Corporate report from the UK Government
Human rights priority countries: ministerial statement, January to June 2020
Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCO) | November 20, 2020
In July 2020, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) published the 2019 Human Rights and Democracy Report. The report provided an assessment of the global human rights situation, and set out the UK Government’s thematic, consular, and programme work to advance human rights throughout the world. It focused on 30 countries where we are particularly concerned about human rights issues, and where we consider that the UK can make a real difference.
This statement provides an updated assessment of the 30 priority countries from 1 January to 30 June 2020. In that time, the world has suffered the biggest public health emergency in a generation, with huge implications for global human rights. COVID-19 – and the world’s attempts to control it – has increased gender inequalities and rates of domestic and sexual violence. School closures, and the substantial additional caring responsibilities they bring, will impact the lives of women and girls for years to come.
Some countries have seen the crisis as a cover for repressive action, for silencing human rights defenders, or for stifling the media. Some have disowned their obligations to LGBT citizens. Minority and faith communities have been subjected to hate speech and scapegoating, while being denied access to help and services.
The UK has made it absolutely clear, through our international engagement, that states must respect their human rights obligations in their response to COVID-19 as at any other time. Any restrictions must be strictly necessary, lawful, and temporary. Now, as we plan for life with and beyond the pandemic, our global recovery must be in the interests of everyone. These are hugely challenging times, but our commitment to defending human rights is tireless.
On 6 July 2020, the UK Government established the Global Human Rights (‘Magnitsky’) sanctions regime, as a powerful tool to hold to account those involved in serious human rights violations or abuses. It projects the UK as a force for good, complementing and enhancing our existing human rights activities around the world. We made immediate use of the powers provided by the Global Human Rights sanctions regulations to impose sanctions on 49 individuals and organisations responsible for some of the worst human rights abuses in recent memory. On 29 September, the UK, in coordination with Canada, imposed Global Human Rights sanctions on Alexander Lukashenko, his son, and six other senior Belarusian officials responsible for serious human rights violations. We will continue to consider the imposition of human rights sanctions in support of our priority human rights themes.
In calm or in crisis, human rights and good governance are and will remain at the heart of our new Department: the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. It will bring together the diplomatic and political reach of the former FCO with the development weight and influence of the former DFID.
The 30 Human Rights Priority Countries are: Afghanistan, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Burundi, Central African Republic, China, Colombia, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Libya, Maldives, Myanmar, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, South Sudan, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Syria, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Venezuela, Yemen, and Zimbabwe.
Focusing on particular countries allows us to exert influence over the long term, and thus to achieve maximum impact, encouraging governments to meet their international human rights obligations. However, our human rights work goes beyond these 30 countries. We prioritise issues of concern, but also seek to reflect positive developments where there has been progress.
We are now considering whether any changes are needed to the current list of Human Rights Priority Countries. The 2020 Human Rights and Democracy Report will reflect any such changes.
Areas of improvement
There have been some areas of encouraging improvement during the first half of 2020. The human rights situation in Maldives remained on a positive trajectory, building on the progress made in 2019. In February, Maldives was readmitted into the Commonwealth, reflecting the country’s commitment to Commonwealth values including democracy, human rights, and good governance. In June, President Solih asked the Parliament to ratify two human rights treaties: the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the International Convention for the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearance. At the 43rd session of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), Foreign Minister Shahid reiterated the standing invitation to all UN Special Procedures mandate holders to visit the country, and announced Maldives’ candidature for membership of the UNHRC for the 2023 to 2025 term. Prison sentences were reduced in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and over 100 prisoners were released in an effort to tackle overcrowding and poor detention conditions. The rights of migrant workers and their poor living and working conditions was highlighted as an area of concern; however, the Government of Maldives responded by moving vulnerable migrants out of overcrowded accommodation to ensure physical distancing. These are all welcome, positive developments.
In May, a motion to dismiss members of the Human Rights Commission of Maldives (HRCM) for misconduct, negligence, and failure to fulfil their mandate was tabled for review by a parliamentary committee. Recruitment is underway to reform and re-establish the HRCM. On media freedom, Maldives climbed up the World Press Freedom Index by 19 places, from 98 in 2019 to 79 in 2020. In spite of these improvements, there were calls to ban a local women’s rights NGO, Uthema, over a report it published in April, which religious conservatives accused of being anti-Islamic. We now have a resident High Commissioner in Maldives, and the High Commission office is expected to open fully later this year. This will enhance our ability to work with the Maldivian authorities on numerous issues, including the strengthening and protection of human rights and promoting freedom of expression.
In Bahrain, the response to COVID-19 produced some encouraging examples of progress on the country’s human rights reform agenda. In an effort to reduce the threat of the virus to the prison population, Bahrain used legislation on alternative sentencing to release over 900 prisoners from custody. The human rights oversight bodies in Bahrain also took steps to ensure continued access to medical facilities, and introduced video calls allowing virtual contact between prisoners and their family members. We welcomed Bahrain’s approach to limiting the spread of COVID-19 among migrant workers, including the requirement for employers to provide Personal Protective Equipment and temperature testing in the workplace, and additional accommodation capacity to support physical distancing measures. We continue to encourage the government to assess and monitor employers’ implementation of these steps. Good work continued in the fight against modern slavery as Bahrain remained the only country in the region to achieve Tier 1 status in the US Department of State Trafficking in Persons Report.
Concerns remained, particularly around the continued application of the death penalty in Bahrain. Since January 2020, the Court of Cassation upheld the death penalty for four individuals, with no further avenue for appeal. Challenges around freedom of expression, lack of media diversity, and a culture of self-censorship also persisted, with Bahrain dropping to 169 out of 180 countries in the 2020 World Press Freedom Index. We await the ratification of revisions to the existing press law and any protections it may afford to free speech, particularly across social media platforms. We continue to encourage the Government of Bahrain to protect freedom of expression for all its citizens, in line with its international obligations. The UK will continue to play an active role in monitoring human rights in Bahrain through engagement and technical assistance to support Bahrain-led reform. For instance, I [Lord Ahmad, Minister for Human Rights] recently joined the Bahraini Foreign Minister in participating in a workshop that focused on the development of Bahrain’s National Human Rights Action Plan.
Progress was made towards implementing human rights reforms in Sudan, as part of delivering the change called for during the 2019 pro-democracy revolution. We commend the civilian-led government for its public commitment to freedom, peace, and justice, and steps taken during this reporting period to ensure that human rights are better protected. This included Sudan’s cooperation with the opening in Khartoum of the country office of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR); work continued on establishing the accompanying field offices mandated by the UK-sponsored Human Rights Council Resolution of September 2019.
We also commend the Sudanese government’s actions on wider legal reforms, such as those to help end harmful social practices against women and girls through criminalising Female Genital Mutilation, seeking to eliminate discrimination against women in law, and to provide better protection of child rights. As part of the transition to democracy, we welcome the Sudanese government’s commitments to freedom of expression and the media, including through their engagement with the Global Media Freedom Coalition, launched by the UK and Canada in July 2019. However, some long-standing issues remained. Increased violence and reports of sexual violence in the conflict areas are concerning and need to be addressed. We will work with the Government of Sudan to advance positive change for human rights and accountability across Sudan.
The human rights situation in Uzbekistan was generally encouraging, with a commitment to improvement at the highest level. Uzbekistan refrained from using COVID-19 as an excuse to roll back human rights reform. COVID-19 highlighted the problems faced by the most vulnerable in society, particularly women. It was positive that the authorities started to address such issues. There were significant reductions in forced labour, and the removal of the cotton quota should lead to further reductions in forced labour during 2020. Uzbekistan announced a public consultation on amending the law criminalising homosexuality; it is vital that the consultation process is open and transparent.
Despite these improvements, there were issues of concern in Uzbekistan including increased reports of torture and a lack of investigation into these allegations. Local authorities continued to use their considerable power and influence to protect vested interests and undermine reform efforts. Civil society remained weak, and the registration of NGOs continued to be difficult and costly. We encourage the Uzbek government to engage more with civil society and to develop this sector.
Areas of deterioration
The human rights situation declined significantly in a number of countries during the first half of 2020. The situation in China worsened, with troubling allegations of human rights violations in Xinjiang, where over a million Uyghurs have been detained without trial. On 28 February, a report from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, part-funded by the FCO, indicated that tens of thousands of Uyghurs were working under conditions amounting to forced labour at factories supplying some of the world’s biggest brands.
Credible research was published on 29 June suggesting that the Chinese authorities were implementing a systematic policy of suppressing birth rates among Xinjiang’s Uyghur population. Restrictions to media freedom also persisted. On 25 February, Chinese-Swedish bookseller Gui Minhai was sentenced to ten years for “illegally providing intelligence overseas”. He had previously sold books critical of the Chinese leadership. I [Lord Ahmad, Minister for Human Rights] issued a statement expressing concern. On 19 February, three Wall Street Journal reporters were expelled from China after the newspaper published an article critical of the Chinese leadership. This was the first time since 1998 that China had expelled a journalist.
On 30 June, China imposed national security legislation on Hong Kong that we judge to be a clear and serious breach of the Sino-British Joint Declaration. The legislation undermines Hong Kong’s autonomy and the existing commitment to protect the rights and freedoms of the people of Hong Kong. This includes the potentially wide- ranging ability of the mainland authorities to take jurisdiction over certain cases, the provision for Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, rather than the Chief Justice, to appoint judges to hear national security cases, and the establishment by the Chinese government of a new Office for Safeguarding National Security in Hong Kong, run by and reporting to the mainland authorities. The UK delivered a formal statement on 30 June on behalf of 28 countries at the 44th session of the UN Human Rights Council, highlighting concerns about the human rights situation in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.
In Russia, NGOs, independent media, minorities, and non-traditional groups faced significant pressure, while freedom of assembly, freedom of religion or belief, and freedom of expression were undermined. There were several high-profile prosecutions which were widely believed to be politically motivated, including of journalist Svetlana Prokopyeva and historian Yuri Dmitriev. Groups of independent journalists were arrested while protesting via single-person pickets; we continue to make clear the importance of the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly.
The arrest of Jehovah’s Witnesses and raids on their homes have continued in Russia. We have repeatedly raised our deep concern at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) about these prosecutions and the persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses. LGBT people in Russia continued to face an increasingly hostile environment. The British Embassy in Moscow flew the rainbow flag in June to signal support for and solidarity with the LGBT community.
A nationwide public vote commenced in June which approved a set of changes to the Russian constitution. The amendments included a change that may undermine Russia’s obligation to respect rulings of the European Court of Human Rights. Independent observers reported serious irregularities in the conduct of the vote. Russia continued to violate human rights outside its borders, including in illegally annexed Crimea through restricting the freedom of expression and the freedom of religion or belief. This included arbitrary arrests and detentions, targeting ethnic and religious groups, including Crimean Tatars, and those who openly oppose the illegal annexation. In July, the UK sanctioned 25 Russian nationals involved in the mistreatment and death of Sergei Magnitsky. The UK, in company with the OSCE, Council of Europe, and our international partners, continues to call on Russia to uphold its international human rights obligations.
The human rights situation in Libya deteriorated, as concerning activities on the part of both sides of the conflict continued, fuelled by international intervention, alongside the worsening COVID-19 outbreak. The UN documented at least 358 civilian casualties between 1 April and 30 June, while the World Health Organization ranked Libya highest globally in numbers of attacks on health facilities and staff from January to May.
The deaths of civilian and mine clearance personnel were particularly concerning, having resulted from the mines, booby traps, and improvised explosive devices left by withdrawing forces aligned with the Libya National Army. The UK continues to fund specialist NGOs to map explosive hazards, share expertise, and conduct de-mining.
The discovery of mass graves in Tarhouna was disturbing; the Libyan authorities must secure these sites until a proper investigation can be conducted. Indiscriminate attacks, unlawful killings, sexual and gender-based violence, risks to migrants and refugees, and the silencing of journalists, activists, and human rights defenders remained areas of particular concern, along with restrictions on freedom of association, of the media, and of religion or belief. The climate of impunity persisted in Libya and this must be addressed. That is why the UK co-sponsored the resolution adopted at the Human Rights Council’s 43rd session establishing an international, independent Fact Finding Mission to investigate violations and abuses in Libya. We call on all parties to allow the mission access across the whole country.
In Venezuela, the Maduro regime finally allowed the OHCHR to operate in the country temporarily but respect for human rights continued to deteriorate. The regime aimed to use COVID-19 as cover for human rights abuses and repression of political opposition. A parliamentary election is due in December; however, by June the authorities controlled by the regime, including the security forces and the Supreme Court of Justice, had taken control of three opposition political parties. Immunity was removed from 29 opposition MPs, while five remained detained without trial. The justice system was on hold after the COVID-19 lockdown in March, particularly affecting 63% of the prison population who await trial in appalling conditions, according to FCO funded research. Media and health workers were targeted and imprisoned for reporting on the health crisis, and the regime imposed terror and control over impoverished neighbourhoods through security operations, with 1,324 people having died as a result between January and May 2020. The OHCHR highlighted modern slavery and violence in illegal gold mining, led mainly by criminal armed groups, who collaborated with a significant military presence.
Since 2015, over 5 million have fled the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, and those who returned from neighbouring countries were vilified as traitors and COVID-19 ‘biological terrorists’. Over the first half of 2020, a local NGO, Utopix, found that there were 130 registered femicides. 73.5% of the population, who were already experiencing extreme poverty, faced even greater health risks, job losses, lower remittances, rising food prices, petrol and domestic gas shortages, and defective public services including water and electricity. These issues also impeded effective humanitarian assistance. With UK support, a Humanitarian Response Plan is now in place, but needs more donors.
The human rights situation in Myanmar deteriorated, particularly in Rakhine and Chin states, and civilians increasingly bore the brunt of the conflict. The UN reported that more children were killed or maimed between January and April than in the first half of 2019. There were also widespread reports of arbitrary arrests, torture, deaths in custody, burning of villages, conflict-related sexual violence, and ‘clearance operations’ in conflict areas, perpetrated by both the Myanmar military and ethnic armed groups. Outgoing UN Special Rapporteur, Yanghee Lee, indicated that crimes against humanity may have taken place. In July, the UK targeted two high-ranking Myanmar military generals under the global human rights sanctions regime for their involvement in the systematic and brutal violence against the Rohingya people and other ethnic minorities.
Restrictions on civilians were increased in Myanmar in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. While some restrictions were justified, others disproportionately affected the Rohingya. The UK called on Myanmar to abide by the International Court of Justice’s provisional measures ruling; however, the Rohingya continued to be deprived of basic rights and dignity, with 128,000 still confined to camps and most unable to move freely, even to access medical treatment. In April, 24,896 prisoners, including 26 political prisoners and 800 Rohingya, were pardoned by the President. Despite this, the government and military continued to use repressive laws to restrict freedom of expression, including on the Peacock Generation poetry group. 21 June marked the anniversary of the world’s longest-running internet shutdown in Rakhine and Chin states. The shutdown restricted access to, and sharing of, information on COVID-19, human rights, and conflict for over one million people.
In Somalia, several factors increased already high levels of instability, insecurity, and humanitarian need, including severe flooding, the worst locust outbreak in a generation, and COVID-19. Government institutions and legal systems were being rebuilt and remained generally weak, and discrimination against women and minorities was pervasive, as was gender-based violence. ‘One person one vote’ elections were scheduled to take place for the first time since 1969 between late 2020 and early 2021; however, the electoral model has been challenged by a number of political leaders, and the chances of delay grew. The situation carries risks for Somalia’s stability and long-term democratic progress.
Media freedom was also under pressure in Somalia, despite a commitment by the government to end impunity for attacks on journalists. Journalists in several of Somalia’s federal member states reported continued harassment, arbitrary detention, and intimidation. In Somaliland, two TV stations were closed down by the authorities in the first half of this year, and ten journalists were arrested. COVID-19 has had a significant effect on the economy, disrupting trade, remittances, and government revenue. The secondary impacts disproportionately affected the least well-off, and women and girls. For example, according to a UNICEF survey, one third of humanitarian partners are reporting that girls are at higher risk of sexual and gender-based violence, and sexual exploitation and abuse since the beginning of the pandemic. Girls’ education was disrupted by school closures, and some girls might never be able to return to school because of the anticipated economic shock on households caused by COVID-19, and the preference to support boys to return to school in a context where household income is falling.
Targeted arrests, assaults, and abductions of opposition and civil society members continued in Zimbabwe, as the human rights situation significantly worsened. COVID-19 provided cover for the government to crack down on citizens’ rights, and reports of sexual violence dramatically increased compared with 2019. In the period up to June 2020, over 120,000 arrests were reportedly made for violations of COVID-19 lockdown measures. Of particular concern during this period were the reported abductions of opposition MP Joana Mamombe and Movement for Democratic Change youth leaders Cecelia Chimbiri and Netsai Marova. The three women said that they were abducted and sexually assaulted after taking part in a demonstration against worsening healthcare conditions. The Zimbabwean authorities charged them with breaking lockdown and faking their own abductions. Their trials are continuing.
Some progress was made in Zimbabwe on repealing repressive legislation, including the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act. However, no substantive progress was made on implementing the recommendations of the Motlanthe Commission into the violence in August 2018, when members of the Zimbabwean security services opened fire on protesters, killing six and injuring many more. Similarly, no one has yet been held accountable for the heavy-handed security sector response to the January 2019 fuel protests, which resulted in the deaths of 17 people.
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the UN reported a 91% increase in the number of human rights abuses committed by armed groups in conflict-affected areas, compared with the first half of 2019. We are concerned that previous progress on DRC’s human rights agenda risks being reversed; human rights abuses are nearing the pre-2018 election levels.
In eastern DRC, combatants from all armed groups and militias continued to target and attack civilians indiscriminately, and the prevalence of conflict-related sexual violence and extrajudicial killings remained concerning. The UN Joint Human Rights Office in DRC stated that abuses by the Allied Democratic Forces in North Kivu and by the Cooperative for the Development of Congo in Ituri may amount to crimes against humanity. During the first six months of 2020, there were also a high number of violations committed by state actors who, according to UN reporting, were responsible for 43% of the total number of violations and abuses. Senior members of government attempted to ban political protests under the guise of anti-COVID-19 measures during a period of increased political tension.
There were also reports of arbitrary arrests and detentions of journalists, human rights defenders, and political activists. COVID-19 and its secondary impacts exacerbated DRC’s complex and tense political environment, stretching the government’s capacity to address human rights issues.
The human rights situation in Iran worsened, as the authorities appeared willing to suppress protests through sometimes lethal violence, conduct mass arrests, and halt internet access to limit communication. Arbitrary detention and mistreatment in prison prevailed, while access to justice was severely constrained. There were at least three high-profile honour killings against women and girls, drawing attention to a continuing issue where little recourse exists to prosecute perpetrators.
The response to COVID-19 in Iran led to thousands of prisoners being temporarily released, and some political detainees with sentences of fewer than five years were released early. However, many others were denied furlough, or were brought back to prisons early when the pandemic was still rife. The death penalty was handed down to a journalist, several protesters, and others for non-violent and minor offences, such as drinking alcohol. Over the first half of 2020, there were at least 119 executions, including three cases where the offenders were under 18 at the time of their reported crimes.
Ahead of presidential and legislative elections later this year (the first since the Peace Agreement was signed), the human rights situation in the Central African Republic (CAR) continued to deteriorate. The UN peacekeeping mission (MINUSCA) reported 213 incidents of human rights abuses, including arbitrary detention, rape, torture, and extrajudicial killings, and possible violations of international humanitarian law. Armed groups which are signatories to the Peace Agreement were the most prevalent perpetrators (201 incidents affecting 376 victims). In some conflict-affected areas, sexual violence was used as a weapon of war, and armed groups continued to recruit child soldiers, especially around mining sites.
Legislation adopted by the National Assembly, including the creation of the Commission on Truth, Justice, Reparation and Reconciliation and the establishment of the Special Criminal Court, offered the prospect for long-term justice and reconciliation for victims of human rights abuses. However, much more needs to be done to ensure that justice mechanisms are operational and fit for purpose.
In Pakistan, there were some developments on freedom of religion or belief, including the establishment in May of a National Commission for Minorities, although this was marred by extremists dictating the narrative. There was a rise in anti-Ahmadi sentiment following controversy over whether the Ahmadiyya Muslim community would be represented in the Commission. The overall situation for religious minorities continued to be deeply concerning, with widespread violence and discrimination, including against Ahmadi Muslims, Shia Muslims, Christians, Hindus, and Sikhs. Reports of forced marriage and forced conversion of women and girls from minority communities continued.
A juvenile offender in Pakistan had his death sentence reduced to life imprisonment in a positive precedent for juvenile offenders not receiving the death penalty. The Ministry of Human Rights launched a helpline to support women and children affected by domestic violence and child labour during COVID-19 lockdowns. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Government of Pakistan eased some restrictions on NGOs, though difficulties persisted. There was increased pressure on civic space and freedom of expression, including self- and overt censorship, threats to journalists’ safety, and blasphemy allegations against academics. Two journalists were killed in Sindh, and two journalists were allegedly detained and tortured by security forces for reporting on COVID-19 quarantine facilities in Balochistan. Torture and enforced disappearances remained a concern.
The human rights environment in Sri Lanka worsened, with the continuation of surveillance and intimidation of activists and human rights defenders, the detention without charge of a high profile human rights lawyer, and a presidential pardon of the only member of the armed forces convicted of a wartime atrocity. In March, the Government of Sri Lanka withdrew its support for UN Human Rights Council resolutions 30/1, 34/1, and 40/1 on post-conflict transitional justice, accountability, and reconciliation. The government announced their commitment to a domestic mechanism for reconciliation and accountability, although this is not yet established.
The Sri Lankan military were given oversight of further civilian functions, and military appointments to government roles included individuals accused of war crimes. Parliamentary elections were delayed twice because of COVID-19, without the reconvening of Parliament, which resulted in a lack of parliamentary oversight from March onwards. Concerns were raised about the formation of presidential ‘task forces’, operating beyond parliamentary scrutiny. On freedom of religion or belief, there was an increase in anti-Muslim sentiment fuelled by disinformation around COVID-19. The decision to mandate cremations for all those affected by COVID-19 prevented Sri Lankan Muslims and other religious communities from practising their rites.
Countries of continued concern
The UK remains concerned about the human rights situation in a number of other countries where the situation has not changed significantly during the reporting period. There was no noticeable improvement in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), as the human rights situation remained dire. The regime continued to attempt to control many aspects of its citizens’ lives, including their movement, place of work, views, and beliefs. As a result of the state’s response to contain COVID-19, many citizens have had their limited freedom of movement even further reduced.
Although there were very modest signs of progress in some areas of women’s rights in recent years, particularly their right to education, a report released in July by the OHCHR gave a grave account of allegations of human rights violations committed against women who are detained upon being forcibly returned to the country from abroad by the DPRK’s security forces. In July, the UK, as part of its Global Human Rights sanctions regime, designated two North Korean entities for their involvement in and running of the DPRK’s notorious prison system. The DPRK government refused to acknowledge and address the many reports of serious and wide-ranging human rights violations in the country.
Grave violations of human rights continued with impunity in Syria. The worst instances were associated with a military offensive by the Syrian regime and Russian forces in Idlib, north-west Syria, from November 2019 until a ceasefire was reached in March 2020. According to the UN Commission of Inquiry (COI), the regime and Russian forces committed war crimes by launching indiscriminate and deliberate attacks on protected objects, including the destruction of hospitals and schools. The COI added that the “widespread and indiscriminate bombardment” by regime and Russian forces “foreseeably led to mass displacement” of nearly a million people, and may amount to a crime against humanity.
In areas under its control, the Syrian regime targeted opponents with enforced disappearances and arbitrary detention. A UK-drafted resolution adopted by the UN Human Rights Council condemned this as well as continued sexual and gender-based violence (especially in regime sites of detention), torture, and ill treatment. Summary execution, use of the death penalty, and severe restrictions on civil and political rights – including media freedom – also continued. The Assad regime was the primary perpetrator, but the COI also reported abuses by armed groups, including proscribed terrorist organisations such as Daesh and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. Terrorist attacks killing civilians continued in several parts of the country.
The human rights situation in Yemen remained deeply concerning; COVID-19 exacerbated an already dire humanitarian situation, with serious risk of outbreak among prison populations including political prisoners. Groups across the country were accused of arbitrary detentions and the mistreatment of detainees, including by torture. Journalists were mistreated and attacked across Yemen. In April 2020, four journalists held by the Houthis in Sana’a were sentenced to death, and other journalists have been detained.
Yemen is also one of the worst places in the world to be a woman and remains at the bottom of the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index. Women and girls continued to bear a disproportionate share of the hardship caused by the conflict. The UN Panel of Experts, in their 2020 annual report, found that sexual violence may have been used to repress women in Houthi territory. The persecution of the Baha’is and other religious minorities in Yemen, including Jews and Christians, continued, and the recruitment of child soldiers remained a particular concern. A political solution to the conflict offers the best chance of improving the worrying human rights situation.
During the first six months of 2020, there was continued violence against peaceful protesters in Iraq, with over 550 killed and 24,000 injured since the protests began in October 2019. Encouragingly, the new Prime Minister, Mustafa Al Khadimi, promised a thorough investigation into the use of violence against protesters, but there has yet to be meaningful action to hold the perpetrators to account. There was an increase in abductions of activists and killings of individuals speaking out against militia groups, which are implicated in a wide range of human rights abuses, and journalists continued to face threats and intimidation. Daesh still pose a threat as an active insurgency, including by committing indiscriminate terrorist attacks.
Overall, the implementation of human rights protections and accountability in Iraq remained weak. The continued use of the death penalty, and forced returns of internally displaced persons, remained concerns. Human rights monitors have continued to receive numerous reports of systematic abuse and torture during arrest and pre-trial detention. No significant progress was made towards improving the position of women and minorities; progress on implementing the second National Action Plan on Women Peace and Security has been severely delayed, and ‘honour’ killings against women, girls, and LGBT people continued, often unreported. Political instability and COVID-19 meant that draft bills on combating domestic violence, and supporting women survivors of Daesh atrocities, did not progress through Parliament.
The insurgency in Afghanistan continued to hinder progress on human rights with the UN reporting that 3,458 civilians were killed or injured in the first half of 2020. This level of casualties remained deeply concerning, although according to the UN this was 13% fewer than for the same period in 2019. Healthcare centres and religious minorities were deliberately targeted. In May, an attack on a maternity hospital killed 24, including new-born babies and medical staff. In March, 25 civilians were killed in an attack on a Sikh Gurdwara. The Afghan government signed the Global Pledge on Media Freedom in January as part of its commitment to improve media freedom; however, Afghanistan remained one of the most dangerous countries in which to be a journalist, with two television station employees killed in a targeted attack in May. Violence against women remained prevalent, and was exacerbated by COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns.
In February, the US and the Taliban signed an agreement that paved the way for progress on peace in Afghanistan. A comprehensive negotiated peace agreement remains the best way to protect and promote human rights for all Afghans. The UK supports participation of members of minorities and women in those talks. In March, the UK and Afghanistan co-hosted an event at the UN which provided a platform for Afghan women to highlight their role in their country’s future.
The human rights situation in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPTs) remained of concern. The Coalition Agreement of the new Government of Israel (GoI) announced the possibility of bringing forward annexation of parts of the West Bank from 1 July. The UK remains strongly opposed to annexation, which would be contrary to international law. Israeli settlement activity continued and included announced advancements in E1 and Givat HaMatos. Despite COVID-19, settler violence and Israeli demolitions of Palestinian property in East Jerusalem and Area C continued at a similar pace to 2019. Concerns remained over the use of excessive force by Israeli Security Forces, and the fatal shooting of disabled Palestinian Iyad Hallaq by Israeli Border Police in Jerusalem drew wide condemnation. Overall, 21 Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces, including 19 by live ammunition. One Israeli soldier was killed by Palestinians. The number of Palestinian minors held in Israeli military detention fell, with 151 held at the end of June.
In March, the Palestinian Authority (PA) declared a state of emergency to tackle COVID-19, temporarily abrogating certain rights. PA security forces were accused of the excessive use of force on occasions when attempting to enforce lockdown restrictions. The suspension of cooperation between the PA and the GoI also affected movement and access between the OPTs and Israel. The situation in Gaza was relatively calm, although 155 rockets and mortars were fired into Israel. Access to Gaza, already limited, was heavily curtailed from mid-March because of COVID-19. Hamas, the de facto authority, continued to issue death sentences. In June, Hamas arrested dozens of Fatah-affiliated activists for political activity.
Despite the promise of change arising from the peace deal with Ethiopia in 2018, there was no tangible improvement in the human rights situation in Eritrea with arbitrary detentions, indefinite national service, and restrictions on freedom of expression continuing. Eritrea continued to take part in the UN Human Rights Council and has said that it will implement its Universal Periodic Review recommendations. In June, the UK supported the extension of the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on Eritrea, and this year Eritrea has made some progress on the Sustainable Development Goals and the dialogue with the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women.
In Saudi Arabia, the human rights situation continued to be of concern with political space and freedom of expression continuing to be restricted. Many of the political detainees arrested since 2017 remained in detention, without clarity on their trial proceedings. There were continued reports of torture, and of detainees being denied medical assistance and lacking contact with their families. In response to COVID-19, Saudi Arabia temporarily released a small number of prisoners with debt-related convictions. No political detainees were released. We continued to press for the unconditional release of the women’s rights defenders arrested in 2018, and have called for due process and transparency in any trial proceedings. Since October 2018, diplomats have sought but not been granted access to any trials, except for Jamal Khashoggi’s murder trial.
However, progress was made as Saudi Arabia’s economic and social reform programme, Vison 2030, continued to offer increased opportunities, especially for women. The Saudi economy made the most progress globally toward gender equality, according to the World Bank’s ‘Women, Business and the Law 2020’ report. In April, the Saudi authorities announced that they would no longer impose the death penalty as a discretionary punishment on individuals who had committed crimes as a minor. The authorities also announced that they would stop the use of flogging as a form of corporal punishment. However, these changes do not apply to Hudud and Qisas crimes. The use of the death penalty decreased in the first half of 2020, though we will continue to raise our concern over its use. UK sanctions for those involved in the killing of Jamal Khashoggi were announced in July 2020.
While the human rights situation remained challenging in Burundi, the new government represents opportunity for progress. The presidential elections in May passed broadly peacefully and the principal opposition party used legal mechanisms to challenge the result. However, the election period was marred by violence against opposition party members, and irregularities were reported on Election Day.
Impunity for those who violated human rights, most notably the Imbonerakure, the ruling party’s youth league, remained of concern, as did the lack of space for media freedom and freedom of expression. Four journalists working for Iwacu newspaper remained imprisoned on politically motivated charges. We were also concerned by the absence of opposition party appointments within the new cabinet, in contravention of the spirit of the Arusha Accords, and by the appointment as Interior Minister of Gervais Ndirakobuca, sanctioned by the UK in 2015 for his role in human rights violations against protesters.
In South Sudan, the formation of the Revitalised Transitional Government of National Unity in February was a significant step in the implementation of the 2018 Peace Agreement. However, conflict increased and there was no overall improvement in the dire human rights situation. The UN reported a 141% increase in incidents of fighting compared with the same period in 2019. This violence led to hundreds of civilian deaths, the displacement of over 157,000 people in Jonglei state alone, and the killing of eight humanitarian workers between January and June.
UN reporting also showed the continued prevalence of sexual and gender-based violence, including conflict-related sexual violence, and an increase in forced child marriage. Other continuing concerns included restrictions on freedom of expression, including restrictions on journalists and civil society representatives. The release of some political prisoners in January was welcome; however, thousands remained in detention without access to due process. In addition, no progress had been made to establish transitional justice mechanisms, to which all sides in the 2018 Peace Agreement had committed, perpetuating a culture of impunity. In June, the UK welcomed cooperation by South Sudan on the renewal of the mandate for the UN Human Rights Commission. This is an important mechanism to support justice and accountability, and the UK will continue to work with the government to address human rights concerns and the implementation of the 2018 Peace Agreement.
The first six months of 2020 saw further constraints on freedom of expression in Egypt with a number of Egyptian medical workers, journalists, and activists arrested on terrorism charges after criticising the government’s COVID-19 response. In March, the last British journalist working for a UK publication was expelled; Egypt now ranks 166 out of 180 in the World Press Freedom Index. Since April, a number of young women have been arrested for social media videos deemed to contravene Egyptian family values. Prison conditions and the extended use of pre-trial detention continued to give cause for concern. US citizen Mostafa Kassem died in detention in January; in May, Egyptian filmmaker Shady Habash died after being held in pre-trial detention longer than the two-year maximum allowed under Egyptian law.
Reports of COVID-19 cases and a lack of medical care in Egyptian prisons could not be verified because of a ban on prison visits from March onwards. Civil society organisations continued to face restrictions. The Executive Regulations to the 2019 NGO Law have still not been issued, and several NGO workers remained subject to travel bans and asset freezes as part of the Foreign Funding Case. There was mixed progress on women’s rights, with expansions of social protection and support for female victims of violence, but inconsistent action against perpetrators of female genital mutilation.
In Bangladesh, the overall human rights situation continued to be of concern. In particular, the Dhaka City Corporation elections in February were marred by widespread allegations of voter intimidation and an attack on an opposition candidate. The government criticised the UK and other diplomatic missions in Bangladesh for observing the elections. According to a local human rights groups, there were at least 158 extra judicial killings in the first six months of 2020. Media freedom continued to be eroded, with at least 38 journalists and more than 400 other people, including health professionals and people critical of the government’s handling of COVID-19, detained under the Digital Security Act. In March, opposition leader Khaleda Zia was released from jail following a government decision to stay her conviction for six months.
Commendably, Bangladesh continued to host around 860,000 Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar district. In April and May, the Bangladesh authorities rescued several boatloads of refugees who had been drifting at sea in the Bay of Bengal. Some of the refugees were taken to Bhasan Char, an island in the Bay of Bengal developed by the government to relocate refugees from the camps. The UK and other partners continued to call for independent and comprehensive technical and protection assessments to evaluate the safety and sustainability of the Bhasan Char facilities. In the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, restrictions on internet access remained in place, hindering humanitarian operations and public health messaging around COVID-19.
The human rights situation in some regions of Colombia remained very challenging, particularly for human rights defenders. There were reports from NGOs and others that the situation worsened during the COVID-19 lockdown, with illegal armed groups seizing the opportunity to try to impose greater control on local areas. According to the UN, at least 45 human rights defenders were killed in the first half of 2020, compared with 43 confirmed cases in 2019.
In some areas of Colombia, competition over illicit economies by armed groups resulted in a return to levels of violence and displacement not seen since before the 2016 peace agreement. Much of the instability stems from deep-seated challenges relating to Colombia’s decades-long conflict, and a lack of state presence in some areas. This violence persisted, despite overall improvements in the security situation. Although a priority for the Colombian government, the measures taken to protect human rights defenders and other particularly vulnerable people have had little effect in areas where armed groups are most active.
In Turkmenistan, the government claimed that there were no reported cases of COVID-19; however, a lack of access to official information, restrictions on freedom of expression, and the absence of a free media meant that such claims were left largely unchallenged within the country, and were impossible to verify. The criminalisation of sexual intercourse between men continued, with a penalty of up to two years’ imprisonment, and there were reports from NGOs that this law had been applied in 2020. Similar sentences continued to be handed down to conscientious objectors, with Turkmenistan failing to act on calls by the UN to review its legislation and ensure the right to conscientious objection under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The Turkmen government appeared to give no consideration to providing exemptions from military service or offering alternative service of a civilian nature. Concerns remained over women’s rights, including regarding gender-based violence and police discrimination against women drivers. Long-standing concern remained over incommunicado detention of victims of enforced disappearances, and we encourage the Turkmen government to cooperate with relevant UN bodies regarding this issue.