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.

September 2016

People in the News

The Honourable Marie-Thérèse Mukamulisa
The African Court of Human and Peoples’ Rights has two new judges, both women. Ntyam Ondo Suzanne Mengue of Cameroon is a justice of the Supreme Court of her country with 34 years of judicial experience.  Marie-Thérèse Mukamulisa of Rwanda is also a justice of her Supreme Court. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Law from the University of Rwanda and a Master’s Degree in Common Law from Moncton University in Canada.  The two Judges were appointed for six-year terms during the recent Summit of the African Union. There are still two spots to be filled on the eleven-judge bench of the African Court, and according to the African Union (AU), “[t]he remaining two Judges shall be elected in January 2017 only from among female candidates from the Northern and Southern regions, in respect of equitable geographical and gender representation in AU Organs.”

dThere is also pressure to see a woman in the highest leadership position of the United Nations when the current Secretary-General steps down at the end of 2016. Since the organization’s founding over 70 years ago, it has been led by eight men in a row. There are currently 10 candidates actively vying for the Secretary-General position, half of them women. Several informal polls have shown male contenders rising to the top, however, despite the efforts of  Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon recently expressed his wish to be succeeded by a woman, although he reminded the public that it is ultimately UN member states that will make the decision. 

Women fined for “inappropriate” beachwear,
1950’s and now. (
In the reversal of an historical trend, some women are being enjoined to expose more skin rather than less at the beach. The so-called “burkini ban” was instituted by several towns along the French Riviera, resulting in Muslim women being forced to remove parts of their modest bathing costumes or pay a fine. The ban is a reaction to recent terrorist acts carried out in France and attributed to Islamic extremists, most notably during the Bastille Day festivities in Nice. The issue is being hotly debated in France, however, with some arguing that wearing the Muslim garment constitutes a threat to public order and French values, while others contend that it violates those same values, in particular freedom of conscience and personal freedom. The burkini ban has since been suspended by the French Conseil d’Etat, its highest authority, pending its deliberation on the legality of the case. Read more from DW News.

dA ruling by Kenya’s High Court has found that human rights lawyer Willy Kimani and two other persons were forcibly disappeared and executed by a group of Kenyan administration police officers. According to Amnesty International, “The court’s determination is a watershed moment in the history of justice in Kenya as it sheds the spotlight on the common but under-reported scourge of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances in the country.” Ironically, Kimani was himself an activist against these same crimes. According to the Kenyan press, the judge who ruled in the case stated that “facts of the application disclose the existence of a culture of impunity in the police force that enable such acts as were perpetrated by the alleged administration police officers to take place, adding that unless the conditions that breed and feed that mentality are weeded out from the police service such habits are bound to be repeated.”

dThe recent trial in the case of The Prosecutor v. Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi at the International Criminal Court (ICC) has received much attention for its historic “firsts.” Al Mahdi is the first person to be charged with the crime of cultural destruction, carried out through attacks he intentionally led in 2012 against historic monuments dedicated to religion in Timbuktu, Mali. Confining the charges to this crime has brought an international spotlight to bear on such activities during conflict and the hopes that similar crimes can be prosecuted in Iraq and Syria.

Al Mahdi is also the first ICC accused person to plead guilty to the charges against him, which has allowed the Court to open and close his trial in the unprecedented space of a few days. Alex Whiting, in a Just Security post, outlines the significance of this case for the ICC and, in particular, emphasizes that the ICC prosecution should build on it “by developing and publishing a policy on guilty pleas, explaining how and under what circumstances it will enter into an agreement with an accused.” Whiting contends that this will encourage others charged with crimes to admit responsibility.

wThe Al Mahdi case is not without its critics, however. It has been noted that no charges of sexual violence  were brought against the Al Qaeda-affiliated leader, despite evidence that this was part of Al Mahdi’s reign of terror in Timbuktu. A piece in Justice Hub also argues that the pre-trial chamber was remiss in not mentioning either gravity or complementarity in its decision, both of which are ICC core principles. It is unclear, the authors declare, whether the Al Mahdi case passes the gravity test compared to other cases that have been declined by the Court, such as the Israeli flotilla incident. Al Mahdi was also previously indicted on terrorism charges by a court in Niger, which turned the suspect over to the ICC upon request. This would seem to violate the ICC’s principle of allowing domestic prosecutions of international crimes to proceed when feasible.

The Al Mahdi judgment will be delivered in September 2016. The Guardian reports that the maximum sentence for such a crime is 30 years in jail, but Al Mahdi has struck an agreement with the prosecutor’s office for a sentence of nine to eleven years.

Developments in International Justice

dFor the first time, the United Nations has admitted responsibility for the devastating cholera epidemic in Haiti, brought by Nepalese peacekeepers posted there after the 2010 earthquake. The Secretary-General’s spokesperson stated, “Over the past year the UN has become convinced that it needs to do much more regarding its own involvement in the initial outbreak and the suffering of those affected by cholera.” By some estimates, almost 10,000 people have died from cholera and hundreds of thousands have been infected. The UN has indicated that it will come up with a plan of action to address the epidemic within two months.

The UN’s “turnaround” concerning its accountability for the epidemic, which it has been denying for years, came after the preparation of a report by Philip Alston, the UN's own rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights. The report unequivocally finds the international organization in the wrong, stating that the UN’s abdication of responsibility vis-à-vis the epidemic “is morally unconscionable, legally indefensible, and politically self-defeating.” It also observes that the UN’s denial “upholds a double standard according to which the UN insists that Member States respect human rights, while rejecting any such responsibility for itself.”

IJDH staff leaving the US Court
of Appeals (Concannon on right)

A Boston-based NGO, the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH), has been instrumental in the campaign for the UN to assume accountability for the suffering of cholera victims. IJDH brought a lawsuit against the UN on behalf of Haitian victims of the epidemic, which was coincidentally dismissed by the US Court of Appeals on the very day that the UN admitted responsibility. IJDH now has three months to file an appeal with the US Supreme Court. IJDH leader Brian Concannon is clearly not discouraged. In an interview with The Boston Globe, he stated: “If the UN really is serious about responding justly, then we don’t need [an appeal]. We want results on the ground: lives saved, and people compensated.”

dThe Australian branch of the marine environmental protection organization Sea Shepherd has vowed to pursue Japanese whaling vessels and prevent them from killing more of the mammals in the Antarctic. In a 2014 judgment in the case of Australia v Japan, the International Court of Justice directed Japan to discontinue its whaling program, which the country had mischaracterized as a scientific endeavor rather than a commercial enterprise. Although commercial whaling was outlawed in 1986, a small number of the mammals may still be collected for scientific research. Japan shocked the world in 2015 by restarting its temporarily suspended program, albeit at a reduced level. According to National Geographic, the majority of the whales killed by Japan in March 2016 were pregnant females. The United States arm of Sea Shepherd will not be able to assist the Australians in their anti-whaling campaign. Just a week ago, a preliminary injunction, which had prevented Sea Shepherd-US from disrupting operations of the Japanese Institute of Cetacean Research, became permanent, ending a legal dispute that had been raging between the two groups since 2011. Read more from CNN.

dIn a recent Grand Chamber judgment, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) ruled that three Iraqis seeking asylum in Sweden cannot be deported to their home country due to the deteriorating security situation found there as well as their personal circumstances. In J.K. and Others v. Sweden, the majority of the bench held that complying with the deportation order would constitute a violation of Article 3, prohibition of torture and inhuman or degrading treatment. Mr. J.K., the judgment argued, belonged to a group of persons who were systematically targeted in Iraq by Al Qaeda due to their relationship with the American armed forces. In this case, the applicant had run a business with solely American clients from a United States military base in Iraq. The Court further found that “the Iraqi authorities’ capacity to protect citizens had to be regarded as diminished,” especially with regard to members of a targeted group. Read the ECtHR press release for more details.

dThe Israeli military has cleared its own forces of all wrongdoing in incidents connected to the 2014 conflict in Gaza, including an airstrike on a United Nations school where Palestinian civilians were taking shelter from the fighting.  According to The Guardian, “the military said it had closed a total of seven investigations without filing charges after a special team collected testimony from Gaza residents and Israeli officers.” It is estimated that approximately 2,200 Palestinians died in the 2014 conflict, along with 73 Israelis, most of them soldiers. The New York Times reports, “Israeli, Palestinian and international human rights groups have repeatedly questioned the military’s ability to investigate its actions impartially, and have called for independent inquiries. The Palestinians are also pursuing war crimes claims against Israel at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.”

dWith the recent signing by Kazakhstan, the Paris Agreement on climate change has reached 180 signatories. Of these signatory countries, 22 have deposited their instruments of ratification, acceptance or approval. The Agreement will enter into force 30 days after at least 55 countries, accounting for 55% of global greenhouse gas emissions, deposit their instruments of ratification or acceptance with the United Nations Secretary-General. Click here to learn more about the status of ratifications.

dThe people of Colombia, along with human rights activists and others around the globe, are celebrating the recent signing of the final Agreement for the Termination of the Conflict and Construction of a Stable and Lasting Peace between the Government of Colombia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The decades-long conflict resulted in widespread human rights violations and generalized violence in the country. According to a rapporteur of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, “to achieve peace is essential to prevent further serious human rights violations in Colombia. In particular, we welcome the fact that the agreement contains a specific chapter on the rights of victims. This is an aspect of the utmost importance.” The official signing of the agreement will be held in September and will be submitted to a plebiscite in October.

dDemonstrations have been held around Australia calling for the closure of offshore refugee and asylum seeker detention centers on the islands of Nauru and Manus, part of Papua New Guinea. The so-called “Nauru files,” made public by The Guardian, have documented the systematic abuse, violence and psychological mistreatment of persons held in these centers, leading some to claim that the system violates Australia’s national values. Read more details on the controversy here. One international legal expert, Mark Kersten, asks “whether the abuses at these facilities – and the negligent approach to them by the Australian government – amount to crimes against humanity? And if they do, should the ICC intervene?” Read his blogpost at Justice in Conflict.

dOver the last few months, a number of World Trade Organization (WTO) members have contributed funds to the WTO’s Trade Facilitation Agreement Facility to help developing countries and least-developed countries implement the Trade Facilitation Agreement. The Agreement, the WTO’s first multilateral trade deal in 20 years, aims to boost trade in developing and least-developed countries. Other WTO members have offered funds to help poorer members participate in trade negotiations in 2016. Contributors include Chinese Taipei, Estonia, the European Union, Finland, Germany, Korea, and Liechtenstein. Read more in WTO press releases.

Publications and Resources of Interest

hA series of video interviews with leading international judges, conducted by scholars associated with the University of Oslo Faculty of Law, make for interesting viewing. The series was launched by Professor Cecilia M. Bailliet in 2008 in order to explore the evolution of international law. The conversations tackle issues such as fragmentation of international law, the role of the international judge when facing national cases of impunity, the expansion of jus cogens norms, the “humanization” of international law, ethical duties of legal advisors to the executive on issues relating to war and conflict, and many other topics. Click here to see the recently expanded list of available interviews and to read more about the series.

Also, read an account of the recently concluded conference, organized by the Oslo Law Faculty's PluriCourts Centre, on Strengthening the Validity of International Courts and Tribunals.

dA new working paper by Stanford University’s Shiri Krebs, “The Legalization of Truth in International Fact-Finding,” contends that the use of legal jargon is counterproductive in investigative reports on issues like war crimes, armed conflicts and political violence. Krebs’ research found that legal discourse – that is, “binary legal judgment, ‘hot’ legal terminology and legal framing” – is neither credible nor persuasive to many in the general public. Instead, a “moral framing” in such reports would be more effective in getting the public involved in bringing about accountability for war crimes. Read a summary of her research and findings here.

dThe International Bar Association Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI) recently adopted the Resolution on Climate Justice and Human Rights. This resolution highlights the IBAHRI’s commitments to this critical area, and provides specific recommendations to international bodies – courts, tribunals, committees, dispute resolution mechanisms – charged with interpreting human rights treaties. In particular, it calls for further consideration of the adverse effects of climate change on human rights, and clarification of the human rights obligations that relate to a healthy environment.

Saami “climate
warrior” (Greenpeace)

To understand what climate justice means to indigenous persons in particular, read four individual stories from Greenpeace that highlight current challenges in the Amazon, the Arctic, Central America and North America.

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

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