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Afghanistan

Executive Summary

Afghanistan is an Islamic republic with a directly elected president, a bicameral legislative branch, and a judicial branch; however, armed insurgents control portions of the country. The country held presidential elections in September 2019 after technical issues and security requirements compelled the Independent Election Commission to reschedule the election multiple times. The commission announced preliminary election results on December 22, 2019, indicating that President Ashraf Ghani had won, although runner-up and then chief executive Abdullah Abdullah disputed the results, including after final results were announced February 18. Both President Ghani and Abdullah declared victory and held competing swearing-in ceremonies on March 9. Political leaders mediated the resulting impasse, ultimately resulting in a compromise, announced on May 17, in which President Ghani retained the presidency, Abdullah was appointed to lead the High Council for National Reconciliation, and each of them would select one-half of the cabinet members.

Three governmental entities share responsibility for law enforcement and maintenance of order in the country: the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Defense, and the National Directorate of Security. The Afghan National Police, under the Ministry of Interior, has primary responsibility for internal order and for the Afghan Local Police, a community-based self-defense force with no legal ability to arrest or independently investigate crimes. In June, President Ghani announced plans to subsume the Afghan Local Police into other branches of the security forces provided individuals can present a record free of allegations of corruption and human rights abuses. As of year’s end, the implementation of these plans was underway. The Major Crimes Task Force, also under the Ministry of Interior, investigates major crimes including government corruption, human trafficking, and criminal organizations. The Afghan National Army, under the Ministry of Defense, is responsible for external security, but its primary activity is fighting the insurgency internally. The National Directorate of Security functions as an intelligence agency and has responsibility for investigating criminal cases concerning national security. Some areas of the country were outside of government control, and antigovernment forces, including the Taliban, instituted their own justice and security systems. Civilian authorities generally maintained control over the security forces, although security forces occasionally acted independently. Members of the security forces committed numerous abuses.

Although armed conflict continued in the country, on September 12, representatives of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the Taliban commenced Afghan peace negotiations. Before and during negotiations, armed insurgent groups conducted major attacks on government forces, public places, and civilians, killing and injuring thousands. There were also targeted attacks on women leading up to the start of the negotiations, including an assassination attempt on Fawzia Koofi, one of four women on the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan’s negotiating team, and two incidents during the Loya Jirga (grand council) in August in which parliamentarian Belqis Roshan was assaulted and violent threats were made against delegate Asila Wardak. Since November 7, unknown actors killed eight journalists and activists in targeted killings, three of whom were killed between December 21 and 24. Many of the attacks were unclaimed; the Taliban denied involvement.

Significant human rights issues included: killings by insurgents; extrajudicial killings by security forces; forced disappearances by antigovernment personnel; reports of torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishment by security forces and antigovernment entities; arbitrary detention by government security forces and insurgents; serious abuse in internal conflict, including killing of civilians, enforced disappearances and abductions, torture and physical abuses, and other conflict-related abuses; serious acts of corruption; lack of investigation of and accountability for cases of violence against women, including those accused of so-called moral crimes; recruitment and use of child soldiers and sexual abuse of children, including by security force members and educational personnel; trafficking in persons; violence targeting members of ethnic minority groups; violence by security forces and other actors against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons; existence and use of laws criminalizing consensual same-sex sexual conduct; and the existence of the worst forms of child labor.

Widespread disregard for the rule of law and official impunity for those responsible for human rights abuses were serious, continuing problems. The government did not investigate or prosecute consistently or effectively abuses by officials, including security forces.

Antigovernment elements continued to attack religious leaders who spoke out against the Taliban. During the year many progovernment Islamic scholars were killed in attacks for which no group claimed responsibility. Nonstate armed groups, primarily the Taliban and Islamic State in Khorasan Province, accounted for most child recruitment and used children younger than age 12 during the year. Insurgent groups, including the Taliban, increasingly used children as suicide bombers. Antigovernment elements threatened, robbed, kidnapped, and attacked government workers, foreigners, medical and nongovernmental organization workers, and other civilians. The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan reported 5,939 civilian casualties in the first nine months of the year, with approximately 59 percent of these casualties attributed to antigovernment actors. The Taliban did not claim responsibility for civilian casualties. The Taliban referred to their attacks as “martyrdom operations.”

Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings

There were reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. The Attorney General’s Office maintains a military investigation and prosecution office for cases involving entities of the Ministry of Interior. The Ministry of Defense maintains its own investigation authority as well as prosecution at the primary and appellate level; at the final level, cases are forwarded to the Supreme Court.

In January security forces in Kandahar Province reportedly killed a young girl and later her father, who approached the local army base apparently to condemn the killing. Security forces did not offer an explanation for the killings. Security forces fired upon and wounded at least one of the community members who protested the killings. Authorities committed to investigate the killings, but there was no update available as of October. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) reported in March that Australian Special Air Service Regiment (SAS) members killed several locals either after they had surrendered or while they were in SAS detention in 2012. Witnesses alleged that in one such incident, SAS members shot and killed an imam and his son following evening prayers. In July the ABC additionally reported SAS members killed unarmed civilians in Kandahar Province in 2012.

During the year unknown actors carried out a number of targeted killings of civilians, including religious leaders, journalists, and civil society advocates (see section 1.g.).

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of disappearances committed by security forces.

The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) noted an increase in abductions of civilians carried out by the Taliban in the first six months of the year, compared with the same period in the previous year, and a fivefold increase over the same period of the previous year of casualties resulting from abduction. UNAMA reported seven adult men were abducted from their village in Herat Province on March 6 and subsequently killed by the Taliban.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

Although the constitution and law prohibit such practices, there were numerous reports that government officials, security forces, detention center authorities, and police committed abuses.

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported security forces continued to use excessive force, including torturing and beating civilians. Despite legislation prohibiting these acts, independent monitors continued to report credible cases of torture in detention centers. According to local media, lawyers representing detainees in detention centers alleged in July that torture remained commonplace and that detainees were regularly questioned using torture methods.

There were numerous reports of torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading punishment by the Taliban, ISIS-K, and other antigovernment groups. UNAMA reported that punishments carried out by the Taliban included beatings, amputations, and executions. The Taliban held detainees in poor conditions and subjected them to forced labor, according to UNAMA.

On January 30, a video was posted showing a woman being stoned to death. The president’s spokesman attributed the attack to the Taliban; the Taliban denied involvement.

Impunity was a significant problem in all branches of the security forces. Despite the testimony of numerous witnesses and advocates that service members were among the most prevalent perpetrators of bacha bazi (the sexual and commercial exploitation of boys, especially by men in positions of power), the government had never prosecuted a security officer for these acts, although eight officers were arrested during the year in connection with bacha bazi incidents.

In July, as a part of a political agreement between President Ghani and Abdullah, the government promoted Abdul Rashid Dostum to the rank of marshal, the country’s highest military rank. Dostum had been accused of gross violations of human rights, including the abduction and rape of a political opponent, but the government did not carry out an investigation.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Prison conditions were harsh due to overcrowding, lack of sanitation, and limited access to medical services. The General Directorate of Prisons and Detention Centers (GDPDC), part of the Interior Ministry, has responsibility for all civilian-run prisons (for both men and women) and civilian detention centers. The Ministry of Justice’s Juvenile Rehabilitation Directorate is responsible for all juvenile rehabilitation centers. The National Directorate of Security (NDS) operates short-term detention facilities at the provincial and district levels, usually colocated with its headquarters facilities. The Ministry of Defense runs the Afghan National Detention Facilities at Parwan. There were credible reports of private prisons run by members of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) and used for abuse of detainees. The Taliban also maintain illegal detention facilities throughout the country.

Physical Conditions: Overcrowding in prisons continued to be a serious, widespread problem. On April 21, the general director of prisons stated the country’s prisons suffered from widespread abuses, including corruption, lack of attention to detainees’ sentences, sexual abuse of underage prisoners, and lack of access to medical care. Prisoners in a number of prisons occasionally conducted hunger strikes or sewed their mouths shut to protest their detention conditions.

In October inspectors reportedly identified a contaminated drinking water supply at Pul-e Charki Prison. The water was reportedly contaminated by an overflow of sewage at a nearby water treatment plant that was not adequately addressed due to low standards of safety and maintenance.

Authorities generally lacked the facilities to separate pretrial and convicted inmates or to separate juveniles according to the seriousness of the charges against them. Local prisons and detention centers did not always have separate facilities for female prisoners.

According to NGOs and media reports, authorities held children younger than age 15 in prison with their mothers, due in part to a lack of capacity of separate children’s support centers. These reports documented insufficient educational and medical facilities for these minors.

Access to food, potable water, sanitation, heating, ventilation, lighting, and medical care in prisons varied throughout the country and was generally inadequate. The GDPDC’s nationwide program to feed prisoners faced a severely limited budget, and many prisoners relied on family members to provide food supplements and other necessary items.

From March 11 to September 16, a total of 7,237 prisoners and detainees were released from 32 facilities across the country in an effort to protect these individuals from COVID-19 and slow the spread of the virus. At year’s end it was unknown how many were returned to custody. The majority were given reduced sentences or qualified for bail and did not have to return to prison.

As part of an exchange establishing conditions for peace talks between the government and the Taliban, the government released nearly 5,000 Taliban prisoners between March and September. The Taliban released 1,000 government prisoners between March and July as part of its commitments in the agreement.

Administration: Authorities conducted some investigations of credible allegations of mistreatment. The law provides prisoners with the right to leave prison for up to 20 days for family visits. Most prisons did not implement this provision, and the law is unclear in its application to different classes of prisoners. Additionally, most prisons did not allow family visits.

Independent Monitoring: The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), UNAMA, and the International Committee of the Red Cross monitored the NDS, Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Justice, and Ministry of Defense detention facilities. NATO Resolute Support Mission monitored NDS, Afghan National Police (ANP), and Defense Ministry facilities. Security constraints and obstruction by authorities occasionally prevented visits to some places of detention. UNAMA and the AIHRC reported difficulty accessing NDS places of detention when they arrived unannounced. The AIHRC reported NDS officials usually required the AIHRC to submit a formal letter requesting access at least one to two days in advance of a visit. NDS officials continued to prohibit AIHRC and UNAMA monitors from bringing cameras, mobile phones, recording devices, or computers into NDS facilities, thereby preventing AIHRC monitors from documenting physical evidence of abuse, such as bruises, scars, and other injuries.

Improvements: The Office of Prisons Administration dedicated human rights departments at each facility to monitor and address problems.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, but both remained serious problems. Authorities detained many citizens without respecting essential procedural protections. According to NGOs, law enforcement officers continued to detain citizens arbitrarily without clear legal authority or without regard to substantive procedural legal protections. Local law enforcement officials reportedly detained persons illegally on charges that have no basis in applicable criminal law. In some cases authorities improperly held women in prisons because they deemed it unsafe for the women to return home or because women’s shelters were not available to provide protection in the provinces or districts at issue (see section 6, Women). The law provides a defendant the right to object to his or her pretrial detention and receive a court hearing on the matter, but authorities generally did not observe this requirement.

There were reports throughout the year of impunity and lack of accountability by security forces. According to observers, Afghan Local Police (ALP) and ANP personnel were largely unaware of their responsibilities and defendants’ rights under the law, since many were illiterate and lacked training. Accountability of NDS, ANP, and ALP officials for torture and abuse was weak, not transparent, and rarely enforced. Independent judicial or external oversight of the NDS, Major Crimes Task Force, ANP, and ALP in the investigation and prosecution of crimes or misconduct, including torture and abuse, was limited or nonexistent.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

UNAMA, the AIHRC, and other observers reported arbitrary and prolonged detention frequently occurred throughout the country, including persons being detained without judicial authorization. Authorities often did not inform detainees of the charges against them.

Justice-sector actors and the public lacked widespread understanding and knowledge of the penal code, which took effect in 2018 to modernize and consolidate criminal laws.

The law provides for access to legal counsel and the use of warrants, and it limits how long authorities may hold detainees without charge. Police have the right to detain a suspect for 72 hours to complete a preliminary investigation. If police decide to pursue a case, they transfer the file to the Attorney General’s Office. After taking custody of a suspect, the attorney general may issue a detention warrant for up to seven days for a misdemeanor and 15 days for a felony. With court approval, the investigating prosecutor may detain a suspect while continuing the investigation, with the length of continued detention depending on the severity of the offense. The investigating prosecutor may detain a suspect for a maximum of 20 days for a misdemeanor and 60 days for a felony. The prosecutor must file an indictment or release the suspect within those deadlines; there may be no further extension of the investigatory period if the defendant is already in detention. After a case is referred to the court, the court may issue detention orders not to exceed a total of 120 days for all court proceedings (primary, appeal, and Supreme Court stages). Compliance with these time limits was difficult to ascertain in the provincial courts. In addition there were multiple reports that judges often detained prisoners after their sentences were completed because bribes for release were not paid. Incommunicado imprisonment remained a problem, and prompt access to a lawyer was rare. Prisoners generally were able to receive family visits.

The criminal procedure code provides for release on bail. Authorities at times remanded “flight risk” defendants pending a prosecutorial appeal despite the defendants’ acquittal by the trial court. In other cases authorities did not rearrest defendants released pending appeal, even after the appellate court convicted them in absentia.

According to the juvenile code, the arrest of a child “should be a matter of last resort and should last for the shortest possible period.” Reports indicated children in juvenile rehabilitation centers across the country lacked access to adequate food, health care, and education. Detained children frequently did not receive the presumption of innocence, the right to know the charges against them, access to defense lawyers, and protection from self-incrimination. The law provides for the creation of special juvenile police, prosecution offices, and courts. Due to limited resources, special juvenile courts functioned in only six provinces (Kabul, Herat, Balkh, Kandahar, Nangarhar, and Kunduz). Elsewhere children’s cases went to ordinary courts. The law mandates authorities handle children’s cases confidentially.

Some children in the criminal justice system were victims rather than perpetrators of crime. In the absence of sufficient shelters for boys, authorities detained abused boys and placed them in juvenile rehabilitation centers because they could not return to their families and shelter elsewhere was unavailable. In addition some victims of bacha bazi were charged with “moral crimes” and treated as equally responsible perpetrators as the adult.

There were reports of children being abused while in custody, to include girls who were raped and became pregnant. Following the capture of ISIS-K fighters and family members in 2019, children of ISIS-K fighters (including girls married to ISIS-K fighters) were sometimes detained in special centers. The government registered some of these children in school, but most were not registered and did not receive adequate care. In addition child soldiers pressed into service with ISIS-K, the Taliban, or other groups were imprisoned without regard to their age. There was no established program for their reintegration into society. According to advocates, following their interception by government forces, all child soldiers from militia groups are initially placed into an NDS detention facility and are sometimes transferred to juvenile rehabilitation centers and later to a shelter run by the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs. An estimated 125 children were held at the detention facility during the year, 30 were held at the shelter, and there was no reliable estimate of how many children were at the juvenile centers. Child soldiers affiliated with ISIS-K remained in the NDS detention facility.

Police and legal officials often charged women with intent to commit zina (sex outside marriage) to justify their arrest and incarceration for social offenses, such as running away from their husband or family, rejecting a spouse chosen by their families, fleeing domestic violence or rape, or eloping to escape an arranged marriage. The constitution provides that in cases not explicitly covered by the provisions of the constitution or other laws, courts may, in accordance with Hanafi jurisprudence (a school of Sunni Islamic law) and within the limits set by the constitution, rule in a manner that best attains justice in the case. Observers reported officials used this article to charge women and men with “immorality” or “running away from home,” neither of which is a crime. Police often detained women for zina at the request of family members.

Authorities imprisoned some women for reporting crimes perpetrated against them and detained some as proxies for a husband or male relative convicted of a crime on the assumption the suspect would turn himself in to free the family member.

Authorities placed some women in protective custody to prevent violence by family members. They also employed protective custody (including placement in a detention center) for women who had experienced domestic violence, if no shelters were available to protect them from further abuse. The 2009 Elimination of Violence against Women (EVAW) presidential decree–commonly referred to as the EVAW law–obliges police to arrest persons who abuse women. Implementation and awareness of the EVAW law was limited, however.

Arbitrary Arrest: Arbitrary arrest and detention remained a problem in most provinces. Observers reported some prosecutors and police detained individuals without charge for actions that were not crimes under the law, in part because the judicial system was inadequate to process detainees in a timely fashion. Observers continued to report those detained for moral crimes were primarily women.

Pretrial Detention: The law provides a defendant the right to object to his or her pretrial detention and receive a court hearing on the matter. Nevertheless, lengthy pretrial detention remained a problem. Many detainees did not benefit from the provisions of the criminal procedure code because of a lack of resources, limited numbers of defense attorneys, unskilled legal practitioners, and corruption. The law provides that, if there is no completed investigation or filed indictment within the code’s 10-, 27-, or 75-day deadlines, judges must release defendants. Judges, however, held many detainees beyond those periods, despite the lack of an indictment.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The law provides for an independent judiciary, but the judiciary continued to be underfunded, understaffed, inadequately trained, largely ineffective, and subject to threats, bias, political influence, and pervasive corruption.

Judicial officials, prosecutors, and defense attorneys were often intimidated or corrupt. World Justice Project’s annual report, released in July, found that in 2019 59 percent of those surveyed considered judges or magistrates to be corrupt; corruption was considered by those surveyed to be the most severe problem facing criminal courts.

Bribery and pressure from public officials, tribal leaders, families of accused persons, and individuals associated with the insurgency impaired judicial impartiality. Most courts administered justice unevenly, employing a mixture of codified law, sharia, and local custom. Traditional justice mechanisms remained the main recourse for many, especially in rural areas. Corruption was common in the judiciary, and often criminals paid bribes to obtain their release or a sentence reduction (see section 4).

There was a widespread shortage of judges, primarily in insecure areas, leading to the adjudication of many cases through informal, traditional mediation. A shortage of women judges, particularly outside of Kabul, limited access to justice for women. Many women are unable to use the formal justice system because cultural norms preclude their engagement with male officials. During the year only 254 of 2,010 judges were women, a slight decrease from 2019. The formal justice system is stronger in urban centers, closer to the central government, and weaker in rural areas. In rural areas, police operated unchecked with almost unlimited authority. Courts and police continued to operate at less than full strength nationwide. The judicial system continued to lack the capacity to absorb and implement the large volume of new and amended legislation. A lack of qualified judicial personnel hindered the courts. Some municipal and provincial authorities, including judges, had minimal training and often based their judgments on their personal understanding of sharia without appropriate reference to statutory law, tribal codes of honor, or local custom. The number of judges who graduated from law school continued to increase. Access to legal codes and statutes increased, but their limited availability continued to hinder some judges and prosecutors.

In major cities courts continued to decide criminal cases. Authorities frequently resolved civil cases using the informal system, the government mediation mechanism through the Ministry of Justice Huquq (civil rights) Office, or in some cases through negotiations between the parties facilitated by judicial personnel or private lawyers. Because the formal legal system often does not exist in rural areas, local elders and shuras (consultative gatherings, usually of men selected by the community) are the primary means of settling both criminal matters and civil disputes. They also imposed punishments without regard to the formal legal system. UNAMA and NGOs reported several cases where perpetrators of violence against women that included domestic abuse reoffended after their claims were resolved by mediation.

In areas it controlled, the Taliban enforced a parallel judicial system based on a strict interpretation of sharia. Punishments included execution and mutilation. According to UNAMA, in June, Taliban courts convicted two men in Faryab Province of different crimes. In both cases the men were brought before a crowd, and a Taliban member pronounced their death sentences; the men were immediately executed by public hanging.

Trial Procedures

The constitution provides the right to a fair and public trial, but the judiciary rarely enforced this provision. The administration and implementation of justice varied in different areas of the country. The government formally uses an inquisitorial legal system. By law all citizens are entitled to a presumption of innocence, and those accused have the right to be present at trial and to appeal, although the judiciary did not always respect these rights. The law requires judges to provide five days’ notice prior to a hearing, but judges did not always follow this requirement, and many citizens complained that legal proceedings often dragged on for years.

Three-judge panels decide criminal trials, and there is no right to a jury trial under the constitution. Prosecutors rarely informed defendants promptly or in detail of the charges brought against them. Indigent defendants have the right to consult with an advocate or counsel at public expense when resources allow. The judiciary applied this right inconsistently, in large part due to a severe shortage of defense lawyers. Citizens were often unaware of their constitutional rights. Defendants and attorneys are entitled to examine physical evidence and documents related to a case before trial, although observers noted court documents often were not available for review before cases went to trial, despite defense lawyers’ requests.

Criminal defense attorneys reported the judiciary’s increased respect and tolerance for the role of defense lawyers in criminal trials, but defendants’ attorneys continued to experience abuse and threats from prosecutors and other law enforcement officials.

The criminal procedure code establishes time limits for the completion of each stage of a criminal case, from investigation through final appeal, when the accused is in custody. The code also permits temporary release of the accused on bail, but this was rarely applied. An addendum to the code provides for extended custodial limits in cases involving crimes committed against the internal and external security of the country. Courts at the Justice Center in Parwan Province regularly elected to utilize the extended time periods. If the judiciary does not meet the deadlines, the law requires the accused be released from custody. Often courts did not meet these deadlines, but detainees nevertheless remained in custody.

In cases where no clearly defined legal statute applied, or where judges, prosecutors, or elders were unaware of the statutory law, judges and informal shuras enforced customary law. This practice often resulted in outcomes that discriminated against women.

In areas controlled by the Taliban, according to Human Rights Watch, the Taliban established courts that rely on religious scholars to adjudicate cases or at times referred cases to traditional dispute resolution mechanisms. Taliban courts include district-level courts, provincial-level courts, and a tamiz, or appeals, court located in a neighboring country.

According to Human Rights Watch, the Taliban justice system is focused on punishment, and convictions often resulted from forced confessions in which the accused is abused or tortured. At times the Taliban imposed corporal punishment for serious offenses, or hudud crimes, under an interpretation of sharia.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

There were no reports the government held political prisoners or political detainees.

During the year the Taliban detained government officials, individuals alleged to be spying for the government, and individuals alleged to have associations with the government. For political cases, according to NGOs, there were no official courts; cases were instead tried by Taliban military commanders.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

Corruption and limited capacity restricted citizen access to justice for constitutional and human rights abuses. Citizens may submit complaints of human rights abuses to the AIHRC, which reviews and submits credible complaints to the Attorney General’s Office for further investigation and prosecution. Some female citizens reported that when they approached government institutions with a request for service, government officials, in turn, demanded sexual favors as quid pro quo.

f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

The law prohibits arbitrary interference in matters of privacy, but authorities did not always respect its provisions. The criminal procedure code contains additional safeguards for the privacy of the home, prohibiting night arrests, requiring the presence of a female officer during residential searches, and strengthening requirements for body searches. The government did not always respect these prohibitions.

Government officials continued to enter homes and businesses of civilians forcibly and without legal authorization. There were reports that government officials monitored private communications, including telephone calls and other digital communications, without legal authority or judicial warrant.

Media and the government reported the Taliban routinely used civilian homes as shelters, bases of operation, and shields. There were also reports the Taliban, ISIS-K, and ANDSF used schools for military purposes.

g. Abuses in Internal Conflict

Continuing internal conflict resulted in civilian deaths, abductions, prisoner abuse, property damage, displacement of residents, and other abuses. The security situation remained a problem largely due to insurgent and terrorist attacks. According to UNAMA, actions by nonstate armed groups, primarily the Taliban and ISIS-K, accounted for the majority of civilian deaths.

After the signing of the U.S.-Taliban Agreement and the issuance of the U.S.-Afghanistan Joint Declaration on February 29, attacks against U.S. and coalition forces largely stopped, but violence against Afghan security forces and civilians continued, even after the start of intra-Afghan negotiations on September 12.

Killings: UNAMA counted 2,117 civilian deaths due to conflict during the first nine months of the year, compared with 2,683 during the same period in 2019. During this period, UNAMA documented 1,274 civilian casualties resulting from nonsuicide improvised explosive device (IED) attacks perpetrated by antigovernment forces (456 deaths and 818 injured). UNAMA attributed 59 percent of civilian casualties in the first nine months of the year to antigovernment forces, including the Taliban and ISIS-K, 27 percent to progovernment forces, and 14 percent to cross fire and other sources. UNAMA documented a 46 percent decrease in the total number of civilian casualties due to all airstrikes in the first nine months of the year, compared with the same period in 2019, but documented a 70 percent increase in civilian casualties (349) and a 50 percent increase in civilians killed (156) from airstrikes by the Afghan Air Force in the first nine months of the year, compared with the same period in 2019.

The AIHRC stated that an airstrike in Takhar Province by Afghan forces on October 21 killed 12 children and wounded 18 others at a religious school and mosque. The mosque’s imam was among the wounded. The attack reportedly targeted Taliban fighters. First Vice President Amrullah Saleh initially rejected reports of civilian casualties, stating the attack had targeted a Taliban installation, but the Ministry of Defense declared it had assigned an investigation team to assess allegations of civilian casualties.

During the year antigovernment forces carried out a number of deadly attacks against religious leaders, particularly those who spoke out against the Taliban. Many progovernment Islamic scholars were killed in attacks during the year for which no group claimed responsibility. In June, three imams and a number of worshippers were killed in separate attacks on two mosques in Kabul, and seven students were killed by a bomb at a seminary in Takhar Province.

Antigovernment elements continued to attack civilian targets. On April 21 in Nangarhar Province, the Taliban detonated an IED inside a private pharmacy, wounding eight civilians, including a doctor from the local hospital. The owners reportedly had refused to provide the Taliban an extortion payment.

Antigovernment elements continued targeting hospitals and aid workers. In the first six months of the year, UNAMA documented 36 incidents affecting health-care facilities and personnel. UNAMA attributed the majority of these incidents to the Taliban.

On May 12, three gunmen attacked a maternity clinic in a Hazara Shia neighborhood in Kabul run by Doctors Without Borders (MSF), killing 24 mothers, newborns, and a health-care worker. No group claimed responsibility. In June the MSF announced it would close the clinic.

On May 19, the Afghan Air Force conducted an airstrike in Kunduz Province outside a hospital, killing and wounding Taliban who were seeking medical care, as well as killing at least two civilians at the hospital.

On November 22, gunmen detonated explosives and fired upon students, staff, and others, killing 35 and wounding at least 50, at Kabul University. During the attack students and faculty were taken hostage, according to press reports. The attack was later claimed by ISIS-K.

Antigovernment elements also continued to target government officials and entities, as well as political candidates and election-related activities, throughout the country. Media reported five staff members of the Attorney General’s Office, including two who reportedly had served as prosecutors, were ambushed and killed in their vehicle in Kabul on June 22. No one claimed responsibility, and a Taliban spokesperson denied any involvement, adding that the peace process had many enemies and that the Taliban, too, would “investigate.” On October 3, a car bomb targeting a government administrative building in Nangarhar Province killed at least 15, including at least four children. Most of the casualties were civilians; no group claimed responsibility. On December 15, Kabul deputy governor Mahbubullah Muhibbi was killed in a bomb blast in Kabul. On December 21, at least 10 persons were killed and 52 wounded in an attack on the convoy of lower house of parliament member Khan Mohammad Wardak. No group claimed responsibility for either attack.

Abductions: In January a three-year-old boy was kidnapped for ransom in Kabul. Businesswomen reported they faced a constant threat of having their children abducted and held for ransom. The UN secretary-general’s 2019 Children and Armed Conflict Report, released in June, cited 14 verified incidents of child abduction, all of which were of boys as young as 11. Of the abductions, 12 were attributed to the Taliban and one each to the ANP and a progovernment militia.

Seven reported abductions of currency exchangers in Herat during the year prompted the currency exchangers there to strike in October to protest.

Antigovernment groups regularly targeted civilians, including using IEDs to kill and maim them. Land mines, unexploded ordnance, and explosive remnants of war (ERW) continued to cause deaths and injuries. UNAMA reported 584 civilian casualties caused by unlawful pressure-plate IEDs by antigovernment elements, mostly attributed to the Taliban, during the first nine months of the year, a 44 percent increase compared with the same period in 2019. The state minister for disaster management and humanitarian affairs reported that approximately 125 civilians were killed or wounded by unexploded ordnance per month, and more than 730 square miles still needed to be cleared, which included both previously identified ERW areas as well as newly contaminated ranges. Media regularly reported cases of children killed and injured after finding unexploded ordinance.

UNAMA reported civilian casualties from ERW in the first nine months of the year accounted for 5 percent of all civilian casualties and caused 298 civilian casualties, with 86 deaths and 212 injured. Children comprised more than 80 percent of civilian casualties from ERW.

Child Soldiers: Under the penal code, recruitment of children in military units carries a penalty of six months to one year in prison. UNAMA reported the ANDSF and progovernment militias recruited and used 11 children during the first nine months of the year, all for combat purposes. Media reported that local progovernment commanders recruited children younger than age 16. NGOs reported security forces used child soldiers in sexual slavery roles. The country remained on the Child Soldiers Prevention Act List in the Department of State’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/. The Taliban and other antigovernment groups regularly recruited and trained children to conduct attacks.

The ANP took steps that included training staff on age-assessment procedures, launching an awareness campaign on underage recruitment, investigating alleged cases of underage recruitment, and establishing centers in some provincial recruitment centers to document cases of attempted child enlistment. The government operated child protection units (CPUs) in all 34 provinces; however, some NGOs reported these units were not sufficiently equipped, staffed, or trained to provide adequate oversight. The difficult security environment in most rural areas prevented oversight of recruitment practices at the district level; CPUs played a limited oversight role in recruiting. Recruits underwent an identity check, including an affidavit from at least two community elders that the recruit was at least 18 years old and eligible to join the ANDSF. The Ministries of Interior and Defense also issued directives meant to prevent the recruitment and sexual abuse of children by the ANDSF. Media reported that in some cases ANDSF units used children as personal servants, support staff, or for sexual purposes. Government security forces reportedly recruited boys specifically for use in bacha bazi in every province of the country.

According to UNAMA, the Taliban and ISIS-K continued to recruit and use children for front-line fighting and setting IEDs. While the law protects trafficking victims from prosecution for crimes committed as a result of being subjected to trafficking, there were reports the government treated child former combatants as criminals as opposed to victims of trafficking. Most were incarcerated alongside adult offenders without adequate protections from abuse by other inmates or prison staff.

UNAMA verified the recruitment of 144 boys by the Taliban in the first nine months of the year. In some cases the Taliban and other antigovernment elements used children as suicide bombers, human shields, and to emplace IEDs, particularly in southern provinces. Media, NGOs, and UN agencies reported the Taliban tricked children, promised them money, used false religious pretexts, or forced them to become suicide bombers. UNAMA reported the Taliban deployed three boys in February to conduct a suicide attack against an ALP commander in Baghlan Province. One of the children accidentally detonated his IED before reaching the ceremony, killing all three children. See also the Department of State’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

Other Conflict-related Abuse: The security environment continued to make it difficult for humanitarian organizations to operate freely in many parts of the country. Violence and instability hampered development, relief, and reconstruction efforts. Insurgents targeted government employees and aid workers. NGOs reported insurgents, powerful local individuals, and militia leaders demanded bribes to allow groups to bring relief supplies into their areas and distribute them.

In contrast with previous years, polio vaccination campaigns were not disrupted by the conflict (the Taliban had previously restricted house-to-house vaccination programs). Routine immunization services at health facilities and other immunization campaigns, however, were interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and only half of the provinces received vaccination coverage. According to the Ministry of Public Health, there were 46 new reported cases of polio during the year.

The Taliban also attacked schools, radio stations, and government offices. On February 3, the Taliban burned a girls’ school in Takhar Province. In July the Taliban burned a school in the same province after using it as cover to attack ANDSF. On August 20, the Taliban prevented approximately 200 female university applicants in Badakshan Province from taking their university entrance exams by threatening them with fines. Some of these women were ultimately taken to another location in the province to take the exam.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution provides for freedom of speech, including for the press, but the government sometimes restricted this right.

Freedom of Speech: The law provides for freedom of speech, and the country has a free press. There were reports authorities at times used pressure, regulations, and threats to silence critics. Criticism of the central government was regular and generally free from restrictions, but criticism of provincial governments was more constrained, where local officials and power brokers exerted significant influence and authority to intimidate or threaten their critics, both private citizens and journalists. Discussion of a political nature was more dangerous for those living in contested or Taliban-controlled areas. Government security agencies increased their ability to monitor the internet, including social media platforms, although the monitoring did not have a perceptible impact on social media use.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views. Implementation of the Access to Information Law, which provides for public access to government information, remained inconsistent, and media reported consistent failure by the government to meet the requirements of the law. Government officials often restricted media access to government information or simply ignored requests. UNAMA, Human Rights Watch, and Reporters without Borders (RSF) reported the government did not fully implement the law, and therefore journalists often did not receive access to information they sought. Furthermore, journalists stated government sources shared information with only a few media outlets. Human Rights Watch criticized the arrest of a government employee who was alleged by First Vice President Amrullah Saleh to have spread false information about the October 21 attack on a school and mosque in Takhar that resulted in civilian deaths.

Journalists faced the threat of harassment and attack by ISIS-K, the Taliban, and government-linked figures attempting to influence how they were covered in the news. The Afghanistan Journalists’ Council said that during the year journalists’ social media accounts were hacked and journalists were threatened by the Office of the National Security Council.

On May 30, a journalist and a driver from Khurshid TV were killed when their vehicle, carrying 15 employees of the station, was hit by a roadside bomb in Kabul. Four other employees of the station were wounded. ISIS-K claimed responsibility for the attack.

On November 12, an explosive in Lashkargah city killed Radio Azadi reporter Ilias Daee, as well as his brother. Journalist Malala Maiwand was killed by gunmen on December 10 in Jalalabad, and journalist Rahmatullah Nekzad was killed in Ghazni on December 21. No group claimed responsibility for the attacks. Journalists reported facing threats of violence from the internal conflict. Politicians, security officials, business owners, and others in positions of power at times threatened or harassed journalists because of their coverage. According to RSF, female journalists were especially vulnerable.

Vida Saghari, a female journalist, faced a series of online harassments, including hate speech and death threats, following her criticism of a cleric’s Ramadan rallies in defiance of COVID-19 restrictions, according to RSF.

Freedom of speech and an independent media were more constrained at the provincial level than in the capital, Kabul. Political and ethnic groups, including those led by former mujahedin leaders, financed many provincial media outlets and used their financial support to control the content. Provincial media was also more susceptible to antigovernment attacks.

Print and online media continued to publish independent magazines, newsletters, newspapers, and websites. A wide range of editorials and daily newspapers openly criticized the government. Nevertheless, there were concerns that violence and instability threatened journalists’ safety. A greater percentage of the population, including those in rural areas, had easier access to radio than other forms of media. According to The Asia Foundation, rural inhabitants primarily received news and information from family and friends, followed by television and radio.

Violence and Harassment: Government officials and private citizens used threats and violence to intimidate independent and opposition journalists, particularly those who spoke out against impunity, crimes, and corruption by powerful local figures. According to RSF, NDS officials arrested Radio Bayan journalist Mahboboalah Hakimi on July 1. Two days after Hakimi’s arrest, the NDS released a video of Hakimi confessing to posting a video critical of the president, an action he had previously denied, and apologizing to the president. Following Hakimi’s release, he alleged the NDS tortured him and forced him to record his confession.

RSF also reported that authorities had harassed Pajhwok Afghan News agency, including through NDS interrogations of its director, following its June 22 reporting that ventilators intended to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak had been stolen and illegally sold to a neighboring country.

At least six journalists were killed during the year, and another died under suspicious circumstances. According to the Afghanistan Journalists’ Council, as of September, three journalists were kidnapped, 12 were injured, and more than 30 were beaten or otherwise threatened.

The Taliban continued to threaten journalists, and civil society alleged the Taliban continued to attack media organizations. The Taliban warned media would be targeted unless they stopped broadcasting what it called “anti-Taliban statements.”

Increased levels of insecurity created a dangerous environment for journalists, even when they were not the specific targets of violence. A radio reporter was killed in police crossfire during a demonstration in Ghor Province on May 9. During the year several journalists reported attacks by unknown gunmen connected, they claimed, to their coverage of powerful individuals.

The law provides guidelines to address cases of violence against journalists, but these guidelines were not fully implemented. The guidelines created a joint national committee in Kabul, chaired by Second Vice President Sarwar Danesh and separate committees in provincial capitals, a coordination center to investigate and identify perpetrators of violence against journalists, and a support committee run by the NDS to identify threats against journalists. Press freedom organizations reported the committee met regularly during the year, referred cases to the Attorney General’s Office, and pushed for the resolution of cases, but it did not increase protection for journalists. A journalist advocacy organization reported that due to these pressures and the fact that many journalists were not paid for months at a time, many outlets closed during the year.

Media advocacy groups reported that many female journalists worked under pseudonyms in both print and social media to avoid recognition, harassment, and retaliation. According to the Center for the Protection of Afghan Women Journalists, there were no female journalists in five of the country’s 34 provinces: Kunar, Logar, Nuristan, Paktika, and Uruzgan.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Media observers claimed journalists reporting on administrative corruption, land embezzlement, and local officials’ involvement in narcotics trafficking engaged in self-censorship due to fear of violent retribution by provincial police officials and powerful families. Ajmal Ahmady, Afghanistan Bank governor and economic advisor to the president, blocked journalists on his Twitter feed, reportedly for being publicly critical of him. Journalists and NGOs reported that, although the amended 2018 Access to Information Law provided an excellent regulatory framework, enforcement remained inconsistent and that noncompliant officials rarely were held accountable. Most requests for information from journalists who lacked influential connections inside the government or international media credentials were disregarded, and government officials often refused to release information, claiming it was classified. Many journalists asserted that First Vice President Amrullah Saleh’s statement that he would hold those who shared “disinformation” on the victims of the October 21 incident in Takhar criminally responsible was a restriction on freedom of speech.

Libel/Slander Laws: The penal code and the mass media law prescribe prison sentences and fines for defamation. Authorities sometimes used defamation as a pretext to suppress criticism of government officials.

National Security: Journalists complained government officials frequently invoked the national interest exception in the Access to Information law to avoid disclosing information.

Nongovernmental Impact: Some reporters acknowledged they avoided criticizing the insurgency and some neighboring countries in their reporting because they feared Taliban retribution. Insurgent groups coerced media agencies in insecure areas to prevent them from broadcasting or publishing advertisements and announcements of the security forces, entertainment programming, music, and women’s voices.

Women in some areas of the country said their freedom of expression in choice of attire was limited by conservative social mores and sometimes enforced by Taliban in insurgent-controlled areas as well as religious leaders.

Internet Freedom

The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet, and there were no credible reports the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.

Media outlets and activists routinely used social media to discuss political developments, and Facebook was widely used in urban areas. The Taliban used the internet and social media to spread its messages. Internet usage remained relatively low due to high data prices, a lack of local content, and illiteracy.

There were many reports during the year of Taliban attempts to restrict access to information, often by destroying or shutting down telecommunications antennae and other equipment. In June, Human Rights Watch reported that in many Taliban-controlled areas, Taliban authorities limited usage of or otherwise banned smartphones, which generally restricted access to information.

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

Academic freedom is largely exercised in government-controlled areas. In addition to public schooling, there was growth in private education, with new universities enjoying full autonomy from the government. Both government security forces and the Taliban took over schools to use as military posts.

The expansion of Taliban control in rural areas left an increasing number of public schools outside government control. The Taliban operated an education commission in parallel to the official Ministry of Education. Although their practices varied among areas, some schools under Taliban control reportedly allowed teachers to continue teaching but banned certain subjects and replaced them with Islamic studies; others provided only religious education. The Taliban continued to limit education for girls, especially for those past puberty. A Taliban commander told Human Rights Watch in Helmand Province, “Women’s education is to be banned [while] our country is occupied.”

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights; however, the government limited these freedoms in some instances.

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

The government generally respected citizens’ right to demonstrate peacefully. Numerous public gatherings and protests took place during the year; however, police sometimes fired live ammunition when attempting to break up demonstrations. Protests and rallies were also vulnerable to attacks by ISIS-K and the Taliban. Islamic State actors fired upon a political rally in Kabul on March 6, killing 32 and wounding at least 58, according to government estimates. Islamic State actors claimed to have detonated explosions during presidential inauguration ceremonies in Kabul on March 9, although no casualties were reported.

Freedom of Association

The constitution provides for the right to freedom of association, and the government generally respected it. The law on political parties requires political parties to register with the Ministry of Justice and to pursue objectives consistent with Islam. The law prohibits employees and officials of security and judicial institutions, specifically the Supreme Court, Attorney General’s Office, Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Defense, and NDS, from political party membership. Noncompliant employees are subject to dismissal.

c. Freedom of Religion

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

d. Freedom of Movement

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation. The government generally respected these rights.

In-country Movement: The government generally did not restrict the right to freedom of movement within the borders of the country. Social custom limited women’s freedom of movement without a male family member’s consent or a male relative chaperone. The greatest barrier to movement in some parts of the country remained the lack of security. Taxi, truck, and bus drivers reported security forces and insurgents sometimes operated illegal checkpoints and extorted money and goods from travelers. The Taliban regularly blocked highways completely or imposed illegal taxes on those who attempted to travel. Media reported the Taliban had blocked the highway between Kandahar and Uruzgan and on August 23 had notified private transportation companies operating in the area that the companies would be responsible for civilian deaths should they choose to travel on the road.

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

Internal population movements continued during the year because of armed conflict and natural disasters, including avalanches, flooding, and landslides. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported more than 172,490 individuals fled their homes due to conflict from January to September 20. Most internally displaced persons (IDPs) left insecure rural areas and small towns to seek relatively greater safety and government services in larger towns and cities in the same province. Thirty of the country’s 34 provinces hosted IDP populations.

Limited humanitarian access because of the poor security situation caused delays in identifying, assessing, and providing timely assistance to IDPs, who continued to lack access to basic protection, including personal security and shelter. Many IDPs, especially in households with a female head, faced difficulty obtaining basic services because they did not have identity documents. Many IDPs in urban areas reportedly faced discrimination, lacked adequate sanitation and other basic services, and lived at constant risk of eviction from illegally occupied displacement sites, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center. Women in IDP sites reported high levels of domestic violence. Limited opportunities to earn a livelihood following the initial displacement often led to secondary displacement, making tracking of vulnerable persons difficult. Even IDPs who had access to local social services sometimes had less access than their non-IDP neighbors, due to distance from the services or other factors. Severe flooding and landslides on August 26 in Parwan Province killed 190 individuals and destroyed nearly 4,000 houses. Media reported that on August 27, the Taliban killed four civilian internally displaced survivors of the floods during clashes with the ANDSF.

Intense fighting in Helmand Province in October resulted in the displacement of thousands of families over a period of just two weeks, reported the AIHRC. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimated 35,000 individuals were displaced but had only been able to confirm an estimated 14,000 IDPs because deteriorating security conditions interrupted phone service and prevented access.

f. Protection of Refugees

The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and other humanitarian organizations to provide protection and assistance to internally displaced persons, refugees, returning refugees, and other persons of concern.

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: The government’s ability to assist vulnerable persons, including returnees from Pakistan and Iran, remained limited, and it continued to rely on the international community for assistance.

The IOM reported undocumented Afghan returns from Iran and Pakistan totaled 449,213 from January 1 to August 15, with 447,206 from Iran and 2,007 from Pakistan. Registered Afghan refugee returns from Pakistan slowed to historically low levels during the year, with just 551 returns as of August 25, in part because UNHCR suspended assisted returns between March 17 and August 10 due to COVID-19 and border closures impeded travel.

Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has not established a system for providing protection to refugees. Nonetheless, UNHCR registered and provided protection for approximately 170 refugees and 250 asylum seekers in urban areas throughout the country. UNHCR also provided protection for 72,000 persons of concern who fled Pakistan in 2014 and resided in the provinces of Khost and Paktika.

g. Stateless Persons

NGOs noted the lack of official birth registration for refugee children in the country as a significant problem and protection concern, due to the risk of statelessness and potential long-term disadvantage.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The law provides citizens the opportunity to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage. The right to vote may be stripped for certain criminal offenses. Violence from the Taliban and other antigovernment groups interfered with, but did not derail, the most recent presidential election, held in 2019.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: Presidential elections were held in September 2019. Voter turnout in the presidential election of September 2019 was historically low, at less than 19 percent, reportedly due to security threats, less robust campaigning by candidates, voter apathy, the decoupling of the presidential and provincial elections that traditionally helped drive local mobilization networks, among other factors. Additionally, biometric voter verification determined the validity of ballots in 2019 and reportedly accounted for at least part of the difference in turnout compared with previous elections because of the invalidation of any ballot not biometrically verified. According to the United Nations, the Taliban carried out a deliberate campaign of violence and intimidation, including on polling centers located in schools and health facilities. It found these attacks caused 458 civilian casualties (85 killed and 373 injured) from the start of the top-up registration in June 2019 through September 30, 2019. These figures included 100 incidents on the September 28 election day, resulting in 277 civilian casualties (28 killed and 249 injured). According to the United Nations, civilian casualty levels were higher on election day in 2019 than on the polling days for the first round and second rounds of the 2014 presidential election. On February 18, the Independent Election Commission (IEC) announced that President Ghani secured re-election with 50.64 percent of the vote, while then chief executive Abdullah Abdullah, Ghani’s chief opponent, received 39.52 percent of the vote. Although election experts noted technical improvements in the electoral procedures, there were concerns regarding the electoral bodies’ ability to ensure transparency during the results tabulation process. Political campaigns disputed the authenticity of 300,000 votes, of a total of 1.8 million votes cast, causing delays and accusations of politicization of election monitoring bodies. Opposition candidates additionally called for the IEC to reject votes cast at polling places that faced discrepancies with biometric verification of voters. The Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) investigated approximately 16,500 electoral complaints, ultimately rejecting more than 9,800 complaints, and conducted a recount for nearly 5,400 polling stations. The IEC conducted two audits before finalizing the results it announced in February.

Both President Ghani and Abdullah declared victory and held competing swearing in ceremonies on March 9. Afghan political actors mediated the resulting political impasse, ultimately resulting in a compromise, announced on May 17, in which President Ghani retained the presidency, Abdullah was appointed to lead the High Council for National Reconciliation, and each would select one-half of the cabinet members.

Political Parties and Political Participation: The law grants parties the right to exist as formal institutions. The law provides that any citizen 25 years old or older may establish a political party. The law requires parties to have at least 10,000 members from the country’s 34 provinces to register with the Ministry of Justice, conduct official party business, and introduce candidates in elections. Only citizens 18 years old or older and who have the right to vote may join a political party. Certain members of the government, judiciary, military, and government-affiliated commissions are prohibited from political party membership during their tenure in office.

In large areas of the country, political parties could not operate due to insecurity.

On December 23, unknown gunmen shot and killed Yusuf Rashid, the head of the Free and Fair Elections Forum, an independent election monitoring group.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit participation of women or members of minority groups in the political process. In the 2019 presidential election, women accounted for 34.5 percent of those registered to vote and 31.5 percent of all votes cast. Absent reliable data, civil society, think tanks, and election monitoring organizations assessed that women’s participation across the country varied according to the security conditions and social norms. There was lower female voter turnout in provinces where communities purposely limited female participation in the democratic process, where lack of security was a concern, or both. Conflict, threats, financial constraints, corruption, and conservative family members put female voters at a disadvantage. There were reports some men declared female voting a sin, and others said women should vote for male candidates. There were reports that a biometric voter identification requirement for all registering voters to have their photograph taken was seen by some as an infringement on women’s modesty and, according to media sources, limited women’s ability to vote.

The constitution specifies a minimum number of seats for women and minorities in the two houses of parliament. For the Wolesi Jirga (lower house of the national assembly), the constitution mandates that at least two women shall be elected from each province (for a total of 68). The IEC finalized 2018 parliamentary election results in May 2019, and 418 female candidates contested the 250 seats in the Wolesi Jirga in the 2018 parliamentary election. In Daikundi Province a woman won a seat in open competition against male candidates, making it the only province to have more female representation than mandated by the constitution. The constitution also mandates one-half of presidential appointees must be women. It also sets aside 10 seats in the Wolesi Jirga for members of the nomadic Kuchi minority. In the Meshrano Jirga (upper house), the president’s appointees must include two Kuchis and two members with physical disabilities, and half of the president’s nominees must be women. One seat in the Meshrano Jirga and one in the Wolesi Jirga is reserved for the appointment or election of a Sikh or Hindu representative, although this is not mandated by the constitution. On July 6, the cabinet decreed that each of the country’s 34 provinces should have one female deputy governor. By year’s end, 14 female deputy governors were appointed.

Traditional societal practices limited women’s participation in politics and activities outside the home and community, including the need to have a male escort or permission to work. These factors, in addition to an education and experience gap, likely contributed to the central government’s male-dominated composition. The 2016 electoral law mandates that 25 percent of all provincial, district, and village council seats “shall be allocated to female candidates.” Neither district nor village councils were established by year’s end.

Women active in government and politics continued to face threats and violence and were targets of attacks by the Taliban and other insurgent groups. On March 22, a gunman fired multiple shots into a vehicle carrying Zarifa Ghafari, the mayor of Maidan Shar in Wardak Province, and her fiance. Both were uninjured in the attack.

No laws prevent members of minority groups from participating in political life, although different ethnic groups complained of unequal access to local government jobs in provinces where they were in the minority. Individuals from the largest ethnic group, the Pashtuns, had more seats than any other ethnic group in both houses of parliament, but they did not have more than 50 percent of the seats. There was no evidence authorities purposely excluded specific societal groups from political participation.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials. The government did not implement the law effectively, and officials frequently engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. Reports indicated corruption was endemic throughout society, and flows of money from the military, international donors, and the drug trade continued to exacerbate the problem. Local businessmen complained government contracts were routinely steered to companies that paid a bribe or had family or other connections to a contracting official.

According to prisoners and local NGOs, corruption was widespread across the justice system, particularly in connection with the prosecution of criminal cases and in arranging release from prison. There were reports officials received unauthorized payments in exchange for reducing prison sentences, halting investigations, or outright dismissing charges.

Freedom House reported inadequately trained judges and extensive corruption in the judiciary, with judges and lawyers often subject to threats and bribes from local leaders or armed groups.

During the year there were reports of “land grabbing” by both private and public actors. Most commonly, businesses illegally obtained property deeds from corrupt officials and sold the deeds to unsuspecting prospective homeowners who were later prosecuted. Other reports indicated government officials confiscated land without compensation with the intent to exchange it for contracts or political favors. There were reports provincial governments illegally confiscated land without due process or compensation in order to build public facilities.

Corruption: The Anti-Corruption Justice Center (ACJC) reported that since its inception in 2016 to mid-September, the ACJC tried 281 defendants in 76 cases before its trial chamber and 214 defendants in 68 cases before its appellate chamber. Of cases tried in the trial chamber, 199 were sentenced to imprisonment, 23 were fined, and 59 acquitted. Of cases tried in the appellate chamber, 172 were sentenced to imprisonment, 18 were fined, and 24 were acquitted. In January the ACJC appellate court resentenced several former election officials to two and one-half years in prison each, cutting their earlier prison terms by half.

There were reports of political patronage in the government’s COVID-19 response efforts, including accusations of embezzlement and theft of medical equipment by government authorities. On June 22, a media report alleged that 32 ventilators were embezzled from the Ministry of Public Health and subsequently smuggled to Pakistan for a profit. Media reported that on August 24 former minister of public health Ferozuddin Feroz and several former and current deputy ministers were referred to the Attorney General’s Office for suspected misappropriation of funds designated to address the COVID-19 pandemic. Media also reported that in October the governor of Herat Province, the mayor of Herat city, three members of the provincial council, and 17 other top provincial officials were accused of embezzling approximately 20 million afghanis ($260,000) of government funding of COVID-19 response activities. According to ACJC prosecutors, the cases against these officials were sent to the ACJC primary court, but the court sent the case back to the prosecution office to fill investigative gaps. The suspects were released on bail.

Violent attacks by insurgents against judges, prosecutors, and prison officials during the year made members of the judicial sector increasingly fearful in carrying out their duties. According to government and media reports, since 2015 more than 300 judges, prosecutors, prison personnel, and other justice workers were killed, injured, or abducted. During the year, five judges and one administrative official were killed and two judges were abducted. Justice professionals came under threat or attack for pursuing certain cases–particularly corruption or abuse-of-power cases–against politically or economically powerful individuals.

According to various reports, many government officials, including district or provincial governors, ambassadors, and deputy ministers, were suborned. Government officials with reported involvement in corruption, the drug trade, or records of human rights abuses reportedly continued to receive executive appointments and served with relative impunity. On February 6, the Ministry of Interior announced it had arrested five police officers, including Ahmad Ahmadi, the Kabul counternarcotics chief, for involvement in drug trafficking.

On August 17, the primary court of the ACJC convicted a former official of the National Office of Norms and Standards of accepting a bribe of $100,000 from an unidentified company. The court sentenced the former official to 16 years’ imprisonment, a $100,000 fine (the amount of the bribe), as well as an additional fine of 60,000 afghanis ($765) for carrying a firearm without a permit.

There were allegations of widespread corruption and abuse of power by officers at the Ministry of Interior. Provincial police reportedly extorted civilians at checkpoints and received kickbacks from the drug trade. Police reportedly demanded bribes from civilians to gain release from prison or avoid arrest. Senior Interior Ministry officials also refused to sign the execution of arrest warrants.

Financial Disclosure: A 2017 legislative decree established the Administration on Registration and Assets of Government Officials and Employees (Registration Administration) under the Administrative Office of the President. All government officials, employees, and elected officials are required to declare their assets. The Registration Administration was responsible for collecting, verifying, and publishing information from high-ranking government officials. Under the law all government officials and employees must submit financial disclosures on all sources and levels of personal income for themselves and their immediate family annually and when they assume or leave office. Individuals who do not submit forms or are late in submission are subject to suspension of employment, salary, and travel bans. The Attorney General’s Office imposed travel bans on individuals who did not submit their forms; however, the bans were not regularly enforced, especially for high-level officials. For instance, although the website of the Administrative Office of the President showed several high-ranking government officials failed to register their assets, it was public knowledge they frequently travelled internationally. Employment and salary suspensions were not imposed.

As of July 22, the deadline for asset registration, the Registration Administration successfully registered assets of more than 18,000 government employees. Verification of assets was slow and problematic for the administration due to lack of organized systems in some government offices. Public outreach by the Registration Administration allowed civil society and private citizens the opportunity to comment on individual declarations.

Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights

Domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials were somewhat cooperative and responsive to their views. Human rights activists continued to express concern that human rights abusers remained in positions of power within the government.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The constitutionally mandated AIHRC continued to address human rights problems, but it received minimal government funding and relied almost exclusively on international donor funds. On June 27, an IED killed two members of the AIHRC. Perpetrators of the bombing were not identified. Three Wolesi Jirga committees deal with human rights: the Gender, Civil Society, and Human Rights Committee; the Counternarcotic, Intoxicating Items, and Ethical Abuse Committee; and the Judicial, Administrative Reform, and Anticorruption Committee. In the Meshrano Jirga, the Committee for Gender and Civil Society addresses human rights concerns.

Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: The EVAW presidential decree was first issued in 2009 and was reinforced by another presidential decree in 2018. Implementation and awareness of the decree remained a serious problem. The decree criminalizes 22 acts of violence against women, including rape; battery or beating; forced marriage; humiliation; intimidation; and deprivation of inheritance. The penal code criminalizes rape of both women and men. The law provides for a minimum sentence of five to 16 years’ imprisonment for conviction of rape, or up to 20 years if one or more aggravating circumstances is present. If the act results in the death of the victim, the law provides for a death sentence for the perpetrator. The penal code criminalizes statutory rape and prohibits the prosecution of rape victims for zina. The law provides for imprisonment of up to seven years for conviction of “aggression to the chastity or honor of a female [that] does not lead to penetration to anus or vagina.” Under the law rape does not include spousal rape. Authorities did not always enforce these laws, although the government was implementing limited aspects of EVAW, including through EVAW prosecution units.

Prosecutors and judges in rural areas were frequently unaware of the EVAW decree or received pressure to release defendants due to familial loyalties, threat of harm, or bribes, or because some religious leaders declared the law un-Islamic. Female victims faced stringent or violent societal reprisal, ranging from imprisonment to extrajudicial killing.

The penal code criminalizes forced gynecological exams, which act as “virginity tests,” except when conducted pursuant to a court order or with the consent of the subject. Awareness and enforcement of the restrictions on forced gynecological exams remained limited. In October the AIHRC reported that more than 90 percent of these exams were conducted without either a court order or the individual’s consent, and were conducted related to accusations including: adultery, murder, theft, and running away from home, among others. The Ministry of Public Health claimed no exam had taken place without a court order and the consent of the individual. There were reports police, prosecutors, and judges continued to order the exams in cases of “moral crimes” such as zina. Women who sought assistance in cases of rape were often subjected to the exams.

The penal code criminalizes assault, and courts convicted domestic abusers under this provision, as well as under the “injury and disability” and beating provisions in the EVAW decree. According to NGO reports, millions of women continued to suffer abuse at the hands of their husbands, fathers, brothers, in-laws, and other individuals. State institutions, including police and judicial systems, failed to adequately address such abuse. Lockdowns due to COVID-19 forced women to spend more time at home, reportedly resulting in increased incidence of domestic violence as well as additional stress on already limited victim support systems. One such incident included a man from Paktika Province who cut off his wife’s nose with a kitchen knife in May. The woman, who regularly faced physical abuse by her husband, was reportedly seeking to leave the abusive relationship when her husband attacked her.

Due to cultural normalization and a view of domestic violence as a “family matter,” domestic violence often remained unreported. The justice system’s response to domestic violence was insufficient, in part due to underreporting, preference toward mediation, sympathy toward perpetrators, corruption, and family or tribal pressure. There were EVAW prosecution units in all 34 provinces, and EVAW court divisions expanded during the year to operate at the primary and appellate levels in all 34 provinces.

Space at the 28 women’s protection centers across the country was sometimes insufficient, particularly in major urban centers, and shelters remained concentrated in the western, northern, and central regions of the country. Some women did not seek legal assistance for domestic or sexual abuse because they did not know their rights or because they feared prosecution or being sent back to their family or to the perpetrator. Cultural stigmatization of women who spend even one night outside the home also prevented women from seeking services that may bring “shame” to herself or family.

In 2019 the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) banned for life the Afghanistan Football Federation’s former head, Keramuddin Karim, and fined him one million Swiss francs (one million dollars) after finding him guilty of sexually abusing female players. At least five female soccer players accused Karim of repeated sexual abuse, including rape, from 2013 to 2018 while he served as the federation president. The players stated that Karim threatened them with reputational and additional physical harm if they did not comply with his advances. Women who rebuffed his advances were expelled from the team, according to eight former players who experienced such treatment. Those who went public faced intimidation. The Attorney General’s Office indicted Karim on multiple counts of rape in 2019, but the court sent the case back to the attorney general for further investigation before trial, and Karim was never questioned. Security forces attempted to arrest Karim on August 23 in Panjshir Province (where he was a former governor) but failed after local residents, many of whom were armed, intervened in support of Karim. At year’s end Karim was still at large.

At times women in need of protection ended up in prison, either because their community lacked a protection center or because “running away” was interpreted as a moral crime. Adultery, fornication, and kidnapping are criminal offenses. Running away is not a crime under the law, and both the Supreme Court and the Attorney General’s Office issued directives to this effect, but some local authorities continued to detain women and girls for running away from home or “attempted zina.” The Ministry of Women’s Affairs, as well as nongovernmental entities, sometimes arranged marriages for women who could not return to their families.

Other Harmful Traditional Practices: The law criminalizes forced, underage, and baad marriages (the practice of settling disputes in which the culprit’s family trades a girl to the victim’s family) and interference with a woman’s right to choose her spouse. NGOs reported instances of baad were still practiced, often in rural areas. The practice of exchanging brides between families was not criminalized and remained widespread.

Honor killings continued throughout the year. In May a soldier in Badakhshan Province stabbed his 18-year-old sister to death in an apparent honor killing after she rejected her family’s proposal for an arranged marriage.

Sexual Harassment: The law criminalizes all forms of harassment of women and children, including physical, verbal, psychological, and sexual. By law all government ministries are required to establish a committee to review internal harassment complaints and support appropriate resolution of these claims. Implementation and enforcement of the law remained limited and ineffective. Media reported that the number of women reporting sexual harassment increased compared with prior years, although some speculated this could be an increased willingness to report cases rather than an increase in the incidence of harassment. Women who walked outside alone or who worked outside the home often experienced harassment, including groping, catcalling, and being followed. Women with public roles occasionally received threats directed at them or their families.

Businesswomen faced myriad challenges from the traditional nature of society and its norms with regard to acceptable behavior by women. When it was necessary for a businesswoman to approach the government for some form, permit, or authorization, it was common for a male functionary to ask for sexual favors or money in exchange for the authorization. In April, Human Rights Watch reported that a government employee, in front of other colleagues, told a woman with a disability he would process her disability certificate, which provides a stipend, if she had sex with him. The employee’s colleagues, according to her statement, laughed and said, “How do you want to get your disability card when you don’t want to sleep with us?” She reported that other women with disabilities had faced similar experiences when requesting disability certificates.

Reproductive Rights: In 2020 married couples had the legal right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children. The Family Law (2019), which is in effect by promulgation of presidential proclamation (though parliament has not passed it), outlines individuals’ rights to reproductive health. There were no recent, reliable data regarding reproductive rights in 2020. According to the 2015 Afghanistan Demographic and Health Survey, however, only 5 percent of women made independent decisions about their own health care, while 44 percent reported that their husbands made the decisions for them.

Having a child outside of wedlock is a crime according to the penal code and is punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment for both men and women. A mother faced severe social stigma for having a child out of wedlock, even when the pregnancy was a result of rape. Intentionally ending a pregnancy is a crime under both the penal code and the Elimination of Violence against Women (EVAW) law and is punishable by three months to one years’ imprisonment.

In 2020 there were no legal barriers to the use of any type of contraception, but there were social and cultural barriers, including the social practice of mandating a woman’s husband consent to the use of contraception. There were no legal barriers that prevent a woman from receiving reproductive health care or obstetrical care, but socially, many men prevented their wives from receiving care from male doctors or from having a male doctor in attendance at the birth of a child.

Families and individuals in cities generally had better access to information and better means to manage their reproductive health than did those living in rural areas. According to the United Nations, the rate of contraceptive use among married women was 35 percent for those living in urban areas compared with 19 percent in rural areas. According to the UN Population Fund, 20 percent of women could not exercise their right to reproductive health due to violence, and 50 percent did not have access to information about their reproductive rights. According to the Ministry of Public Health, while there was wide variance, most clinics offered some type of modern family planning method.

The WHO reported that the country had 638 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births in 2017 (the last year of reported data). A survey conducted by the Central Statistics Organization in the provinces of Bamyan, Daikundi, Ghor, Kabul, Kapisa, and Parwan concluded that many factors contributed to the high maternal death rate, including early pregnancy, narrowly spaced births, and high fertility. Some societal norms, such as a tradition of home births and the requirement for some women to be accompanied by a male relative to leave their homes, led to negative reproductive health outcomes, including inadequate prenatal, postpartum, and emergency obstetric care. Access to maternal health care services was constrained by the limited number of female health practitioners, including an insufficient number of skilled birth attendants. Additionally, the conflict environment and other security concerns limited women’s safe access to health services of any kind.

The EVAW law and the Prohibition of Harassment against Women and Children Law (2017) contain provisions to support female victims of violence, including sexual violence. In 2020 the Ministry of Women’s Affairs was charged with raising awareness of gender-based and sexual violence and providing legal support to survivors. According to the ministry, assistance was usually focused on pursuing legal action against the perpetrators but sometimes included general health services.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.

Discrimination: Women who reported cases of abuse or who sought legal redress for other matters reported they experienced discrimination within the judicial system. Some observers, including female judges, asserted that discrimination was a result of faulty implementation of law. Limited access to money and other resources to pay fines (or bribes) and the social requirement for women to have a male guardian affected women’s access to and participation in the justice system. Women do not have equal legal rights, compared to men, to inherit assets as a surviving spouse, and daughters do not have equal rights, compared to sons, to inherit assets from their parents.

By law women may not unilaterally divorce their husbands, but they may do so with the husband’s consent to the divorce, although men may unilaterally divorce their wives. Many women petition instead for legal separation. According to the family court in Kabul, during the year women petitioned for legal separation twice as frequently as in the previous year.

Prosecutors and judges in some provinces continued to be reluctant to use the EVAW decree, and judges sometimes replaced those charges with others based on the penal code.

The law provides for equal work without discrimination, but there are no provisions for equal pay for equal work. The law criminalizes interference with a woman’s right to work. Women faced discrimination in access to employment and terms of occupation.

Female political figures and activists were the targets of assassinations and assassination attempts throughout the year. On December 24, unknown gunmen killed women’s rights activist Freshta Kohistani, along with her brother.

Unknown gunmen attacked Fawzia Koofi, a former lawmaker and member of the government negotiating team in intra-Afghan negotiations, who sustained minor injuries.

Similarly, Zarifa Ghafari, the mayor of Maidan Shahr (capital city of Wardak Province), survived two separate assassination attempts. On March 22, unknown gunmen fired on her car; she did not sustain injuries. On October 3, unknown gunmen ambushed her car, but she again escaped unharmed. On November 12, assailants shot and killed Ghafari’s father, an army colonel. The Taliban acknowledged responsibility for the attack. Ghafari claimed the Taliban killed her father to discourage her from serving as mayor.

On August 25, unknown gunmen shot at the car carrying actress and women’s rights campaigner Saba Sahar. Sahar and her companions were injured in the attack.

On November 8, Abdul Sami Yousufi, a prosecutor specializing in EVAW cases, was killed by a group of unidentified gunmen on motorcycles of Herat city. The Herat Attorney General’s Office opened an investigation following the killing.

On November 10, media outlets reported that unidentified assailants attacked and blinded Khatera, a female police officer, for securing a position on the police force. According to media reports, the attackers were tipped off by Khatera’s father. Khatera blamed the Taliban for the attack, although they denied responsibility.

Children

Birth Registration: A citizen father transmits citizenship to his child. Birth in the country or to a citizen mother alone does not bestow citizenship. Adoption is not legally recognized.

Education: Education is mandatory up to the lower secondary level (six years in primary school and three years in lower secondary), and the law provides for free education up to and including the college level. UNICEF reported that approximately 3.7 million children, 60 percent of whom are girls, were not in school due to discrimination, poverty, lack of access, continuing conflict, and restrictions on girls’ access to education in Taliban-controlled areas, among other reasons. Only 16 percent of the country’s schools were for girls, and many of them lacked proper sanitation facilities. Key obstacles to girls’ education included poverty, early and forced marriage, insecurity, a lack of family support, lack of female teachers, and a lack of nearby schools.

Violent attacks on schoolchildren, particularly girls, hindered access to education, particularly in areas controlled by the Taliban. The Taliban and other extremists threatened and attacked school officials, teachers, and students, particularly girls, and burned both boys’ and girls’ schools. In February, Taliban militants set fire to a girls’ school in Takhar Province, burning all equipment, books, and documents.

There were press reports of sexual abuse perpetrated by teachers and school officials, particularly against boys. The government claimed families rarely pressed charges due to shame and doubt that the judicial system would respond. There were reports that both insurgent groups and government forces used school buildings for military purposes. School buildings were damaged and students were injured in Taliban attacks on nearby government facilities.

Child Abuse: The penal code criminalizes child abuse and neglect. The penalty for beating, or physically or mentally disciplining or mistreating a child, ranges from a fine of 10,000 afghanis ($130) to one year in prison if the child does not sustain a serious injury or disability. Conviction of endangering the life of a child carries a penalty of one to two years in prison or a fine of 60,000 to 120,000 afghanis ($800 to $1,600).

Police reportedly beat and sexually abused children. Children who sought police assistance for abuse also reported being further harassed and abused by law enforcement officials, particularly in bacha bazi cases, which deterred victims from reporting their claims.

On September 21, police officers in Kandahar Province beat and raped a 13-year-old boy who died of his injuries. The Attorney General’s Office reported seven suspects were in custody at year’s end and that it filed indictments against them at a Kabul district court in November for assault, rape, and murder.

NGOs reported a predominantly punitive and retributive approach to juvenile justice throughout the country. Although it is against the law, corporal punishment in schools, rehabilitation centers, and other public institutions remained common.

In 2019 human rights defenders exposed the sexual abuse of at least 165 schoolboys from three high schools in Logar Province, alleging that teachers, principals, vice principals, fellow students, and at least one local law enforcement official participated in the abuse. The release of videos of some the rapes and exposure of the scandal led to at least five honor killings of the victims. Two human rights defenders were subsequently placed in NDS detention after exposing the allegations, forced to apologize for their reporting, and continued to face threats after their release, prompting them to flee the country. The Attorney General’s Office investigation into the scandal resulted in the identification of 20 perpetrators, 10 of whom had been arrested by year’s end. Nine of the perpetrators were convicted of child sexual assault by the Logar Primary Court, which handed down sentences ranging between five and 22 years’ imprisonment. Another four men were indicted by the Attorney General’s Office in early September of raping a male student. One of the suspects, a high school headmaster, was the first government employee to face charges of child sexual assault related to the Logar bacha bazi case.

There were reports some members of the military and progovernment groups sexually abused and exploited young girls and boys. UNAMA reported children continued to be subjected to sexual violence by parties to the conflict at an “alarming rate.” According to media and NGO reports, many of these cases went unreported or were referred to traditional mediation, which often allowed perpetrators to reoffend.

The government took steps to discourage the abuse of boys and to prosecute or punish those involved. The penal code criminalizes bacha bazi as a separate crime and builds on a 2017 trafficking-in-persons law (TIP law) that includes provisions criminalizing behaviors associated with the sexual exploitation of children. The penal code details the punishment for authorities of security forces involved in bacha bazi with an average punishment of up to 15 years’ imprisonment. Although no police officer had ever been prosecuted for bacha bazi, eight officers were arrested during the year in connection with bacha bazi incidents and charged with “moral crimes,” sodomy, or other crimes.

The Ministry of Interior operated CPUs throughout the country to prevent the recruitment of children into the ANP, although the CPUs played a limited oversight role in recruiting. Nevertheless, recruitment of children continued, including into the ANP, the ALP, progovernment forces, and Taliban. Additionally, the government did not have sufficient resources to reintegrate children into their families once they had been identified by the CPUs.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: Despite a law setting the legal minimum age for marriage at 16 years for girls (15 years with the consent of a parent or guardian or the court) and 18 years for boys, international and local observers continued to report widespread early and forced marriages throughout the country. By EVAW decree those convicted of entering into, or arranging, forced or underage marriages are subject to at least two years’ imprisonment; however, implementation was limited.

By law a marriage contract requires verification that the bride is 16 years old (or 15 years old with the permission of her parents or a court), but only a small fraction of the population had birth certificates.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law criminalizes sexual exploitation of children. In addition to outlawing the practice of bacha bazi, the penal code provides that, “[i]f an adult male has intercourse with a person younger than the legal age, his act shall be considered rape and the victim’s consent is invalid.” In the case of an adult female having intercourse with a person younger than the legal age, the law considers the child’s consent invalid and the woman may be prosecuted for adultery. The EVAW decree prescribes a penalty of 10 to 15 years’ imprisonment for forcing an underage girl into prostitution. Taking possession of a child for sexual exploitation or production of pornographic films or images constitutes trafficking in persons under the TIP law regardless of whether other elements of the crime are present.

Displaced Children: During the year NGOs and government offices reported high numbers of returnee families and their children in border areas, specifically Herat and Jalalabad. The government attempted to follow its policy and action plan for the reintegration of Afghan returnees and IDPs, in partnership with the United Nations; however, the government’s ability to assist vulnerable persons, many of them unaccompanied minors, remained limited, and it relied on the international community for assistance. Although the government banned street begging in 2008, NGOs and government offices reported large numbers of children begging and living in the streets of major cities.

Institutionalized Children: Living conditions for children in orphanages were poor. NGOs reported as many as 80 percent of children between ages four and 18 in orphanages were not orphans but from families unable to provide them with food, shelter, schooling, or all three. Children in orphanages reported mental, physical, and sexual abuse and occasionally were victims of trafficking. They did not have regular access to running water, heating in winter, indoor plumbing, health-care services, recreational facilities, or education. Security forces kept child detainees in juvenile detention centers run by the Ministry of Justice, except for a group of children arrested for national security violations who stayed at the detention facility in Parwan, the country’s primary military prison. NGOs reported these children were kept separate from the general population but still were at risk of radicalization.

International Child Abductions: The country is not a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.

Anti-Semitism

There were no reports of anti-Semitic acts. Reportedly only one Afghan Jew remained in the country.

Trafficking in Persons

See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

Persons with Disabilities

The constitution prohibits any kind of discrimination against citizens and requires the state to assist persons with disabilities and to protect their rights, including the rights to health care and financial protection. The constitution also requires the state to adopt measures to reintegrate and provide for the active participation in society of persons with disabilities. The law provides for equal rights to, and the active participation of, such persons in society. Observers reported that both the constitutional provisions and disabilities rights law were mostly ignored and unenforced.

Persons with disabilities faced barriers such as limited access to educational opportunities, inability to access government buildings, difficulty in acquiring government identification required for many government services and voting, lack of economic opportunities, and social exclusion due to stigma.

Lack of security remained a problem for disability programs. Insecurity in remote areas, where a disproportionate number of persons with disabilities lived, precluded delivery of assistance in some cases. The majority of buildings remained inaccessible to persons with disabilities, prohibiting many from benefitting from education, health care, and other services.

In the Meshrano Jirga, authorities reserved two of the presidentially appointed seats for persons with disabilities. By law 3 percent of all government positions are reserved for persons with disabilities, but government officials acknowledged the law was not enforced.

Human Rights Watch released a report in April in which a woman with a disability reported that Herat city offered no disability support services, including technical support for wheelchair damage. She told interviewers she was stranded indoors, unable to access recreational activities.

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

Ethnic tensions continued to result in conflict and killings. Societal discrimination against Shia Hazaras continued in the form of extortion of money through illegal taxation, forced recruitment and forced labor, physical abuse, and detention. According to NGOs, the government frequently assigned Hazara police officers to symbolic positions with little authority within the Ministry of Interior. NGOs also reported Hazara ANDSF officers were more likely than non-Hazara officers to be posted to insecure areas of the country. During the year ISIS-K continued attacks against Shia, predominately Hazara, communities. On March 6, gunmen attacked a ceremony in Kabul attended primarily by Shia Hazaras, killing 32. On October 24, a suicide bomber killed 40 persons and wounded 72 others at an educational center in a Hazara neighborhood of Kabul. ISIS-K claimed responsibility. Many of the victims were between the ages of 15 and 26.

Sikhs and Hindus faced discrimination, reporting unequal access to government jobs, harassment in school, and verbal and physical abuse in public places. On March 25, gunmen attacked a Sikh gurdwara (house of worship and community gathering place) in Kabul, killing 25 and injuring 11. ISIS-K claimed responsibility for this attack. On March 26, an IED detonated during funeral services for the victims, injuring one. On March 27, police found and defused another IED near the Kabul gurdwara. In the months that followed, many Sikh families departed the country, going primarily to India, due to threats against Sikhs and what they perceived to be inadequate government protection. At year’s end approximately 400 members of the Sikh and Hindu community remained in the country, down from approximately 600 at the start of the year.

Acts of Violence, Criminalization, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

The law criminalizes consensual same-sex sexual conduct. Under Islamic sharia law, conviction of same-sex sexual activity is punishable by death, flogging, or imprisonment. Under the penal code, sex between men is a criminal offense punishable by up to two years’ imprisonment and sex between women with up to one year of imprisonment. The law does not prohibit discrimination or harassment based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) individuals reported they continued to face arrest by security forces and discrimination, assault, and rape. There were reports of harassment and violence of LGBTI individuals by society and police. Homosexuality was widely seen as taboo and indecent. LGBTI individuals did not have access to certain health-care services and could be fired from their jobs because of their sexual orientation. Organizations devoted to protecting the freedom of LGBTI persons remained underground because they could not legally register with the government. Even registered organizations working on health programs for men who have sex with men faced harassment and threats by the Ministry of Economy’s NGO Directorate and NDS officials.

Saboor Husaini, a transgender activist and artist, died in a Herat hospital after being beaten by an unidentified group of men December 25.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

There were no confirmed reports of discrimination or violence against persons with HIV or AIDS, but there was reportedly serious societal stigma against persons with AIDS. While the law allows for the distribution of condoms, the government restricted distribution to married couples.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The labor law provides for the right of workers to join and form independent unions and to conduct legal strikes and bargain collectively, and the government generally respected these rights, although it lacked enforcement tools. The labor law, however, provides no definition of a union or its relationship with employers and members, nor does it establish a legal method for union registration or penalties for violations. The labor law does not prohibit antiunion discrimination or provide for reinstatement of workers fired for union activity. Other than protecting the right to participate in a union, the law provides no other legal protection for union workers or workers seeking to unionize.

Although the labor law identifies the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs’ (Ministry of Labor) Labor High Council as the highest decision-making body on labor-related issues, the lack of implementing regulations prevented the council from performing its function. There was an inspection office within the ministry, but inspectors could only advise and make suggestions. As a result, the application of the labor law remained limited because of a lack of central enforcement authority, implementing regulations that describe procedures and penalties for violations, funding, personnel, and political will.

The government allowed several unions to operate, but it interfered with the National Union of Afghanistan Workers and Employees (NUAWE), forcing its offices to remain closed after several raids in 2018. The Justice Ministry blocked NUAWE from holding a congress, reneged on its promise to unblock union bank accounts, and refused to return confiscated properties until after a union congress. Freedom of association and the right to bargain collectively were sometimes respected, but most workers were not aware of these rights. This was particularly true of workers in rural areas or the agricultural sector, who had not formed unions. In urban areas the majority of workers participated in the informal sector as day laborers in construction, where there were neither unions nor collective bargaining.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The labor law narrowly defines forced labor and does not sufficiently criminalize forced labor and debt bondage. Men, women, and children were exploited in bonded labor, where an initial debt assumed by a worker as part of the terms of employment was exploited, ultimately entrapping other family members, sometimes for multiple generations. This type of debt bondage was common in the brickworks industry. Some families knowingly sold their children into sex trafficking, including for bacha bazi (see section 7.c.).

Government enforcement of the labor law was ineffective; resources, inspections, and remediation were inadequate; and the government made minimal efforts to prevent and eliminate forced labor. Penalties were not commensurate with analogous crimes, such as kidnapping.

The government prosecuted and convicted two perpetrators of bacha bazi for kidnapping and increased the number of child protection units at the ANP. Despite consistent reports of bacha bazi perpetrated by Afghan National Army, ANP, and Afghan Local Police officials, however, the government has never prosecuted an official for bacha bazi, although the Attorney General’s Office investigated and filed indictments against seven Kandahar security officers implicated in the sexual abuse and death of a boy in September. The government denied that security forces recruited or used child soldiers. Some victims reported that authorities perpetuated abuse in exchange for pursuing their cases, and authorities continued to arrest, detain, and penalize victims.

Men, women, and children (see section 7.c.) were exploited in bonded and forced labor. Traffickers compelled entire families to work in bonded labor, predominantly in the carpet and brick making industries in the eastern part of the country. Some women who were sold to husbands were exploited in domestic servitude by their husbands. Men were subjected to forced labor and debt bondage in agriculture and construction.

Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The labor law sets the minimum age for employment at 15 but permits 14-year-old children to work as apprentices, allows children 15 years old and older to do light nonhazardous work, and permits children 15 to 17 to work up to 35 hours per week. The law prohibits children younger than 14 from working under any circumstances. The law was openly flouted, with poverty driving many children into the workforce. The law also bans the employment of children in hazardous work that is likely to threaten their health or cause disability, including mining and garbage collection; work in blast furnaces, waste-processing plants, and large slaughterhouses; work with hospital waste; drug-related work; security-guard services; and work related to war.

Poor institutional capacity was a serious impediment to effective enforcement of the labor law. Labor inspectors do not have legal authority to inspect worksites for compliance with child labor laws or to impose penalties for noncompliance. Other deficiencies included the lack of authority to impose penalties for labor inspectors, inadequate resources, labor inspector understaffing, inspections, remediation, and penalties for violations.

Child labor remained a pervasive problem. Most victims of forced labor were children. Child laborers worked as domestic servants, street vendors, peddlers, and shopkeepers. There was child labor in the carpet industry, brick kilns, coal mines, and poppy fields. Children were also heavily engaged in the worst forms of child labor in mining, including mining salt; commercial sexual exploitation including bacha bazi (see section 6, Children); transnational drug smuggling; and organized begging rings. Some forms of child labor exposed children to land mines. Children faced numerous health and safety risks at work. There were reports of recruitment of children by the ANDSF during the year (see section 1.g.). Taliban forces pressed children to take part in hostile acts (see section 6, Children).

Some children were forced by their families into labor with physical violence. Particularly in opium farming, families sold their children into forced labor, begging, or sex trafficking to settle debts with opium traffickers. Some Afghan parents forcibly sent boys to Iran to work to pay for their dowry in an arranged marriage. Children were also subject to forced labor in orphanages run by NGOs and overseen by the government.

According to the International Labor Organization and UNICEF, millions more children were at risk of child labor due to COVID-19, because many families lost their incomes and did not have access to social support. Child labor was a key source of income for many families and the rising poverty, school closures, and decreased availability of social services increased the reliance on child labor. Many children already engaged in child labor were experiencing a worsening of conditions and working longer hours, posing significant harm to their health and safety. Aid and human rights groups reported that child labor laws were often violated, and children frequently faced harassment and abuse and earned very little or nothing for their labor.

Gender inequalities in child labor were also rising, as girls were particularly vulnerable to exploitation in agriculture and domestic work. COVID-19 also increased violent attacks on schools and teachers, which disproportionately impacted girls’ access to education and vulnerability to child labor. The UN Security Council reported that nine attacks against schools occurred between April 1 and June 30. Poverty and security concerns frequently lead parents to pull girls out of school before boys.

Also see the Department of Labor’s Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/resources/reports/child-labor/findings , and the Department of Labor’s List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/reports/child-labor/list-of-goods .

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The constitution prohibits discrimination and notes that citizens, both “man and woman,” have equal rights and duties before the law. It expressly prohibits discrimination based on language. The constitution contains no specific provisions addressing discrimination based on race, religion, national origin, color, sex, ethnicity, disability, or age. The penal code prescribes a term of imprisonment of not more than two years for anyone convicted of spreading discrimination or factionalism, which is commensurate to laws related to civil rights, such as election interference. A 2018 law criminalized physical, verbal, and nonverbal harassment, punishable with a fine, but the law remained largely ineffective due to underreporting.

Women continued to face discrimination and hardship in the workplace. Women made up only 22 percent of the workforce. Many women faced pressure from relatives to stay at home and encountered hiring practices that favored men. Older and married women reported it was more difficult for them than for younger, single women to find jobs. Women who worked reported they encountered insults, sexual harassment, lack of transportation, and an absence of day-care facilities. Gender-based violence escalated with targeted killings of high-profile women in the public sector. Salary discrimination existed in the private sector. Men earned 30 percent more on average in the same occupations as women and 3.5 times more in agriculture and forestry, where women occupied two-thirds of the workforce. Female journalists, social workers, and police officers reported they were often threatened or abused. Persons with disabilities also suffered from discrimination in hiring.

The Ministry of Labor and the Ministry of Public Health jointly adopted a regulation prescribing a list of 244 physically arduous and harmful occupations prohibited to women and children, of which 31 are identified as worst forms of child labor that are prohibited to children younger than 18. It is not permissible for women and children to engage in types of work that are physically arduous, harmful to health, or carried out in underground sites, such as in the mining sector.

Ethnic Hazaras, Sikhs, and Hindus faced discrimination in hiring and work assignments, in addition to broader social discrimination (see section 6, Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups).

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The minimum wage rates for workers in the nonpermanent private sector and for government workers were below the poverty line.

The labor law defines the standard workweek for both public- and private-sector employees as 40 hours: eight hours per day with one hour for lunch and noon prayers. The labor law makes no mention of day workers in the informal sector, leaving them completely unprotected. There are no occupational health and safety regulations or officially adopted standards. The law, however, provides for reduced standard workweeks for children ages 15 to 17, pregnant women, nursing mothers, and miners and workers in other occupations that present health risks. The law provides workers with the right to receive wages, annual vacation time in addition to national holidays, compensation for on-the-job injuries, overtime pay, health insurance for the employee and immediate family members, and other incidental allowances. The law prohibits compulsory work without establishing penalties and stipulates that overtime work be subject to the agreement of the employee. The law requires employers to provide day care and nurseries for children.

The government did not effectively enforce minimum wage and overtime nor occupational health and safety laws. The number of labor inspectors was not sufficient to enforce compliance, and inspectors have no legal authority to enter premises or impose penalties for violations. Resources, inspections, and remediation were inadequate, and penalties for violations were not commensurate with those for similar crimes.

Employers often chose not to comply with the law or preferred to hire workers informally. Most employees worked longer than 40 hours per week, were frequently underpaid, and worked in poor conditions, particularly in the informal sector. Workers were generally unaware of the full extent of their labor rights. Although comprehensive data on workplace accidents were unavailable, there were several reports of poor and dangerous working conditions. Some industries, such as brick kiln facilities, continued to use debt bondage, making it difficult for workers to remove themselves from situations of forced labor that endangered their health or safety.

Bosnia and Herzegovina

Executive Summary

Bosnia and Herzegovina is a democratic republic with a bicameral parliament. Many governmental functions are the responsibility of two entities within the state, the Bosniak-Croat Federation and the Republika Srpska, as well as the Brcko District, an autonomous administrative unit under Bosnia and Herzegovina sovereignty. The 1995 General Framework Agreement for Peace (the Dayton Accords), which ended the 1992-95 Bosnian war, provides the constitutional framework for governmental structures. The country held general elections in 2018. The results of the general elections were not fully implemented, as the Federation entity-level government and two cantonal governments were not yet formed. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights reported that the 2018 elections were held in a competitive environment but were characterized by continuing segmentation along ethnic lines. While candidates could campaign freely, the office noted that “instances of pressure and undue influence on voters were not effectively addressed,” citing long-standing deficiencies in the legal framework. The office further noted that elections were administered efficiently, but widespread credible allegations of electoral contestants’ manipulating the composition of polling station commissions reduced voter confidence in the integrity of the process. More than 60 complaints of alleged election irregularities were filed with the Central Election Commission.

State-level police agencies include the State Investigation and Protection Agency, the Border Police, the Foreigners Affairs Service (partial police competencies), and the Directorate for Police Bodies Coordination. Police agencies in the two entities (the Republika Srpska Ministry of Interior and the Federation Police Directorate), the Brcko District, and 10 cantonal interior ministries also exercise police powers. The armed forces provide assistance to civilian bodies in case of natural or other disasters. The intelligence service is under the authority of the Bosnia and Herzegovina Council of Ministers. A European Union peacekeeping force continued to support the country’s government in maintaining a safe and secure environment for the population. While civilian authorities maintained effective control of law enforcement agencies and security forces, a lack of clear division of jurisdiction and responsibilities between the country’s 17 law enforcement agencies resulted in occasional confusion and overlapping responsibilities. Members of the security forces committed some abuses.

Significant human rights issues included: problems with the independence of the judiciary; restrictions of free expression, the press, and the internet, including violence and threats of violence against journalists; government corruption; trafficking in persons; lack of investigation of and accountability for violence against women; and crimes involving violence or threats of violence against members of national/ethnic/racial minority groups and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons.

Units in both entities and the Brcko District investigated allegations of police abuse, meted out administrative penalties, and referred cases of criminal misconduct to prosecutors. Given the lack of follow-through on allegations against police abuses, observers considered police impunity widespread, and there were continued reports of corruption within the state and entity security services. Ineffective prosecution of war crimes committed during the 1992-95 conflict continued to be a problem.

Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings

There were no reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings.

Impunity for some crimes committed during the 1992-95 conflict continued to be a problem, especially for those responsible for the approximately 8,000 persons killed in the Srebrenica genocide and for approximately 8,000 other individuals who remained missing and presumed killed during the conflict. Authorities also failed to prosecute more than a very small fraction of the more than 20,000 instances of sexual violence alleged to have occurred during the conflict.

During the year national authorities did not make sufficient progress in processing of war crimes due to the lack of strategic framework and long-lasting organizational and financial problems. In September, following a two-year delay, the Council of Ministers adopted a Revised National War Crimes Strategy. The Revised Strategy defines new criteria for selection and prioritization of cases between the state and entities, provides measures to enhance judicial and police capacities to process war crime cases, and updates the measures for protection of witnesses and victims. The Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) Council of Ministers adopted the Revised Strategy following prolonged negotiations due to the opposition from the Bosniak victims associations. As a compromise, Annex B was added to the Ministry of Justice draft, which provides for prioritizing the “A” cases and provides additional measures to enhance regional cooperation.

Insufficient funding, poor regional cooperation, lack of personnel, political obstacles, lack of evidence, and the unavailability of witnesses and suspects led to the closure of cases and a significant backlog. Authorities also lacked adequate criteria to evaluate which cases should be transferred from state- to entity-level courts. The mechanism for transfer of legally and factually less complex cases with known suspects from the state-level to entity or Brcko District courts was utilized to a sufficient degree. The Prosecutor’s Office worked on 668 cases with known perpetrators and 1,933 cases with unknown perpetrators. In 2019-20 the Prosecutor’s Office raised 25 indictments against 48 persons. According to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Prosecutor’s Office continued to focus on less complex war crime cases during this period, misusing resources and failing to act in accordance with the current war crimes strategy. The overall conviction rate in 2019 and 2020 was 79 percent, an increase from 39 percent in 2018.

Some convictions were issued or confirmed during the year. Sretko Pavic was convicted of war crimes against civilians and sentenced to 11 years of imprisonment. The Appeals Chamber of the BiH Court acquitted Ibro Merkez of charges that he committed war crimes against civilians in Gorazde. The Court of BiH sentenced Ivan Kraljevic to one year and three months of imprisonment; Stojan Odak to imprisonment of two years and six months; and Vice Bebek to one year of imprisonment for war crimes against Bosniak civilians from the Stolac, Capljina, Mostar, Prozor, Livno, and Jablanica municipalities.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

The law prohibits such practices. While there were no reports that government officials employed such measures, there were no concrete indications that security forces had ended the practice of severely mistreating detainees and prisoners reported in previous years.

The country has not designated an institution as its national mechanism for the prevention of torture and mistreatment of detainees and prisoners, in accordance with the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. In 2019 the Institution of Human Rights Ombudsman in BiH (Ombudsman Institution) received 129 complaints by prisoners with regard to prisoner treatment in detention and prison facilities. The number of complaints fell by 10 percent compared with 2018; most of the complaints concerned health care, denial of out-of-prison benefits, transfer to other institutions, use of parole, and conditions in prison and detention facilities. A smaller number of complaints referred to misconduct by staff or violence by other prisoners.

Impunity was a significant problem in the security forces.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Physical and sanitary conditions in the country’s prisons and detention facilities varied depending on location, and they generally met the need for accommodation of prisoners and detainees.

Physical Conditions: In a special 2019 report on the situation in police holding facilities, the Ombudsman Institution reported that the biggest problems in all police administrations were the lack of holding facilities and the limited capacity of existing ones. Several police stations in the same police administrative district had to use the same facilities. Due to lack of space, police did not always separate male, female, and minor detainees in cases where a large number of detainees were accommodated. Some police stations’ detention facilities lacked natural light and had poor ventilation. The material conditions of most police detention facilities were generally below EU standards.

Health care was one of the main complaints by prisoners. Not all prisons had comprehensive health-care facilities with full-time health-care providers. In such instances these institutions contracted part-time practitioners who are obligated to regularly visit institutions and provide services. Prisons in Zenica, Tuzla, Sarajevo, Istocno Sarajevo, Foca, and Banja Luka employed full time doctors. There were no prison facilities suitable for prisoners with physical disabilities.

Administration: Units in both entities and the Brcko District did not always conduct investigations into credible allegations of prisoner or detainee mistreatment.

The country’s prison system was not fully harmonized, nor was it in full compliance with European standards. Jurisdiction for the execution of sanctions was divided between the state, entities, and Brcko District. As a consequence, in some instances different legal regulations governed the same area, often resulting in unequal treatment of convicted persons, depending on the prison establishment or the entity in which they served their sentence.

Independent Monitoring: The government permitted independent human rights observers to visit and gave international community representatives widespread and unhindered access to detention facilities and prisoners. The International Committee of the Red Cross, the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT), the Ombudsman Institution, and other nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continued to have access to prison and detention facilities under the jurisdiction of the ministries of justice at both the state and entity levels. In 2019 the CPT visited prisons and detention facilities and provided its findings from the visit to the BiH government. The CPT’s report on the visit had not been published as of year’s end.

Improvements: On July 22, the government formally opened the long-awaited maximum-security State Prison with the capacity to hold 348 prisoners, of which 298 cells will be for prisoners and 50 for detainees. On September 4, the first group of prisoners was accommodated in the prison.

The ombudsman’s annual report for 2019 indicated that both Federation and Republika Srpska (RS) Ombudsman Institutions invested significant funds to improve conditions of their prison and detention facilities. In the Federation, this included construction of a new admission ward in the Bihac prison, building a new pavilion in the Zenica prison, and construction of the Orasje Educational Correctional facility for minors. Overcrowding at the Sarajevo detention unit was also resolved by moving some of the detainees to the Zenica prison detention facility and by expanding the capacity of the detention unit of the Sarajevo semiopen prison in Igman, which allows prisoners to leave over the weekend. In the RS, significant investments were made to prisons in Trebinje, Bijeljina, Istocno Sarajevo, and Banja Luka.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention and provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court. The government generally observed these requirements.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

Police generally arrested persons based on court orders and sufficient evidence or in conformity with rules prescribed by law. The law requires authorities to inform detainees of the charges against them immediately upon their arrest and obliges police to bring suspects before a prosecutor within 24 hours of detention (72 hours for terrorism charges). During this period, police may detain individuals for investigative purposes and processing. The prosecutor has an additional 24 hours to release the person or to request a court order extending pretrial detention by court police. The court has a subsequent 24 hours to make a decision.

Court police are separate from other police agencies and fall under the Ministry of Justice; their holding facilities are within the courts. After 24 or 48 hours of detention by court police, an individual must be presented to a magistrate who decides whether the suspect shall remain in custody or be released. Suspects who remain in custody are turned over to prison staff.

The law limits the duration of interrogations to a maximum of six hours. The law also limits pretrial detention to 12 months and trial detention to three years. There is a functioning bail system and restrictions, such as the confiscation of travel documents or house arrest, which were ordered regularly to ensure defendants appear in court.

The law allows detainees to request a lawyer of their own choosing, and if they are unable to afford a lawyer, the authorities should provide one. The law also requires the presence of a lawyer during the pretrial and trial hearings. Detainees are free to select their lawyer from a list of registered lawyers. In a 2016 report, the CPT noted that, in the vast majority of cases, authorities did not grant detainees access to a lawyer at the outset of their detention. Instead, such access occurred only when the detainee was brought before a prosecutor to give a statement or at the hearing before a judge. It was usually not possible for a detainee to consult with his or her lawyer in private prior to appearing before a prosecutor or judge. The report also noted that juveniles met by the CPT also alleged they were interviewed without a lawyer or person of trust present.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The state constitution provides the right to a fair hearing in civil and criminal matters while entity constitutions provide for an independent judiciary. Nevertheless, political parties and organized crime figures sometimes influenced the judiciary at both the state and entity levels in politically sensitive cases, especially those related to corruption. Authorities at times failed to enforce court decisions.

Trial Procedures

The law provides defendants a presumption of innocence; the right to be informed promptly and in detail of the charges against them, with free interpretation if necessary; the right to a fair and public trial without undue delay; and the right to be present at their trial. The law provides for the right to counsel at public expense if the prosecutor charges the defendant with a serious crime. Courts are obliged to appoint a defense attorney if the defendant is deaf or mute or detained or accused of a crime for which long-term imprisonment may be pronounced. Authorities generally gave defense attorneys adequate time and facilities to prepare their clients’ defense. The law provides defendants the right to confront witnesses, to have a court-appointed interpreter and written translation of pertinent court documents into a language understood by the defendant, to present witnesses and evidence on their own behalf, and to appeal verdicts. Authorities generally respected most of these rights, which extend to all defendants.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

The law provides for individuals and organizations to seek civil remedies for alleged human rights violations through domestic courts and provides for the appeal of decisions to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). The government failed to comply with many decisions pertaining to human rights by the country’s courts. The court system suffered from large backlogs of cases and the lack of an effective mechanism to enforce court orders. Inefficiency in the courts undermined the rule of law by making recourse to civil judgments less effective. In several cases the Constitutional Court found violations of the right to have proceedings finalized within a reasonable period of time. The government’s failure to comply with court decisions led plaintiffs to bring cases before the ECHR.

Property Restitution

The four “traditional” religious communities (Muslim, Serbian Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Jewish) had extensive claims for restitution of property nationalized during and after World War II. In the absence of a state restitution law governing the return of nationalized properties, many government officials used such properties as tools for ethnic and political manipulation. In a few cases, government officials refused to return properties, or at least give religious communities a temporary right to use them, even in cases in which evidence existed that they belonged to religious institutions before confiscation.

The government has no laws or mechanisms in place, and NGOs and advocacy groups reported that the government had not made progress on resolution of Holocaust-era claims, including for foreign citizens. The absence of legislation resulted in the return of religious property on an ad hoc basis, subject to the discretion of local authorities. Due to both the small size of the Jewish population and its lack of political influence, the Jewish community has not received any confiscated communal property since 1995. For example, one Jewish community building in the center of Sarajevo, formerly owned by the Jewish charity La Benevolencija, housed the Cantonal Ministry of Interior offices. In addition, the Stari Grad municipality in Sarajevo used the process of land “harmonization” to list itself as the owner of centrally located land, owned by members of the Jewish community or their heirs, and subsequently authorized construction of commercial real estate on that land. During the year different levels of government made no attempts to begin the process of discussing necessary steps to adopt restitution legislation.

The Department of State’s Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today (JUST) Act report to Congress, released publicly on July 29, 2020, can be found on the Department’s website: https://www.state.gov/reports/just-act-report-to-congress/.

f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

The law prohibits such actions, and there were no reports that the government failed to respect these prohibitions.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The law provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, but governmental respect for this right remained poor during the year. Intimidation, harassment, and threats, including a number of death threats, against journalists and media outlets continued during the year without a systematic institutional response. Numerous restrictive measures introduced to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic were in some instances misused to limit access to information. A considerable amount of media coverage was dominated by nationalist rhetoric and ethnic and political bias, often encouraging intolerance and sometimes hatred. The absence of transparency in media ownership remained a problem.

Freedom of Speech: The country’s laws provide for a high level of freedom of expression, but the irregular and, in some instances, incorrect implementation and application of the law seriously undermined press freedoms. The law prohibits expression that provokes racial, ethnic, or other forms of intolerance, including “hate speech,” but authorities did not enforce these restrictions.

Data from the Free Media Help Line (FMHL) indicated that courts continued to fail to differentiate between different media genres (in particular, between news and commentary), while long court procedures and legal and financial battles were financially exhausting to journalists and outlets. The FMHL concluded that the number of defamation cases against journalists and editors remained high especially in instances were journalists were investigating crime and corruption. Incorrect implementation of the defamation laws had caused direct pressure against journalists and media that jeopardized journalists’ right to freedom of expression.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views, but sometimes this resulted in pressure or threats against journalists. Officials confronted with criticism continued the practice of calling journalists traitors or labeling them as members of opposition political parties in order to discredit them. The law prohibiting expression that provokes racial, ethnic, or other forms of intolerance applies to print and broadcast media, the publication of books, and online newspapers and journals but was not enforced.

The Communications Regulatory Agency (CRA) did not register any cases of hate speech in the broadcast media. The Press Council that operates as a self-regulatory membership-based body for both online and printed media outlets across the country registered 231 complaints related to hate speech, of which 223 were related to online media, one to an article published by a news agency, and seven related to content published on social media. Of the complaints, 194 were related to comments from web portal visitors. As of September, 80 complaints had been resolved through self-regulation.

Political and financial pressure on media outlets continued. Negative economic effects of the pandemic eroded the financial stability of media across the country, making them more vulnerable to outside pressure. Some media outlets noted that allegations of tax evasion and elaborate financial controls continued to be powerful tools in attempts to intimidate and control outlets. The number of physical attacks against journalists increased during the year.

Attacks on journalists’ professional integrity and freedom of the press continued throughout the year. On a number of occasions, public officials obstructed the work of journalists. This period was marked by attempts to restrict access to information related to the pandemic. Sarajevo-based journalists filed a complaint to the FMHL in March because local authorities had limited the possibility of asking questions at press conferences and additional updates about COVID-related issues. In April a group of journalists reported to the FMLH that the press office of University of Sarajevo Clinical Center did not treat media even handedly and that the general manager shared information with selected outlets only. The Federation’s (COVID-19) crisis headquarters as well as crisis headquarters in Herzegovina Neretva Canton and Sarajevo Canton adopted decisions that banned some journalists from attending press conferences, claiming it was a heath protection measure.

The practice of pressuring journalists to censor their reporting continued during the year as well. Reaction to investigative stories focusing on the corruption of high-level judicial officials continued generating pressure on journalists. In addition, journalists who worked on stories exposing procurement irregularities during the pandemic were exposed to undue pressure. In June several edited videos were published on social media in an attempt to discredit reporters who wrote about a controversial purchase of medical ventilators in the Federation that involved the Federation’s prime minister.

The 2019 press release by the Prosecutor’s Office threatening to sue journalists who criticized its work was not followed by any legal action. Journalists reported that the press release triggered additional political pressure and increased charges of slander against them. During the year the tense relationship between the Prosecutor’s Office and the investigative reporters continued. On August 28, the Association of BiH Journalists (BH Journalists) strongly protested against a statement issued by the Prosecutor’s Office announcing that the main prosecutor would press slander charges against the daily newspaper Oslobodjenje and outlets that picked up its story alleging that the main prosecutor misused housing compensation benefits. BH Journalists underscored that the Prosecutor’s Office and the main prosecutor continued to pressure media and journalists, noting that public servants, government, and other officials cannot sue journalists for slander in their official capacity (only privately) and that the main prosecutor used official communication channels of the BiH Prosecutor’s Office to threaten journalists with slander charges. BH Journalists characterized this as unacceptable pressure on media and misuse of the position of the main prosecutor.

An additional challenge to freedom of expression came shortly after the introduction of the state of emergency due to the pandemic. On March 16, the RS introduced a decree prohibiting the spread of panic and disorder, stipulating fines of 1,000 to 3,000 convertible marks ($630 to $1,900) convertible marks for individuals and 3,000 to 9,000 convertible marks ($1,900 to $5,700) for companies that spread panic and fake news via media and social networks. The Federation minister of interior proposed an urgent adoption of a similar decree on March 22, but that initiative was not supported. Nevertheless, BH Journalists warned that the Federation Ministry of Interior and cybercrime units had started monitoring information on social networks and that five criminal proceedings were initiated for the alleged spreading of false information and panic. Numerous local organizations expressed concern that these actions were an additional step in suppressing freedom of expression. On April 14, the OSCE representative on freedom of the media, Harlem Desir, and the head of the OSCE Mission to BiH expressed their concern over the introduction of measures against spreading panic and “fake news” regarding COVID-19. BH Journalists reiterated that the entities had no right to suspend the right to freedom of expression. Following these reactions, on April 16, the RS government withdrew the decree.

Authorities continued exerting pressure on media outlets to discourage some forms of expression, and party and governmental control over a number of information outlets narrowed the range of opinions represented in both entities. Public broadcasters remained vulnerable to strong pressure from government and political forces due to a lack of long-term financial stability. Public broadcasters remained exposed to political influence, especially through politically controlled steering boards. These factors limited their independence and resulted in news that was consistently subjective and politically biased.

The Public Broadcasting System consists of three broadcasters: nationwide radio and television (BHRT), the entity radio and television broadcasters RTRS, and RTV FBiH. The law on the public broadcasting system is only partially implemented and entity laws are not in line with state level law, which left public broadcasters vulnerable to political influence, especially through politically influenced steering boards. Public broadcasters continued to be in a difficult financial situation, primarily due to the lack of an efficient, unified, and stable system of financing.

The institutional instability of the governing structures of RTV FBiH continued, as the broadcaster again failed to elect a steering board or appoint organizational management and remained open to political influence. As a result, RTV FBiH continued to demonstrate a selective approach to news.

The RS government continued directly to control RTRS, which demonstrated strong support for the ruling coalition in the RS. The BHRT yielded to increased political pressure and censored its own reporting. Authorities remained subject to competing political interests and failed to establish a public broadcasting service corporation to oversee the operations of all public broadcasters in the country as provided by law.

The Communication Regulatory Agency (CRA), which regulates the audiovisual media market, lacked full financial and political independence. In April the CRA appointed a new general manager, Drasko Milinovic, a former director of the politically controlled RTRS station. Following the vote, CRA Council president Plamenko Custovic resigned, claiming the vote was politically motivated. The new general manager took over the position on July 28. Independent broadcasters expressed concern with the appointment in view of the allegations about Draskovic’s political connections.

Violence and Harassment: Intimidation and threats against journalists continued during the year. Cases of violence and death threats against journalists were recorded as well. Intimidation and politically motivated litigation against journalists for their unfavorable reporting on government leaders and authorities also continued.

As of July the FMHL recorded seven cases involving alleged violations of journalists’ rights and freedoms, four death threats, and two physical assaults. According to data from BH Journalists covering the period from 2006 to 2020, authorities prosecuted approximately 30 percent of criminal acts reported against journalists and investigated more than one-third of the alleged violations of journalists’ rights, illustrating that inefficient investigations into attacks against journalists by police and prosecutors’ offices continued.

Vanja Stokic, editor in chief of the E-trafika portal from Banja Luka, received a message on her Facebook profile from an individual who threatened he would “decapitate” migrants as well as “all you soul caregivers who welcome them.” The perpetrator was arrested only after he repeatedly threatened and intimidated Stokic and her friends and after a strong public reaction. On May 22, Stokic, who was reporting on the migrant situation in the country, found a disturbing message after posting a photograph with two migrants on her Facebook profile. She attempted to report the threats to police but was told to come back on Monday–three days after the threats were made. According to Stokic, police initially did not take her report seriously and refused to take a statement, allowing the threats and intimidation to continue. After a strong reaction from professional associations and media, police arrested the alleged perpetrator.

Nikola Vucic, a Sarajevo-based reporter with the television channel N1, received death threats via social media. On May 26, commenting on reports that the West Herzegovina Canton declared itself a “COVID-free zone,” Vucic sarcastically asked on his Twitter account if a “fascism-free zone” would be declared soon. The post was followed by threats and calls for violence against him, including statements that Vucic should be “thrown in the river.” Vucic closed his Twitter account. BH Journalists and the FMHL strongly condemned the threats and were threatened themselves as a result.

On June 5, Sinan Gluhic, a journalist from a local public outlet RTV Zenica, was physically attacked by Sulejman Spahic, a member of the A-SDA party. The attack followed days of verbal threats and insults to Gluhic over the telephone and through social media. Gluhic was on his way to work when he was physically attacked by Spahic. In front of witnesses, Spahic hit Gluhic in the face and neck and threatened his life. The incident was reported to police. The same day, the A-SDA party issued a statement denying the attack happened. Zenica police opened an investigation.

Legal proceedings continued against two persons accused of attempted murder in the brutal attack on BNTV journalist Vladimir Kovacevic in 2018. One attacker, Marko Colic, was originally sentenced to four years in prison. After the prosecutor’s appeal, the sentence was increased to five years. A second attacker, Nedeljko Djukic, surrendered to RS police in late 2019, and his trial was ongoing. The motives of the attack remained unknown.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Multiple political parties and entity-level institutions attempted to influence editorial policies and media content through legal and financial measures. As a result, some media outlets practiced self-censorship. Government institutions restricted access to information in some instances related to the COVID-19 crisis.

In some instances, media sources reported that officials threatened outlets with loss of advertising or limited their access to official information. Prevailing practices reflected close connections between major advertisers and political circles and allowed for biased distribution of advertising time. Public companies, most of which were under the control of political parties, remained the key advertisers. Outlets critical of ruling parties claimed they faced difficulties in obtaining advertising. The temporary lockdown in the spring and numerous restrictions related to the pandemic had a direct negative impact on the finances of media in the country, making them more vulnerable to economic and political pressure.

Libel/Slander Laws: While the country has decriminalized defamation, a large number of complaints continued to be brought to court against journalists, often resulting in extremely high monetary fines. Noteworthy court decisions against journalists included temporary bans on the posting or publication of certain information as well as very high compensatory payments for causing “mental anguish.”

Internet Freedom

The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports that it monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. The law prohibits expression of racial, ethnic, or other intolerance, including hate speech, but authorities did not enforce these prohibitions for online media.

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

The cantons of Tuzla and Sarajevo have laws that could restrict the independence and academic freedom of universities within their jurisdiction by allowing elected municipal authorities to hire and fire university personnel, including academics, at their discretion.

The country’s eight public universities remained segregated along ethnic lines, including their curricula, diplomas, and relevant school activities. Professors reportedly on occasion used prejudicial language in their lectures, while the selection of textbooks and school materials reinforced discrimination and prejudice.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

The law provides for freedom of peaceful assembly, and the government generally respected this right. On May 12, however, RS police disbanded an informal gathering and conversation of approximately 10 members of the informal group Justice for David in the Banja Luka city center, warning the participants that their public gathering was not announced to police. The leader of the group, Ozren Perduv, was summoned by police for interrogation the same day, where he was told that any similar gatherings in the future, even if spontaneous, would not be tolerated. Justice for David reported that there were an estimated 60 active court cases against Justice for David supporters in the RS court system. In 30 additional cases, the court rejected all charges.

The Justice for David movement emerged in response to the 2018 killing of 21-year-old David Dragicevic, which had not been solved as of September. Dragicevic’s family mobilized thousands of citizens in support of their search for the facts of the killing and demand for justice. The RS government justified its decision to ban all public gatherings of the group, including protests, claiming the movement failed to respect the law fully during previous rallies. Some journalists and protesters alleged that during the arrests police used excessive force on protesters and produced photographs that appeared to support their claims.

The lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) community had planned to organize a second pride march on August 23 in Sarajevo. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, organizers decided not to hold an actual march and moved the event online. Even before moving the event online, however, organizers faced many bureaucratic obstacles, as the Sarajevo Canton Ministry of Traffic rejected their request for a change in the march route, citing purported financial losses to public transportation companies, notwithstanding that the march would be on a Sunday, when public transportation use is significantly lower. The cantonal Ministry of Interior also required the organizers to pay for excessive security measures, including the presence of two ambulances, two fire trucks, and concrete barriers at nine locations along the march route. Similar security requirements were regularly waived for other large, non-LGBTI events.

There are 10 laws governing the right to free assembly in different parts of the country, all of which were generally assessed to be overly restrictive. Examples include the prohibition of public assembly in front of numerous public institutions in the RS, while some cantonal laws in the Federation (e.g., in Central Bosnia Canton) prescribe criminal liability for failing to fulfill administrative procedures for holding a peaceful assembly.

In July the Brcko District adopted a law on peaceful gatherings that expanded freedom of assembly. The law is aligned with EU Peer Review Recommendations and OSCE guidelines.

Freedom of Association

The law provides for freedom of association, and the government generally respected this right. Under the law, NGOs can register at the state, entity, and cantonal levels in a generally streamlined and simple administrative process. Cooperation between the government and civil society organizations at the state and entity levels remained weak, while government support for civil society organizations remained nontransparent, particularly regarding the allocation of funds. Independent NGOs complained that government distributed funding to NGOs connected to ruling political parties.

c. Freedom of Religion

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

d. Freedom of Movement

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation. The government generally respected these rights, but some restrictions remained.

Although the law on asylum provides for freedom of movement for asylum seekers, authorities of Una-Sana Canton imposed restrictions without a due legal basis. This resulted in asylum seekers–including some who were duly registered–being forcibly removed from public transport at the entrance of the canton territory and prevented from using buses and taxis within the canton. Groups of asylum seekers and migrants were regularly marched involuntarily from Bihac to a location several kilometers away, where their movement was restricted. The location itself offered very poor humanitarian and safety conditions. The legal aid partner of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) legally challenged the restrictions.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Council of Ministers issued a decision on April 16 limiting the movement of undocumented migrants who did not have valid identification documents. The decision prohibited migrants’ movement and accommodation outside of migrant centers, including for migrants who declared an intent to file asylum applications and who possessed valid proof of the expressed intention to apply for asylum as well as those who already applied for asylum. Some NGOs challenged the decision, explaining that it was legally groundless and violated migrants’ basic human rights. This practice was abolished with the end of lockdown in May, although no formal decision about it was issue.

On April 22, the BiH Constitutional Court ruled that a prohibition of all movement in the Federation for individuals younger than 18 and older than 65 during the COVID-19 lockdown in April violated the civil rights of those individuals, noting that the ban was disproportional to the public health crisis and that the measures were not limited in time and not periodically reviewed. The court did not remove the restriction, but it gave the Federation Government and Civil Protection Headquarters five days to adjust its measures in accordance with the BiH Constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights. Federation authorities complied with the decision and adjusted the measures, allowing movement of individuals in the two age groups during specific days of the week before abolishing the measures on May 14.

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

Ministry of Human Rights and Refugees statistics indicated that 96,421 persons still held internally displaced person (IDP) status resulting from the 1992-95 conflict. The majority of Bosniaks and Croats fled the RS, while Serbs fled the Federation. At the beginning of the year, UNHCR was directly providing protection, assistance, or both to 807 IDPs. According to UNHCR, an estimated 3,000 persons, including IDPs, continued to live in collective accommodations throughout the country. While the accommodations were meant to be temporary, some had been living in them for 20 or more years. A substantial number of IDPs and returnees lived in substandard conditions that affected their livelihoods.

The country’s constitution and laws provide for the voluntary return or local integration of IDPs consistent with the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. The government actively promoted the safe return and resettlement or local integration of refugees and IDPs, depending on their choice. The government allocated funding for returns and participated in internationally funded programs for return. Isolated attacks against minority returnees continued but were generally not investigated or prosecuted adequately. Minority returnees continued to face obstacles in exercising their rights in places of return.

f. Protection of Refugees

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum (refugee or subsidiary protection status), and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. Asylum seekers with pending claims have a right to accommodation at the asylum center until the Ministry of Security makes a final and binding decision on their claims. Only asylum-seeking families are referred to the asylum center. Provision of adequate accommodation remained one of the biggest problems since the beginning of 2018 due to increased arrivals of asylum seekers and migrants. It was common practice for some migrants to apply for asylum to gain access to temporary benefits and services, even if they had no plans to remain in the country. The increase of arrivals delayed registration procedures and created backlogs affecting access to and efficiency of asylum procedures as well as access to rights and services, including legal, medical, and basic needs, such as food and basic hygiene facilities and items, which were tied directly to the accommodation facilities.

In official reception centers, international organizations, NGOs, volunteers, or local actors provided services on an ad hoc basis. In 2018 an additional facility, the Salakovac Refugee Reception Center, was opened for the accommodation of asylum seekers. Seven temporary reception centers for refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants were opened and managed by the International Organization for Migration in cooperation with the Service for Foreigners’ Affairs. Nevertheless, adequate shelter capacity was lacking, in particular for families, unaccompanied and separated minors, and other vulnerable categories. The swift processing of asylum claims was another area of concern, as there were many obstacles to registering an asylum claim, including the obligation for asylum seekers not accommodated in an official government-run center to register their address. While the situation improved during the year, the Ministry of Security’s Sector for Asylum, which has responsibility for the asylum policy and its implementation, still lacked resources to ensure that applicants had full and timely access to asylum procedures. Asylum authorities also lacked sufficient personnel, making the asylum process very lengthy and discouraging refugees from seeking asylum in the country.

The COVID-19 pandemic further impeded the registration process. As part of sanitary prevention measures and in correlation with movement restrictions, some field offices of the Service for Foreigners’ Affairs temporarily reduced their capacity and work hours while two of them completely stopped registering new arrivals and issuing attestations on intent to seek asylum. In Tuzla–one of the main entry points to BiH–the field office had not resumed those activities as of year’s end, significantly hindering access to asylum and basic services by asylum seekers in the canton and the rest of the country.

In April the BiH Council of Ministers issued a decision restricting the freedom of movement to reception centers for undocumented foreigners and asylum seekers without a registered address. The decision was not implemented as of May, although it remained in place formally.

Asylum seekers have the right to appeal a negative decision before the Court of BiH. The system for providing protection to refugees seeking asylum continued to suffer from a lack of transparency.

Authorities appeared to have stopped their previous practice of placing foreigners with irregular status or without documentation in immigration detention centers and issuing expulsion orders without giving asylum seekers the ability to present applications. The change came with the increase of new arrivals since 2018. NGO legal aid providers had limited access to the immigration detention center and the asylum center, especially since the initial COVID-19 measures at the end of March.

UNHCR paid ad hoc visits to the immigration center of the Service for Foreigners’ Affairs, where foreigners were detained. UNHCR’s main concern with regard to the center was the difficulty experienced by legal aid NGOs that wanted to access it on a regular basis and the fact that authorities occasionally detained families with children there, pending their voluntary readmission to countries of origin.

In the first seven months of the year, 10 individuals known to UNHCR expressed their intention to seek asylum while staying at the Immigration Center. Information on the right to seek asylum was not readily available to potential asylum seekers in the center. UNHCR expressed concern that foreigners in detention might not have access to asylum procedures and that authorities might prematurely return some potential asylum seekers under readmission agreements before they had been afforded an opportunity to file a claim for asylum. In addition, some provisions of the BiH laws on extradition give authorities the possibility of extraditing a person who has expressed the intention to seek asylum if the request was made after the country had received an extradition request. UNHCR also reported that applicants for refugee status did not have sufficient legal assistance; that there were no clear standards of proof or methods of assessing the credibility of claims, including country of origin; and that guidelines for determining whether there was a risk of persecution were unduly strict.

Safe Country of Origin/Transit: The law provides for the application of the concept of “safe country of origin or safe third country.” Under this provision, authorities may deny asylum to applicants who cannot prove they were unable to return to their country of origin or to any country of transit. The application of this concept would require a list of safe third countries and countries of origin to be made by the BiH Council of Ministers.

Durable Solutions: The laws provide a program for integration and return of refugees and displaced persons. The country was party to a regional housing program funded by international donors and facilitated in part by UNHCR and the OSCE to provide durable solutions for up to 74,000 refugees and displaced persons from four countries in the region, including 14,000 of the most vulnerable refugees, returnees, and IDPs from the country. The process of selecting program beneficiaries was protracted due to capacity and management problems that resulted in extended delays in the reconstruction of homes. Fragmented institutional arrangements added administrative delays to the process, as did the political imperative to select beneficiaries proportionally from among the country’s constituent peoples.

Temporary Protection: The government provided subsidiary protection status to individuals who may not qualify as refugees. In the first seven months of the year, authorities provided subsidiary protection to 15 individuals and extended existing subsidiary protection to 24 others.

g. Stateless Persons

As of July, UNHCR reported 81 persons, mostly Roma, who were at risk of statelessness, including persons lacking birth certificates and citizenship registration. UNHCR continued to support free legal aid and capacity-building assistance to BiH authorities to facilitate birth and citizenship registrations. From 2009 to year’s end, UNHCR helped 1,765 individuals confirm their nationalities through its implementing partner, the NGO Vasa Prava. UNHCR also continued to work with authorities to simplify the process for birth and citizenship registrations, particularly for those at risk of statelessness. During the year the BiH Ministry of Civil Affairs confirmed the citizenship of 35 individuals.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The constitution and the law provide citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage. Observers noted a number of shortcomings, however.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: While general elections held in 2018 were competitive, with candidates and political parties freely campaigning and presenting their programs, there were credible reports of voter intimidation and vote buying in the pre-election period. According to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), the Central Election Commission administered most of its electoral tasks efficiently, but stakeholders lacked trust in all levels of the election administration. The elections were overshadowed by mass resignations of polling station committee members over the course of 48 hours before polls opened on election day.

On election day, international observers reported numerous incidents of political parties manipulating the makeup of the polling station committees, which endangered the integrity of the election process. There were also reports of irregularities and other problems during the ballot counting process–some deliberate and some due to inadequate knowledge of appropriate procedures among polling station committee members. According to ODIHR, the campaign finance regulatory system was not adequate to assure the transparency and accountability of campaign finances. Several political parties requested recounts. ODIHR pointed to the large presence of citizen observers as contributing to the overall transparency of the process.

On July 8, the BiH parliament adopted changes and amendments to the election law that paved the way for the city of Mostar to hold its first local elections in 12 years, bringing the BiH into compliance with the ECHR decision in Baralija v. BiH. The achievement was the result of a political agreement between the SDA and HDZ-BIH political parties concluded on June 17. On December 20, Mostar city elections were held accordingly. Civil society and international community observers generally characterized the process as free and fair. The Central Election Commission ordered a recount of ballots from approximately half of the polling stations in Mostar, clarifying that the recount was generally caused by poor training of the poll workers rather than systemic fraud, although one of the political parties filed a complaint of fraud with the cantonal prosecutor’s office, which was under investigation at the close of the reporting period.

Political Parties and Political Participation: Some leaders of smaller political parties complained that the larger parties enjoyed a virtual monopoly over government ministries, public services, and media outlets, where membership in a dominant party was a prerequisite for advancement.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: Although no laws limit the participation of women in the political process, and despite the fact that women make up more than 50 percent of the electorate, the country’s patriarchal culture tended to restrict their participation in political affairs. While the law requires that at least 40 percent of a political party’s candidates to be women, women held only 24 percent of delegate seats (14 of 57 seats) in the House of Representatives and the House of Peoples in the state-level parliament, which was an increase from 19 percent in 2019. In the two houses of the Federation parliament, women held 24 percent of seats (38 of 156 seats), the same as in 2019. In the RS, women held 17 (20 percent) of 83 delegate seats in the RS National Assembly, which was a slight drop from 18 percent in 2019. Women held six of 16 ministerial seats in the RS government, the same as in 2019. The RS president was also a woman.

The law provides that Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks, whom the constitution considers the “constituent peoples” of the country, as well as undefined “others” must be adequately represented at all levels. The government did not respect this requirement. Apart from the three constituent peoples, the country’s 16 recognized national minority groups remained significantly underrepresented in government. There were no members of a minority group in the state-level parliament. The government made no effort to implement changes required by ECHR rulings dating back to 2009 that the country’s constitution discriminates against “others,” such as Jews and Roma, by preventing them from running for the presidency and seats in the parliament’s upper house. In October 2019 the ECHR ruled in favor of Irma Baralija, a local politician from Mostar, who sued the state for preventing her from voting or standing for office in elections in the city of Mostar, where local elections had not been held since 2008. The court found that a legal void had been created by authorities’ failure to implement a 2010 Constitutional Court ruling on the arrangements for local elections in Mostar.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but the government did not implement the law effectively nor prioritize public corruption as a serious problem. Courts have not processed high-level corruption cases, and in most of the finalized cases, suspended sentences were pronounced. Officials frequently engaged in corrupt practices with impunity, and corruption remained prevalent in many political and economic institutions. Corruption was especially prevalent in the health and education sectors, public procurement processes, local governance, and public administration employment procedures.

The government has mechanisms to investigate and punish abuse and corruption, but political pressure often prevented the application of these mechanisms. Observers considered police impunity widespread, and there were continued reports of corruption within the state and entity security services. There are internal affairs investigative units within all police agencies. Throughout the year, mostly with assistance from the international community, the government provided training to police and security forces designed to combat abuse and corruption and promote respect for human rights. The field training manuals for police officers also include ethics and anticorruption training components.

Corruption: While the public viewed corruption as endemic in the public sphere, there was little public demand for the prosecution of corrupt officials. The multitude of state, entity, cantonal, and municipal administrations, each with the power to establish laws and regulations affecting business, created a system that lacked transparency and provided opportunities for corruption. The multilevel government structure gave corrupt officials ample opportunities to demand “service fees,” especially in the local government institutions.

Analysts considered the legal framework for prevention of corruption to be satisfactory across almost all levels of government and attributed the absence of high-profile prosecutions to a lack of political will. Many state-level institutions tasked with fighting corruption, such as the Agency for Prevention and Fight against Corruption, had limited authority and remained under resourced. There were indications that the judiciary was under political influence, and the High Judicial and Prosecutorial Council was at the center of corruption scandals, including allegations that the president of the council accepted a bribe in exchange for interfering in a case. The accountability of judges and prosecutors was low, and appointments were often not merit based. Prosecutions also were considered generally ineffective and subject to political manipulation, often resulting in suspended sentences or prison sentences below mandatory minimum sentences. During the year prosecutors’ offices processed 44 cases of white-collar corruption. Of those, a guilty verdict took legal effect in one case, while investigations were suspended in two cases. Investigations continued in 14 cases, and main hearings were being held in the other 27 cases.

According to professors and students, corruption continued at all levels of the higher education system. Professors at a number of universities reported that bribery was common and that they experienced pressure from colleagues and superiors to give higher grades to students with family or political connections. There were credible allegations of corruption in public procurement, public employment, and health-care services.

Financial Disclosure: Laws on conflict of interest at all levels were not aligned with international standards. Candidates for high-level public office, including for parliament at the state and entity levels and for the Council of Ministers and entity government positions, are subject to financial (assets, liabilities, and income) disclosure laws, although observers noted the laws fell short of standards established by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and other international organizations. The Central Election Commission received financial reports of elected officials, while the Conflict of Interest Commission of the BiH parliament receives financial reports and retains records on public officials. Both institutions lacked authority to verify the accuracy of declarations, and it was believed that public officials and their relatives often declared only a fraction of their total assets and liabilities. Authorities generally failed to make financial disclosure declarations public, using as an excuse the conflicts between the laws on financial disclosure and protection of personal information. Sarajevo Canton has a law that enables effective verification of asset declarations. Sarajevo Canton’s Anticorruption Office continued with its activities related to asset verification and initiated checks for more than 200 public officials. During the year a foreign advisor was appointed to work with the Anticorruption Office and advise cantonal authorities on how to fight corruption effectively.

Failure to comply with financial disclosure requirements is subject to administrative sanctions. The Conflict of Interest Commission did not hear any cases during the year, however, as it was only appointed in July.

During the year the COVID-19 pandemic was misused for different corrupt activities; one of the most significant cases concerned procurement of respirators from China worth approximately six million dollars. Federation prime minister Novalic was one of the main suspects in the case.

Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights

A variety of human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials were seldom cooperative and responsive to their views, and the Council of Ministers largely excluded NGOs from politically important or sensitive decisions. NGOs continued, however, to expand cooperation with the government at lower levels.

Government officials in both the Federation and the RS attempted at times to limit NGO activities. Observers noted that some civil society representatives working on highly sensitive issues such as conflict-related crimes and combatting corruption were subjected to threats and verbal assaults. Several NGOs in the RS reported being pressured by local authorities while subjected to protracted tax inspections, sometimes lasting up to six months. NGOs can only be involuntarily dissolved if found in violation of the law.

Civil society organizations frequently lacked adequate funding, and most were dependent on either governmental or international assistance. Local governments generally extended support to NGOs, provided the governing parties did not consider them threats.

The United Nations or Other International Bodies: In contrast to the Brcko District government, the RS and Federation governments were generally unresponsive in dealing with the Office of the High Representative created by the Dayton Accords charged with overseeing Dayton Peace Agreement implementation.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The state-level Ombudsman Institution has authority to investigate alleged violations of the country’s human rights laws on behalf of individual citizens and to submit legally nonbinding recommendations to the government for remedy. Members of the international community noted that the Ombudsman Institution lacked the resources to function effectively. A Bosniak, a Croat, and a Serb shared leadership of the Ombudsman Institution.

The state-level parliament has a Joint Commission for Human Rights that participated in human rights-related activities with governmental and nongovernmental organizations. As of June, the commission had held five working sessions.

The Council of Ministers has an advisory body for cooperation with NGOs.

Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: The maximum penalty for rape, regardless of gender, including spousal rape, is 15 years in prison. The failure of police to treat spousal rape as a serious offense inhibited the effective enforcement of the law. Women victims of rape did not have regular access to free social support or assistance and continued to confront prejudice and discrimination in their communities and from representatives of public institutions.

While laws in both the Federation and the RS empower authorities to remove the perpetrator from the home, officials rarely, if ever, made use of these provisions.

NGOs reported that authorities often returned offenders to their family homes less than 24 hours after a violent event, often reportedly out of a concern over where the perpetrator would live. In the Federation, authorities prosecuted domestic violence as a felony, while in the RS it can be reported as a felony or a misdemeanor. Even when domestic violence resulted in prosecution and conviction, offenders were regularly fined or given suspended sentences, even for repeat offenders.

Domestic violence was recognized as one of the most important problems involving gender equality. NGOs reported that one of every two women experienced some type of domestic violence and that the problem was underreported because the majority of victims did not trust the support system (police, social welfare centers, or the judiciary).

During the COVID-19 pandemic, especially during the period of lockdown in April, NGOs reported an increased number of cases of domestic violence. For example, 140 cases were reported to the RS domestic violence hotline, which was 30 percent higher than in the same period of 2019. In the Federation, one of the safe houses in Sarajevo received three times more calls in April than in March. For the first three months of the year, 259 cases of domestic violence were reported to RS police, while 50 cases were reported in the Federation.

The country had a gender action plan for 2018-22. In 2019 the Council of Ministers established a steering board for coordination and monitoring of implementation of the plan. In accordance with the action plan, in September 2019 the RS passed the Law on Changes and Amendments to the Law on Protection from Domestic Violence. The new law better regulates assistance to victims and provides that domestic violence be considered a criminal act rather than a misdemeanor for which the penalty in most cases was a fine.

The country lacked a system for collecting data on domestic violence cases. The state-level Gender Equality Agency worked to establish a local-level mechanism to coordinate support for victims. In 2019 the agency performed an analysis of the data collection system on domestic violence cases that were processed by judiciary and sent its recommendations for improving the system to the High Judicial and Prosecutorial Council. It also continued developing a computerized data collection system on domestic violence in the Federation. The agency had a memorandum of understanding with the country’s eight NGO-run safe houses (five in the Federation and three in the RS), which could collectively accommodate up to 200 victims, or less than half the capacity needed. In the RS, 70 percent of financing for safe houses came from the RS budget while 30 percent came from the budgets of local communities. While the RS government and local communities generally met their funding obligations, the Federation lacks laws to regulate the financing of the safe houses, and payments depended on each canton or local community, some of which often failed to honor their obligations.

Although police received specialized training in handling cases of domestic violence, NGOs reported widespread reluctance among officers in both entities to break up families by arresting offenders.

The network of institutional mechanisms for gender equality of the parliaments comprised the Gender Equality Commission of the BiH Parliamentary Assembly, the Gender Equality Commissions of the Federation House of Peoples and the House of Representatives, the Equal Opportunities Committee of the RS National Assembly, and the Commission for Gender Issues of the Brcko District Assembly. Gender equality commissions also were established at the cantonal level; at the local level, respective commissions operated within municipal councils.

Sexual Harassment: Combatting violence against women and domestic violence is mainly the responsibility of the entities. BiH law defines and prohibits gender-based harassment, including sexual harassment, as a form of discrimination.

NGOs reported that sexual harassment was a serious problem but that women rarely reported it due to the expectation they would not receive systematic support from law enforcement institutions and that the perpetrators would go unpunished or receive light punishment, as evident by years of such practices by judicial authorities.

Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children. Individuals have the right to manage their reproductive health, but access to the information and means to do so was not uniform. There was no comprehensive sexual education program, and education, including on reproductive health and related topics, was not standardized through the country. Members of minorities, in particular Romani women, experienced disparities in access to health-care information and services, including for reproductive health. Many Romani women were not enrolled in the public insurance system due to local legal requirements, poverty, and social marginalization, which prevented them from accessing health care. Both BiH entities (FBiH and Republika Srpska) as well as Brcko District have laws that provide for survivors of sexual violence to access sexual and reproductive health services.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.

Discrimination: The law provides for the same legal status and rights for women as for men, and authorities generally treated women equally. The law does not explicitly require equal pay for equal work, but it forbids gender discrimination. Women and men generally received equal pay for equal work at government-owned enterprises but not at all private businesses. As evaluated by the Gender Equality Agency in the 2018-22 Gender Action Plan, women in the country faced multiple obstacles in the labor market, such as longer waiting periods for their first jobs, long employment disruptions due to maternity leave or elder care, and the inability of middle-aged women to successfully re-enter the labor market due to market shifts and discontinuation of some types of work.

Both Federation and RS labor laws stipulate that an employer must not terminate a woman’s employment contract while she exercises her right to: be pregnant; use maternity leave; work half time after the expiration of maternity leave; work half time until a dependent child is three years of age if the child requires enhanced care according to the findings of a competent health institution; and use leave for breastfeeding. While the law provides for these rights, its implementation was inconsistent. In practice, women were often unable to use maternity leave for the period of one year as provided by law, return to their work position after maternity leave, or take advantage of the right to work half time. Employers continued to terminate pregnant women and new mothers despite the existence of legal protections. The level of social compensation during maternity leave was regulated unequally in different parts of the country. The RS government paid 405 convertible marks ($250) maternity allowance monthly to unemployed new mothers for a period of one year or for a period of 18 months in cases of twins and following the birth of every third and subsequent child. Employed mothers were entitled to one year of paid maternity leave. Women remained underrepresented in law enforcement agencies.

Gender-biased Sex Selection: The boy-to-girl birth ratio for the country was 107.5 boys per 100 girls in 2019. There were no reports the government took steps to address the imbalance.

Children

Birth Registration: By law a child born to at least one citizen parent is a citizen regardless of the child’s place of birth. A child born in the territory of the country to parents who were unknown or stateless is entitled to citizenship. Parents generally registered their children immediately after they were born, but there were exceptions, particularly in the Romani community. The NGO Vasa Prava identified 75 unregistered children in the country, mainly Roma. UNHCR, with the legal assistance of a domestic NGO, registered the births of children whose parents failed to register them.

Education: Education was free through the secondary level but compulsory only for children between the ages of six and 15. Students with disabilities continued to struggle for access to a quality, inclusive education due to physical barriers in schools; the lack of accommodation for children with audio, visual, or mental disabilities; the absence of in-school assistants and trained teachers. While some children with disabilities attended regular school, others were enrolled in special schools for children with disabilities. Children with severe disabilities, however, were not included in the education process at all and depended entirely on their parents or NGOs for education. Both the Federation and the RS had strategies for improving the rights of persons with disabilities that included children. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, schools were closed on March 11 and online education was instituted. There were no provisions for assistance to students with disabilities who needed additional support to continue their education, which further exacerbated the problem.

The legal battle continued for Slavko Mrsevic, a teenager with Asperger’s syndrome from Rudo, whose exclusion from high school by the RS Ministry of Education because of complications related to his condition led to a lawsuit. In March 2019 the Visegrad Basic Court ruled that the RS Ministry of Education and Culture and the Rudo Secondary School violated Mrsevic’s right to equal treatment in education. In September 2019 the basic court in East Sarajevo rejected appeals filed by the ministry and the school as unfounded and confirmed the decision of the municipal court in Visegrad. A case was also underway against the school director and some teachers. The case highlighted the wider and deeper issue of exclusion of students with disabilities, who faced numerous human rights problems in education systems in all parts of the country. Parents of students with disabilities continued to request that their children be granted access to quality education and a chance to develop their full potential within the country’s education system.

More than 50 schools across the Federation remained segregated by ethnicity and religion. Although a “two schools under one roof” system was instituted following the 1992-95 conflict as a way to bring together returnee communities violently separated by conflict, the system calcified under the divisive and prejudicial administration of leading political parties. These parties controlled schools through the country’s 13 ministries of education and often enforced education policies based upon patronage and ethnic exclusion. Where students, parents, and teachers choose to resist segregation, they were frequently met with political indifference and sometimes intimidation, which hurt the quality of education children received further. Funds were spent on perpetuating the “two schools under one roof” system rather than on improving school infrastructure, training teachers, improving teaching materials, or conducting extracurricular activities. The situation compounded inefficiencies in the country’s education system, as evidenced by poor performance by 15-year-old students who participated in the 2018 international Program of International Student Assessment study implemented by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The results of the study showed that the country’s students were three years behind in schooling compared to the OECD average and that more than 50 percent of students did not possess functional knowledge in language, mathematics, and science. Results for disadvantaged students showed that they lagged five years behind the OECD average.

Returnee students (those belonging to a different ethnic group returning to their homes after being displaced by the war) continued to face barriers in exercising their language rights. For the seventh consecutive year, parents of Bosniak children in returnee communities throughout the RS continued to boycott public schools in favor of sending their children to alternative schooling financed and organized by the Federation Ministry of Education with support from the governments of the Sarajevo and Zenica-Doboj Cantons and the Islamic community. The boycott was based on the refusal of the RS Ministry of Education and Culture to approve a group of national subjects (specific courses to which Bosniak, Serb, and Croat students are entitled and taught in their constituent language according to their ethnicity). Parents of children in one of these schools in Vrbanjci, Kotor Varos, won a court case in December 2019 when the RS Supreme Court ruled that their children are entitled to instruction on the national subjects in Bosnian. The ministry failed to implement the decision by September. As a result, 60 children continued learning in the Hanifici Islamic Center building, where teachers traveled from the Zenica-Doboj Canton. In June lawyers representing Bosniak parents filed a request for execution of the decision at the Kotor Varos basic court. As of year’s end, there had been no reply. Lawyers also reported that they tried to meet with RS ministry officials twice, without success.

In the Federation, Serb students likewise were denied language rights as provided in the Federation constitution, particularly in Glamoc elementary school in Canton 10, where authorities prevented the use of the Serbian language and textbooks, despite the significant number of returnee Serb students. Human rights activists noted that changes in the history curriculum and in history and other textbooks reinforced stereotypes of the country’s ethnic groups other than their own and that other materials missed opportunities to dispel stereotypes by excluding any mention of some ethnic groups, particularly Jews and Roma. State and entity officials generally did not act to prevent such discrimination. Human Rights Watch asserted that ethnic quotas used by the Federation and the RS to allocate civil service jobs disproportionately excluded Roma and other minorities. The quotas were based on the 1991 census, which undercounted these minorities and were never revised.

Child Abuse: Family violence against children was a problem. According to UNICEF, there was no recent data available on the overall level of violence against children in the country. While relevant institutions collect scattered data, there is no unified data collection system. Police investigated and prosecuted individual cases of child abuse. Only a small number of cases of violence against children were reported and, as a consequence, only a few cases were brought before courts. The country’s Agency for Gender Equality estimated that one in five families experienced domestic violence. In many cases, children were indirect victims of family violence. The Sarajevo Canton Social Welfare Center estimated that up to 700 children annually were indirect victims of domestic violence.

Municipal centers for social work are responsible for protecting children’s rights but lacked resources and the ability to provide housing for children who fled abuse or who required removal from abusive homes.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age for marriage is 18 but may be as young as 16 with parental consent. In certain Romani communities, girls married between the ages of 12 and 14, and Romani human right activists reported that early marriages were on the rise. Children’s rights and antitrafficking activists noted that prosecutors were reluctant to investigate and prosecute forced marriages involving Romani minors, attributing it to Romani custom. As part of the activities on the implementation of the Strategy to Combat Trafficking in Persons in the country for 2020-23, the Roma NGO Kali Sara was included in different programs on combatting trafficking, with special focus on the inclusion of Roma representatives in the work of antitrafficking regional coordination teams.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The Federation, the RS, and the Brcko District have laws criminalizing sex trafficking, forced labor, and organized human trafficking. The state-level penalty for sexual exploitation of children is imprisonment for up to 20 years under certain aggravating circumstances. At the entity level, penalties range from three to 15 years’ imprisonment. Under entity criminal codes, the abuse of a child or juvenile for pornography is a crime that carries a sentence of one to five years in prison. Authorities generally enforced these laws. The law prohibits sexual acts with a person younger than 18.

Girls were subjected to commercial sexual exploitation, and there were reports that Romani girls as young as 12 were subject to early and forced marriage and domestic servitude. Children were used in the production of pornography.

International Child Abductions: The country is a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.

Anti-Semitism

The Jewish community in the country reported that it had fewer than 1,000 members.

There were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.

Trafficking in Persons

See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

Persons with Disabilities

The law in both entities and at the state level prohibits discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, and mental disabilities. Nevertheless, discrimination in these areas continued. The government lacked a uniform legal definition of disabilities, which complicated access to benefits for those that would readily qualify, and normally prioritized support for war veterans. The most frequent forms of discrimination against persons with disabilities included obstacles in realization of individual rights, delayed payments of disability allowances, employment, and social and health protection. Support to persons with disabilities was dependent on the origin of the disability. Persons whose disability was the result of the 1992-95 conflict, whether they are war veterans or civilian victims of war, have priority and greater allowances than other persons with disabilities.

The Federation has a strategy for the advancement of rights and status of persons with disabilities in the Federation for the period 2016-21, while the RS has a strategy for improving the social conditions of persons with disabilities in the RS for 2017-26. The strategies were developed in accordance with the provisions of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Both strategies have a monitoring system implemented through the establishment of coordination bodies. In addition, in the Federation, coordination bodies were established at the cantonal level as well. In the Brcko District, the law provides expanded rights of persons with disabilities. Entity governments also provide funds within their budgets for the operation of vocational rehabilitation and retraining funds. Activities on the implementation of inclusive education continued in the education system.

The laws of both entities require increased accessibility to buildings for persons with disabilities, but authorities rarely enforced the requirement. Human rights NGOs complained that the construction of public buildings without access for persons with disabilities continued. Both entities have a strategy for advancing the rights of persons with disabilities in the areas of health, education, accessibility, professional rehabilitation and employment, social welfare, and culture and sports. NGOs complained that the government did not effectively implement laws and programs to help persons with disabilities.

The law provides for children with disabilities to attend regular classes when feasible. Due to a lack of financial and physical resources, schools often reported they were unable to accommodate them. Depending on the severity of their disability, children with disabilities either attended classes using regular curricula in regular schools or attended special schools. Parents of children with significant disabilities reported receiving limited to no financial support from the government, notwithstanding that many of them were unemployed because of the round-the-clock care required for their dependents.

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

Harassment and discrimination against members of minorities continued throughout the country, although not as frequently as in previous years. The Interreligious Council of BiH reported, for example, that the number of attacks against religious buildings continued to decrease, as they recorded only 10 cases during 2019. Members of minority groups also continued to experience discrimination in employment and education in both the government and private sectors. While the law prohibits discrimination, human rights activists frequently complained that authorities did not adequately enforce the law. For example, in 2019, 130 hate crimes were recorded in the country, but only one resulted in convictions.

On January 18, unknown perpetrators broke into a facility within the Catholic cemetery Veresika in Tuzla’s Tetima settlement, broke the door of the facility, stole some items, and destroyed the rest. Just days later, on January 22, unknown perpetrators destroyed candleholders, vases, statues, and other items that were placed on graves and desecrated some graves. As of September authorities had not identified the perpetrators. The local chapter of the Interreligious Council strongly condemned the attacks.

Violence and acts of intimidation against ethnic minorities at times focused on symbols and buildings of that minority’s predominant religion. For more information, see the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

Roma, and especially Romani women, continued to be the most vulnerable and experience the most discrimination of any group in the country. They experienced discrimination in access to housing, health care, education, and employment opportunities; nearly 95 percent remained unemployed. A significant percentage of Roma were homeless or without water or electricity in their homes. Many dwellings were overcrowded, and residents lacked proof of property ownership. Approximately three-fourths lived in openly segregated neighborhoods.

In the 2013 census, 12,583 persons registered as Roma, a number that observers believed understated significantly the actual number of Roma in the country. Romani activists reported that a minimum of 40,000 Roma lived in the country, which was similar to Council of Europe estimates. Observers believed the discrepancy in the census figure was the result of numerous manipulations that occurred with the Roma census registration in 2013. Romani activists reported that in many instances, Roma were told by census takers that they had to register as Bosniaks, had their census forms filled out for them, or were simply bypassed altogether.

Authorities frequently discriminated against Roma, which contributed to their exclusion by society. Many human rights NGOs criticized law enforcement and government authorities for the failure and unwillingness to identify Roma as victims of domestic violence and human trafficking, even though the majority of registered trafficking victims in recent years were Roma. Consequently, many trafficking cases ended up as cases of family negligence, which are not criminally prosecuted.

The country has an established legal framework for the protection of minorities. State and entity-level parliaments had national minority councils that met on a regular basis but generally lacked resources and political influence on decision-making processes. The Roma Committee continued to operate as a consultative body to the Council of Ministers, but with very limited influence.

The country does not have a comprehensive strategy on national minorities. The Ministry of Human Rights and Refugees is in charge of implementing a law on national minorities, for which it annually allocates 150,000 convertible marks ($94,200). The country has a Council of National Minorities, an advisory body to the parliament that is composed of one representative from each recognized national minority group. The council played a marginal role, however, in influencing policies and decisions of the parliament. The country lacked human rights and antidiscrimination strategies, and the government does not have an effective system of collecting discrimination cases.

In July 2019 the BiH government joined other Balkan countries in jointly endorsing the Declaration of Western Balkans Partners on Roma Integration within the EU Enlargement Process. The government’s budget for implementation of projects for Roma was two million convertible marks ($1.3 million).

Acts of Violence, Criminalization, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

While the law at the state level prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation, authorities did not fully enforce it. Both entities and the Brcko District have laws that criminalize any form of hate crime committed on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, or gender identity.

Hate speech, discrimination, and violence against LGBTI individuals were widespread. The NGO Sarajevo Open Center (SOC) reported that transgender persons were the most vulnerable LGBTI group, as it is much harder for them to conceal their gender identity. According to research done by the center in 2017, an estimated two-thirds of transgender persons experienced some form of discrimination. In its 2020 Pink Report, the SOC reported that every third LGBTI person in the country experienced some type of discrimination. The SOC believed the actual number of LGBTI persons who experienced some type of discrimination was much higher but that people were afraid to report it.

In 2019 the SOC documented four discrimination cases, two of which involved workplace discrimination and two cases of unprofessional treatment by police when the victims came to report violence. None of the cases resulted in a lawsuit or a complaint against the institution. In the cases of workplace discrimination, one of the victims managed to resolve the case with the employer, while the other was afraid to initiate any legal actions. In one case the victim decided to leave the country due to loss of confidence in institutions. BiH courts had yet to issue a single final ruling on discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity.

During 2019 the SOC also documented 105 cases of hate speech and calling for violence and hatred and 16 cases of crimes and incidents motivated by sexual orientation and gender identity. Of the 16 cases, 12 took place in a public place or online, ranging from threats to violence and infliction of bodily injuries. The announcement of the first pride march, which took place in September 2019, resulted in the number of threats and violence in public places and online to increase threefold. The prosecution of assault and other crimes committed against LGBTI individuals remained delayed and generally inadequate.

In December 2019 the Sarajevo Canton government adopted its first Gender Action Plan for 2019-22 as a public document that contains a set of measures intended to improve gender equality in government institutions. The SOC was engaged in the creation of the plan, and 14 of 18 initiatives proposed by the center were included.

Organizers of the second pride march, which was supposed to take place in August, moved the event online due to the COVID-19 pandemic. They also organized a symbolic drive through the city in a convoy of vehicles flying rainbow flags, which was secured by police and conducted without incident.

Even before the pride march organizers decided to give up on holding a physical event, they faced numerous logistical problems, including government requirements to pay for excessive security measures (physical barriers on nine streets, ambulances, and fire trucks), which presented a significant financial burden. In addition, the Sarajevo Canton Ministry of Traffic rejected the organizers’ request to block traffic for five hours on a main Sarajevo street for the march. The ministry justified its denial by asserting that it would disturb citizen movement and result in loss of income to the public transportation company even though the ministry had approved similar permits for other organizations.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

The country has registered approximately 400 persons with HIV or AIDS, with 20 to 25 new cases reported annually. It was believed, however, that the actual number of cases was higher and that due to stigma and discrimination, many persons avoided testing. Social stigma and employment discrimination against persons with HIV or AIDS remained among members of the public as well as health workers. Due to a lack of understanding of the disease and its subsequent stigmatization among the general population, many persons with HIV or AIDS feared revealing their illness, even to closes family members. The country had no permanent or organized programs of psychosocial support for these persons.

Other Societal Violence or Discrimination

Societal discrimination and occasional violence against ethnic minorities at times took the form of attacks on places symbolic of those minorities, including religious buildings. According to the Interreligious Council, an NGO that promotes dialogue among the four “traditional” religious communities (Muslim, Serbian Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Jewish), attacks against religious symbols, clerics, and property continued in 2019. During the year the council registered 10 reported acts of vandalism against religious sites and one case of verbal abuse against an Orthodox priest but stated the actual number of incidents was likely much higher.

Promotion of Acts of Discrimination

There were widespread instances of media coverage and public discourse designed to portray members of other ethnic groups in negative terms, usually in connection with the 1992-95 conflict. In 2018 the RS National Assembly voted to annul a 2004 report on the Srebrenica massacres that acknowledged Bosnian Serb forces executed thousands of Bosniaks. During the year the then chairman of the BiH Presidency, Milorad Dodik, senior officials in his political party (the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats), and other RS officials and leaders continued to repeatedly deny that Serb forces committed genocide in Srebrenica in 1995, despite the findings of multiple local and international courts. In February the RS government, following a proposal from the RS Academy of Science and Arts and various associations, appointed two international commissions to purportedly re-examine the war of the 1990s: a Srebrenica Commission to investigate the suffering of all persons in and around Srebrenica between 1992 and 1995 and a Sarajevo Commission to investigate the suffering of Serbs in Sarajevo during the war.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

Federation and RS labor laws provide for the right of workers in both entities to form and join independent unions, bargain collectively, and conduct legal strikes. Employers in the private sector did not always respect these rights. The law prohibits antiunion discrimination but does not provide adequately for enforcement of these protections. The labor inspectorates and courts did not deal effectively with employees’ complaints of antiunion discrimination. Unions themselves complained that their own union leaders had been co-opted by the company and politicians and that they mostly protect their own privileges. The law prescribes reinstatement of dismissed workers in cases where there is evidence of discrimination, whether for union activity or other reasons. Entity-level laws in the Federation and the RS prohibit the firing of union leaders without prior approval of their respective labor ministries.

The law in both entities and in the Brcko District provides for the right to strike. The law in the Federation contains burdensome requirements for workers who wish to conduct a strike. Trade unions may not officially announce a strike without first reaching an agreement with the employer on which “essential” personnel would remain at work. In March the Federation government prepared changes to the labor law to address the impact of the COVID-19 crisis, which resulted in many employees in the private sector being fired overnight. The government claimed that all changes needed to allow employers flexibility to preserve businesses and save jobs were enacted. As the result of the COVID-19 pandemic, many workers in the private sector lost jobs, while public-sector workers were protected by general collective agreement and no cuts in their benefits were allowed.

Authorities may declare the strike illegal if no agreement is reached. This provision effectively allowed employers to prevent strikes. Laws governing the registration of unions give the minister of justice powers to accept or reject trade union registration on ambiguous grounds. In addition, in the Federation there were two parallel leaderships of the unions, each of them complaining the other was illegal. Both groups represented themselves as the legal representatives of the unions, and it was unclear which should participate in the social dialogue with the government. One leadership group, led by Selvedin Satorovic (who organized protests), represented the policy of the previous union leadership, which lost the election and supported only the government employees. The other group, led by Mevludin Bektic, showed more interest in representing workers from all sectors and had support from a majority of branch unions (14 of 18) but was too weak to push out Satorovic. On July 16, the court in Sarajevo appointed a provisional administrator of the trade unions to resolve the issue, although the final result was outstanding as of September.

According to informal estimates, approximately 40 percent of the work force was unregistered and working in the informal economy.

The lack of workers’ rights was more pronounced in the private sector largely due to weaker unions in the private sector and to the broad and pronounced weakness of the rule of law.

The government did not effectively enforce all applicable laws. Authorities did not impose sanctions against employers who prevented workers from organizing. Inspections related to worker rights were limited. Ministry inspectors gave low priority to violations of worker rights; state officials focused instead on bolstering revenues by cracking down on unregistered employees and employers who did not pay taxes. Some unions reported that employers threatened employees with dismissal if they joined a union and in some cases fired union leaders for their activities. Entity-level penalties for violations were not commensurate with those for similar violations of civil rights. Judicial procedures were subject to lengthy delays and appeals.

Authorities and employers generally respected freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining. The governments and organizations of employers and workers in both entities negotiated general collective agreements establishing conditions of work, including in particular private employers. It was not confirmed that all employers recognized these agreements. Trade union representatives alleged that antiunion discrimination was widespread in all districts.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

Adequate legislation exists at the state level and in the RS and the Brcko District criminalizing forced or compulsory labor, while Federation laws do not criminalize all forced labor activities. The government did not enforce the law effectively, but there was little verified evidence that forced labor occurred in the country due to the limited number of inspections into forced labor allegations. Penalties for violations were commensurate with those of other serious crimes.

The prosecution of 13 BiH nationals for collusion in forced labor involving 672 victims of forced labor in Azerbaijan in 2015 continued in BiH courts. The government failed to prosecute organized crime syndicates that forced Romani children to beg on the streets, alleging that it was Romani custom to beg. There were reports that individuals and organized crime syndicates trafficked men, women, and children for begging and forced labor (see section 7.c.).

Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The minimum age for employment of children in both entities is 15; minors between the ages of 15 and 18 must provide a valid health certificate to work. RS and Brcko District laws penalize employers for hiring persons younger than age 15. The labor codes of the Federation, the RS, and the Brcko District also prohibit minors between the ages of 15 and 18 from working at night or performing hazardous labor, although forced begging is not considered a hazardous task for all entities. The law prohibits the worst forms of child labor. Entity governments are responsible for enforcing child labor laws, and both entities and the Brcko District enforced them. Boys and girls were subjected to forced begging and involuntary domestic servitude in forced marriages. Sometimes forced begging was linked to other forms of human trafficking. In the case of Romani children, family members or organized criminal groups were usually responsible for subjecting girls and boys to forced begging and domestic servitude in forced marriages. Several of the worst forms of child labor occurring in the country included the use of children for illicit activities, commercial sexual exploitation of children, and the use of children for the production of pornography (see section 6, Children).

During the year the government did not receive reports of child labor at places of employment. Neither entity had inspectors dedicated to child labor inspections; authorities investigated violations of child labor laws as part of a general labor inspection. The labor inspectorates of both entities reported that they found no violations of child labor laws, although they did not conduct reviews of children working on family farms. The government did not collect data on child labor because there were no reported cases. The general perception among officials and civil society was that the exploitation of child labor was rare. RS law imposes fines for employing children younger than 16, but the law does not specify the exact monetary amount. Penalties for violations were commensurate with those for similar serious crimes.

NGOs running day centers in Banja Luka, Tuzla, Mostar, Bijeljina, Bihac, and Sarajevo in cooperation with the country’s antitrafficking coordinator continued to provide services to at-risk children, many of whom were involved in forced begging on the streets.

Also see the Department of Labor’s Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/resources/reports/child-labor/findings .

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

Labor laws and regulations related to employment or occupation prohibit discrimination based on race, ethnicity, sex, gender, age, disability, language, sexual orientation or gender identity, HIV-positive status, other communicable diseases, social status (including refugee status), religion, and national origin. The government generally enforced these laws and regulations effectively. Penalties were commensurate with those for other violations of civil rights.

Discrimination in employment and occupation occurred with respect to race, gender, disability, language, ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender identity, HIV-positive status, and social status. Labor laws and regulations are adequate to protect women’s rights, but authorities did not effectively enforce them in all cases. For example, women were unable to take maternity leave for the period of one year and were often unable to return to their work position after maternity leave or take advantage of the entitlement to work part time. Unsanctioned cases of employment termination for pregnant women and new mothers continue to occur.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

Although the monthly minimum wage in both entities is above the official poverty income level, more than 30 percent of the population was exposed to the risk of income poverty. The Brcko District did not have a separate minimum wage or an independent pension fund, and employers typically used the minimum wage rate of the entity to which its workers decided to direct their pension funds. The RS government increased the minimum wage during the COVID-19 pandemic under the pressure of the workers.

The legal workweek in both entities and the Brcko District is 40 hours, although seasonal workers may work up to 60 hours. The law limits overtime to 10 hours per week in both entities. An employee in the RS may legally volunteer for an additional 10 hours of overtime in exceptional circumstances. The Federation has no provision for premium pay, while the RS requires a 30 percent premium. Laws in both entities require a minimum rest period of 30 minutes during the workday.

Employees may choose which holidays to observe depending on ethnic or religious affiliation. Entity labor laws prohibit excessive compulsory overtime. The entities and the Brcko District did little to enforce regulations on working hours, daily and weekly rest, or annual leave.

The Federation Market Inspectorate, the RS Inspectorate, and the Brcko District Inspectorate are responsible for the enforcement of labor laws in the formal economy. Authorities in the two entities and the Brcko District did not effectively enforce labor regulations. The penalties for wage, hours, and health and safety violations were commensurate with those of similar crimes. Inspectors were permitted to make unannounced inspections and initiate sanctions. The number of inspectors was insufficient to deter violations.

The Federation and the RS set mandatory occupational health and safety standards, especially for those industry sectors where working conditions were hazardous. Worker rights extended to all official (i.e., registered) workers, including migrant and temporary workers.

Governments in both entities made only limited efforts to improve occupational safety and health at government-owned coal mines; such efforts were inadequate for the safety and security of workers. Workers in certain industries, particularly metal and steel processing and coal mining, often worked in hazardous conditions. There were no official social protections for workers in the informal economy unless those workers are registered at unemployment bureaus and are receiving related benefits (such as health-care coverage).

Workers could not remove themselves from situations that endanger their health or safety without jeopardizing their employment. Authorities provided no protection to employees in this situation. As of mid-October there were no reports of industrial accidents that led to death or serious injury of workers.

Burma

Executive Summary

Burma has a quasi-parliamentary system of government in which the national parliament selects the president and constitutional provisions grant one-quarter of parliamentary seats to active-duty military appointees. The military also has the authority to appoint the ministers of defense, home affairs, and border affairs and one of two vice presidents, as well as to assume power over all branches of the government should the president declare a national state of emergency. General elections were held on November 8 and widely accepted as a credible reflection of the will of the people, despite some structural flaws. Voters in all constituencies where the government determined elections could be held safely elected members of parliament in both the upper and the lower houses, as well as state and regional legislatures. The government cancelled polling in more than half of the townships in Rakhine State, in addition to cancellations in Shan State, Kachin State, and elsewhere due to insecurity. Results declared on November 14 showed the National League for Democracy maintained its majority of parliament, while a military-aligned party lost seats. By the terms of the constitution, the military itself filled by appointment 25 percent of seats in both the upper and lower houses of parliament, as well as in state and regional legislatures. National League for Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi continued to be the civilian government’s de facto leader and, due to constitutional provisions preventing her from becoming president, remained in the position of state counsellor.

The Myanmar Police Force is primarily responsible for internal security. The Border Guard Police is administratively part of the Myanmar Police Force but operationally distinct. Both fall under the Ministry of Home Affairs, led by an active-duty military general, so they are subordinate to the armed forces’ command. The armed forces under the Ministry of Defense are responsible for external security but are engaged extensively in internal security, including combat against ethnic armed groups. Under the constitution, civilian authorities have no authority over the security forces; the armed forces commander in chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, maintained effective control over all security forces. Members of the security forces continued to commit numerous serious human rights abuses.

Extreme repression of and discrimination against the minority Rohingya population, who are predominantly Muslim, continued in Rakhine State. Intense fighting between the military and the ethnic Rakhine Arakan Army in January displaced thousands more civilians, further disrupted humanitarian access to vulnerable populations, and resulted in serious abuses of civilian populations. Fighting between the military and ethnic armed groups in northern Shan State, as well as fighting there among ethnic armed groups, temporarily displaced thousands of persons and resulted in abuses, including reports of civilian deaths and forced recruitment by the ethnic armed groups.

Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings by security forces; enforced disappearance by security forces; torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by security forces; harsh and sometimes life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest or detention; political prisoners or detainees; serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; serious abuses in internal conflicts, including killings of civilians, enforced disappearances or abductions, torture and physical abuses or punishments, unlawful recruitment of child soldiers, arbitrary denial of humanitarian access, and other conflict-related abuses; severe restrictions on free expression, including arbitrary arrest and prosecution of journalists, and criminal libel laws; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; severe restrictions on religious freedom; serious restrictions on freedom of movement; the inability of some citizens to change their government peacefully through free and fair elections; restrictions on political participation; serious acts of corruption; lack of investigation of and accountability for violence against women; trafficking in persons; crimes involving violence or threats targeting members of national, ethnic, and religious minority groups; laws criminalizing consensual same-sex sexual conduct between adults, although those laws were rarely enforced; and the use of forced and child labor, including the worst forms of child labor.

There continued to be almost complete impunity for past and continuing abuses by the security forces. In a few cases the government took limited actions to prosecute or punish subordinate officials it claimed were responsible for crimes, although in ways that were not commensurate with the seriousness of the acts. In the few cases where the military claimed to try to convict perpetrators, the process lacked transparency and no details were provided about the identity of the individuals, the crimes they were charged with, or their sentences.

Some ethnic armed groups committed human rights abuses, including killings, disappearances, physical abuse and degrading treatment, unlawful recruitment and use of child soldiers, forced labor of adults and children, and failure to protect local populations in conflict zones. These abuses rarely resulted in investigations or prosecutions.

Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings

There were numerous reports security forces committed arbitrary or unlawful killings (see also section 1.g.) of civilians, prisoners, and other persons in their power.

On April 7, seven persons in Paletwa Township, Chin State, were killed when military airstrikes hit the village. Those killed included two children, a mother, and an infant. Eight others were injured. On June 10, Myo Thant, a 43-year-old also from Paletwa Township, was shot and killed by members of military’s 22nd Light Infantry Brigade.

In late June, a 60-year-old farmer named Lone Hsu was killed and a woman was injured when soldiers opened fire on a village in northern Shan State. The incident sparked a protest by more than 10,000 persons in Kyaukme Township, who called for an end to military brutality against civilians. On June 29, the military announced the squadron commander would be court-martialed because the shooter–an infantry soldier–had died in battle. There was no report of action as of November.

There were reports of suspects in custody dying as a result of police mistreatment. On August 10, two 17-year-old boys, sentenced to two years’ incarceration at the Mandalay Community Rehabilitation Centre for robbery, died under suspicious circumstances after a failed escape attempt, according to local media. The families of the deceased noted injuries found on the bodies of both boys.

b. Disappearance

There were reports of disappearances by security forces.

Khaing Khant Kyaw, a student at the Defense Services Medical Academy in Rangoon, disappeared in late August after he criticized military leaders in an August Facebook post. As of November, his whereabouts were unknown, according to the news service Myanmar Now.

According to the Chin Human Rights Organization, at least 18 persons from Paletwa Township in Chin State and from Rakhine State remained missing as of November, some two years after disappearing. At least three were reportedly abducted by the ethnic Rakhine Arakan Army (AA) (see also section 1.g.).

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

The law prohibits torture; however, members of security forces reportedly tortured and otherwise abused suspects, prisoners, detainees, and others. Such incidents occurred, for example, in prisons and in Rakhine State. Authorities generally took no action to investigate incidents or punish alleged perpetrators.

Human rights groups reported incidents of alleged torture by security forces and some ethnic armed groups in ethnic minority areas. In Rakhine State, hundreds of prisoners reportedly were subject to torture and abuse by state prison and security officials.

Sexual violence by security force members continued. On January 14, a Chin woman was hospitalized after she was reportedly tortured while in the custody of military forces operating under the Western Command in Ann, Rakhine State. She was arrested on suspicion that her husband had been in contact with members of the AA. In another case on June 29, a woman in Rakhine State’s Rathedaung Township was allegedly raped by three military personnel at gunpoint. The 36-year-old woman filed a complaint with Sittwe Police Station, and the police station accepted the complaint and opened cases for rape, abduction with the intent to rape, and aiding and abetting rape. The military was also conducting an internal investigation.

Although there were reports of official investigations into some cases of alleged sexual violence, the government released no information on them.

Security forces reportedly subjected detainees to harsh interrogation techniques designed to intimidate and disorient, including severe beatings and deprivation of food, water, and sleep.

There was a widespread impression that security force members enjoyed near complete impunity for abuses committed. Police and military tribunals were often not transparent about investigations, trials, or punishments they claimed to have undertaken. There was no information to suggest that human rights training was a prominent part of overall security forces training or that rights abuses were punished in ways commensurate with the seriousness of crimes committed.

On September 16, the military’s Office of the Judge Advocate General announced that it was “investigating possible wider patterns of violations in the region of northern Rakhine State in 2016 and 2017.” The announcement came after release of a report by a government-appointed commission on violence in the region that found security forces had committed war crimes (see section 5, Government Human Rights Bodies).

On June 30, the military announced that two officers and a soldier had been convicted for “weakness in following the instructions” during the “Gu Dar Pyin incident.” Rakhine State’s Gu Dar Pyin village was the site of a massacre by the military in 2017, part of its campaign of mass atrocities that forced more than 740,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh. The military did not provide any other information, such as the names and ranks of those convicted, their role in the massacre, or their sentences.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Conditions in prisons, labor camps, and military detention facilities were reportedly harsh and sometimes life threatening due to overcrowding, degrading treatment, and inadequate access to medical care and basic needs, including food, shelter, and hygiene.

Physical Conditions: There were 46 prisons and 50 labor camps, the latter referred to by the government as “agriculture and livestock breeding career training centers” and “manufacturing centers.” A prominent human rights group estimated there were approximately 70,000 prisoners. Women and men were held separately. Overcrowding was reportedly a serious problem in many prisons and labor camps. In March, before the latest general amnesty, a human rights group reported that occupancy at the country’s largest prison was nearly triple capacity. Some prisons held pretrial detainees together with convicted prisoners. More than 20,000 inmates were serving court-mandated sentences in labor camps located across the country.

Corruption was endemic in the penal system. Some authorities reportedly sent prisoners whose sentences did not include “hard labor” to labor camps in contravention of the law and “rented out” prisoners as labor to private companies for personal financial gain, although official policy prohibited both practices. In spite of reforms in recent years, conditions at the camps remained life threatening for some, especially at 18 labor camps where prisoners worked as miners.

Bedding was often inadequate and sometimes consisted of a single mat, wooden platform, or laminated plastic sheet on a concrete floor. Prisoners did not always have access to potable water. In many cases family members had to supplement prisoners’ official rations, medicine, and basic necessities. Inmates also reportedly paid prison officials for necessities, including clean water, prison uniforms, plates, cups, and utensils.

Medical care was inadequate and reportedly contributed to deaths in custody. Prisoners suffered from health problems, including malaria, heart disease, high blood pressure, tuberculosis, skin diseases, and stomach problems, caused or exacerbated by unhygienic conditions and spoiled food. Former prisoners also complained of poorly maintained physical structures that provided no protection from the elements and had rodent, snake, and mold infestations.

Prison conditions in Rakhine State were reportedly among the worst.

Administration: Prisoners and detainees could sometimes submit complaints to judicial authorities without censorship or negative repercussions, but there was no clear legal or administrative protection for this right.

Some prisons prevented full adherence to religious codes for prisoners, ostensibly due to space restrictions and security concerns. For example, imprisoned Buddhist monks reported authorities denied them permission to observe holy days, wear robes, shave their heads, or eat on a schedule compatible with the monastic code. For the general prison population, some authorities allowed individual or group worship, but prohibited long beards, wearing robes, or shaved heads.

Independent Monitoring: The ICRC had conditional and limited access to all prisons and labor camps; it did not have access to military detention sites. With prior approval from the Prison Department, it could visit prisons and labor camps twice monthly but could not meet privately with prisoners. The ICRC reported its findings through a strictly confidential bilateral dialogue with prison authorities. These reports were neither public nor shared with any other party.

The Ministry of Home Affairs Department of Corrections operates the prison and labor camp system. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime were able to visit facilities during the past year, although some restrictions on access remain.

The military did not permit access to its detention facilities.

Improvements: The UN Office of Drugs and Crime strengthened its health system program in four prisons by including measures to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

The law does not prohibit arbitrary arrest, and the government continued to arrest persons, often from ethnic and religious minority groups, and notably in Rakhine State, on an arbitrary basis. Persons held generally did not have the right to appeal the legality of their arrest or detention administratively or before a court.

The law allows authorities to order detention without charge or trial of anyone they believe is performing or might perform any act that endangers the sovereignty and security of the state or public peace and tranquility. The civilian government and the military continued to interpret these laws broadly and used them arbitrarily to detain activists, student leaders, farmers, journalists, political staff, and human rights defenders.

Personnel from the Office of the Chief of Military Security Affairs and police commonly conducted searches and made arrests at will, despite the law generally requiring warrants.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

The law generally requires warrants for arrest, but this this requirement was not always followed.

By law authorities may hold suspects in pretrial detention for two weeks (with a possible two-week extension) before bringing them before a judge or informing them of the charges against them. According to the Independent Lawyers’ Association of Myanmar, police regularly detained suspects for two weeks, failed to file a charge, and released suspects briefly before detaining them for a series of two-week periods with pro forma trips to the judge in between.

The law grants detainees the right to consult an attorney, but in some cases authorities refused to allow suspects this right. The law provides access to fair and equal legal aid based on international standards and mandates the independence of and legal protection for legal aid workers. The government failed to provide adequate funding and staffing to implement the law fully. Through September the legal aid program handled 300 cases.

There is a functioning bail system, but bribery was a common substitute for bail. Bail is commonly offered in criminal cases, but defendants were often required to attend numerous pretrial hearings before bail was granted.

In some cases the government held detainees incommunicado. There were reports authorities did not inform family members or attorneys of arrests of persons in a timely manner, reveal the whereabouts of those held, and often denied families the right to see prisoners in a timely manner.

Arbitrary Arrest: There were reports of arbitrary arrests, including detention by the military in conflict areas.

Amnesty International documented arbitrary detention in several townships in Rakhine State. A villager from Kyauktaw Township witnessed soldiers arresting 10 villagers, including her husband, on March 16. She said soldiers punched, kicked, and used guns to hit those who resisted.

On July 24, land activist Gei Om was taken into custody after a local official sent a letter of complaint to authorities in Mindat Township, Chin State, alleging that Gei Om had spread false news about possible illicit activities, was involved in an illegal land dispute settlement in 2016, and had been collecting illegal taxes from villagers. Prior to his arrest, Gei Om helped local community leaders to monitor the impact of a model farm project to harvest oil seed plants designed by the Management Committee of Mindat Township, according to the International Federation for Human Rights. They reportedly found that those in charge of the model farms had engaged in illegal logging and that the farms had caused environmental damage in Natma Taung National Park.

Pretrial Detention: Judges and police sometimes colluded to extend detentions. According to the Independent Lawyers’ Association, arbitrary and lengthy pretrial detentions resulted from lengthy, complicated legal procedures and widespread corruption. Periods of detention prior to and during trials sometimes equaled or exceeded the sentence that would result from a conviction.

Detainees Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: Although habeas corpus exists in law, security forces often arrested and detained individuals without following proper procedures, in violation of national law. Arbitrary arrest or detention was sometimes used to suppress political dissent, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The law calls for an independent judiciary, but the government manipulated the courts for political ends and sometimes deprived citizens of due process and the right to a fair trial, particularly in freedom of expression cases.

The criminal justice system was overburdened by a high number of cases lodged against small-time drug users, who constituted an estimated 50 percent of caseloads in the courts.

Corruption in the judiciary remained a significant problem. According to civil society organizations, officials at all levels received illegal payments at all stages of the legal process for purposes ranging from influencing routine matters, such as access to a detainee in police custody, to substantive decisions, such as fixing the outcome of a case.

The case of political activist Aung That Zin Oo (known as James) illustrates the prolonged delays, procedural irregularities, and political maneuvering that mark the judicial process. On August 25, a township court convicted James of carrying fake identification cards during a 2015 protest and sentenced him to six months at hard labor. James was tried and convicted because the local immigration office refused to drop the charges against him, although all charges against others arrested with him were dropped when the National League for Democracy (NLD) government took office in 2016.

The military and the government directly and indirectly exerted influence over the outcome of cases. Former military personnel, for example, served in key positions, and observers reported that the military pressured judicial officials in cases involving military interests, such as investments in military-owned enterprises.

Trial Procedures

The law provides for the right to a fair and public trial but also grants broad exceptions, effectively allowing the government to violate these rights at will. In ordinary criminal cases, the government allowed courts to operate independently, and courts generally respected some basic due process rights such as allowing a defense and appeal. Defendants do not enjoy a presumption of innocence or the rights to be informed promptly and in detail of the charges against them; to be present at their trial; to free interpretation; or, except in capital cases, to consult an attorney of their choice or have one provided at government expense. There is no right to adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense; defense attorneys in criminal cases generally had 15 days to prepare for trial. There is a fair trial standards manual, but because of the low standard of legal education, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges were often unfamiliar with precedent, case law, and basic legal procedures. While no legal provision allows for coerced testimony or confessions of defendants to be used in court, authorities reportedly accepted both. There were reports of official coercion to plead guilty despite a lack of evidence, with promises of reduced sentences to defendants who did so.

Although the law provides that ordinary criminal cases should be open to the public, members of the public with no direct involvement in a case were sometimes denied entry to courts. Defense attorneys generally could call witnesses and conduct cross-examinations. Prodemocracy activists generally were able to retain counsel, but other defendants’ access to counsel was inadequate.

Local civil society groups noted the public was largely unaware of its legal rights, and there were too few lawyers to meet public needs.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

The government continued to detain and arrest journalists, activists, and critics of the government and the military. According to civil society groups who use a definition of political prisoners that includes those who may have engaged in acts of violence and excludes some charges related to freedom of expression and religion, there were 36 convicted political prisoners as of October. Another 584 individuals were facing trial for their political views, of whom 193 were in pretrial detention and the rest were out on bail, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. The ICRC had very limited access to political prisoners.

Authorities held some political prisoners separately from common criminals, but political prisoners arrested in land rights disputes were generally held together with common criminals.

On May 18, the Union Election Commission annulled Aye Maung’s status as a lower house lawmaker and barred him from running in future elections due to his treason conviction. In 2019 Aye Maung, then chairman of the Arakan National Party, was sentenced to 20 years in prison for high treason and another two years for defamation of the state after remarks interpreted by the government as expressing and encouraging support for the AA.

Many former political prisoners were subject to surveillance and restrictions following their release, including the inability to resume studies or secure travel, identity, or land ownership documents.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

No specific mechanisms or laws provide for civil remedies for human rights abuses; however, complainants may use provisions of the penal code and laws of civil procedure to seek civil remedies. Individuals and organizations may not appeal an adverse decision to regional human rights bodies but may make complaints to the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission.

Property Restitution

Under the constitution the state owns all land, although there is a limited amount of freehold land and the law allows for registration and sale of private land ownership rights. Most land is held in long-term lease, meaning that while this leasehold land is still owned by the government, it is leased to private parties on a long-term basis with a general expectation that the leasehold will automatically roll over upon its expiration. The law provides for compensation when the government acquires privately held land for a public purpose; however, civil society groups criticized the lack of safeguards in the law and declared that compensation was infrequent and inadequate when offered. The government can also declare land unused or “vacant” and assign it to foreign investors or designate it for other uses. Authorities and private-sector organizations seized land during the year; restitution was very limited. In Mon State, for example, retired military personnel acting as private-sector land agents obtained land use rights to pursue development of rubber plantations, while those displaced received minimal compensation.

The General Administration Department of the Office of the Union Government oversees land restitution. There is no judicial review of land ownership or confiscation decisions, although there are limited administrative processes to manage objections. Administrative bodies subject to political control by the national government make final decisions on land use and registration. Researchers and civil society groups stated land laws facilitated land confiscation without providing adequate procedural protections. In some cases, advance notice of confiscations was not given.

The law does not favor recognition of traditional land-tenure systems (customary tenure). In March the new Vacant, Fallow, and Virgin Lands Management Law came into effect, requiring anyone occupying land classified as “vacant, fallow, or virgin” to apply for permits within six months. Continued use of the affected land without applying for permits meant land users would be in trespass and could be sentenced to up to two years in prison. If rigorously enforced, this order could result in millions of persons losing rights of access to their lands. Understanding of the new law and the application process was low in affected communities.

Beginning in September, police began to arrest farmers for violating the new law. Eight farmers were sentenced to two years’ imprisonment for farming land in Ayeyarwady Region that the local government seized as vacant and sold to a private company.

Civil society groups argued the new law was unjust and called for its immediate suspension. These groups also called for customary tenure to be defined and included in all land laws since it is included in the National Land Use Policy.

Observers were concerned about official statements suggesting that the new law could also be used to prevent displaced Rohingya from returning to their land or receiving adequate compensation. Officials stated that burned land would revert to the government and posted signs in several venues to that effect. Given that the military bulldozed villages, demolished structures, and cleared vegetation to build security bases and other structures in Rakhine State and given that the land law states that land not used productively within four years reverts to the government, civil society groups saw little progress in returning land confiscated by the government.

In March a group of 41 Karenni farmers and activists who were detained for more than six months for damaging property in a dispute with the army predating the new law were released from prison in Loikaw, Kayah State, after completing their sentences and paying fines. During the year many other farmers were awaiting trial in similar cases.

Neither restitution nor adequate compensation was provided to persons or communities whose land was confiscated under the former military regime.

f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

The law protects the privacy and security of the home and property, but these protections were poorly enforced. The law does not protect the privacy of correspondence or other communications.

Some activists reported the government systematically monitored citizens’ travel and closely monitored the activities of politically active persons, while others reported they did not experience any such invasions of privacy. Special Branch police, official intelligence networks, and other administrative systems (see section 2.d.) were reported agents of such surveillance.

The government and military commonly monitored private electronic communications through online surveillance. Police used Cellebrite technology to breach cell phones. While Cellebrite halted new sales in the country and stopped servicing equipment that was already sold in late 2018, authorities continued to employ the technology.

Authorities in Rakhine State required Rohingya to obtain a permit to marry officially, a step not required of other ethnicities. Waiting times for the permit could exceed one year, and bribes usually were required. Unauthorized marriages could result in prosecution of Rohingya men under the law, which prohibits a man from “deceitfully” marrying a woman, and could result in a prison sentence or fine.

There were reports of regular, unannounced nighttime household checks in northern Rakhine State and in other areas.

g. Abuses in Internal Conflict

There were long-running armed internal conflicts across the country. Reports of killings, disappearances, beatings, torture, forced labor, forced relocations, the unlawful recruitment and use of child soldiers, excessive use of force, disregard for civilian life, sexual violence, and other abuses committed by government forces and armed opposition and rebel groups were common. Within the military, impunity for abuses and crimes continued, although the military took disciplinary action in limited cases.

Conflict continued and escalated between the military and the AA in central and northern Rakhine State and expanded into southern Chin State; clashes between the military and multiple armed groups in northern Shan State took place throughout the year. Heavy fighting between the military and the AA displaced tens of thousands of civilians and resulted in civilian casualties and credible reports of military abuses. Although fighting between the two sides quieted in November and December and some individuals returned home, the situation remained tense and most displaced persons were unable to do so. The military also clashed with the Karen National Union in Karen State, temporarily displacing hundreds in February and March.

Killings: Military officials reportedly killed, tortured, and otherwise seriously abused civilians in conflict areas without public inquiry or accountability. Following ethnic armed groups’ attacks on the military, the military reportedly often directed its attacks against civilians, resulting in deaths. Some ethnic armed groups, most notably the AA, also allegedly committed abuses. The AA allegedly killed off-duty police and military personnel as well as civilians suspected of providing information to the military. Multiple local and international groups reported that the number of dead and injured civilians in the fighting between the military and the AA from January to April alone far surpassed the total for all of 2019–by one accounting, 151 were killed and 394 wounded through the middle of April–as the overall humanitarian situation deteriorated while the geographic scope of fighting grew.

The military blamed the AA for these and other killings of police: a police lieutenant was killed in Kyauktaw, Rakhine State on June 13; a police captain was shot by multiple assailants at the same station on August 12; two off-duty Border Guard Police officers were abducted in Maungdaw, Rakhine State on September 8, one was killed and the other was missing as of October. On September 8, four persons, including two children, were killed and another 10 wounded when the military fired artillery into a village in Myebon Township, Rakhine State, according to local residents and press.

Abductions: Government soldiers and nonstate armed groups abducted villagers in conflict areas.

The AA often abducted officials and others for propaganda purposes. On January 21, the AA released lower house member of parliament Hawi Tin after two months in custody. The AA detained him and several Indian nationals en route from Paletwa, Chin State, to Kyauktaw, Rakhine State. On October 19, the AA claimed responsibility for the October 14 abduction of two NLD candidates who were campaigning in Taungup Township, Rakhine State. The NLD rejected AA demands for the release of students and other protesters in exchange for the candidates.

Physical Abuse, Punishment, and Torture: Nongovernmental organization (NGO) reports provided credible information that the military tortured and beat civilians alleged to be working with or perceived to be sympathetic to ethnic armed groups in Rakhine State. There were also continued reports of forced labor and forced recruitment by the United Wa State Army, the Restoration Council of Shan State, and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army.

In May a video released by Radio Free Asia on social media showed soldiers viciously beating five blindfolded and bound men from Ponnagyun Township, Rakhine State, on April 27 aboard a naval vessel. The five were forced to confess to being AA members, although relatives and local villagers claimed they were civilians from a village the military shelled on April 13. The military released a statement on May 12 admitting that members of the security forces performed “unlawful interrogations” and promising to “take actions.”

Civilians, armed actors, and NGOs operating inside the country and along the border reported continued indiscriminate landmine use by the military and armed groups.

Child Soldiers: Four ethnic armed groups–the Kachin Independence Army, the armed wing of the Kachin Independence Organization; the Shan State Army, the armed wing of the Shan State Progress Party; the United Wa State Army; and the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army–were listed in the UN secretary-general’s 2020 report on Children and Armed Conflict as perpetrators of the unlawful recruitment and use of children. The military was conditionally delisted by the secretary-general as a perpetrator of unlawful recruitment and use of children due to continued progress on child recruitment, although the secretary-general called for continued progress on use of children.

The penalties imposed for recruiting and using child soldiers in a manner inconsistent with relevant laws were not commensurate with the seriousness of these actions. Most child recruitment or use cases reportedly culminated in reprimands, demotions, relocations, fines, or decreases in pensions, penalties significantly less severe than those prescribed by criminal law. Despite military directives prohibiting the use and recruitment of children, some children were still used by the military for noncombat roles in conflict areas. On child recruitment, reports continued that middlemen fraudulently facilitated enrollment of underage recruits, sometimes at the request of the recruits’ families. The Ministry of Defense undertook to investigate military personnel implicated in unlawfully recruiting child soldiers. There was, however, no evidence that the government prosecuted soldiers in military or civilian courts for recruiting or using child soldiers.

The military generally allowed UN monitors to inspect for compliance with agreed-upon procedures for ending the unlawful use and recruitment of children and identifying and demobilizing those already recruited. There were, however, some delays in securing official permissions, and access to conflict areas was often denied. The government allowed the United Nations to engage ethnic armed groups on the signing of joint plans of action to end the recruitment and use of child soldiers and to demobilize and rehabilitate those already serving.

Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

Other Conflict-related Abuse: The government restricted the passage of relief supplies and access by international humanitarian organizations to conflict-affected areas of Rakhine, Chin, Kachin, and Shan States. The government regularly denied access to the United Nations, international NGOs, and diplomatic missions, asserting the military could not ensure their security or by claiming that humanitarian assistance would benefit ethnic armed group forces. In some cases the military allowed gradual access as government forces regained control over contested areas.

A World Health Organization vehicle with UN markings transporting COVID-19 test samples to Rangoon came under fire in Minbya Township, Rakhine State, on April 20, during heavy fighting in the area. The driver was hit and died of his injuries on April 21. The military and the AA traded blame for the attack. Based on the nature of the attack and the vehicle’s passage through a military checkpoint shortly before coming under fire, most observers believed the AA was responsible, although the attack may have been unintended. The government announced the formation of a four-member committee to investigate the attack.

In a separate incident, a convoy of five clearly marked World Food Program trucks came under fire in southern Chin State on April 29 while transporting food aid to vulnerable communities around Paletwa, the site of numerous recent clashes between the military and the AA. One of the drivers suffered a minor injury, and three of the five trucks were damaged. The World Food Program supplies ultimately reached Paletwa on May 2, traveling the final distance by boat.

Reports continued that the military forced civilians to act as human shields, carry supplies, or serve in other support roles in conflict areas such as northern Shan, southern Chin, and Rakhine States. On October 5, military forces conscripted 14 Rohingya civilians, many of them teenagers, to act as “guides” in the village of Pyin Shae, in Buthidaung Township, according to local civil society, officials, and multiple press reports. The soldiers, anticipating a clash with the AA forced the villagers to walk in front of them–using them, in effect, as human buffers. One press report indicated the military might also have believed the area was mined. When the group came under fire from AA forces, two teenage boys were killed and a man was seriously injured; the others fled.

As of November, an estimated 326,500 persons remained displaced by violence in Rakhine, Chin, Kachin, and Shan States. An increase of 60,000 in 12 months in Rakhine and Chin States was driven by the fighting between the AA and the military. In some cases, villagers driven from their homes fled into the forest, frequently in heavily mined areas, without adequate food, security, or basic medical care.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution provides that “every citizen shall be at liberty in the exercise of expressing and publishing freely their convictions and opinions,” but it contains the broad and ambiguous caveat that exercise of these rights must “not be contrary to the laws enacted for national security, prevalence of law and order, community peace and tranquility, or public order and morality.” Threats against and arrests of journalists and others who criticized the government or military continued.

Freedom of Speech: Freedom of speech was more restricted than in 2019. Authorities arrested, detained, convicted, intimidated, and imprisoned citizens for expressing political opinions critical of the government and the military, generally under charges of defamation, incitement, or violating national security laws. This included the detentions and trials of activists and ordinary citizens. The government applied laws carrying more severe punishments than in the past, including laws enabling years-long prison sentences.

Some persons remained wary of speaking openly about politically sensitive topics due to monitoring and harassment by security services and ultranationalist Buddhist groups. Police continued to monitor politicians, journalists, and writers.

On January 17, the Karen State government charged Karen environmental activist Saw Tha Phoe over his role in a traditional prayer ceremony to protect local water resources against pollution from a coal-powered cement factory. He fled when police attempted to arrest him and was still in hiding as of November. The local government General Administration Department filed a complaint against Saw Tha Phoe for making or circulating statements that may cause public fear or alarm and incite the public to commit an offense against the state or “public tranquility.”

On May 7, the Kayah State government placed numerous restrictions on civil society and political activities, using COVID-19 as a pretext to ban any speeches, writing, pictures, posters, placards, pamphlets, or other activity deemed to be defamatory to authorities, according to The Irrawaddy newspaper.

On September 4, Maung Saungkha, an activist, poet, and cofounder of the freedom of expression activist organization Athan, paid a fine to avoid a prison sentence over an act of peaceful protest to mark the first anniversary of the mobile internet shutdown in Rakhine and Chin States. Saungkha unfurled a banner asking: “Is the internet being shut down to hide war crimes in Rakhine [State] and killing people?”

Military officers brought or sought to bring charges against several prominent religious figures based on their criticism of the military, including multiple Buddhist monks. Cases against at least three prominent, protolerance monks critical of the military and Burmese Buddhist ultranationalism, Sein Ti Ta, Myawaddy Sayadaw, and Thawbita, remained open as of November.

As of November, proceedings continued in the cases against democracy activist Nilar Thein and four others for their protest during a court hearing for Peacock Generation members (see Academic and Freedom and Cultural Events below). Nilar Thein and the four others were charged with “obstructing” and “deterring” a public official. The maximum sentence is three years in jail.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and able to operate, despite many official and unofficial restrictions. The government continued to permit the publication of privately owned daily newspapers. As of November, authorities approved 47 dailies; however, press freedom declined compared with 2019, and security forces detained journalists under laws carrying more severe sentences than those used in previous years.

Local media could cover human rights and political issues, including, for example, democratic reform and international investigations of the 2017 ethnic cleansing in Rakhine State, although they observed some self-censorship on these subjects. Official action or threats of such action increased against journalists reporting on conflict in Rakhine State involving the AA. The government generally permitted media outlets to cover protests and civil unrest, topics not reported widely in state-run media.

The military continued to react harshly to perceived critical media commentary through prosecution by civil authorities. Members of the ruling party increasingly prosecuted journalists perceived as critical. Officials continued to monitor journalists in various parts of the country, according to Freedom House.

On April 3, Takotaw Nanda (also known as Aung Kyi Myint), a Channel Myanmar News journalist, was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment for allegedly disrupting a public service and unlawful assembly after live-streaming on Facebook a May 2019 protest against a Mandalay Region cement plant. In May 2019, Aung Marm Oo, editor-in-chief of Development Media Group in Rakhine State, went into hiding after charges were filed that the group reported human rights violations in the continuing fighting between the military and the AA. Aung Marm Oo, also known as Aung Min Oo, received death threats, while Special Branch police interrogated journalists at the media group and questioned his family members.

Authorities took actions against journalists for erroneous reporting on the COVID-19 pandemic. On May 21, chief editor of Dae Pyaw News Agency, Zaw Min Oo, was sentenced to two years in prison for falsely reporting a COVID-19 death in Myawady, Karen State, on April 3. He was charged with publishing or circulating a statement, rumor, or report that could arouse “public mutiny, fear, alarm or incitement.” On July 10, Zaw Min, a reporter from Khit Thit Media, was fined for incorrectly reporting a local quarantine center had no staff to feed nine patients and no masks or soap were available.

The government relaxation of its monopoly on domestic television broadcasting continued, with five private companies broadcasting using Ministry of Information platforms. The news broadcasters, however, were subject to the same informal restrictions as were print and online media. The government offered three public channels–two controlled by the Ministry of Information and one by the military; the ministry channels regularly aired the military’s content. Two private companies that had strong links to the previous military regime continued to broadcast six free-to-air channels. The government allowed the general population to register satellite television receivers for a fee, but the cost was prohibitive for most persons outside of urban areas. The military, government, and government-linked businesspersons controlled the eight privately or quasi-governmentally owned FM radio stations.

Violence and Harassment: Government agents, nationalist groups, and businesspersons engaged in illegal enterprises, sometimes together with local authorities, continued to attack and harass journalists who criticized government policy on a range of issues.

On February 9, ultranationalists from the Ma Ba Tha-linked Myanmar National Organization protesting in Rangoon threatened and physically intimidated staff at Khit Thit Media and 7 Day News, according to Tharlon Zaung Htet, editor of Khit Thit Media and a member of the government-sponsored Myanmar Press Council.

On March 4, Frontier Myanmar journalist Naw Betty Han and Ko Mar Naw, a photojournalist from Myanmar Times, were detained for one day and allegedly tortured by the ethnic Karen Border Guard Forces in Myawaddy Township, Karen State, for reporting on the Chinese Shwe Kokko development project.

On May 13, Kyaw Lin, a journalist who reported for online independent news outlets Myanmar Now and Development Media Group, was assaulted in Sittwe, Rakhine State, by two individuals shouting death threats. Kyaw Lin had reported on fighting between the AA and the military. In 2017, an unknown attacker stabbed him in Sittwe after he published an article on local land prices. The perpetrators of the May 13 assault were still at large as of October.

Authorities prevented journalists’ access to northern Rakhine State except on government-organized trips that participants reported to be tightly controlled and designed to advance the government’s narrative. The government continued to use visa issuance and shortened visa validities to control foreign journalists, especially those not based in the country.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Although generally not enforced, laws prohibit citizens from electronically passing information about the country to foreign media, exposing journalists who reported for or cooperated with international media to potential harassment, intimidation, and arrest. There were no reports of overt prepublication censorship, and the government allowed open discussion of some sensitive political and economic topics, but legal action against publications that criticized the military or the government increased self-censorship.

Self-censorship was common, particularly on issues related to Buddhist extremism, the military, the situation in Rakhine State, and the peace process. Journalists reported that such self-censorship became more pronounced after the 2018 trial and conviction of two Reuters journalists. The government ordered media outlets to use certain terms and themes to describe the situation in northern Rakhine State and threatened penalties against journalists who did not follow the government’s guidance, exacerbating self-censorship on that topic.

The military filed a complaint to the Myanmar Press Council when a January 25 Reuters story quoted a lawmaker as saying that army artillery fire had caused the deaths of two Rohingya women. After the reported advocacy by the press council, however, the military withdrew its complaint on March 18 “in the interest of maintaining good relations with the press council.”

The government censorship board reviews all films to be screened inside the country.

Journalists continued to complain about the widespread practice of government informants attending press conferences and other events, which they said intimidated reporters and the events’ hosts. Informants demanded lists of hosts and attendees.

Libel/Slander Laws: A criminal defamation clause in the telecommunications law was frequently used to restrict freedom of expression; charges were filed against journalists, activists, and ordinary citizens perceived as critics of the government and the military.

Noted filmmaker and human rights activist Min Htin Ko Gyi was freed on February 21 after serving seven months in prison for libel for Facebook posts that were critical of the military’s role in politics.

As of November, a case against three prominent political activists, lawyer Kyi Myint, poet Saw Wai, and former army captain Nay Myo Zin, continued in the courts. In late 2019 the military charged them with defamation for remarks they made in April 2019 about amending the military-drafted 2008 constitution. Nay Myo Zin was serving a one-year prison term in Insein Prison on the same charge from another military lawsuit.

National Security: In March the government and military designated the Arakan Army as a terrorist organization and an unlawful association under the law. Nay Myo Lin, founder and editor of Voice of Myanmar, a local Mandalay news outlet, was arrested on March 30 for publishing an interview with an AA spokesperson. He was charged in a local court under sections of the law prohibiting organizations and individuals from contacting or associating with outlawed organizations–a charge carrying a maximum life sentence. Police released Nay Myo Lin on April 10 when the court decided to drop the case.

Internet Freedom

The government censored online content, restricted access to the internet, and continued to prosecute internet users for criticism of the government and military and their policies and actions. In March the Ministry of Transport and Communications issued a series of directives ordering internet providers to block websites.

By order of the Transport and Communications Ministry, mobile phone operators in 2019 stopped mobile internet traffic in eight townships in northern Rakhine State and in Paletwa Township in southern Chin State due to “disturbances of peace and use of internet services to coordinate illegal activities.” Although the ministry announced on June 23 that internet restrictions were extended only through August 1, as of November only 2G data networks were available, according to Human Rights Watch. Some persons reported being unable to access the internet at all. On October 31, the ministry announced all mobile operators should extend restrictions on 3G and 4G mobile data services in the eight townships until at least December 31.

The telecommunications law includes broad provisions giving the government the power to temporarily block and filter content, on grounds of “benefit of the people.” According to Freedom House, pressure on users to remove content continued from the government, military, and other groups. The law does not include provisions to force the removal of content or provide for intermediary liability, although some articles are vague and could be argued to cover content removal. Pressure to remove content instead came from the use or threat of use of other criminal provisions.

In the second half of March, the Posts and Telecommunications Department ordered mobile operators to block more than 2,000 websites, including 67 allegedly distributing “fake news.” In May it followed up by instructing the operators to block a further 22 sites alleged to contribute to “fearmongering” and “misleading of the public in relation to the coronavirus.” Neither the government nor the operators released a full list of the blocked websites, but among those that could no longer be accessed were several registered news organizations, including Rakhine State-based Development Media and Narinjara News, Voice of Myanmar, Karen News from Karen State, Mandalay-based In-Depth News, and Mekong News, which was based in eastern Shan State’s Tachileik.

The government’s Social Media Monitoring Team reportedly continued to monitor internet communications without clear legal authority, according to Freedom House. Social media continued to be a popular forum to exchange ideas and opinions without direct government censorship, although there were military-affiliated disinformation campaigns on social media.

The government limited users’ ability to communicate anonymously by enforcement of SIM card registration requirements. Subscribers must provide their name, citizenship identification document, birth date, address, nationality, and gender to register for a SIM card; noncitizens must provide their passports. Some subscribers reported being required by telecommunications companies to include further information beyond the bounds of the regulations, including their ethnicity.

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

Government restrictions on academic freedom and cultural events continued.

The government tightened restrictions on political activity and freedom of association on university campuses. In September and October, approximately 57 students at universities across the country, who protested human rights violations in Rakhine State, called on the government to lift internet restrictions in Rakhine and Chin states and urged reform of laws to comply with international standards for the protection of freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. They were arrested and faced a variety of criminal charges, according to the All Burma Federation of Student Unions. The students were charged with unlawful assembly, various speech-related crimes, antimilitary incitement, and other crimes, according to the federation. As of November, more than 20 were imprisoned, while the remainder were awaiting sentencing or were in hiding while facing arrest warrants, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.

The government generally allowed the informal establishment of student unions, although among university rectors and faculty there was considerable fear and suspicion of student unions because of their historical role in protests. Although some student unions were allowed to open unofficial offices, the All Burma Federation of Student Unions, as in previous years, was unable to register but participated in some activities through informal networks.

There were reported incidents of the government restricting cultural events. There is a ban on street art. On April 3, three street artists were arrested for painting a mural about the coronavirus pandemic, according to Human Rights Watch. The artists were charged with violating a law criminalizing speech that “insults” religion after Buddhist hardliners complained the mural portrayed a grim reaper figure that they believed looked like a Buddhist monk, spreading the COVID-19 virus. On July 17, the artists were freed after charges were dropped.

In a series of seven verdicts delivered between October 2019 and June 2020, courts handed down prison sentences to the leader and five other members of the satirical street performance group Peacock Generation. Group leader Zayar Lwin was sentenced to a total of five and one-half years in prison; the others received sentences of two to six years. The military brought the charges after a performance in which members satirically criticized the military’s political power in a democracy. At year’s end up to 25 members still faced charges that carry up to six months in prison, while two members were released in June and August, respectively, having already completed sentences of more than a year.

Public film showings were possible with the cooperation of the Ministry of Information. The MEMORY! film festival showed prescreened classic films in public spaces in Rangoon “under the high patronage of the Ministry of Information.” According to the organizers, mutual trust with the ministry enabled freedom of expression for organizers, participants from civil society organizations, and audiences. Organizers showed films including challenging themes. While MEMORY! faced information ministry censorship, mostly for nudity or Buddhist imagery, no film was banned in its entirety, and journalistic fora and public discussions around the films were free of interference.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, but the government restricted these rights. In addition to direct government action, the government’s failure to investigate or prosecute attacks on human rights defenders and peaceful protesters led to de facto restrictions on freedom of assembly and association.

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

Although the constitution provides the right to peaceful assembly, it was not always respected. While the law only requires notification of protests, authorities treated notification as a request for permission. Authorities used laws against criminal trespass and provisions criminalizing actions the government deemed likely to cause “an offense against the State or against the public tranquility” to restrict peaceful assembly.

Restrictions remained in place in 11 Rangoon townships on all applications for processions or assemblies. Some civil society groups asserted these restrictions were selectively applied and used to prevent demonstrations against the government or military.

Farmers and social activists continued to protest land rights violations and land confiscation throughout the country, and human rights groups reported the arrest of farmers and supporters. Many reported cases involved land seized by the former military regime and given to private companies or persons with ties to the military.

Whether civil society organizations were required to apply for advance permission before holding meetings and other functions in hotels and other public venues varied by situation and by government official. Some officials forced venues to cancel civil society events where such permission was not obtained.

On January 17, four activists–Naw Ohn Hla, Maung U, U Nge (also known as Hsan Hlaing), and Sandar Myint–were sentenced to one month in prison after they were found guilty of protesting without authorization. Police charged the four activists after they participated in a peaceful demonstration organized by residents of the Shwe Mya Sandi housing project in Karen State in April 2019.

On March 20, Than Hla (also known as Min Bar Chay), an ethnic Rakhine development worker, was found guilty of protesting without permission after he participated in a demonstration calling for justice and an end to security force violations in Rakhine State. He was sentenced to 15 days in prison; he was released the same day authorities announced that a second charge of protesting without permission was dropped.

Freedom of Association

Although the constitution and laws allow citizens to form associations and organizations, the government sometimes restricted this right.

The law on registering organizations stipulates voluntary registration for local NGOs and removes punishments for noncompliance for both local and international NGOs. In the run-up to the November general election, the government began insisting that NGOs receiving foreign funding were required to register.

Registration requires sponsorship from a government ministry. Some NGOs that tried to register under this law found the process extremely onerous. According to Myanmar Now, NGOs classed as “advocacy groups” would have to pay tax if the Internal Revenue Department determined, based on their tax return, that they made a “profit.” Advocacy groups include those working on human, women’s, labor, and land rights. NGOs expressed concern about the new rules and warned they could place an unfair burden on small organizations and limit their operations.

Activists reported that civil society groups, community-based organizations, and informal networks operated openly and continued to discuss human rights and political issues openly, although discussion of the most sensitive issues could lead to prosecution. They reported, however, that state surveillance of such operations and discussions was common and that government restrictions on meetings and other activity continued.

c. Freedom of Religion

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

d. Freedom of Movement

The law does not protect freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, or repatriation. Local regulations limit the rights of citizens to settle and reside anywhere in the country. By law the president may require the registration of foreigners’ movements and authorize officials to require foreigners to register every change of address exceeding 24 hours.

In-country Movement: Regional and local orders, directives, and instructions restricted freedom of movement.

Restrictions on in-country movement of Rohingya were extensive. Authorities required the largely stateless Rohingya to carry special documents and travel permits for internal movement in areas in Rakhine State where most Rohingya resided. Township officers in Buthidaung and Maungdaw Townships continued to require Rohingya to submit a “form for informing absence from habitual residence” in order to stay overnight in another village and to register on the guest list with the village administrator. Obtaining these forms and permits often involved extortion and bribes.

Restrictions governing the travel of foreigners, Rohingya, and others between townships in Rakhine State varied, depending on township, and generally required submission of a document known as “Form 4.” A traveler could obtain this form only from the township Immigration and National Registration Department and only if that person provided an original copy of a family list, a temporary registration card, and letters from two guarantors. Travel authorized under Form 4 is generally valid for two to four weeks, but it is given almost exclusively for medical emergencies, effectively eliminating many opportunities to work or study. The cost to obtain the form varied from township to township, with required payments to village administrators or to the township immigration office ranging from the official amount of 30,000 to more than two million kyats ($22 to $1,460). The extensive administrative measures imposed on Rohingya and foreigners in Rakhine State effectively prevented persons from changing residency.

Rohingya faced prison terms of up to two years for attempting to travel out of Rakhine State without prior authorization. A total of 128 Rohingya from Rakhine State were arrested in November 2019 after disembarking from boats near beach resorts in the Ayeyarwady Region. They were charged for traveling without valid identity documents, which carries a maximum two-year prison sentence, a modest fine, or both. On April 8, a court dropped illegal travel charges against more than 200 accused persons, but according to activists hundreds more Rohingya charged with illegal travel remained in jails and youth detention centers across the country.

Foreign Travel: The government maintained restrictions to prevent foreign travel by political activists, former political prisoners, and some local staff of foreign embassies. Stateless persons, particularly Rohingya, were unable to obtain documents required for foreign travel.

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

As of November, an estimated 326,500 individuals were living as internally displaced persons (IDPs) due to violence in Rakhine, Kachin, Chin, and northern Shan States. The large number of primarily ethnic minority IDPs in primarily ethnic-dominated parts of the country can be traced back to decades of conflict between the central government and ethnic communities.

As of November, an estimated 40,000 IDPs lived in areas of the country outside government control, primarily in northern Kachin State. Fighting in Rakhine, Chin, and Shan States displaced tens of thousands of additional persons during the year, compounding the long-term displacement of communities in these areas. Most of those newly displaced in Shan State, however, were able to return home. Locally based organizations had some access to IDPs in areas outside government control, but the military restricted their access, including through threats of prosecution. The military largely restricted access to IDPs and Rohingya in areas of Rakhine State to only the Red Cross and the World Food Program, resulting in unmet humanitarian needs among these IDPs. The government had not granted the United Nations or other international organizations humanitarian access to areas in Kachin State outside of military control since 2016.

The United Nations reported significant deterioration in humanitarian access during the year–a situation further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic–and the military continued to block access to IDPs and other vulnerable populations in areas controlled by ethnic armed groups (see section 1.g., Other Conflict-related Abuse). The Arakan Army-military conflict in Rakhine State and the COVID-19 pandemic were cited as justifications for additional onerous restrictions on humanitarian access in Rakhine State, most of which were not justified on security or public health grounds, according to humanitarian partners operating in Rakhine State.

The government restricted the ability of IDPs and stateless persons to move, limiting access to health services, employment opportunities, secure refuge, and schooling. While a person’s freedom of movement generally derived from possession of identification documents, authorities also considered race, ethnicity, religion, and place of origin as factors in enforcing these regulations. Residents of ethnic minority states reported the government restricted the travel of IDPs and stateless persons.

The approximately 132,000 primarily Rohingya IDPs in Sittwe, Pauktaw, and other townships were dependent on assistance from aid agencies. Humanitarian agencies provided access to clean water, food, shelter, and sanitation in most IDP camps for Rohingya, although the COVID-19 pandemic restricted access from August.

An October Human Rights Watch report on the detention of Rohingya described the IDP camps’ severe restrictions on movement; limited access to education, health care, and work; and the denial of fundamental rights. It referred to the camps collectively as “An Open Prison Without End.” According to the report, more than 130,000 Muslims–mostly Rohingya, as well as a few thousand Kaman–remain confined in IDP camps in central Rakhine State. Rohingya in the camps were denied freedom of movement through overlapping systems of restrictions–formal policies and local orders, informal and ad hoc practices, checkpoints and barbed-wire fencing, and a widespread system of extortion that made travel financially and logistically prohibitive. In 24 camps or camp-like settings, severe limitations on access to livelihoods, education, health care, and adequate food or shelter were compounded by increasing government constraints on humanitarian aid.

The COVID-19 pandemic further compounded freedom of movement restrictions in IDP camps. In general, IDP camps did not have dedicated quarantine centers or testing facilities due to lack of space and dedicated staff. If there was a positive case, movement restrictions were imposed on the entire camp and residents were not allowed to leave or enter the camp, according to the UN High Commission for Refugees. IDPs who required testing, hospitalization, and quarantine were moved to outside government facilities where the government and humanitarian organizations provided targeted support for the patient and direct contacts. IDPs received adequate care, and outside of a few isolated cases, there were no major COVID-19 outbreaks at IDP camps.

Camp shelters, originally built to last just two years, deteriorated without construction and maintenance, leading to overcrowding and vulnerability to flood and fire. According to Human Rights Watch, these IDP camp conditions were a direct cause of increased morbidity and mortality in the camps, including increased rates of malnutrition, waterborne illnesses, and child and maternal deaths. Lack of access to emergency medical assistance, particularly in pregnancy-related cases, led to preventable deaths.

Approximately 70 percent of the 120,000 school-age Muslim children in central Rakhine camps and villages were out of school, according to Human Rights Watch. Given the movement restrictions, most could only attend underresourced temporary learning centers led by volunteer teachers. Restrictions that prevented Rohingya from working outside the camps had serious economic consequences. Almost all Rohingya in the camps were forced to abandon their pre-2012 trades and occupations.

Despite the adoption of a national camp closure strategy in 2019, the government’s approach to “closing” IDP camps largely consisted of building new infrastructure near existing camps and reclassifying them as villages without addressing movement restrictions; providing security, livelihoods, or basic services; or consulting with IDPs on their right to return to their areas of origin or to resettle in areas of their choice.

f. Protection of Refugees

The government did not always cooperate with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees or other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, or other persons of concern.

Abuse of Migrants and Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Dozens of Rohingya were arrested and charged under immigration laws after returning from Bangladesh informally in June and July during heightened scrutiny of border crossings because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for granting asylum or refugee status, and the government has not established a system for providing protection to refugees. The UN High Commission for Refugees did not register any asylum seekers during the year.

g. Stateless Persons

The vast majority of Rohingya are stateless. Following the forced displacement of more than 700,000 Rohingya to Bangladesh in 2017, up to 600,000 Rohingya were estimated to remain in Rakhine State. There were also likely significant numbers of stateless persons and persons with undetermined nationality throughout the country, including persons of Chinese, Indian, and Nepali descent. Although these latter groups did not face the same level of official and social discrimination as Rohingya, they were still subject at best to the lesser rights and greater restrictions of associate and naturalized citizenship.

The government recognizes 135 “national ethnic groups” whose members are automatically full citizens. The law defines “national ethnic group” as a racial and ethnic group that can prove origins in the country dating back to 1823, the year prior to British colonization. Despite this rule, the government has granted “national ethnic group” status to ethnic groups or withdrawn that status from them throughout the country on various occasions. The Rohingya are not on the list. Several ethnic minority groups, including the Chin and Kachin, criticized the classification system as inaccurate.

The law also establishes two forms of citizenship short of full citizenship: associate and naturalized. Citizens of these two types are unable to run for political office; form a political party; serve in the military, police, or public administration; inherit land or money; or pursue certain professional degrees, such as medicine and law. Only members of the third generation of associate or naturalized citizens are able to acquire full citizenship.

Some Rohingya may be technically eligible for full citizenship. The process involves additional official scrutiny and is complicated by logistical difficulties, including travel restrictions and significant gaps in understanding the Burmese language. In practice this also requires substantial bribes to government officials, and even then it does not guarantee equality with other full citizens. In particular, only Rohingya are required to go through an additional step of applying for the National Verification Card (NVC), in which their identity papers will describe them as “Bengali” and presumes them to be noncitizens. This can lead to discrimination in access to public services and a wide range of societal discrimination. While members of other ethnic groups faced challenges, they are not singled out the same way Rohingya are in obtaining citizenship.

The law does not provide any form of citizenship (or associated rights) for children born in the country whose parents are stateless.

The government continued to call for Rohingya to apply for NVCs, created in 2015. The government claimed that these cards were necessary to apply for citizenship as well as other government documentation, such as Citizenship Scrutiny Cards. NGO reports indicated that Rohingya were pressured or coerced to accept NVCs. For example, there were reported cases of government officials requiring Rohingya to have an NVC to go fishing or access a bank account. Many Rohingya expressed the need for more assurances about the results of the process as well as fear that after turning in their old documents they would not be issued new documents. Many said they were already citizens and expressed fear the government would either not affirm their citizenship or would provide a form of lesser citizenship, thereby formalizing their lack of rights. Rohingya in Rakhine State had to identify as “Bengali” to apply for NVCs, while some Muslims from other ethnic groups had to identify as “Bengali” to apply for Citizenship Scrutiny Cards in other parts of the country.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The constitution provides citizens a limited ability to choose their government through elections held by secret ballot. General elections are held every five years, and by-elections are held to fill empty seats due to locally cancelled races or other vacancies in nonelection years. The electoral system is not fully representative and does not assure the free expression of the will of the people. Under the constitution, active-duty military are appointed to one-quarter of all national and regional parliamentary seats, and the military has the right to appoint the ministers of defense, home affairs–which has responsibility for police, prisons, and other domestic security matters–and border affairs. The military can also indefinitely assume power over all branches of the government should the president declare a national state of emergency. The constitution prohibits persons with immediate relatives holding foreign citizenship from becoming president. Amending the constitution requires approval by more than 75 percent of members of parliament, giving the military effective veto power over constitutional amendments. NLD efforts to reform the 2008 military-drafted constitution failed in March due to the military’s veto. Significant portions of the population were disenfranchised due to restrictive citizenship laws or the cancellation of elections due to security concerns.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: Observers considered the November 8 national election to be generally reflective of the will of the people, notwithstanding some structural shortcomings. The NLD, chaired by Aung San Suu Kyi, won approximately 80 percent of the contested 1,150 seats at the state, regional, and union levels in the election. The NLD won 396 of 476 races for national assembly seats; a military-affiliated party won 33, and various ethnically based parties took 47. By-elections in 2017 and 2018 were also assessed as basically free and fair. Aung San Suu Kyi is constitutionally barred from the presidency due to her marriage to a British national.

Most potential Muslim candidates were disqualified from running in the November 8 general election by electoral authorities or blocked by their own parties from running, apparently on a discriminatory basis. Some political parties, including the NLD, nominated Muslim candidates. Two Muslim members of parliament were elected. Almost all members of the Rohingya community, many of whom voted prior to 2015, were disenfranchised and barred from running for office. The government also canceled voting in some conflict-affected ethnic minority areas.

The November general election featured more than 90 political parties and more than 5,640 candidates. The electoral commission cancelled elections across most of Rakhine and parts of Chin, Kachin, Mon, and Shan states and Bago Region, which generated further disillusionment in the electoral process among ethnic minorities and disenfranchised approximately 1.5 million persons nationwide. The government did not permit the right to vote for hundreds of thousands of voting age Rohingya in Rakhine State or in refugee camps in Bangladesh. The UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights commented before the elections that there was “no evidence that the government was willing or prepared to facilitate the right to vote for hundreds of thousands of voting age Rohingya in Rakhine state or in refugee camps in Bangladesh.”

Political Parties and Political Participation: Opposition parties exercised their rights to assemble and protest. New political parties were generally allowed to register and compete in elections, which featured fewer restrictions than in 2015 on party organization and voter mobilization. Only sporadic interference from military and government officials was reported during the campaign and on November 8, unlike during the 2015 election, when military Special Branch elements were very active as election preparations were underway.

Electoral competition was skewed in part by the Union Solidarity and Development Party’s systematic support from the military, whose personnel and their families were eligible to vote in advance without observers present, in some cases in military barracks, despite a May change to the election law that requires service members to vote at public polling places on election day. Moreover, some legal provisions can be invoked to restrict parties’ operations. The constitution requires that political parties be loyal to the state. Laws allow for penalties, including deregistration, against political parties that accept support from foreign governments or religious bodies or that are deemed to have abused religion for political purposes or disrespected the constitution. The electoral commission, which is appointed by the ruling party, censored opposition party broadcasts on state-run television.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit the participation of women and members of minority groups in the political process, and they did participate. Nevertheless, women and minority groups continued to be underrepresented in government, and policies limited participation in practice. For example, in some municipal elections, the vote was apportioned at the household level, with only one member, usually the male head of household, allowed to vote for the entire household. Women made up only approximately 17 percent of national and local elected legislators.

Ethnic minority parliamentarians from ethnic minority political parties comprised less than 9 percent of legislators at the national, state, and regional level; this did not include the numerous ethnic minority members of the NLD or the Union Solidarity and Development Party (see Recent Elections above for participation of Muslims and Rohingya).

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials and the government continued efforts to curb corruption.

Corruption: Corruption remained widespread, particularly in the judicial sector. Police reportedly often required victims to pay substantial bribes for criminal investigations and routinely extorted money from members of the public. The government took some steps to investigate and address corruption of government officials.

On May 22, former Tanintharyi Region chief minister Lei Maw was sentenced to 30 years in prison for bribery, becoming the most senior official ever to be jailed for corruption. On the other side of the ledger, on August 27, the telecommunications minister ordered a shutdown of the Justice for Myanmar website. The site, established in April, sought to expose corrupt links between the military and business communities.

Financial Disclosure: Public officials were not subject to public financial disclosure laws. The law requires the president and vice presidents to furnish a list of family assets to the speaker of the joint houses of parliament, and the law requires persons appointed by the president to furnish a list of personal assets to the president. The government did not make the reports available to the public.

Civil servants cannot accept gifts worth more than 25,000 kyats ($18). The rules also require civil servants to report all offers of gifts to their supervisors, whether they are accepted.

Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights

The government did not allow domestic human rights organizations to function independently. Human rights NGOs were able to open offices and operate, but there were reports of harassment and monitoring by authorities, and authorities sometimes pressured hotels and other venues not to host meetings by activists or civil society groups. The government systematically denied international institutions or organizations attempting to investigate human rights abuses access to the country or sensitive regions.

Foreign human rights activists and advocates, including representatives from international NGOs, continued to be restricted to short-term visas that required them to leave the country periodically for renewal. The government continued to monitor the movements of foreigners and interrogated citizens concerning contacts with foreigners.

The United Nations or Other International Bodies: The government has not agreed to the opening of an Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and has not approved visa requests for its staff.

The government has also refused to cooperate with or give the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar, created by the UN Human Rights Council, access to the country.

The government continued to refuse entry to the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar but permitted UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy on Myanmar Christine Schraner-Burgener to open an office in the country and to meet with opposition figures, IDPs, senior officials including Aung San Suu Kyi and Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing, and others in 2019.

In January the International Court of Justice unanimously ordered the government to preserve any evidence of atrocities against Rohingya; ensure that government and security officials refrain from any act that could contribute to genocide; and report to the court on its progress on these measures in May and every six months thereafter. The government submitted its first report in May. The report was not made public. The court’s order followed a 2019 suit by the Gambia alleging that Myanmar violated the Genocide Convention by committing atrocities against Rohingya; failing to prevent and punish genocide; and committing continued violations of the convention. International human rights organizations continued to assert that the country remains in violation of its obligations.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The Myanmar National Human Rights Commission investigated some incidents of human rights abuses. The commission has the power to conduct independent inquiries, and in some cases it called on the government to conduct investigations into abuses. Human rights advocates questioned its ability to operate as a credible, independent mechanism, noting a lack of substantive investigations into allegations of widespread and systematic human rights abuses perpetrated by security forces. The commission supported the development of human rights education curricula, distributed human rights materials, and conducted human rights training. During the year it investigated one human trafficking case and pushed for equal rights for women police officers.

The Independent Commission of Enquiry for Rakhine State, formed by the government in 2018, released only the executive summary of its final report on January 21. It described the government security forces’ actions in Rakhine State in 2017 as largely in response to a massive insurgency by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army and attempted to frame the 2017 violence as part of an armed conflict with Rohingya. The report argued that genocide did not occur and denied the existence of any credible reports of rape and sexual violence, while acknowledging that limited “war crimes and serious human rights violations may have occurred.” As of November, the full report had not been released.

Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape of women is illegal but remained a significant problem, and the government did not enforce the law effectively. Rape of a woman outside of marriage carries a maximum sentence of 20 years’ imprisonment. Spousal rape is not a crime unless the wife is younger than 14, and the penalty is a maximum of two years in prison. The law prohibits committing bodily harm against another person, but there are no laws specifically against domestic violence or spousal abuse unless the wife is younger than 14. Overlapping and at times contradictory legal provisions complicated implementation of these limited protections.

The number of reported rapes increased over the previous year, but it was unclear whether this was due to increased awareness or increased incidences of rape. Police generally investigated reported cases of rape, but there were reports police investigations were not sensitive to victims. Civil society groups continued to report police in some cases verbally abused women who reported rape, and women could be sued for impugning the dignity of the perpetrator.

Domestic violence against women, including spousal abuse, remained a serious problem. Abuse within families was prevalent and considered socially acceptable. Spousal abuse or domestic violence was difficult to measure because the government did not maintain comprehensive statistics and victims typically did not report it, although the government attempted to document cases, and reported cases were on the rise. In April Myanmar Times reported the observation by Daw Htar, founder of the NGO Akhaya Women Myanmar, that over the two weeks when the government started community lockdowns in some areas, there was a spike in domestic violence complaints compared to the prelockdown period.

Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits sexual harassment and imposes a maximum of one year’s imprisonment and a fine for verbal harassment and a maximum of two years’ imprisonment and a fine for physical contact. There was no information on the prevalence of the problem because these crimes were largely unreported. Local civil society organizations reported police investigators were not sensitive to victims and rarely followed through with investigations or prosecutions.

Reproductive Rights: The right of individuals to manage their reproductive health is limited by the 2015 Population Control and Health Care Law, which restricts sexual and reproductive rights, including the imposition of birth-spacing requirements. The president or the national government may designate “special regions” for health care that consider population, natural resources, birth rates, and food availability. In a special region the government may allow the creation of special health-care organizations to perform various tasks, including establishing regulations related to family planning.

Access to family planning was limited in rural areas, and local organizations noted that the unmet need for family planning was particularly high in Rakhine State. Economic hardship and security concerns in conflict-affected regions also limited access to family planning.

In 2020 limited access to sexual and reproductive health services for sexual violence survivors was available through both public and private facilities, and the Department of Social Welfare adapted gender-based violence services to COVID-19, including expanding virtual platforms for online training.

According to UN 2017 estimates, the maternal mortality ratio nationwide was 250 deaths per 100,000 live births. The 2017 National Maternal Death Surveillance and Response Report stated the maternal mortality ratio in Rakhine State was the second lowest among states and regions. This was not consistent with the previous pattern of Rakhine State reporting a relatively higher maternal mortality ratio, and the Ministry of Health and Sports acknowledged that the results reflected underreporting of maternal deaths due to the conflict in Rakhine State and other parts of the country. NGOs reported that humanitarian access and movement restrictions among Rohingya limited access to health-care services and contributed to maternal mortality rates in Rakhine State being higher than the national average. Complications resulting from unsafe abortions were also a leading cause of maternal deaths.

Other major factors influencing maternal mortality included poverty; limited availability of and access to comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services and information, including contraception, and maternal and newborn health services; a high number of home births; and the lack of access to services from appropriately trained and skilled birth attendants, midwives, auxiliary midwives, basic health staff, and other trained community health workers. The UN Population Fund estimated that skilled health personnel attended only 60 percent of births.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities. The law allows the government to impose coercive birth-spacing requirements–36 months between children–if the president or national government designates “special regions” for health care based on factors such as population, migration rate, natural resources, birth rates, and food availability. Once a special region is declared, the government may create special healthcare organizations to perform various tasks, including establishing family planning regulations. The government did not designate any such special regions during the year.

In Rakhine State, local authorities prohibited Rohingya families from having more than two children, although some Rohingya with household registration papers reportedly could circumvent the law.

Discrimination: By law women enjoy the same legal status and rights as men, including property and inheritance rights and religious and personal status, but it was not clear the government enforced the law. Customary law was widely used to address issues of marriage, property, and inheritance; it differs from the provisions of statutory law and is often discriminatory against women.

The law requires equal pay for equal work, but it was not clear the formal sector respected this requirement. NGOs reported some sectors did not comply, and other forms of workplace discrimination were common (see section 7.d.).

Poverty affected women disproportionately.

The law restricts the ability of Buddhist women to marry non-Buddhist men by imposing a requirement of public notification prior to any such marriage and allowing for objections to the marriage to be raised in court, although the law was rarely enforced.

Children

Birth Registration: The law automatically confers full citizenship to children of two parents from one of the 135 recognized national ethnic groups and to children who met other citizenship requirements. Moreover, the government confers full citizenship to second-generation children of both parents with any citizenship, as long as at least one parent has full citizenship. Third-generation children of associate or naturalized citizens can acquire full citizenship. Many long-term residents in the country, including the Rohingya, are not among the recognized national ethnic groups, however, and thus their children are not automatically conferred citizenship (see section 2.g.).

A prominent international NGO noted significant rural-urban disparities in birth registration. In major cities (e.g., Rangoon and Mandalay), births were registered immediately because registration is required to qualify for basic public services and to obtain national identification cards. In smaller towns and villages, birth registration often was informal or nonexistent. For the Rohingya community, birth registration was a significant problem (see section 2.g.). The Advisory Commission on Rakhine State noted in its interim report that nearly half of all residents in Rakhine State lacked birth documentation.

A birth certificate provides important protections for children, particularly against child labor, early marriage, and recruitment into the armed forces and armed groups. Sometimes a lack of birth registration complicated access to public services in remote communities.

Education: By law education is compulsory, free, and universal through the fourth grade (up to age 10). This leaves children ages 10 through 13 vulnerable to child labor, since they are not required to attend school but are not legally permitted to work, because the minimum age for work is 14. The government continued to allocate minimal resources to public education, and schools charged informal fees.

Schools were often unavailable in remote communities and conflict areas, and access to them for internally displaced and stateless children also remained limited.

Child Abuse: Laws prohibit child abuse, but they were neither adequate nor enforced. NGOs reported corporal punishment was widely used against children. The punishment for child abuse is a maximum of two years’ imprisonment or a modest fine. The Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief, and Resettlement continued child protection programs in partnership with UNICEF to improve data collection, develop effective laws, provide psychosocial assistance, and combat trafficking, and added COVID-19 awareness raising. Violence in Rakhine, Chin, Shan, and Kachin states exposed many children to an environment of violence and exploitation.

Online and street protests continued following the alleged May 2019 sexual assault of a two-year-old girl, pseudonym “Victoria,” at a nursery school in Nay Pyi Taw. Protesters raised concerns about the transparency of the trial, and in July 2019 Win Ko Ko Thein, the leader of an online protest campaign, was arrested for Facebook posts “defaming” the police officers investigating the case. Both cases continued as of November. Legal violations during the “Victoria” trial included the police’s December 2019 disclosure of the victim’s name and of photographs further identifying the child and her parents, their occupations, and the family’s address. On June 2, the promotions of three senior police officers responsible were suspended.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The law stipulates different minimum ages for marriage based on religion and gender. The minimum age for Buddhists is 18, while the minimum age for non-Buddhists is 16 for boys and 15 for girls. Child marriage occurred, especially in rural areas. There were no reliable statistics on forced marriage.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: Children were subjected to sex trafficking in the country, and a small number of foreign child-sex tourists exploited children, according to Human Rights Watch. The 2019 Child Rights Law prohibits the sexual exploitation of children, including pimping and prostitution; separate provisions within the penal code prohibit sex with a minor younger than 14. The penalty for the purchase and sale of commercial sex acts from a child younger than 18 is 10 years’ imprisonment. The law prohibits child pornography and specifies a minimum penalty of two years’ imprisonment and a modest fine. The law on child rights provides for one to seven years’ imprisonment, a substantial fine, or both for sexual trafficking or forced marriage. If a victim is younger than 14, the law considers the sexual act statutory rape. The maximum sentence for statutory rape is two years’ imprisonment when the victim is between the ages of 12 and 14 and 10 years’ to life imprisonment when the victim is younger than 12.

The country’s antitrafficking in persons law requires a demonstration of force, fraud, or coercion to constitute a child sex-trafficking offense.

Displaced Children: The United Nations estimated that approximately 40 percent of IDPs were children. The mortality rate for child IDPs was significantly higher than the national average.

International Child Abductions: The country is not a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.

Anti-Semitism

There was one synagogue in Rangoon serving a very small Jewish population. There were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.

Trafficking in Persons

See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

Persons with Disabilities

The law prohibits discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, and mental disabilities. The law directs the government to ensure that persons with disabilities have easy access to public transportation. The government did not effectively enforce these provisions.

Civil society groups reported that children with disabilities attended school through secondary education at a significantly lower rate than other persons; many never attended school due to stigma and lack of any accommodation for their needs.

Persons with disabilities reported stigma, discrimination, and abuse from members of the public and government officials. Students with disabilities cited barriers to inclusive education as a significant disadvantage.

Military veterans with disabilities in urban areas received official benefits on a priority basis, usually a civil service job at pay equivalent to rank. Persons with disabilities in rural areas typically did not have access to livelihood opportunities or affordable medical treatment. Official assistance to civilian persons with disabilities in principle included two-thirds of pay for a maximum of one year for a temporary disability and a tax-free stipend for permanent disability. The law providing job protection for workers who become disabled was not implemented.

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

Wide-ranging governmental and societal discrimination against members of minority groups persisted, including in areas such as education, housing, employment, and access to health services. Ethnic minority groups constituted 30 to 40 percent of the population. The seven ethnic minority states comprised approximately 60 percent of the national territory, and significant numbers of minority group members also resided in the country’s other regions.

International observers noted that significant wage discrepancies based on religious and ethnic backgrounds were common.

Burmese remained the mandatory language of instruction in government schools. The government’s official education plan does not cover issues related to mother tongue instruction, but ethnic languages were taught as extra subjects in some government schools. Progress was slow due to insufficient resources provided by the government, the nonstandardization of regional languages, a lack of educational material in minority languages, and varying levels of interest. In schools controlled by armed ethnic groups, students sometimes had no access to the national curriculum.

The Rohingya are a predominantly Muslim ethnic group that claims to have lived in the area of Rakhine State for generations. The Rohingya faced severe discrimination based on their ethnicity and religion. Large numbers of Rohingya were forced into internal exile in 2012, and the majority of the population was forced into refugee camps in Bangladesh in 2017 during a military ethnic cleansing campaign.

Acts of Violence, Criminalization, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

Political reforms in recent years made it easier for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) community to hold public events and openly participate in society, yet discrimination, stigma, and a lack of acceptance among the general population persisted. Transgender persons, for example, were subject to police harassment, and their identity is not recognized by the state. There were reports of discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in employment. LGBTI persons reported facing discrimination from healthcare providers.

On March 12, an openly gay restaurant owner was sentenced to five years in prison under the “unnatural offenses” law for allegedly sexually assaulting a male member of his staff.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

There were continued reports of societal violence and discrimination, including employment discrimination, against persons with HIV/AIDS. Negative incidents, such as exclusion from social gatherings and activities; verbal insults, harassment, and threats; and physical assaults continued to occur. Laws that criminalize behaviors linked to an increased risk of acquiring HIV/AIDS remain in place, directly fueling stigma and discrimination against persons engaged in these behaviors and impeding their access to HIV prevention, treatment, and care services.

Although the law nominally decriminalizes drug use, possession of small amounts of illegal drugs still leads to long prison sentences. Excessive law enforcement activities and local antidrug groups threatened at-risk drug abusers and hindered access to HIV, harm reduction, and other essential health services. Likewise, the antisodomy law creates an environment that discourages men who have sex with men from accessing available services.

High levels of social stigma and discrimination against female sex workers and transgender women hindered their access to HIV prevention, treatment, and social protection services. Police harassment of sex workers deterred them from carrying condoms.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law provides for the right of workers to form and join independent unions, bargain collectively, and conduct strikes. The law permits labor organizations to demand the reinstatement of workers dismissed for union activity, but it does not explicitly prohibit antiunion discrimination in the form of demotions or mandatory transfers, nor does it offer protection for workers seeking to form a union. The law does not provide adequate protection for workers from dismissal before a union is officially registered.

Laws prohibit civil servants and personnel of the security services and police from forming unions. The law permits workers to join unions only within their category of trade or activity, and the definition of trade or activity lacks clarity. Basic labor organizations must have a minimum of 30 workers and register through township registrars with the Chief Registrar’s Office of the Ministry of Labor, Immigration, and Population (Ministry of Labor). Township-level labor organizations require support from a minimum of 10 percent of relevant basic labor organizations to register; regional or state labor organizations require a minimum of 10 percent of relevant township labor organizations. Each of these higher-level unions must include only organizations within the same trade or activity. Similarly, federations and confederations also require a minimum number of regional or state labor organizations (10 percent and 20 percent, respectively) from the next lower level in order to register formally. The law permits labor federations and confederations to affiliate with international union federations and confederations.

The law provides for voluntary registration for local NGOs, including NGOs working on labor issues. Organizations that choose to register are required to send organizational bylaws and formation documents to the government and secure sponsorship from a government ministry. Broader restrictions on freedom of assembly remained in place (see section 2.b.).

The law gives unions the right to represent workers, to negotiate and bargain collectively with employers, and to send representatives to a conciliation body or conciliation tribunal. Union leaders’ rights to organize, however, are only protected after the official registration of the union. The law does not contain detailed measures regarding management of the bargaining process, such as requiring bargaining to be in good faith or setting parameters for bargaining or the registration, extension, or enforcement of collective agreements. The National Tripartite Dialogue Forum, with representatives from government, business, and labor unions, met during the year. The forum consulted with parliament on labor legislation.

The law stipulates that disputes in special economic zones be settled in accordance with original contracts and existing laws. The government appointed a labor inspector for each such zone and established zonal tripartite committees responsible for setting wage levels and monitoring the ratio of local and foreign labor.

The government partially enforced applicable labor laws; penalties were commensurate with those for other laws involving denials of civil rights. As of November the implementing regulations for the Settlement of Labor Dispute Law amended in 2019 remained in draft.

The law provides the right to strike in most sectors, with a majority vote by workers, permission of the relevant labor federations, and detailed information and three days’ advance notice provided to the employer and the relevant conciliation body. The law does not permit strikes or lockouts in essential services such as water, electric, or health services. Lockouts are permitted in public utility services (including transportation; cargo and freight; postal; sanitation; information, communication, and technology; energy; petroleum; and financial sectors), with a minimum of 14 days’ notice provided to the relevant labor organizations and conciliation body. Strikes in public utility services generally require the same measures as in other sectors, but with 14 days’ advance notice and negotiation between workers and management before the strike takes place in order to determine maintenance of minimum service levels. The law prohibits strikes addressing problems not directly relevant to labor issues.

The amended law no longer defines complaints as “individual” or “collective,” but as “rights-based” or “benefits-based.” A “rights-based” dispute includes violations of labor laws, whereas a “benefits-based” dispute pertains to working conditions as set by the collective agreement, contract, or position. The type of dispute determines the settlement procedure. Under the amended law, “rights-based” disputes do not go through a conciliation process or an arbitration proceeding but go directly to court proceedings. The amended law has no requirements for good faith bargaining and permits worker welfare committees to negotiate disputes, even in workplaces where unions exist. The amended law significantly increases fines for labor violations, but it eliminates prison terms as punishment for violations.

Labor groups continued to report labor organizations’ inability to register at the national level, a legal prerequisite for entering labor framework agreements with multinational companies.

There were continued reports of employers engaging in forms of antiunion discrimination. The International Labor Organization (ILO), labor activists, and media outlets reported employers firing or engaging in other forms of reprisal against workers who formed or joined labor unions, including using the COVID-19 pandemic as a pretext for dismissing workers organizing unions in factories. Trade unions reported cases in which criminal charges were filed against workers for exercising their right to strike, and trade union members were arrested and charged with violating peaceful assembly laws when holding demonstrations regarding labor rights generally.

Worker organizations reported that formal dispute settlement and court procedures were not effective at enforcing labor laws. Workers resorted to engaging in campaigns with international brands to pressure factories to reinstate workers or resolve disputes. For example, in August, after negotiations between Kamcaine Manufacturing with the Industrial Worker’s Federation of Myanmar regarding terminations, Kamcaine Manufacturing agreed to reinstate 57 dismissed union members, including seven executive members. Similarly at the Youngan factory, union organizers were dismissed, but the company later complied with the arbitration council’s decision to reinstate the workers.

Labor organizations also reported that local labor offices imposed unnecessary bureaucratic requirements for union registration that were inconsistent with the law.

Workers and workers’ organizations continued to report they generally found the Ministry of Labor to be helpful in urging employers to negotiate.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

Laws prohibit most forms of forced or compulsory labor, although it is allowed for use by the military and penal institutions. Laws also provide for the punishment of persons who impose forced labor on others. The law provides for criminal penalties for forced labor violations; penalties differ depending on whether the military, the government, or a private citizen committed the violation. The penalties are commensurate with analogous serious crimes such as kidnapping. The government did not effectively enforce the law, particularly in the areas where significant conflict was occurring.

The government established a forced labor complaints mechanism under the Ministry of Labor, which began receiving and referring cases during the year, replacing the previous mechanism run in coordination with the ILO. The ILO and unions expressed concerns that the government’s mechanism does not provide sufficient protections for victims. Since February the mechanism had received at least 34 complaints and carried over an additional 24 open cases reported through the interim mechanism that took over from the ILO in 2019. Of these 58 combined cases, the labor ministry reported that 25 were officially listed as settled, while 33 were listed as continuing cases. Cases are listed as settled once they have been referred to the appropriate authorities and action has been taken. For example, cases of underage military recruitment are considered settled once they have been referred to the Ministry of Defense and the victim has been released from military service and provided social assistance. These complaints were in addition to the 61 complaints received directly by the ILO as of November.

Although reports of forced labor continued, the ILO reported their number of complaints decreased. Reports of forced labor predominantly arose in conflict and ceasefire areas. The complaints mechanism was not accessible in these areas.

The military’s use of forced labor declined, although the 2020 Secretary-General’s Report on Children and Armed Conflict noted an increase in use of children by the military with indicators of forced labor in conflict-affected areas in Rakhine State. The military continued to compel forced labor by civilians as porters, cleaners, and cooks in conflict areas. Although the military and the government received complaints through the complaints mechanism about the military’s use of forced labor, no military perpetrators were tried in civilian court, and it was not possible to confirm military assertions that perpetrators were subjected to military justice.

Prisoners in the country’s 50 labor camps engaged in forced labor (see section 1.c., Prison and Detention Center Conditions).

The ILO did not receive any verified reports of forced labor in the formal private sector, although domestic workers remained at risk of forced labor. There were reports of forced labor in the production of a variety of agricultural products and of jade, rubies, and teak. Traffickers forced men to work domestically and abroad in fishing, manufacturing, forestry, agriculture, and construction, and they subjected women and girls primarily to sex trafficking or forced labor in garment manufacturing and domestic service.

Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The law prohibits the worst forms of child labor. The 2019 Child Rights Law sets the minimum age at 14 for work in certain sectors, including shops and factories; the law establishes special provisions for “youth employment” for those older than 14. There is, however, no minimum age for work for all sectors in which children were employed, including agriculture and informal work. Some sector-specific laws identify activities that are prohibited for children younger than 18. The law prohibits employees younger than 16 from working in a hazardous environment, and the government prepared a hazardous work list. Penalties under the Child Rights Law are analogous to other serious crimes, such as kidnapping.

Trained inspectors from the Factories and General Labor Laws Inspection Department monitored the application of these regulations, but their legal authority only extends to factories. In addition, inspectors were hindered by a general lack of resources.

The United Nations documented a sharp reduction in the recruitment of children by the Burmese military for use in armed combat, although it continued to document cases, mainly in Rakhine State, of the use of children by the military in noncombat roles. Both practices continue to occur within some ethnic armed groups (see section 1.g.).

The government did not effectively enforce the law. Child labor remained prevalent and highly visible. Poverty led some parents to remove their children from school before completion of compulsory education.

In cities children worked mostly as street vendors, refuse collectors, restaurant and teashop attendants, and domestic workers. Children often worked in the informal economy, in some instances exposing them to drugs and petty crime, risk of arrest, commercial sexual exploitation, HIV/AIDS, and other sexually transmitted infections (also see section 6). Children were also vulnerable to forced labor in teashops, agriculture and forestry, gem production, begging, and other fields. In rural areas children routinely worked in family agricultural activities, occasionally in situations of forced labor. Child labor was also reported in the extraction of gems and jade, as well as rubber and bricks.

Also see the Department of Labor’s Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor report at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/resources/reports/child-labor/findings/  and the Department of Labor’s List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/reports/child-labor/list-of-goods .

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

Labor laws and regulations do not prohibit employment discrimination.

Restrictions against women in employment exist based on social and cultural practices and beliefs. Women remained underrepresented in most traditionally male-dominated occupations (forestry, carpentry, masonry, and fishing) and were effectively barred by hiring practices and cultural barriers. Women were not legally prohibited from working in certain professions, except in underground mines. The law governing hiring of civil service personnel states that nothing shall prevent the appointment of men to “positions that are suitable for men only,” with no further definition of what constitutes positions “suitable for men only.”

There were reports government and private actors practiced discrimination that impeded Muslim-owned businesses’ operations and undercut their ability to hire and retain labor, maintain proper working standards, and secure public and private contracts. There were reports of discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, including the denial of promotions and firing of LGBTI persons. Activists reported job opportunities for many openly gay and lesbian persons were limited and noted a general lack of support from society as a whole. Activists reported that in addition to general societal discrimination, persons with HIV/AIDS faced employment discrimination in both the public and private sectors, including suspensions and the loss of employment following positive results from mandatory workplace HIV testing.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The official minimum daily wage was above the poverty line. The minimum wage covers a standard eight-hour workday across all sectors and industries and applies to all workers in the formal sector except for those in businesses with fewer than 15 employees. The law requires the minimum wage to be revised every two years. Overtime cannot exceed 12 hours per workweek, should not go past midnight, and can exceed 16 hours in a workweek only on special occasions. The law also stipulates that an employee’s total working hours cannot exceed 11 hours per day (including overtime and a one-hour break). The law applies to shops, commercial establishments, and establishments for public entertainment. The law requires employers to pay employees on the date their salary is due for companies with 100 or fewer employees. For companies with more than 100 employees, the employer is required to pay employees within five days from the designated payday. Up to 75 percent of the workforce was in the informal sector or self-employed and thus was not covered by the laws.

The 2019 Occupational Safety and Health law sets standards for occupational safety and health, and welfare. The law does not provide inspectors the authority to make unannounced inspections or initiate sanctions. The Ministry of Labor has the authority to suspend businesses operating at risk to worker health and safety until risks are remediated.

Labor unions reported instances in which workers could not remove themselves from situations that endanger their health or safety without jeopardizing their employment. Unions reported that workers concerned about COVID-19 positive cases in factories were nonetheless required to work. Penalties for safety and health violations were not commensurate with those for crimes like negligence.

The Ministry of Labor’s Factories and General Labor Laws Inspection Department oversees labor conditions in the private sector. Inspectors were authorized to make unannounced inspections and initiate sanctions. Penalties were commensurate with those for similar violations. The government did not effectively enforce the law. The number of labor law inspectors and factory inspectors was insufficient to address occupational safety and health standards, wage, salary, overtime, and other issues adequately. In some sectors other ministries regulated occupational safety and health laws (e.g., the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, and Irrigation).

Workers’ organizations alleged government inspections were rare and often announced with several days’ notice that allowed factory owners to bring facilities–often temporarily–into compliance. Corruption and bribery of inspectors reportedly occurred, according to UNICEF, unions, and the labor NGO Solidarity Center.

The public sector was reasonably likely to respect labor laws; frequent violations occurred in private enterprises. Workers continued to submit complaints to relevant government agencies and the dispute settlement mechanism.

There were no recent statistics available on industrial accidents leading to death or serious injury of workers. In July a landslide in a mining area killed at least 172 persons scavenging for jade in an area closed because of heavy rains.

Central African Republic

Executive Summary

The Central African Republic is a presidential republic. Professor Faustin-Archange Touadera was elected in the second round of presidential elections in 2016 for a five-year term. In February 2019 the government and 14 armed groups signed the Political Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation. President Touadera appointed Firmin Ngrebada as prime minister. The first round of presidential and legislative elections were held on December 27. Violence by armed groups reportedly prevented 26 out of 68 subprefectures from voting, and interrupted the vote in an additional six subprefectures. Observers noted minor irregularities in voting locations. Election results were still pending at year’s end.

Police and gendarmes have responsibility for enforcing law and maintaining order. The Central African Armed Forces report to the Ministry of Defense. Police and the gendarmerie report to the Ministry of Interior and Public Security. Civilian authorities’ control over the security forces continued to improve but remained weak. Members of the security forces committed some abuses. State authority beyond the capital improved with the increased deployment of prefects and troops in provincial capitals. Armed groups, however, still controlled significant swaths of territory throughout the country and acted as de facto governing bodies in those areas, taxing local populations and appointing armed group members to leadership roles.

Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killings by government security forces; torture by security forces; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest by security forces; serious abuses in an internal conflict, including killing of civilians, enforced disappearances or abductions, torture and physical abuses or punishment, unlawful recruitment or use of child soldiers and other conflict-related abuses by armed groups; serious acts of corruption; lack of investigation of and accountability for violence against women; trafficking in persons; existence of laws criminalizing consensual same-sex conduct between adults; and forced child labor.

The government took steps to investigate and prosecute government officials for alleged human rights abuses, including in the security forces. Nevertheless, a climate of impunity and a lack of access to legal services remained obstacles.

Intercommunal violence and targeted attacks on civilians by armed groups continued. Armed groups perpetrated serious abuses of human rights and international humanitarian law during these internal conflicts. Ex-Seleka, Anti-balaka, and other armed groups committed unlawful killings, torture and other mistreatment, abductions, sexual assaults, looting, and destruction of property. The government stated it was investigating several high-profile cases of intercommunal violence during the year and considering charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes against perpetrators.

Note: This report refers to the “ex-Seleka” for all abuses attributed to the armed factions associated with Seleka, including the Popular Front for the Renaissance in the Central African Republic, the Union for Peace, which occurred after the Seleka was dissolved in 2013. Although the 3R armed group is not a member of the ex-Seleka, they also committed serious human rights abuses during the year.

Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings

There were several reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings during the year (see section 1.g.). In a report published by the Human Rights Council in August, the UN’s independent expert stated that state security forces allegedly committed human rights abuses against civilians, including rape, use of minors at checkpoints, theft of cattle from the Peuhls, torture, and killing. Consistent with the code of military justice enacted in March 2017, military tribunals, martial courts, appeals courts, and the Court of Cassation have jurisdiction to try any violation by the military. The last session of the military court, however, dated back to 2013, and existing practice is for military offenses to be tried at the criminal court, which holds only two session a year.

In August a member of the armed forces stationed in Baoro, west of the country near the town of Bouar, killed a driver and his girlfriend out of jealousy.

In December media reports indicated a group that included Russian private military contractors, invited to the country by the government to assist with election security, and the country’s military elements used excessive force against civilians at a road checkpoint in Grimari, resulting in the death of at least four civilians, including a local employee of an international humanitarian nongovernmental organization (NGO).

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities. There were reports that forces from the ex-Seleka, Anti-balaka, and other armed groups were responsible for politically motivated disappearances. Those abducted included police and civilians (see section 1.g.).

There were multiple reports of disappearances committed by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) for the purposes of recruitment and extortion (see section 1.g.).

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

Although the law prohibits torture and specifies punishment for those found guilty of physical abuse, there were reports from NGOs that Central African Armed Forces (FACA) soldiers, gendarmes, and police were responsible for torture (see section 1.g.).

In June an NGO reported that a female employee of a local bank was arrested and tortured by a police unit known as the Office for the Repression of Banditry (OCRB).

Impunity remained persistent throughout the country. Contributing factors included poorly trained officials, inadequate staffing, and insufficient resources. Additionally, claims of corruption among top government officials, delayed receipt of salaries for law enforcement and judiciary employees, and threats from local armed groups if officials arrested or investigated members persisted. The mechanisms to investigate abuses included the gendarmerie and the court prosecutors. Military tribunals, martial courts, appeal courts, and the court of cassation have jurisdiction to try any violation by the military. The last session of the military court dated back to 2013. Consequently, military offenses, such as torture, are tried at the criminal court, which holds only two sessions a year.

The government worked with the EU to provide training on human rights for FACA and gendarme units.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

According to an independent expert with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and international NGOs, conditions in prisons did not generally meet international norms and were often inhuman.

The UN Multidimensional Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) detained and transferred to government custody several medium- and high-level armed group members.

Physical Conditions: The government operated three prisons in or near Bangui: Ngaragba Central Prison, its high-security Camp de Roux annex for men, and Bimbo Women’s Prison. A combination of international peacekeepers, FACA, prison officers trained by MINUSCA and the Ministry of Justice, and judicial police guarded both men’s and women’s prisons.

On April 25, President Touadera signed a decree granting pardon to 227 prisoners to help prevent the spread of the COVID-19 epidemic. The pardon was directed at convicted minors, pregnant or breastfeeding women, prisoners ages 60 and older, and those with a chronic, serious, or contagious disease. Prisoners charged or convicted of murder, war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide, attacks against the internal security of the State, burning of a residential house, and rape of minors younger than age 14 were excluded from the pardon.

On June 24, local press reported that Moussa Fadoul, former mayor of the fifth district of Bangui, died at Camp de Roux military prison due to medical neglect. Fadoul was apprehended in April 2019 by the police service from the Central Office for the Repression of Banditry (OCRB) during an attempted theft of a humanitarian vehicle. Following the death of Fadoul, the remaining prisoners protested, demanding better living conditions, medical care, and adequate legal provisions. In a press conference held on September 30, Central African judicial authorities noted that of the 38 prison centers in the country, 13 had been rehabilitated by the partners of the Central African Republic, mainly MINUSCA.

Nine prisons were operational outside the Bangui area: Bangassou, Bouar, Berberati, Bimbo, Bossangoa, Bambari, and Mbaiki. In March detention facilities rehabilitated by MINUSCA in Bangassou and Paoua reopened. In other locations, including Bossembele and Boda, police or gendarmes kept prisoners in custody. Most prisons were extremely overcrowded. Necessities, such as food, clothing, and medicine, were inadequate and were often confiscated by prison officials. Prisons lacked basic sanitation and ventilation, electricity, basic and emergency medical care, and sufficient access to potable water. Diseases were pervasive in all prisons. Official statistics regarding the number of deaths in prison were not available. Conditions were life threatening and substantially below international standards. The national budget did not include adequate funds for food for prison inmates.

Authorities sometimes held pretrial detainees with convicted prisoners, juveniles with adults, and failed to separate prisoners by gender. In Bangui, however, prisoners were separated by gender. Smaller prisons in cities such as Bouar, Mbaiki, Berberati, and Bossangoa segregated male prisoners from female prisoners, but conditions were substantially below international standards. Female prisoners were placed in facilities without ventilation or electricity. All detainees, including pregnant women, slept on thin straw mats on concrete floors.

There were no detention centers or separate cells in adult prisons for juvenile offenders. The accusations against detainees ranged from murder to witchcraft and petty crimes. Police and gendarmes held individuals beyond the statutory limits for detention before imposing formal charges.

Prisons were consistently underfunded with insufficient operating resources for the care of prisoners. Additionally, prison guards and administrators were accused of charging prisoners, prisoners’ family members, and other visitors’ unofficial fees. The Central African Observatory for Human Rights (OCDH) reported that a prison officer at Ngaragba prison refused to release a prisoner despite the judge’s release order.

Administration: Prison detainees have the right to submit complaints of mistreatment, but victims rarely exercised this option due to the lack of a functioning formal complaint mechanism and fear of retaliation from prison officials. There were reports that complainants paid police or gendarmes fees for their complaints to be heard. Authorities seldom initiated investigations of abuse in prisons.

Independent Monitoring: The government permitted monitoring by UNHCR independent experts and international donors. The government also permitted monitoring by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the UN Human Rights Council’s independent expert on human rights in the CAR.

Improvements: On May 28, the UN Development Program completed renovation on the prison in Camp de Roux. According to MINUSCA, the prison structure met international standards.

On June 23, 149 civilian prison officers from the first phase of initial training at the National School of Administration and Magistracy started their practical training. This training is part of a national strategy for the demilitarization of prisons, one of the priorities of the Ministry of Justice, jointly supported by MINUSCA, the UN Development Program, and UN Women.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

The constitution and law prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention and provide for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court. The government sometimes observed these requirements. There were, however, reports of arbitrary detention and lengthy pretrial detention. Problems included a lack of affordable legal representation and slow, if any, response from the judiciary system.

MINUSCA’s uniformed force of 12,870 military personnel, police officers, and military observers was tasked to protect the civilian population from physical violence within its capabilities and areas of deployment. MINUSCA’s 2,080 police officers were authorized to make arrests and transfer persons to national authorities.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

Judicial warrants are not required for arrest. The law, however, stipulates that authorities must inform detainees of their charges and present them before a magistrate within 72 hours. This period is renewable once, for a total of 144 hours. The only exceptions are suspects involving national security. Authorities often did not respect these deadlines, in part due to poor recordkeeping, inefficient and slow judicial procedures, and insufficient number of judges.

Authorities sometimes followed legal procedures in cases managed by gendarmes or local police. Many detainees could not afford a lawyer. Although the law provides that a lawyer be provided for those unable to pay in felony cases where a sentence of 10 years or more could be imposed, lawyers are not provided for nonfelony cases. Remuneration for state-provided attorneys was 5,000 CFA francs ($8.80) per case, which deterred many lawyers from taking such cases. After lawyers protested for higher wages, their remuneration was increased for the 2019-20 criminal sessions to 50,000 CFA francs ($90) per case.

For individuals detained by ex-Seleka and Anti-balaka and placed in illegal detention centers, legal procedures were not followed and access to lawyers was not provided.

Prosecution of persons subject to sanctions by the UN Sanctions Committee did not occur during the year.

Arbitrary Arrest: The constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention. Arbitrary arrest was a serious problem, however, and ex-Seleka, Anti-balaka, and other armed groups arbitrarily targeted and detained individuals.

On June 2, ex-Seleka Popular Front for the Renaissance in the Central African Republic (FPRC) forces detained and tortured three men in Bria accused of malfeasance. One of the detainees was subsequently released that day after the local civic leaders intervened.

Pretrial Detention: Prolonged pretrial detention was a serious problem; after he visited the prison of Ngaragba in Bangui in September, the magistrate stated that 500 of 700 detainees were in pretrial detention. Although recordkeeping of arrests and detentions was poor, the slow investigation and processing of a case was the primary cause of pretrial detention. The judicial police force charged with investigating cases was poorly trained, understaffed, and had few resources, resulting in poorly processed cases with little physical evidence. The court system did not hold the constitutionally mandated two criminal sessions per year. Judges resisted holding sessions due to security concerns and insisted on receiving stipends beyond their salaries.

Detainees Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: Although the law provides detainees the right to challenge the lawfulness of their detention in court, many detainees were not able to exercise this right due to a lack of affordable legal services and an unresponsive justice system.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

Although the constitution provides for an independent judiciary, there was a lack of independence of the judiciary from political actors. In 2013 the Seleka destroyed court buildings and records throughout the country, leaving the judicial system barely functional. In 2017 the president issued a decree that appointed eight members to the Constitutional Court, four of whom, including the president of the court, were women. A total of 18 of 27 first instance and appellate courts were operating during the year, including 16 outside of Bangui. The courts in Bangui and some other major cities, notably Bangassou, Bouar, Berberati, Bossangoa, Mbaiki, Boda, and Bimbo, resumed operation, but the deployment of magistrates and administrators outside Bangui was inadequate. Many judges were unwilling to leave Bangui, citing security concerns, the inability to receive their salaries while in provincial cities, and the lack of office space and housing.

Corruption was a serious problem at all levels. Courts suffered from inefficient administration, understaffing, shortages of trained personnel, salary arrears, and lack of resources. Authorities, particularly those of high rank, did not always respect court orders.

In 2018 the National Assembly adopted the rules of procedure and evidence for the Special Criminal Court (SCC), and later that year the SCC officially began investigations and publicly launched a prosecutorial strategy. In 2019 the SCC moved into permanent offices. The SCC was established by law in 2015 in the domestic judicial system and operates with both domestic and international participation and support. In August, five national magistrates were sworn in after taking an oath, but the SCC was confronted with serious difficulties in recruiting international judges, delaying the opening of effective trials. The SCC has jurisdiction over serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, including genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes.

MINUSCA assisted in setting up the SCC victim and witness protection unit, as provided for by the SCC founding law and the SCC rules of proceedings and evidence. Some victims and witnesses were already under the unit’s protection during ongoing SCC proceedings. Additional unit protection staff were added and more were under recruitment; protection equipment was being delivered and more was in procurement; court procurement; court personnel and other individuals in contact with victims and witnesses were receiving training on protection and other subjects.

In May the SCC accepted the cases of nine members of the armed group UPC arrested for crimes committed in the towns of Obo, Zemio, and Bambouti, located in the southeastern CAR. As of September the SCC received 122 complaints and opened preliminary investigation on one case. Seven cases were being analyzed, and three were ready for preliminary investigations but postponed because of the COVID-19 crisis. Ten cases were transmitted to examining judges, and seven others were referred to ordinary courts.

Operations of the courts of appeals for criminal courts in two of the country’s three judicial districts–the Western District based in Bouar and the Central District based in Bambari–held criminal sessions during the year.

In February parliament passed a bill establishing the Truth, Justice, Reparation, and Reconciliation Commission (TJRRC) to support the 2019 Accord for Peace and Reconciliation. The law includes a wide range of responsibilities for the TJRRC, including establishing truth, determining nonjudicial responsibility for violations, creating a reparations fund, and promoting reconciliation. The TJRRC is further intended to cooperate with the SCC and create a final report with recommendations.

Trial Procedures

The constitution and law provide for the right to a fair and public trial, and an independent judiciary generally enforced this right. The penal code presumes defendants innocent until proven guilty. Trials are public, and defendants have the right to be present and consult a public defender. Criminal trials use juries. The law obliges the government to provide counsel for indigent defendants; this process delayed trial proceedings due to the state’s limited resources. Defendants have the right to question witnesses, present witnesses and evidence on their own behalf, and file appeals. The government sometimes complied with these requirements. Defendants have the right to be informed promptly and in detail of the charges (with free interpretation as necessary) from the moment charged through all appeals, to receive adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense, and not to be compelled to testify or confess guilt. Authorities, however, seldom respected these rights.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

The constitution provides for an independent judiciary in civil matters, but citizens had limited access to courts in order to file lawsuits seeking damages for, or cessation of, human rights violations. In 2015 the civil courts resumed operations with regular sessions. There is no system for protecting victims and witnesses from intimidation and insecurity. Consequently, victims, who often lived side-by-side with perpetrators, were reluctant to testify against perpetrators because there was no assurance of their safety and a credible judicial process.

f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

The law prohibits searches of homes without a warrant in civil and criminal cases, and there were no reports the government failed to respect these prohibitions.

g. Abuses in Internal Conflict

There were serious abuses of human rights and international humanitarian law by armed groups. The ex-Seleka, Anti-balaka, and other armed group fighters operated freely across much of the country. Reports of abuses included unlawful killings, torture, abductions, sexual assaults, looting, and destruction of property.

UN agencies and NGOs stated that humanitarian actors had not perpetrated any sexual violence during the year.

Killings: In December 2019 clashes between criminal self-defense groups and armed merchants in Bangui’s PK5 district resulted in the deaths of 50 individuals and 72 injured. The minster of public security and MINUSCA stated they opened an investigation on the case. In January judicial authorities investigated with the assistance of MINUSCA and arrested 20 suspects.

Between March and April, a series of intercommunal clashes occurred between the Runga and Goula factions of the ex-Seleka groups in N’dele, Bamingui-Bangoran Prefecture. Approximately 50 individuals were reported killed, including civilians and a UN employee. The fighting forced 1,200 civilians to flee their homes. In April, after visiting the town of N’dele where violent clashes took place between the Goula and Rounga tribes, Eric Tambo, the general prosecutor of the High Court of Bangui, stated the court would investigate the case and prosecute the perpetrators for the charge of crime against humanity and war crimes.

The 3R, MPC, UPC, FPRC, and Anti-balaka groups participated in ethnic killings related to cattle theft (see section 6).

On August 24, armed men from the Party of the Rally of the Central African nation attacked and killed 11 civilians, wounded 20, and set fires to homes in the village of Bornou, near the town of Bria, in reprisal of the killing of one of their men. Approximately 400 persons fled their homes, including children, women, and the elderly.

In January, two Anti-balaka leaders, Crepin Wakanam and Kevin Bere-Bere, and 29 combatants were tried before the Criminal Court of Bangui for their responsibility in the 2017 massacre of numerous civilians and the killing of 10 peacekeepers in southeastern region. According to the United Nations, 72 persons were killed, 76 injured, and 4,400 displaced during the attack. They were tried for “crimes against humanity, war crimes, looting and murder.” During the year 20 cases were tried, resulting in more than 40 convictions. The sentences varied from five years to life in prison.

Abductions: The NGO Invisible Children reported that on April 6, an LRA group, composed of men, women, and children, camped near the community of Bougoua, in the prefecture of M’Bomou, and looted food and other items from the community, forcing 15 boys to porter the stolen goods. The boys were released later that day.

Physical Abuse, Punishment, and Torture: Members of armed groups, including the ex-Seleka and Anti-balaka, reportedly continued to mistreat, assault, and rape civilians with impunity.

Child Soldiers: Armed militias associated with Anti-balaka, ex-Seleka, the LRA, and other armed groups forcibly recruited and used child soldiers; however, there were no verified cases of the government supporting units recruiting or using child soldiers during the year. Armed groups recruited children and used them as combatants, messengers, informants, and cooks. Girls were often used as sex slaves. The United Nations also documented the presence of children operating checkpoints and barricades.

The MPC, FPRC, and UPC are all signatories to the United Nation’s action plan combatting the use of child soldiers; however, they continued to use child soldiers. The FPRC and UPC issued orders barring the recruitment of children; however, NGOs reported the continued presence of children among these groups.

The country is a party to the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child and the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which prohibit the involvement of children in armed conflicts. In addition, on June 15, President Touadera signed the decree enacting the Child Protection Law. The law prohibits and criminalizes the recruitment and the use of children into armed groups and their exploitation for sexual purposes; perpetrators may be sentenced from 10 years of imprisonment to hard labor. In addition the law provides a child who has served in an armed force or group may not be subject to criminal prosecution on this ground. The child must be considered a victim and not an alleged perpetrator, and the law favors social reintegration mechanisms for children.

During the year the government, UNICEF, and various NGOs worked with the armed groups to combat the exploitation of child soldiers. UNICEF stated that from January to August, 1,125 children left armed groups and registered for reintegration programs. The United Nations estimated the number of children who remained active in armed groups at approximately 5,000. On September 4, President Touadera signed a decree appointing a focal point for children affairs in the Unit in Charge of Demobilization, Reintegration, and Repatriation Program. The focal point is tasked with the mission to promote children rights and facilitate their social reintegration.

See the Department of State’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

Other Conflict-related Abuse: On April 22, MPC leader Alkhatim Mahamat stole construction materials sent by a National Assembly member to the town of Kabo for construction of a school.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression and the press. The government generally respected these rights.

Freedom of Speech: Public discussion and political debates were generally free from state authorities’ influence. In areas controlled by armed groups, freedom of expression, however, was inhibited due to the risk of retaliation by armed groups.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views without restriction. All print media in the country were privately owned. Radio was the most widespread medium of mass communication. There were a number of alternatives to the state-owned radio station. Independent radio stations operated freely and broadcast organized debates and call-in talk shows that were critical of the government, the election process, ex-Seleka, and Anti-balaka militias. International media broadcast within the country. The High Commission for Communication is the regulatory body in charge of controlling the content of information broadcast or published in media. Opposition political candidates alleged that the state-owned media favored the existing administration during the presidential election campaign.

In August police briefly detained a journalist from the Association of Journalists for Human Rights radio station while she was investigating irregularities in the issuing of the national identification card. Also in August Henri Grothe, a blogger who resided in France and regularly criticized CAR authorities on social media, was briefly arrested and his passport confiscated upon his arrival at Bangui M’poko international airport. Grothe was released without any charge.

The government monopolized domestic television and national radio station broadcasting, with coverage typically favorable to government positions.

Nongovernmental Impact: In areas controlled by armed groups, freedom of expression was inhibited due to the risk of retaliation.

Internet Freedom

The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content. There were no credible reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

There were no reports that the government restricted academic freedom or cultural events. The country’s sole university was open.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The constitution and additional laws provide for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

The government denied a number of requests to protest that were submitted by civil society groups, citing insecurity in Bangui. In September the government denied the permit request made by the Civil Society Working Group (GTSC) to organize a ville morte (ghost city). The GTSC was demanding the arrest of Ali Darassa, UPC commander in chief, and the resignation of Prime Minister Firmin Ngrebada. To deter individuals from participating in the demonstration, the government deployed interior security forces and the presidential guards in the streets. Some GTSC representatives were briefly arrested. On October 13, the youth movement known as “4500,” which intended to demonstrate in front of the office of the judicial police regarding an increase in the cost of a national identification card, was prevented by police from holding its sit-in in Bangui. Three members of the movement were arrested by police and released shortly thereafter.

Freedom of Association

A law prohibiting nonpolitical organizations from uniting for political purposes remained in place.

c. Freedom of Religion

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

d. Freedom of Movement

The constitution provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but the government did not always respect these rights.

In-country Movement: Armed groups and bandits made in-country movement extremely dangerous. Government forces, armed groups, and criminals alike frequently used illegal checkpoints to extort funds.

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, as of September there were an estimated 659,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the country. Between August 2019 and August 2020, the number of IDPs increased by 8 percent, from 590,000 to 641,000. An estimated 67 percent of IDPs lived with host families, while 33 percent lived on IDP sites.

Humanitarian actors provided assistance to IDPs and returnees and promoted the safe voluntary return, resettlement, or local integration of IDPs. The government allowed humanitarian organizations to provide services.

Even after reaching safe locations, IDPs frequently risked assault by criminals, often assumed to be associated with armed groups that IDPs encountered if they ventured outside of camps to search for food. Women and girls were particularly at risk of sexual violence on the sites and when venturing outside, such as to go to markets or for agricultural activities. In many affected areas, humanitarian assistance was limited to strictly life-saving interventions, due to limited access and insecurity. The presence of armed groups continued to delay or block planned humanitarian deliveries.

Humanitarian organizations remained concerned regarding evidence that members of armed groups continued to hide in IDP sites and attempted to carry out recruitment activities, putting at risk IDPs and humanitarian staff. Recent survey data indicated an estimated one-third of IDPs residing in IDP sites were concerned regarding their security. Of registered deaths in IDP households surveyed in the three months prior to the mid-year survey, 25 percent were linked to armed conflict.

Security concerns, related to criminality as well as armed group clashes resulting in violence, prevented aid organizations from operating in certain areas. For example, 17,000 IDPs in N’dele were without assistance after aid agencies temporarily suspended operations in May when security incidents in the wake of fighting between armed groups and attacks on civilians made it untenable to continue. Also in N’dele, an estimated 9,700 IDPs sought refuge at an IDP site near MINUSCA to escape fighting between armed groups in early March. By mid-March, however, the site had been emptied as a result of pressure from armed elements.

On February 6, armed individuals broke into the residences of International Committee of the Red Cross employees in Kaga-Bandoro. The attackers assaulted guards and stole material goods. On March 23, in N’dele, attackers broke into the premises of the international NGO War Child and stole computers and office equipment.

During the year two humanitarian workers were killed and 21 injured. There were 304 reported incidents affecting humanitarian workers, premises, and assets between January and September, a 39 percent increase compared with the same period in 2019.

f. Protection of Refugees

The government generally cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to IDPs, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, or other persons of concern.

Access to Asylum: The laws provide for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. Individuals who had fled their countries of origin and had prior criminal records, however, were immediately repatriated.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The constitution provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: Presidential and legislative elections were held on December 27. Armed groups interfered with voter registration and the distribution of election materials. On election day, threats and violence by armed groups reportedly stopped the vote in 26 of 68 subprefectures and interrupted the vote in six other subprefectures. At year’s end it was unclear what percentage of voters were unable to vote due to insecurity. Most of the violence committed around the elections was committed by armed groups. There were no reports government security actors attempted to interfere with the election or prevent individuals from voting. If needed, a second round of presidential and legislative elections may be held in February 2021 and local elections are scheduled to be held later in 2021. The government did not attempt to restrict eligible voters from registering, but armed groups interfered with registration.

International and NGO observers reported high voter turnout in Bangui; however, some media reported the threats of violence suppressed the turnout in insecure areas. NGO observers reported minor irregularities in places where the vote occurred, most commonly citing a lack of indelible ink and legislative ballots at certain sites and cases where voters who did not have a voter identification card were allowed to vote with a certificate from the National Elections Authority. A local NGO group, National Observatory of Elections, stated the irregularities did not undermine the credibility of the elections. The African Union observation mission reported the vote in Bangui conformed to CAR’s electoral code and international standards. Election results were expected to be announced in early January 2021.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit participation of women or members of minority groups in the political process. Five of the 39 cabinet members were women, as was the senior presidential advisor for national reconciliation. There were 11 women among the 140 members of parliament. Some observers believed traditional attitudes and cultural practices limited the ability of women to participate in political life on the same basis as men. In July 2019 the national assembly rejected the provision on gender parity provided in the draft electoral code and decided instead that political parties’ candidate lists must be composed of at least 35 percent women.

Societal and legal discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons prevented them from effectively advocating for their interests in the political sphere.

In March 2019, 14 members of parliament, including three women, were elected to the Executive Bureau for one-year terms. The election of only three women did not comply with the law on parity, which requires there be a minimum of 35 percent representation by women in state and private institutions for a period of 10 years. The 2016 gender equality law also prohibits gender discrimination and provides for an independent National Observatory for Male/Female Equality to monitor compliance; however, the National Observatory had not been established by year’s end.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

Although the law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, the government did not effectively implement the law, and officials often engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. In 2017 President Touadera issued a decree appointing members of the High Authority for Good Governance, an independent body mandated by the constitution. It is charged with protecting the rights of minorities and those with disabilities and ensuring the equitable distribution of natural resource revenues. In December 2019 President Touadera launched the National Good Governance Strategy.

Corruption and nepotism have long been pervasive in all branches of government, and addressing public-sector corruption was difficult in view of limited government capacity.

Corruption: No corruption cases were brought to trial. There were widespread rumors and anecdotal stories of pervasive corruption and bribery. In February an audio recording circulated on social media alleging fraud during the vote of state budget by the national assembly. The fraud was allegedly orchestrated by the first vice president of the national assembly. The CAR government took no legal actions.

Financial Disclosure: The constitution requires senior members of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches at the beginning of their terms to declare publicly their personal assets and income to the Constitutional Court. The constitution specifies that the law determine sanctions for noncompliance. Declarations are public. The constitution requires ministers to declare their assets upon departing government but is not explicit on what constitutes assets or income.

As of September there was no evidence that any ministers declared their assets.

Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights

A number of domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights abuses and violations of law. Government officials often were cooperative and responsive to their views.

Government Human Rights Bodies: In 2017 President Touadera signed into law an act establishing an independent National Commission on Human Rights and Fundamental Liberties. The commission has the authority to investigate complaints, including the power to call witnesses and subpoena documents. In 2019 the commission collaborated with the Ministry of Justice, MINUSCA, and the African Union to draft the country’s National Human Rights Policy. In addition, the government was setting up the SCC’s victim and witness protection unit with MINUSCA’s assistance (see section 1.e.).

Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law prohibits rape, although it does not specifically prohibit spousal rape. Rape is punishable by imprisonment with hard labor, but the law does not specify a minimum sentence. The government did not enforce the law effectively.

Domestic abuse, rape, and sexual slavery of women and girls by armed groups threatened their security, and sexual violence was increasingly used as a deliberate tool of warfare. Attackers enjoyed broad impunity. In 2019 MINUSCA verified 322 incidents of conflict-related sexual violence, affecting 187 women, 124 girls, three men, two boys, and six women of unknown age. These incidents included 174 rapes or attempted rapes and 15 cases of forced marriage.

Although the law does not specifically mention spousal abuse, it prohibits violence against any person and provides for penalties of up to 10 years in prison. Domestic violence against women was common, although there are laws and instruments prohibiting violence against women. The government took no known action to punish perpetrators.

As of July the Mixed Unit for the Repression of Violence against Women and the Protection of Children (UMIRR) received 501 complaints from victims of various profiles, including 227 victims of sexual violence (rape, assault, forced marriage) and 232 cases of other form of violence. According to UMIRR, there were 266 reported cases of women who were victims of societal abuse in the country.

Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): The law prohibits FGM/C of women and girls, which is punishable by two to five years’ imprisonment and a moderate to substantial fine.

Nearly one-quarter of girls and women had been subjected to FGM/C, with variations according to ethnicity and region. Approximately one-half of girls were mutilated between ages 10 and 14. Both the prevalence of FGM/C and support for the practice has substantially declined in recent years.

Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits sexual harassment, but the government does not effectively enforce the law, and sexual harassment was common. The law prescribes no specific penalties for the crime.

Reproductive Rights: After recurrent military-political crises, the CAR continued to be characterized by widespread insecurity and impoverishment. The state was largely absent outside of Bangui. This situation created barriers to providing adequate assistance, including health and reproductive care, to vulnerable populations. Many displaced families were in makeshift sites, in the bush, or in fields far from existing basic social services. Of the 814 hospitals and dispensaries in the country, only 55.3 percent were functional in 2015. Anecdotal evidence suggests NGOs were nearly entirely responsible for the provision of healthcare services outside of Bangui.

Couples and individuals have the right to decide freely and responsibly the number, spacing, and timing of children. Nevertheless, most couples lacked access to contraception, prenatal care, skilled attendance during childbirth, and essential obstetric care and postpartum care.

The government has committed to implementing the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development Program of Action held in Cairo. Law number 06.005 of June 20, 2006, authorized abortion for pregnancy resulting from rape. The law prohibits certain acts that endanger sexual and reproductive health, including female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C). Article 29 of the law criminalizes all forms of sexual violence and exploitation in all its forms that target women.

Citizens, in particular women and girls, were affected by high rates of conflict-related sexual violence. The country experienced multiple armed conflicts in the last 20 years, and customs and traditions in the country influenced the existence and exacerbation of gender-based violence, in particular sexual violence. Survivors of sexual violence were discriminated against, and the government was unable to provide adequate care, including health and social services to survivors. Sexual violence committed by armed actors increases the risk of spreading of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections.

According to UNICEF’s 2018-2019 Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS) Findings Report, 82.2 percent of women did not use any form of contraceptive. For girls aged 15 to 19 years, 88.7 percent do not use contraception (MICS IV 2018-2019). The World Health Organization reported 22 percent of women said their need for family planning was satisfied with modern methods. The prevalence of HIV among people aged 15 to 49 years was 4.9 percent (MICS 2010; contacts at the Institute Pasteur in Bangui reported the infection rate in the capital was approximately 18 percent. Data from the MICS IV survey (2018-2019) indicated that the infant mortality rate was 100 deaths per 1,000 live births, and 53 percent of deliveries were assisted.

The maternal mortality rate was 829 per 100,000 live births, according to the World Health Organization. The major factor involved in the high maternal death rate was the lack of access to adequate healthcare. Only 18.9 percent of women reported receiving prenatal care for their last pregnancy (MICS IV 2018-2019). Fertility was very high (6.4 per MICS IV 2018-2019), and 42.8 percent of women reported having a child before age 18 (MICS IV 2018-2019). The lack of sexual and reproductive education led to early fertility among girls, which was more prevalent in rural than in urban areas (MICS 2010). These factors partly contributed to high maternal and neonatal mortality. Only 53.4 percent of births in 2006 were attended by qualified health personnel (83 percent in urban areas, 35 percent in rural areas).

Women were victims of many forms of gender-based violence, including FGM/C, sexual violence, and early marriage. This gender-based violence is exacerbated by conflicts. According to the MICS 2006 survey, nearly 45 percent of women suffered physical violence from their husbands or relatives; 51.6 percent suffered verbal abuse, 32.2 percent were raped. According to MICS 2010, 24 percent of women aged 15-49 had undergone some form of FGM/C. Although UNICEF did not yet publish the 2020 MICS, contacts reported FGM/C remained a widespread issue in the country and rates may be higher now than in 2010. No information was available on the FGM/C’s implication on maternal morbidity. The MICS 2010 indicated that the induced abortion rate was 6.9 percent among women aged 15 to 45.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.

Discrimination: The formal law does not discriminate against women in inheritance and property rights, but a number of discriminatory customary laws often prevailed. Women’s statutory inheritance rights often were not respected, particularly in rural areas. Women experienced economic and social discrimination. Customary law does not consider single, divorced, or widowed women, including those with children, to be heads of households. By law men and women are entitled to family subsidies from the government, but several women’s groups complained of lack of access to these payments for women.

Children

Birth Registration: Children derive citizenship by birth in the national territory or from one or both parents. Birth registration could be difficult and less likely to occur in regions with little government presence. Parents did not always register births immediately. Unregistered children faced restrictions on access to education and other social services. The lack of routine birth registration also posed long-term problems.

Education: Education is compulsory from ages six to 15. Tuition is free, but students have to pay for items such as books and supplies and for transportation. Few Ba’aka, the earliest known inhabitants of the forests in the south, attended primary school. There was no significant government assistance for efforts to increase Ba’aka enrollment.

Child Abuse: The law criminalizes parental abuse of children younger than 15. UMIRR is in charge of investigating abuses against women and children. As of July children’s rights abuses were reported in 42 households. According to UMIRR, 214 girls and seven boys were reported victims of societal abuse.

With the support of UNICEF, Bethanie, a local NGO, provided legal, psychological, and socioeconomic assistance to 900 vulnerable children, including 200 children victims of sexual violence, 100 children accused of witchcraft, 250 children with HIV, and 350 children victims of other forms of violence in the prefecture of Ombella M’poko and Bangui.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The law establishes 18 as the minimum age for civil marriage. A 2017 UNICEF report indicated that 68 percent of girls married before age 18 and 29 percent of girls married before age 15, and that 27 percent of boys married before age 18. The practice of early marriage was more common in Muslim communities. There were reports during the year of forced marriages of young girls to ex-Seleka and Anti-balaka members. The government did not take steps to address forced marriage.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: On June 15, the government enacted the Child Protection Act. The legislation has a series of measures that address the exploitation of minors. The family code prescribes penalties for the commercial exploitation of children, including imprisonment and financial penalties. The minimum age of sexual consent is 18, but it was rarely observed.

Armed groups committed sexual violence against children and used girls as sex slaves (see section 1.g.).

Displaced Children: Armed conflict resulted in forced displacement, with the number of persons fleeing in search of protection fluctuating based on local conditions. The country’s instability had a disproportionate effect on children, who accounted for 64 percent of IDPs, 48 percent of whom were children younger than five, according to a report by the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

International Child Abductions: The country is not a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.

Anti-Semitism

There was no significant Jewish community, and there were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.

Trafficking in Persons

See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

Persons with Disabilities

The law prohibits discrimination against persons with both mental and physical disabilities but does not specify other forms of disabilities. It requires that in any company employing 25 or more persons, at least 5 percent of staff must consist of sufficiently qualified persons with disabilities if they are available. The law states that at least 10 percent of newly recruited civil service personnel should be persons with disabilities. There are no legislated or mandated accessibility provisions for persons with disabilities. There were no available statistics concerning the implementation of this provision.

The government did not enact programs to provide access to buildings, information, and communications. The Ministry of Labor, of Employment and Social Protection’s Labor Inspectorate has responsibility for protecting children with disabilities.

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

Violence by unidentified persons, bandits, and other armed groups against the Peuhl (also known as Fulani or Mbororo), primarily nomadic pastoralists, was a problem. Their cattle wealth made them attractive targets, and they continued to suffer disproportionately from civil disorder in the north. Additionally, since many citizens viewed them as inherently foreign due to their transnational migratory patterns, the Peuhl faced occasional discrimination with regard to government services and protections. In recent years the Peuhl began arming themselves against attacks from farmers who objected to the presence of the Peuhl’s grazing cattle. Several of the ensuing altercations resulted in deaths.

In December 2019 a young man from the subprefecture of Baboua, who was heading to the cattle market, was killed by unidentified armed men. The population of Baboua accused the Peuhl community of being the perpetrators. On December 30, dozens of young persons armed with machetes, knives, and other bladed weapons retaliated against a Peuhl citizen from a neighboring commune of Baboua, killing him.

Indigenous People

Discrimination continued against the nomadic pastoralist Peuhl minority, as well as the forest dwelling Ba’aka. The independent High Authority for Good Governance, whose members were appointed in 2017, is tasked with protecting the rights of minorities and those with disabilities, although its efficacy had yet to be proven.

Discrimination against the Ba’aka, who comprise 1 to 2 percent of the population, remained a problem. The Ba’aka continued to have little influence in decisions affecting their lands, culture, traditions, and the exploitation of natural resources. Forest-dwelling Ba’aka, in particular, experienced social and economic discrimination and exploitation, which the government did little to prevent.

The Ba’aka, including children, were often coerced into agricultural, domestic, and other types of labor. They were considered slaves by members of other local ethnic groups, and even when they were remunerated for labor, their wages were far below those prescribed by the labor code and lower than wages paid to members of other groups.

Reports by credible NGOs, including the American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative, stated the Ba’aka were effectively “second-class citizens,” perceived as barbaric and subhuman and excluded from mainstream society.

Acts of Violence, Criminalization, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

The penal code criminalizes consensual same-sex sexual conduct. The penalty for conviction of “public expression of love” between persons of the same sex is imprisonment for six months to two years or a moderate to substantial fine. When one of the participants is a child, the adult could be sentenced to two to five years’ imprisonment or a moderate to substantial fine. There were no reports police arrested or detained persons under these provisions.

While official discrimination based on sexual orientation occurred, there were no reports the government targeted LGBTI persons. Societal discrimination against LGBTI persons was entrenched due to a high degree of cultural stigmatization. The IOM reported the case of an LGBTI person who had to move due to physical violence against him by neighbors due to his sexuality. There were no known organizations advocating for or working on behalf of LGBTI persons.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

Persons with HIV/AIDS were subjected to discrimination and stigma, and many individuals with HIV/AIDS did not disclose their status due to social stigma.

Other Societal Violence or Discrimination

Violent conflict and instability in the country had a religious cast. Many, but not all, members of the ex-Seleka and its factions were Muslim, having originated in neighboring countries or in the remote Muslim north, a region the government often neglected.

During the worst of the crisis, some Christian communities formed Anti-balaka militias that targeted Muslim communities, presumably for their association with the Seleka. The Interfaith Religious Platform, which includes Muslim and Christian leaders, continued working with communities to defuse tensions and call for tolerance and restraint. Local leaders, including the bishop of Bossangoa, and internationally based academics warned against casting the conflict in religious terms and thus fueling its escalation along religious lines.

Ethnic killings often related to transhumance movements occurred. The major groups playing a role in the transhumance movements were social groups centering on ethnic identity. These included Muslim Fulani/Peuhl herders, Muslim farming communities, and Christian/animist farming communities. Armed group conflict at times devolved into ethnic violence, such as the Kara/Rounga conflict in Birao. Throughout the year, there were recorded acts of violence among the various ethnic groups–primarily between the Rounga and the Goula ethnic groups. Violence between the groups continued in Birao and spread to Ndele.

The law prohibits the practice of witchcraft. Conviction of witchcraft is punishable by five to 10 years’ imprisonment and a moderate to substantial fine. Individuals accused of sorcery or witchcraft experienced social exclusion. According to a legal advocate, the penal code does not have an established definition of witchcraft, and the state does not typically intervene in these cases. District chiefs often preside over witchcraft trials: however, the accused are also often killed by the local population. For instance, on August 27, local press reported that in the village of Barka-Panziin, in the prefecture of Mambere-Kadei, a 60-year-old woman suspected of witchcraft by the inhabitants was severely beaten by her own children and buried alive by the local population. She was rescued by gendarmes stationed at a timber company located two miles away. Women accused of witchcraft faced the possibility of sexual violence in prison while waiting for their trial or serving their sentence. Those accused of witchcraft reported psychological harm from fearing for their physical safety due to the accusations.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law provides for the right of workers, except for senior-level state employees, security force members, and foreign workers in residence for less than two years, to form or join independent unions without prior authorization. The labor code provides for the right of workers to organize and administer trade unions without employer interference and grants trade unions full legal status. The law requires union officials be full-time, wage-earning employees in their occupation and allows them to conduct union business during working hours if the employer is informed 48 hours in advance and provides authorization. The labor code provides that unions may bargain collectively in the public and private sectors.

Workers have the right to strike in both the public and private sectors, but the law prohibits security forces, including the armed forces and gendarmes, from striking. Requirements for conducting a legal strike are lengthy and cumbersome. For a strike to be legal, the union must first present its demands, the employer must respond to these demands, labor and management must attend a conciliation meeting, and an arbitration council must find that the union and the employer failed to reach agreement on valid demands. The union must provide eight days’ advance written notification of a planned strike. The law states that if employers initiate a lockout that is not in accordance with the code, the employer is required to pay workers for all days of the lockout. The Ministry of Labor, Employment, and Social Protection (Ministry of Labor) has the authority to establish a list of enterprises that are required by law to maintain a “compulsory minimum service” in the event of a strike. The government has the power of requisition or the authority to end strikes by invoking the public interest. The code makes no other provisions regarding sanctions on employers for acting against strikers.

The law expressly forbids antiunion discrimination. Employees may have their cases heard in labor court. The law does not state whether employers found guilty of antiunion discrimination are required to reinstate workers fired for union activities, although the law requires employers found guilty of such discrimination to pay damages, including back pay and lost wages.

The government generally enforced applicable laws and respected laws concerning labor actions. The enforcement of penalties was not sufficient to deter violations. Penalties were commensurate with other violations of civil rights. Workers exercised some of these rights, but only a relatively small part of the workforce, primarily civil servants, exercised the right to join a union. While worker organizations are officially outside government or political parties, the government exerted some influence over the leadership of some organizations.

Labor unions did not report any underlying patterns of discrimination or abuse. The president of the labor court stated the court did not hear any cases involving antiunion discrimination during the year.

Collective bargaining occurred in the private sector during the year, although the total number of collective agreements concluded was unknown. The government was not generally involved if the two parties were able to reach an agreement. Information was unavailable on the effectiveness of collective bargaining in the private sector.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The labor code specifically prohibits and criminalizes all forms of forced or compulsory labor. The penalties for these crimes were commensurate with the penalties for similar crimes. The enforcement of penalties was not sufficient to deter violations. The labor code’s prohibition of forced or compulsory labor also applies to children, although the code does not mention them specifically. The penalties for violations were not sufficient to deter violations because the government did not enforce the prohibition effectively. There were reports such practices occurred, especially in armed conflict zones.

Employers subjected men, women, and children to forced domestic labor, agricultural work, mining, market or street vending, and restaurant labor, as well as sexual exploitation. Criminal courts sentenced convicted persons to imprisonment and forced labor, and prisoners often worked on public projects without compensation. This practice largely took place in rural areas. Ba’aka, including children, often were coerced into labor as day laborers, farm hands, or other unskilled labor and often treated as slaves (see section 6, Children). No known victims were removed from forced labor during the year.

Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The labor code forbids some of the worst forms of child labor. The law prohibits children younger than 18 from performing “hazardous work,” but the term is not clearly defined and does not specify if it includes all of the worst forms of child labor. The mining code specifically prohibits child or underage labor. The employment of children younger than 14 is prohibited under the law without specific authorization from the Ministry of Labor. The law, however, also provides that the minimum age for employment may be as young as 12 for some types of light work in traditional agricultural activities or home services. Additionally, since the minimum age for work is lower than the compulsory education age, some children may be encouraged to leave school to pursue work before completion of compulsory education. The law stipulates the types of hazardous work prohibited for children.

The government did not enforce child labor laws. The government trained police, military, and civilians on child rights and protection, but trainees lacked resources to conduct investigations. The government announced numerous policies related to child labor, including those to end the sexual exploitation and abuse of children and the recruitment and use of children in armed conflict, but there was no evidence of programs to eliminate or prevent child labor, including its worst forms. Penalties were not sufficient to deter violations. Penalties were commensurate with similar crimes. Government officials were alleged to have subjected minors to military-related labor at two checkpoints.

Child labor was common in many sectors of the economy, especially in rural areas. Local and displaced children as young as age seven frequently performed agricultural work, including harvesting peanuts and cassava and helping gather items subsequently sold at markets such as mushrooms, hay, firewood, and caterpillars. In Bangui many of the city’s street children worked as street vendors. Children often worked as domestic workers, fishermen, and in mines, often in dangerous conditions. For example, children were forced to work without proper protection or were forced to work long hours (i.e., 10 hours per day or longer). Children also engaged in the worst forms of child labor in diamond fields, transporting and washing gravel as well as mining gold, digging holes, and carrying heavy loads. Despite the law’s prohibition on child labor in mining, observers saw many children working in and around diamond mining fields. No known victims were removed from the worst forms of child labor during the year.

Children continued to be engaged as child soldiers. There were reports of ex-Seleka, Anti-balaka, and other armed groups recruiting child soldiers during the year (see section 1.g.).

Also see the Department of Labor’s Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/resources/reports/child-labor/findings  and the Department of Labor’s List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/reports/child-labor/list-of-goods .

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

It is illegal to discriminate in hiring or place of employment based on race, national or social origin, gender, opinions, or beliefs. The government did not effectively enforce the law; however, if rigorously enforced, the laws would be sufficient to deter violations. Penalties were commensurate with the penalties for other civil rights violations. The law does not explicitly prohibit discrimination in employment and occupation based on disability, age, language, sexual orientation, gender identity, social status, HIV-positive status, or having other communicable diseases.

Discrimination against women in employment and occupation occurred in all sectors of the economy and in rural areas, where traditional practices that favor men remained widespread. There were legal restrictions against women in employment, including limiting occupations and tasks. The labor code prohibits the employment of women in jobs that exceed their strength. Furthermore, carrying, dragging, or pushing any load is prohibited during pregnancy and within three weeks of returning to work after giving birth. Women are not allowed on the premise if persons work with certain dangerous chemicals, and women are restricted in the work they may do in other trades, including working on the manufacture of sulfuric acid, application of rubber coatings, and pickling or galvanizing of iron.

Migrant workers experienced discrimination in employment and pay.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The labor code states the Ministry of Labor must set minimum wages in the public sector by decree. The government, the country’s largest employer, set wages after consultation, but not negotiation, with government employee trade unions. The minimum wages in the private sector are established based on sector-specific collective conventions resulting from negotiations between employers and workers’ representatives in each sector.

The minimum wage in the private sector varied by sector and type of work. The minimum wage in all sectors was below the World Bank standard for extreme poverty.

The minimum wage applies only to the formal sector, leaving most of the economy without a minimum wage. The law applies to foreign and migrant workers as well. Most labor was performed outside the wage and social security system in the extensive informal sector, especially by farmers in the large subsistence agricultural sector.

The law sets a standard workweek of 40 hours for government employees and most private-sector employees. Household employees may work up to 52 hours per week. The law also requires a minimum rest period of 48 hours per week for citizen, foreign, and migrant workers. Overtime policy varied according to the workplace. Violations of overtime policy may be referred to the Ministry of Labor, although it was unknown whether this occurred during the year. There is no legal prohibition on excessive or compulsory overtime. The labor code, however, states that employers must provide for the health and security of employees who are engaged in overtime work. Penalties were commensurate with other crimes.

There are general laws on health and safety standards in the workplace, but the Ministry of Labor did not precisely define them. The labor code states that a labor inspector may force an employer to correct unsafe or unhealthy work conditions.

If information exists concerning dangerous working conditions, the law provides that workers may remove themselves without jeopardy to their employment. In such instances the labor inspector notifies the employer and requires that conditions be addressed within four working days. The high unemployment and poverty rates deterred workers from exercising this right.

The government did not effectively enforce labor standards, and violations were common in all sectors of the economy. The Ministry of Labor has primary responsibility for managing labor standards, while enforcement falls under the Ministry of Interior and Public Safety and the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights. The government did not have an adequate number of labor inspectors to enforce compliance with all labor laws. Penalties were seldom enforced and were insufficient to deter violations. Violations for occupational safety and health (OSH) standards were commensurate with those for crimes such as negligence. Employers commonly violated labor standards in agriculture and mining.

Diamond mines, which employed an estimated 400,000 persons, were subject to standards imposed by the mining code and inspection by the Miners’ Brigade. Nevertheless, monitoring efforts were underfunded and insufficient. Despite the law requiring those working in mines to be at least 18, observers frequently saw underage diggers. Diggers often worked in open pits susceptible to collapse, working seven days a week during the peak season. Diggers were employed by larger mine operators, worked in dangerous conditions at the bottom of open pits, and lacked safety equipment.

Miners, by contrast, had a share in ownership and participated in the proceeds of diamond sales. Often miners supplemented these earnings with either illegal diamond sales or wages from other sectors of the economy.

The government does not release information on workplace injury and deaths or other OSH statistics, and officials failed to respond to International Labor Organization direct requests to provide this information.

Colombia

Executive Summary

Colombia is a constitutional, multiparty republic. Presidential and legislative elections were held in 2018. Voters elected Ivan Duque Marquez president in a second round of elections that observers considered free and fair and the most peaceful in decades.

The Colombian National Police force is responsible for internal law enforcement and is under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Defense. The Migration Directorate, part of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is the immigration authority. The Colombian National Police shares law enforcement investigatory duties with the Attorney General’s Corps of Technical Investigators. In addition to its responsibility to defend the country against external threats, the army shares limited responsibility for law enforcement and maintenance of order within the country. For example, military units sometimes provided logistical support and security for criminal investigators to collect evidence in high-conflict or remote areas. Civilian authorities generally maintained effective control over security forces. Members of the security forces committed some abuses.

Significant human rights issues included: reports of unlawful or arbitrary killings; reports of torture and arbitrary detention by government security forces and illegal armed groups; rape and abuse of women and children, as well as unlawful recruitment of child soldiers by illegal armed groups; criminalization of libel; widespread corruption; violence against and forced displacement of Afro-Colombian and indigenous persons; violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons; child labor; and killings and other violence against trade unionists.

The government took steps to investigate, prosecute, and punish officials who committed human rights abuses, although some cases continued to experience long delays.

Illegal armed groups, including dissidents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), National Liberation Army (ELN), and drug-trafficking gangs, continued to operate. Illegal armed groups, as well as narcotics traffickers, were significant perpetrators of human rights abuses and violent crimes and committed acts of extrajudicial and unlawful killings, extortion, and other abuses, such as kidnapping, torture, human trafficking, bombings, restriction on freedom of movement, sexual violence, recruitment and use of child soldiers, and threats of violence against journalists, women, and human rights defenders. The government investigated these actions and prosecuted those responsible to the extent possible.

Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings

There were reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. According to the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Center for Research and Education of the Populace (CINEP), from January 1 through August 19, there were 15 cases of “intentional deaths of civilians committed by state agents.”

For example, in June a group of army soldiers allegedly killed rural community leader Salvador Jaime Duran in the department of Norte de Santander. A local community association responded by detaining six army soldiers whom they identified as responsible for the killing, ultimately turning the soldiers over to the Attorney General’s Office. According to press reports, army officials said they were in the area conducting security and defense operations when they were attacked. The investigation into the killing continued as of the end of August.

On September 8, police officers allegedly killed civilian Javier Humberto Ordonez Bermudez in Bogota. According to press reports, Ordonez was drinking publicly in violation of COVID-19 restrictions and officers told him he would be fined for public intoxication. A video of the incident shows police officers using taser shocks and beating Ordonez to restrain him. Ordonez later died in the hospital, and an autopsy revealed the beating was the cause of death. President Duque, the minister of defense, and other government officials condemned the killing, and authorities arrested the two police officers allegedly responsible. The inspector general banned the two officers from public service for 20 years. The attorney general appointed a special human rights prosecutor to lead the investigation into the killing. Ordonez’ killing sparked widespread demonstrations.

Illegal armed groups, including the ELN, committed numerous unlawful or politically motivated killings, often in areas without a strong government presence (see section 1.g.).

Investigations of past killings proceeded, albeit slowly. From January 1 through August, the Attorney General’s Office registered 25 new cases of alleged aggravated homicide by state agents for killings that occurred between 2008 and August 2020. During the same period, authorities formally charged six members of the security forces with aggravated homicide or homicide of a civilian, with all six of those crimes occurring in previous years.

Efforts continued to hold officials accountable in “false positive” extrajudicial killings, in which thousands of civilians were killed and falsely presented as guerrilla combatants in the late 1990s to early 2000s. As of June the Attorney General’s Office reported the government had convicted 1,740 members of the security forces in 270 cases related to false positive cases since 2008.

The Attorney General’s Office reported there were open investigations of 14 retired and active-duty generals related to false positive killings as of August. The Attorney General’s Office also reported there were 2,286 open investigations related to false positive killings or other extrajudicial killings as of July 31.

In addition the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), the justice component of the Comprehensive System for Truth, Justice, Reparation, and Nonrepetition provided for in the 2016 peace accord with the FARC, continued to take effective steps to hold perpetrators of gross violations of human rights accountable in a manner consistent with international law. This included activities to advance Case 003, focused on extrajudicial killings or “false positives” committed by the First, Second, Fourth, and Seventh Army Divisions. As of August 31, the JEP reported it had received 250 “voluntary versions” in the case from alleged perpetrators recounting their versions of events that occurred during the conflict. Such testimony led investigators to uncover a mass grave of alleged false positive victims in the department of Antioquia. On July 25, retired army general William Henry Torres Escalante admitted his responsibility for false positives before the JEP and apologized to the families of the victims.

In 2019 there were allegations that military orders instructing army commanders to double the results of their missions against guerillas, criminal organizations, and illegal armed groups could heighten the risk of civilian casualties. An independent commission established by President Duque to review the facts regarding these alleged military orders submitted a preliminary report in July 2019 concluding that the orders did not permit, suggest, or result in abuses or criminal conduct, and that the armed forces’ operational rules and doctrine were aligned with human rights and international humanitarian law principles. As of September a final report had not been issued.

Human rights organizations, victims, and government investigators accused some members of government security forces of collaborating with or tolerating the activities of organized-crime gangs, which included some former paramilitary members. According to the Attorney General’s Office, between January and September, nine members of government security forces were formally accused of having ties with illegal armed groups.

According to a February 26 report from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), there were 108 verified killings of social leaders and human rights defenders in 2019. According to the Attorney General’s Office, in the cases of more than 400 killings of human rights defenders from January 2016 to August 2020, the government had obtained 60 convictions. According to the OHCHR, 75 percent of the 2019 social leader killings occurred in rural areas, and 98 percent occurred in areas where the ELN and other criminal groups were present. The motives for the killings varied, and it was often difficult to determine the primary or precise motive in individual cases. For example, on March 19, armed men reportedly kidnapped and killed crop substitution activist Marco Rivadeneira in Puerto Asis, Putumayo. On April 10, authorities arrested Abel Antonio Loaiza Quinonez, alias “Azul,” in Puerto Asis. According to officials in the Attorney General’s Office, Azul was a senior member of an illegal armed group linked to several killings in the region, possibly including the killing of Rivadeneira.

The Commission of the Timely Action Plan for Prevention and Protection for Human Rights Defenders, Social and Communal Leaders, and Journalists, created in 2018, strengthened efforts to investigate and prevent attacks against social leaders and human rights defenders. The Inspector General’s Office and the human rights ombudsman continued to raise awareness on the situation of human rights defenders through the public “Lead Life” campaign, in partnership with civil society, media, and international organizations. Additionally, there is an elite corps of the National Police, a specialized subdirectorate of the National Protection Unit (NPU), a special investigation unit of the Attorney General’s Office responsible for dismantling criminal organizations and enterprises, and a unified command post, which shared responsibility for protecting human rights defenders from attacks and investigating and prosecuting these cases.

By law the Attorney General’s Office is the primary entity responsible for investigating allegations of human rights abuses committed by security forces, with the exception of conflict-related crimes, which are within the jurisdiction of the JEP (see section 1.c. for additional information regarding investigations and impunity).

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities during the year. According to the National Institute of Forensic and Legal Medicine, from January 1 through June, a total of 2,052 cases of disappearances were registered, including 53 forced disappearances. The government did not provide information on the number of victims of disappearances who were located.

According to the Attorney General’s Office, as of October there were no convictions in connection with forced disappearances.

The Special Unit for the Search for Disappeared Persons, launched in 2018, continued to investigate disappearances that occurred during the conflict.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

Although the law prohibits such practices, there were reports government officials employed them. CINEP reported that through August, security forces were allegedly involved in six cases of torture, including nine victims. Members of the military and police accused of torture generally were tried in civilian rather than military courts.

The Attorney General’s Office reported it convicted 18 members of the military or police force of torture between January and July 31, all for crimes occurring in previous years. In addition the Attorney General’s Office reported 50 continuing investigations into alleged acts of torture committed by the police or armed forces through July. All but one of the investigations were linked to alleged crimes committed in previous years.

CINEP reported organized-crime gangs and illegal armed groups were responsible for six documented cases of torture through August.

According to NGOs monitoring prison conditions, there were numerous allegations of sexual and physical violence committed by guards and other inmates. In June seven members of the army were charged with raping a 12-year-old indigenous girl in the department of Risaralda. The Attorney General’s Office was investigating the incident and prosecuting the accused persons. According to one NGO, police officers allegedly sexually assaulted three women who were protesting police violence in September.

The Attorney General’s Office is the primary entity responsible for investigating allegations of human rights abuses committed by security forces, with the exception of conflict-related crimes, which are within the jurisdiction of the JEP. The JEP continued investigations in its seven prioritized macro cases with the objective of identifying patterns and establishing links between perpetrators, with the ultimate goal of identifying those most criminally responsible for the most serious abuses during the conflict.

Some NGOs complained that military investigators, not members of the Attorney General’s Office, were sometimes the first responders in cases of deaths resulting from actions of security forces and might make decisions about possible illegal actions. The government made improvements in investigating and trying cases of abuses, but claims of impunity for security force members continued. This was due in some cases to obstruction of justice and opacity in the process by which cases were investigated and prosecuted in the military justice system. Inadequate protection of witnesses and investigators, delay tactics by defense attorneys, the judiciary’s failure to exert appropriate controls over dockets and case progress, and inadequate coordination among government entities that sometimes allowed statutes of limitations to expire–resulting in a defendant’s release from jail before trial–were also significant obstacles.

The military justice system functioned under both the old inquisitorial and a newer accusatory justice system, which was not yet fully implemented. Transition to the new system continued slowly, and the military had not yet developed an interinstitutional strategy for recruiting, hiring, or training investigators, crime scene technicians, or forensic specialists, which is required under the accusatory system. As such, the military justice system did not exercise criminal investigative authority; all new criminal investigation duties were conducted by judicial police investigators from the CNP and the Attorney General’s Corps of Technical Investigators.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

With the exception of some new facilities, prisons and detention centers were harsh and life threatening due to overcrowding, inadequate sanitary conditions, poor health care, and lack of other basic services. Poor training of officials remained a problem throughout the prison system.

Physical Conditions: Overcrowding existed in men’s and in women’s prisons. The National Prison Institute (INPEC), which operated the national prisons and oversaw the jails, estimated there were 106,700 persons incarcerated in 132 prisons at a rate of approximately 29 percent over capacity. The government made efforts to decrease the prison population in the context of COVID-19. In March the government issued a decree suspending new prisoner admissions during the pandemic, and there was an overall slowdown in judicial proceedings during the COVID-19 pandemic. On April 14, the government issued a decree allowing for the compassionate release of prisoners who were 60 years or older, pregnant women, mothers of children younger than age three, persons with disabilities or chronic serious illnesses, those sentenced to five years or less, and offenders with 40 percent of their sentence complete.

The law prohibits holding pretrial detainees with convicted prisoners, although this frequently occurred. Juvenile detainees were held in separate juvenile detention centers. The Superior Judiciary Council stated the maximum time that a person may remain in judicial detention facilities is three days. The same rules apply to jails located inside police stations. These regulations were often violated.

The practice of preventive detention, in combination with inefficiencies in the judicial system, continued to result in overcrowding. The government continued to implement procedures introduced in 2016 that provide for the immediate release of some pretrial detainees, including many accused of serious crimes such as aggravated robbery and sexual assault.

On March 21, 24 prisoners died during a failed escape attempt at La Modelo Prison in Bogota. The attempted escape took place during coordinated riots with 19 other prisons that occurred in apparent response to the health and sanitation conditions exacerbated by the COVID-19 lockdown and suspension of prison visits. A November Human Rights Watch report alleged the deaths were consistent with intentional homicide. The attorney general and inspector general launched investigations into the prison authority’s use of force during the attempted escape and overall handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Physical abuse by prison guards, prisoner-on-prisoner violence, and authorities’ failure to maintain control were problems. INPEC’s office of disciplinary control continued to investigate allegations that some prison guards routinely used excessive force and treated inmates brutally. As of July 29, INPEC reported disciplinary investigations against 135 prison guards for such actions as physical abuse and inhuman treatment.

INPEC reported 392 deaths in prisons, jails, pretrial detention, or other detention centers through July 29, including 37 attributed to internal fights.

Many prisoners continued to face difficulties receiving adequate medical care. Nutrition and water quality were deficient and contributed to the overall poor health of many inmates. Inmates stated authorities routinely rationed water in many facilities, which officials attributed to city water shortages.

INPEC’s physical structures were generally in poor repair. The Inspector General’s Office noted some facilities had poor ventilation and overtaxed sanitary systems. Prisoners in some high-altitude facilities complained of inadequate blankets and clothing, while prisoners in tropical facilities complained that overcrowding and insufficient ventilation contributed to high temperatures in prison cells. Some prisoners slept on floors without mattresses, while others shared cots in overcrowded cells.

Administration: Authorities investigated credible prisoner complaints of mistreatment and inhuman conditions, including complaints of prison guards soliciting bribes from inmates, but some prisoners asserted the investigations were slow.

Independent Monitoring: The government permitted independent monitoring of prison conditions by local and international human rights groups. INPEC required a three-day notice before granting consular access. Some NGOs complained that authorities, without adequate explanation, denied them access to visit prisoners. In March the government suspended prison visits to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention and provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court. There were allegations, however, that authorities detained citizens arbitrarily. CINEP reported 31 cases of arbitrary detention committed by state security forces through August 19.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

Authorities must bring detained persons before a judge within 36 hours to determine the validity of the detention, bring formal charges within 30 days, and start a trial within 90 days of the initial detention. Public defenders contracted by the Office of the Ombudsman assisted indigent defendants but were overloaded with cases. Detainees received prompt access to legal counsel and family members as provided for by law. Bail was generally available except for serious crimes such as murder, rebellion, or narcotics trafficking. Authorities generally respected these rights.

Arbitrary Arrest: The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention; however, this requirement was not always respected. NGOs characterized some arrests as arbitrary detention, including arrests allegedly based on tips from informants about persons linked to guerrilla activities, detentions by members of the security forces without a judicial order, detentions based on administrative authority, detentions during military operations or at roadblocks, large-scale detentions, and detentions of persons while they were “exercising their fundamental rights.” For example, NGOs alleged that on May 20, members of the army’s Seventh Division arbitrarily detained and searched crop substitution leader Ariolfo Sanchez Ruiz along with a group of rural farmers in the department of Antioquia. According to media reports, army soldiers killed Sanchez. Army officials stated that soldiers were in the area to eradicate illicit crops and that the killing was under investigation.

Pretrial Detention: The judicial process moved slowly, and the civilian judicial system suffered from a significant backlog of cases, which led to large numbers of pretrial detainees. Of the 106,700 prison detainees, 29,450 were in pretrial detention. The failure of many jail supervisors to keep mandatory detention records or follow notification procedures made accounting for all detainees difficult. In some cases detainees were released without a trial because they had already served more than one-third of the maximum sentence for their charges.

Civil society groups complained that authorities subjected some community leaders to extended pretrial detention.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The law provides for an independent judiciary, and the government generally respected judicial independence and impartiality. Much of the judicial system was overburdened and inefficient, and subornation, corruption, and intimidation of judges, prosecutors, and witnesses hindered judicial functioning.

Trial Procedures

The law provides for the right to a fair and public trial, and an independent judiciary generally enforced this right. While the government began implementing an accusatory system of justice in 2005, the use of delay tactics by defense lawyers to slow or impede proceedings, prosecutors’ heavy caseloads, and other factors, diminished the anticipated increased efficiencies and other benefits of adopting the adversarial model. Under the criminal procedure code, the prosecutor presents an accusation and evidence before an impartial judge at an oral, public trial. Defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt and have the right to confront the trial evidence and witnesses against them, present their own evidence, and communicate with an attorney of their choice or have one provided at public expense. Defendants had adequate time and facilities to prepare their defense. Defendants are not compelled to testify or confess guilt and have the right to appeal their proceedings. Although defendants have the right to an interpreter, the court system lacked interpreters for less commonly encountered languages. Crimes committed before 2005 are processed under the prior written inquisitorial system in which the prosecutor investigates, determines evidence, and makes a finding of guilt or innocence. In those cases, the trial consists of the presentation of evidence and finding of guilt or innocence to a judge for ratification or rejection.

In the military justice system, military judges preside over courts-martial. Counsel may represent the accused and call witnesses, but most fact finding takes place during the investigative stage. Military trial judges are required to issue rulings within eight days of a court-martial hearing. Representatives of the civilian Inspector General’s Office are required to be present at a court-martial.

Criminal procedure within the military justice system includes elements of the inquisitorial and accusatory systems. The law provides for the right to a fair trial, and an independent judiciary generally enforced this right. Defendants are considered innocent until proven guilty and have the right to timely consultation with counsel.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

The government declared that it did not hold political prisoners; nevertheless, authorities held some members of human rights advocacy groups on charges of conspiracy, rebellion, or terrorism, which the groups described as government harassment against human rights advocates. According to INPEC, the government held 66 persons on charges of rebellion or of aiding and promoting insurgency. The government provided the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) regular access to these prisoners.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

Citizens may sue a government agent or entity in the Administrative Court of Litigation for damages resulting from a human rights violation. Although critics complained of delays in the process, the court generally was considered impartial and effective. Cases involving violations of an individual’s human rights may be submitted through petitions by individuals or organizations to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which in turn may submit the case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. The court may order civil remedies, including fair compensation to the individual injured.

Property Restitution

The 2011 Victims’ and Land Restitution Law (Victims’ Law) continued to provide a legal basis for assistance and reparations to victims of the conflict, including victims of government abuses, but the government acknowledged that the pace of restitution was slow. From January through August 31, the Inspector General’s Office, an independent and autonomous public institution, assisted in 171 cases related to land reclamation, i.e., requests for restitution.

The Land Restitution Unit, a semiautonomous entity in the Ministry of Agriculture, is responsible for returning land to displaced victims of conflict. The unit reported that as of July 31, it had received 571 requests for collective restitution of territories of ethnic communities.

f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

The law prohibits such actions, but there were allegations the government failed to respect these prohibitions. Government authorities generally need a judicial order to intercept mail or email or to monitor telephone conversations, including in prisons. Government intelligence agencies investigating terrorist organizations sometimes monitored telephone conversations without judicial authorization; the law bars evidence obtained in this manner from being used in court.

NGOs continued to accuse domestic intelligence or security entities of spying on lawyers and human rights defenders.

In May media reported that members of the intelligence community, including its cyber intelligence unit, had inappropriately developed dossiers on 130 politicians, judges, former members of the military, human rights defenders, and journalists. The government subsequently announced the dismissal of 11 army members for inappropriate surveillance of domestic and foreign citizens. The Attorney General’s Office reported that as of August 13, there were two criminal investigations underway in connection with the allegations. The Inspector General’s Office reported that as of August 31, there were 16 disciplinary investigations of state agents in connection with the allegations.

g. Abuses in Internal Conflict

The government and the FARC, formerly the country’s largest guerrilla insurgency group, continued to implement the 2016 peace accord. In 2017 the FARC completed its disarmament, and as of November 3, nearly 14,000 former members had begun reincorporation activities, including the formation of a political party. An estimated 800 to 1,500 FARC dissident members did not participate in the peace process from the outset. As of November FARC dissident numbers had grown to approximately 2,600 due to new recruitment and some former combatants who returned to arms. Some members of the FARC who did participate in the peace process alleged the government had not fully complied with its commitments, including ensuring the security of demobilized former combatants or facilitating their reintegration, while the government alleged the FARC had not met its full commitments to cooperate on counternarcotics efforts. In August 2019 a small group of FARC dissidents called for a return to armed conflict, alleging the government had not lived up to its obligations under the peace agreement. This did not result in a significant response from former FARC combatants who have been participating in the peace process. Following the signing of the 2016 peace accord, three transitional justice mechanisms were established and were operational throughout the year: the Commission for the Clarification of Truth, Coexistence, and Nonrepetition; the Special Unit for the Search for Disappeared Persons; and the JEP.

The ELN, a leftist guerilla force of approximately 2,500 armed members, continued to commit crimes and acts of terror throughout the country, including bombings, violence against civilian populations, and violent attacks against military and police facilities. Illegal armed groups and drug gangs, such as the Gulf Clan, also continued to operate. The Colombia-Europe-United States Coordination Group and other NGOs, considered some of these illegal armed groups to be composed of former paramilitary groups. The government acknowledged that some former paramilitary members were active in illegal armed groups but noted these groups lacked the national, unified command structure and explicit ideological agenda that defined past paramilitary groups, including the disbanded United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia.

Killings: The military was accused of some killings, some of which military officials stated were “military mistakes” (see section 1.a.). In other cases military officials stated they believed an individual was fighting on behalf of an illegal armed group, while community members stated the victim was not a combatant. On May 18, media reported members of the army’s Second Division killed Emerito Digno Buendia Martinez in Cucuta and injured three other rural farmers. According to a statement from the army, soldiers in the area engaged in illicit crop eradication efforts were fired upon first. Community leaders and NGOs disputed the army’s account and denounced the killing.

Armed groups, notably the ELN, FARC dissidents, and the Gulf Clan, committed unlawful killings, primarily in areas with illicit economic activities and without a strong government presence. Government officials assessed that most of the violence was related to narcotics trafficking enterprises.

Independent observers raised concerns that inadequate security guarantees facilitated the killing of former FARC militants. According to the UN Verification Mission, as of November 3, a total of 232 FARC former combatants had been killed since the signing of the 2016 peace accord. The Attorney General’s Office reported 22 cases with convictions, 15 in the trial stage, 17 under investigation, and 44 with pending arrest warrants. The United Nations also reported the government began to implement additional steps to strengthen security guarantees for former FARC combatants, including deploying additional judicial police officers and attorneys to prioritized departments, promoting initiatives for prevention of stigmatization against former combatants, and establishing a roadmap for the protection of political candidates, including the FARC political party.

Abductions: Organized-crime gangs, FARC dissidents, the ELN, and common criminals continued to kidnap persons. According to the Ministry of Defense, from January 1 to June 30, there were 13 kidnappings, five attributed to the ELN, and the remaining attributed to other organized armed groups. On August 12 in Pailitas, Cesar, the ELN allegedly kidnapped farmer Andres Jose Herrera Orozco.

Between January and June, the Ministry of Defense reported 15 hostages had been freed, one hostage died in captivity, and seven were released after pressure from the government.

The Special Unit for the Search for Disappeared Persons provided for in the peace accord is mandated to account for those who disappeared in the context of the armed conflict and, when possible, locate and return remains to families. According to the Observatory of Memory and Conflict, more than 80,000 persons were reported missing as a result of the armed conflict, including 1,214 military and police personnel who were kidnapped by the FARC and ELN.

Physical Abuse, Punishment, and Torture: From January through August, CINEP reported FARC dissidents and organized-crime gangs were responsible for nine documented cases of torture.

The ELN, FARC dissidents, and other groups continued to lay land mines. According to the Integral Action against Land Mines of the High Commissioner for Peace, there were 13 persons killed and 74 wounded as the result of improvised explosive devices and land mines between January 1 and September 1.

Child Soldiers: There were reports the ELN, FARC dissident groups, the Gulf Clan, and other illegal armed groups recruited persons younger than age 18. According to the Child and Family Welfare Department, 6,860 children separated from armed illegal groups between November 16, 1999, and July 31, 2020. The government concluded a program to counter recruitment of child soldiers that had reached 500 at-risk villages, an estimated 28,250 minors, and 15,000 families. It announced the next iteration of the child recruitment prevention program in July that expanded the definition of recruitment measures, including the use of children for illicit economies and sexual coercion. Government and NGO officials confirmed rates of child recruitment increased with the appearance of COVID-19 and related confinement measures.

Other Conflict-related Abuse: During the year reports of other human rights abuses occurred in the context of the conflict and narcotics trafficking. Drug traffickers and illegal armed groups continued to displace predominantly poor and rural populations (see section 2.e., Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons).

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The law provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected this right. Violence and harassment, as well as the criminalization of libel, inhibited freedom of the press, and the government frequently influenced the press, in part through its large advertising budgets. The independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views without restriction.

Violence and Harassment: According to the domestic NGO Foundation for Press Freedom (FLIP), through August 14, there were 98 threats against journalists, some involving more than one target, for a total of 126 journalists affected by threats. FLIP reported 304 incidents of violence or harassment, including 80 journalists who were physically assaulted. According to FLIP, one journalist, Jose Abelardo Liz, was killed in connection with his work. Liz, an indigenous radio journalist, worked for a radio station in Corinto, Cauca. FLIP also reported that between January and August, no journalists were illegally detained. The Attorney General’s Office reported that from January through August, they obtained seven convictions in cases of homicides of journalists.

As of July 31, the NPU provided protection services to 182 journalists. Some NGOs raised concerns about perceived shortcomings in the NPU, such as delays in granting protection and the appropriateness of measures for addressing specific threats.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: FLIP alleged some journalists practiced self-censorship due to fear of being sued under libel laws or of being physically attacked, mostly by nongovernment actors. FLIP asserted that the high degree of impunity for those who committed aggressions against journalists was also a factor. In May media reported that members of the intelligence community inappropriately followed, monitored, and profiled 52 journalists.

Libel/Slander Laws: By law slander and libel are crimes. The government did not use prosecution to prevent media outlets from criticizing government policies or public officials. Political candidates, businesspersons, and others, however, publicly threatened to sue journalists for expressing their opinions, alleging defamation or libel. FLIP reported that through August 22, there were 88 cases alleging libel or slander affecting 98 journalists.

Nongovernmental Impact: Members of illegal armed groups inhibited freedom of expression by intimidating, threatening, kidnapping, and killing journalists. National and international NGOs reported local media representatives regularly practiced self-censorship because of threats of violence from these groups. For example, media reported that eight journalists in the department of Magdalena received death threats from the ELN in August.

Internet Freedom

The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. Due to the general climate of impunity and violence in some areas, self-censorship occurred both online and offline, particularly within rural communities.

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The law provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

The law provides for the freedom of peaceful assembly, and the government generally respected this right. Some NGOs alleged that riot police (Esmad) used excessive force to break up demonstrations. The CNP reported that from January through August 5, a total of 28 Esmad members were under investigation in connection with 13 cases of excess use of force. The Inspector General’s Office separately reported 94 active disciplinary actions against Esmad during the year. In June a coalition of social organizations began a 16-day march from Popayan to Bogota to draw attention to the violence in rural territories. Participating organizations alleged harassment by police along the way.

On September 9-10, following the killing of Javier Humberto Ordonez Bermudez, there were violent protests in Bogota in response to the alleged excessive use of force by the police. According to media reports, protesters destroyed 50 neighborhood police outposts and at least 10 persons died during two nights of demonstrations. The Ministry of Defense reported that ELN and FARC dissidents infiltrated the protests and provoked violence.

In September, October, and November, labor federations, student groups, and human rights organizations staged a separate set of largely peaceful demonstrations throughout the country to protest a range of social and economic conditions and policies. According to police estimates, there were 142 centers of protest activity countrywide during the September protests, including caravans, marches, and rallies.

Freedom of Association

The law provides for the freedom of association, and the government generally respected this right. Freedom of association was limited, however, by threats and acts of violence committed by illegal armed groups against NGOs, indigenous groups, and labor unions.

Although the government does not prohibit membership in most political organizations, membership in organizations that engaged in rebellion against the government, espoused violence, or carried out acts of violence, such as FARC dissidents, the ELN, and other illegal armed groups, was against the law.

c. Freedom of Religion

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

d. Freedom of Movement

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation. The government generally respected these rights, although there were exceptions. Military operations and insecurity in certain rural areas restricted freedom of movement.

In-country Movement: The government required asylum seekers and individuals without regularized migration status to have a salvoconducto (safe passage document) to travel throughout the country. Illegal armed groups continued to establish checkpoints on rural roads and took advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to establish their own curfews and movement restrictions in an effort to expand their territorial control.

International and civil society organizations also reported that illegal armed groups confined rural communities through roadblocks, curfews, car bombs at egress routes, and improvised explosive devices in areas where illicit crop cultivation and narcotics trafficking persisted. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, by the end of September, 61,000 persons lived in communities that suffered from confinement, limiting their access to essential goods and services due to armed incidents and geographical factors.

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

There were approximately eight million internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the country, largely a result of the armed conflict and continuing violence in rural areas. Threats posed by illegal armed groups drove internal displacement in remote areas as well as urban settings. After the 2016 peace accord, FARC withdrawal resulted in a struggle for control by other illegal armed groups, causing violence and internal displacement. The government, international organizations, and civil society groups identified various factors causing displacement, including threats, extortion, and physical, psychological, and sexual violence by illegal armed groups against civilian populations, particularly women and girls. Other causes of displacement included competition and armed confrontation among and within illegal armed groups for resources and territorial control; confrontations between security forces, guerrillas, and organized-crime gangs; and forced recruitment of children or threats of forced recruitment. Drug trafficking, illegal mining, and large-scale commercial ventures in rural areas also contributed to displacement. Local institutions that lacked the capacity in many areas to protect the rights of, and provide public services to, IDPs and communities at risk of displacement were impacted by the COVID-19 national quarantine. Consequently, the government continued to struggle to provide adequate protection or humanitarian assistance to newly displaced populations.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported that approximately 37,760 persons were affected in 84 displacement events in 2019 and that 15,400 persons were affected in 52 displacement events between January and August 21. Departments with the highest rate of mass displacements included Antioquia, Cauca, Choco, Narino, and Norte de Santander.

The Victims’ Unit maintained the Single Victims Registry as mandated by law. Despite improvements in the government registration system, IDPs experienced delays in receiving responses to their displacement claims due to a large backlog of claims built up during several months, lack of the unit’s presence in rural areas, and other constraints. The closure of many government offices during the months-long national quarantine due to COVID-19 resulted in many IDPs being unable to file their displacement claims. Government policy provides for an appeals process in the case of refusals.

The ELN and other armed groups continued to use force, intimidation, and disinformation to discourage IDPs from registering with the government. International organizations and civil society expressed concern over urban displacement caused by violence stemming from territorial disputes between criminal gangs, some of which had links to larger criminal and narcotics trafficking groups.

The Victims’ Unit cited extortion, forced recruitment by illegal armed groups, killings, and physical and sexual violence as the primary causes of intraurban displacement. The UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that in some departments displacement disproportionately affected indigenous and Afro-Colombian groups.

As of June the government registered approximately 361,150 IDPs who identified as indigenous, and 1,114,350 who identified as Afro-Colombian. Indigenous persons constituted approximately 4.5 percent and Afro-Colombians approximately 14 percent of new IDPs registered by the government.

The NGO National Association of Displaced Afrodescendants (AFRODES) stated that threats and violence against Afro-Colombian leaders and communities continued to cause high levels of forced displacement, especially in the Pacific Coast region. AFRODES and other local NGOs expressed concern that large-scale economic projects, such as agriculture and mining, contributed to displacement in their communities.

By law 52 government agencies are responsible for assisting registered IDPs. In addition dozens of international organizations; international NGOs; domestic nonprofit groups; and multilateral organizations, including the International Organization for Migration, World Food Program, ICRC, UNHCR, and Colombian Red Cross, coordinated with the government to provide emergency relief and long-term assistance to displaced populations.

International organizations and NGOs remained concerned about the slow and insufficient institutional response to displacement. As a result, NGOs took responsibility for providing humanitarian assistance to recently displaced individuals. International organizations and civil society reported that a lack of local capacity to accept registrations in high-displacement areas often delayed assistance to persons displaced individually or in smaller groups. Humanitarian organizations attributed the delays to a variety of factors, including the lack of personnel, funding, declaration forms, and training. Insecurity in communities affected by the conflict and reduced mobility during the COVID-19 national quarantine, including areas in the departments of Antioquia, Cauca, Choco, Narino, and Norte de Santander, often delayed national and international aid organizations from reaching newly displaced populations.

Despite several government initiatives to enhance IDP access to services and awareness of their rights, municipalities in many parts of the country did not have the resources or capacity to respond to new displacements and provide humanitarian assistance to IDPs. Many IDPs continued to live in poverty in unhygienic conditions and with limited access to health care, education, shelter, and employment. During the COVID-19 pandemic, some humanitarian organizations increased health promotion education and the distribution of hygiene supplies.

The government estimated that 400,000 to 500,000 Colombians, many of whom had been displaced by the conflict in Colombia and registered as refugees in Venezuela, prior to the signing of the 2016 peace accord, had returned from Venezuela as of August.

f. Protection of Refugees

The government cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to internally displaced persons, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, or other persons of concern.

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. The government reported it had approved 339 requests for recognition of refugee status in 2019 and was processing a caseload of 17,000 requests it received in 2019 and 2020. Venezuelans represented approximately 95 percent of applications during the year. The government increased the validity period of a salvoconducto from three months to six months and removed the previous bar on employment for permit holders. The newly opened asylum office in Bogota cleared its case backlog dating back to 2017.

There was a steady migration flow from Venezuela until the closure of international borders in March, due to the COVID-19 national quarantine. Despite the closure of international borders, some humanitarian travel continued to be allowed. Since March an estimated 110,000 Venezuelans returned to their country. According to migration officials, as of August the country hosted more than 1.7 million Venezuelans, a net decrease from the beginning of the year. As Colombia’s economy began reopening after September 1, Venezuelans began entering Colombia again even though the official land border remained closed. While the government generally provided access to the asylum process for persons who requested international protection, many opted for alternative migration status. The government continued to grant Colombian citizenship to Venezuelan children born in Colombia on or after August 19, 2015, and by August approximately 46,000 children born to Venezuelan parents in Colombia had received citizenship.

Temporary Protection: The government also provided temporary residence permits (PEPs) to Venezuelans who met certain eligibility requirements. Approximately 690,000 Venezuelans who entered with passports legally were granted PEPs in the 2017-2019 period, according to migration officials. PEPs provide access to work, primary and secondary education, and the social insurance system, as well as the ability to open bank accounts. Migration officials announced an open renewal period for PEPs beginning in June; by August 18, nearly 200,000 Venezuelans had renewed their PEPs.

According to UNHCR, there were more than nine million persons of concern (including refugees, asylum seekers, IDPs, returned IDPs, returned refugees, stateless persons, and others of concern) residing in the country in 2018, compared with 7.7 million in 2017.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The law provides citizens the ability to choose their government through free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on nearly universal suffrage. Active-duty members of the armed forces and police may neither vote nor participate in the political process. Civilian public employees are eligible to vote, although they may participate in partisan politics only during the four months immediately preceding a national election.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: Legislative and presidential elections were held in March and May 2018, respectively. Because no presidential candidate won more than 50 percent of the vote in the election, as required for a victory in the first round, in June a second election was held, in which voters elected Ivan Duque Marquez president. Observers considered the elections free and fair and the most peaceful in decades. There were no reports of election-related violence during the June 2018 presidential runoff, in which the candidate of the Democratic Center party, Ivan Duque Marquez, defeated the candidate of Humane Colombia, Gustavo Francisco Petro Urrego. The then minister of defense, Luis Carlos Villegas Echeverri, described it as the most peaceful election in decades. The leading domestic elections NGO, Electoral Observation Mission, deployed 3,524 nonpartisan volunteers to monitor the elections. International observers included an electoral observation mission of the Organization of American States. The first local and regional elections since the signing of the 2016 peace accord took place in October 2019 and were largely peaceful and the most inclusive in the country’s history. Observers reported some indications of electoral fraud, including vote buying.

Political Parties and Political Participation: Organized-crime gangs, FARC dissidents, and the ELN threatened and killed government officials (see section 1.g.). As of June 31, the NPU, under the Ministry of Interior, was providing protection to 421 mayors, 20 governors, and 787 other persons, including members of departmental assemblies, council members, judges, municipal human rights officers, and other officials related to national human rights policies. By decree the CNP’s protection program and the NPU assume shared responsibility for protecting municipal and district mayors.

As part of the 2016 peace accord, the FARC registered a political party in 2017 under the name People’s Alternative Revolutionary Force, maintaining the same acronym. The accord guaranteed the FARC political party 10 seats in Congress–five each in the Senate and in the House of Representatives–in the 2018 and 2022 elections.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit the participation of women or members of minority groups in the political process, and they did participate.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for official corruption, and the government generally implemented these laws effectively, although officials sometimes engaged in corrupt practices without punishment. Revenues from transnational organized crime, including drug trafficking, exacerbated corruption.

Corruption: Through September the Attorney General’s Office registered 30,724 allegations related to corruption and registered 4,070 formal corruption charges. In April the comptroller general, the attorney general, and the inspector general established a unit to monitor funds allocated as part of the COVID-19 response, following allegations of corruption. The Attorney General’s Office announced investigations into more than 40 public officials, including the minister of agriculture, governors, and mayors, for corruption related to the administration of contracts for COVID-19 emergency support.

Financial Disclosure: By law public officials must file annual financial disclosure forms with the tax authority. The information is not made public. The law states that persons who intend to hold public office or work as contractors for the government for more than three months shall submit a statement of assets and income as well as information on their private economic activity. The human resources chief in each entity is responsible for verifying the information submitted. Congress maintained a website on which members could voluntarily post their financial information.

Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights

A wide variety of domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials were typically cooperative and willing to listen to local human rights groups’ concerns.

Several NGOs reported receiving threats in the form of email, mail, telephone calls, false obituaries, and objects related to death, such as coffins and funeral bouquets. The government condemned the threats and called on the Attorney General’s Office to investigate them. Some activists claimed the government did not take the threats seriously.

The government announced advances in the investigations into attacks and killings of human rights defenders and assigned priority resources to these cases.

Through July the Attorney General’s Office reported 471 active investigations into threats against human rights defenders. There were three convictions in cases of threats against human rights defenders during the year.

As of July the NPU’s protection program provided protection to more than 7,000 individuals. Among the NPU’s protected persons were 5,144 human rights activists.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The ombudsman is independent, submits an annual report to the House of Representatives, and has responsibility for providing for the promotion and exercise of human rights. According to human rights groups, underfunding of the Ombudsman’s Office limited its ability to monitor violations effectively. The ombudsman, as well as members of his regional offices, reported threats from illegal armed groups issued through pamphlets, email, and violent actions.

The National System for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law–led by a commission of 18 senior government officials, including the vice president–designs, implements, and evaluates the government’s policies on human rights and international humanitarian law. The Office of the Presidential Advisor for Human Rights coordinates national human rights policy and actions taken by government entities to promote or protect human rights.

Both the Senate and House of Representatives have human rights committees that served as forums for discussion of human rights problems.

Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: Although prohibited by law, rape of men or women, including spousal rape, remained a serious problem. The law provides for sentences ranging from eight to 30 years’ imprisonment for violent sexual assault. For acts of spousal sexual violence, the law mandates prison sentences of six months to two years. By law femicide is punishable with penalties of 21 to 50 years in prison, longer than the minimum sentence of 13 years for homicide.

Violence against women, as well as impunity for perpetrators, continued to be a problem. Members of illegal armed groups continued to rape and abuse women and children sexually. Family-violence hotlines reported a 160 percent increase in calls during the COVID-19 national quarantine.

The government continued to employ the Elite Sexual Assault Investigative Unit interagency unit in Bogota, which was dedicated to the investigation of sexual assault cases. From January through July, the Attorney General’s Office opened 58,000 investigations into domestic violence, with women identified as the victim in 39,000 of those investigations.

The law requires the government to provide victims of domestic violence immediate protection from further physical or psychological abuse.

The Ministry of Defense continued implementing its protocol for managing cases of sexual violence and harassment involving members of the military. The district secretary of women in Bogota and the Ombudsman’s Office offered free legal aid for victims of gender violence and organized courses to teach officials how to treat survivors of gender violence respectfully.

The law augments both imprisonment and fines if a crime causes “transitory or permanent physical disfigurement,” such as acid attacks, which have a penalty of up to 50 years in prison.

Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): The law prohibits FGM/C, but isolated incidents were reported in several indigenous communities in different parts of the country. Two-thirds of women from the Embera community had undergone FGM/C, according to the UN Population Fund.

Sexual Harassment: The law provides measures to deter and punish harassment in the workplace, such as sexual harassment, verbal abuse or derision, aggression, and discrimination, which carries a penalty of one to three years’ imprisonment. Nonetheless, NGOs reported sexual harassment remained a pervasive and underreported problem in workplaces and in public.

Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children and had access to the information and means to do so, free from discrimination, coercion, and violence. Contraception was widely available. The government provided access to sexual and reproductive services for survivors of sexual violence, including survivors of conflict-related sexual violence.

The law criminalizes abortion except in cases of rape, danger to the life of the mother, or serious health problems of the fetus.

Coercion in Population Control: Coerced abortion is not permitted under the law, and there were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities. The law, however, allows the involuntary surgical sterilization of children with cognitive and psychosocial disabilities in certain cases.

Through August 31, the Attorney General’s Office reported opening five investigations related to cases of forced abortion.

Discrimination: Although women have the same legal rights as men, discrimination against women persisted. The Office of the Advisor for the Equality of Women has primary responsibility for combating discrimination against women, but advocacy groups reported that the office remained seriously underfunded. The government continued its national public policy for gender equity.

Children

Birth Registration: Citizenship is derived by birth within the country’s territory in most cases. Most births were registered immediately. If a birth is not registered within one month, parents may be fined and denied public services.

Child Abuse: Child abuse was a serious problem. The Attorney General’s Office reported almost 7,850 criminal prosecutions for sexual crimes against minors through August. The Colombian Family Welfare Institute (ICBF) reported that between January and June 30, there were approximately 4,730 cases of child abuse in addition to 5,250 cases of sexual abuse of a minor. The ICBF provided psychosocial, legal, and medical care to victims.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: Marriage is legal at the age of 18. Boys older than 14 and girls older than 12 may marry with the consent of their parents. According to UNICEF, 5 percent of girls were married before age 15 and 23 percent before age 18.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: Sexual exploitation of children remained a problem. The law prohibits sexual exploitation of a minor or facilitating the sexual exploitation of a minor and stipulates a penalty of 14 to 25 years in prison, with aggravated penalties for perpetrators who are family members of the victim and for cases of sexual tourism, forced marriage, or sexual exploitation by illegal armed groups. The law prohibits pornography using children younger than 18 and stipulates a penalty of 10 to 20 years in prison and a fine for violations. The minimum age for consensual sex is 14. The penalty for sexual activity with a child younger than 14 ranges from nine to 13 years in prison. The government generally enforced the law.

On May 27, police dismantled a child sexual-trafficking ring in the department of Meta. Police raided a residential building after neighbors reported suspicious activity. When police officers entered, they found five rooms where “webcam modeling” was taking place–minors performing sex acts for a live virtual audience for a fee. Police captured the webcam business owner and her recruiter. As of September they were facing charges of pornography with an underage person, forced prostitution, and facilitation to offer sexual activities with persons younger than 18. According to media reports, the economic fallout from COVID-19 pandemic resulted in an increase in “webcam modeling.”

Displaced Children: The NGO Consultancy for Human Rights and Displacement estimated in 2016 that 31 percent of persons registered as displaced since 1985 were minors at the time they were displaced (see also section 2.e.).

International Child Abductions: The country is a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.

Anti-Semitism

The Jewish community, which had an estimated 5,000 members, continued to report instances of anti-Israeli rhetoric connected to events in the Middle East, accompanied by anti-Semitic graffiti near synagogues, as well as demonstrations in front of the Israeli embassy that were sometimes accompanied by anti-Semitic comments on social media. In particular the Colombian Confederation of Jewish Communities expressed concern over the presence of BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) Colombia, which promotes the boycott of Israeli products and travel and does not actively counter the conflation of anti-Israeli policies with anti-Semitic rhetoric.

Trafficking in Persons

See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

Persons with Disabilities

The law punishes those who arbitrarily restrict the full exercise of the rights of persons with disabilities or harass persons with disabilities, but enforcement was rare. The law prohibits discrimination against persons with physical and mental disabilities but does not explicitly prohibit discrimination against persons with sensory or intellectual disabilities. No law mandates access to information and telecommunications for persons with disabilities. Law 1996, adopted in 2019, recognizes that persons with disabilities older than 18 have full legal capacity.

The Office of the Presidential Advisor for Human Rights under the high counselor for postconflict, public security, and human rights, along with the Human Rights Directorate at the Ministry of Interior, is responsible for protecting the rights of persons with disabilities. According to Somos Defensores and other NGOs, the law was seldom enforced.

Although children with disabilities attended school at all levels, advocates noted the vast majority of teachers and schools were neither trained nor equipped to educate children with disabilities successfully. Advocacy groups also stated children with disabilities entered the education system later than children without disabilities and dropped out at higher rates. Persons with disabilities were unemployed at a much higher rate than the general population.

In 2013 the State Council ordered all public offices to make facilities accessible to persons with disabilities and asked public officials to include requirements for accessibility when granting licenses for construction and occupancy. The State Council also asked every municipality to enforce rules that would make all public offices accessible to persons with disabilities “in a short amount of time.” It was not clear if much progress had been made at the municipal level, but several government ministries reported progress, such as adding ramps, designating parking spaces, and improving bathroom access.

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

According to the 2018 national census, approximately 9.3 percent of the country’s population described themselves as being of African descent. A 2011 UN report estimated Afro-Colombians made up 15 to 20 percent of the population, while human rights groups and Afro-Colombian organizations estimated the proportion to be 20 to 25 percent.

Afro-Colombians are entitled to all constitutional rights and protections, but they faced significant economic and social discrimination. According to a 2016 UN report, 32 percent of the country’s population lived below the poverty line, but in Choco, the department with the highest percentage of Afro-Colombian residents, 79 percent of residents lived below the poverty line. NGOs and the OHCHR reported that Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities continued to be disproportionately affected by illicit economic activities in rural territories that lacked sufficient state presence.

The government continued a policy to promote equal opportunity for black, Afro-Colombian, Palenquera, and Raizal populations. (Palenquera populations inhabit some parts of the Caribbean coast, Raizal populations live in the San Andres Archipelago, and Blacks and Afro-Colombians are Colombians of African descent who self-identify slightly differently based on their unique linguistic and cultural heritages.) The Ministry of Interior provided technical advice and funding for social projects presented by Afro-Colombian communities.

The National Autonomous Congress of Afro-Colombian Community Councils and Ethnic Organizations for Blacks, Afro-Colombians, Raizals, and Palenqueras, consisting of 108 representatives, met with government representatives on problems that affected their communities.

Indigenous People

The law gives special recognition to the fundamental rights of indigenous persons, who make up approximately 4.4 percent of the population, and require the government to consult beforehand with indigenous groups regarding governmental actions that could affect them.

The law accords indigenous groups perpetual rights to their ancestral lands, but indigenous groups, neighboring landowners, and the government often disputed the demarcation of those lands. Traditional indigenous groups operated 842 reservations, accounting for approximately 28 percent of the country’s territory. Illegal armed groups often violently contested indigenous land ownership and recruited indigenous children to join their ranks.

The law provides for special criminal and civil jurisdictions within indigenous territories based on traditional community laws. Legal proceedings in these jurisdictions were subject to manipulation and often rendered punishments more lenient than those imposed by civilian state courts.

Some indigenous groups continued to assert they were not able to participate adequately in decisions affecting their lands. The constitution provides for a “prior consultation” mechanism for indigenous communities, but it does not require the government to obtain the consent of those communities in all cases. In October indigenous communities convened in several cities to hold a protest known as a minga to draw attention to violence in rural territories and to press for increased government attention to the 2016 peace accord implementation.

The government stated that for security reasons, it could not provide advance notice of most military operations, especially when in pursuit of enemy combatants, and added that it consulted with indigenous leaders when possible before entering land held by their communities.

Despite special legal protections and government assistance programs, indigenous persons continued to suffer discrimination and often lived on the margins of society. They belonged to the country’s poorest population and had the highest age-specific mortality rates.

Killings of members and leaders of indigenous groups remained a problem. According to the NGO National Indigenous Organization of Colombia, since the signing of the peace accord, 274 indigenous persons had been killed. The OHCHR’s February report noted particular concern for the safety of indigenous communities, particularly in the department of Cauca, where the OHCHR registered the killing of 66 members of the indigenous Nasa people. In July soldiers from the army’s Second Division allegedly killed indigenous leader Joel Aguablanca Villamizar during a military operation targeting the ELN.

Despite precautionary measures ordered by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, ethnic Wayuu children continued to die of malnutrition. According to a 2015 government survey, 77 percent of indigenous households in the department of La Guajira, where the largest number of Wayuu lived, were food insecure. An August Human Rights Watch report stated that the travel restrictions associated with the government’s COVID-19 national quarantine severely limited the Wayuu’s access to food.

Acts of Violence, Criminalization, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

There were allegations of police violence based on sexual orientation. There were no reports of official discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment, housing, statelessness, or access to education; however, there were reports of discrimination with respect to access to health care. The government approved a national action plan to guarantee lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) rights for the 2019-2022 period. In August the constitutional court determined that medical insurance companies must bear the costs of gender affirmation and reassignment surgeries.

Despite government measures to increase the rights and protection of LGBTI persons, there were reports of societal abuse and discrimination as well as sexual assault. NGOs claimed transgender individuals, particularly transgender men, were often sexually assaulted in so-called corrective rape. In the first eight months of the year, the Ombudsman’s Office reported 388 cases of violence against LGBTI persons, up from up from 309 cases in the whole of 2019. The primary forms of abuse were physical, sexual, and psychological aggression, in addition to economic discrimination.

The Ombudsman’s Office reported the killings of 63 LGBTI persons from January to August and also cited 36 cases of aggression by police officers. The majority of the victims were transgender women. In July an unknown assailant shot and killed LGBTI leader Mateo Lopez Mejia in Circasia, Quindio, while he led a community event in a sports complex. As of August the Attorney General’s Office reported 29 open investigations into excessive use of force by military or police against LGBTI persons.

Transgender individuals cited barriers to public services when health-care providers or police officers refused to accept their government-issued identification. Some transgender individuals stated it was difficult to change their gender designation on national identity documents and that transgender individuals whose identity cards listed them as male were required to show proof they had performed mandatory military service or obtained the necessary waivers from that service. As part of COVID-19 national quarantine, some cities instituted movement restrictions based on gender. NGOs noted this resulted in discrimination against the transgender community and a loss of access to services.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

There were confirmed reports of societal violence or discrimination against persons with HIV/AIDS. On May 29, paramedics in Bogota allegedly refused to provide medical care upon learning the patient was HIV positive. The patient died 90 minutes after the paramedics left. Bogota city officials subsequently opened an investigation. In its most recent demographic and health survey (2015), the government reported the responses of 78 percent of those surveyed indicated discriminatory attitudes towards persons with HIV/AIDS, reflecting low levels of social acceptance throughout the country.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law provides for the right of workers to form and join unions, bargain collectively, and conduct legal strikes, and it prohibits antiunion discrimination. Members of associated workers’ cooperatives are not allowed to form unions, since the law recognizes members of a cooperative as owners. The law prohibits members of the armed forces and police from forming or joining unions. The law provides for automatic recognition of unions that obtain 25 signatures from potential members and that comply with a registration process. Public-sector employees have the right to bargain collectively. The government and employers generally respected freedom of association and collective bargaining in practice.

The law permits associated workers’ cooperatives (CTAs), collective pacts, and union contracts. Under collective pacts, employers may negotiate accords on pay and labor conditions with workers in workplaces where no union is present or where a union represents less than one-third of employees. Law and regulations prohibit the use of CTAs and collective pacts to undermine the right to organize and bargain collectively, including by extending better conditions to nonunion workers through such pacts. Through a union contract, a company may contract a union, at times formed explicitly for this purpose, for a specific job or work; the union then in essence serves as an employer for its members. Workers who belong to a union that has a union contract with a company do not have a direct employment relationship with either the company or the union. Labor disputes for workers under a union contract may be decided through an arbitration panel versus labor courts if both parties agree.

The law does not permit members of the armed forces, police, and persons performing “essential public services” to strike. Before conducting a strike, unions must follow prescribed legal procedures, including entering into a conversation period with the employer, presenting a list of demands, and gaining majority approval in the union for a strike. The law limits strikes to periods of contract negotiations or collective bargaining and allows employers to fire trade unionists who participate in strikes or work stoppages ruled illegal by the courts.

The government has the authority to fine labor rights violators. The law stipulates that offenders repeatedly misusing CTAs or other labor relationships shall receive the maximum penalty and may be subject to losing their legal status to operate. Employers who engage in antiunion practices may also be imprisoned for up to five years, although government officials acknowledged a fine was more likely than imprisonment. Prohibited practices include impeding workers’ right to strike, meet, or otherwise associate, and extending better conditions to members of collective pacts than to union members. The penalties under the law, which are commensurate with those prescribed for other violations regarding denials of civil rights such as discrimination, would be sufficient to deter violations but were not levied consistently.

Government enforcement of applicable laws was inconsistent. Despite steps by the Ministry of Labor to strengthen its labor law inspection system, the government did not establish a consistent national strategy to protect the rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining. The government did not have in place a system to ensure timely and regular collection of fines related to these protections. Structural challenges adversely affected prosecutions, which resulted in a continued high rate of impunity for violators of these rights, including in cases of threats and violence against unionists.

In March and April, the Ministry of Labor passed multiple resolutions requiring the Vice Ministry of Labor Relations and Inspections and other labor law enforcement agencies to comply with national mandates aiming to prevent the spread of COVID-19, as well as to ensure proper oversight of petitions stemming from the labor and employment impacts of the pandemic and national lockdown. These resolutions stipulated that the labor inspectorate suspend activities entailing physical contact with parties during the national health emergency, including field-based inspections and activities of the mobile inspection units as well as hearings related to the conciliation of labor conflicts, with exceptions as determined by regional- and national-level officials. The resolutions also suspended the labor inspectorate’s review and adjudication of labor complaints, including conducting investigations and adjudicating fines and appeals, for violations not directly related to the pandemic, including illegal labor intermediation (abusive subcontracting) and freedom of association violations.

Excepted from these measures were COVID-19-related priorities such as Ministry of Labor outreach on labor law compliance, including on occupational safety and health issues, as well as administrative actions related to petitions regarding layoffs and furloughs stemming from the pandemic and lockdown. The measures established that because furloughs and layoffs had a national economic and social impact, all petitions, including those filed with the ministry’s regional offices, were centralized and handled by the ministry’s Special Investigations Unit for rigorous oversight (see section 7.e.). This unit, which is part of the labor inspectorate, has the power to investigate and impose sanctions in any jurisdiction. Under normal circumstances, the vice minister of labor relations and inspections decides on a case-by-case basis whether to assign the unit or the regional inspectors to investigate a particular worksite or review a particular case. Prior to the onset of COVID-19, the unit was reportedly overburdened with cases, resulting in denials of union requests for review. In September the Ministry of Labor passed a resolution lifting the suspension of the review and adjudication of non-COVID-19-related labor cases.

As part of its commitments under the 2011 labor action plan, the government continued to take steps to protect internationally recognized labor rights. Inspections by the Ministry of Labor for abusive subcontracting in the five priority sectors of palm oil, sugar, ports, mines, and cut flowers were, however, infrequent, prior to the COVID-19-related suspension of inspections. Critics claimed inspections lacked necessary rigor, assessed fines were not collected, and abusive subcontracting continued. Prior to the onset of COVID-19, it was unclear whether there were any new fines assessed for abusive subcontracting or for abuse of freedom of association in any of the five priority sectors. The government continued to engage in regular meetings with unions and civil society groups on these and related issues.

The Ministry of Labor, in collaboration with the International Labor Organization (ILO), continued to train labor inspectors through a virtual training campus to prepare labor inspectors to identify abusive subcontracting and antiunion conduct, among other violations. It also implemented methods, including contract and process maps, as strategic planning tools to prioritize interventions. The ministry continued to employ a telephone- and internet-based complaint mechanism to report alleged labor violations. Union members complained that the systems did not allow citizens to register anonymous complaints and noted that complaints registered through the telephone and internet systems did not result in action.

The Ministry of Labor leads a tripartite Interinstitutional Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Human Rights of Workers, with participation by the government, organized labor groups, and the business community. As of August the commission met virtually two times during the year, once in Bogota and once in Pasto.

Judicial police, the Technical Investigation Body, and prosecutors investigating criminal cases of threats and killings are required to determine during the initial phase of an investigation whether a victim is an active or retired union member or is actively engaged in union formation and organization, but it was unclear whether they did so. It could take several months to transfer cases from regional field offices of the Attorney General’s Office to the Attorney General’s Human Rights Directorate, and cases are transferred only with the approval of the attorney general in response to direct requests, instead of automatically.

The government continued to include in its protection program labor activists engaged in efforts to form a union, as well as former unionists under threat because of their past activities. As of August the NPU was providing protection to 301 trade union leaders or members. Less than 1 percent of the NPU’s budget was dedicated to unionist protection as of August. Between January 1 and July 31, the NPU processed 193 risk assessments of union leaders or members; 150 of those individuals were assessed as facing an “extraordinary threat,” and the NPU provided them protection measures. The NPU reported that the average time needed to implement protection measures upon completion of a risk analysis was 60 days in regular cases or five days for emergency cases. NGOs complained that this length of time left threatened unionists in jeopardy.

The protection and relocation of teachers falls under the Ministry of National Education and the departmental education secretaries, but the NPU retains some responsibilities for the risk analysis and protection of family members. According to the Attorney General’s Office, through July 31, one unionized teacher was registered as a victim of homicide.

In cases of unionist killings from previous years, the pace of investigations and convictions remained slow, and high rates of impunity continued, although progress was made in the rate of case resolution. The Attorney General’s Office reported receiving 217 cases of homicides of unionists between January 2011 and July 2020. Whereas between January 2011 and August 2016, there were 20 sentences for homicides issued, between September 2016 and July 2020, an “elite group” working under a national strategy to prioritize cases of homicides against unionists reached 40 sentences. Labor groups stated more needed to be done to address impunity for perpetrators of violence against trade unionists and the large number of threat cases.

The Attorney General’s Office reported the killing of eight trade unionists through July. In 2019 the Attorney General’s Office reported 10 trade unionists killed, down from 24 in 2018. The National Union School (ENS), a labor rights NGO and think tank, reported 14 trade unionists were killed through August. The ENS and other labor groups stated that focusing on killings alone masked the true nature and scope of the violence against labor activists. Labor groups noted that in some regions, nonlethal violations continued to increase. Through August the ENS reported 38 death threats, nine nonlethal attacks, one case of forced disappearance, and seven cases of harassment.

Violence, threats, harassment, and other practices against trade unionists continued to affect the exercise of the right to freedom of association and collective bargaining.

Unions cited multiple instances in which companies fired employees who formed or sought to form new unions. Some employers continued to use temporary contracts, service agencies, and other forms of subcontracting, including cooperatives, to limit worker rights and protections. Fines assessed by the government did little to dissuade violators because fines were often not collected. The government continued to reach formalization agreements with firms engaged in abusive subcontracting or that had labor conflict during the year. In the first two months of the year, prior to the onset of COVID-19 and the related suspension of administrative actions by the Ministry of Labor, the Vice Ministry of Labor Relations and Inspections reported 62 workers benefited from six formalization agreements that the Ministry of Labor reached with employers in key sectors, including commerce, agriculture, health, and transport. During this time, however, there were no formalization agreements reached in any of the five priority sectors. Labor rights groups expressed concern that previously signed formalization agreements were not sufficiently monitored by the ministry.

Labor confederations and NGOs reported that business owners in several sectors used “simplified stock corporations” (SAS), union contracts, foundations, or temporary-service agencies in attempts to circumvent legal restrictions on cooperatives. While in theory SAS workers may exercise their right to organize and bargain collectively with SAS management, it appeared that in some cases the SAS had little or no control over the conditions of employment. The Ministry of Labor stated that a SAS, like any corporate structure, may be fined for labor violations. Labor confederations and NGOs reported these enforcement actions did not address the scope of abusive subcontracting and illegal labor intermediation in the country.

The port workers’ labor union reported Buenaventura port operators engaged in abusive subcontracting through SAS and that Ministry of Labor inspections and adjudication of cases at the Buenaventura port were ineffective in safeguarding the rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor. The government did not effectively enforce the law in all cases, and there were reports that such practices occurred. The law prescribes punishments sufficient to deter violations. The ILO noted the law permits military conscripts to be compelled to undertake work beyond that of a military nature, such as activities designed to protect the environment or natural resources.

There were reports ELN guerrillas and organized-crime gangs used forced labor, including forced child labor, in coca cultivation and illegal mining in areas outside government control as well as forced criminality, such as extortion, in urban areas. The ICBF indicated that between November 16, 1999, and July 31, 2019, the number of children and adolescents who had demobilized from illegal armed groups was 6,860, of whom 11 percent were indigenous and 8 percent Afro-Colombian.

Forced labor in other sectors, including organized panhandling, mining, agriculture (especially near the coffee belt), cattle herding, crop harvesting, forced recruitment by illegal armed actors, and domestic service, remained a serious problem. Afro-Colombians, indigenous persons, Venezuelan migrants, and inhabitants of marginalized urban areas were at the highest risk of forced labor, domestic servitude, forced begging, and forced recruitment. Authorities did not make efforts to investigate cases or increase inspections of forced labor, and officials did not have a protocol to connect labor inspectors with police or to provide guidance for front-line personnel on indicators of forced labor. This resulted in impunity for forced labor and unidentified victims without protection in critical sectors, such as floriculture, coffee production, and extractive industries.

Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The law sets the minimum age for employment at 15 and for hazardous work at 18. Children ages 15 and 16 years may work no more than 30 hours per week, and children age 17 may work no more than 40 hours per week. Children younger than 15 may work in arts, sports, or recreational or cultural activities for a maximum of 14 hours per week. In all these cases, working children and adolescents must have signed documentation filed by their parents and be approved by a labor inspector or other local authority.

The law prohibits child workers from working at night or where there is a risk of bodily harm or exposure to excessive heat, cold, or noise. The law authorizes inspectors to issue fines that would be sufficient to deter violations, but the government did not enforce the law effectively in all cases. A violation deemed to endanger a child’s life or threaten moral values may be punished by temporary or permanent closure of the establishment. Nationwide, labor inspectors are responsible for enforcing child labor laws and supervising the formal sector through periodic inspections. An estimated 80 percent of all child labor, however, occurred in the informal sector of the economy. The number of labor inspectors was insufficient to enforce the law effectively.

Government agencies carried out several activities to eradicate and prevent exploitative child labor. Prior to the COVID-19-related suspension of labor inspections in March, the Ministry of Labor conducted 215 worksite inspections to ensure that adolescent workers were employed with proper authorization and received proper protections. Through these inspections, 17 authorizations were revoked for noncompliance. With ILO assistance the government continued to improve cooperation among national, regional, and municipal governments on child labor problems. It also continued to employ a monitoring system to register working children, although the system was not always regularly updated. The government also sought to reduce demand for child labor through public awareness and training efforts, often working with international and civil society organizations.

The government, through the Ministry of Labor, followed the National Policy to Prevent and Eliminate Child Labor and Protect the Young Worker. It also continued its roundtable discussion group, which included government representatives, members of the three largest labor confederations, and civil society. The group concentrated its efforts on formalizing an integrated registration system for information on child labor that would permit public and private entities to register information about child workers.

The government, including through a cooperative agreement between the Ministry of Mines and Energy and the ICBF, continued to combat illegal mining and formalize artisanal mining production, with goals including the elimination of child labor and forced labor. Regional ICBF offices led efforts to combat child labor in mining at the local level, working with the Ministry of Labor and other government agencies to coordinate responses. The Department for Social Prosperity continued to implement the More Families in Action Program to combat poverty through conditional cash transfers, which included a specific focus on addressing child labor. In interagency child labor meetings, the Ministry of Labor reported that whichever government presence was available in the area–whether police, the ICBF, teachers, or the Administrative Department for Social Prosperity–attended to children found working in illegal mining operations. While all agencies had directives on how to handle and report child labor cases, it was unclear whether all cases were referred to the ICBF.

The ICBF continued to implement several initiatives aimed at preventing child labor, including producing an extensive section of its website designed specifically for young audiences to educate children on child labor, their rights, and how to report child labor. The Ministry of Labor continued its work with the Network against Child Labor in which the ministry operated alongside member businesses that pledged to work within the network to prevent and eradicate child labor.

Child labor remained a problem in the informal and illicit sectors. The National Administrative Department of Statistics (DANE) collected and published information on the economic activities of children between the ages of five and 17 through a module in its Comprehensive Household Economic Survey during the fourth quarter of each calendar year. According to DANE’s most recent survey, conducted in 2019, 5.4 percent of children were working, with 42 percent of those engaged in agriculture, livestock raising, fishing, and hunting, and 30 percent in commerce, hotels, and restaurant work. To a lesser extent, children were engaged in the manufacturing and transport sectors. Children also routinely performed domestic work, where they cared for children, prepared meals, tended gardens, and carried out shopping duties. DANE reported that 46 percent of children who were engaged in an employment relationship did not receive remuneration.

Significant rates of child labor occurred in the production of clay bricks, coal, coffee, emeralds, gold, grapes, coca, pome and stone fruits, pornography, and sugarcane. Forced child labor was prevalent in the production of coca. Children were also engaged in street vending, domestic work, begging, and garbage scavenging. There were reports that children engaged in child labor in agriculture, including coffee production and small family production centers in the unrefined brown sugar market. Commercial sexual exploitation of children occurred (see section 6, Children). Penalties for crimes related to the worst forms of child labor were commensurate with penalties in law for other analogous serious crimes, such as kidnapping.

Prohibitions against children working in mining and construction were reportedly largely ignored. Some educational institutions modify schedules during harvest seasons so that children may help on the family farm. Children worked in the artisanal mining of coal, clay, emeralds, and gold under dangerous conditions and in many instances with the approval or insistence of their parents. The government’s efforts to assist children working in illegal mining focused on the departments of Amazonas, Antioquia, Bolivar, Boyaca, Caldas, Cauca, Cesar, Choco, Cordoba, Cundinamarca, La Guajira, Narino, Norte de Santander, and Valle del Cauca.

There continued to be instances of child trafficking with the purpose of forced labor in informal mines and quarries, and in private homes. According to government officials and international organizations, illegal drug traders and other illicit actors recruited children, sometimes forcibly, to work in their illegal activities. The ELN and organized crime gangs forced children into sexual servitude or criminality to serve as combatants or to harvest coca (see section 1.g.). Children working in the informal sector, including as street vendors, were also vulnerable to forced labor. The ICBF identified children and adolescents who qualified for and received social services.

Also see the Department of Labor’s Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/resources/reports/child-labor/findings .

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The law prohibits discrimination with respect to employment or occupation based on race, ethnicity, sex, religion, political preference, national origin or citizenship, gender, disability, language, sexual orientation or gender identity, HIV-positive status or infection with other communicable diseases, or social status. Complaints of quid pro quo sexual harassment are filed not with the Ministry of Labor but with the criminal courts. There are legal restrictions against women being in employed in the construction section. The government did not effectively enforce the law in all cases. Penalties were not commensurate with laws related to civil rights, such as election interference.

Unemployment disproportionately affected women, who faced hiring discrimination and received salaries that generally were not commensurate with their education and experience. Media reported that on average women earned 12 percent less than men for the same work. In a previous year, a senior government official estimated that 85 percent of persons with disabilities were unemployed. Afro-Colombian labor unions reported discrimination in the port sector.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The legal minimum monthly wage is approximately twice the amount of the poverty line; however, almost one-half of the total workforce earned less than the minimum wage.

The law provides for a regular workweek of 48 hours and a minimum rest period of eight hours within the week. Exceptions to this may be granted by the Ministry of Labor and were frequently granted in the mining sector. The law stipulates that workers receive premium compensation for nighttime work, hours worked in excess of 48 per week, and work performed on Sundays. The law permits compulsory overtime only in exceptional cases where the work is considered essential for the company’s functioning.

The law provides for workers’ occupational safety and health (OSH) in the formal sector. The legal standards were generally up to date and appropriate for the main formal industries. The government did not effectively enforce OSH laws in all cases. The law does not cover informal-sector workers, including many mining and agricultural workers. In general the law protects workers’ rights to remove themselves from situations that endanger health or safety without jeopardy to their employment, although some violations of this right were reported during the year. In cases of formal grievances, authorities generally protected employees in this situation.

The Ministry of Labor is required to enforce labor laws in the formal sector, including OSH regulations, through periodic inspections by labor inspectors. Inspectors have the authority to perform unannounced inspections and may also initiate sanction procedures, including after opening investigations. The number of inspectors during the year was approximately the same as in 2019 and was insufficient to enforce the law effectively. The Ministry of Labor reported that as of January, 211 inspectors were in provisional status. Individual labor violations can result in penalties insufficient to deter violations. Unionists stated that more fines needed to be collected to impact occupational safety and health problems.

While the government’s labor inspectors undertook administrative actions to enforce the minimum wage in the formal sector, the government did not effectively enforce the law in the informal sector.

The government continued to promote formal employment generation. Eligibility to enroll and pay into the traditional social security system, which includes health and pension plans, is conditioned on earning the legal minimum monthly wage. In August the Ministry of Labor issued a decree implementing a National Development Plan, allowing those that earn less than the legal minimum monthly wage, often because of part-time, informal, or own-account work, to contribute to a new, parallel “social protection floor” system that includes a subsidized health plan and retirement savings plan. While employer abuse of this new system is prohibited, labor unions complained it opens the door for employers to move full-time workers into part-time positions to take advantage of the new system and announced they would legally challenge the measure.

DANE reported that in February, prior to the onset of COVID-19, 50.4 percent of workers employed in 13 principal cities and metropolitan areas were paying into the pension system. The proportion of informal workers in 23 cities and metropolitan areas surveyed was 47.9 percent, according to DANE. In February, DANE reported the national unemployment rate was 12.2 percent. The government continued to support complementary social security programs to increase the employability of extremely poor individuals, displaced persons, and the elderly. The economic impacts related to COVID-19 were significant. DANE reported that the national unemployment rate reached 19.8 percent in June, down from 21.4 percent in May, with the rate reaching 24.9 percent in the country’s 13 principal cities and metropolitan areas.

The Ministry of Labor reported being inundated with cases related to the labor and employment impacts of COVID-19. In May the ministry reported 3,271 requests from employers for permissions to lay off or furlough workers and 3,510 labor complaints related to such actions taken by employers. Labor unions, NGOs, and workers’ organizations alleged a range of labor abuses related to the fulfillment of labor contracts during the pandemic, including employers forcing workers to sign unpaid leaves of absence in lieu of authorized furloughs, dismissals without severance pay, salary reductions under threats of dismissal, and the imposition of part-time, temporary, or hourly work with negative consequences for workers’ entitlement to social security benefits. In April the Minister of Labor reported opening 2,413 investigations into these and other practices.

Nonunion workers, particularly those in the agricultural and port sectors, reportedly worked under hazardous conditions because they feared losing their jobs through subcontracting mechanisms or informal arrangements if they reported abuses. Some unionized workers who alleged they suffered on-the-job injuries complained that companies illegally fired them in retaliation for filing workers compensation claims. Only the courts may order reinstatement, and workers complained the courts were backlogged, slow, and corrupt. The Ministry of Labor may sanction a company found to have broken the law in this way, but it may offer no other guarantees to workers.

Security forces reported that illegal armed actors, including FARC dissidents, the ELN, and organized-crime groups, engaged in illegal mining of gold, coal, coltan, nickel, copper, and other minerals. Illegal mines were particularly common in the departments of Antioquia, Boyaca, Choco, Cundinamarca, and Valle del Cauca.

According to the National Mining Agency, through June 30, a total of 80 workers died as a result of accidents in the mines, the majority due to explosions, poisoned atmosphere, cave-ins, and floods. The National Mining Agency reported 82 workers killed in 2019.

Côte d’Ivoire

Executive Summary

Cote d’Ivoire is a democratic republic governed by a president re-elected in October under conditions generally considered free, although some international observers questioned the fairness of the overall electoral process. Ahead of the country’s October 31 presidential election, civil society and international human rights organizations alleged infringements on rights to assembly and expression and at least two reported instances of unregulated non-state-actor violence against protesters. Also prior to the election, opposition leaders challenged the legality of President Alassane Ouattara’s candidacy for a third term; however, the institution charged with validating candidate eligibility, the Constitutional Council, approved his candidacy on September 14. International election observers differed in their overall assessments of the election. Some found the process to be overall satisfactory while others concluded it did not allow for genuine competition. The Constitutional Council, which the constitution empowers to certify the results of elections, validated the incumbent president’s re-election on November 9. The country’s first ever senatorial elections in 2018 were peaceful.

The National Police, which reports to the Ministry of the Interior and Security, and the National Gendarmerie, which reports to the Ministry of Defense, are responsible for domestic law enforcement. The Coordination Center for Operational Decisions, a mixed unit of police, gendarmerie, and Armed Forces of Cote d’Ivoire personnel, assisted police in providing security in some large cities. The Armed Forces of Cote d’Ivoire, which report to the Ministry of Defense, are responsible for national defense. The Directorate of Territorial Surveillance, under the Ministry of Security and Civil Protection, is responsible for countering internal threats. Civilian authorities at times did not maintain effective control over the security forces. Members of the security forces committed some abuses.

Significant reported human rights issues included: forced temporary disappearance by the government; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest or detention by security forces; political prisoners or detainees; politically motivated reprisal against individuals located outside the country; serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; serious restrictions on free expression and the press; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and association; lack of investigation and accountability for violence against women and girls; and crimes involving violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons.

Military police and the military tribunal are responsible for investigating and prosecuting alleged abuses perpetrated by members of the security services. The government provided some information on steps that it took to prosecute officials in the security services, as well as elsewhere in the government, who were accused of abuses, but victims of reported abuses alleged their perpetrators were not disciplined.

Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings

There were no confirmed reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. Military police and the military tribunal are responsible for investigating and prosecuting alleged abuses, including killings, perpetrated by members of the security services.

b. Disappearance

There were at least two reports of disappearances carried out by or on behalf of government authorities at the end of 2019 and during the year. The alleged victims both emerged alive after their disappearances. Amnesty International and media reported that, on December 30, 2019, Rigobert Soro, a police officer and the brother of prominent opposition figure Guillaume Soro, was summoned to the National School of Police and arrested. Soro was reportedly held by the Directorate of Territorial Surveillance (DST) but, according to a January 10 Amnesty International report, authorities refused to acknowledge his detention. A February 26 letter from the Human Rights Council of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to the government noted that Rigobert Soro had been detained incommunicado by the DST from December 31 to January 10 before being transferred to the country’s main prison.

In January, according to media reports, security authorities allegedly detained Tano Koffi Bouaffo Fabrice, an opposition supporter, without explanation at his place of work and transported the alleged victim to an unknown location. Authorities released him more than a month after his detention and disappearance.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

The constitution and law prohibit such practices. The government did not provide information regarding reports of abuse within prisons, or mechanisms to prevent or punish such abuses. Human rights organizations reported that prisoners were subject to violence and abuse, including beatings and extortion, by prison officials and that the perpetrators of these acts went unpunished. Human rights organizations reported mistreatment of detainees between arrest and being booked into prison.

Prison authorities acknowledged abuse might happen and go unreported, since prisoners fear reprisals.

Impunity was not a significant problem in the security forces, although members of the security forces reportedly did commit isolated abuses without punishment. Failure to enforce disciplinary action contributed to impunity. The government used military police and the military tribunal to investigate abuses.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Prison conditions were harsh and unhealthy due to insufficient food, gross overcrowding, understaffing, inadequate sanitary conditions, and lack of proper medical care.

Physical Conditions: The government acknowledged prison overpopulation was a problem and that existing facilities, originally built to hold no more than 8,000 prisoners, were insufficient to hold the total prison population of 21,430 as of late August. In at least one prison, the inmates reportedly slept packed head-to-toe on the floor.

Prisons generally held men and women in separate prison wings. The government reported that juveniles were held separately from adults; however, a human rights organization reported that this policy was not always observed. The same organization reported the government was making efforts to open more juvenile-only detention centers. Additionally, prisons often held pretrial detainees together with convicted prisoners. The children of female inmates sometimes lived with their mothers in prison. Some human rights organizations reported that prominent prisoners or those who had been politically active sometimes enjoyed slightly better living conditions than other prisoners.

In addition to a daily budget allocation per inmate for food, the government reported it provided an additional allotment for personal hygiene supplies. Human rights organizations reported that wealthier prisoners could buy food and other amenities, as well as hire staff to wash and iron their clothes, while poorer inmates did not receive sufficient food on a regular basis. Families routinely supplemented the rations of relatives in prison if they had the means. Under certain circumstances the government allowed nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to provide prisoners with food and nonfood items, including items to prevent the spread of COVID-19, such as masks, isolation tents, and hygiene kits. The government permitted one NGO to construct a 48-patient capacity COVID-19 isolation and treatment center at the country’s main prison and outfit the center with ventilators, tents, toilets, showers, and personal protective equipment.

According to the government, each prison facility had a staffed medical clinic available 24 hours a day. Inmates were required to inform prison guards if they needed medical attention, and guards escorted prisoners to the prison clinic. Inmates with severe medical conditions were transferred to outside hospitals. Each prison clinic had a supply of pharmaceuticals, although human rights organizations reported that clinics often lacked necessary medicines, particularly for chronic diseases such as diabetes and hypertension. In these cases inmates’ families had to acquire the medication from an outside pharmacy. A human rights organization reported, however, that only the country’s main prison had a doctor, while medical care in smaller prisons was provided by nurses, some without the necessary qualifications. The organization further reported prisoners did not have access to these medical professionals at all times. Some human rights organizations reported that no medical staff worked in some prisons at night at all.

Prison health workers went on strike for three days in July to demand COVID-19 hazard pay and better health policies in the country’s prisons. As of July the prison health workers’ union reported that, in the country’s main prison, 91 detainees, 11 prison guards, and two health workers had contracted the virus. A prisoner infected with COVID-19 told media he and others infected were made to sleep in tents between the prison’s medical clinic and morgue. The prisoner stated that prison medical staff did not treat several infected prisoners.

Human rights organizations observed that prisoners sometimes slept without mattresses. Poor ventilation and high temperatures, exacerbated by overcrowding, remained problems in some prisons. While potable water generally was available in prisons and detention centers, water shortages were common.

Within detention facilities unsanitary conditions persisted, including detainees living in close proximity to toilets.

Information on conditions at detention centers operated by the DST was not readily available for the year.

Administration: Inmates may submit complaints of abuse to prison directors; however, the government did not provide information on such cases during the year. Domestic media reported alleged physical abuse and extortion of prisoners by prison officials (see section 2.a., Violence and Harassment). In May tensions between competing factions of prison guards and prisoners at the country’s main prison concerning the informal power wielded by a prison official accused of running a racketeering ring and physically abusing prisoners boiled over into violence. The minister of justice and human rights visited the prison and opened an investigation into the incident. While some media reported that security forces removed the prison official from the premises following the incident, no other information was available about any subsequent legal actions. Prison administrators continued to detain or release prisoners outside normal legal procedures. Authorities generally permitted visitors in prisons on visiting days. Human rights organizations observed that, in detention centers operated by the DST, requests for access to prisoners by their lawyers and families were typically not formally refused but instead made practicably impossible by bureaucratic requirements.

Independent Monitoring: The government generally permitted some local and international NGOs adequate access to prisons, but access to detention centers run by the DST was more restricted. Human rights organizations reported sometimes having access to prisons when they formally requested such access in advance.

Improvements: In April the government released 2,004 prisoners in an effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19. A human rights organization reported, however, that continued overcrowding prevented adequate physical distancing within prison facilities.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

The constitution and law prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention, but both reportedly occurred. Human rights organizations reported that authorities arbitrarily detained persons, often without charge. Many of these detainees remained in custody briefly at either police or gendarmerie stations before being released or transferred to prisons, but others were detained at these initial holding locations for lengthy periods. The limit of 48 hours’ detention without charge by police was sometimes not enforced. Although detainees have the right to challenge in court the lawfulness of their detention, most detainees were unaware of this right. Public defenders were often overwhelmed by their workloads.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

The government revised the law in 2019 to allow the state to detain a suspect for up to 48 hours without charge, subject to renewal only once for an additional 48 hours. The law specifies a maximum of 18 months of pretrial detention for misdemeanor charges and 24 months for felony charges, subject to judicial review every eight months.

Police occasionally arrested individuals and held them without charge beyond the legal limit. While the law provides for informing detainees promptly of the charges against them, human rights organizations reported that this did not always occur, especially in cases concerning state security or involving the DST. A bail system exists but was reportedly used solely at the discretion of the trial judge. Authorities generally allowed detainees access to lawyers, but in national security cases, authorities sometimes did not allow access to lawyers and family members. The government sometimes provided lawyers to those who could not afford them, but other suspects often had no lawyer unless privately retaining one. Public defenders occasionally refused to accept indigent client cases they were asked to take because they reportedly had difficulty being reimbursed by the government as prescribed by law. Human rights organizations reported multiple instances in which detainees were transferred to detention facilities outside their presiding judge’s jurisdiction, in violation of the law.

Arbitrary Arrest: The law does not permit arbitrary arrest, but authorities reportedly used the practice. One human rights organization documented several cases of detainees held for up to 12 days without charge and without access to hygiene supplies. Multiple media sources reported that in September, Justin Koua, the local spokesperson of an opposition political party, was arrested on his way to work. Koua was charged with disturbing the peace, inciting insurrection, and as an accessory to property destruction as a result of his calls for protests against President Ouattara’s candidacy for a third term. Koua’s lawyers told media his arrest violated the law because he was not first served with a summons to appear before authorities. During the week following his arrest, media reported Koua was transferred to four different detention facilities. Koua’s lawyers later told media they were not officially informed of any of these transfers and learned of the transfers from unofficial sources.

Pretrial Detention: According to officials, 6,586 inmates were in pretrial detention as of late August, slightly more than 30 percent of the total inmate population. Prolonged pretrial detention was a major problem. In some cases the length of detention equaled or exceeded the sentence for the alleged crime. Inadequate staffing in the judicial ministry, judicial inefficiency, and authorities’ lack of training or knowledge of legal updates contributed to lengthy pretrial detention. There were reports of pretrial detainees receiving convictions in absentia, with judicial authorities sometimes claiming the presence of the accused at their trial was not necessary, and at other times, not providing sufficient notice and time to arrange transportation to the trial.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The constitution and law provide for an independent judiciary, and although the judiciary generally was independent in ordinary criminal cases, the government often did not respect judicial independence. In January various professional associations and civil society organizations complained of continual interference by the executive branch in the judiciary and the government’s refusal to implement several court decisions.

Trial Procedures

The constitution and law provide for the right to a fair and public trial, but the judiciary sometimes did not enforce this right. Although the law provides for the presumption of innocence and the right to be informed promptly and in detail of the charges (with free interpretation as necessary from the moment charged through all appeals), the government did not always respect this requirement. In the past, assize courts (special courts convened as needed to try criminal cases involving felonies) rarely convened. During the year standing criminal tribunal courts established to replace the assize courts to address the backlog of cases began hearing cases.

Although the judicial system provides for court-appointed attorneys for those who cannot afford them, only limited free legal assistance was available; the government had a small legal defense fund to pay members of the bar who agreed to represent the indigent. Defendants have the right to adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense, although the government sometimes pursued rapid trials that did not respect such rights (see section 2.a, Libel/Slander Laws). Defendants may present their own witnesses and evidence and confront prosecution or plaintiff witnesses. Lack of a witness protection mechanism was a problem. Defendants cannot be legally compelled to testify or confess guilt, although there were reports they sometimes were. Defendants have the right to be present at their trials, but courts may try defendants in their absence.

Those convicted had access to appeals courts, but higher courts rarely overturned verdicts. In March parliament approved constitutional changes that abolished the Supreme Court and elevated three existing courts to serve as courts of last resort: the Cour de Cassation (Court of Appeals), Conseil d’Etat (Council of State), and Cour des Comptes (Court of Auditors). These courts have jurisdiction over different types of legal matters. The Cour de Cassation is the highest court of appeals for criminal and civil matters of law. The Conseil d’Etat is the highest court of appeals with respect to administrative disputes. The Cour des Comptes is the supreme auditing institution, tasked with overseeing matters related to public finances and accounts. In addition to these three courts, the Conseil Constitutionnel (Constitutional Council) determines the eligibility of legislative and presidential candidates, adjudicates electoral disputes, certifies election results, and renders judgment on the constitutionality of laws and treaties.

Military tribunals reportedly did not provide defendants the same rights as civilian criminal courts. Human rights organizations did not report any trials of civilians by military tribunals.

The relative scarcity of trained magistrates and lawyers resulted in limited access to effective judicial proceedings, particularly outside of major cities. The government reported 450 magistrates for an estimated population of 27.5 million. In rural areas traditional institutions often administered justice at the village level, handling domestic disputes and minor land questions in accordance with customary law. Dispute resolution was by extended debate. There were no reported instances of physical punishment following such customary procedures. The law specifically provides for a “grand mediator,” appointed by the president, to bridge traditional and modern methods of dispute resolution.

Human rights organizations and political parties asserted that the government used the judicial system to marginalize various opposition figures. In October 2019 authorities convicted Jacques Mangoua, an opposition-aligned elected official, of illegal possession of munitions after a one-day trial and sentenced him to five years in prison, several months of which he served before being released on bail in March pending his appeal. In April, Guillaume Soro, a prominent opposition figure and then aspiring presidential candidate living abroad in self-exile, was convicted in absentia of embezzlement and money laundering. Soro was also charged in absentia, in December 2019. Soro’s trial followed, by a week, an African Court of Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) in Tanzania ordered a stay of Soro’s arrest warrant on the grounds that it “could seriously compromise [his] freedom and political rights.” One week after the ACHPR’s decision, Ivoirian authorities then delivered a summons to Soro’s vacant residence, convened a one-day trial without legal representation for Soro, and convicted and sentenced Soro to a 20-year prison sentence and a substantial fine. (Note: In November, Soro called for security forces and the population to overthrow the Ivoirian government. End Note.).

Political Prisoners and Detainees

The government denied there were political prisoners, however multiple members of opposition parties were arrested at the end of 2019 and during the year on various criminal charges.

In December 2019 authorities arrested several supporters of Guillaume Soro, including five members of parliament, on charges of publishing false news and undermining public order and the authority of the state. In April the ACHPR in Tanzania ruled that the arrest warrant against those detained be stayed and that those detained be released, on the grounds that their incarceration “exposed them to a serious risk of being deprived of the enjoyment of their rights…and…may lead to irreparable harm.” In September, the government released some of those detained on several conditions, including that all abstain from contacting each other and engaging in cyber activism. Several others remained in detention.

Officials reportedly granted prisoners who were members of opposition parties the same protections as other prisoners, including access by international human rights organizations.

Politically Motivated Reprisal against Individuals Located Outside the Country

There were credible reports the country attempted to misuse international law enforcement tools for politically motivated purposes as a reprisal against specific individuals located outside the country. After Guillaume Soro on November 4 called for the armed forces to overthrow the government, the government charged some opposition leaders with sedition and terrorism and issued an international arrest warrant for Soro and three associates living in France (see section 1.e, Denial of Fair Public Trial and section 3, Recent Elections).

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

The constitution and law provide for an independent judiciary, but the judiciary was subject to corruption and outside influence. Citizens may bring lawsuits seeking damages for, or cessation of, a human rights abuse, but they did so infrequently. Individuals and organizations may appeal adverse domestic decisions to regional human rights bodies such as the ACHPR. In April, however, the government withdrew its recognition of the ACHPR’s jurisdiction in matters brought by Ivoirian nonstate actors, effective April 2021.

Property Restitution

In January the government evicted the residents of more than 600 households living illegally on state-owned land abutting Abidjan’s Felix Houphouet-Boigny International Airport and demolished houses located within 50 yards of the airport’s perimeter. Some evicted persons whose houses were not demolished returned to their homes. Prior to eviction the government declared the land was intended for future airport expansion, and in late 2019 distributed leaflets instructing residents to vacate and marked with paint the houses slated for demolition. A community group stated that residents were warned by authorities several times they were subject to eviction from the land. The local mayor provided each evicted household with 30,000 CFA francs ($52). The government did not provide compensation, stating that no compensation was due because these persons had occupied the land illegally, but promised to provide alternative land for those whose houses had been demolished to construct new homes. As of September the government had not identified a site for resettlement.

f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

The constitution and law prohibit such actions, but the government did not always respect these prohibitions. The law requires warrants for security personnel to conduct searches, the prosecutor’s agreement to retain any evidence seized in a search, and the presence of witnesses in a search, which may take place at any time. Human rights organizations alleged that in December 2019 several incarcerated opposition figures’ homes were searched without proper documentation.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution and law provide for freedom of speech and press, but the government restricted both rights.

Freedom of Speech: The law prohibits incitement to violence, ethnic hatred, and rebellion, as well as insulting the head of state or other senior members of the government. Sometimes the government took steps to remove such content from social media, including in January when an anonymous Facebook user called for deadly violence against Roman Catholics. Other times the practical application of this law raised questions of political influence. In August, Edith Gbalet Pulcherie, a civil society organization leader, used social media to call for demonstrations against President Ouattara’s intention to seek a third term of office. Several opposition parties and individuals also called for demonstrations for the same purpose. Several demonstrations occurred around the country shortly thereafter, some of which degenerated into riots. Pulcherie and three other members of that organization were arrested and charged with inciting those riots, as well as with disturbing public order, calling for insurrection, violence and assault, and destruction of public and private property. The government cited the accused’s social media posts calling for protests, but no further evidence, to substantiate the charges.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: The independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views. The law bans “detention of journalists in police custody, preventive detention, and imprisonment of journalists for offense committed by means of press or by others means of publication.” The law, however, provides for substantial fines for anybody found guilty of committing offenses by means of press or by others means of publication.

Newspapers aligned politically with the opposition frequently published editorials condemning the government. Journalistic standards were flouted by regime and opposition-aligned media outlets, sometimes leading to allegations of defamation, and subsequent counterallegations that opposition media were more likely to be charged for that offense.

The High Audiovisual Communications Authority oversees the regulation and operation of radio and television stations and is generally viewed as supportive of the government and more likely to impose sanctions on media close to the opposition. Opposition groups and civil society criticized the government’s control over the main state-owned television station, claiming it gave far more coverage to the ruling party’s political activities. There were numerous independent radio stations. The law prohibits transmission of political commentary by community radio stations, but the regulatory authority allows community radio stations to run political programs if they employ professional journalists. The owners of these stations, however, reported they often self-censored and avoided broadcasting political content, such as political debates and interviews with political leaders, because they feared being sanctioned or shut down by the communications authority.

Violence and Harassment: Journalists were sometimes subjected to violence, harassment, or intimidation by authorities due to their reporting.

On March 25, Sindou Cisse and Marc Dossa, two journalists affiliated with Generations Nouvelles, an opposition-aligned newspaper, were found guilty of publishing “fake news” when they reported on the existence of COVID-19 cases in prisons. They were sentenced to substantial fines.

On March 31, a court sentenced Vamara Coulibaly, director of publication of the newspaper Soir Info, and Paul Koffi, director of publication for the newspaper Nouveau Reveil, to substantial fines for spreading false news when they printed a letter on March 29 from lawyers for arrested opposition Member of Parliament Alain Lobognon in which they complained about prison conditions in which their client was being held.

In May media reported security officials had beaten Claude Dasse, a journalist investigating a rumored prisoner extortion scheme by officials at the country’s main prison. When Dasse arrived at the prison for a scheduled interview with the warden, he was instead met by a prison official implicated in the investigation. The official reportedly had guards beat Dasse and hold him in a prison cell for several hours. Before releasing Dasse, the official reportedly warned him he would be killed if he reported the encounter. Although Dasse alleged that an investigation opened by the local prosecutor established that he had been assaulted and held against his will, authorities had taken no further action on the case as of December.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: The government influenced news coverage and program content on television channels and public and private radio stations. Both independent journalists and journalists affiliated with the state-owned media said they regularly exercised self-censorship to avoid sanctions or reprisals from government officials. The National Press Authority, the government’s print media regulatory body, briefly suspended or reprimanded newspapers and journalists for statements it contended were false, libelous, or perceived to incite xenophobia and hate. Human rights organizations reported legal intimidation had a chilling effect on media coverage of certain topics, and media often only believed themselves to be secure publishing stories critical of the government after the same reporting had appeared in international publications.

Libel/Slander Laws: Libel deemed to threaten the national interest is punishable by six months to five years in prison and substantial fines.

In March the gendarmerie summoned Yacouba Gbane and Barthelemy Tehin, two journalists working for an opposition-aligned newspaper, for questioning in connection with an editorial alleging government corruption. The journalists were charged, prosecuted, and found guilty of defaming the state the same day. Each was subjected to a substantial fine.

Internet Freedom

There were no credible reports the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

There were no reports of government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events, except that the latter were restricted, along with many other public activities, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The law provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, but the government sometimes restricted the freedom of peaceful assembly.

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

The law provides for freedom of peaceful assembly, but the government did not always respect this right. The law requires groups that wish to hold demonstrations or rallies in stadiums or other enclosed spaces to submit a written notice to the government at least three days before the proposed event. The organizers must receive the government’s authorization in order to proceed.

Numerous opposition political parties reported denials of their requests to hold political meetings and alleged inconsistent standards for granting public assembly permits. Several human rights organizations affirmed the routine unequal treatment of opposition political parties and reported that opposition political party gatherings were sometimes dispersed with excessive force by security personnel.

In December 2019 some local authorities prohibited public demonstrations through early January, shortly before two opposition-planned marches and political gatherings across the country. In August the government suspended demonstrations on public roads through mid-September (later extended through November 1), following a spate of protests opposing President Ouattara’s decision to run for a third term.

Protests in various locations in response to President Ouattara’s candidacy turned violent, and protesters clashed with both police and other civilian supporters. Human rights organizations alleged that, during one anti-Ouattara protest in August, security forces in Abidjan allowed groups of civilian men, some armed with machetes and sticks, to attack demonstrators, seriously injuring one person. Security authorities announced an investigation into those attacks.

On October 19, the Student and Scholastic Federation of Cote d’Ivoire, called a 72-hour strike to protest school fees. At the Abidjan campus of the Felix Houphouet-Boigny University, the strike included violent clashes between student federation members and machete wielding nonstudent youth, leaving several injured.

In mid-November the government reported that several investigations confirmed that, since August, 85 persons had been killed, 484 injured, and 225 arrested in connection with election-related protests or clashes, many of them between groups of supporters of rival political parties. Some of those arrested included protesters marching peacefully but without government authorization.

c. Freedom of Religion

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

d. Freedom of Movement

The constitution and law do not specifically provide for freedom of movement, foreign travel, emigration, or repatriation, but the government generally respected these rights.

In-country Movement: There were reports of impediments to internal travel. Although some roadblocks set up by security forces served legitimate security purposes, extortion of bribes was sometimes reported.

In March in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the government declared a state of emergency and implemented a nationwide nightly curfew. During the first week of the curfew, videos of security forces using heavy handed and sometimes physical enforcement tactics circulated widely on social media. In response, the government issued a statement reassuring the population of its intention to enforce the curfew in ways that “respect human rights.” Images later circulating via media sources showed security forces and public officials discussing curfew enforcement and COVID-19 test site construction with the public in various neighborhoods in Abidjan. In April, four soldiers, including a colonel, were arrested and referred to a military tribunal for allegedly harassing and extorting civilians not in compliance with the curfew.

As part of the state of emergency, the government also established a “cordon sanitaire” intended to prevent the spread of the virus by requiring permits for persons to leave or enter Abidjan. There were credible reports of bribery at some of those checkpoints. The state of emergency was lifted on July 15.

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

As of mid-December international organizations and the government estimated there were approximately 3,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the country as a result of feared or experienced violence associated with the October 31 presidential election. International organizations also reported that the number had been as high as 5,530 persons before IDPs began to return home voluntarily in late November and early December. The government actively coordinated with international organizations to register and deliver services to the IDPs.

f. Protection of Refugees

The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: The government was generally hospitable towards refugees, who enjoyed most rights and freedoms afforded to citizens. Returnees were generally well received by communities and administrative authorities; however, competition over limited resources, the lack of public infrastructure, and property rights disputes in areas of return affected social cohesion between nationals, returnees, and migrants.

Access to Asylum: The constitution, international conventions and treaties the country is party to, and executive orders provide for granting asylum or refugee status, and the government has established an administrative system for providing protection to refugees. There is no national asylum law. Asylum seekers awaiting adjudication of their application enjoy a full set of basic rights, including freedom of movement, health care, and education. Asylum seekers are not entitled to work until they receive refugee status.

Freedom of Movement: Refugee documents, including a refugee identity card issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, allowed refugees to move freely in the country, with refugees younger than age 14 included on their parents’ documents.

Durable Solutions: UNHCR reported it is almost impossible for refugees to be naturalized, except through marriage to an Ivoirian national. UNHCR was only aware of one case of nonmarital naturalization: a resident living in the country for more than 20 years who was granted nationality through a presidential decree.

Temporary Protection: The government also provided temporary protection for individuals who did not qualify as refugees under the relevant UN conventions and were denied asylum. Nationals of members of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) may remain in the country with a valid identification document (i.e., a national identity card or passport) from their country of origin. Non-ECOWAS African nationals and nationals of other countries must obtain a residency permit within 90 days of their asylum claim rejection or face deportation. To obtain a residency permit, non-ECOWAS African nations must submit their asylum rejection letter and pay a substantial fee. Residency permit requirements for other nationals are based on reciprocity between the country and the applicant’s country of origin.

g. Stateless Persons

The government did not report the number of persons believed to be stateless during the year. The migrant parents of many children born in the country did not register their children, thus placing these children at risk of statelessness. With birth registration a requirement for citizenship, all unregistered children were at risk of statelessness. UNHCR estimated there were almost 519,000 abandoned children and foundlings (i.e., abandoned children of unknown parentage), who were at risk of statelessness because they could not prove their citizenship through their parents, as required under the law. Such children were deprived of the opportunity to attend high school (which is legally compulsory until the age of 16, but also requires the presentation of identity documents as part of the enrollment process), and, as adults, would be unable to open a bank account, travel abroad freely, or vote or exercise other political rights, such as running for office.

Stateless persons reportedly faced numerous significant additional difficulties, such as in accessing health services, marrying civilly, or receiving an inheritance. Social stigma and harassment can also accompany statelessness.

The government has policies to resolve the status of certain stateless persons. The country has adopted a legal process for identifying and protecting stateless persons. Two regulations signed in September formally establish procedures for some individuals to petition the government for a formal determination of statelessness status. According to UNHCR this determination would pave the way for some stateless persons to receive identity documents and access to other legal processes. As of December the government had not yet begun to adjudicate cases under these new mechanisms.

From 2018 through September 2019, judges in seven cities issued nationality certificates to more than 100 children of unknown parentage. A Catholic parish in Abidjan began a program in March 2019 to help parishioners navigate the cumbersome and costly procedure for obtaining birth certificates for any parishioner’s child born in the country.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The law provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal adult suffrage.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: The country held a presidential election on October 31. The lead-up to the election was marked by intense political maneuvering by the regime and opposition, acrimonious and divisive rhetoric, protests, and largely civilian-on-civilian violence.

The opposition vociferously contested President Ouattara’s decision to seek a third term following the July death of the ruling coalition’s candidate. Although the opposition argued that President Ouattara was precluded from running due to a term limit, the Constitutional Council, which the Ivoirian constitution empowers to validate presidential candidacies, validated Ouattara’s candidacy on September 14 on the grounds that it would be his first term under the 2016 Constitution. The Council also validated the candidacies of three prominent opposition figures but rejected those of 40 other contenders, specifying in each case which eligibility criteria the contender failed to meet. Before and after the election, opposition leaders repeatedly alleged the Council was inherently biased toward the ruling coalition. UN, ECOWAS, and African Union officials visited the country several times during the electoral period to encourage a tension-calming dialogue between the government and the opposition but did not recommend a revision of the Council’s decision on candidacies.

Among those barred from competition were prominent opposition figures Guillaume Soro and former president Laurent Gbagbo, both rejected due to domestic criminal convictions. Following the Constitutional Council’s announcement, the ACHPR issued two separate rulings on September 15 and September 25 ordering the government to permit Soro and Gbagbo to run for election. The government did not respond directly to either ruling but indicated in public statements that it did not consider the ACHPR’s rulings binding given its April announcement that it was withdrawing from the optional protocol that allowed nonstate actors to petition the Court.

Election-related protests and violence escalated immediately before the election, particularly in mid-October after the opposition launched a campaign of “civil disobedience” and an “active boycott” designed to prevent the election from occurring unless the government conceded to opposition demands. In addition to violent clashes between civilians, many criminal acts occurred during the campaign: media reported multiple incidents of vandalism, including the burning of Independent Electoral Commission (CEI) field offices, theft and destruction of voter cards, and construction of crude roadblocks by opposition-aligned youth to obstruct major roads.

Scattered, disruptive, and occasionally deadly unrest continued on election day in several locations in the central and southern parts of the country. Reported incidents included theft and destruction of electoral materials, civilian-on-civilian clashes, ransacked polling stations, and roadblocks around polling stations, which suppressed voter participation. The CEI confirmed that 21 percent of polling stations were not operational on election day–October 31–due to disruptions. International election observers reported the same but also noted that, in some cases, polling sites did not open because election officials failed to deploy necessary voter equipment and materials. At polling sites that did open, voting generally took place without incident although observers noted scattered minor irregularities, such as sites opening late or closing early and election officials struggling, without apparent malicious intent, to tabulate results accurately. In mid-November, the government reported that its investigations confirmed that since August, 85 persons had been killed and 484 injured, including several members of the security forces, in election-related violence.

International election observers differed in their overall assessments of the election. The African Union stated the election “was held in an overall satisfactory manner.” The International Election Observation Mission of the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa and The Carter Center found that officials “generally adhered to voting procedures in the majority of the polling stations visited,” but criticized the political climate in which the election took place as “not allow[ing] for a genuinely competitive election.” The CEI ultimately reported a voter participation rate of almost 54 percent of registered voters at the polling stations that were able to open. If calculated on the basis of the country’s full list of approximately 7.5 million registered voters, the stated turnout would have been approximately 42.9 percent. On November 9, the Constitutional Council certified that President Ouattara had won re-election with 94.27 percent of the vote. President Ouattara was sworn in for a third term on December 14.

On November 2, the opposition, asserting that President Ouattara was no longer president, announced the establishment of a National Transitional Council. On November 4, via social media from France, Guillaume Soro claimed in his capacity as a member of the transitional council that President Ouattara no longer had the constitutional power to command the armed forces and called for them to overthrow him. The government subsequently announced charges of sedition and terrorism against 20 senior opposition figures involved in the Council’s creation. Although one leading opposition member was provisionally released in late December, several individuals arrested on those charges remained incarcerated. On November 18, the government issued an international arrest warrant for Soro and three of his aides requesting their extradition from France.

Prior to the 2018 senatorial elections, the CEI declared it would restrict observers from remaining in the voting stations throughout the day, but later reversed its decision. Diplomatic observers and local civil society groups judged the elections to be peaceful and credible.

The law requires the national voter registry to be updated annually. The registry was not updated in 2019, but was in June and July. CEI staff generally appeared well prepared to execute that process, although some opposition parties reported their members’ difficulty obtaining documents required to prove their eligibility to vote. The government extended the registration period twice and, midway through the registration process, extended the validity of existing national identity cards so that holders could register and vote in the October presidential election without having to obtain new biometric identity cards before June. The extension had been a key demand of the opposition.

Political Parties and Political Participation: Although the law prohibits the formation of political parties along ethnic or religious lines, there have historically been links between ethnic groups and specific political parties.

Throughout the year, opposition parties reported denials of their requests to hold political meetings and alleged inconsistent standards for granting public assembly permits. Following the August government ordinance banning demonstrations in public thoroughfares, and subsequent arrests of opposition supporters participating in unauthorized demonstrations, media broadcast images of ruling coalition supporters marching unimpeded through the streets en route to the formal nomination of President Ouattara as its presidential candidate.

An ACHPR ruling to affect greater political party balance and public confidence in the CEI’s work led the government to overhaul that institution in July 2019. Many opposition parties chose to boycott the overhaul negotiation, were not invited to join the CEI once it was reconstituted, and subsequently appealed against the legality and impartiality of the institution. In July the ACHPR ruled that the CEI was not illegal or fundamentally biased, but that the ruling coalition had controlled the nomination and leadership election process in ways that undermined public confidence in the impartiality of the institution. President Ouattara had by then invited the Democratic Party of Cote d’Ivoire, the country’s largest unified opposition party, to join the CEI, and the government announced it would rerun elections for leadership positions at local levels of the CEI organization. As of December, the Democratic Party’s representative had not taken his oath of office due to continued political disagreements. On September 30, the Ivorian Popular Front, the only party previously represented in the CEI that the broader opposition accepted as an authentic opposition party, suspended its participation due to its overall objection to the electoral process.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit the participation of women and members of minority groups in the political process, and they did participate. Of 253 National Assembly (lower legislative body) members, 29 were women, the same number as in 2017-19. Of 99 Senate (upper legislative body) members, 19 were women, including 11 of 33 appointed by President Ouattara in April 2019 and eight of 66 elected in 2018.

Members of the transgender community reported difficulty obtaining identity and voting documents. Electoral staff and fellow voters at polling sites for the October presidential election were observed assisting voters with disabilities, such as those who were unable to walk up stairs or legally blind individuals. The same assistance was offered during the June-July voter registration process due to a lack of government-provided accommodations for individuals with disabilities.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but the government did not implement the law effectively, and officials were reported to engage frequently in corrupt practices with impunity. Human rights organizations reported official corruption, particularly in the judiciary, police, and security forces, but noted that victims of such corruption often did not report it or assist in investigations, fearing retaliation. In September 2019 the High Authority for Good Government (HABG), a government anticorruption authority, issued a communique announcing measures to end unauthorized charges for the delivery of administrative documents. Civil society groups and government officials reported the HABG was not empowered to act independently or to take decisive action. The HABG can make recommendations, but the public prosecutor must decide to take up a case. Additionally, the constitutionally mandated High Court of Justice to judge members of government, including the president and vice-president, for crimes committed during the exercise of their official functions has not been established.

Corruption: Human rights organizations reported government authorities awarded many contracts to persons or businesses without following procurement rules and often with little notice. In July 2019 the government endorsed a new public-procurement code to increase the transparency of the public-procurement process. In August the government’s public procurement regulatory authority launched an EU-funded audit program to investigate more than 200 sole-source public procurements that occurred between 2014 and 2017.

Financial Disclosure: A presidential decree requires the head of state, ministers, heads of national institutions, and directors of administration to disclose their income and assets. The HABG requires public officials to submit a wealth declaration within 30 days of the beginning of their term in office. The declaration is confidential, but the list of those who declared their wealth is publicly accessible in the official government journal. Officials who did not comply or provided a false declaration faced substantial fines. There were no cases during the year when the veracity of a declaration was questioned or sanctions employed. The procedures for reviewing the declaration of assets were not included in the implementing decree. The law requires the HABG to retain declarations of assets for at least 10 years.

Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights

A number of international and domestic human rights groups operated in the country, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials met with some of those groups, sometimes at very senior levels. While the government was somewhat cooperative and responsive to their views, depending on the topic or case, it was at other times defensive about more sensitive topics.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The Ministry of Justice and Human Rights is responsible for implementing the government’s policy on human rights. In January 2019 the National Commission for Human Rights, an advisory body that consults on, conducts evaluations of, and creates proposals to promote and defend human rights, became the National Council for Human Rights. The change was intended to provide the council with more financial and operational autonomy. The organization remained nevertheless fully dependent on funding from the government, donors, or both, and human rights organizations continued to question its independence and effectiveness. As of October 2019, the human rights council had 31 regional commissions and seven thematically focused departments. The civilian-controlled Special Investigative Cell within the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights investigates persons responsible for human rights abuses committed during the postelectoral crisis of 2010-11. Information on prosecutions against suspects was not readily available.

Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law prohibits rape and provides for prison terms of five to 20 years for perpetrators. The law does not specifically penalize spousal rape, and there is a rebuttable presumption of consent in marital rape cases. The court may impose a life sentence in cases of gang rape if the rapists are related to or hold positions of authority over the victim, or if the victim is younger than age 15. Media and NGOs reported that rape of schoolgirls by teachers was a problem, but the government did not provide information on charges filed.

A local human rights organization that supports the rights of persons with disabilities reported a man was sentenced to a 20-year prison term for the April 2019 murder of his pregnant girlfriend, a woman with disabilities. The same organization reported that the 2019 rape and killing of another teenage girl with disabilities remained unsolved as of September.

Survivors were often discouraged from pursuing criminal cases, with their families often accepting payment as compensation. A human rights organization cited a recent case in which a rape victim with disabilities’ father brought a complaint against the rapist and then withdrew it upon receiving a private payment from the assailant. The mother of the victim, wanting her own compensation, threatened to file a complaint and then refused to do so after receiving a payment from the assailant. There was at least one report of security forces intervening to persuade a family to file criminal charges rather than accept private compensation for a sexual assault on their minor child.

Although rape victims were no longer legally required to obtain a medical certificate, some human rights organizations reported that victim who did not do so encountered difficulties in moving their cases forward. Obtaining a medical certificate could be costly. In the first half of the year, the government reported authorities accepted 50 rape cases for investigation without a medical certificate.

Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): The law specifically forbids FGM/C and provides penalties for practitioners of up to five years’ imprisonment and substantial fines. Double penalties apply to medical practitioners, including doctors, nurses, and medical technicians. Nevertheless, FGM/C remained a problem. The government reported one FGM/C prosecution in the first half of the year. The defendant was fined and sentenced to 24 months in prison. The most recent 2016 Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey indicated that the rate of FGM/C nationwide was 36.6 percent, with prevalence varying by region.

Other Harmful Traditional Practices: Societal violence against women included traditional practices that are illegal, such as dowry deaths (the killing of brides over dowry disputes), levirate (forcing a widow to marry her dead husband’s brother), and sororate (forcing a woman to marry her dead sister’s husband). The government did not provide information regarding the prevalence or rate of prosecution for such violence or forced activity during the year but stated that no deaths were linked to these practices.

Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits sexual harassment and prescribes penalties of one-to–three years’ imprisonment and fines. Nevertheless, the government rarely, if ever, enforced the law, and harassment was widespread and routinely tolerated.

Reproductive Rights: The law provides for full and equal access to reproductive health information and services to all men and women ages 15 and older. Couples and individuals generally have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children, and had access to the information and means to do so, free from coercion, discrimination, or violence. Government policy required emergency health-care services to be available and free to all, but care was not available in all regions, particularly rural areas, and was often expensive.

According to estimates by the World Health Organization (WHO), in 2010-19, 44 percent of women of reproductive age had their need for family planning satisfied with modern methods. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) estimated 82 percent of all women had the autonomy to decide whether to use contraception. Barriers to modern methods of contraception included cost (the government only partially subsidized the cost of some methods of contraception), distance to points of purchase such as pharmacies and clinics, and low or unreliable stocks of certain types of contraception. Other barriers to use included misinformation and hearsay, as well as religious beliefs and biases against marginalized groups.

According to estimates by the WHO, 74 percent of births in 2010-19 were attended by skilled health personnel. Barriers to births attended by skilled health personnel included distance to modern health facilities, cost of prenatal consultations and other birth-related supplies and vaccinations, and low provider capacity. According to WHO estimates, in 2010-18, the adolescent birth rate was 123 per 1,000 girls aged 15-19.

Health services for survivors of sexual violence existed, but costs of such services were often prohibitive for victims, law enforcement often did not know to refer victims to medical practitioners, and many medical practitioners were not trained in treatment of survivors of sexual violence.

According to estimates by the WHO, UNICEF, the UNFPA, the World Bank, and the United Nations Population Division, in 2017 (the latest year for which data are available), the maternal mortality rate was 617 deaths per 100,000 live births, down from 658 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2015. Factors contributing to the high maternal mortality rate were chiefly related to lack of access to quality care. Additionally, local nongovernmental organizations reported women often had to pay for prenatal consultations and other birth-related supplies and vaccinations, which dissuaded them from using modern facilities and increased the likelihood of maternal mortality. As a result of FGM/C, scarification was common. Scarification can lead to obstructed labor during childbirth, an obstetric complication that is a common cause of maternal deaths, especially in the absence of Caesarean section capability.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.

Discrimination: The law provides the same legal status and rights for women and men in labor law, although there were also restrictions on women’s employment (see section 7.d.). A 2019 law establishes the right for widows to inherit upon the deaths of their husbands as much as the deceased’s children can. Human rights organizations reported many religious and traditional authorities rejected laws intended to reduce gender-related inequality in household decision-making.

Children

Birth Registration: The law confers citizenship at birth if at least one parent was a citizen when the child was born.

The law provides parents a three-month period to register their child’s birth for a nominal fee. In some parts of the country, the three-month window conflicts with important cultural practices around the naming of children, making birth registration difficult for many families. To register births after the first three months, families must also pay a fine. For older children, authorities may require a doctor’s age assessment and other documents. To continue to secondary school, children must pass an exam for which identity documents are required. As a result children without documents could not continue their studies after primary school. The government, with the support of UNICEF, requires healthcare workers in maternity wards and at immunization sites to complete birth registration forms automatically when providing services. According to UNICEF this service was offered during the year in nearly 62 percent of the country’s health centers and, since the beginning of the program, health workers have completed registration paperwork for 85,779 newborns out of 94,892 live births, a registration rate of 90 percent.

Education: Primary schooling is obligatory, free, and open to all. Education was thus ostensibly free and compulsory for children ages six to 16, but families generally reported being asked to pay school fees, either to receive their children’s records or pay for school supplies. In principle students’ families do not have to pay for books or user fees, but families usually covered some schooling expenses not covered by the government. Parents also often contributed to teachers’ salaries and living stipends, particularly in rural areas. Parents of children not in compliance with the law were reportedly subject to substantial fines or two to six months in jail, but this was seldom, if ever, enforced, and many children did not attend or have access to school.

Girls participated in education at lower rates than boys, particularly in rural areas. Although girls initially enrolled at a higher rate, their participation dropped below boys’ because of a cultural tendency to keep girls at home to care for younger siblings or do other domestic work, and due to reported sexual harassment of female students by teachers and other staff. In April 2019 the Ministry of National Education created a new gender unit to focus on improving education and training for girls and women. The gender unit sponsored several events during the year, including a celebration of International Day of the Girl and a training for community leaders and parents on preventing pregnancy among school-aged girls.

Child Abuse: The penalty for statutory rape, or attempted rape, of a child younger than age 16 is a prison sentence of one to three years and a substantial fine. In March the government published a report detailing the findings of a 2018 study carried out with the support of international donors on violence against children and youth younger than age 18. The study found that 19 percent of girls and 11 percent of boys had been victims of sexual violence and 47 percent of girls and 61 percent of boys had been victims of physical violence. In 2019 the government investigated 59 cases of sexual abuse of minors and 37 child rape cases. In the first half of the year, the government reported two child rape convictions and four pending prosecutions. In February authorities arrested the relatives of a nine-year-old who died while being raped for not reporting the crime and for aiding in the rapist’s escape. To assist child victims of violence and abuse, the government cooperated with UNICEF to strengthen the child protection network in areas such as case management, the implementation of evidence-based prevention programs, and data collection and analysis.

Responsibility for combating child abuse lies with the Ministries of Employment, Social Affairs, and Professional Training; Justice and Human Rights; Women, Families, and Children; Solidarity, Social Cohesion, and the Fight against Poverty; and National Education. International organizations and civil society groups reported that lack of coordination among the ministries hampered their effectiveness.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: A law passed in July 2019 equalized the legal age for marriage for women and men at 18. The law prohibits marriage of women and men younger than 18 without parental consent. The law specifically penalizes anyone who forces a minor younger than 18 to enter a religious or customary matrimonial union. Nevertheless, reports of traditional marriages involving at least one minor spouse persisted.

In 2017 (most recent data available) according to UNICEF, 27 percent of girls were married by age 18 and 7 percent by age 15. In September media reported that a 15-year-old girl had been forced to marry a 29-year-old man in a customary marriage and was subjected to repeated abuse until she stabbed him to death in self-defense. Authorities arrested the girl and she confessed to the homicide; however, the public prosecutor ultimately released her and entrusted her to the Child and Youth Judicial Protection Service.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The minimum age for consensual sex is 18. The law prohibits the use, recruitment, or offering of minors for commercial sex or use in pornographic films, pictures, or events. Violators can receive prison sentences ranging from five to 20 years and substantial fines. Statutory rape of a minor carries a punishment of one to three years in prison and a monetary fine.

The country is a source, transit, and destination country for children subjected to trafficking in persons, including sex trafficking.

Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

Displaced Children: Human rights organizations reported thousands of children countrywide lived on the streets and were frequently subject to harassment by authorities. The government implemented a program to reduce the number of homeless minors. Officials in the Ministry of Youth opened several centers in a few cities where at-risk youth could live and receive training. A charity associated with First Lady Dominique Ouattara broke ground on a shelter to house former juvenile offenders. There was no information on the number of minors assisted in 2020.

International Child Abductions: The country is not a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html .

Anti-Semitism

The country’s Jewish community numbered fewer than 100 persons, including foreign residents and Ivoirian converts. There were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.

Trafficking in Persons

See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

Persons with Disabilities

The constitution contains protections for persons with disabilities. The law requires the government to educate and train persons with physical, mental, visual, auditory, and cerebral motor disabilities; hire them or help them find jobs; design houses and public facilities for wheelchair access; and adapt machines, tools, and work spaces for access and use by persons with disabilities as well as to provide them access to the judicial system. The law prohibits acts of violence against persons with disabilities and the abandonment of such persons. These laws were not effectively enforced.

Political campaigns did not include braille or sign language, undercutting civic participation by persons with vision and hearing disabilities. The CEI did not provide any formal accommodations for persons with disabilities at polling sites for the October presidential election, although observers reported CEI staff assisting persons with disabilities during both the presidential election and the June-July voter registration period on an ad hoc basis, including by physically carrying registration documents down to ground level of a building if the registration center was located on a higher floor.

Persons with disabilities reportedly encountered serious discrimination in employment and education. Prisons and detention centers reportedly provided no accommodations for persons with disabilities. Although the law requires measures to provide persons with disabilities access to transportation and buildings and designated parking spots, human rights organizations reported these provisions were frequently not implemented around the country.

The government financially supported some separate schools, training programs, associations, and artisans’ cooperatives for persons with disabilities, located primarily in Abidjan, but human rights organizations reported these schools functioned primarily as literacy centers and did not offer the same educational materials and programs as other schools. The government made efforts to recruit persons with disabilities for select government positions. Nonetheless, it was difficult for children with disabilities to obtain an adequate education if their families did not have sufficient resources. Although public schools did not bar students with disabilities from attending, such schools lacked the resources to accommodate them. In some instances, provisions were financed by private donations. Homelessness among persons with mental disabilities was reportedly common.

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

The country has more than 60 ethnic groups; human rights organizations reported ethnic discrimination was a problem. Authorities considered approximately 25 percent of the population foreign, although many within this category were second or third generation residents. Land ownership laws remained unclear and unimplemented, resulting in conflicts between native populations and other groups.

The law prohibits xenophobia, racism, and tribalism and makes these forms of intolerance punishable by five to 10 years’ imprisonment. During the presidential election period, numerous interethnic (referred to as intercommunal in the country) clashes occurred. A particularly violent clash in Dabou between two ethnic groups, Malinke and Adjoukrou claimed 16 lives and injured 67 persons. Government officials found that the violence had been instigated by unidentified outside actors wanting to stoke the conflict, potentially for political gain, but did not say whether the actors were progovernment or opposition. Security forces deployed to the town to restore order and remained on the scene for several days.

In November, brutal intercommunal conflicts broke out in the rural interior towns of Daoukro, between Baoule and Malinke, and in M’Batto, between Agni and Malinke. The government recorded six deaths in Daoukro and three deaths in M’Batto, including two cases of persons burned to death and one beheading, although one opposition party claimed the actual death toll was much higher.

Acts of Violence, Criminalization, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

Homosexuality is not criminalized, but public heterosexual and same-sex intimate activity is subject to conviction as a form of public indecency that carries a penalty of up to two years’ imprisonment. In July 2019 the government made minor changes to the law, but human rights organizations reported the changes did not prevent tacit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

Human rights organizations reported the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community continued to face discrimination and violence. Authorities were at times slow and ineffective in their response to societal violence targeting the LGBTI community. Further, LGBTI persons often did not report violence committed or threatened against them, including assault or homicide, because they did not believe authorities would take their complaints seriously. LGBTI community members reported being evicted from their homes by landlords or by their own families. Familial rejection of LGBTI youth often caused them to become homeless and drop out of school. Members of the LGBTI community reported discrimination in access to health care.

In February a gay man was reportedly severely beaten by family members after presenting his long-term partner publicly at his birthday party. The next day, his uncle told him he would not let his homosexuality tarnish the family’s image and instructed relatives to beat or kill him. After his relatives beat the man, neighbors sheltered him and took him to a health center for treatment. He then took refuge in a church, but congregants demanded the pastor expel him. Information regarding authorities’ response to this incident was not readily available.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

There were no credible reports of official discrimination based on HIV/AIDS status, and the government respected the confidentiality of individuals’ HIV/AIDS status. The government adhered to global standards of patient rights, and a statement of these rights was posted or available at health facilities. The law expressly condemns all forms of discrimination against persons with HIV and provides for their access to care and treatment. The law also prescribes punishment for refusal of care or discrimination based on HIV/AIDS status. Social stigma persists.

The Ministry of Health and Public Hygiene managed a program within the National AIDS Control Program to assist vulnerable populations at high risk of acquiring HIV/AIDS (including but not limited to men who have sex with men, commercial sex workers, persons who inject drugs, prisoners, and migrants). The Ministry of Women, Families, and Child Protection oversaw a program that directed educational, psychosocial, nutritional, and economic support to orphans and other vulnerable children, including those infected or affected by HIV.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law, including related regulations and statutory instruments, provides for the right of workers, except members of police and military services, to form or join unions of their choice, provides for the right to conduct legal strikes and bargain collectively, and prohibits antiunion discrimination by employers or others against union members or organizers. The law prohibits firing workers for union activities and provides for the reinstatement of dismissed workers within eight days of winning a wrongful dismissal claim. The law allows unions in the formal sector to conduct their activities without interference. Worker organizations were independent of the government and political parties. Under the law, for a trade union to be considered representative at the business or establishment level, the union must win at least 30 percent of valid ballots cast representing at least 15 percent of registered electors. For broader organizations the trade union must have the support in one or more enterprises together employing at least 15 percent of the employees working in the occupational and geographical sector concerned. Foreigners are required to obtain residency status, which takes three years, before they may hold union office.

The law requires a protracted series of negotiations and a six-day notification period before a strike may take place, making legal strikes difficult to organize and maintain. Workers must maintain a minimum coverage in services whose interruption may endanger lives, security, or health; create a national crisis that threatens the lives of the population; or affect the operation of equipment. Additionally, if authorities deem a strike to be a threat to public order, the president has broad powers to compel strikers to return to work under threat of sanctions. Illegally striking workers may be subjected to criminal penalties, including forced labor. The president also may require that strikes in essential services go to arbitration, although the law does not describe what constitutes essential services.

Apart from large industrial farms and some trades, legal protections excluded most laborers in the informal sector, including small farms, roadside street stalls, and urban workshops.

Before collective bargaining can begin, a union must represent 30 percent of workers. Collective bargaining agreements apply to employees in the formal sector, and many major businesses and civil service sectors had them. Although the law may allow employers to refuse to negotiate, there were no complaints about this from unions pending with the Ministry of Employment and Social Protection.

The government effectively enforced the law. Penalties were commensurate with those for comparable crimes.

There were no complaints pending with the Ministry of Employment and Social Protection of antiunion discrimination or employer interference in union functions.

In March media reported the public health workers’ union threatened to strike if the government did not provide them with personal protective equipment and hazard pay, in view of the risks of contracting COVID-19. The government met the union’s demands to prevent disruption of health services.

In July union members at the government-run center for agricultural research went on strike complaining of delayed salary payments and demanding research premiums; the government refused to meet the union’s demands.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits, and provides criminal penalties for, all forms of human trafficking, including for the purposes of forced labor or slavery. The law grants government officials broad power to requisition labor for “national economic and social promotion,” in violation of international standards. Judges may propose that defendants convicted of certain crimes perform physical labor for the benefit of the state as an alternative to incarceration, but the defendant must accept the terms of such a sentence.

The government did not effectively enforce the law. Penalties were commensurate with those for comparable crimes. The government did not provide enough resources or conduct enough inspections to enforce compliance. Forced and compulsory labor continued to occur in small-scale and commercial production of agricultural products,