

 

Because of the pandemic, states have adopted state-centred approaches to regulations, giving them exceptional powers based on a medical emergency.  What were the consequences of this for MSF at the initial phase in the complete lockdown of humanitarian activities? 

(EH): While experiences differed across different countries, in some contexts it did became more difficult for staff to travel and for supplies to be sent where they were needed in the initial period.  In some places we had to adapt our response and to prioritise what we really needed to do.

Crucially, almost 85% of MSFs workforce in our projects are host-country staff who are locally hired and were able to continue providing medical care.

 

 

Giving birth in Dasht-e-Barchi

Giving birth in Dasht-e-Barchi, Afghanistan Image courtesy of Sandra Calligaro

I know MSF works very efficiently in developing countries, especially those with humanitarian emergencies arising. However, during the covid-19 pandemic developed countries have also complained that they do not have the resources to handle the crisis. Do you think that is true? Have you provided assistance or training in the UK ,for example, during the lockdowns? 

(EH): Our COVID-19 response has included interventions within Europe to meet very specific needs and gaps in support for particularly vulnerable populations including in France, Belgium, and the UK.  

In the UK we supported the COVID CARE centre for the homeless in London. This reflects MSF’s ambition to provide assistance according to the needs, irrespective of location. Our team in London were able to partner with other actors to fill a gap when needs were very high and then we were able to hand our programme over. This work in Europe did not divert from what we are doing elsewhere, with MSF present in over 70 countries.   

 

 

Are MSF doctors having to make decisions about who gets priority for treatment when hospitals are overwhelmed with COVID cases? If so, how are those decisions made? 

(EH): As a medical organisation, all care is done on a triage basis, so according to the urgency of the patient’s needs. In a lot of places where we work there is often limited resources so we have to adapt to work within such limitations, providing the best care possible and in the best interest of the patient.  

(RS):  Ideally, we would like to see a situation where these decisions don’t have to happen, and we don’t have shortages or the need to ration available treatments. In relation to COVID-19 medical tools (i.e. potential future treatments, ventilators, PPE etc.) we need to ensure there are no barriers that are artificially limiting supplies, such as intellectual property barriers and a lack of technology transfer from pharmaceutical companies. Past experiences have shown that when available supplies are limited, this can lead to nationalistic control and hoarding, and result in barriers to access predominantly for low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). We are already seeing this with COVID-19 vaccines. 

As a starting point, we need to ensure global open sharing of data and knowledge related to COVID-19 medical tools, and that all intellectual property related to COVID-19 technologies are waived. This has already been proposed by South Africa, India and other countries at the World Trade Organisation in order to maximise global supplies of COVID-19 technologies and bring down prices. All products should be openly licensed, and technology transfer should be pursued to ensure that other manufacturers around the world are able to start producing successful products. 

 

 

COVID_VaccineWill MSF get access to COVID-19 vaccines and how will the distribution of those vaccines to countries without stable governments, such as Yemen, be prioritised and managed? 

(RS): We are pushing for proportional shares of COVID-19 vaccines to be made available to populations in crisis‐affected humanitarian settings, including refugees, asylum seekers, marginalised communities and people living in conflict areas.  These are groups who have the least access to, or are excluded altogether from, national health services. A “global humanitarian buffer stock” was originally built into the design of the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access Facility (COVAX), led by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Global Vaccine Alliance (Gavi), where 5% of supplies were to be dedicated to humanitarian needs.  However so far this has not materialised, especially since COVAX is struggling in general to secure enough doses of future COVID-19 vaccines. 

MSF is in discussions with WHO and others on how a humanitarian buffer stock could work, with supplies from COVAX or directly from companies or countries.  France have already committed to contributing some of their doses agreed through bilateral deals with companies to a humanitarian buffer stock. We are asking other high-income countries (HICs) with bilateral deals (e.g. UK, EU) to commit to the same. 

Countries such as Yemen are part of the COVAX Advance Market Commitment (AMC), which consists of 92 low and middle-income countries (LMICs) who will be able to receive donor support from other “self-financing” countries within the COVAX Facility, whose contributions will fund vaccine doses for these 92 LMICs. Allocation of doses should be in line with the WHO Fair Allocation Framework and aims to reach priority populations within all countries included.  However, this remains to be seen, largely because many HICs have made bilateral deals with companies for their COVID-19 vaccines outside of COVAX, leaving limited available global supplies for COVAX and therefore LMICs. 

 

 

The global health system seems to lack an international standard of response to global health crises, prompting a politicised and state-interest approach.  Every state regulates for itself, prioritising its own needs, leaving those in greatest need at the back of the queue.  However, IHL advocates a humanitarian principle of impartiality where help should go first to where it’s needed the most.  How is MSF able to reconcile IHL with political reality? 

(RS): In the area of access to medical treatments, diagnostics, and vaccines: MSF have been advocating for equitable access to COVID-19 medical tools, prioritising health-care workers globally and those at highest risk/of most need.  This has not materialised in many ways: HICs have pre-booked the vast majority of future COVID-19 vaccines, as well as issuing export bans on potential treatments (e.g. UK export ban on dexamethasone).  85% of the available global supplies of the Pfizer vaccine until the end of 2021 have already been sold to HICs, meaning there will be months if not years of delay before LMICs could have access (the Pfizer vaccine may not be the most appropriate for LMICs due to the cold chain requirements, but it demonstrates this issue). 80% of the Moderna vaccine have also been sold to HICs. 

As such, we are focusing on advocating for efforts which aim to maximise available supplies (e.g. IP waiver described above), as well as manufacture by developing countries so that in the medium to long term, they can supply to their own populations and regions.  This requires the lifting of IP barriers, but also technology transfers from companies producing these products to transfer this technology, knowledge and know-how to manufacturers who are able to produce. 

 

 

OTHER

Measles intervention in Boso Manzi

Measles intervention in Boso Manzi – Image Courtesy of MSF/Caroline Thirion

How would you assess peoples’ ability to access healthcare in conflict areas at the moment? 

(EH): Conflict can undoubtedly hamper people’s access to healthcare. Some of the key barriers for individuals to access healthcare in conflict areas include whether the person knows and feels comfortable to come to a health centre, as well as very practical considerations including overcoming distance in order to reach care, and whether the routes available are safe. In some such settings, people can face limited options in terms of the type of care present (primary, secondary, maternity).

In conflict zones, as elsewhere, our teams consider the risk of acute health needs, for example trauma or epidemics (measles, diphtheria, cholera). These are made more challenging in situations of conflict where recent displacement or congested camp settings may also result in increased need for healthcare.

 

 

In MSF experience, what are some of the complementarities between public health and other frameworks such as international humanitarian law which contain fundamental legal protections including on the delivery of healthcare services?

(EH):  Elements of these frameworks very much influence MSF’s work around the world. While MSF is founded on the principles of independence, neutrality and impartiality, we are also guided by the principles of medical ethics and see the influence of public health and IHL in our work.  For example, under IHL, MSF expects access to medical care to be protected even in conflict zones, while public health approaches influence how we carry our work in conjunction with the communities we seek to serve.

 

 

What is the negotiating process when MSF enters war or conflict zones? What are the challenges of this process?

(EH): MSF teams try to communicate with all actors present in any given area, including the authorities, actors involved in the conflict, and the community. Our safe access depends upon the acceptance of all these actors.   Of course these discussions can be complicated but the security of the team and the acceptance of the community are vital.

 

 

MSF Mocha surgical hospital

MSF Mocha surgical hospital, Yemen – Image courtesy of Agnes Varraine-Leca/MSF

There is an increasing call to reduce the dependency of developing countries on foreign aid and, focus on strengthening the country’s autonomy to make decisions on their development priorities.  As an organisation working in areas of conflict zones, natural disasters and epidemics, how does MSF feel they could strengthen the healthcare system in these countries during these periods of transition? 

(EH): As a medical humanitarian organisation, MSF is designed to respond fast to emergencies. Our model, including our independent financial model, means that we can act quickly to help the people in greatest need. These are not normally intended as long-term responses, but as critical responses to meet urgent needs. Our medical teams step in where the needs are acute, and close projects or hand over to other actors when this acute phase ends.

The majority of our projects involve working with the existing health systems to provide support, supplies and to build capacity – for example, in Sana’a, Yemen, MSF supported the Ministry of Health to run the city’s principle centre to treat COVID-19.

 

 

When you are working in a country like Yemen, so politically fractured, what are the issues with negotiating access/delivery of supplies etc?  

(EH): In negotiating access and the unhindered delivery of medical care, MSF commitment to its principles of independence, impartiality, and neutrality is crucial. These principles enable us to offer assistance based solely on our assessment of medical need.

Wherever we go, we make sure that people in the communities where we’re working understand that we will provide assistance to anyone who needs it. We run radio campaigns and hold meetings with everyone from government ministers to local armed groups, community elders to women’s groups.

Gaining their acceptance is key to our being able to work in difficult environments such as Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Yemen.

 

 

Drones targetWhat transparency is there from western governments around their counter-terrorism activities in countries like Somalia, Pakistan and Yemen?  In particular, what processes are in place between MSF and the US for example regarding potential drone strike activity that might impact on your work or endanger your field staff?

(EH):  We expect states to uphold their responsibilities under IHL, which protects medical facilities against being targeted.  In areas of high risk we do as much as possible to inform all actors of where we’re working, what we’re doing and why we are there.  

 

 

When working in conflict zones, how do you ensure an equality of treatment for all sides, without intimidation from dominant political/tribal forces? 

(EH): In a conflict situation, we don’t take sides. We go where people’s medical needs are greatest. In the ward of one MSF field hospital, you might find wounded civilians alongside injured soldiers from opposing sides. Hostilities and weapons have to be left at the gate.   Wherever we work, we make sure that local people understand that MSF is politically neutral and will provide assistance to anyone who needs it. 

 

Report Proposes New Legal Powers for the Victims’ Commissioner

Photo by Eric Ward

The role of the Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales – set up in 2004 to promote the interests of the victims of crime – needs to be strengthened if it is to be effective, argues a report co-written by the Essex Law School’s Professor Maurice Sunkin together with Professor Pam Cox and Dr Ruth Lamont.

As it stands, the Victims’ Commissioner, currently Dame Vera Baird, lacks the necessary powers to carry out her statutory obligations to make sure the Victims’ Code (which sets out the standards victims can expect from the criminal justice system) is followed.

The report identifies significant gaps in the current powers of the Victims’ Commissioner compared to others such as the Children’s Commissioner for England and the Equality and Human Rights Commission. Dame Vera Baird says it is her intention to make the Victims’ Code work properly for all victims, but she is currently unable to properly scrutinise victims’ rights and entitlements or to effectively hold criminal justice agencies to account.

The report states that “Currently the commissioner has no legal power to ensure that [victims’] rights are protected and that duties are performed. Since no other body has this power, this leaves an important enforcement gap.” 

“This gap creates ambiguity and uncertainty. If victims’ rights are important, why is it that they cannot be enforced? If agencies have duties, why is it that they cannot be compelled to perform these duties? If rights cannot be enforced, how can victims be confident that their rights really do matter?”

The report proposes new powers which would compel criminal justice agencies to co-operate with the Victims’ Commissioner and take action where needed. The commissioner would also have a “last resort” power to bring legal action on behalf of a group of victims or to test the law “in the public interest” – if the courts found in favour of the commissioner, victims could be entitled to compensation. 

There is growing consensus across the political spectrum that victims’ rights need to be enshrined in law and the Government has pledged to introduce a ‘Victims’ Law’ which will enshrine these rights. The report argues that such rights need to be enforceable and monitored.

International Human Rights Weekly News Roundup

By Dan O. Eboka, Lauren Y. T. Ng and Sarah Mui

US infringing the rights of minority and disabled children 

In the US, the grim effects of COVID-19 and the ever-widening gaps between socioeconomic classes have caused for significant concern, particularly amongst children who are minorities or have disabilities. This manifests itself through a lack of appropriate resources at home that education in the year 2020 demands, such as the required technology, professional guidance, in addition to the basic necessities for survival to name a few. Caregivers across the country have been crying out to school districts and government for help, even filing numerous lawsuits in hopes of getting the attention of those in power. Unfortunately, it has mostly fallen on deaf ears. This is despite the fact that, per federal law, every child is entitled to a free and appropriate education, despite race, socioeconomic class or disability.

None of these desperate cries have seemed to matter. What has become clear is that families who are higher on the socioeconomic ladder in the United States are able to afford personal tutors, stay at home, or otherwise accommodate their children’s needs, while those below them are left to squander. Even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell recently proposed an idea that would almost exclusively benefit those higher up on the ladder. This leaving most families in the country to simply accept that their children will fall far behind academically, socially, and even socioeconomically in the future, perpetuating the same disadvantage that they face today. 

In the US, the pandemic has put a spotlight on the “have and have nots.” Not surprisingly, the “have nots” are overwhelmingly the same demographics which have been historically oppressed. If the US wishes to continue the notion of the so-called “American Dream,” it needs to face the cold hard reality that these families and the future of its country face today.  

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International Human Rights Weekly News Roundup

By  Dechen Piya, Andrea Vremis and Vittoria Lucchese

Commemorating the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery

The International Day for the Abolition of Slavery, 2 December, marks the date of the adoption, by the General Assembly, of the United Nations Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others ( resolution 317(IV) of 2 December 1949).  

The focus of this day is on eradicating contemporary forms of slavery, such as trafficking in persons, sexual exploitation, the worst forms of child labour, forced marriage, and the forced recruitment of children for use in armed conflict. Although modern slavery is not defined in law, it is used as an umbrella term covering practices such as forced labour, debt bondage, forced marriage, and human trafficking. Essentially, it refers to situations of exploitation that a person cannot refuse or leave because of threats, violence, coercion, deception, and/or abuse of power.

The United Nations expressed their concern that slavery is not merely a historical remnant. Despite the considerable efforts of Governments, civil society and the international community, we still live in a world where, according to the  International Labour Organisation (ILO), today, more than 40 million people worldwide are victims of modern slavery.

In a messageSecretary-General António Guterres said that global protests this year against systemic racism brought renewed attention to a “legacy of injustices all over the world whose roots lie in the dark history of colonialism and slavery.” He emphasized that slavery manifests itself today through “descent-based servitude, forced labour, child labour, domestic servitude, forced marriage, debt bondage, trafficking in persons for the purpose of exploitation, including sexual exploitation, and the forced recruitment of children in armed conflict.” The message also highlighted how poor and marginalized groups, in particular racial and ethnic minorities, indigenous peoples and migrants, are disproportionally affected by contemporary forms of slavery. Matters of gender inequality reflect and reinforces patterns of discrimination. Guterres ended his message calling on Member States, civil society and the private sector to strengthen their collective efforts to end these abhorrent practices: “we cannot accept these violations in the 21st century”.

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