Dear Foreign Secretary,
Congratulations on your new appointment.
Human Rights Watch is an independent, international human rights organisation that works to document and expose human rights violations in some 90 countries around the world. We also do sustained advocacy with governments, including here in the UK, encouraging policies and approaches that will help to better protect and promote human rights. For the last six years, Human Rights Watch’s UK director has been a member of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s advisory group on human rights.
As you would expect, Human Rights Watch has concerns about a very wide range of global human rights issues. We believe that the UK government can and should play a stronger and more effective role in addressing these concerns and in protecting and promoting human rights more generally. We share our specific concerns, analysis and policy recommendations with the relevant FCO Ministers of State and officials on a regular basis.
With this letter, we would like to urge you to make human rights a central focus of your new position. Below, we have identified seven priority areas of human rights concern. In each of the seven areas, we ask you to ensure that UK policy is fully consistent with UK laws and policies, and the country’s international human rights obligations.
There is an urgent need for accountability in Myanmar, where the military launched a campaign of ethnic cleansing in August 2017 involving mass killing, rape, arson, and the destruction of hundreds of villages forcing 700,000 Rohingya to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh. Human Rights Watch’s research found that Burmese military abuses amounted to crimes against humanity. In addition, Human Rights Watch and others have documented previous rounds of ethnic cleansing and other large-scale rights violations against the Rohingya in 2012 and in 2016. The Rohingya have been effectively denied citizenship by the Citizenship Act of 1982 and were disenfranchised in the 2015 nation-wide elections, and they face severe limitations on their movement and economic opportunities. In order to ensure accountability for the hundreds of thousands of victims of atrocities, we urge the UK government, which takes a leading role in the UN Security Council on Myanmar, to advance a resolution for a vote to refer the situation in Myanmar to the International Criminal Court.
Human Rights Watch has also documented dozens of Burmese soldiers raping Rohingya women and girls as part of the military’s campaign of ethnic cleansing, including horrific gang rapes. For several years now, the UK government and the FCO have said that combatting sexual violence in conflict is a high priority, and, it is extremely commendable that the UK created the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative (PSVI) to give effect to this commitment. Faced with widespread rape against the Rohingya and with survivors’ huge need for care and support, we urge the UK to show the decisive global leadership on this issue that the PSVI has promised, by underlining the need for long-term support for survivors of sexual violence, and through a clear vision for justice and accountability.
Since March 2015, Human Rights Watch has documented serious violations of the laws of war by the Saudi-led coalition during the ongoing war in Yemen -- many of which may amount to war crimes. We have identified 88 specific apparently unlawful strikes by the coalition, including attacks on homes, markets, schools, hospitals, and mosques, which together have killed more than 1,000 civilians. The UN, Amnesty International and Yemeni rights groups have documented dozens of other apparently unlawful attacks.
We believe it is essential that UK policy on arms exports should be consistent with the country’s national and international legal obligations. Despite evidence provided by Human Rights Watch and others of the coalition’s repeated laws-of-war violations, the UK government remains a major supplier of arms and military equipment to Saudi Arabia. Human Rights Watch urges you to suspend such arms transfers until the Saudi-led coalition stops its abuses and conducts credible investigations into alleged unlawful attacks and provides redress to civilian victims.
Since President Xi Jinping assumed China’s presidency in 2013, authorities have cracked down harshly on human rights defenders, lawyers, and activists, significantly increased persecution of ethnic minorities, and adopted highly abusive laws. Many defenders and lawyers have been ill-treated in detention, and some have been charged with “inciting subversion” simply for advocating political reform. The Chinese government has intensified its assault on free expression, moving beyond mere internet censorship via the so-called Great Firewall to build a national surveillance system that is taking DNA from whole populations in ethnic minority regions and building “big data” platforms for police. The government severely restricts religious freedom and is interfering politically in Hong Kong, despite commitments by China to respect the territory’s autonomy.
The UK should be assertive in challenging China when it tramples on human rights. It should reassure independent Chinese civil society of the UK’s support in their quest for human rights at home, in the UK, or in key international forums such as the UN. With respect to the shrinking space for civil society and the negative developments in Hong Kong, the UK should commit to publicly criticizing every encroachment on Hong Kong’s autonomy, and in doing so at least raise the reputational cost to China for its abuses. A more vocal approach from the UK can draw wider attention to victims of government repression, and can often help protect them from abuses by the authorities.
In the last four years in Egypt, under the leadership of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, more than 60,000 people have been imprisoned or prosecuted, peaceful protests are effectively banned, and the country’s largest opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, is outlawed and those alleged to be members hunted down. Egypt’s courts have sentenced hundreds to death - including former president Morsi – and thousands of civilians have been tried before military courts.
The government has severely restricted freedom of expression and emasculated the work of domestic and international civil society groups. At least 28 of the most prominent rights activists are subject travel bans and could be taken to prison at any moment. Human Rights Watch research confirms that Egypt’s security forces are responsible for widespread and systematic torture in police stations and National Security Agency’s offices. In northern Sinai Peninsula, fighting between Egyptian government forces and an affiliate of the Islamic State has dramatically escalated. Egyptian forces are involved in the enforced disappearance of hundreds of civilians, mass arbitrary arrests, torture, deaths in military detention and extrajudicial killings. The army has forcibly evicted tens of thousands of residents, many of whom received no compensation.
The UK government should adopt a strong and principled response to the worsening human rights situation in Egypt, and clearly affirm the fundamental values the UK stands for by speaking out about government abuses.
5. Saudi Arabia
In March, the UK government rolled out the red carpet for the Saudi crown prince and de facto leader, Mohammad bin Salman. Under the crown prince, there has been no let-up in Saudi’s crackdown on dissent and opposition. Since the beginning of 2017, authorities have increased arrests, prosecutions, and convictions of peaceful dissidents and human rights advocates. In July 2017, an appeals court upheld an eight-year sentence against human rights activist Abdulaziz al-Shubaily after he called for peaceful reform. In February, a Saudi court sentenced prominent activists Essam Koshak and Issa al-Nukhaifi tolong prison terms. Meanwhile, the prominent blogger Raif Badawi continues to serve the monstrous 10-year sentence handed to him in 2014.
If there is one area where Mohammad bin Salman has raised expectations, it is women’s rights. But, the highly discriminatory male guardianship system – considered the greatest impediment to women’s advancement in Saudi society today – is still firmly in place, and Mohammad bin Salman appears to have no plans to scrap it. Under this system, every woman must have a male guardian – a father, brother, husband, or even a son – who has the authority to make a range of critical decisions on her behalf. In the lead up to lifting the world’s only ban on women driving on 24 June, Saudi authorities arrested at least 13 prominent women’s rights activists and supporters, and imposed travel bans on numerous others. While some have since been released, at least nine people, including prominent campaigners for the right to drive Loujain al-Hathloul, Eman al-Nafjan, Aziza al-Yousef, and Hatoon al- Fassi, remain behind bars facing serious accusations. For over two months now, they have been detained without charge in an unknown location with limited access to family members and lawyers. If convicted, they could face up to 20 years in prison.
The UK government should press Saudi Arabia to abolish the male guardianship system in its entirety. It should also press for the release of all those held for peacefully demanding their basic rights and the halt of all such prosecutions.
Over the last few years, there has been a dramatic deterioration in Turkey’s human rights record. This was well underway before the July 2016 attempted military coup but became a full crackdown in its aftermath. The Erdogan government has purged thousands of people associated with the Gulen movement, dismissing over 100,000 from public service and arresting over 70,000 often on scant evidence of any wrongdoing. Other opposition groups – Kurds and leftists - have been targeted and prosecuted for terrorism offences, although there is no evidence that these were committed. Turkey’s snap presidential and parliamentary elections on 24 June, were held under a state of emergency, with media freedom decimated and more than 170 reporters, writers, and media workers jailed. The state of emergency may have be lifted in Turkey, but a draft law just passed by Turkey’s parliament will preserve many of the abusive powers granted to the president and executive under the recent state of emergency.
There is an urgent need for the UK to press the Turkish government to scrap the new law and fully restore human rights and the rule of law. The UK should also press for the release from arbitrary detention of human rights defenders, journalists and elected politicians and an end to the politically motivated trials against them. Finally, given the dramatic deterioration in the human rights situation in Turkey in recent years, it is deeply regrettable that the FCO chose not to include Turkey as a Human Rights Priority Country in its 2017 annual report. We strongly urge the UK to include Turkey in its list of Priority Countries to send a clear signal about the UK’s concern about human rights developments in the country.
In the run-up to the March 2018 presidential election, the Russian government increased its crackdown against political opposition and peaceful protesters, and took new steps to stifle independent voices online. The Russian parliament in recent years has adopted numerous draconian laws regulating data storage, unjustifiably restricting users’ access to information, and ensuring that a wealth of data be made available to authorities, often without any judicial oversight. The UK should urge Russia to respect freedom of expression on the internet and the right to privacy, and also publicly raise its concerns on the crackdown on public protests, on human rights defenders and civil society with the Russian authorities. The UK should also consider concrete actions to strengthen its support to civil society organisations and commit to high-level and visible engagement with Russian human rights defenders at every possible opportunity.
In Chechnya, local authorities carried out a large-scale anti-gay purge, with dozens of presumably gay men rounded up and tortured in unofficial detention facilities by local police officials. In January, Chechen authorities arrested Oyub Titiev, the Chechnya director of Memorial, Russia’s leading independent human rights organisation on trumped-up marijuana charges. He is facing up to 10 years in prison and remains in pre-trial detention. The UK should press Russia to ensure the immediate release of Titiev as well as of other human rights defenders in prison on politically motivated charges. The UK should also continue to raise the lack of accountability for and effective investigation into the anti-gay purge in Chechnya, including the lack of effective investigation into the complaint filed by one of the victims
Finally, there is much to say about the extensive human rights violations that have accompanied Russia’s occupation of Crimea. Key among these is the imprisonment of Oleg Sentsov, a Crimean film-maker and an opponent of Russia’s occupation of Crimea, on bogus terrorism charges. On 14 May, Sentsov began a hunger strike demanding the release of dozens of Ukrainian nationals jailed in Russia and Crimea on politically motivated charges. The UK should urge Russia to free him.
Human Rights Watch works on many countries and thematic issues where the UK has an important role to play through its foreign policy, and has a long record of productive engagement with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. We will continue to share our research findings and analysis with the FCO and put forward policy recommendations to better address the violations and abuses we identify.
We would welcome the opportunity to discuss these issues further with you and your team.
Bruno Stagno Ugarte
Deputy Executive Advocacy Director
Human Rights Watch