International Human Rights News: Focus on the impact of Coronavirus on vulnerable groups

by Pauline Canham, Lauren Ng, Bethany Webb-Strong,  Julia Kedziorek, Alana Meier, Amita Dhiman

As the world goes into lockdown to tackle COVID-19, some sectors of society are particularly at risk, not only to contracting the virus but to the very measures being put in place to protect us all.  This week we look at how the most vulnerable are being impacted by this unprecedented crisis.

The Homeless in the UK

Homeless“Stay at home.”

This plea, now an instruction, permeates through the coronavirus crisis and echoes around the United Kingdom.  But where does it leave those who do not have a home, or at least a safe home, to go back to?

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, published a report in 2019 outlining that despite being the world’s fifth largest economy, 14 million people in the UK live in poverty, with the number of rough sleepers and homeless persons having increased throughout the period of austerity.

This group is particularly vulnerable in the face of the Coronavirus pandemic.  They are more likely to suffer from poor nutrition, have unaddressed health complications and no safe place to self-isolate from other people.  With the hoarding of toilet paper, food, sanitary gels and essential medicines, they are unlikely to be able to access these essential items to protect them from the virus.  Furthermore, the closure of stores, and organisations such as gyms and public bathrooms, has led to significant disruption in support systems, and the ability to maintain hygiene standards.

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government has written to local councils advising that housing must be found for all rough sleepers in order to prevent further spread of the virus.  However, the lack of clarity has resulted in many remaining without a home.  Hotels and offices are also being used to house rough sleepers, although figures of how many have been accommodated across the country have yet to emerge.

 

Those in detention

DetentionLife has ground to a global halt as many countries subject their nations to strict lockdown.  Prison settings are particularly vulnerable to the spread of the coronavirus and preventative measures are inadequate in overcrowded prisons without adequate handwashing facilities.  The World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned that prisons are unprepared and must act immediately to avoid ‘huge mortality rates’.

Without increased testing, the virus is likely to spread rapidly amongst inmates.  Those deprived of their liberty are more vulnerable to the psychological impact of severe isolation measures.  Lockdown in prisons in England and Wales bans family visits leaving inmates confined to cells for 23 hours a day.

In the United Kingdom, immigration detainees with underlying health conditions face the prospect of 3 months in solitary confinement. Detention may only be imposed where there is a realistic prospect of removal from the UK, yet many individuals cannot be returned because their countries have been devastated by the pandemic.  Legal action in the UK which argued that the Home Office has failed to protect immigration detainees led to the release of almost 300 people from detention centres earlier in March.

The psychological impact of quarantine upon children is raising concerns in the United States. Judge Dolly M Gee of the US District Court has called for the release of detained migrant children after four children tested positive in a shelter in New York.

Dr Hans Kluge, the WHO’s regional director in Europe, has called for ‘the boldest of actions’ in response: ‘we must not leave anyone behind in this fight’.

 

Indigenous people around the world

IndigenousThe CODIV-19 pandemic has proved the inadequacy of delivering equity to indigenous people, denying them access to health care.  Indigenous people are one of the most vulnerable groups because of their natural immunological vulnerability caused by civilisation diseases and poor access to clean water, suitable housing and healthcare.  Many communities in Australia receive additional soap and sanitisers supplies, but sadly this is a drop in the ocean.  The healthcare system in aboriginal communities is not equipped to cope with the pandemic and suspending non-essential medical treatments only exacerbates the situation.

In Brazil, since one medical worker from the Kokoma tribe tested positive for coronavirus, doctors became increasingly concerned about indigenous communities, because respiratory infections tend to spread quickly through tribes.  Many children suffer from anaemia, malnutrition and have lung conditions because of constant forest fires, which makes them particularly vulnerable.

Older generations also face a greater risk of death from COVID-19.  Therefore, if village elders pass away, their wisdom and social organisation will not be passed onto younger generations which may lead to the disappearance of their culture.

Many indigenous people have decided to isolate themselves either within their communities, or out in nature.  Once again, this vulnerable group cannot expect any sufficient external support because as Marlene Poitras, Assembly of First Nations Regional Chief for Alberta, states; they have never been a priority.

 

Women

female_nurseAs the COVID-19 pandemic continues, both highlighting and deepening pre-existing social and economic inequalities, it is important to acknowledge the disproportionate burdens that are being placed upon women.  As Maria Holsberg, humanitarian and disaster risk advisor at the UN Women Asia and Pacific stated, “Crisis always exacerbates gender inequality.”

Foremost, women are a large majority of those working on the front lines of the COVID response. According to the World Health Organization, 70% of workers in the health and social sector are women.  Women also comprise the majority in sectors being hit the hardest economically including precarious work and jobs within the service sector.  For example, a quarter of women across the EU fill roles that go unpaid if they don’t work.

women_health_workers

Boniol et al. (2019)

Additionally, with school closures impacting 91% of the world’s students, childcare is moving from the paid economy of schools and nurseries to the unpaid one.  Older relatives ‘social-distancing’ also are now in need of additional care and support.  This shines light on the ‘care crisis’ as these types of unpaid care will fall most heavily on women, thus limiting their work and economic opportunities.  Some countries like Australia are compensating for this by making childcare services ‘fee-free’ for families, despite potentially disastrous impacts for care centres.

Policies and public health responses must account for the sex and gendered effects and experiences of the outbreak.  A gender analysis approach is needed to address coronavirus concerns – an approach that includes sex-disaggregated data, recognising the crucial role that woman must play in the decision-making process.

Finally, the toll of the lockdown on women suffering from domestic abuse came to light this week after a survey of organisations that help domestic abuse victims revealed a dramatic increase in cases.  The UN Chief, Antonio Guterres is calling for urgent action to address the surge.

https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/04/1061052

 

Children

ChildrenThe WHO has established that only a very small proportion of children have contracted coronavirus but the crisis is impacting children in a variety of other ways.  In an effort to ‘flatten the curve’, some states have imposed severe restrictions on some vulnerable groups, including children.

In the Philippines, authorities have resorted to barbaric acts such as confining children inside coffins and cages if found in violation of the covid-19 regulations. In some cases, mothers have been arrested for violating the regulations.  Human Rights Watch officials said the locking up of children would increase the transmission of the disease and the government must prioritize the right to health, while respecting the human rights of all their citizens.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the government imposed a blanket ban on children and the elderly from leaving their houses, issuing fines for violations.  An exception was made only for children with disabilities, who are allowed to take a walk with their parents within 50 to 100 metres of the house. Activists said that though restrictions on some rights during the Covid-19 pandemic are justified, they need to be backed with proper evidence and be non-discriminatory in nature.

Due to the closure of schools, UNESCO has recommended that states  ‘adopt a variety of hi-tech, low-tech and no tech solutions to assure the continuity of learning’. Governments must adopt measures for the challenges faced due to this sudden loss of schooling.

 

 

Other stories making the news around the world

International

Africa

Asia

South and South-east Asia

Australasia

Europe

Middle East

North America

Latin America

The dramatic escape of Nissan’s former CEO tests Japanese Criminal Justice System

by Teppei Ono, Secretary-General, Center for Prisoners’ Rights Japan

With the world wondering if the Olympics will go ahead in Tokyo this summer, due to the impact of Coronavirus, Japan has found itself in the spotlight for a very different reason in recent months.  The country’s criminal justice system hit the headlines towards the end of 2019 when the former boss of Nissan, Carlos Ghosn, was indicted for falsifying financial reports and subsequently fled the country to Lebanon.  He immediately went on the offensive, alleging draconian criminal justice procedures, lengthy pre-charge detention periods and repeated interrogations.

Ghosn had been released on bail, on 25 April 2019 after a total detention of 129 days and total bail bond of 1.5 billion yen ($13.6 million).  His escape from Japan was a clear breach of his bail conditions which included a prohibition on overseas travel.  Ghosn held a press conference in Beirut on 8 January 2020, in which he stated that Japan’s legal system violates ‘the most basic principles of humanity’.  In response, Justice Minister Ms. Masako Mori held a press conference at midnight on the same day, commenting, “[H]e has been propagating both within Japan and internationally false information about Japan’s legal system and its practice.  That is absolutely intolerable”.  Much of the Japanese media criticised his escape as a ‘cowardly act’. Some have attacked his defence counsel and the court, which applied for and permitted bail.

Carlos_Ghosn

Carlos Ghosn’s escape tests the Japanese Government’s approach towards criminal justice, which has long avoided any dialogue with the international community.  This article looks back at how the Japanese Government has responded to advice from the international community and how the former Nissan chief’s case proceeded.

The coming years will be significant for Japanese criminal justice, as the United Nations Crime Congress, the largest UN conference in the field of crime prevention and criminal justice, will be held in Kyoto, Japan.  The conference was initially scheduled for April 2020 but has been reportedly postponed at the time of writing, due to the outbreak of Coronavirus.  In recent months, the Japanese criminal justice system has been attracting unprecedented attention from the international community.

 

Being proud of a ‘medieval’ legal system?

Japan’s ‘Hostage Justice’ system, in which suspects can be held for a long period of time (a maximum of 23 days) in harsh conditions, without the presence of defence counsel, has been internationally criticised.  The UN Human Rights Committee (HRC) and the Committee against Torture (CAT) have repeatedly expressed their concerns over the excessive reliance on custodial interrogations.  Their recommendations include that Japan guarantee the right to have a lawyer present during interrogations, and introduce legislative measures setting strict limits on the duration and methods of interrogation.  Nevertheless, investigating authorities have not implemented the recommendations, still relying heavily on interrogations and confessions, despite recent criminal justice reform.

Ministry of Justice Japan

Ministry of Justice Japan

The clinging of the authorities to established practices brings to mind a scene at the CAT panel review of Japan on 21 May 2013 in Geneva.  The video footage of the incident went viral.  The Committee members had raised a number of issues, such as suspects’ access to defence counsel and time limits on detention, which the Japanese delegation continued to brush off.  This then led a committee member to describe Japan’s legal system as ‘medieval’.  In rebuttal, Mr Hideaki Ueda, Japan’s Human Rights Envoy to the UN said, “Certainly Japan is not in the middle age. We are one of the most advanced countries in this field”.  His comment provoked laughter among the committee members, which prompted a furious response from the ambassador in which he shouted “Why are you laughing? Shut up! Shut up!”, surprising both the committee members and the audience. He asserted his pride in a legal system that relies heavily on interrogations and coerced confessions, and in a series of statements published on the Ministry of Justice website after Ghosn’s escape, it appears that little has changed.

 

How did Ghosn’s case play out in Japan?

Carlos Ghosn was arrested for the first time on 19 November 2018. He was then interrogated until his indictment on 11 January 2019.  According to his former defence counsel, with the exception of one day, he was interrogated every day from 19 November to 11 January, with each interrogation lasting anything up to 11 hours.  During this period, he was arrested three times and his detention was repeatedly extended.

After three requests, the court finally granted bail and set the bond at one billion yen with 10 bail conditions.  These bail conditions included, but were not limited to setting surveillance cameras at the entrances to his residence, staying at one of his defence counsel’s offices from 9:00 am till 5:00 pm on weekdays, reporting all phone calls and visitors to the court, and a prohibition of contact with related persons.  The former CEO was then released after 106 days of confinement at Tokyo Detention House on 6 March 2019.

The investigating authority, however, re-arrested him one month later for aggravated breach of trust.  Once again, the investigating authority began harsh interrogations.  From the 5th until the 21st April, the prosecutors interrogated Ghosn, his defence counsel keeping a record of all events on his blog.  His counsel expressed strong opposition to the daily interrogations but was ignored. Following an indictment for breach of trust on 22nd April, the defence counsel filed a petition for bail.

The court granted bail on conditions similar to those of the previous bail but this time with a prohibition of contact with his wife, because the judge considered her to be related to the charge.  The former Nissan CEO was released again after posting another 500 million yen on the 25th of April. The defence team filed an appeal to the bail condition prohibiting the defendant’s contact with his wife, as a violation of article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which guarantees that no one shall be subject to arbitrary interference with family.  The Tokyo District Court and the Supreme Court, however, turned down the appeal without any mention of the ICCPR.

After fleeing Japan, Carlos Ghosn issued the following statement: “I am now in Lebanon and will no longer be held hostage by a rigged Japanese justice system where guilt is presumed, discrimination is rampant and basic human rights are denied in a flagrant disregard of Japan’s legal obligations under international law and treaties it is bound to uphold”.

 

Japanese Government’s response to the escape

In a series of statements made by the Justice Minister in the immediate aftermath of Ghosn’s escape, she said, “Japan’s criminal justice system sets out appropriate procedures and is administered properly to clarify the truth in cases, while guaranteeing basic individual human rights. Each nation’s criminal justice system has its roots in its history and culture, being formulated and developed over a long period of time. Therefore, there is no superiority or inferiority among legal systems of different countries”. Her comments reflect the Government’s stance in dismissing the recommendations of international bodies such as the UNHRC.

Masako Mori press conf

A history of wrongful convictions in Japan tells us that prolonged interrogations have the effect of mentally exhausting suspects and forcing their confessions.  Protracted interrogations, such as those used against Carlos Ghosn, potentially threaten the right to remain silent, which is why UN treaty bodies recommend the Government guarantee a right to have a lawyer present during interrogations and set strict time limits.  Despite the framework laid out in International Law, the Government has remained deaf to advice from the international community.  The Justice Minister was also forced to back-track on comments she made at a press conference that Carlos Ghosn should come to Japan to “prove his innocence”, turning the ‘presumption of innocence’ on its head.  She later clarified the statement by saying she meant to say he should ‘assert’ rather than ‘prove’ his innocence.

The Justice Minister has since promised to deal with his escape and is working closely with the relevant countries, International Organisations and other stakeholders in order to fulfil this promise.  If the Government is sincere in asking for cooperation from the international community, they surely need to be sincere in following up on international recommendations.   Japan’s human rights status will be reviewed at the UNHRC’s reporting procedure in October.  Let’s hope that the Japanese Government have learned from their rather undiplomatic outburst in 2013, to listen carefully to any recommendations and consider them seriously.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Teppei_Ono_photo

Teppei Ono is a staff lawyer at the Japan Legal Support Center.  His main area of practice is prison law, criminal defence, immigration/refugee law and legal aid.  He has served as Secretary General of the Center for Prisoners’ Rights Japan since 2019.

An Independent Investigative Mechanism: Identifying Ways To Combat Impunity In Georgia

By Mariam Uberi

According to a number of civil society and human rights commentators, Georgia requires an effective independent body to deal with the investigation of torture perpetrated by law enforcement officials.

Between 2013 and 2015, the Public Defender’s office made 58 referrals to the General Prosecutor’s office to investigate alleged ill treatment of prisoners either by the police or prison staff. Some reports indicate that the Prosecution office has either dropped some investigations or did not provide any information during the course of the investigation.

In 2016, the number of alleged acts of ill treatment committed by the police was higher than that perpetrated by prison staff. The number of referrals for investigations into ill treatment in prisons dropped by one third. Reportedly, only two of 173 allegations of ill treatment perpetrated by police were brought to the court.

These statistics raise serious questions around whether the investigative powers vested to the State security services, the Ministry of Corrections and the Ministry of Internal Affairs lack adequate guarantees of independence and impartiality to address legal wrongs by its public authorities. Further, the Public Defender’s office and various UN human rights bodies have highlighted trends of either dismissing allegations of ill treatment against state agents or instigating charges that carry lesser sentences.

This post will review the national legislative framework on torture and ill treatment and how it is implemented. It will then provide an overview of pertinent human rights obligations and will review a draft law on independent investigative mechanisms aimed at ending impunity by law enforcement agents.

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Pulling Back the Curtain: Drugs, Human Rights and the Death Penalty

By Dr Rick Lines

The death penalty for drug offences is one of the most significant and politically charged issues within the current global drug policy debate.  This week at the meeting of the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs, Harm Reduction International will release its annual report on the death penalty, monitoring global trends and developments in this important area.  That report shows that 33 countries have the death penalty for drugs offences in domestic law. While the majority of these States do not actually execute people under these laws, the report finds that seven countries – China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam and Indonesia – are actively executing people for drug crimes. Between January 2015 and December 2017, at least 1,320 people were executed for non-violent drug-related offences, a figure that does not include China, where such information is guarded as a State secret.

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Supreme court rulings open door to future ‘war on terror’ litigation in Britain

By Daragh Murray

The UK Supreme Court has handed down three landmark judgements relating to the activities of UK authorities and officials in the fight against terrorism. The court ruled on January 17 that cases could now proceed against UK officials accused of involvement in detention and rendition operations – even if foreign states and their officials were the “prime actors” of alleged human rights violations. This means that cases can now proceed against, among others, the former foreign secretary Jack Straw.

Another key element of the rulings relates to the authority to detain people in armed conflict, and the interplay between the law of armed conflict and international human rights law.

The Supreme Court’s rulings will have a significant impact on future litigation in relation to the activity of UK authorities and officials abroad. As a number of the claims relate to the extraterritorial application of the Human Rights Act and its application to UK armed forces, these cases are particularly sensitive in the current political climate.

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The revised standard minimum rules for the treatment of prisoners: Interview with Taghreed Jaber

By Munira Ali

On the 7th of April 2016, experts on prison reform and management were convened for a two-day meeting by the University of Essex Human Rights Centre and Penal Reform International (PRI) to discuss the recently revised standard minimum rules for the treatment of prisoners (also known as the Mandela rules- a name designed to honour the legacy of the late Nelson Mandela). The aim of the meeting was to come up with practical guidance for implementation, which struck a fine balance between making sure that the revised rules are not unreasonably burdensome on prison administrations and guaranteeing tangible improvement of prisoners’ treatment.

One of the experts, Taghreed Jaber, regional director of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region for PRI, shared her insight into the revisions. Taghreed, who is also an alumni of the University of Essex, contributed to the drafting of the revisions and views the process itself as a success. Continue reading

How much protection do the new UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners offer LGBTI detainees?

By Eka Iakobishvili. Eka has worked as a human rights analyst and adviser for number of INGOS and IGOs, such as PRI, HRI, EHRN and UNODC. She was part of the Essex Expert Group meetings that worked on the SMRs in 2012-3, and was part of the NGO discussion at the 13th Crime Congress in Qatar, in April 2015. You can follow her on twitter: @Eka_ia

On 18-22 May, the UN Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice will adopt new and updated UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (SMRs). The SMRs were endorsed at the 13th Crime Congress in Qatar last month and it is expected that the UN General Assembly will adopt the rules by the end of 2015. Continue reading