International Justice in the News

The International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life brings you a monthly selection of news about the people involved in the work of international courts and tribunals, significant developments in international justice, and publications and resources of interest. We hope that this brief selection will help you keep abreast of the field and lead you to sites where you can inform yourself further.


August 2016


Featured News


fThe International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life of Brandeis University recently concluded the 11th session of the Brandeis Institute for International Judges (BIIJ). Participants serving on the benches of 12 international courts and tribunals met in Copenhagen to discuss a variety of topics under the overarching theme “The Authority of International Courts and Tribunals: Challenges and Prospects.” BIIJ 2016 was carried out as an institutional partnership between the Center and iCourts, the Danish National Research Foundation's Centre of Excellence for International Courts at the University of Copenhagen, Faculty of Law. Read a summary of the event and see a list of participants here.


People in the News


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      Rowan Downing
The United Nations Dispute Tribunal has three new judges: Alexander W. Hunter of the United States; Agnieczka Klonowiecka-Milart of Poland (BIIJ 2003 and 2012), formerly an international judge of the Kosovo Supreme Court and the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC); and Teresa Maria da Silva Bravo of Portugal. Rowan Downing of Australia (BIIJ 2013 and 2015), also a former ECCC judge, has been elected as the Dispute Tribunal president. Deborah Thomas-Felix of Trinidad and Tobago is the new president of the United Nations Appeals Tribunal.



dThe Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) has selected Paulo Abrão of Brazil as its new Executive Secretary. Mr. Abrão, a law professor in Brazil and Spain, serves as Executive Secretary of the Institute for Public Policies on Human Rights of MERCOSUR, and is Chairman of Brazil’s Amnesty Commission, which is in charge of policies on reparations and memory for the victims of the military dictatorship. Read more about the new leader’s experience here.

The IACHR originally planned to select its new Executive Secretary during its July 2016 regular session. However, due to an ongoing financial crisis, which could necessitate a 40% staff reduction, this session was cancelled and the selection was made instead at the Commission headquarters in Washington. If the IACHR receives the financial pledges made since announcing its crisis, it may be able to retain its full staff. However, according to a press release, “basic activities are still on hold, such as the session for the second semester of this year, which is essential to be able to work on the analysis of petitions and cases, approve case reports, and hold public hearings and working meetings, among other important responsibilities. The Inter-American Commission once again calls on the member countries, observer countries, and the international community to provide additional funding so the Commission can resume the functions that are essential to the fulfillment of its mandate.”



dJudge Juliet Sebutinde of the International Court of Justice has been named chancellor of Muteesa 1 Royal University in her home country, Uganda. This private university was founded by the Kingdom of Buganda in 2007. An allafrica.com article notes that Judge Sebutinde’s “international image” will benefit the fledgling institution.



dElie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, has died. In a United Nations press release, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stated, “Elie Wiesel turned the nightmare of his youth into a lifelong campaign for global equality and peace. As a UN Messenger of Peace since 1998, he called for constant vigilance in combatting anti-Semitism and other forms of hatred.” According to a New York Times article, “…by the sheer force of his personality and his gift for the haunting phrase, Mr. Wiesel, who had been liberated from Buchenwald as a 16-year-old with the indelible tattoo A-7713 on his arm, gradually exhumed the Holocaust from the burial ground of the history books.”


dAre victims of the Haitian cholera epidemic getting closer to justice and accountability for their suffering? In a rare act of unity, members of the United States House of Representatives have sent a letter to the State Department, asking it to “exercise its leadership to ensure that the United Nations . . . take concrete steps to eliminate the cholera epidemic introduced to Haiti in 2010 by waste from a UN peacekeeper camp, and to comply with its legal and moral obligations to provide cholera victims with access to an effective remedy.” It is estimated that up to 30,000 persons have died from the disease since 2010 and 800,000 more have been infected. The UN has claimed immunity from damages in a case brought against the international organization by victims in the state of New York. A decision on the matter by the US Court of Appeals for the Second District is pending. Read more details from The Guardian and an account of the ongoing litigation from the Institute for Democracy and Justice in Haiti.


dJean Pierre Bemba Gombo has been sentenced to 18 years imprisonment by the International Criminal Court (ICC). Mr. Bemba was convicted in March 2016 of crimes against humanity and war crimes – including murder, rape and pillaging – committed in the Central African Republic. According to the International Justice Monitor, Bemba is the most senior figure to be sentenced by the ICC. “At the time of his arrest in Belgium in 2008, he was a senator in the Democratic Republic of Congo and leader of the main opposition party, the MLC. Previously, he had served as one of the country’s vice presidents in a unity government formed under a peace accord following years of armed conflict.” The Bemba case also broke ground as the first at the ICC to focus on rape as a war crime.


dFormer Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has filed a petition with the UN human rights committee, alleging violations of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and abuses of power by a Brazilian judge. Lula is being investigated over his role in a corruption case involving the Brazilian state oil company Petrobras. According to his British human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson (BIIJ 2003), formerly an international judge at the Special Court for Sierra Leone: “Lula is bringing his case at the UN because he cannot get justice in Brazil under its inquisitorial system. The same judge who is invading his privacy in this case can have him arrested at any moment and will then become his trial judge, deciding on his guilt or innocence without a jury. This is a serious fault in the inquisitorial system as it operates in Brazil.”



Developments in International Justice


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After an almost 4-year wait, a landmark ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in the contentious Philippines v. China case has been issued. The case concerned overlapping claims of territorial sovereignty in the South China Sea as interpreted under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The upshot, as described by Lawfare blogger Robert D. Williams, is a “nearly across-the-board win for the Philippines, and a searing verdict on the lawfulness of China’s artificial island construction and other actions in the South China Sea.” A week after the ruling, China asked the Philippines to enter into bilateral talks around the dispute but demanded that the PCA ruling not be mentioned. The Philippines declined. Learn more about this development from CNN. Read a commentator’s views on what might happen next in this standoff from heritage.org.



dA collective open letter against “the abusive invocation of self-defence as a response to terrorism” has been circulating on the web for the last few weeks. The objective of this collective initiative is to challenge the use of the legal argument of self-defence by several States in the context of the so-called “war” against ISIL or ISIS. Read more about the letter and its aims, and see who has signed onto it, here. Read a blogpost providing context and background for the initiative at EJIL-Talk!.



dA group of human rights experts took advantage of 18 July, Nelson Mandela International Day, to hail the adoption of the Nelson Mandela Rules. These rules, which are a revision of the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, were adopted on 17 December 2015 by the UN General Assembly. It was decided upon their adoption that they should be named to honor the legacy of the late President of South Africa and that 18 July should annually be utilized to promote humane conditions of imprisonment.



dLiberia has officially become the 163rd member of the World Trade Organization (WTO). According to WTO leadership, this is as an important step for an “LDC” – least-developed country. “WTO membership will help Liberia to benefit from the international trade and investment that is essential to build the economy and improve people’s lives,” said Director-General Roberto Azevêdo. “I hope that this achievement will help the country to continue on the path of hope, progress and development.” A number of other African countries are currently negotiating their WTO accession.



dThe Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) has ruled that farmers in Italy will have to destroy thousands of olive trees infected with a deadly disease called Xylella fastidiosa. As reported by The Telegraph, the ruling  “confirms the validity” of a directive issued by the European Commission last year which called for trees to be cut down in order to halt the advance of the disease. Since 2013, over a million trees have died due to the disease, which is transmitted by an insect. Even trees that show no signs of the sickness will be cut down if they are within 100 yards of an affected one, which is the maximum flight range of the infecting meadow spittlebug. The Italian agricultural sector has reacted with anger and dismay.



fIn the latest act of a convoluted international business drama, the government of Ecuador has paid the Chevron Corporation $112 million as directed by an arbitration panel. The case involved a decades-long battle over a contract – originally arranged with Texaco, which was later acquired by Chevron – to develop oil fields in the Amazon. This award is dwarfed by the $9 billion in damages that an Ecuadorian court directed Chevron to pay to Ecuadorian villagers and indigenous peoples for destruction of their environment due to oil pollution. Chevron has refused to pay that award, claiming that there was fraud involved in the lawsuit. There are other claims and counter-claims, and lawsuits and arbitral proceedings, between Chevron and Ecuador. Read more details about the cases and implications for future business in Ecuador from Bloomberg News. Learn about the special impacts the oil-drilling activity has had on the Amazon and its residents from Amazon Watch.



dThe Intergovernmental Commission of Human Rights of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) recently convened a special meeting in Thailand. On the agenda was the annual report to be submitted to the ASEAN Foreign Ministers as well as an upcoming Judicial Colloquium on the Sharing of Good Practices regarding International Human Rights Law and Human Rights Cases in Domestic Courts. The larger Asia region does not have a human rights convention – unlike the Americas, Europe or Africa – nor a commission or court to oversee human rights protections. The ASEAN Commission, created in 2009, and its Human Rights Declaration, adopted in 2012, are thus a welcome addition to the global human rights system. The Declaration has been widely criticized, however, for its provision that domestic laws can trump international human rights. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights praised ASEAN for its Declaration but warned that "it is essential that ASEAN ensures that any language inconsistent with international human rights standards does not become a part of any binding regional human rights convention.”


dWhat does the United Kingdom’s referendum to leave the European Union mean for human rights? In a commentary on the Human Rights Watch website, Benjamin Ward reports that there has been an upsurge in acts of xenophobia in the wake of Brexit and that many continental Europeans feel uncertain about their future in that country. He also notes that although the UK is still subject to the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR), a Conservative party initiative to replace it with a British Bill of Rights could weaken the core rights guaranteed by the ECHR. Prof. Stephen Greer of University of Bristol Law School provides a more detailed analysis of the complex situation, addressing the impacts on the UK, the European Union, and the Council of Europe in turn. He concludes that the impact of Brexit on human rights at all these levels is “unlikely to be immediate or direct.” 



Publications and Resources of Interest

dA new report by Oxfam shows that the world’s six richest countries host only 9% of refugees worldwide. The United States, China, Japan, Germany, France and the United Kingdom – which collectively account for half the global economy – hosted 2.1 million refugees and asylum seekers last year. At the same time, Jordan, Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, South Africa and Occupied Palestinian Territory – which represent under 2% of the world’s economy – host over 50% of the world’s refugees and asylum seekers. Oxfam calls on wealthy governments “to not only host more people in need of safe havens, but to commit to do more to help the developing countries sheltering the majority of refugees and protect all people on the move.” 



Oxford University Press has recently published two books that analyze the effectiveness of the International Criminal Court:




dCould the violent crimes that are occurring regularly in Mexico rise to the level of crimes against humanity? That is what the Open Society Foundations argues in a new report, “Undeniable Atrocities: Confronting Crimes Against Humanity in Mexico.” According to Open Society Foundations: “We conclude that there is reason to believe that federal government and organized crime groups—specifically, members of the Zetas cartel—have committed murder, torture, and disappearance that have been widespread, systematic, and part of a policy to attack civilian populations. In short, there is a reasonable basis to believe that some of these atrocities amount to crimes against humanity.” Read more about the situation, and view a short explanatory video on crimes against humanity (in Spanish with English subtitles) in an Open Society press release.


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  Theodor Meron at BIIJ 2016

The Twittersphere has been alive with a recent interview with Theodor Meron (BIIJ 2006, ’10, ’12, ’15, and ’16), current President of the Mechanism on International Criminal Tribunals and former Judge and President of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. In the interview, conducted by Shehzad Sharania, details emerge about his life as a legal advisor, diplomat, and as one of the most influential jurists in the history of international criminal justice.


“International Justice in the News” is edited by Leigh Swigart, Director of Programs in International Justice and Society.

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