The Network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) released its annual report (PDF) Feb. 16, highlighting an intensified crackdown on rights defenders in the People's Republic. According to the CHRD, rights activities are being criminalized as "political threats to national security." The report documents a number of practices used by the government, such as enforced disappearances, arbitrary detention, and acts of torture against rights defenders. It points particularly to those secretly detained in the July 2015 arrests of lawyers, known as the "709 Crackdown." CHRD stated: "Not only have authorities denied detainees access to counsel, they have increasingly pressured detainees to dismiss their own lawyers or those hired by their families, and use government appointed lawyers instead."
Pakistani authorities have driven nearly 600,000 Afghan refugees back into Afghanistan since July 2016, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a report released Feb. 13. HRW claims that among those forced out of the country were 365,000 of Pakistan's 1.5 million lawfully registered Afgahn refugees. HRW also alleges that the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is complicit in what it calls "the world's largest unlawful mass forced return of refugees in recent times." HRW charges that Pakistani police have been using extortion to deprive Afghan refugees of much the limited income available to them, while Pakistani landlords have dramatically increased the cost of rent for Afghan refugees. The UNHCR meanwhile increased its cash grant to returnees from $200 to $400 per person to coerce the refugees to return home under cover of "voluntary repatriation."
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Feb. 10 approved an 18-article bill that proposes significant changes to Turkey's constitution. A public referendum vote will be held on April 16 to determine if the changes will be incorporated. Erdogan has stated that the changes are necessary to provide stability in Turkey. Opponents of the bill have stated that the changes would remove some checks and balance on the presidency that could lead to Turkey being under a "one-man rule." The bill would "enable the president to issue decrees, declare emergency rule, appoint ministers and top state officials and dissolve parliament." If approved by the referendum vote, presidential elections would be held November 2019. The changes allow a president to serve up to two five-year terms. Erdoğan's current time as president would not count towards to term limits set by the bill.
According to the annual report (PDF) by the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), civilian casualties in Afghanistan for 2016 were at a new record high. A total of 3,498 civilians were killed and 7,920 were wounded. Of the dead, 923 were children, as were 2,589 of the injured. Tadamichi Yamamoto, the Special Representative of the Secretary General, said, "All parties to the conflict must take immediate concrete measures to protect the ordinary Afghan men, women and children whose lives are being shattered."
Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló on Feb. 3 approved a law (PDF) calling for a non-binding referendum on statehood for the US territory. The referendum, to be held in June, will allow the voters to choose between statehood, independence or "free association." Those in support of statehood believe it could help Puerto Rico restructure its $70 billion in public debt and stave off further federal austerity measures. If approved, statehood would allow Puerto Rico to receive $10 billion in federal funds per year, as well as allowing government agencies and municipalities to file for bankruptcy. Rosselló called the vote "a civil rights issue" and said the US will have to "respond to the demands of 3.5 million citizens seeking an absolute democracy." Puerto Rico's citizenry is currently denied many of the benefits of citizens of US states, including equal access to Social Security and Medicare, despite paying taxes for these services. In addition, Puerto Rico's representative in Congress, Jenniffer González, is only allowed to vote in House committees in which she is a member.
The International Court of Justice (ICJ) on Feb. 2 ruled that it has the authority to adjudicate a dispute over a stretch of water in the Indian Ocean that is potentially laden with oil and gas. Somalia asked (PDF) the ICJ to rule on the dispute in 2014 after negotiations with Kenya broke down over the 100,000-square mile stretch. The ICJ rejected Kenya's claim that a 2009 agreement (PDF) between the two countries to settle the dispute through negotiations deprives the court of jurisdiction in the matter. Kenya's attorney general, Githu Muigai, stated: "Kenya maintains the view that litigation can resolve only one aspect of a wide range of complex issues the parties must agree upon." This decision allows the case to proceed, with no date set as of yet for the trial to begin.
Leaders of multiple African countries announced Feb. 1 that they have backed a "strategy of collective withdrawal" from the International Criminal Court (ICC). Prior to this week's African Union (AU) summit, the AU issued a document seen by Reuters that proposed a coordinated withdrawal unless the ICC is reformed. The AU claims that the ICC is improperly focusing on prosecuting individuals from African countries, and its exit could be significant, as almost a third of the ICC's member countries are African. The AU and the ICC have had a tumultuous relationship over the course of the past year. In July an AU advisory board accused the ICC of narrowly focusing its investigations on African government leaders since its inception in 2002. The AU's Economic Social and Cultural Council (ECOSOCC) recommended that members quit the ICC should Rome Statute signatories follow through with a proposed amendment allowing the prosecution and arrest of sitting heads of state. Human Rights Watch stated that giving sitting leaders immunity would defeat the purpose of the ICC's creation.
A Pakistani anti-terrorism court acquitted 112 individuals suspected of taking part in the 2013 burning of 150 Christian homes and two churches in Lahore's Josep Colony. Ghulam Murtaza Chaudhry, the lawyer defending the suspects, stated that the suspects were acquitted because of a lack of evidence. Chaudhry stated the testimony of the plaintiffs was inconsistent and they could not identify those accused. The suspects were being charged under Pakistan's blasphem