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.

May 2017

People in the News

    Credit: Leigh Swigart
The Coalition for the International Criminal Court (CICC) is calling on ICC member states to nominate qualified women to stand for the December 2017 judicial elections.  Five of the six judges rotating off the ICC are women and all but one of the remaining members of the bench are men. If the bench is to have "fair representation of female and male judges," as called for by Article 36.8(a)(iii) of the Rome Statute, then most of the new judges will have to be women. According to the CICC, "Female voices need to be included at all levels of the ICC to ensure an inclusive and effective justice. For the ICC to remain an institution that leads by example, states must do their utmost during these elections to ensure fair gender representation at the world's highest criminal court."

dThe long saga of the prosecution of  former dictator Hissène Habré, president of Chad froom 1982 to 1990, has finally ended. The appeals judges of a specially-constituted Senegalese court, the Extraordinary African Chambers, has upheld Habré's 2016 conviction on charges of torture and crimes against humanity along with his life sentence. The court also ruled that millions of dollars of compensation awarded to more than 4,000 victims would be managed by a trust fund through the African Union. The 74-year-old Habre’s conviction was the first of a former head of state by an African court for crimes against humanity. His trial itself was also the first in which courts of one country prosecuted the former ruler of another for alleged human rights crimes. The New York Times quoted one of Habré's victims, Souleman Guengueng, who nearly died of mistreatment and disease in the dictator's prisons: “This shows that no matter who the person is, if he commits a crime and runs away, no matter where he is hiding, we the citizens can still go for him and bring him to face justice.” Human rights advocates credit Guengueng’s meticulous record-keeping — he recorded the testimonies of hundreds of victims and their family members who suffered under Habré's rule — and years of work by other victims with helping secure a victory in the case. Efforts had been underway since the late 1990's to bring Habré to justice. The question of which state had the jurisdiction to try him was the subject of proceedings at various international and regional courts, including the International Court of Justice, before Senegal took the initiative to try Habré in its own judicial system.

dReports of human rights abuses perpetrated against gay men in Chechnya have recently caught the world's attention and sparked widespread outrage. The stories provide details of "gay concentration camps" where men suspected of being homosexual have been detained, tortured and killed. Chechen leaders, backed up by the Kremlin, have denied the existence of such camps. Now, according to The Independent, journalists from Novaya Gazeta, the Chechen newspaper that originally broke the story of gay persecution, are now being threatened with a "jihad" by Muslim clerics. The Committee to Protect Journalists has stated, “Novaya Gazeta reporters have taken enormous risks and have paid the highest price for uncovering human rights abuses and speaking truth to power. They should not fear for their safety because they are doing their job.”

dThe Dutch Court of Appeal has ruled that one of its own nationals, Mr. Guus Kouwenhoven, acted as an accessory to war crimes in Liberia and Guinea in 2000-02. He has been sentenced to 19 years in prison. As reported in IntLawGrrls, Mr. Kouwenhoven, president of the Oriental Timber Company and director of the Royal Timber Company, "supplied weapons, and material, personnel and other resources to former Liberian President Charles Taylor and his armed forces, which were used to fuel their fight against a rebel group, the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy." These acts were also carried out in violation of a United Nations arms embargo. This is a rare instance of a court having ruled on the issue of corporate accountability for war crimes. Read more details about the case and activities of Mr. Kouwenhoven in The Guardian

dFormer Guatemalan dictator Efraín Ríos Montt is once again facing charges of genocide and crimes against humanity, this time for a 1982 massacre in the village of Las Dos Erres. It has been determined that there is enough evidence of his responsibility – and in particular his absolute control over the forces who carried out the atrocities –to open a second trial. Ríos Montt was found guilty in 2013 for a genocide carried out in the village of Maya Ixil. However, according to the International Justice Monitor, that conviction "was effectively overturned by the Constitutional Court, under intense pressure from conservative business elites and retired military officers." As the accused is now mentally unfit to participate in the proceedings, his presence will not be required in the courtroom. The hearings will also be closed to the public and the press, and no criminal sanctions will be imposed if Ríos Montt is found guilty.

                            Prince Zeid
Prince Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein of Jordan, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, recently found it necessary to publicly reprimand his own country. In late March 2017, the Jordanian government hosted Sudanese President Omar al Bashir at an Arab League Summit, despite the outstanding ICC arrest warrants against him that should have been executed. "All states must abide by their treaty obligations," stated Prince Zeid. "In that context, I very much regret that Jordan, a state party to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, received the President of Sudan, against whom an arrest warrant has been issued. By doing so, it is failing the ICC and weakening the global struggle against impunity, and for justice." Several weeks ago, the South African government was called before the ICC for the very same action. It denied that it had flouted its obligation to arrest Al Bashir and reiterated that heads of state have immunity under international law. 

fIn other UN news, Malala Yousafzai, an activist for children's rights and the youngest ever Nobel Laureate, has been designated a Messenger of Peace with a special focus on girls' education. Ms. Yousafzai first came to the world's attention in 2012 when the Taliban shot her for attending school in her native Pakistan. According to a UN press release, Messengers of Peace "are distinguished individuals, carefully selected from the fields of art, literature, science, entertainment, sports or other fields of public life, who have agreed to help focus worldwide attention on the work of the global Organization… [T]hese prominent personalities volunteer their time, talent and passion to raise awareness of UN’s efforts to improve the lives of billions of people everywhere."

Developments in International Justice

tThe World Trade Organization (WTO) Appellate Body has ruled that Mexico's tuna industry has been harmed by U.S. "dolphin-safe" labeling rules and says the country can seek retaliatory measures worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Mexican officials have insisted for years that U.S. laws discriminated against their tuna, and that other countries didn't face the same level of enforcement. They argued that they have upheld international standards on commercial fishing and environmental preservation. According to CNN, "the Trump administration argues that the WTO ruling didn't take into account updated US laws on 'dolphin safe' tuna, and that it overstated the actual financial loss to Mexican tuna producers, who the US Trade Representative accused of intentionally chasing and netting dolphins." Read more details about this case, which began almost a decade ago, from the WTO website.

fTunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi has signed a declaration allowing Tunisian citizens and NGOs based in his country direct access to the African Court of Human and Peoples' Rights (ACtHPR). According to an ACtHPR press release, the president "called for extensive dissemination of information on the Court to enable the population to know, understand and appreciate the Court’s existence and its noble work to deepen democratic processes on the continent." Only a handful of African countries have signed this declaration, which means that most cases emanating from non-signatory countries have to go first to the African Commission of Human and Peoples' Rights and then be referred on for consideration by the Court.

Tunisia's stance stands in contrast to that of Rwanda, which signed the declaration for individual access in 2013 then withdrew it in 2016 after jailed opposition political leader Victoire Ingabire availed herself of this right and brought a case to the ACtHPR, claiming that she had not received a fair judicial process in Rwanda. In March 2017, Rwanda refused to appear before the African Court in Arusha for a hearing on the Ingabire case. Read more about the situation from AllAfrica.

Hearings have begun in a Spanish court in the first case addressing war crimes allegedly committed by the Syrian government. A Spanish judge has authorized investigations into the actions of nine Syrian officials accused of authorizing the torture and killing of a Syrian man, identified by his lawyers as A.H., whose sister has Spanish nationality. Photographs smuggled out of Syria by a forensic photographer are being presented as evidence of the fate of A.H.. Spain has a well-known record of prosecuting suspected perpetrators of war crimes using "universal jurisdiction," its most notable case being that of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1998. According to a Washington Post op-ed by international justice scholar David Bosco, "The Spanish court’s decision offers a glimmer of hope that the [Syrian] regime’s crimes might be addressed in a credible court. But the case is also exposing a long-running debate in Spain — and within Spain’s judiciary — about how many of the world’s ills its courts can handle."

dIn the meantime, the bombing of Syrian military targets in early April by the United States, in response to the Assad regime's alleged use of chemical weapons against its own civilians, has put a new spin on the ongoing situation. While the bombing is applauded by some, the legality of this unilateral action under both international and domestic law is under debate, as described in an IntLawGrrls post by Milena Sterio.

In a recent op-ed, "Syria and R2P: a Path Away from Hypocrisy," Brandeis University Professor Theodore Johnson argues that moral and humanitarian imperatives should outweigh strictly legal and political considerations when the international community is faced with a situation like Syria. He reminds us that the doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), adopted in 2005 by leaders across the globe, "recognizes fundamental human rights as a global obligation. When that obligation is ignored, we quickly descend into hypocrisy – especially among those nations that ratified it and then violate or ignore its obligations." For more perspectives on R2P, read a set of papers delivered at a 2015 Brandeis conference, "The Responsibility to Protect at 10: the Challenge of Protecting the World's Most Vulnerable Populations."

dThe Brazilian state has been accused of violating indigenous rights in a case to be decided by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. The case was brought to the Court by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which reported the violation of the indigenous people’s right to collective property, in relation to the Xucuru’s struggle for the demarcation of their traditional land, ongoing since 1989. Furthermore, the Commission reports the politically motivated assassination of five Xucuru people, including important leaders of the movement, between 1992 and 2003. According to a Commission press release, Brazil "must ensure that indigenous members can continue to live peacefully their traditional way of life, according to their cultural identity, social structure, economic system, customs, beliefs and traditions." This is the first time that Brazil has been brought before an international court for violating indigenous peoples’ rights. A public hearing was held in Caso Pueblo Indígena Xucuru y sus miembros Vs. Brasil in March 2017 and the judgment is pending.

cThe United Nations environmental agency recently announced that Mali has become the first country to ratify the Kigali Amendment, a groundbreaking amendment to the Montreal Protocol to phase out hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). Commonly used in refrigeration and air conditioning as substitutes for ozone-depleting substances, HFCs are currently the world’s fastest growing greenhouse gases, their emissions increasing by up to 10% every year. “We urge more countries to follow suit in order to protect our climate,” said Erik Solheim, Head of UN Environment. The Kigali Amendment will enter into force on 1 January 2019, provided that it is ratified by at least 20 parties to the Montreal Protocol. Read more from Africa Times.

cThe International Court of Justice (ICJ) has ruled that insufficient evidence has been presented for it to impose measures ordering Russia to stop funding and equipping pro-Russia separatists as part of a case brought against Moscow by Kiev. However, the Court has concluded that the conditions have been met to require provisional measures in respect of the protection of the Crimean Tatar community. Proceedings in Application of the International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism and of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (Ukraine v. Russian Federation) were instituted by Ukraine in January 2017, with a request for the indication of provisional measures. According to Euromaidan Press, this judgment on provisional measures has left many questions. "Those who wanted to see “victory” for Ukraine could find it (since the court ordered Russia to restore the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatars). Similarly, people could also find “betrayal” (especially regarding events in eastern Ukraine, since the court rejected provisional measures against the Russian Federation). International lawyers are studying the 38-page judgment, as well as the individual views of seven judges, examining literally their every word. After all, in these kinds of documents even suggestions hidden between the lines are important." A judgment on the merits of the case is yet to come.

eThe European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) recently ruled that the forced sterilization of transgender people who are seeking legal recognition of their gender identity violates their human rights. Washington Blade, an LGBT news source, reports that "22 European countries — Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, Greece, Finland, Turkey, Latvia, Lithuania, Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan — require trans people to undergo sterilization before they legally recognize their gender identity." Transgender Europe, an advocacy group based in Berlin, explains that the ECtHR ruling will require these countries to swiftly change their laws to be in compliance.

                        Credit: Getty Images
Reports from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) suggest that the trade in human beings has become such a normal occurrence in Libya that people are now being traded openly in public. West African migrants, passing through Libya in a desperate attempt to reach Europe over the Mediterranean Sea, increasingly fall prey to this type of human trafficking. The IOM is helping to return the migrants to their countries of origin and, in the process, collecting their stories of detention, forced labor, and exploitation. According to The Guardian, "The organisation is working to spread awareness across West Africa of the horrors of the journey through the personal stories of those who return. Though most migrants know the boat trips to Europe are extremely risky, fewer realise they may face even worse dangers in Libya before even reaching the coast." Slavery is prohibited under international law and subject to a number of treaties, conventions, and declarations, among them the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Publications and Resources of Interest

dThe Public Broadcasting System (PBS) in the United States has recently made available online a three-part documentary on the development of processes of accountability for mass atrocities over the 20th and early 21st centuries. PBS describes "Dead Reckoning" this way: "[the] series follows war crimes investigators and prosecutors as they pursue some of the world's most notorious war criminals – notably Adolf Eichmann, Saddam Hussein, Radovan Karadzic, Charles Taylor, and Efraín Ríos Montt. The principles, legal doctrines and tactics that emerged from those pursuits now inform the effort to expose, prosecute and punish present day human rights violators whose depredations have left millions dead and displaced. It is a tale of daring escapades, political obstruction, broken promises, and triumphs and failures." The documentary also features some well-known American figures in international law, such as Benjamin Ferencz, Eric Stover, and Naomi Roht-Arriaza. Click here to watch the series.

dA once-inaccessible archive of the UN war crimes commission, dating back to 1943, is now available through London's Wiener Library. The archive contains tens of thousands of files that reveal early evidence of death camps and also show that demands for justice in the wake of WWII did not come only from the Allied Powers. According to The Guardian,"[t]he documents record the gathering of evidence shortly after the UN was founded in January 1942. They demonstrate that rape and forced prostitution were being prosecuted as war crimes in tribunals as far apart as Greece, the Philippines and Poland in the late 1940s, despite more recent suggestions that this was a legal innovation following the 1990s Bosnian conflict." The UN War Crimes Commission catalogue can be searched online.

fA new article by University of Copenhagen scholar Shai Dothan, "A Virtual Wall of Shame: The New Way of Imposing Reputational Sanctions on Defiant States" (27 Duke Journal of Comparative & International Law, 2017), examines current practices designed to move a recalcitrant member state toward compliance with rulings by the European Court of Human Rights. Since 2011, a website has published reports by NGOs criticizing states for non-compliance, along with responses by some accused states. As Dothan writes, his article "analyzes all the reports published in the first four years since the website was created. This analysis, together with interviews with many of the NGO lawyers involved, sheds light on the way reputational sanctions work in international law. It reveals that NGOs focus most of their attention on legally important cases and on cases that address severe violations. It also shows that NGOs focus on states that usually comply with their international obligations instead of on states that regularly fail to comply with international law."

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

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