Corporate report

Human rights priority countries: ministerial statement for January to June 2021

Published 23 November 2021

In July 2021, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) published the 2020 Annual Human Rights and Democracy Report. The report provided an assessment of the global human rights situation, and set out the UK Government’s thematic, consular, and programme work to advance human rights throughout the world. It focused on 31 countries where we are particularly concerned about human rights issues, and where we consider that the UK can make a real difference.

This statement provides an updated assessment of the 31 priority countries from 1 January to 30 June 2021.

The 31 Human Rights Priority Countries are: Afghanistan, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Belarus, Central African Republic, China, Colombia, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Libya, Mali, Myanmar, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, South Sudan, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Syria, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Venezuela, Yemen, and Zimbabwe.

Earlier this year, Burundi and Republic of Maldives were removed from the list, while Belarus, Mali and Nicaragua were added.

Focusing on particular countries allows us to exert influence over the long term, and thus to achieve maximum impact, encouraging governments to meet their international human rights obligations. However, as always our human rights work goes beyond these 31 countries. We prioritise issues of concern, but also seek to reflect positive developments where there has been progress.

This statement provides a snapshot of the most significant developments during the first half of 2021. In 2022, we will publish the 2021 FCDO Annual Human Rights & Democracy Report, covering human rights issues during the full calendar year in more detail.

Areas of improvement

During the reporting period Bahrain continued to take a proactive approach to managing the implications of COVID-19, such as providing free healthcare to the migrant worker population, introducing a visa amnesty for those losing their jobs and providing financial assistance for those unable to work. Elsewhere, signs of progress can be seen in Bahrain’s ratification of the Child Restorative Justice Act, which is designed to improve protections for minors. The Public Prosecutor issued guidelines requiring judges to comply with the act ahead of its entry into force in August 2021.

Despite constitutional provisions, there were persistent challenges around freedom of expression, particularly on social media platforms. Furthermore, traditional media suffered from a lack of diversity and a tendency to self-censorship. During the reporting period, the government did not ratify revisions to the existing Press, Printing and Publishing law and any protections it may afford, particularly across social media. We encouraged the Government of Bahrain to protect freedom of expression for all its citizens, in line with its international obligations.

Allegations of mistreatment in detention continued to be made. We monitored such cases closely, and engaged with the Government of Bahrain, Bahraini oversight bodies and international organisations on these issues. The UK continued to play an active role in monitoring and promoting human rights in Bahrain, through engagement and technical assistance, for example in the child justice and parliamentary spaces, to support Bahraini-led reform. We worked in close partnership with others, including international bodies such as the UN, and continued to focus on the completion and subsequent implementation of Bahrain’s National Human Rights Action Plan.

In Sudan the civilian-led government continued to deliver on their commitment to improve human rights as part of the country’s transition to democracy. In February, the government agreed to ratify 2 human rights treaties: the Convention Against Torture (CAT) and the International Convention for the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearance (ICPPED). Progress was made towards ratifying the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Sudan also took significant steps to strengthen cooperation with the International Criminal Court (ICC), which included collaboration on the Ali Kushayb trial, a second visit by the Chief Prosecutor (including to Darfur), and the Cabinet’s announcement of its intention to transfer ICC indictees to The Hague, subject to further discussion and agreement by the country’s Sovereign Council[footnote 1].

Despite improvements, long-standing challenges persisted. Incidents of intercommunal violence continued to occur across Sudan, with 4 times as many people displaced in Darfur in the first half of 2021 than in the whole of 2020. There continued to be concerns about violations of human rights by some elements of the security forces, including instances of arbitrary detention of civilians and the killing of two protestors in May. As part of the UK’s support to the success of the democratic transition, we continued to urge delivery of commitments to reforms and for the ratification of treaties to lead to practical change. We also continued to urge the government to ensure those responsible for past abuses were held accountable, and to support the implementation of wider human rights reforms.

Human rights reforms continued in Uzbekistan though at a slower pace than in 2020, and there has been some backsliding on the progress of previous years, including on media freedom. Most positively, there remained a sustained commitment to eradicate forced labour, and the government continued to engage with the international community on human rights issues. However, torture and mistreatment continued to occur in detention centres, and whilst investigations took place, these often lacked transparency. A new law on religious freedom came into effect in June, though many of the recommendations proposed by the Venice Commission did not appear to have been incorporated during the reporting period. Same sex relations between men remained illegal and there was no progress on a previously announced public consultation on amending this legislation. The LGBTQ+ community continued to suffer persecution. While the media landscape has changed dramatically since 2016 and the President continued to call for more critical reporting, journalists faced on-going pressure from the security services. A blogger who criticised local authorities was sentenced to 6 years in prison for extortion. Registration of NGOs remained difficult and their activity restricted. Similarly, the registration of new political parties and/or candidates remained difficult.

The UK encouraged Uzbekistan’s parliament to take a more active role in drafting, and scrutinising, human rights legislation, and we look forward to closer parliamentary engagement. In this context, the UK provided consultancy support for the establishment of a parliamentary Commission on Human Rights.

Areas of deterioration

During the first half of the year in Afghanistan, the human rights situation deteriorated and the number of civilian casualties as a result of conflict increased, compared to the same period last year. The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) reported 5,183 civilian casualties[footnote 2] between January and June, a 47% increase compared with the first half of 2020. They included 1,682 children[footnote 3] , the highest number recorded in Afghanistan by UNAMA in a 6 month period. Attacks by the Taliban and other armed groups continued to affect media workers, human rights defenders, women, government employees and minorities. In May, an ISKP attack on a school in a Shi’a Muslim district in Kabul killed at least 85 civilians, including 70 women and girls. In many rural areas, gains in territory by the Taliban led to a deterioration in respect for women’s rights and media freedom. Women and girls continued to suffer violence, discrimination and less access than men and boys to health services, education and jobs. Death threats and intimidation against media workers forced many journalists to flee or self-censor. We will report on the human rights situation for the year as a whole in the 2021 FCDO Annual Human Rights & Democracy Report[footnote 4]

The human rights situation in the Central African Republic (CAR) continued to deteriorate sharply in the first half of 2021. The violence which followed elections in late 2020 created greater instability across the country, leading to widespread displacement and a food security crisis with increasing numbers of people in need of humanitarian assistance, as well as increasing the severity of need. Widespread human rights violations and abuses and serious violations of international humanitarian law were committed by domestic armed groups, state security forces and their international proxies. These included extrajudicial and summary killings, torture, arbitrary arrests and detentions, unnecessary and disproportionate use of force, conflict-related sexual violence and serious violations against children, including their recruitment by parties to the conflict.

In China, further credible research and evidence regarding widespread, systematic human rights violations in Xinjiang continued to emerge between January and June 2021. On 12 January the then Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab announced a package of measures to help ensure that British organisations are not complicit in, nor profiting from, human rights violations in the region. On 22 March the UK, alongside the European Union, Canada, and United States, sanctioned 4 individuals and one entity in relation to the human rights violations in Xinjiang. At the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) in February, the then Foreign Secretary expressed his deep concern about Xinjiang and urged China to grant unfettered access to the High Commissioner for Human Rights. In June, Canada led a cross-regional statement of concern at the HRC, supported by 44 countries.  

Reports continued to emerge of severe religious and cultural restrictions in Tibet and Tibetan areas, as well as restrictions on civil society and religious groups across China. China’s media environment tightened further. Foreign journalists and their Chinese staff reported unprecedented levels of harassment, intimidation and violence, as well as threats of legal action against journalists and bureaus. 

In Hong Kong, rights and freedoms guaranteed under the Joint Declaration came under further pressure. The Hong Kong authorities used the National Security Law to restrict freedom of expression and stifle political dissent. On 11 March, Beijing imposed radical changes to restrict participation in Hong Kong’s electoral system. The UK now considers Beijing to be in a state of ongoing non-compliance with the Sino-British Joint Declaration. 

There was no improvement in the human rights situation in Eritrea during the first half of 2021. Arbitrary detentions, indefinite national service, and restrictions on freedom of expression all continued. There was also no progress with Eritrea’s implementation of its Universal Periodic Review recommendations. In June, the UK’s International Human Rights Ambassador welcomed the Special Rapporteur on Eritrea’s report and called for the Eritrean Government to cooperate fully with his mandate.

We were disturbed at reports and allegations of atrocities and violations of international humanitarian law in the Tigray region of Ethiopia by Eritrean forces that continued into the first half of 2021[footnote 5]. We were further concerned that Eritrean forces were responsible for widespread sexual violence, extrajudicial killings, the deliberate destruction of the means of agricultural production and wilfully impeding access to millions of Tigrayans in need of humanitarian aid. Throughout the period, we called on Eritrea to fulfil its commitment to withdraw from the whole Tigray region immediately, and for those responsible for human rights violations and abuses to be held to account.

The human rights situation in Myanmar deteriorated significantly in the first half of 2021. On 1 February, the Myanmar military seized power from the democratically elected government in a coup d’etat. Since the coup, human rights violations in Myanmar have been widespread, including grave violations against children and the killing of over 900 civilians. The military was responsible for the arbitrary detention and torture of activists and political leaders, medical professionals, teachers and journalists across the country. Media freedoms were severely restricted, with publishing licenses banned for most independent outlets. Spyware was installed into telecommunication networks, to identify and target journalists and activists speaking out against the regime. Conflict increased in ethnic areas, with the military conducting airstrikes in Kachin and Karen States, hitting civilian targets including schools and hospitals. Over 200,000[footnote 6]. people were displaced from 1 February to June 2021 as a result of conflict.

The military continue to use sexual based violence as a tactic of war. An estimated 40%[footnote 7] of those detained since the coup are women, who are at a much greater risk of experiencing sexual and gender based violence while in detention. The risk of further violence against the Rohingya remained, with systemic discrimination including restrictions on freedom of movement and access to humanitarian aid. Ethno-religious Buddhist nationalism prevailed nationwide, with anti-Muslim rhetoric being amplified on state media channels. Religious buildings, particularly mosques and churches, were targeted by the military. The UK was at the forefront of the international response, at the UN and G7, as well as applying targeted sanctions against the military and its economic interests.

The human rights situation in Sri Lanka continued to deteriorate during the first half of 2021. The January 2021 report on Sri Lanka by the Office of the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) expressed deep concern over “trends emerging over the past year, which represent clear early warning signs of a deteriorating human rights situation and a significantly heightened risk of future violations”[footnote 8]. The UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) adopted resolution 46/1 in March, expressing serious concern about these trends, and stressing the importance of a comprehensive accountability process for all human rights violations and abuses committed in Sri Lanka.

Security forces increased their surveillance and intimidation of human rights activists and their use of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, with a number of arbitrary arrests. The government proposed new regulations with powers to arrest and send individuals to rehabilitation centres to be ‘deradicalised’ with no judicial oversight or requirement for further process. The President pardoned a convicted murderer on death row and appointed controversial individuals to lead independent institutions such as the Office of Missing Persons. The government initiated activity to obstruct accountability in a number of emblematic human rights cases. There were several deaths in custody which the Sri Lankan Bar Association described as having “all the hall-marks of extrajudicial killings.”

Government marginalisation of minority groups continued, with the banning of several groups including Tamil and Muslim welfare organisations, and restrictions on memorialisation events particularly for communities in the North and East.

Countries of continued concern

The UK remains concerned about the human rights situation in a number of other countries where the situation has not changed significantly during the reporting period.

In Bangladesh, the application of the Digital Security Act (DSA) was widely perceived both in Bangladesh and internationally as targeting critics of the government, leading to the arrest of journalists and censorship of the media. Amnesty International reported that at least 185 individuals were being held under the DSA for allegedly publishing offensive or false information – one of whom died in custody in February. There were 120 reports of journalists experiencing harassment[footnote 9]. Opposition parties alleged acts of intimidation by the government and claimed to find it increasingly difficult to operate, illustrated by at least 263 reported instances of political violence and 54 related deaths between January and June[footnote 10] 41 custodial deaths were reported in the same period, compared with 37 from the first 6 months of 2020[footnote 11]. There were also increased reports of rape and gender-based violence.

Bangladesh continued to host nearly 1 million Rohingya refugees displaced from Myanmar in camps in Cox’s Bazar. COVID-19 related restrictions on NGOs and UN agencies operating in the camps reduced protection services, leading to an increase in levels of gender-based violence against women and girls. In March, 11 refugees died in a fire leaving thousands of shelters destroyed. The government also relocated approximately 14,000 refugees to Bhasan Char in the Bay of Bengal as part of its plans to relocate up to 100,000 refugees. Human Rights Watch expressed concerns about this, including over access to food, healthcare and the detention of refugees attempting to leave. Refugees protested about conditions on the island during a visit by 2 UNHCR Assistant High Commissioners in June.

The human rights situation in Colombia continued to be of concern to the UK. Despite overall progress in the security situation since the 2016 Peace Agreement was signed, killings of social leaders and Human Rights Defenders (HRDs) by illegal armed groups and criminal gangs continued, even though ensuring their safety is a priority for the Colombian Government. The threat to social leaders comes mainly from illegal organised crime groups, tackling which presents a complex and formidable challenge. As well as the targeting of HRDs, human rights violations including sexual violence, internal displacement, forced disappearances and the limiting of media freedom also remain of concern. From 28 April to 16 June this year, the OHCHR registered 56 deaths in the context of nationwide protests. The UK has made clear its concern about reports of human rights violations by the police and armed forces in response to the protests, including allegations of homicide, sexual violence and arbitrary detentions. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights visited Colombia in June 2021 and made several recommendations. We welcome the Colombian Government’s commitment to investigate all allegations of excessive use of force.

During the reporting period, no parties to the conflict had returned to the terms of the Peace Agreement, and mechanisms to investigate allegations of atrocities, and hold those responsible accountable, had not been established. This is essential to reaching a peaceful resolution to the current crisis, and to enabling longer-term efforts to address human rights violations and abuses and to support reconciliation efforts. The establishment by the government of a special commission of inquiry to investigate violations of international humanitarian and international human rights law linked to the elections was a positive first step, but a culture of impunity prevailed.

There was no improvement in the first 6 months of 2021 in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, as human rights violations remained widespread and systematic. On paper, North Korea’s constitution guarantees freedoms of speech, religious belief, the press, association and demonstration. In reality, North Koreans enjoy none of these freedoms. NGOs and others continued to provide disturbing reports of serious human rights violations inside North Korea. Since authorities sealed the country’s borders early in 2020 in response to COVID-19, the UK has been concerned that the plight of many DPRK citizens may have worsened further, and the absence of international actors has made it even harder than usual to work towards improvements. The UN Human Rights Council resolution on DPRK adopted on 23 March 2021 emphasised the importance of allowing international staff free and unimpeded access to all vulnerable people.

Despite UN resolutions recalling the DPRK’s responsibility to protect its population from human rights violations, the DPRK authorities continued to refuse to cooperate with the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, or allow the UN Special Rapporteur access to the country.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the UN reported a decrease of 14% in human rights violations and abuses in the first half of 2021 compared to the previous 6 months [footnote 12]. However, this period saw disruption to UN activities and collection of data in some places due to the eruption of Mount Nyiragongo volcano and anti-MONUSCO demonstrations[footnote 13]. Despite the purported improvement in conflict-affected areas, the numbers of human rights violations and abuses remained high and repression across the country continued. State agents were responsible for 43% of the violations and abuses documented in the first half of 2021. There were also worrying reports of arbitrary arrests, extrajudicial killings and corrupt judicial processes. The UN reported state agents were responsible for at least 199 extrajudicial killings, including 24 children.

In conflict-affected provinces, at least 1147 people have been killed - an average of 6 civilians each day. Armed groups were responsible for 60% of documented human rights violations and abuses. Armed groups have continued to attack civilians indiscriminately. North Kivu province remained by far the most affected province. The Government of DRC introduced a state of siege on 6 May in Ituri and North Kivu provinces to tackle armed groups, but it has yet to produce a noticeable impact on the protection of civilians and it could increase risks. The UK called for military operations to respect human rights and for the military and MONUSCO to coordinate closely with the humanitarian community to ensure that operations did not inadvertently create instability, enable sexual violence, or worsen the humanitarian crisis.

There were ongoing concerns around human rights in Egypt, although there were some signs of progress on specific cases during the reporting period. In March, the UK joined 31 countries in a Finland-led UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) statement on Egypt, the first UNHRC statement on Egypt since 2014. Some positive developments followed, with a number of activists released, including, in April, after 18 months in pre-trial detention, 3 prominent journalists about whom the UK lobbied the Egyptian authorities - Solafa Magdy, Hossam al-Sayyed, and Khaled Dawoud - in addition to Al Jazeera journalist Mahmoud Hussein, and university professor Hazem Hosni, who were released in February. The Egyptian Government also toughened penalties for female genital mutilation (FGM).

Despite these positive developments, the wider human rights situation in Egypt remained concerning. Numerous human rights defenders and journalists remained in prison or in pre-trial detention, while prison conditions continued to be below acceptable standards, with widespread claims of mistreatment and abuse against detainees. Despite their release from prison, three employees of the human rights organisation EIPR remained subject to travel bans and asset freezes, and a number of young women were sentenced for social media videos deemed to contravene Egyptian family values. Death penalties and executions increased, with at least 51 individuals executed in the first half of 2021. This is a worrying increase compared to previous years and, according to multiple NGOs, Egypt now ranks 3rd globally for numbers of executions.

In Iran, the human rights situation remained bleak. Foreign and dual nationals remain detained under arbitrary charges with individuals often held in perilous conditions. Journalists were arrested for their reporting, while staff working for foreign-based Persian media outlets and their families continue to be harassed. New bills threaten citizen journalists with charges that carry the death penalty if they send videos or images to “hostile states” and foreign social media sites face greater censorship and stringent limits on access.

Persecution against religious minorities and ethnic groups continued unabated. In January, significant numbers of ethnic minority activists were arrested, and Parliament approved amendments to the penal code which pose significant risks to freedom of religion or belief. The Baha’i community faced particular hardship. In Ivel, they had their land expropriated, and several followers were detained. During the first 6 months of the year, Iran has remained a prolific user of the death penalty and credible reports estimate that there were at least 112 executions.

The human rights situation in Iraq remained challenging in the first half of 2021. Militia and armed groups continued to operate with impunity, suppressing freedom of expression by perpetrating kidnappings and assassinations. Human rights reporting has suggested that targeted killings of activists have continued in the context of the upcoming election[footnote 14]. During the reporting period, there was no formal accountability for the killings of activists in 2021. The fact-finding committee set up by PM Kadhimi in 2020, had not published findings or delivered accountability. In the Kurdistan Region, the number of media freedom abuse cases increased, centred mostly around one group of journalists. Subsequent trials and appeals were the subject of widespread criticism. Smaller scale protests continued across Federal Iraq, against corruption and lack of adequate public services, due in part to significant periods of electricity and water shortages.  Public outrage and grief sparked after 2 substantial fires in COVID-19 isolation wards resulted in over 150 deaths.

The Iraqi Government showed some willingness to recognise the role of minorities, but there was little meaningful progress. The consequences of Daesh atrocities remained, with1.2 million Iraqis still displaced. The security and the political situation, and the limited infrastructure, prevented returns particularly to Sinjar and Nineveh. The Iraqi Parliament passed the Yazidi Survivors Law in March 2021, which was an important step that officially recognised Daesh crimes against Yazidi and other minority groups as crimes against humanity and genocide. However, implementation has been slow and meaningful accountability for Daesh atrocities had yet to be achieved.

Notwithstanding welcome progress in Libya’s political process, including the inauguration of an interim Government of National Unity on 10 March, charged with preparing national elections on 24 December 2021, the human rights situation in Libya continued to be of concern throughout the period.

As of June, UNHCR reported[footnote 15] that there were 42,458 migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in Libya. Many were being held in overcrowded official migrant detention centres. Migrants and refugees in both official and unofficial detention centres faced arbitrary detention by militias, kidnapping for ransom, and a lack of due process, including indefinite detention. The UK continued to press for the end of the arbitrary detention of refugees, migrants and asylum seekers.

Libyan authorities continued to uncover mass graves in Tarhouna and Southern Tripoli, reportedly linked to the abductions and killings allegedly committed by the al-Kaniyat militia. The alleged killings of Mohammed al-Kani, one of the leaders of the al-Kaniyat, and Mahmoud Al-Werfalli, an ICC-indictee, before they were brought to justice highlighted the continued need for accountability under the rule of law in Libya. The UK designated the al-Kaniyat militia, along with 2 of its leaders, under our Libya Sanctions regime on 13 May. The UK called for greater access for the UN Fact Finding Mission in Libya to investigate violations and abuses, and for a process of national reconciliation and accountability.

The silencing of journalists, activists, and human rights defenders by militias, along with restrictions on freedom of association, of the media, and of religion or belief were of serious concern, particularly ahead of national elections in December. This was exemplified by the abduction of Mansour Atti Al Maghrabi, the Head of the Libyan Red Crescent, in Ajdabiya on 3 June. The UK called on the relevant Libyan authorities to facilitate free, fair and inclusive national elections on 24 December 2021, and to ensure the full, equal and meaningful participation of women and the inclusion of youth.

The human rights situation in Israel and the OPTs remains concerning. In Gaza, the situation deteriorated, with a significant escalation of violence between Gazan militant groups and Israel. Between 10 and 21 May 2021, Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad group launched 4,360 rockets in to Israel. This resulted in the death of 12 civilians including one child and one soldier in Israel, with 330 others injured. The Israeli Defence Forces carried out a campaign of airstrikes, naval and land bombardment in Gaza. 256 civilian Palestinians were killed, including 66 children. Access to Gaza, already limited, was heavily curtailed during and following the escalation affecting humanitarian aid, food supplies and medical treatment. The humanitarian situation in Gaza remained dire and Hamas authorities continued to repress Gazans’ civil and political rights.

In the West Bank, Israeli settlement activity continued. Rates of Israeli demolitions of Palestinian property in East Jerusalem and Area C increased. Incidents of concern included the repeated mass demolition of the Palestinian community of Humsa al Bqai’a in February, leaving civilians homeless. The threat of evictions of Palestinians from their homes in the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah in particular, resulted in frequent clashes. According to UNOCHA, about 970 Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem were the subject of eviction cases. Settler violence worsened, with OCHA recording the highest monthly average of incidents since it began tracking settler violence with over 45 attacks resulting in Palestinian casualties or damage to property. Palestinian Authority (PA) security forces were accused of excessive use of force after the death of activist Nizar Banat in custody on 24 June. Protests subsequently took place across the West Bank, resulting in the harassment of peaceful protesters, journalists and human rights defenders, with women activists specifically targeted. Concerns also remained over use of excessive force by Israeli Security Forces. During the first 6 months of 2021, 49 Palestinians were killed (including 9 children), and 9,668 injured by Israeli forces in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.

The human rights situation in Pakistan remained concerning, despite some positive developments during the period. Notable positive developments included the establishment of Pakistan’s first Child Protection Institute to rescue and provide support and rehabilitation to street children and victims of child labour and trafficking. Pakistan’s Supreme Court placed a ban on the death penalty for prisoners with mental health issues and implemented safeguarding measures around prisoners’ mental health. A draft federal Journalist Protection bill and a new Journalist Protection bill in Sindh Province were positive legislative steps.

The situation for religious minorities remained troubling, with widespread violence and discrimination, including against Ahmadi Muslims, Shia Muslims, Christians, Hindus, and Sikhs. There was a series of targeted killings of Ahmadi Muslims and frequent reports of damage to minority places of worship. Charges and prosecutions for blasphemy continued, with those individuals found guilty facing the death penalty. Religious minorities were affected disproportionately by blasphemy allegations.

Cases of violence against women and girls persisted, as did reports of forced conversion and forced marriage. In April, the National Assembly approved a Domestic Violence bill, but progress through the legislative process stalled due to objections from religious leaders. Media freedom remained under threat, with increased attacks against journalists and legislative attempts to curb media operating space. Reports of torture and enforced disappearances, including of human rights activists, remained a concern. A draft Enforced Disappearances bill submitted to Parliament in June could criminalise the practice.

In Russia, the authorities continued to repress the fundamental freedoms of the country’s citizens, and further restricted the activities of civil society organisations, independent media outlets, and opposition figures. Lawmakers implemented legislative amendments which expanded the scope of the undesirable organisations law to include individual activists, and also barred individuals involved in so-called “extremist” organisations from running for elected positions for a five-year period. This resulted in specific opposition movements being barred from running in State Duma elections in September.

There were several high-profile prosecutions, which were widely believed to be politically motivated. In February, the Moscow City Court sentenced opposition figure Alexey Navalny, based on charges the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) deemed manifestly unreasonable. During subsequent demonstrations, peaceful protesters and independent journalists were forcibly detained and subjected to police violence. The ECtHR indicated to Russia to release Mr Navalny with immediate effect, based on their assessment of the risk to Mr Navalny’s life. Russia did not put this decision into effect in the first half of 2021. The UK continued to call for Mr Navalny’s immediate and unconditional release and condemned the treatment of peaceful protesters.

Minority groups continued to suffer hostile treatment. In June, the British Embassy in Moscow flew the rainbow flag to demonstrate the UK’s support for and solidarity with the LGBT+ community, who continued to face discrimination. The persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses continued. The UK raised our concerns about the arrest of Jehovah’s Witnesses and raids of their homes at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and called on Russia to guarantee the right to freedom of religion or belief for all its citizens. The UK continued to call on Russia, alongside international partners at the OSCE, Council of Europe and the UN Human Rights Council, to uphold its international human rights commitments and ensure fundamental freedoms for all Russian citizens.

In Saudi Arabia, some progress continued to be made through the Vision 2030 programme. Employment opportunities for women increased. Since February, women have had the right to enlist in the army. The World Bank credited Saudi Arabia with eliminating restrictions on women’s employment in industrial jobs, mining, manufacturing and night work in their 2021 report[footnote 16]. The Saudi authorities released all 13 women rights defenders detained in 2018 but they remained subject to travel bans. Saudi Arabia announced legal reforms aimed at eliminating discrepancies, improving consistency in court rulings and improving accountability and transparency.

Despite positive progress in some areas, serious challenges on human rights remained elsewhere. At least 28 individuals were executed from January to June, a decrease from 2019 but an increase from the total 2020 figure. The retrospective application of the death penalty for minors was confirmed for three minors.

Political dissent was not tolerated and the clampdown on political space continued. Reports of enforced disappearances, arbitrary detention, torture and mistreatment in detention and lack of access to adequate legal representation remained. Freedom of expression and media freedom were very restricted. The British Embassy Riyadh has not been able to access trials in the Kingdom (with the exception of the trial in the murder case of Jamal Khashoggi) since 2018. The UK remains concerned that individuals arrested for crimes committed as minors remain on death row. This was heightened by the execution of Mustafa Hashem al-Darwish in June. The Embassy raised this case before and after the execution. The then Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, Minister for the Middle East, The Rt Hon James Cleverly MP and Minister for Human Rights, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon have raised human rights concerns in their meetings with their Saudi counterparts, including the cases of women’s rights defenders. UK ministers continued to push for progress on issues including modern slavery, freedom of religion or belief, justice reform, trial access, the death penalty, women’s rights, individual cases and detention conditions.

In Somalia, the UK continued to monitor a wide range of human rights violations and abuses. Al Shabaab frequently attacked civilian targets. In the areas controlled by the group, respect for the rights of women and minorities was poor. We were also concerned at the violation of human rights by Federal Government and Member State security and police forces.

The number of executions was at its highest level since 2017. Al Shabaab continued to execute civilians whom it accused of spying for foreign governments and the Federal Government of Somalia and, furthermore, did so without substantiation of these claims. In June, 21 Al Shabaab fighters were executed by authorities in Puntland. The effect of the country’s ongoing conflict on children was of great concern and appeared to be worsening, including as Al Shabaab continued recruitment of child soldiers. The situation for journalists and media organisations also remained difficult as the Federal Government and Federal Member States continued to limit freedom of expression. NGOs reported 30 incidents of harassment and arbitrary detention between January and April 2021, as well as a murder. Sexual and gender-based violence, including forced marriage and female genital mutilation, remained widespread across the country.

In April, there were violent clashes in Mogadishu linked to the crisis over the electoral process, temporarily displacing thousands of people. High levels of insecurity compounded the challenging humanitarian situation. The COVID-19 pandemic and recent climate-related shocks pushed the number of people in need of humanitarian assistance to a three-year high of 5.9 million. Aid workers reported threats and, in many areas, humanitarian access remained difficult. Al Shabaab continued to blockade towns and villages, disrupting people’s movement and access to basic needs. Somaliland successfully held ‘one person, one vote’ parliamentary and local council elections on 31 May. Minority communities secured their first representation in the Parliament, but, disappointingly, no women were elected as MPs. Infringements of freedom of religion or belief were a concern: since late 2020, the Somaliland authorities have been cracking down on proselytisation. Additionally in Somaliland, a number of men were charged with homosexuality and given sentences of up to 13 years.

In South Sudan progress on implementation of the 2018 Peace Agreement continued to be slow and limited, contributing to a dire humanitarian situation and no overall improvement in human rights. Growing instability and political tensions led to an increase in violence against those delivering humanitarian assistance and their assets, with at least 14 aid workers[footnote 17] killed during the reporting period. Human rights issues of particular concern included: ongoing targeting of civilians, sexual and gender-based violence, limits on freedom of expression, extrajudicial killings, and arbitrary detentions. At least 42 people[footnote 18] were reported to have been executed without any trial or due process by security forces in Warrap and Lakes states in incidents between March and June. Between January and February the UN Peacekeeping Mission in South Sudan reported receiving “alarming reports” of censorship, harassment and arrests of activists by the country’s National Security Service (NSS), and in March, activists were detained by NSS over peaceful protests.

Through regular engagement in London, the region and in Juba, the UK continued to press for greater cooperation on human rights issues by the Government of South Sudan, as well as implementation of the Peace Agreement. In March, the UK helped ensure the mandate for the UN Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan was renewed until 2022. This important mandate will provide robust and independent monitoring, as well as assistance to the Government of South Sudan to implement its commitments on human rights, including operationalising justice mechanisms such as the Hybrid Court. Regrettably, the Government of South Sudan resisted this mandate renewal; seeking instead a focus solely on capacity building and an end to independent monitoring.

There was no improvement during the first 6 months of 2021 to the human rights situation in Syria, which remained one of the most appalling in the world. Grave violations continued, including the regime’s use of artillery to shell civilians in North West Syria. The tenth anniversary, on 15 March, of the peaceful uprising that became the Syrian conflict prompted reporting on a decade of horrific violence, death, repression, violations, and abuses. The UN Commission of Inquiry’s 24th report on the conflict covers the period from July 2020 to June 2021 and documented that parties to the conflict, especially the Assad regime, continued to perpetrate war crimes and crimes against humanity and violate the basic human rights of Syrian civilians. The Commission also continued to document arbitrary and incommunicado detention, torture and sexual violence in detention, and deaths and enforced disappearances. The Assad regime bore the primary responsibility for these crimes, although other parties including terrorist groups Daesh and Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham also perpetrated serious human rights abuses.

The UK-penned resolution adopted by the UN Human Rights Council in March condemned these abuses and renewed the vital mandate of the Commission of Inquiry. Following further confirmed use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime Air Force, on 21 April the Conference of States Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) adopted a Decision suspending Syria’s voting rights and privileges until it takes specified steps to comply with its CWC obligations.

There were no significant improvements in the human rights situation in Turkmenistan in the first half of 2021. Human Rights Watch reported that human rights activists and their families, both inside and outside the country[footnote 19], were subject to arrest and harassment by the authorities. All imprisoned Jehovah’s Witnesses were released under a prisoner amnesty in May 2021. However, during the reporting period, Turkmenistan did not implement previous recommendations from the UN Human Rights Committee to revise relevant legislation, recognising, in law, the right to conscientious objection to military service and providing a civilian alternative outside the military sphere. The government continued to assert that there were no cases of COVID-19. Such claims were left largely unchallenged within the country due to the absence of a free media and extensive restrictions on freedom of expression.

We welcome Turkmenistan’s discussions with the International Organisation for Migration in April 2021 on providing assistance and protection to the victims of human trafficking[footnote 20]. We encourage Turkmenistan to work with and arrange a visit by the UN Working Group on Enforced Disappearances as a step towards addressing long-standing concerns over incommunicado detention of victims of enforced disappearances. A newly published National Action Plan on Human Rights in Turkmenistan[footnote 21] contains some welcome initiatives that, if implemented fully, have the potential to improve the human rights situation in the country.

Attacks on human, political and civil rights continued in Venezuela. During the first half of 2021, 43 National Assembly members were banned from leaving the country and 28 were disqualified from holding political office[footnote 22]. Attacks against human rights defenders tripled in comparison with the same period in 2020[footnote 23]. Five humanitarian actors were arrested for implementing a programme that was part of the UN’s humanitarian response plan. Attacks against journalists and media outlets continued. National Police Special Forces killed at least 14 people in an operation in Caracas, and killed 5 people after they were detained in the border state of Apure in March. Both of these instances have been referred to as possible extrajudicial executions[footnote 24]. Overall, UN reporting suggested a downward trend of alleged deaths during protests and security operations.

The humanitarian and migration crises continued. Up to 2,000 migrants crossed the border with Colombia every day. The COVID-19 pandemic continued to exacerbate many rights-related problems and vaccination levels remained concerningly low. Gender-based violence remained a concern: 125 women and girls were victims of femicide[footnote 25] and 147 were rescued from human trafficking networks abroad[footnote 26]. The UK contributed to efforts to tackle gender-based violence through campaigns and programmes to empower girls, such as our ‘She Plays Safe’ programme.

In Yemen, independent Yemeni human rights organisation Mwatana reported that groups across the country continued to be accused of arbitrary detentions, with widespread mistreatment of detainees, including torture[footnote 27]. The persecution of Yemeni religious minorities also continued. 24 members of the Baha’i community continued to be detained. On 7 March, a migrant centre in the capital Sana’a caught fire, killing 44 and injuring approximately 193. The International Organisation of Migrants stated that the migrant centre had been 3 times over capacity, creating inhumane and unsafe conditions. In May, 4 journalists released from Houthi custody disclosed details of extensive mistreatment, unfair trials and torture[footnote 28]. There were also reports of widespread gender based violence and sexual abuse of women detainees in Houthi prisons. NGO and media reports stated that in February the Houthis detained and sentenced to prison Yemeni actress Intisar al-Hammadi on immorality and prostitution charges when she refused to take part in an entrapment scheme[footnote 29].

On 21 June, the UN Secretary General’s report on Children and Armed Conflict added the Houthis to the list of parties engaging in violations against children, and detailed extensive incidents of such abuses. In particular, the Houthis increased their recruitment and deployment of child soldiers as part of their offensive on Ma’rib Governorate, leading to numerous child casualties[footnote 30]. A political solution to the conflict will help create the conditions needed to improve the human rights situation in Yemen.

We remain concerned by the human rights situation in Zimbabwe, with no notable improvement between January and June 2021. We continued to be concerned by the pattern of harassment of prominent opposition and civil society figures, as well as journalists. We were yet to see accountability for the abduction and multiple arrests of opposition MDC Alliance members Joana Mamombe MP, Cecelia Chimbiri and Netsai Marova, as well as the repeated arrest of journalist Hopewell Chin’ono. The former Minister for Africa raised the human rights situation in Zimbabwe with Foreign Minister Shava on 9 June.

On 1 February, the UK announced autonomous sanctions to hold to account 4 security officials who were responsible for some of Zimbabwe’s worst human rights violations under the Mnangagwa regime. These restrictive measures are not targeted at, nor intended to impact, the wider economy and the people of Zimbabwe. In the first half of 2021, the UK continued to support civil society in Zimbabwe to hold the Government to account.

New human rights priority countries

In Belarus, the regime intensified its assault on human rights and fundamental freedoms, which the authorities have been waging since Presidential elections in 2020.  By June, over 35,000 people had been arbitrarily detained and over 500 people imprisoned on political grounds. There were reports of tortures in prison, and defendants were denied a fair trial.

In February, security forces raided the offices of independent media, civil society and human rights organisations across Belarus, arresting workers, confiscating equipment and blocking access to and shutting down independent media sites. The authorities introduced laws to further restrict media expression and freedom of assembly and have begun the process of criminalising the display of symbols associated with the opposition movement. 

In her report to the UN Human Rights Council in February 2021, the High Commissioner described the situation in Belarus as “unprecedented in the country’s history”.  In March, the UK co-sponsored a resolution to mandate the UN High Commissioner to investigate serious violations and accusations of torture.  And, alongside Denmark and Germany, the UK launched the NGO-led International Accountability Platform (IAPB) to collate evidence of human rights violations. On 23 May, the Belarusian authorities forced the diversion and landing of a civilian airliner, with over 100 people on board, in order to arrest independent journalist Roman Protasevich and his partner. The UK took immediate steps to ban Belarusian airlines from UK airspace without prior authorisation and advised UK airlines to avoid flying into Belarusian airspace. Since September 2020, the UK has implemented over 100 designations against individuals and entities for human rights violations under our Belarus sanctions regime, including those directly responsible for the forced diversion of flight FR4978. We have increased support to civil society and international media organisations.

The human rights situation deteriorated in Mali during the first half of 2021. The UN mission in Mali reported an increase of over 25% in the number of civilians killed, injured or kidnapped from April to June 2021 compared to the first quarter of the year. Terrorist violence and intercommunal conflict led to an increase in human rights abuses. Recorded violations by state actors, such as extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, also increased in the first 6 months of 2021. Despite repeated commitments by the transitional authorities to tackle impunity for violations and abuses, there was little progress during the reporting period. Descent-based slavery, where ‘slave status’ is inherited and results in discrimination and denial of human rights, continued to be practised throughout Mali with no formal criminalisation. In the Kayes region of Mali, the situation was particularly acute with increasing cases of violence and persecution of victims of the practice.

In May 2021, a coup d’état took place less than a year on from the previous coup in August last year. The former President (Bah N’Daw) and Prime Minister (Moctar Ouane) were detained and forced to resign. Former vice-President, Assimi Goïta, took over the Presidency, with Mali’s Constitutional Court validating his nomination.

In Nicaragua, President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, have accelerated their undermining of democratic institutions. This has gone hand-in-hand with an escalation in the scale of various human rights violations. In advance of the November 2021 presidential elections, the Government embarked on a campaign of detention and persecution of members of the political opposition, independent journalists and government critics. As of 25 June, at least 21 opposition figures had been either detained or placed under house arrest, including 5 presidential hopefuls who have now been disqualified from participating in the November elections. These actions form part of a strategy to eliminate electoral competition, supress freedom of expression, assembly and association, and clear the way for the Regime to secure a fourth mandate come November . The UK, alongside others in the Americas and elsewhere, condemned the Ortega Regime’s steps in statements at the UN Human Rights Council and the Organization for American States in June.

A controversial electoral law passed on 4 May further undermined prospects of free and fair elections, as it does not allow for independent election observation or the transparent reporting of results. The new measures give the authorities additional powers (to those already provided under the ‘sovereignty law’ passed in December 2020) to prevent candidates from participating in elections. The UK is concerned that this legislation could be used to prevent all credible opposition from participating in November’s elections.

In another blow to freedom of expression, on 20 May the police raided the offices of an independent media outlet, ‘Confidencial’, as part of their ongoing campaign of oppression and harassment of the media. The Office of the Prosecutor General interrogated more than 30 journalists, activists and business people, in some cases without explaining the purpose of their questioning.

  1. On 25 October the Sudanese military effected a coup d’état. A State of Emergency was declared, along with the suspension of elements of the 2019 Constitutional Declaration, the blocking the internet, and the detention of most of the civilian-led government. On 22 November a civilian-military agreement was signed to restore a civilian government. The situation remains fluid, and the impact of recent events on human rights will be reflected in the 2021 FCDO Annual Human Rights & Democracy Report. 

  2. 1,659 killed; 3,524 injured 

  3. 468 killed; 1,124 injured 

  4. On 15 August 2021, Kabul fell to the Taliban. The Taliban are now in control of most of the territory in Afghanistan. The change in the human rights situation from July to December 2021 will be reflected in the 2021 FCDO Annual Human Rights & Democracy Report. 

  5. Since 4 November 2020, there has been a conflict in the north of Ethiopia, to which the Eritrean Armed Forces are a party. There have been a large number of statements and Parliamentary debates that set out the situation, condemn the human rights abuses, and set out the actions that we have taken. The situation in Ethiopia (including the outcome of the report of a Joint Investigation on human rights, between the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission which is due to issue in November 2021) and the UK’s response will be reflected in the 2021 FCDO Annual Human Rights & Democracy Report. 




  9. Source: Ain O Shalish Kendra (Bangladesh Legal Aid and Human Rights Organisation) 

  10. Source: Ain O Shalish Kendra (Bangladesh Legal Aid and Human Rights Organisation) 

  11. Source: Ain O Shalish Kendra (Bangladesh Legal Aid and Human Rights Organisation) 



  14. and 





  19. Turkmenistan: Threats Against Relatives of Dissidents Abroad/Human Rights Watch ( 






  25. Local NGO CEPAZ 

  26. Local NGO Mulier 

  27. Mwatana, In the Darkness: Abusive Detention, Disappearance and Torture in Yemen’s Unofficial Prisons (May 2016 – April 2020) 

  28. International Observatory of Human Rights, Recently Freed Journalists in Yemen Reveal Details of Their Torture by the Houthis and the Horror the 4 Yemeni Journalists Unjustly Sentenced to Death are facing 

  29. Human Rights Watch, Yemen: Houthis Subject Model to Unfair Trial 

  30. OCHA Services Reliefweb, Children and armed conflict - Report of the Secretary-General (A/75/873–S/2021/437) [EN/AR/RU/ZH]