No-one could have predicted the disruptive start to 2020 brought by the COVID-19 pandemic. As our world experiences its most profound societal changes for a generation, and life is put on hold for many, fighting for human rights must continue if we are to ensure a stable, just and secure future. Here we take a look at the human rights successes, against all odds, won in late 2019 and the first months of 2020…
A group of girls who had been forced to leave school when they became pregnant, Freetown, Sierra Leone, 2016
In late December, West Africa’s regional court ruled against a ban on pregnant girls attending school in Sierra Leone. In 2019 Amnesty International joined a legal case against the ban, which has resulted in thousands of pregnant teenage girls being excluded from school. In December the court ordered the Sierra Leonian government to immediately revoke the policy. It was a landmark moment in the fight against discrimination in education.
Palestinian motorists pass an Israeli fighter jet external fuel tank in Deir al-Balah, in the central Gaza strip, on 1 August 2014
Also in December, the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) announced that a preliminary examination had concluded that war crimes have been committed in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT), opening the way for an investigation. The decision is a historic step towards justice in Israel and the OPT, after decades of war crimes and other crimes under international law. Amnesty has produced a large body of work on the 2014 war in Gaza, including an investigative piece, Black Friday and a research tool called the Gaza Platform. Our work focused on violations by both Israel and Palestinian armed groups, including a report on summary executions by Hamas.
In January the Bangladeshi government announced its intention to offer schooling and training opportunities to Rohingya refugee children. The decision came two and a half years after the Rohingya were forced to flee a campaign of ethnic cleansing in Myanmar. It represented a major win for Amnesty International and other human rights organizations, which have been campaigning for education for the nearly half a million Rohingya children in Bangladesh’s refugee camps.
“This is an important and very positive commitment by the Bangladeshi government, allowing children to access schooling and chase their dreams for the future. They have lost two academic years already and cannot afford to lose any more time outside a classroom,” said Saad Hammadi, Amnesty International’s South Asia Campaigner.
The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR released a long-awaited report listing more than 100 companies with links to the illegal Israeli settlements in the West bank. The report lists several digital tourism companies including Airbnb, TripAdvisor, Expedia and Booking.com, which Amnesty International’s research has found are driving tourism to settlements and contributing to their existence and expansion.
“Settling civilians in occupied territories violates international humanitarian law and amounts to a war crime. Naming the businesses which profit in the context of this illegal situation sends a clear message from the international community that settlements must never be normalized. These companies are profiting from and contributing to systematic violations against Palestinians,” said Saleh Higazi, Amnesty International’s Middle East Deputy Director.
In Argentina, newly inaugurated Argentinian President Alberto Fernandez made good on his commitment to take steps to legalize abortion, and said he would introduce a bill to this end. This follows years of campaigning by women’s rights advocates including Amnesty International.
Mariela Belski, Executive Director of Amnesty International Argentina, said: “Congress must now listen to the demands of tens of thousands of women who have fought to have control over what they do with their bodies. It´s time for Argentina to join the list of countries that legalize abortion and say ADIÓS to clandestine abortion.”
Spain announced a bill to define rape as sex without consent, in line with international human rights norms. The legal change followed some high-profile gang rape cases in which the justice system failed victims. These included the so-called ‘La Manada’ (wolf pack) case which sparked widespread protests and triggered a commitment from the government to reform legislation. The bill includes other measures to prevent and respond to sexual violence and is pending before Parliament. Amnesty has been calling on European countries to define sex as rape without consent, including through the Let’s Talk About Yes campaign.
Only 9 out of 31 European countries in the European Economic Area and Switzerland analysed by Amnesty International define rape as sex without consent. Beyond the legal change, the proposed bill includes other long waited measures to prevent and respond to sexual violence in Spain.
Also in March, Iranian spiritual teacher Mohammad Ali Taheri was reunited with his family in Canada. He had been arrested in May 2011 in Iran and sentenced to death for establishing the spiritual group Erfan-e Halgheh. Following a major outcry and global appeals by Amnesty International, his death sentence and conviction were quashed and he was eventually released in 2019, after which he fled the country. After arriving in Canada he wrote a Facebook post thanking Amnesty members for their tireless campaigning.
In Lebanon, a new consultation offered an opportunity to better protect the rights of migrant workers. The national consultation on reform of the kafala system, which ties the legal residency of the worker to their contract with their employer, was organized by the International Labour Organization in collaboration with Lebanon’s Ministry of Labour. It started a much-needed conversation on measures that are needed to ensure improved working conditions for migrant workers. Amnesty International campaigns for the abolition of the kafala system in countries throughout the Middle East.
In Uganda, the Constitutional Court nullified parts of a law which gave police excessive powers to prohibit public gatherings and protests. It was a glimmer of hope for the country’s embattled political opposition, human rights defenders and activists.
Chinese human rights lawyer Wang Quangzhang was reunited with his family after four and a half years in prison. He was targeted for his work exposing corruption and human rights violations, and Amnesty has campaigned for his release since he was first sentenced.
There was a glimpse of progress in Saudi Arabia when authorities announced plans to stop using the death penalty against people who were under 18 at the time of the crime. The death penalty will be replaced with a maximum punishment of 10 years in prison. However juveniles sentenced under the frequently misused counter-terror law can still be executed. Amnesty International continues to call on Saudi Arabia to totally abolish the death penalty in all circumstances.
Component from a Small Glide Munition at the site of a US air strike on three farmers outside Darusalaam village in Somalia’s Lower Shabelle region, 12 November 2017
The US Africa Command (AFRICOM) published its first ever quarterly report into allegations of civilian casualties from US air strikes in Somalia, including two incidents covered in an Amnesty investigation. Following the release of the report several US Congresspeople took action to hold the Pentagon/AFRICOM accountable. The report comes after we campaigned for over a year for increased transparency from AFRICOM, including in a ground-breaking report, The Hidden US War in Somalia which helped to prompt the US’s first-ever admission of civilian casualties in Somalia.
Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Director for East and Southern Africa, said: “This is a welcome, though long overdue, step towards providing truth and accountability for the victims of US air strikes and their families in Somalia and beyond. It’s shocking that it has taken more than a decade of AFRICOM’s secret air war in Somalia for this to happen.
Solidarity messages for Nazanin Zaghari Ratcliffe, outside the Iranian Embassy, London. Nazanin has been held in Iran since 3 April 2016
Iran temporarily freed British charity worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe from prison in response to the COVID-19 crisis. Nazanin was arrested at Imam Khomeini airport in Tehran in April 2016 as she was about to board a plane back to the UK following a family holiday. After 45 days in solitary confinement without access to a lawyer, Nazanin was subjected to a deeply unfair trial and sentenced to five years in prison for “membership of an illegal group” in connection with her charity work.
Kate Allen, Amnesty International UK’s Director, said:
“There should be no question of Nazanin ever being sent back to Evin Prison. There are numerous reports of COVID-19 in Iranian jails, with detainees pleading for basic things like soap to help combat the disease.”
In Germany a historic trial took place in the case of two former Syrian government security officials charged with crimes against humanity including torture and rape. The trial was the first of its kind, and a big step towards justice for the tens of thousands of people unlawfully detained, tortured and killed in Syrian government prisons and detention centres.
In early May a French court acquitted a farmer who was prosecuted for helping asylum seekers. In 2017 Cédric Herrou was convicted of facilitating the irregular circulation, stay and entry of refugees and migrants at the French-Italian border. Cedric’s case was emblematic of how acts of solidarity have become criminalized across Europe. After his acquittal Amnesty Researcher Rym Khadraoui said:
“This is not only a victory for justice but also for common sense. Cédric Herrou did nothing wrong, just acted in solidarity with people abandoned in dire conditions by European states. The significance of today’s decision will be felt far beyond this courtroom.”
Also in May, an investigation by Amnesty’s Security Lab protected more than a million people in Qatar from having their personal details exposed. Amnesty uncovered serious flaws in the contact tracing app which Qatar has rolled out to track COVID-19, and which authorities have made it mandatory for everyone in the country to download. The flaws would have allowed cyber attackers to access highly sensitive information, putting people at risk of malicious attacks. The Qatari authorities quickly corrected the flaw after we alerted them.
While Qatar made changes which appear to fix the issue, Amnesty has been unable to fully verify whether they have. And even now, Qatar’s app, like many being introduced, remains highly problematic due to its lack of privacy safeguards.
The Japanese beer company Kirin announced an independent review of its business ties to the Myanmar military company MEHL – prompted in large part by Amnesty’s 2018 investigation into their subsidiary Myanmar Brewery’s donations to the Tatmadaw. Amnesty found that a subsidiary of the multinational brewing giant Kirin made payments to Myanmar’s military and authorities at the height of an ethnic cleansing campaign against the Rohingya population in late 2017.
In correspondence with Kirin, Amnesty raised concerns in May 2020 about the brewer’s business ties to a Myanmar military company, MEHL, asking how the brewer ensures that any proceeds from its joint-venture businesses with MEHL are not being used by the Myanmar army.
In a statement, Kirin said it takes its responsibilities in Myanmar seriously, and will take necessary action to ensure its business activities in the region adhere to the highest standards.
In Bahrain, human rights activist Nabeel Rajab was released from prison on a non-custodial sentence in Bahrain.
A court agreed to pass an alternative to the jail term he received, according to one of his lawyers, Mohamed Al Jishi. He will serve a non-custodial sentence for the remaining three years of his initial sentence.
While the terms of the sentence are not yet clear, they could include, as per Law Number (18) of 2017, alternative sanctions such as house arrest, exclusion orders, or restraining orders.
Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty International’s Middle East Research Director, said: “It is a relief that Nabeel Rajab is finally reunited with his family, who bravely continued their relentless public campaign for this day to come.
“While this is a moment to celebrate, it is impossible to forget that he has spent almost four years unjustly separated from them, or to forget the many other peaceful activists who remain behind bars in Bahrain.
“Nabeel’s release must now be accompanied by the quashing of his conviction and sentence, the dropping of any outstanding charges brought against him in relation to his expression of peaceful opinion, and an end to the injustice he has been put through.
“Instead of releasing him on a non-custodial sentence, the authorities must quash all sentences brought against him and ensure his access to remedy for the violations he has suffered during this time.”