• Mounting evidence of intentional killings of Ukrainian civilians by Russian soldiers;
  • A new low for human rights in Hong Kong;
  • Incoming Philippine president’s contempt for media does not bode well for democracy;
  • Afghan women evacuees in UK at heightened risk of domestic violence;
  • A rather selective assessment of Rwanda’s human rights record;
  • A partial step towards justice in Congo.
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The bodies of more than 1,000 civilians have been recovered in areas north of Ukraine’s capital Kyiv that were occupied by Russian forces, the United Nations human rights chief Michelle Bachelet told a special session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. The session focused on abuses uncovered by investigators in Bucha, Irpin and other suburbs Kyiv that were seized by Russia’s forces in the early stages of its invasion. Several hundred of those whose bodies were recovered were summarily executed; others were shot by snipers, Bachelet said. “The scale of unlawful killings is shocking”, she told the session. “The figures will continue to increase as new evidence becomes available.” The BBC meanwhile published a video showing Russian soldiers shooting two unarmed civilians in the back, validating Bachelet’s statement that “these killings of civilians often appeared to be intentional, carried out by snipers and soldiers.” The killings, which happened at the height of the fighting around Kyiv, were captured on CCTV cameras, with the face of one of the soldiers involved clearly visible. Indiscriminate attacks harming civilians are serious violations of the laws of war, said Human Rights Watch in a statement addressing the session. Commanders who ordered such attacks or knew or should have known about them and took no action to stop them are responsible for war crimes. HRW has documented numerous grave abuses and violations of international human rights and humanitarian law by Russian military forces in occupied areas of Ukraine, including summary executions, rape, and other threats and abuses against civilians. To ensure accountability for these crimes impartial investigations and prosecutions will be essential. 

Hong Kong police have arrested five prominent pro-democracy advocates, among them a retired 90-year-old Roman Catholic bishop, Cardinal Joseph Zen. Cardinal Zen was one of the few senior members of the Roman Catholic Church to publicly criticize an unpublished 2018 agreement between the Holy See and the Chinese government allowing the Chinese government – not the Vatican – to select bishops in China. All those arrested were trustees of the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, which provided medical, legal, and psychological aid for protesters arrested during the 2019 pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. In 2021, Hong Kong police opened an investigation into the fund for alleged violations of the National Security Law, demanding information on the fund’s donors. The fund was forced to disband in October 2021. Since the Chinese government imposed the National Security Law on June 30, 2020, the Hong Kong authorities have waged an intensifying crackdown on the city, erasing basic civil and political rights long protected in Hong Kong.  

Incoming Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s presidential campaign benefited from a massive disinformation campaign spread through social media, particularly Facebook and TikTok, but he has ignored - and his personnel attacked - journalists who asked probing question of him. The Marcos family has always had a rocky relationship with the independent press. Recently, Marcos supporters have made Rappler, a well-regarded, independent news site, its biggest target for online abuse. The news site has regularly reported on issues surrounding Marcos and his family, particularly the human rights record of Marcos Jr.’s late father, Ferdinand Marcos Sr., who was ousted in 1986 in a popular uprising after 20 years of autocratic rule. As Marcos Jr.  prepares to assume the presidency on June 30, his contempt for the media could pose serious risks for democracy in the Philippines. Real vigilance is needed from donor countries and rights-respecting governments. 

Uncertainty and crowding in temporary housing is causing growing tensions for Afghan evacuees in the United Kingdom, especially women. Eight months after emergency evacuations from Afghanistan, many are still in temporary housing, usually hotel rooms. Due to lack of personal space, feelings of distress, aggression and domestic violence have increased. Already having dealt with a huge amount of trauma before and during their flight from Afghanistan, these women are now dealing with conditions affecting their mental health and keeping them from integrating into the community, says assistant women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, Sahar Fetrat. Traditional gender roles, and lack of money and social support mean many of the women feel trapped. The UK government should quickly move evacuees into permanent housing that meets standards for housing conditions and space, and ensure residents have access to community resources including health facilities, and social services, so as to be able to rebuild their and their families’ lives. 

In assessing Rwanda’s rights record to justify a recently announced agreement to send asylum seekers crossing the English Channel to the Central African country, the UK government not only downplays human rights violations in Rwanda, it cherry-picks facts, or ignores them completely. A government report released this week concludes that, “notwithstanding some restrictions on freedom of speech and/or freedom of association,” there are “not substantial grounds” for believing refugees would be mistreated – a conclusion hard to square with Rwanda’s past treatment of refugees. Between February and May 2018, Rwandan authorities used excessive force and killed 12 Congolese refugees during a protest over cuts in food rations. Between October 2018 and September 2019, at least 35 refugees were sentenced to between 3 months and 15 years in prison for “spreading false information with intent to create a hostile international opinion against the Rwandan state”. While the UK Home Office does acknowledge some concerns over “evidence of discrimination and intolerance towards persons based on their sexual orientation and gender identity or expression,” it maintains these abuses aren’t that serious. The UK government’s selective assessments won’t change the truth, however: in choosing to rip up international obligations to asylum seekers and expel them to a country with a track record for human rights abuse, it continues to embrace a policy of cruelty. 

The High Military Court in Democratic Republic of Congo has upheld the guilty verdicts of two senior Congolese police officers for the 2010 assassination of leading human rights defender Floribert Chebeya and his driver, Fidèle Bazana. Chebeya was the director of one of Congo's most respected human rights organizations, Voix des Sans Voix (Voice of the Voiceless). He was found dead in his car following a request for a meeting with then police chief, Gen. John Numbi. Numbi, however, fled the country in March 2021 after Congolese authorities issued a warrant for his arrest. He has not been investigated. The appeal trial began to piece together what the previous Congolese administration tried to cover up: the story of a double murder. But it is only a partial step towards real justice, writes Human Rights Watch Junior Researcher for the Democratic Republic of Congo, Carine Dikiefu Banona, as those most responsible for the killings have yet to be held to account. 

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