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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 2016

Featured News


A March 2015 conference at Brandeis University, The Responsibility to Protect at 10: the Challenge of Protecting the World’s Most Vulnerable Populations, explored the status of the R2P doctrine and its successes and failures over its first decade of existence. Papers based on the presentations made by a number of conference participants are now available in PDF format. These papers represent an array of perspectives on R2P and contribute to a historical, theoretical, and analytical understanding of the doctrine, its potential and its limitations.

Access the conference papers at the website of Brandeis University’s International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life. For additional background, read seven recent commentaries on R2P from the “In Theory” series of the Washington Post. And read about a brand new book critiquing humanitarian intervention by R2P conference participant Rajan Menon, The Conceit of Humanitarian Intervention (Oxford University Press 2016).

People in the News

dBoutros Boutros-Ghali, who served as United Nations Secretary-General from 1992 to 1996, has passed away at age 93.  His legacy is often viewed as mixed, and his tenure was marked by numerous crises. During his years at the helm, the UN voted to withdraw peacekeepers from Rwanda despite substantial evidence of an impending genocide. It also saw the violent breakup of Yugoslavia, including the infamous Srebrenica massacre in which thousands of Muslims were killed after a UN safe zone was overrun.  Boutros-Ghali was known for his tense relationship with US president Bill Clinton.  Early on in both of their terms, Somali warlords killed eighteen US Army Rangers during a humanitarian mission.  This resulted in US withdrawal from Somalia, as well as subsequent reluctance to provide the UN with either financial or military support.  Despite wide support for a second term, the US blocked Boutros-Ghali’s reelection bid in what he would later call an act of betrayal by Bill Clinton and US Ambassador to the UN Madeleine Albright. Read more about Boutros-Ghali’s career in The New York Times.

dGloria Patricia Porras Escobar, President of the Guatemalan Constitutional Court, has been awarded the Global Jurist of the Year award.  The award is given out annually by Northwestern Law School’s Center for International Human Rights to honor sitting judges, both national and international, for their defense of human rights in the face of adversity. Judge Porras is known for dissenting from a majority opinion that effectively nullified General Efraín Rios Montt’s convictions for genocide and crimes against humanity.  She also led the court to remove Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina’s immunity in a corruption investigation—an investigation that ultimately led to his resignation and arrest.  Read more from Northwestern University.

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Solomon Ayele Dersso of Ethiopia and Jamesina E.L. King of Sierra Leone were recently appointed by the Assembly of the African Union to the African Commission on Human Rights & Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR).  Dersso is a distinguished academic who has taught human rights law at Addis Ababa University, been a senior researcher with the Institute for Security Studies, and advised numerous governmental and civil bodies on international legal issues.  King is best known for her work on fostering gender equality and protecting women from sexual violence in armed conflicts.  She has served as the chair of the Human Rights Commission of Sierra Leone and as president of Legal Access through Women Yearning for Equality Rights and Social Justice (LAWYERS).   ACHPR commissioners are officially charged with the protection and promotion of human and peoples’ rights in Africa, as well as the interpretation of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. Read more about the two commissioners at the International Justice Resource Center.

Former Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, who led Sri Lanka from November 2005 to January 2015, recently signed a petition against the creation of an international war crimes court in Sri Lanka. His opposition stems from his belief that the court would “hunt down” Sri Lankan soldiers and that an international court would take ultimate judicial authority away from Sri Lankans, despite assurances by current Prime Minister Maithripala Sirisena that foreigners would not be permitted to sit on the court. The story has since evolved, with an announcement by Sri Lanka's Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera that he is willing to consider international participation in investigating possible war crimes during the 26-year Tamil insurgency. “I think it is only fair that the victims of the war would want some form of guarantee that the new courts will deliver justice and accountability in a fair manner, and for that we are willing to consider the participation of international actors,” the foreign minister said while at a Washington D.C. think tank. According to a 2011 United Nations report, both the Sri Lankan military and Tamil Tiger rebels were likely to have committed war crimes during the war, which ended with a military victory in 2009.

fThe UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) recently issued a controversial opinion indicating that Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, is being arbitrarily detained.  Assange, who has been secluded in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London since 2012, is under investigation by Sweden regarding a rape allegation. However, he was granted asylum by Ecuador in response to the threat of extradition to the United States for his role in WikiLeaks.  The WGAD opinion was a three-to-one decision in favor of Assange, with a fourth member recusing herself.  The majority’s primary reasoning was that Assange’s initial detention by the United Kingdom was inherently arbitrary as he was denied due process rights—such as his right to counsel—and that subsequent house arrest and surveillance degrade the legitimate grant of asylum he received from Ecuador.  The dissenting member and many legal commentators— for example this one in EJIL’s Talk!—have criticized the ruling on the grounds that Assange is voluntarily isolating himself in the Ecuadorian Embassy to evade lawful arrest.  WGAD opinions derive their legally binding authority from the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which both the UK and Sweden are parties.  Nevertheless, both national governments have questioned the legitimacy of the ruling and stated they intend to continue their legal processes against Assange. Read more about the ruling and the reactions it has garnered in an IntLawGrrls blogpost.

Developments in International Justice

dFiji recently became the first country to formally approve the United Nations Paris climate change agreement – out of the 195 nations that agreed to it this past December – after its national parliament unanimously voted to ratify the deal. In order for the Paris agreement to take effect, it needs to be ratified by 55 countries, representing at least 55% of global climate emissions. Supporters are fairly confident this milestone will be reached, however, given the full support expressed by most of the world’s major economies.  Fiji has pledged to generate 100% of its electricity from renewable sources and to cut overall emissions by 30% by 2030, as long as the necessary financing is provided by industrialized nations.

dFor the first time in months, the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) was permitted to send a convoy with desperately needed humanitarian aid to the people of Taiz, Yemen.  Since March 2015, conditions have rapidly deteriorated in Yemen as a result of the conflict between Saudi Arabia (and allied local militias) and the Iran-allied Houthi rebels who are rapidly gaining strongholds throughout the country.  Around 6,000 people have been killed in the conflict so far, but more striking is that half of those were civilians.  Civilians have also been particularly hard hit by the civil war—the UN’s World Food Programme has recently stated that Taiz is on the brink of famine.  The UN also estimates that at about one year into the civil war, four out of five people in Yemen (approximately 21.2 million people) need humanitarian aid.  Unfortunately, the provision of that needed aid is easier said than done, as the factions fighting have been resistant to allowing in aid, only capitulating after weeks of negotiations.  Johannes Van Der Klaauw, UNHCR’s representative in Yemen, led the distribution mission and commented, “I saw with my own eyes when we distributed the blankets and the mattresses and the buckets that the people had been waiting for months and were extremely happy, but also I saw in their faces how much this was needed.”

Darko Mrdja before the ICTY
The Bosnian war crimes prosecutor has ordered the arrest of Darko Mrdja, Radenko Marinovic, and Milan Gavrilovic for war crimes committed during the war in Bosnia.  Mrdja, a former Bosnian Serb policeman, had already been convicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia after confessing his role in a 1992 massacre, and he subsequently served a 17-year sentence. The fresh charges brought by the Bosnian state relate to allegations that the trio killed at least 10 people being transferred to detention camps in the northwestern town of Prijedor and a nearby village in 1992. Read more details in a Reuters article.

dThe Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) recently concluded, after laboratory testing, that mustard gas had been used on Kurdish forces in Iraq in 2015.  The OPCW already concluded last October that mustard gas had been used in 2015 in neighboring Syria.  While the OPCW does not have a mandate to apportion blame, it would appear that both mustard gas attacks were perpetrated by Islamic State militants.  The use of such chemical weapons constitutes a violation of international law under both the Geneva Protocol of 1925 and the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993.  While the Islamic State’s disregard for international law is not surprising, there is concern regarding how the chemical weapons were obtained.  It is suggested that the Islamic State either has the resources and expertise to manufacture their own chemical weapons, or they came from another nearby country suspected of having chemical weapons stockpiles, Syria. This would mean that President Bashar al-Assad failed to disclose the full scope of his chemical weapons stockpile in violation of his agreement with the international community after his use of Sarin nerve gas on rebels. Read more from The Guardian.

dA recent decision of the European Court of Human Rights, in the case of Magyar Tartalomszolgaltatok Egyesulete and Zrt v. Hungary, has clarified the notion of intermediary liability for Internet content. However, according to legal scholar Lisl Brunner, the Court’s jurisprudence remains problematic for the right to freedom of expression online. As Brunner summarizes in a blogpost, “the Court suggests that an online content provider – particularly one that is large and commercial in nature – should monitor user-generated content posted on its site for ‘clearly unlawful speech,’ such as hate speech and incitement to violence, and remove it immediately. In contrast, defamatory speech may be addressed through ordinary due diligence measures, such as notice-and-takedown mechanisms. But imposing a duty to monitor is not only inconsistent with the E-Commerce Directive and other international instruments, it is also impractical as the Court envisions it.” 

              (credit: Justice Hub)
The lead prosecutor in the International Criminal Court’s Gbagbo case, Eric MacDonald, recently made a serious error. While the microphones for the public gallery were still turned on, he stated the names of several protected witnesses.  The recordings have since spread on social media, and even appeared on YouTube. Laurent Gbagbo, former president of Côte d’Ivoire, is currently on trial in one of the ICC’s highest profile cases yet for mass murder, mass rape, and other graves crimes; the Court planned to bring forward 138 witnesses as part of the proceedings.  The witness identity leak is especially problematic for the ICC because it goes to extraordinary lengths to prevent possible intimidation or targeted violence against witnesses, including pixelating their faces, disguising their voices, and sometimes even relocating them to new countries with new identities.  The presiding judge, Cuno Tarfusser, stated he did not know whether the leak was a result of “recklessness, superficiality, or stupidity”, but added he did not want to “speculate about something else.”  Nevertheless, the ICC has ordered a formal inquiry. Read more about this situation from The BBC.

Women attending
sexual slavery trial

A recently concluded trial in Guatemala has made history. It is the first time that a national court has addressed sexual slavery as an international crime, marking a huge milestone in the fight against gender crimes.  The prosecution showed that, during the Guatemalan civil war in 1981-82, a group of Q'eqchi Mayan women were repeatedly raped while being forced against their will to cook, clean, and serve military base officers at Sepur Zarco, constituting a crime against humanity.  The defendants in the case were retired colonel Esteelmer Reyes Girón, who was sentenced to 120 years in prison, and Heriberto Valdéz, who was sentenced to 240 years in prison.  Reyes’ defense lawyer stated that the ruling will be appealed as his client was never at Sepur Zarco.  The numerous victims who testified to the abuse they suffered clearly believe differently, as did the packed courtroom which erupted into cheers of “JUSTICE, JUSTICE” when the ruling was read. “These historic convictions send the unequivocal message that sexual violence is a serious crime and that no matter how much time passes, it will be punished. It is a great victory for the 11 women who embarked on a 30-year-long battle for justice,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International. Read more from Al Jazeera

kRecent developments in Africa show concern for the protection of a wide range of human rights on the continent:
The 5th judgment of the African Court of Human and Peoples’ Rights has reiterated due process rights. In Alex Thomas v. Tanzania, the Court held that Tanzania had violated Mr. Thomas’ right to a fair trial, particularly his rights to legal assistance, to be tried within a reasonable time by an impartial court, and to an appeal, as required under Article 7 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. The Court also found the denial of due process to violate Article 14(3)(d) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights has released Principles and Guidelines on Human Rights while Countering Terrorism in Africa. According to a Commission press release, “In the current environment, acts of terrorism and associated human rights abuses can touch almost every walk and facet of life and impact all types of rights, whether civil and political; economic, social and cultural; or group rights. In light of those considerations, the Principles and Guidelines were formulated in response to grave acts of terrorism and violent extremism in Africa and to assist States to implement their human rights obligations while countering terrorism.”

The African Commission has also launched, through the mechanism of the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Women in Africa, a continent-wide campaign to decriminalize abortion. Of the Commission’s 57 Member States, 25 reportedly have legislation in place that either completely prohibits abortion or allows the procedure only when necessary to save a woman’s life, and an additional nine States allow abortion only in order to protect a women’s physical health. A Commission press release states that the aim of the campaign is to eliminate the threat of arrest or imprisonment from women and girls’ reproductive health decisions, and to reduce the number of deaths caused by unsafe abortions.

Publications and Resources of Interest

dA recent International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) conference attempted to answer the following question: How can decoding the mechanisms at work in torturers help tackle the phenomenon of torture? The ICRC notes, “Torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment – whether physical or psychological – persist, despite being absolutely prohibited in international humanitarian law and international human rights law. No country or community can claim to be immune to the appearance and persistence of such acts, which are often justified or tolerated on political, security, cultural and/or religious grounds.” Read more about the conference and gain insights into the phenomenon of torture from the fields of psychology, sociology and humanitarian action by watching a video of the discussions at the ICRC website.

dThe confirmation of charges procedure at the International Criminal Court, a unique feature of that institution, is the subject of a new publication of the War Crimes Research Office (WCRO).  The Confirmation of Charges Process at the International Criminal Court: a Critical Assessment and Recommendations for Change lays out the problems associated with the current practice of the ICC in this pre-trial phase – many of which relate to time delays – and suggests its substantial restructuring. As WCRO Director Susana SáCouto explains, “…we believe this is a real opportunity to make a difference not only in the practice of the Court in ways that will save time and resources, but also in the perception of justice as carried out by the ICC. It is no secret that the Court has been facing increasing criticism over the slow pace of proceedings and is the target of increasing frustration, and these changes represent an opportunity to improve an institution in which so much has already been invested and which holds so much promise.”

dThe International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) has announced a winner in the photo contest “The War As I See It.” According to the ICTJ website, “the contest was held by ICTJ and its partners to encourage young people in Lebanon to explore how they understand the Lebanese civil war as part of the past and the present, in commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the end of the war.” The winning photo shows a book pierced by a single bullet hole, an image whose power will extend beyond events in Lebanon to violent conflicts around the world. This image and other entries are part of an exhibit that will travel around Lebanon. View the series of images here.

dA new book by Simon Baughen (Swansea University, UK) examines the status of corporations under international law, the civil liability of corporations for their participation in international crimes, and self-regulation through voluntary codes of conduct, such as the 2011 UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Human Rights and Corporate Wrongs: Closing the Governance Gap (Elgar 2016) includes in-depth analysis of key legal issues and examines a variety of scenarios including: the Alien Tort Statute litigation against transnational corporations (TNCs) in the US; the use of customary international law as a cause of action in jurisdictions outside the US; and tort litigation against TNC’s in the US and UK.

“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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