International Justice in the News is a monthly e-newsletter about the people involved in the work of international courts and tribunals, significant developments in international justice, and publications and resources of interest. This issue is edited by Leigh Swigart, director of Programs in International Justice and Society.
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Spotlight on Language, Culture and Justice
This month’s feature comes from Language, Culture and Justice Hub member Laura Kunreuther, Associate Professor of Anthropology at Bard College. She has been investigating the world of “field interpreters” for several years and offers her reflections on an intriguing aspect of their critical work.
What does it mean, practically and subjectively, to work as an interpreter “in the field”? How does interpretation in the field differ as a space of interpretation from interpretation “in the booth” that takes place in the halls of the UN General Assembly? Both forms of interpretation are bound up with questions of justice, global governance, and international law, but practical features of the work differ dramatically.
These questions arise from my current book project, Interpreting the Field, Translating Global Voices, that explores the work of interpreters for UN field missions whose labor remains under recognized yet essential to the operation of global organizations like the UN. (1) My project focuses on interpreters in two UN-supported field missions. The first centers on the work of interpreters at the Office of the High Commission of Human Rights' (OHCHR) office set up in Nepal during and after the Maoist civil war. The second centers on the work of interpreters in Kakuma refugee camp in northwest Kenya, employed by the UN High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR) or other organizations devoted to registering and servicing the lives of refugees. In each place, I have engaged in lengthy ethnographic interviews, collaborative research, and even joint publication projects that center on interpreters' experience at work and, most often, their work in the field. (2) As I have discussed elsewhere, field interpreters regularly move between being seemingly neutral conveyers of information while also being subjective “earwitnesses” of extremely difficult, sometimes violent, situations. (3) A rich, embodied, and deeply complex image emerges in their stories of work – not only of translation, but of “the field” itself.
Interpreters' descriptions of the field bristle with uncertainty. Interpreting in the field is “an adventure,” one Nepali interpreter, Madev, told me, but not always the kind of adventure that leaves you wanting more. Madev had been hired by OHCHR-Nepal because of his skills in English and the local language spoken in the area where a new field office was opening. Like many field interpreters, he had little or no training, and his stories about the field depict the lack of a clear schedule and constant movement, often along bumpy, windy roads. Similar to the work of translating the stream of words that spill out of another person's mouth, interpreters describe their trips to the field as being propelled forward, often in unknown ways, by the agenda of the human rights or humanitarian officer.
Madev and other field interpreters hired “in country” stand in stark contrast to professional conference interpreters working in booths at the UN Headquarters, who are rigorously trained, receive mandated breaks every 20 minutes, enjoy acoustically engineered spaces, and are supported by a network of secondary interpreters and reference material. They, too, occasionally travel to the field and there is a growing literature about UN interpreters in the field. (4)
People in the News
As US citizens and those of ally countries rushed to be evacuated from Afghanistan, a critical question finally came to the fore: will the responsibility to protect Afghan citizens who worked alongside foreign militaries and organizations be honored? For many years, there has been a movement to obtain visas for locally engaged civilian staff in Afghanistan, including interpreters without whose labor foreign forces could not have functioned. But commitments by the authorities in Western countries to relocate interpreters who feel at risk have been slow to be realized, as reported by Sara de Jong in the February 2020 Spotlight on Language, Culture and Justice. Indeed, The New York Times reported in late June 2021 that the first group of Afghan interpreters had finally arrived in the US after years of waiting. While additional visas for “Afghans who were employed by/on behalf of the US government” were recently added by the State Department, there remains the challenge of receiving and vetting applications at a time of political transition and violence.
Longtime Chadian dictator Hissène Habré, sentenced to life imprisonment in 2016 for war crimes and crimes against humanity by the Extraordinary African Chambers, died on 24 August 2021 at the age of 79 in a Dakar hospital. The cause of his death was COVID-19, contracted earlier at a local medical clinic. Habré ruled Chad with an iron fist from 1982-90, using his political police to arrest and detain citizens, who were tortured, raped and killed by the thousands. Reuters reports that Habré’s trial “marked the first time in modern history that one country's domestic courts have prosecuted the former leader of another country for crimes against humanity. It also capped a 16-year battle by victims and rights campaigners to bring the former Chadian autocrat to justice.” Read more about Habré’s path to accountability from JusticeInfoNet.
Does the recent conviction of a Honduran business executive for the murder of an award-winning Indigenous and environmental rights activist mark the beginning of the end of impunity in Honduras? Roberto David Castillo Mejía, the former head of the hydroelectric company Desarrollos Energéticos, was found guilty of participating in the 2016 killing of Berta Cáceres, a member of the Lenca Indigenous group who led opposition to a dam project in which the businessman was involved. In 2019, seven men were sentenced in relation to carrying out the murder. The high court of Honduras ruled that Castillo Mejía coordinated, planned and obtained the money to pay for Cáceres’ assassination. WOLA, an organization advocating for human rights in the Americas, stated after the conviction: “[t]his verdict is an important victory in the search for truth and justice for the murder of Berta Cáceres… It’s imperative that the Honduran authorities continue impartial investigations until all those who took part in her assassination, including those who planned it are held accountable. The international community must continue its support for justice and the fight against impunity in Honduras.”
Protesters in Canada recently called on their government to launch a case against Iran at the International Court of Justice over the January 2020 downing of a Ukrainian airliner. An early August 2021 demonstration in Toronto, organized by the Association of Families of Flight PS752 Victims, reportedly included members of the Canadian parliament. According to Iran International, “Canada had dozens of citizens and permanent residents aboard the Ukrainian flight downed when an Iranian air-defense battery fired two missiles at the airliner after its take-off from Tehran’s Imam Khomeini Airport on January 8, 2020, at a time of military high alert after Iran fired missiles at US bases in Iraq in retaliation for a US drone strike in Baghdad that killed Iranian general Qasem Soleimani and nine others. Victims’ families condemn Iran’s government for not shutting down the airspace at a time of military tension. All 176 people on board Ukrainian flight PS752 died.” A Canadian court ruled in May 2021 that Iran owes damages to surviving families of those lost in the fatal crash.
WANTED: Nominees for the 2022 Global Jurist of the Year Award
The Center for International Human Rights at Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law invites nominations for this prestigious award. It is granted annually to a sitting judge in recognition of that judge’s contribution to the advancement of international human rights law or international criminal law. Special account is taken of those who have shown outstanding dedication to the rule of law and courage in the face of adversity, including personal risk. Jurists from all nations and tribunals are eligible for consideration.
Read more about the nomination process at globaljuristnominations-2022.pdf (northwestern.edu). The Global Jurist of the Year will be presented with the award during a visit to Northwestern Pritzker School of Law in February of 2022.
The deadline for the submission of nominations is 30 September 2021.
Developments in International Justice
A recent advisory opinion by the African Court of Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACtHPR) addresses the postponement of elections on the African continent during health emergencies such as the COVID-19 pandemic. The request was filed by the Pan African Lawyer’s Union (PALU), an association of lawyers and lawyers’ associations in Africa. PALU sought clarification on issues relating to the impact of a health emergency on electoral processes in African Union (AU) member states. As reported in an ASIL Insight, the issues fell into three categories: 1) How should states determine whether or not to conduct elections in the context of a health emergency or a pandemic? 2) What obligations to states have to ensure their citizens’ right to participate in the government of their countries? 3) If a state decides to postpone elections because of a health emergency or pandemic, what obligations arise as a result? African human rights experts have followed up the advisory opinion with a warning to African governments. The Standard newspaper of Kenya reported, “Lawyers Donald Deya (Tanzania), Ibrahima Kane (Senegal) and Chidi Anselm Odinkalu (Nigeria) said the court in its advisory opinion told the AU member states to ensure free and fair elections during the pandemic without infringing on the rights of the voters and the candidates.” On a related topic, the Boston community is pleased that Odinkalu, who also has a long-standing connection to Brandeis University, has recently joined the faculty of Tuft University’s Fletcher School.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) recently made a statement calling for “the preservation of Afghanistan’s cultural heritage in its diversity, in full respect of international law, and for taking all necessary precautions to spare and protect cultural heritage from damage and looting.” Director-General Audrey Azoulay reminded the public that twenty years ago, the Taliban deliberately destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas, a World Heritage site. She further underlined “the need for a safe environment for the ongoing work of the country’s cultural heritage professionals and artists, who play a central role for Afghanistan’s national cohesion and social fabric.” In a separate press release, Azoulay asserted that “the fundamental right to education for all, in particular for girls and women, must continue unhindered” in Afghanistan.
The past two months have seen an escalation in a long-running dispute between the European Union and the government of Poland around issues of democracy and the rule of law. In July 2021, the Polish constitutional court ruled that the country did not have to comply with interim measures imposed by the EU’s Court of Justice (CJEU) against its controversial judicial reforms, citing that these measures were not in line with the Polish constitution. Chatham House reports that under the disciplinary system, enacted in 2018 by the ruling Law and Justice party, “Polish judges can have sanctions imposed on them for their judgments in the lower courts or if they refer cases to EU courts for preliminary rulings.” In response, the CJEU ruled that the Polish disciplinary chamber must be suspended, and it stated the following day that the chamber undermines judicial independence and violates EU law. The Polish government has now submitted to the European Commission its plan for compliance with EU obligations. According to Notes from Poland, “Polish officials said that no new cases were being accepted by the chamber, but that it could not intervene to stop ongoing proceedings. The government added that it would ‘continue reforms of the judiciary’, including ‘in the areas of judges’ responsibility’.”
The military regime of Myanmar has recently added a genocide law to its penal code, establishing life and even death sentences for crimes committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group. According to The Irawaddy, “The promulgation of the new genocide law coincided with an online campaign to mark the fourth anniversary of atrocities against the Rohingya, the stateless Muslim people in Rakhine State, in 2017. A Rohingya Genocide Remembrance Day was organized online…, with many activists expressing their apologies to the Rohingya for failing to speak out while they were being persecuted by the Myanmar military.” Some legal experts believe that this new law is an attempt by Myanmar’s military government to ease international pressure as it responds to the charges of genocide against the Rohingya in an ongoing case at the International Court of Justice, Application of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (The Gambia v. Myanmar).
An Iranian national who served as a prison official during the 1988 mass execution of prisoners considered by the Iranian leadership to be political dissidents is currently on trial under universal jurisdiction in Sweden. Hamid Noury, 60, was arrested in autumn 2019 when he arrived in Sweden for a holiday. According to JusticeInfoNet, Noury was not a member of a “death committee” – composed of a religious judge, a prosecutor and an intelligence official – which decided who was to be executed. Rather, he “managed the administrative tasks, helping to select the prisoners sent to the committee and then transferring them to the execution room.” While the exact number of prisoners killed in 1988 remains unknown, it is alleged that Noury may have been involved in the death of hundreds of individuals at the prison where he worked. This trial is particularly sensitive in Iran, reports The Guardian, where current government figures are accused of having a role in the 1988 executions, most notably newly inaugurated President Ebrahim Raisi.
An Indigenous group in Brazil has asked the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate what they claim are grave crimes committed by President Jair Bolsonaro. Brazil’s Indigenous People Articulation (APIB) filed a statement at the ICC, outlining what they consider “systematic and anti-indigenous” social and environmental policies enacted by Bolsonaro since his term began in January 2019. According to a story in Jurist, “APIB claims that Bolsonaro’s government has systematically dismantled social protection for indigenous communities and environmental protection for their territories, amounting to genocide and ecocide. The removal of these safeguards has resulted in increased invasion of indigenous lands and consequential deforestation, fires, and illegal mining.” They also allege that Bolsonaro encouraged direct attacks against Indigenous populations. Read more details in a statement by APIB. It is now up to the ICC’s recently installed Prosecutor Karim Khan to decide whether to pursue this case.
Publications and Resources of Interest
Utrecht University scholar Julie Fraser recently launched her book, Social Institutions and International Human Rights Law Implementation (Cambridge University Press 2020). This volume makes a compelling case for the importance of connecting human rights to local communities in the search for more effective and enduring forms of human rights implementation. Fraser provides a case study of the relationship forged between Islamic institutions and family planning programmes in Indonesia. A video recording of the June 2021 launch, whose panelists included Professor Alison Dundes Renteln of the University of Southern California and Professor Ann Skelton of the University of Pretoria, can be viewed at this link.
How has the “politics of naming” shaped the world’s understanding of the struggles against dictatorial regimes that took place in the Arab world over the last decade? A recent open-access article in the International Journal of the Sociology of Language argues that a Western-centric perspective and English-language hegemony have turned the discourse around what locals termed “revolution” in Arabic into the more anodyne “Arab Spring” in English. Authors Ashraf Abdelhay, Cristine Severo and Sinfree Makoni illustrate their article with examples of the written environment in Egypt, Tunisia and Sudan. They write, “the mainstream Western political discourse regularly lumps together the (trans)locally constructed forms of struggle with the term ‘Arab Spring’ and retranslated the later anti-government protests in the region (December 2018–2020) including Sudan as ‘Arab Spring 2.0’ (or New Arab Spring).” This suggests, the authors contend, that the protest movements “marked a sudden awakening from a long winter slumber, and that they would soon run out of steam and finish.” It also rendered invisible the historical specificity of each movement. The authors reject this Western conceptualization of the struggles in those countries, noting that the actors involved should be the subjects of “their own definitions formulated from within their own cultural political discourses.”
A recent short video from the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, “I am Human,” expresses both the frustration and hope of persons who find themselves far from home and dependent on the good will of their host country. Created from the poetic words of a stateless man living in the UK, the video reminds us of the fundamental dignity and humanity of refugees, a timely message as we anticipate the arrival of numerous Afghan refugees in countries around the world.
Research in Drama Education: The Journal of Applied Theatre and Performance is seeking contributions for a special issue on the theme “Oral History Performance, Listening and Transitional Justice.” Abstracts must be received by 31 October 2021. Read more about the special issue.