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

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Indigenous land battles in Nicaragua’s UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve

Indigenous tribes and their land are under threat across the South American continent.  Brazil, in particular hit the headlines in recent months as President Bolsonaro announced plans to legalise the commercial exploitation of natural resources in Indigenous territories.  But the countries of Central America too are facing similar struggles with attacks on Indigenous communities and pressure from farmers and loggers.  The following article by Karthik Subramaniam looks at the escalation of attacks on indigenous groups and their lands in Nicaragua.

On 30th January 2020, six indigenous people belonging to the indigenous Mayagna tribe were killed and ten others were kidnapped in a reported attack by armed men.  This incident occurred in the Bosawás Biosphere Reserve in the northern part of Nicaragua.  The attack on this indigenous tribe is not an isolated one.  There have been heightened conflicts in the region between the indigenous tribes and the new settlers over forest land that is the territory of the indigenous tribes.  On 5th January 2020, Mark Rivas, an indigenous leader who had publicly denounced the grabbing of land by the logging industry, was shot to death.

The Bosawás Biosphere Reserve, along with three other neighbouring protected areas, forms the “Heart of the Mesoamerican Biocorridor”.  Declared by the United Nations Education, Science, and Culture Organisation (UNESCO) as a World Biosphere Reserve in 1997, it serves as the home for around 22 different indigenous communities who contribute to its protection.  The tribes that live in these areas depend on the forests for their subsistence.  However, over the last few years, there has been what some indigenous tribes have termed an “invasion” by “colonists,” that has led to the massive deforestation of these forests.  The invasion of these settlers, lured in by the promise of gold, the abundance of timber, and the plentiful maritime assets of the reserve, has led to them grabbing the ancestral lands of the indigenous population.  These settlers include peasants, small- and large-scale farmers, wood smugglers, loggers, and ranchers.

The International Labour Organisation’s “Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention (N. 169)” (ILO 169) adopted in 1989 (which has been ratified by Nicaragua) was followed by up with the near unanimous adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).  Together, they greatly improved the rights of property of indigenous population, while also protecting them from the interference of the state.  For instance, Article 8.2(b) of the UNDRIP mentions that States shall provide indigenous populations with effective mechanisms for the prevention of, and redress for, “Any action that has the aim of dispossessing them of their lands, territories or resources.”

nicaragua-80756_1280

Article 89 of the Constitution of Nicaragua describes that the State recognises the communal forms of land ownership among the ethnic population and provides recognition to the use and enjoyment of the waters and forests on these communal lands.  Article 180 guarantees these communities the benefits of their natural resources, the effectiveness of their forms of communal property and the free election of their authorities and representatives.  Law No. 14 amended the Agrarian Reform Law in 1986, which established in Article 31 that the state would provide the ethnic communities of Nicaragua with necessary lands so as to improve their standard of living.

The presence of these laws in Nicaragua that aim at protecting the property rights of the native population of the country clearly show that there exist intentions of the government to protect the rights of the ethnic population of the country.  However, the mere intention of protecting the rights of these people is not enough.

 

In 2001, in a decision by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in the Case of the Mayagna (Sumo) Awas Tingni Community v. Nicaragua, the government was found to be guilty of violating the right to property of the indigenous Awas Tingni population over their customary land by giving concessions to loggers within the traditional lands of these tribes.   The legally binding nature of the decision bestowed on it by Article 68 of the American Convention of Human Rights (ACHR), of which the Republic of Nicaragua is a party to, implied that the government had to comply with the decision.  Following this, it was only in 2008 that the government of Nicaragua granted the Tingi people title to around 74,000 hectares of forested land. Based on the 2001 decision, Law 445, or the Communal Land Law, was passed in 2003 which formally recognised the rights of the indigenous populations and ethnic communities to their historic territories and set up an institutional framework for the demarcation and titling of territories either as a single community or as a group of communities.

However, out of the 1,604,683 hectares of broadleaf forest the Bosawas Reserve had in 1987, only 1,039,945 were left by 2010.  This implies that more than around 564,000 hectares of pristine forest were lost due to deforestation for the purposes of ranching and agriculture.  The intense internal migration of people from the coastal and the central regions of the country looking for fertile land have been identified to be one of the primary contributors to this deforestation.  While the human conflict is definitely problematic with respect to the rights of the indigenous population, many scientists are also concerned about the detrimental effect this is having on the region’s biodiversity.

For the preservation of the territories of the indigenous population that depend on these forests for sustenance, as well as for the conservation of the delicate ecosystem of the reserve, the government needs to take necessary steps.  It is crucial for the authorities to take immediate action to prevent further violence and protect the land and resources of the indigenous population of Nicaragua.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

KarthikKarthik Subramaniam is an undergraduate student at NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad, India. His main research interests lie in areas of alternate dispute redressal, including mediation and negotiation. He also dabbles in areas of international human rights and sports law.

International Human Rights News: Focus on Coronavirus in Conflict Zones

by Amita Dhiman, Lauren Ng, Julia KedziorekPauline CanhamBethany Webb-Strong, Alana Meier

As we all struggle to adjust to a new way of life that includes loss of freedoms, loss of income, food insecurity, healthcare systems under strain, and daily briefings from leaders using the language of lockdowns and death tolls, unknown during peacetime, there are those for whom this, and much worse, is a never-ending daily reality.   An estimated 2 billion people live in areas of conflict and fragility around the world and the ICRC is calling for an immediate response by humanitarian organisations before the virus takes hold in countries ravaged by war.  The UN Secretary General has called for a ‘global ceasefire’  across the world to support efforts in combating the threat of Covid-19.

Our news update this week focuses on five countries most devastated by conflict and least able to confront a new enemy that even the wealthiest of states are struggling with.

Afghanistan

Afghan_healthcentreFollowing decades of war, Afghanistan is not well-placed to contend with an outbreak of covid-19. Many Afghans who had fled to Iran, during the conflict have returned back to their country, creating a burden on the already fragile health care system.  Out of some 200,000 returnees, only 600 had been tested as of March 27 due to inadequate medical staff and equipment.  Afghanistan’s Public Health Ministry have estimated that 25 million could become infected, adding that 100,000 could die, and on 28th March, Kabul, a city of 6 million, went into lockdown.

The UN Deputy Special Representative for the country is urging warring parties to come together to “prioritize national interests”, following in-fighting causing delays in the measures agreed back in February, on American troop withdrawals and Taliban anti-terrorism guarantees.   Human Rights Watch suggested that “The two sides need to work together with the UN and humanitarian agencies to ensure that aid reaches the whole country, or a dire situation will become catastrophic.”

In a country with a 50 percent poverty rate and a resilience that has become a way of life, ordinary Afghans are helping each other by making masks, delivering food and landlords waiving rents to ease the burden on the most vulnerable.

Gaza

GazaLast week saw the first two cases of coronavirus in Gaza.  Its delay has predominantly been attributed to the pre-existing border restrictions placed on the movement of people in Gaza.  The two individuals diagnosed had recently returned from Pakistan and have since moved to isolation.  Hamas, the militant organisation governing Gaza, has since closed its street markets and wedding halls, and urged citizens to practice social distancing in an attempt to slow the spread of coronavirus.

Yet with an overstretched healthcare system following the Israel-Egyptian blockade and decades of cross-border conflicts between Israel and Palestine, an impending outbreak carries a high level of concern in Gaza.  In one of the most densely populated areas in the world, the virus could easily rapidly spread.  Combined with the overcrowded conditions, the chronic shortage of medicines, regular power cuts, scarce resources, and lack of adequate medical care has the potential to lead to a “nightmare scenario” in the event of an outbreak.

Despite these concerns, repression from Israeli authorities has persisted, with raids on Palestinian communities continuing, pleas to release 5,000 Palestinians (including children) currently held in jail being refused following positive Covid-19 tests, and a persistent siege on the Gaza strip with no end in sight.

 

Libya

Libya_fightingWar-torn Libya is one of the latest victims of the international coronavirus pandemic with its first case confirmed on 24th March. While to date, only 8 people have tested positive for COVID-19, testing is limited and the failing health care system will struggle to cope if the virus spreads.

With the country split between two rival governments, there will be issues in implementing safety measures to protect citizens from the deadly virus. Since the civil war erupted in 2011, there has been an ongoing shortage of doctors and lack of central authority responsible for the national healthcare system. All borders have now been closed and foreign nationals are prohibited from entering the country. Schools and cafes are closed and prayers are suspended until further notice.

Despite a humanitarian pause being announced, the UN was “alarmed that hostilities have continued around Tripoli”.  Despite January’s truce, the fighting has killed over 1,000 and displaced 150,000 since April 2019. To relieve pressure on the already strained prison system, The Government of National Acord, the internationally recognised government, has freed just over 450 detainees from overpopulated correctional facilities.

Detainees and people in shelters are at paramount risk of infection, which Human Rights Watch predicts could lead to a humanitarian disaster for the country if the virus spreads.

 

Syria

Syria_hospitalOn Sunday, Syria reported its first COVID 19 fatality, heightening fears of the devastation the virus could wreak.  Ten years of conflict in Syria has led to the displacement of over half the population, 6 million of whom remain internally displaced in camps which are unprepared to respond to the pandemic.

Given the extent to which COVID 19 has overwhelmed western healthcare systems, the potential catastrophic risk it poses to Syria is almost unfathomable. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has warned that access to healthcare is extremely poor in Syria given bombing of civilian areas and destruction of over 50% of hospitals. The London School of Economics released a research paper on Syria’s healthcare capacity last week stating that the maximum number of cases that can be ‘adequately treated’ is 6,500.

The World Health Organisation has mobilised an urgent response, delivering tests and protective gear.  However, aid agencies have been unable to deliver supplies given closure of the border with Iraq.  Human Rights Watch has reported that Turkish authorities are failing to supply water to north eastern areas of Syria, hindering the ability of agencies to protect against an outbreak of the virus.

Mr Pederson, the UN Special Envoy for Syria, has called for a nationwide ceasefire to allow for a ‘common effort’ against COVID 19. This has sparked hopes that a coordinated fight against the new coronavirus could unite forces and encourage a political settlement to end the conflict.   However, the situation remains dire as the already vulnerable population of war-torn Syria faces the new threat of a COVID 19 crisis.

 

Yemen

Yemen_Hospital_facemask_2How can Yemen, a country described already as experiencing the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, possibly cope with the looming threat of coronavirus?   80 percent of the population is at risk of hunger and disease, 17.8 million are without safe water and sanitation, 19.7 million are without adequate health care and the country has suffered the worst cholera epidemic ever recorded, at 2.3 million infected since 2015.

Last week, Yemen entered a 6th year of war, and with fighting continuing to rage, the UN Secretary General’s call for a ceasefire, to focus on the fight against coronavirus, appears to have fallen on deaf ears.  Despite lulls in the fighting during 2019, recent weeks have seen an alarming re-escalation in the conflict between Houthi rebels and the Saudi led coalition, which includes the US and UK.  A group of UN regional experts have called for warring parties to release political prisoners on both sides, to mitigate the risks of the spread of Covid-19 due to the overcrowded and squalid conditions in detention centres.

Yemen is the only country in the Middle East yet to record a case of coronavirus, due largely to having been placed under siege since the start of the war, with airports closed to commercial airlines and movement in and out of the country severely restricted.  However, the healthcare system in Yemen is already close to total collapse, and with news this week that the US is intending to cut aid funding for the poorest country in the Middle East, officials are warning of disastrous consequences, should an outbreak take hold.

 

Other stories making the news around the world

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Coronavirus: beyond human rights

This blog by Dr. Koldo Casla was originally published in Open Democracy on 19 March 2020.

I live and breathe human rights, but what’s at stake is even more important.

I write this in haste, like everything that is being written about Covid19. Most of us outside China only started to take this threat seriously in the last two weeks. Scientists and politicians don’t know enough about the scale of the problem, let alone the solutions. Spain’s Prime Ministerconfessed that “whoever claims to know what needs to be done in this emergency will learn nothing from it.” In normal circumstances this would be profoundly concerning, yet I find his candour strangely reassuring.

As we brace ourselves against the crisis, valuable contributions have been made to examine its human rights implications. For example, Amnesty International has produced these preliminary observations on States’ international obligations. Independent UN experts have warned that emergency measures should not be used to suppress human rights. And academics have written about how States should respond from the perspective of the right to health and other social rights, and of freedom of movement and other civil rights.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, issued a press release on March 6 to stress that “human rights need to be front and centre in the response” to Coronavirus. I tick all the boxes of the typical supporter of a statement like this. I joined Amnesty International when I was 15; have been involved in human rights activism for two decades; and teach human rights law at the University of Essex. I should agree with Dr Bachelet. However, I’m not sure I do.

Don’t get me wrong. I know that Coronavirus raises human rights issues. Restrictions on individual freedoms need to be set clearly in the law and must be both necessary and proportionate. It’s essential to ensure that measures don’t discriminate against or stigmatise any national group or and minority. While mobile apps may be helpful in containing the spread of the virus, we must remain vigilant about the potential use of artificial intelligence to gather private data.

Children’s right to food is at risk when free school meals are the only healthy things some might eat. Confinement may be necessary, but home is the unsafest place for survivors of domestic violence. Rough sleepers, refugees and asylum seekers, prisoners and people in care can find themselves in particularly vulnerable situations. The list could go on. States’ actions and omissions can turn global health emergencies into human rights crises.

Human rights are important. They always are. But I still don’t see them at the core of this unique moment in history.

Other things take centre stage in my thoughts these days. My family in Madrid and the Basque Country has been confined for more than a week now, and my partner and I have decided to join them from London. This is one of those rare occasions when the word “resilience” doesn’t sound trite. Every day I receive news and messages via social media with countless expressions of wit and solidarity from Italy and Spain, expressions that are both emotional and encouraging about what we could achieve together.

Supportive neighbours, humour, music, bingo and Zumba lessons from the roof of a block of flats – all of it shows the best of people. Family life is recognised as a right in international law, but it is more than that: it is one of society’s central pillars. What do we truly value when we are confined at home? We all know that overdependence on technology is dangerous for a number of reasons, but what a difference video-chats and social media are making this month.

Even politics looks different. When 60% to 80% of the population could be infected by a virus for which we have no cure, political priorities gain a new perspective. And what about the irony of seeing Morocco close its border with the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, and Guatemala doing the same with visitors travelling from the USA?

At the time of writing both my partner and I enjoy the comfortable position of being able to work from home. We are reasonably confident that our jobs are not at risk. We are also young and healthy and can provide for ourselves. We are privileged. The prospects are very different for the vast majority of people. Ten years of austerity have made dealing with the Coronavirus exceptionally difficult for low-and middle-income families in the UK.

Covid19 is testing the strength of our social foundations. For several consecutive evenings, Spaniards are leaning out of their windows and balconies to applaud public healthcare workers. I can only hope that some politicians will remember their words whenever we go back to “normal” – for example French President Emmanuel Macron, who said on 12 March that “There are goods and services that must be out of the laws of the market… This pandemic is showing that free healthcare for all, irrespective of income, background or profession, and our welfare state are not an expense or a cost, but precious goods, indispensable when fate kicks.”

Even the most libertarian of neoliberals are being reminded why the State is so badly needed. This is the first crisis in my living memory where all of us are truly in it together. Privileged people are feeling very vulnerable for the first time. Dealing with the virus effectively needs people staying at home, washing their hands, keeping their physical distance from each other, and covering their cough with their elbow.

But dealing with it effectively and fairly requires, among other things, guaranteeing an income for those who lose their jobs, appropriating privately own facilities like hotels, private transport and private hospitals, suspending evictions, introducing rent and mortgage payment deferment options, and ensuring gas and electricity supplies irrespective of people’s ability to pay.

This crisis begs for a bailout for the most vulnerable, a sort of people’s quantitative easing. This is a human rights principle as well: attention to the most vulnerable individuals must be prioritised in times of financial crises and emergencies. But the issue goes beyond human rights. We are talking about what a country wants to be known for, even what it is. Societies that prioritise fairness will do best out of this crisis.

Putting the economy on hold is unheard of in peacetime, and needs to be accompanied by extraordinary public investment on a scale we’ve never seen. New Zealand has announced a relief package that amounts to 4% of its GDP; the Spanish Government has promised up to 20%. A massive bill will be waiting for us afterwards. The virus is going to test the patriotism of the wealthy, measured not by the size of their flags but by how much they are willing to chip in.

This takes me to a final thought. I have made two choices. The first is to admit that I don’t know what needs to be done regarding public health. The second is to start from the premise that scientists and political leaders, regardless of their colour and ideology, are doing their best to reduce the number of deaths to the minimum.

People who are making these decisions – the most difficult in their lives – may get things wrong. They don’t have all the necessary information. They are unsure about what is likely to work. And in advance I say that I am ready to forgive them if they make mistakes. In terms of the timing of the confinement measures, I’ve decided to trust the leaders of a country that doesn’t even allow me to vote – politicians whose human rights record I have criticised many times before and no doubt many more to come.

I don’t even know if the decisions they are taking are technically the right ones. Scientists who know much more than me are clear that “there are very large uncertainties around the transmission of this virus, the likely effectiveness of different policies and the extent to which the population spontaneously adopts risk reducing behaviours.”

In this context, transparency is “the only real counter to our psychological biases.” As long as leaders are transparent about the evidence, I will meet my civic duty and sacrifice my individual preferences for the general interest of flattening the infection curve. Beyond human rights, this is the time for solidarity, kindness and collective responsibility.

I never thought I would quote three contemporary political leaders in the same piece, but this must be another sign of the exceptional nature of the circumstances: as Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said on March 11, “Let’s keep the distance now so we can embrace each other warmly and run faster tomorrow.”

Poignant memories of Yemen after 5 years of war

by Pauline Canham, Student Editor

I stepped off the Yemenia Airways flight, and onto a bus, transporting me and a dozen or so Yemeni nationals the short distance to the arrivals terminal at Aden International Airport.  It was April 2014 and my brief visit to the country, once dubbed ‘Arabia Felix’ or ‘fortunate Arabia’, came amidst a build-up of political tension.  Just 11 months after my visit, Yemen would tragically descend into what is now described as the world’s worst humanitarian disaster.

The coming week marks the 5th anniversary of the launch of ‘Operation Decisive Storm’, the Saudi Coalition offensive against Houthi rebels on 25th March 2015.  The anniversary was marked with the closure of airports to all traffic, except for humanitarian aid, due to concerns that the coronavirus would exacerbate what is an already catastrophic situation.

YEMEN_AREAS_CONTROL

Yet again at the top of IRC’s Emergency Watchlist for 2020, the fragile hope brought about by a recent de-escalation in the conflict was rocked by a renewed surge in fighting in some provinces.  The UN Special Envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths said last week that Yemen is at a “critical juncture” and urged warring parties to “de-escalate now” to prevent a slide back to greater violence.   His statement came after what he described as “the most alarming military escalation” which included a Saudi air strike in February that killed more than 30 civilians.  He also reiterated calls for access to the Safer Oil Tanker, as fears of an environmental disaster grow.  The ship, anchored in the Red Sea, contains 1.15 million gallons of crude oil, and experts fear it could explode at any time, due to a lack of maintenance.

In a statement to the Security Council on 12th March, the UK Permanent Representative to the UN, Karen Pierce said that the crisis “cannot be allowed to deteriorate any longer”.  The renewed violence has pushed even more people out of their homes and into camps around the country with three quarters of the 4.3 million internally displaced being women and children.

 

UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia unlawful

The civilian death toll in Yemen led to a British High Court ruling in 2019 that declared UK sales of arms to Saudi Arabia unlawful.   Despite this, the Government has continued to grant arms licenses to the Saudi Kingdom, in what were described as “inadvertent breaches” of the ruling.   The UK, US and other European Governments came under pressure to cease arms trading with Saudi Arabia after a number of so called ‘targeted’ attacks resulted in high civilian casualties.  One such attack killed 40 children and injured 56 while they were travelling on a school bus in the Sa’ada district in 2018.

Yemen_bus_bombing

Despite Human Rights Watch describing that incident as a war crime, Saudi Arabia has increased its arms purchases and those involved in the business of selling them have been accused of having blood on their hands.  In what appeared to be an eerie echo of German-American political philosopher, Hannah Arendt’s theory of the ‘banality of evil’, an official working at the UK Export Control Joint Unit, which signs off on shipments of weapons to Saudi Arabia said “I’m doing what I’m told and doing my job, but I’m uncomfortably aware that Adolf Eichmann said the same thing.”

Amnesty International is calling on the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate executives and officials involved in the sales of arms used in alleged war crimes in Yemen.  Working alongside the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), they are requesting an investigation into 26 specific airstrikes which resulted in the unlawful killing or injuring of civilians “and destroyed or damaged schools, hospitals and other protected objects.”

 

Memories of a different Yemen

My flight from Qatar to Yemen’s southern coastal city of Aden in 2014 had felt unexpectedly like a family outing, with me in a role akin to visiting cousin from a distant land.  There was a fair amount of curiosity as to why I might want to visit Yemen during such a ‘delicate’ moment in time.  Though the Saudi-led intervention was still almost a year away, sporadic violence was commonplace and protests by Al Hirak Al Janoubi (Southern Secessionist Movement) were held regularly in Aden.  Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) had been very active in Yemen and there had been kidnappings of Westerners by the group or their affiliates.

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But whatever apprehension I had before my departure was quickly soothed.  I was welcomed warmly from the very moment I stepped on the Yemenia jet in Qatar all the way through to my eventual departure from Aden.  I was embraced by the famously generous Arabic culture of my hosts, Yemeni people considered by many as the friendliest and most welcoming to visitors in the world.

Of course security was tight, there were checkpoints all over the city, we had several power cuts, and on one occasion Aden Mall was evacuated due to an escalating skirmish in the surrounding streets, but what I witnessed was a resilient community continuing with life undeterred.  The beaches were busy with families enjoying the spring sunshine, children swimming, young men riding horses along the sand and women having lunch with friends.  It was a happy atmosphere with no hint of the tragedies yet to come less than a year later.

IMG_3677My hosts took me to Aden’s historic sites, long since abandoned by visitors from around the world who used to flock to the South Arabian coast for winter sun.   The stunning 11th Century Sira Castle, embedded into a rocky peninsula in a prime defensive spot in the Gulf of Aden, and the incredible Cisterns of Tawila, estimated to be 1500 years old.  But my lasting memories were not of rock and stone, but rather of joy, laughter, friendship and a sense of living life in the moment that I realised I had lost.

On the way back to the airport, as I stressed about getting there on time, my friends pulled over at a small roadside tea stand.  Little glass cups of red tea were passed through the window and as I sipped at the sweet hot liquid, my friend turned up the car stereo, stepped out into the middle of the road and began to dance.  These poignant memories have become more precious with every anniversary of the war that passes.

What now for Yemen?

This anniversary brings with it the threat of coronavirus on top of an already perilous humanitarian situation.   But for Yemen’s collapsing health system, coronavirus is simply another issue on a growing list of threats.  Among the immediate concerns, in addition to the escalation in violence, is the impending rainy season, which every year heralds the onset of a rise in cholera cases.  In 2019, Yemen recorded 860,000 cases of the disease and 56,000 cases have already been recorded in 2020.  Oxfam’s Yemen Country Director said “This is a health crisis hiding in plain sight.  It’s shocking that this ongoing crisis is getting so little attention.”   With health workers needed evermore urgently, they too are coming under attack, being targeted by all warring parties in a blatant violation of humanitarian law.

Yemen hospital

The situation on the ground in Yemen is incredibly complex, with various proxy battles playing out between vying Gulf neighbours, most notably Saudi Arabia, UAE and Iran.  The UAE, officially part of the Saudi Coalition, recently tested the relationship with the Kingdom when it backed Al Hirak Al Janoubi to seize Aden from forces loyal to President Hadi, still internationally recognised as Yemen’s leader.   The Yemeni people, as always are caught in the cross-fire between major global powers, hungry to secure their positions in such a strategic location on the Bab al-Mandeb strait at the mouth of the Red Sea.

As we hunker down to protect each other from coronavirus, Yemen slips silently into a 6th year of war, unreported by a world focused on an unseen enemy of a different nature.

About the Author:

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Pauline Canham is the HRC Blog’s student editor.  Pauline is studying a Masters Degree in Human Rights and Cultural Diversity at Essex, after 20 years in the broadcasting sector, working for the BBC and AlJazeera, with a focus on large change projects including the BBC’s move into the new Broadcasting House in 2013, and the re-launch of Al Jazeera’s Arabic Channel in 2016.

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.

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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

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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.