• UN chief Guterres should use Moscow visit to ensure Ukraine civilians can flee Mariupol;
  • Turkish rights activist sentenced to life in prison without parole;
  • Deadly clashes in Sudan’s restive West Darfur region;
  • A victory for LGBT rights in South Korea;
  • Human rights groups raise concerns about Twitter takeover;
  • Ken Roth, Human Rights Watch’s Executive Director, is stepping down.
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United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, who will be visiting Moscow today, should press top Russian officials to ensure civilians trapped in Ukraine’s southeastern port city of Mariupol can leave in safety to Ukraine-controlled territory if they choose. Russian forces are now occupying most of the city, except for the Ukrainian forces’ final holdout at the Azovstal steel plant, where, according to Ukrainian authorities, a few thousand Ukrainian soldiers, and 1,000 civilians reportedly remain. People who escaped Mariupol between mid-March and mid-April and who were interviewed by Human Rights Watch described dire conditions in the city. Many had been holding out in basements as their city was turned to rubble following a siege by Russian forces that began around March 2. Most were only able to flee through dangerous escape routes. Others were forced to go to Russia or Russia-controlled territory. The number of civilians still in Mariupol remains unclear. Ukrainian officials say that 120,000 remain but that cannot be verified. The total number of civilians killed in Mariupol also remains unknown. But Ukraine authorities estimate 20,000 may have been killed.  An analysis of satellite imagery of two apparent mass grave sites in neighboring Manhush and Vynohradne shows that both expanded dramatically in recent weeks. Guterres, who will be meeting Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Thursday, should stress that senior Russian officials can be held accountable for unlawful civilian deaths and other serious violations of international humanitarian law. 

Turkish philanthropist Osman Kavala has been found guilty of attempting to overthrow the government by an Istanbul court. Kavala and seven other prominent defendants were accused of having played leading roles in the mass protests in 2013 that began in Istanbul’s Gezi Park. The rights activist was sentenced to life without parole. The sentence, said Emma Sinclair-Webb, Human Rights Watch’s Turkey director, was "the worst possible outcome to this show trial." In December 2019, the European Court of Human Rights had ordered Kavala’s immediate release and the full restoration of his rights. The court found that by using detention for political ends, Turkey had violated Kavala’s rights, including the right to liberty, and had abused the discretion given to governments to impose legitimate limitations on rights, under articles 5 and 18 of the European Convention on Human Rights, respectively. Although the ruling was legally binding, Turkish authorities snubbed the Strasbourg court. In February, the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers had voted to begin infringement proceedings against Turkey. Yesterday’s ruling, said German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbok, was "blatantly in contradiction with the norms of the rule of law and international obligations Turkey has signed up to as a member of the Council of Europe and EU membership candidate." 

Reports of deadly clashes between communities in Sudan’s West-Darfur state during the past days and weeks, which resulted in a high number of casualties, the destruction of health facilities, and the displacement of thousands of people, have been met with condemnation from both the United Nations (UN) as well as the European Union (EU). Both called for an immediate end to the violence, and an investigation that will bring the perpetrators to justice. The clashes are the latest in an uptick of such incidents in the restive region. Violence between armed groups, in some cases implicating state security forces, has been on the rise since the United Nations Security Council terminated the mandate of the joint United Nations-African Union peacekeeping force (UNAMID) in December 2020. UNAMID’s departure not only left vulnerable communities in Darfur unprotected but also led to a gap in monitoring of the abuses. West Darfur in particular has experienced several serious bouts of violence since the beginning of 2021, which has left a trail of devastation, with scores killed and injured, massive displacement, and thousands of homes destroyed. The fighting has come at a critical time for Sudan, which has plunged into chaos since a military coup last year

In a victory for human rights in South Korea, the country’s Supreme Court has overturned the conviction of two men prosecuted under an article of the Military Criminal Act, which prohibits same-sex activity between soldiers with possible punishments of up to two years in prison. Military authorities had accused the two men of engaging in consensual sex in a private residence while off duty. The charges against them were part of a wider crackdown on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) soldiers in 2017. In its judgment overturning the convictions, the Supreme Court said the authorities’ use of article 92-6 to punish consensual sex outside of military settings jeopardizes the autonomy, equality, and dignity of soldiers. The court’s judgment is notable as lawmakers have been slow to address discrimination and stigma against LGBT people in South Korea. Over the past year, lawmakers have also failed to implement antidiscrimination legislation despite reports of anti-LGBT bias in employment, education, and health care, amidst broad public support for an antidiscrimination law. 

Human rights groups have raised concerns about hate speech on Twitter and the power that its takeover by Tesla CEO Elon Musk would give the billionaire after he clinched a deal to buy the social media platform for $44 billion cash on Monday. Musk, who has described himself as a "free speech absolutist", has been critical of Twitter's policies of moderating content on the platform and has said Twitter needs to become a genuine forum for free speech. “We are concerned with any steps that Twitter might take to erode enforcement of the policies and mechanisms designed to protect users”, writes Amnesty International’s technology director Rasha Abdul-Rahim on the very same platform. "Regardless of who owns Twitter, the company has human rights responsibilities to respect the rights of people around the world who rely on the platform”, adds Deborah Brown, researcher and advocate for digital rights at Human Rights Watch. Changes to policies could have devastating impacts, including offline violence. “The last thing we need is a Twitter that wilfully turns a blind eye to violent and abusive speech against users, particularly those most disproportionately impacted, including women, non-binary persons, and others”, says Michael Kleinman, director of technology and human rights at Amnesty International USA. 

After nearly three decades of leading Human Rights Watch transforming it from a small group of regional “watch committees” to a major international human rights organization with global influence, Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth is stepping down. Roth, a Yale-educated lawyer, began his human rights career as a volunteer, working on nights and weekends while serving as an attorney and a federal prosecutor. Under his leadership, the organization grew from a staff of about 60 to 552, investigating and exposing human rights violations in more than 100 countries. In 1997 Human Rights Watch shared a Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts to ban antipersonnel landmines and played a critical role in the coalitions to establish the International Criminal Court and to ban the use of cluster munitions and child soldiers. The organization’s reporting and advocacy also contributed to the conviction of Liberia’s Charles Taylor, Peru’s Alberto Fujimori, and wartime Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic. “Ken Roth turned Human Rights Watch into a juggernaut for justice,” said Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union. “He has inspired a generation of human rights defenders to fight for a better world.” Roth plans to write a book drawing on his personal experiences about the most effective strategies for defending human rights. “I am leaving Human Rights Watch but I am not leaving the human rights cause,” he said. 

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