Category Archives: News

11May/21

Important Progress for People with Disabilities in Armenia

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A boy sits on a swing in the courtyard of an orphanage for children with disabilities, Yerevan, Armenia.

© 2016 Alexei Golubev for Human Rights Watch

On May 5, Armenia’s parliament adopted the law on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. This is a long-awaited reform with the potential to change the lives of the roughly 200,000 people with disabilities in Armenia by protecting them from discrimination and creating opportunities for a more inclusive society. It is also a step towards implementing the state’s commitments under the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which Armenia ratified in 2010. 

The recent war with neighboring Azerbaijan left thousands of people with physical and psychosocial disabilities, prompting authorities to recognize the issue’s urgency. The government has initiated programs providing mental health support to war victims and the wider public and created centers of independent living for people who acquired disabilities because of the conflict.

But a more comprehensive, rights-based approach was needed to dismantle barriers and discriminatory policies. Eschewing a narrow, medical definition of disability, the new law defines disability as the result of interaction between environmental and societal barriers and a person’s health condition which hinders their full realization of rights.

The law includes guarantees of accessibility, independent living, access to justice, and reasonable accommodation, all of which allow a person to fully enjoy their rights on an equal basis with others. It bans disability-based discrimination and treats refusal to provide reasonable accommodation as discrimination. The law also allows nongovernmental organizations to file anti-discrimination lawsuits on behalf of persons with disabilities who, due to their health or other circumstances, cannot represent themselves in person before a court.

The law’s adoption became possible due to decades of persistent advocacy by Armenia’s national disability rights organizations and activists. They have reason to celebrate this moment.

The challenge now will be implementing the law. Lawmakers did not include a provision to create a dedicated accessibility oversight body, so it is up to Armenian authorities to ensure the law’s standards become reality. They should incorporate those standards in existing policies and laws and enact further reforms that guarantee the legal capacity of persons with disabilities. In doing so, they should consult with and actively involve people with disabilities. In this way, they can ensure no one with a disability remains marginalized, isolated, and invisible.

10May/21

Nepal: Act to Avert Looming Covid-19 Disaster

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A family member mourns next to the bodies of COVID-19 victims at a crematorium near Pashupatinath temple in Kathmandu, Nepal, May 7, 2021. 
© 2021 AP Photo/Niranjan Shrestha

(New York) – Nepal’s government should urgently act to manage a rapidly escalating Covid-19 emergency in the country, Human Rights Watch said today. Senior public health officials have described in interviews a health system at the breaking point, with the number of recorded infections doubling every three days among a largely unvaccinated population.

The Nepali government, with assistance from foreign donors, should increase the availability of emergency medical supplies including bottled oxygen, ventilators, and therapeutic drugs.

“Nepal’s under-resourced public health system is strained beyond capacity,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director. “Large volumes of oxygen equipment and other medical supplies are urgently needed to avert a Covid-19 catastrophe in the country.”

Health experts fear that the surge in Covid-19 cases in neighboring India has spread to Nepal. “People are dying literally because of lack of oxygen and there are no hospital beds,” a senior government medical official told Human Rights Watch. He said that the army had been brought in to manage dead bodies but “they are also becoming overwhelmed,” and briefly ran out of body bags.

The government’s response to the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic in Nepal has been slow and poorly managed, said officials and medical workers. Some government doctors believe that a lockdown in the capital, Kathmandu, that began on April 29, 2021, was imposed 10 days or two weeks too late. The infrastructure for oxygen supply was “not prepared,” said one. “They were taken by surprise.”

Government officials and health workers said the most urgent need is for oxygen cylinders. Nepal’s oxygen production capacity is also becoming overstretched. Dr. Roshan Pokharel, chief specialist at the Health Ministry, said: “We are in a very dire situation right now. We are running out of oxygen supplies. Our oxygen plants are not working properly. The number of cases is increasing rapidly, and the age group of patients is quite young.”

The government’s Health Sector Emergency Response Plan for the Covid-19 Pandemic outlines that hospitalization with oxygen support should be available for 15 percent of confirmed cases. With 6,700 new confirmed cases on May 5 alone, it is evident the existing infrastructure will not be sufficient.

Government officials said that Nepal also urgently needs to bolster supplies of therapeutic drugs like Remdesivir, consumables such as oxygen tubes and masks, and ventilators and other critical care facilities. Nepal has about 560 ventilators, less than half of what may be needed according to donor agency estimates seen by Human Rights Watch. Not all are in working order and in some parts of the country there is a lack of trained staff able to operate them.  

Officials emphasized that oxygen equipment and other supplies – including vaccines – are needed, not funding. “Money is no use,” one said, referring to the impossibility of obtaining supplies in neighboring India due to the Covid-19 emergency there. Supplies from China, such as a recent order of 20,000 oxygen cylinders, may take two to three weeks to arrive by road, officials told Human Rights Watch.

Kanchan Jha, a social activist in Birgunj in southern Nepal, said that due to the lack of oxygen cylinders, “we are not being able to manage or distribute oxygen fairly.” A senior national health official said the crisis in hospital capacity is most acute in Kathmandu and in several towns close to the Indian border, including Nepalganj, Butwal, and Birgunj. In Birgunj, Covid-19 patients are sharing hospital beds due to lack of hospital capacity.

Private hospitals are also operating near or beyond capacity, doctors said. Private treatment, which may cost between US$80 to $420 per day, is beyond the means of most people in a country where the average annual income per capita is around $1,000. The government is investigating allegations that private hospitals have increased their prices during the emergency.

Through April 26, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported a case-positivity rate of 37 percent across the country, and officials told Human Rights Watch that an alarming 45 to 50 percent of Covid-19 tests are being returned positive. “Even 10 percent would be a high number,” said one doctor. However, official figures are widely believed to underrepresent the scale of the crisis. For example, the Birgunj region has only one testing center, and health workers are reporting clusters of people suffering high fever and deaths in several villages. “No one is tracking these cases,” a social worker said.

Global Covid-19 vaccine scarcity is undermining vaccination efforts in Nepal, particularly after the Indian government halted vaccine exports. “If we want to stop this transmission, we need vaccines,” said Dr. Lhamo Sherpa, an epidemiologist. Less than 10 percent of the population in Nepal has received one dose of vaccine, and supplies are not available to provide a second dose to many of those who are awaiting one. Dr. Pokharel said, “We are not getting vaccines from anywhere, although we do have the money.”

The government of Nepal has supported India and South Africa’s proposal at the World Trade Organization’s TRIPS Council. The October 2020 proposal would temporarily waive certain intellectual property rules on Covid-19-related vaccines, therapeutics, and other medical products to facilitate increased manufacturing to make them available and affordable globally. The United States and New Zealand have recently indicated their support for the TRIPS waiver. Other influential governments such as the United Kingdom, Japan, Australia, and the European Union should drop their opposition, Human Rights Watch said.

The government’s willingness to devote its attention to the crisis remains unclear. The prime minister, K.P. Sharma Oli, has repeatedly recommended herbal remedies, such as guava leaves, as a cure for Covid-19. International NGOs have been unable to transfer funds to the government because the bureaucracy is unable to complete paperwork due to Covid-19 cases among ministers and officials.

Nepal’s international development partners, who have supported the government’s health infrastructure for decades, have also not adequately prepared. In discussions among development agencies in the final week of April, seen by Human Rights Watch, international officials spoke of a lack of clarity from the government as to its priority needs, and also a lack of information among themselves about such basic matters as the country’s medical oxygen infrastructure. “We are still in the information gathering phase,” one said. “In hindsight, this could have been started in December,” said another.

“Nepal’s healthcare system was in no condition to confront an emergency on this scale, and the government needs to act to protect all Nepalis’ right to health,” Ganguly said. “To avert a terrible disaster it is critical for the Nepali government and donor countries like the US, UK, and the EU to urgently make life-saving oxygen equipment and vaccines equitably available.”
 

10May/21

Killing Schoolgirls in Afghanistan

Scenes from Sayed ul-Shuhada High School in Kabul, Afghanistan, where as many as 85 people including many schoolgirls were killed in an attack this weekend, should break anyone’s heart. They certainly broke mine. In 2017 a filmmaker and I spent a week at the school, filming a video to accompany a report on barriers to girls’ education.

The school had difficulties providing girls an education. Girls studied outdoors, in tattered tents or the open air, and the school was desperately overcrowded. Girls lacked essential facilities such as toilets and a library, and faced hardships outside school, too.

Their neighborhood is very impoverished, populated predominantly by members of Afghanistan’s Hazara minority. It has increasingly been targeted for attack, including on a local maternity hospital in May 2020. Families were often unable to afford transportation and many girls walked 45 minutes or more to get there. Many worked in addition to studying, at jobs such as carpet-making and tailoring, to support their families.

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Books, notebooks, and other school supplies are left behind after May 8’s deadly bombings near a school in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday, May 9, 2021.
© 2021 AP Photo/Mariam Zuhaib

But what shone through was the girls’ determination to study no matter what. In a country where less than 30 percent of women can read, these girls bring hope for a brighter future. They were funny and lively, like girls anywhere, but also deadly serious about getting an education. This makes their senseless killing so particularly devastating.

This is a perilous moment for Afghanistan. All US troops are slated to leave the country by September 11, 2021; other NATO troops are going too.

A devastating picture of what lies ahead is emerging, one of rising violence and likely increased Taliban control, both of which will disproportionately harm women and girls. Intensifying fighting may also bring more atrocities by the Afghan branch of the Islamic State (ISIS), which has been behind many of the attacks on Hazaras. Recent months have brought attacks on female journalists and other high-profile women.

US President Joe Biden has called “the end of America’s longest war” an accomplishment. But the war has in no way ended, and its front line yet again reached the gates of a girls’ school. The US and other countries withdrawing troops should understand that their responsibility to Afghan girls and women is not finished. They should assist efforts to investigate and ensure accountability for this and other unlawful attacks on civilians, and support safe access to essential services like education for everyone.

10May/21

Attack on Ex-Maldives’ President Shows Cost of Impunity

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Maldivian police officers secure the area following a blast in Male, Maldives, Thursday, May 6, 2021. Maldives’ first democratically elected president and current Parliament Speaker Mohamed Nasheed has been injured in a blast Thursday near his home and was being treated in a hospital in the capital, police said. (AP Photo/Mohamed Sharuhaan)
© (AP Photo/Mohamed Sharuhaan)

The attempted assassination on May 6, 2021, of Mohamed Nasheed, the former Maldivian president and current speaker of parliament, highlights the grave risks posed by extremist groups who enjoy political protection.

Nasheed, who became the Maldives’ first democratically elected president in 2008 after spending years in prison for his democratic views, was badly injured by an improvised explosive device (IED) as he walked from his home to his car in the capital, Malé. Fragments pierced his chest, head, and abdomen, and he underwent lifesaving surgery that night. Two bodyguards and a bystander received minor injuries.

Police said they have arrested the prime suspect, who is believed to have links with Islamist extremists, and that the Australian Federal Police are assisting the investigation. The day of the blast, Nasheed had announced on Twitter that he had obtained a list of people who benefited from a massive corruption scandal related to tourism and development seven years ago—a move certain to have vexed a number of prominent politicians. Nasheed had previously received threats from extremist Islamist groups who had called him an apostate.

The attack on Nasheed follows others in which Islamist groups with links to the previous government have been implicated. Yameen Rasheed, a blogger, was stabbed to death on April 23, 2017; he was known for ridiculing corrupt leaders and religious extremists. His friend, the journalist Ahmed Rilwan, disappeared in 2014; he had worked to expose corruption in the tourism industry.

The government’s failure to successfully investigate and prosecute these and other cases of attacks on freedom of expression illustrates the deeply entrenched impunity for such crimes. Along with Nasheed, several other people who criticized these groups have been threatened on social media.

Unfortunately, the current government of President Ibrahim Solih has at times sought to appease these extremists. In December 2019, the government banned the Maldivian Democracy Network, the country’s leading human rights organization, for allegedly “insulting Islam” – a move that has had a chilling effect on other civil society groups.

This is a critical moment for the Maldives. As the government investigates the attack on Nasheed, it should move to stem violence by Islamist extremist groups and bring to justice their political backers.