In the years since Human Rights Watch first sought to protect civilians during war, we have stretched our mandate repeatedly to allow us to defend all kinds of people threatened with abuse. In addition to political prisoners, we now challenge wrongs that befall common prisoners, refugees and the internally displaced, women, children, workers, and gay men and lesbians.
For example, some of the worst harms to which women are prey – such as rape by soldiers or violence in the home – were traditionally considered “personal” or “customary” wrongs, without the official involvement needed to consider them human rights abuses. In the late 1980s, however, some of our staff – responding, in part, to the challenge raised by women’s rights activists – felt compelled to demonstrate how these wrongs violated universal rights.
We showed, for example, that when a husband beats his wife, and no police officer, judge or prosecutor responds, these officials’ indifference to a crime of violence is itself a human rights abuse. When a soldier rapes a civilian with his commanders’ active or tacit approval, that, we showed, is a human rights abuse as well. We developed these principles through a series of pioneering investigations, including a 1991 report on violence against women in Brazil, the first of its kind to identify domestic violence as an international human rights concern; a 1992 report on violence against women in Peru’s armed conflict, which, along with our reporting on rape as a military tactic in Bosnia, Rwanda, Burma, India and Somalia, challenged the international community’s willingness to dismiss rape as inevitable and customary in war. We also conducted several investigations of abuses that women workers encounter, beginning with a 1992 report on the violence and debt bondage endured by Asian domestic workers in Kuwait.
With this work, we brought our strengths to a much larger effort, working with women’s rights defenders, to apply the powerful tools of the human rights movement to the subordinate status of women.

Human Rights Watch continues to challenge discrimination and violence directed at vulnerable groups. In the past year, for example, we monitored the treatment of religious and ethnic minorities across Asia. We documented the extent of state control over religion in China in a major report, examining restrictions not only on Christian activists, but on followers of Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, and popular religion as well. Our field research covered one of the worst outbreaks of communal violence in Indonesia in 1997, a clash in the province of West Kalimantan between the indigenous Dayak people and immigrants from the island of Madura that left more than 500 dead. Using the report, we pressed the government to change its standard approach to handling ethnic conflict. We also advocated on behalf of ethnic minorities in Burma who are subjected to forced labor and other abuses, and testified on their behalf before U.N. agencies and parliamentary bodies in Europe and the U.S. A report on rural unrest in Vietnam examined the repression to which the Catholic minority is subjected in one province. And we began a major project in collaboration with local activists to look at violence in India against scheduled castes, or Dalits, particularly women, in three Indian states.