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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.

March 2015

People in the News

dShould Dominic Onweng, a Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) commander now awaiting trial at the International Criminal Court, be considered an agent or subject of grave crimes? As noted in a recent IntLawGrrls post, “Ongwen’s status as both a victim and a perpetrator … has been widely debated since his arrest, highlighting not only the atrocities he is alleged to have committed but also the government’s failure to protect him from abduction in the first place.” At least one religious leader in Uganda is willing to testify in Ongwen’s defense, believing that the rebel commander “was a victim of circumstance, having been abducted at the age of 10 and transformed into a marauding killer.” ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda has also recently reminded the public that “the conscription, enlistment and use of child soldiers figure amongst the most reprehensible crimes under the Rome Statute.” Pre-trial proceedings against Ongwen have been set in motion so the debate about how to balance accountability for crimes against victimization will certainly continue.


Two new judges have been elected to serve at the European Court of Human Rights. In respect of Bulgaria, the newly elected judge is Yonko Grozev. In respect of Serbia, Branko Lubarda was elected. According to ECHR Blogspot, both judges bring solid experience in human rights and related fields. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe has created a new Committee on the Election of Judges to the European Court of Human Rights, which recently met for the first time.

dAfter five and a half years as United States Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues, Stephen Rapp will be stepping down. After his appointment by President Obama, Rapp attempted to reassert America’s role as a leader on international criminal justice and human rights issues. He had hoped to engage more constructively with the International Criminal Court, but throughout his mandate he was unable to have a meaningful impact on President Obama’s policies in this arena. Prior to his Ambassadorship, Rapp served as Chief of Prosecutions at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and Chief Prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone. Learn more about Rapp and his storied career in a Foreign Policy article.

dProfessor William Schabas has resigned from his chairmanship of an inquiry undertaken by the United Nations Human Rights Council into possible war crimes committed during this past summer’s conflict in Gaza. Israel criticized Schabas in a recent communication to the Council, arguing that his role in the inquiry represented a “conflict of interest” since he had been paid by the Palestinian Liberation Organization to provide a legal opinion on their efforts to join the International Criminal Court. Schabas resigned to prevent the tainting of the inquiry’s findings and the Council named one of the two remaining panel members, Ms. Mary McGowan Davis, as the new chairperson. Davis is a former New York State Supreme Court Justice and she previously chaired a follow-up commission to Judge Richard Goldstone’s UN inquiry into Israel’s 2008-2009 invasion of Gaza. Learn more about this change in the inquiry chairmanship from The New York Times.

dFormer United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan has lent his foundation’s support to the establishment of a truth commission in Colombia. The Koffi Anan Foundation recently co-hosted a conference in Bogotá in collaboration with the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ). According to the Foundation, the day-long conference gathered “renowned international and national experts to reflect on lessons learned from truth commissions emerging from peace processes around the world and how they may apply in the Colombian context.” President Manuel Santos of Colombia participated in the conference, along with Colombians who brought a wide spectrum of perspectives on the expectations and questions surrounding their country’s truth-seeking efforts. Read more about the conference and the relationship of truth commissions to peace building efforts from the ICTJ.

Developments in International Justice

          Vukovar Memorial

The International Court of Justice has ruled that neither Serbia nor Croatia is guilty of committing genocide during the Balkan Wars of the 1990s. Croatia claimed that the three-month Serbian attack on the Croatian city of Vukovar in 1991 constituted genocide. The Court ruled that the Serbs intended to drive the Croats from the city, not destroy them, proof of which is required by United Nations Genocide Convention of 1948. Serbia contended that Croatia’s 1995 Operation Storm, which involved the re-capture of the Serb-inhabited region called Krajina and drove 200,000 ethnic Serbs from their homes, was also an act of genocide. The Court found that no evidence was furnished to prove that Croatia intended to eliminate the Serbs from Krajina. Learn more about the case in an article from The Telegraph. Read a detailed discussion of the case and an elaboration of what constitutes specific intent, or dolus specialis, in a genocide case from IntLawGrrls.

dAt a recent meeting of the United Nations Committee on Enforced Disappearances, the Mexican government admitted that the 43 students of Ayotzinapa, who were kidnapped by police and have been missing since September, are victims of enforced disappearance.  Mexico is one of only 45 states that have ratified the UN Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances, which came into force in December 2010. Mexico is thus compelled to continue investigating these crimes and to hold accountable those responsible. Ninety people have thus far been arrested in connection with the kidnapping, but no one has been charged with enforced disappearance. Read more about this development in the Ayotzinapa case in an article from TeleSur.

dThe trial of the former dictator of Chad, Hissène Habré, is slated to begin now that a four-judge panel has confirmed the charges against him. He will be tried in the Extraordinary African Chambers within the Senegalese courts. According to Human Rights Watch, “Habré’s trial will be the first use of ‘universal jurisdiction’ on the African continent. ‘Universal jurisdiction’ is a concept under international law that allows national courts to prosecute the most serious crimes even when committed abroad, by a foreigner and against foreign victims.” The trial will also be the first in which a country tries the former leader of another country for alleged human rights crimes. Habré has been charged with crimes against humanity, war crimes, and torture during his 8-year long reign in Chad. Read more about this trial from allAfrica.

dThe United Nations Human Rights Council has agreed to postpone until next September the release of an inquiry into possible war crimes committed in Sri Lanka during its long war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. As reported in The New York Times, "a United Nations panel of experts in 2011 found what it called credible allegations of serious human rights abuses by the previous government, including large-scale shelling of civilian areas. It also said it found credible allegations that the Tamil Tigers had used civilians as shields and killed those who tried to flee rebel-held zones." The recently elected government of Sri Lanka has asked the UN to delay its release of the report, allowing it time to pursue its own investigations and prosecutions around the incidents in question. More recently, the government has asserted that its own proceedings will allow for no foreign presence. "The domestic inquiry will be 100 percent local. We will only use the assistance of local judges, local laws and the local court system, asserted Sri Lanka's Deputy Foreign Minister. "However, we will ensure that the domestic inquiry will meet international standards."

dThe United Nations Human Rights Council’s working group tasked with developing a non-binding statement on the right to peace has held informal consultations in a lead-up to its third official meeting, scheduled for April 2015. After reaffirming that all humans enjoy a “sacred right to peace” in 2008, the Council created this working group to fully outline the extent of that right. The report of the second session of the working group indicates that its chief challenge is in determining whether or not a right to peace actually exists under international law. Learn more about the working group’s progress from the International Justice Resource Center.

dTwo regional courts in Africa have recently taken on important freedom of press issues.

The African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACtHPR) has ruled that criminal defamation laws cannot include prison sentences or disproportionate punishments such as excessive fines. The ACtHPR is the judicial organ of the African Union and its decisions are binding on states that have ratified the protocol establishing the Court. This decision came as part of case brought by Burkinabé journalist Lohé Issa Konaté, who was sentenced to 12 months in prison for publishing two articles accusing a public prosecutor in Burkina Faso of abusing his power.  Konaté’s paper was shut down for six months and he was subject to excessive fines. The Court’s decision not only struck down Konaté’s conviction but also ordered Burkina Faso to change its criminal defamation law. According to the Zimbabwean Mail and Guardian, “The judgment is significant because it is a homegrown, 100% African decision, reached through African institutions and by African judges sitting in Arusha, Tanzania. The effect of the judgment will be felt across the continent, where many journalists still face prison for defamation. In 2013, at least 200 journalists were imprisoned around the world under criminal defamation laws.” Read the Court’s press release here.

The other freedom of the press case has been brought by the Burundi Journalists Association (BJA) against the government of Burundi. The applicant alleges that a law regulating the press in Burundi violates the Treaty for the Establishment of the East African Community (EAC), of which Burundi is a member. The BJA is arguing that the law in question uses intimidation tactics to restrict the freedom of journalists and media houses that report on matters related to the public interest. The case is being heard in the East African Court of Justice, an organ of the East African Community set up to ensure that member states adhere to the EAC Treaty. Learn more about this case from allAfrica

Publications and Resources of Interest

dThe International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) has published an online debate that asks the question: is the international community abandoning the fight against impunity? ICTJ President David Tolbert introduced the debate in the first online posting, followed by remarks by the two contributors: UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Prince Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein of Jordan, argues that the international community is not abandoning the fight, while Michael Ignatieff, Professor at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and former leader of Canada’s Liberal Party, argues that it is. You can read the full remarks of the contributors, as well as the perspectives of other guests, on the ICTJ website.

dCambridge University Press has published a comprehensive new book detailing the context, use, and repercussions of drone warfare in the 21st century. The book is entitled Drone Wars: Transforming Conflict, Law and Policy (Peter Bergen and Daniel Rothenberg, eds.), and it is comprised of essays from a variety of international legal scholars, an unidentified drone pilot, and security experts. Part of the book’s rigorous research is derived from the New America Foundation’s International Security Program, which contains datasets of drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan. Find out more about this new title in a post from IntLawGrrls.

dHans Corell, former United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Legal Affairs and member of the International Advisory Board of the International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life, has written an article discussing the complex legal situation of mineral rights in the Western Sahara, a region of Morocco. Tension exists between the government of Morocco and people in the Western Sahara, who would like to exert their right to self-determination. This tension stems from government negotiations with foreign corporations to develop mineral resources in the region. Western Sahara was previously an autonomous province of Spain that Morocco successfully acquired after organizing a mass demonstration, known as the “Green March,” in 1975. Corell discusses how without clear support from the people of Western Sahara, Morocco’s actions regarding mineral exploration are likely in violation of international law. Read his full article in the latest edition of the International Judicial Monitor.

International Justice in the News is edited by Leigh Swigart, Director of Programs in International Justice and Society, and Michael Abrams '15.

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