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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.

November 2015

Featured News

dThe report of the 2015 Brandeis Institute for International Judges (BIIJ) is now available. Judges serving on the benches of eleven international courts and tribunals across the globe gathered in Malta in January 2015 for the tenth session of the BIIJ, which was organized around the theme “International Courts, Local Actors.” The BIIJ is the only regular gathering of judges serving on the benches of diverse international and regional judicial institutions.  

Highlights of the report include: a detailed and multi-faceted discussion of the various ways in which politics and international justice intersect and how political pressures can be managed; a frank conversation among judges about the factors that affect the pace of their work and how considerations of pace might differ across types of jurisdiction; and a description of the various ways in which NGOs may contribute to, and also detract from, the work of international courts and tribunals. A summary of the 2015 institute and a list of participants may be found here. Reports of past institutes, as well as selected BIIJ discussions organized thematically, can be found at the website of Brandeis’ International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life.

People in the News

    Carmel Agius (l) and Liu Daqun
The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) has elected a new president. Carmel Agius of Malta (Brandeis Institute for International Judges 2007, 2013, and 2015) takes over the reins of the Tribunal in November 2015 for a period of two years. He has acted since 2011 as the Vice President and he also served as Presiding Judge of Trial Chamber II between 2003 and 2011. Judge Agius currently serves on the Appeals Chamber that decides cases from both the ICTY and International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. The new ICTY Vice President is Judge Liu Daqun of China, also a member of the Appeals Chamber. Read more about the background of both men in an ICTY press release.

dThe Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) also has a new leader. Judge Koen Lenaerts of Belgium was recently elected as the 11th CJEU President, replacing Judge Vassilios Skouris of Greece who has held the position for the last 12 years. Judge Lenaerts has served as Vice President of the Court since 2012, a position that will now be filled by Judge Antonio Tizzano of Italy. Read the CJEU press release with more details here.  

dGhanaian Supreme Court Justice Sophia Akuffo, former Judge and President of the African Court of Human and Peoples’ Rights, will chair a committee investigating the judicial bribery scandal rocking her home country. Justice Akuffo (Brandeis Institute for International Judges 2012 and 2013) and her fellow committee members will determine the culpability of seven superior judges indicted on charges of corruption. They are among the 12 high court judges and 22 lower court judges of Ghana allegedly captured on video collecting bribes. Read more from GhanaWeb.

             James Mitchell
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is suing psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen for their role in developing the torture programs that the CIA used on alleged terrorists at various “black sites” or undocumented prisons.  The suit is being made on behalf of Suleiman Abdullah Salim (Tanzania) and Mohamed Ahmed Ben Soud (Libya), both of whom were subjected to torture by the CIA for years in the early to mid-2000s before being released as posing no threat to US security.  The torture included, but was not limited to, waterboarding, painful bodily contortions, sleep and food deprivation, mock executions, and sexual assault.  In the lawsuit, the ACLU decries the torture conducted by the CIA as a “war crime” and a “joint criminal enterprise” to which Mitchell and Jessen not only contributed but from which they also financially profited.  “This case is about ensuring that the people behind the torture program are held accountable so history doesn’t repeat itself,” ACLU attorney Steven Watt told The Guardian. “Impunity for torture sends the dangerous message to US and foreign officials that there will be no consequences for future abuses.”
          Louise Arbour speaking at
          Brandeis University in 2008

Will the election of Justin Trudeau as Prime Minister usher in a new era of support by Canada for international justice? Toronto-based international law expert and Justice in Conflict blogger Mark Kersten has high hopes. In a recent post, he lays out the reasons that the new Liberal government should create the post of International Justice Ambassador. Not only would such a post help to restore Canada’s reputation on international justice and human rights, sadly eroded over the past decade, but the country has very experienced individuals who would be qualified to fill it. Not least among such indiviuals is Louise Arbour, former ICTY Chief Prosecutor and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, among other relevant titles. Read Kersten’s full post here.

                                Source: Justice Hub

The International Criminal Court’s (ICC) Office of the Prosecutor recently announced it was adding 60 additional counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity to its charges against former Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) commander Dominic Ongwen, bringing the total number of charges against him to 67.  As reported by Niklas Jakobsson in Justice Hub, this is drastically higher than the 33 counts that Joseph Kony, the currently at-large LRA leader, would currently face were he to be caught.  Such an increase is representative, writes Jakobsson, of the new approach to investigations used by ICC Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, one favoring “open-ended, in-depth investigations” that would ultimately result in a greater number of charges.  Bensouda’s strategy is in stark contrast to the one used by her predecessor, Luis Moreno Ocampo.  While he served as the ICC Chief Prosecutor for the court’s first nine years, Moreno’s primary strategy was to employ “focused” investigations.  But in addition to seeking to bring more charges, Bensouda has also promised to focus on prosecuting more diverse crimes, particularly sexual and gender crimes.  Indeed, nineteen of Ongwen’s new charges relate to sexual or gender crimes. The confirmation of charges hearing in The Prosecutor v. Dominic Ongwen case is scheduled for January 2016.

Developments in International Justice

dThe United States has once again shown itself to be exceptional. With Somalia recently becoming the 196th country to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the US is now the only country in the world not to have embraced this important treaty.  In a rather familiar tale, the US was initially involved in drafting the CRC under Presidents Reagan and H.W. Bush.  It was signed by the US in 1996 but, due to political opposition, neither Presidents Clinton nor Obama ever submitted the treaty to the Senate for approval.  While some Americans claim that the CRC would infringe on parental rights, the claim appears weak given its near universal support by the international community and its non-controversial aims to ensure the safety, education, and well being of all children. The US’s outlier status has not escaped public attention, with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon recently calling on the U.S. “to join the global movement and help the world reach the objective of universal ratification.”  Read more from IntLawGrrls.

The Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) has found that it has the authority to hear the case filed by the Philippines against China in 2013 about territorial claims in the South China Sea. The case involves the right of the Philippines to exploit the South China Sea waters in its 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone as allowed under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). China has boycotted the proceedings and rejects the PCA’s authority in the case. Beijing claims sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea, dismissing claims to parts of it from Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei. Manila's chief lawyer in the case said the ruling represented a “significant step forward in the Philippines' quest for a peaceful, impartial resolution of the disputes between the parties and the clarification of their rights under UNCLOS.” Read more from Reuters.


The Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has upheld the 2013 ruling by a lower chamber that the conviction in 2007 by a Swiss court of former Turkish politician Doğu Perinçek for publicly denying the 1915 Armenian Genocide by the Ottoman Empire was a violation of his rights. Perinçek, who made the statement while in Switzerland, was convicted according to Article 261bis § 4 of the Swiss Criminal Code, which punishes inter alia the denial, gross minimization or attempt of justification of genocide or crimes against humanity. The ECtHR Grand Chamber ruled, however, that Mr. Perinçek’s remarks are protected under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees freedom of expression. “The Swiss courts appeared to have censured Mr Perincek simply for voicing an opinion that diverged from the established ones in Switzerland,” the judgment said, while emphasizing that “the dignity” of the victims of the massacres and the “dignity and identity of modern-day Armenians” were also protected by the European Convention on Human Rights. Read more about the decision and background to the case in Strasbourg Observers.

fThe Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) has delivered a judgment in a land dispute that had been before the courts of Barbados since 1988. The case involved the transfer in ownership of a 125-acre farm in Barbados from the owner to an interested buyer, while a long-term tenant claimed the right to first match the buyer’s offer.  The tenant finally appealed the case to the CCJ but it was ultimately not decided in his favor but in that of the original buyer who had given a substantial deposit to the owner decades earlier. According to the CCJ press release, the Court “deplored the length of time the case remained in the system and urged the Barbados judiciary to take steps to address the problem of delay in the judicial process and ensure that citizens enjoy the benefit of the constitutional promise of a fair and expeditious resolution of disputes.”

Two recent rulings of the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) have addressed challenging issues created by developments in digital technology.

dThe Court has ruled that Bitcoin, an internet-based virtual currency, is exempt from value added tax (VAT) across the 28 countries of the European Union when it is converted to cash. The Court stated that Bitcoin transactions “are exempt from VAT under the provision concerning transactions relating to currency, bank notes and coins used as legal tender.” Read more in a CJEU press release.  This decision has led to a rapid surge in the value of Bitcoin.

dIn Schrems v. Data Protection Commissioner, the CJEU examined the case that privacy activist Max Schrems brought against the Irish Data Protection Commissioner, alleging that it had not sufficiently protected the privacy of European citizens in allowing the transfer of data to the US-based social media company Facebook. The recent CJEU ruling makes three main points, as summarized by 1) Individual European countries can now set their own regulation for US companies’ handling of citizens’ data, vastly complicating the regulatory environment in Europe; 2) Countries can choose to suspend the transfer of data to the US, forcing companies to host user data exclusively within the country; and 3) the Irish data regulator will now examine whether Facebook first offered European users adequate data protections, and may order the suspension of Facebook’s transfer of data from Europe to the US.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) has seen some significant “firsts” over the past few weeks.

                  Sidi Yahia mosque

In response to an arrest warrant issued by the ICC, the first suspected criminal connected to the situation in the Republic of Mali was surrendered by the government of Niger and transferred to the Court’s seat in The Hague. Al Faqi Al Mahdi is accused of committing the war crime of “intentionally directing attacks against historical monuments or buildings dedicated to religion” in the city of Timbuktu, a UNESCO World Heritage site. These included the mausoleums of nine Sufi saints and the Sidi Yahia mosque. This is also the first ICC case in which war crimes against cultural heritage are the main accusation. This is particularly timely in light of the deliberate destruction of cultural heritage that is occurring in Syria and Iraq at the hands of Islamic State. Read more about the background to this case and the cultural sites affected from Global Policy Forum.

The ICC Prosecutor has also filed a request for the Pre-Trial Chamber to authorize an investigation into possible war crimes and crimes against humanity that allegedly occurred during the conflict between Russia and Georgia in the area of South Ossetia between 1 July and 10 October 2008. This would be the first situation outside of Africa to be investigated by the ICC. Since neither Russia nor Georgia referred the situation to the ICC, the situation was brought before the Court as part of the Prosecutor’s proprio motu power under Article 15(1) of the Rome Statute to open an investigation without referral from the Security Council or a State Party. Learn more about this situation from the Coalition for the ICC.  Read legal scholar Alex Whiting’s analysis of this new investigation at the online forum Just Security.

Publications and Resources of Interest

dIn a recent blogpost, George Soros evokes his personal experience in a plea for European nations to devise a fair, comprehensive and generous refugee plan. “My own story is one of surviving Nazi occupation and fleeing communist-dominated Hungary in 1947 to be welcomed in England. I was given an opportunity to start a new life. And I was treated with respect and kindness, for which I am grateful… Today, victims fleeing civil war in Syria and brutal government repression in countries like Eritrea are not being shown the same consideration.” Read Soros’ full post, and view a short video on the history of Europe’s embrace of refugees, at the Open Society Foundations website.

dHuman rights are widely recognized as universal, but are they best implemented locally? A recent report by the Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute shows how local authorities can embrace human rights and put them into action. Bringing Human Rights Home: the Birmingham Mayor’s Office Human Rights Dialogue highlights the ways in which human rights principles and guarantees can be enshrined in local policies. The dialogue is focused on a number of issues facing this large American city in the state of Alabama, including education, immigration, poverty and homelessness, and marriage equality.

dOn the other hand, local populations may sometimes feel the need to engage with higher-order entities in order to call attention to their situations. At the recently concluded 156th Session of the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR), for example, hearings were conducted on the use of force against Americans of African Descent in the United States and the actions of extractive industries on the sacred sites of indigenous peoples in the United States. View the videos of these hearings on 23 October 2015 at the IACHR YouTube site

dThe Human Right to Citizenship: A Slippery Concept, edited by Rhoda E. Howard-Hassmann and Margaret Walton-Roberts, explores the many practical and theoretical issues related to the right to hold citizenship. Even if the right to citizenship is recognized in principle, as stipulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, many populations currently do not enjoy the legal and social benefits of citizenship.  These populations include vulnerable groups such as women, children, and undocumented migrants, as well as ethnic and religious minorities. Offering a wide range of case studies from across the globe, The Human Right to Citizenship offers the reader a framework for understanding the very slippery concept of citizenship, as a right, a privilege, and sometimes even an unwanted entitlement.

“International Justice in the News” is edited by Leigh Swigart, Director of Programs in International Justice and Society, with the assistance of Daniel Jaffe '17 and Leonie Koch '16.

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