I imagine many people reading this don’t think about ocean-going ships in an average day. But when we stop to consider it, we all surely recognize their importance in our lives. Freighters, tankers, fishing trawlers, ferries – it’s impossible to imagine our world without them.
And ships, like everything else, have a lifespan. However, when they die, they don’t just sail off into the sunset, of course. They go to scrapyards, oftentimes simply beaches in Bangladesh, which have become dangerous and toxic as a result.
Bangladesh is a top destination for scrapping ships. Just since 2020 alone, some 20,000 Bangladeshi shipbreakers have ripped apart more than 520 ships, far more tonnage than in any other country.
The International Labour Organization has described shipbreaking as one of the world’s most dangerous jobs. In Bangladesh, where the life expectancy for shipbreakers is 20 years lower than the national average, it might be better called simply a hellscape. In a new report, Bangladeshi shipbreakers describe using their socks as gloves to avoid burning their hands as they cut through molten steel, wrapping their shirts around their mouths to avoid inhaling toxic fumes, and carrying chunks of steel barefoot. Companies do not provide workers with proper protective equipment, training, or tools to safely do their jobs.
Workers detail injuries from falling chunks of steel and being trapped inside a ship when it caught fire or pipes exploded. There’s a lack of accessible emergency medical care at these scrapyards.
Shipbreakers are often denied breaks or sick leave, even when they are injured on the job, violating Bangladesh labor laws. In most cases, workers are paid a fraction of what they are legally entitled to under Bangladesh’s minimum wage regulations.
Thirteen percent of the workforce are children – a number that jumps to 20 percent during illegal night shifts.
When workers simply ask for protective equipment, company officials tell them: “If you have a problem, then leave.”
This dismissive attitude permeates the whole industry in and around the Bangladeshi scrapyards, it seems.
The environment is respected no more than the workers. The worksite itself – basically, the beach – is full of hazards, and toxic waste is dumped directly into sand and sea. Pollution is appalling; the coastal ecosystem is devastated.
There are international regulations prohibiting the export of ships to facilities that do not have adequate labor and environmental protections, like the ones in Bangladesh. But there’s an entire, well-established network that lets shipowners get around regulations.
They take advantage of tricks and loopholes, like shell companies and “flags of convenience” that allow, say, EU-based companies to pretend their ship is from somewhere else. That way, it doesn’t have to be sent to an EU-approved scrapyard.
In 2022, more than 30 percent of the world’s end-of-life fleet was owned by European companies, but less than five percent had an EU flag when they were sold for scrap.
The whole thing is a poisonous scam. It’s time to enforce existing regulations seriously and close the loopholes with better regulations.
It’s unconscionable that international companies are dodging their responsibilities and making people and the environment in Bangladesh pay the price.
Loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) are making many people’s lives worse around the world.
In principle, the global financial institution is of course supposed to do the opposite. Working like a bank for national governments, the IMF pools money from 190 countries and acts as a “lender of last resort” to governments that get into serious debt troubles. The intention is to get the country back on its feet financially.
It’s not surprising these loans come with conditions, but what may be surprising to some is just how unreasonable these conditions can be, and how unevenly they impact society. In most cases, they inflict brutal austerity on people, reducing government spending on public services and/or increasing regressive taxes so bluntly that they violate many people’s rights.
Take the case of Pakistan. A 2022 deal between the IMF and Pakistan requires the government, among other things, to end energy and fuel subsidies and increase taxes. The result has been a rise in electricity and fuel prices, inflation, and currency depreciation – all of which hit the poorest hardest. Millions of Pakistanis are thus forced to make impossible choices.
A 47-year-old rickshaw driver in Lahore told Human Rights Watch, “I can either get medicine (insulin) for my diabetes or pay for my daughter to go to school or keep the lights on at my house. I can do only one of the three. The IMF should come and see how I am managing my life.”
The human rights connection is clear. People’s rights to education, healthcare, food, and more are all negatively impacted by the conditions of these IMF loans.
Another way to look at it is this: while it’s well-off politicians who have driven a country into debt, when it comes time to fix the problem, it’s the poorest and most vulnerable who are made to pay the price.
And here’s the kicker: the IMF’s own research indicates these austerityprogramsgenerally don’t work as intended. For the most part, such “fiscal consolidations” – a term linked to austerity measures – “do not reduce debt ratios, on average.” So, they are not even effective at reducing debt, which is their primary objective and the reason so many people are suffering.
To be fair, the IMF has sometimes tried to mitigate the impact of austerity measures. But most of these efforts have been based on outdated stereotypes about poverty, as we noted in Jordan a few months ago.
As my expert colleague Sarah Saadoun says, “The IMF’s experiment of trying to offset the harm caused by austerity programs simply isn’t working.”
The IMF needs to go back to the drawing board. They need a new approach, one that starts with the goal of fulfilling economic and social rights. Let their policies then flow from there.
Regular readers know well my on-again-off-again relationship with optimism. That’s just the nature of human rights work, I’m afraid: abuses are many, justice can seem rare.
Progress, when it comes, is often slow, and it can be imperceptible if you’re caught up in the daily horror show of the blood-for-clicks news media. To see progress, you sometimes need to take a step back and look at the longer-term.
Fourteen years ago, on the morning of September 28, 2009, several hundred members of Guinea’s security forces burst into a stadium in the country’s capital, Conakry. They opened fire on tens of thousands of opposition supporters peacefully gathered there.
The scene was appalling. Bodies were strewn across the field, crushed against half-opened gates, draped over walls, and piled outside locker rooms. Security forces raped and sexually assaulted dozens of women. By late afternoon, at least 150 Guineans lay dead or dying. Following the violence, security forces organized a cover-up, sealing off the stadium and morgues, and burying many bodies in mass graves. Security forces also deployed in neighborhoods where opposition supporters lived, and they carried out additional abuses, including murder, rape, and pillage. They detained scores more opposition supporters and tortured many. These crimes against humanity were not the actions of a group of rogue, undisciplined soldiers. They were premeditated and organized.
One year ago, the trial of this stadium massacre began before a domestic court, with eleven men accused, including a former president and government
ministers. They are charged with a range of ordinary crimes under Guinean domestic law. They have all pleaded not guilty to all charges.
Perhaps most significantly, however, is that, over the past year, more than 50 victims have been heard at the trial. The importance of this cannot be overstated. This trial is the first of its kind involving human rights abuses on this scale in Guinea. It is a rare current example of domestic accountability for atrocities involving high-level suspects.
Yes, it would be easy to say that it’s all happening 14 years too late. But even so, that this trial is happening at all has been a major step forward in the search for justice for the victims and their families. What’s more, its proceedings are being broadcast live. That is quite simply historic – a landmark national moment for the people of Guinea.
One Guinean lawyer told Human Rights Watch: “Unfortunately, we have been a society that accepted crimes. We are beginning to value the voices of victims, with a new type of citizen who refuses these types of crimes and impunity.”
This trial should be an inspiration to others around the world. Yes, justice for human rights abuses may seem rare, but progress is possible when people demand it and push the authorities to act.
People in Nagorno-Karabakh are facing a dire humanitarian crisis and grave uncertainty about their future.
There are fresh reports of large numbers of ethnic Armenians leaving the mountainous region following Azerbaijan’s latest military operation to regain control of the area. Some might be unable to make the journey to Armenia, but even for those who will, what fate awaits them?
Azerbaijan’s latest armed intervention follows months of deprivation in Nagorno-Karabakh, after Azerbaijan cut off the critical Lachin Corridor connecting the region to Armenia in December. Since mid-June, Azerbaijan has blocked all humanitarian goods, which Russian peacekeepers and the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) had been delivering.
The region’s population (tens of thousands of ethnic Armenians) has been facing acute shortages of food, medications, hygiene products, and other essential supplies for months. Azerbaijan’s blockade has even included periodically preventing the Red Cross from transporting medical patients out of the enclave.
Legally speaking, Nagorno-Karabakh is part of Azerbaijan. However, following a war for independence in the early 1990s, fought by ethnic Armenians together with forces from neighboring Armenia, the reality on the ground was that the region was separate from Azerbaijan. This remained the situation until 2020, when Azerbaijan initiated fresh hostilities to retake the area.
The 44-day war in 2020 ended with a shaky truce. The deal provided for Russian peacekeeping troops to have a presence in Nagorno-Karabakh and to control the essential Lachin Corridor until 2025. But all that started to break down ten months ago, at the end of 2022, and now, new hostilities present new grave threats.
The two sides may fight endlessly about who should rightfully control the area, but the immediate dangers are the safety and humanitarian needs of Nagorno-Karabakh’s ethnic Armenian population.
As of Saturday, some humanitarian aid has finally been getting into Karabakh, but we should not forget the colossal needs that have accumulated over months of hardship caused by Azerbaijan’s blocking of the Lachin road.
Azerbaijani authorities are saying that all people’s rights and their security will be protected, but it is hard to take these assurances at face value after months of blockade and decades of conflict. International monitoring is needed to ensure Baku keeps its promises.
Unless Azerbaijani authorities take sustained steps to address humanitarian needs, it would be credible to conclude it is intentionally trying to make ethnic Armenians’ lives so miserable they will have no choice but to flee.
For decades, Europe and the US have generally approached Central Asia in a spirit of geopolitics first, human rights concerns later, if at all. US President Biden’s first-of-its-kind meeting with his five regional counterparts this week seems to have delivered more of the same.
Since Russia’s all-out, atrocity-ridden invasion of Ukraine started in February of last year, the West has been keen to solidify relationships in the region. They’ve been urging Central Asian governments to resist Moscow’s efforts to use trade routes through their countries to evade sanctions.
Leaders of countries that were long under the Russian and Soviet yoke, now hearing Putin’s imperialist talk and seeing his military invade neighboring countries, have their own interests in strengthening their ties with powers elsewhere.
But any partnership striving for real security in the region needs to get beyond the old clichés. Central Asia is more than its “strategic importance” or its “wealth of resources,” always “at the crossroads” of something or other the outside world wants.
Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan are not simply potential geopolitical allies or sources of commodities. They are, first and foremost, their people.
And the people of these five countries have longed faced some serious human rights violations.
In Kazakhstan, protests in January 2022 were met with deadly force, wrongful arrests, and torture. The government has yet to properly investigate and hold those responsible to account.
Kyrgyzstan used to be the best hope in the region, with a vibrant civil society and media. However, authorities have more recently set out to crush both.
All of these things should have been at the forefront – or at least mentioned – at the “5+1 summit” of regional leaders with Biden on Tuesday. As it was the first ever meeting by a US president with the five Central Asian presidents, so it would have been nice to see human rights in the region play a larger role. And it wouldn’t hurt for the five to bring up rights abuses in the US, too.
As it was, however, there wasn’t much to cheer about. The White House’s official readout from the meeting mentions a “new initiative on disability rights,” but details are thin. (We’re looking into that. Stay tuned.)
Not exactly 5+1=0, perhaps, but sadly pretty close.
Central Asian governments are difficult allies, for sure, but friends should be able to talk about tough issues together. And if the US and others are truly interested in security cooperation in the region, they need to think more about its people.
Long-term stability is impossible where the legitimate rights and aspirations of so many citizens are trampled upon.