November 2021

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

'Indigenous Languages, Environmental Knowledge and the Impacts of the Coronavirus Pandemic'

By Leigh Swigart  [Photo credit PNAS]

drawing of plants in labeled jars
The COVID-19 era has shone a spotlight on the challenges experienced by many multilingual societies in effectively communicating critical health information, particularly to members of vulnerable and minority populations. These difficulties have been well documented, for example, in OneSmallWindow for the UK, and in a variety of settings across the globe in “Language Diversity in a Time of Crisis”, a series published by the research platform Language on the Move.

The advocacy organization Cultural Survival recognized early in the pandemic that Indigenous peoples were especially vulnerable to COVID-19 and they have mounted a coordinated response to mitigate its impacts, including through the translation and communication of COVID-related information across diverse language communities. More recently, the UN Human Rights Council has confirmed that Indigenous populations have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 “as the pandemic had exposed and exacerbated pre-existing structural inequalities and systemic racism.”

Another kind of language challenge has also arisen in Indigenous communities across the world during the pandemic era – the unanticipated and rapid death of elderly speakers of endangered languages, and the associated loss of the unique concepts, sensibilities, and environmental knowledge that they embodied. This phenomenon has been documented in relation to a number of Native American communities – including the Yuchi, Ichishkíin and Cherokee – where the death of elders with the deepest knowledge of their languages can be likened to “losing an entire library.” The loss of languages may also interfere with community members’ ability to interact “with sacred foods and the natural world”. A powerful interactive CNN piece, Losing Languages, Losing Worlds, illustrates the connection between languages and worldviews – and in particular, understandings of the environment – by focusing on the endangered North American language, Potawatomi.

Valuable perspectives on the natural world are found not only in North America but in Indigenous communities across the globe. In an article about the resurgence of Maori songs in contemporary New Zealand, The New York Times reports that Maori is a very metaphorical language associated with a worldview that is more connected with nature, and that it doesn’t necessarily follow Western assumptions. New Zealander musician Lorde (who is white and whose singing in Maori has come under criticism), says she has been inspired by the Maori concept of “kaitiakitanga,” meaning “guardianship or caregiving for the sky, sea and land.”

Placing value on responsible stewardship of the environment may also be accompanied by special insight into the properties of one’s natural world. Andrew Warner recently wrote of the botanical impacts of language decline in Language Magazine, noting that Indigenous language extinction triggers the loss of unique medicinal knowledge. He cites a 2021 research article by Swiss researchers in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), carried out in North America, the Amazon and Papua New Guinea. “[T]he researchers concluded that a significant degree of knowledge surrounding medicinal plants is encoded in just one language alone... While the plants themselves are not typically endangered, the languages that encode information and knowledge about their uses are endangered, meaning that these plants and their medicinal properties will be rendered useless.” A 2019 PNAS research article similarly notes that “cultural heritage is as important as plants for preserving indigenous knowledge both locally and regionally… Unlike the burning of the Library of Alexandria, however, the knowledge acquired by nonliterate societies may vanish in silence.” 

In conclusion, the death of Indigenous languages – accelerated by that of their most knowledgeable speakers – may mean losing unique perspectives on the environment and valuable remedies that can be derived from the natural world. As societies across the globe struggle to meet the challenge of an illness unknown to us until recently, we should consider how best to protect and promote systems of speaking, perceiving and knowing that can benefit all of humanity in the future.

People in the News

Russian opposition leader and political prisoner Alexei Navalny was recently awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, the European Union’s highest award for human rights work. Named for Soviet nuclear physicist turned dissident Andrei Sakharov, the prize “gives recognition to individuals, groups and organisations that have made an outstanding contribution to protecting freedom of thought.” Navalny is currently serving a prison term in Russia after surviving an assassination attempt by poisoning. He has dedicated his award to those who challenge corruption, reports Radio Free Europe. "I am just one of those many who fight corruption, because I consider it not only as the cause of poverty and degradation of states, but also as the main threat to human rights," Navalny said. "I dedicate my prize to all kinds of anti-corruption fighters around the world." Some observers believe that awarding this prize to Navalny, with all the attention it brings to bear on his situation, may serve as his “get-out-of-jail-alive certificate”.

woman holding a baby, plus the words World Social Protection Report 2020-22 and Social protection at the crossroads - in pursuit of a better future

Only one-third of working people enjoy sickness-related job security. This is one of the findings of the International Labour Organization’s recent report about the state of social protection worldwide: World Social Protection Report 2020-22 – Social Protection at the Crossroads – in Pursuit of a Better Future. While the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed deep-seated inequalities and significant gaps in social protection coverage, it has also provoked an unparalleled social protection response from governments across the globe to protect people’s health, jobs, and incomes. However, the report also finds that differing social-economic recovery responses to the pandemic between higher-income and lower-income countries may challenge the development gains of the latter in ensuring social protection.

To mark this year’s World Day Against the Death Penalty on 10 October, Amnesty International drew particular attention to the situation of women on death row. Many find themselves convicted of capital crimes after enduring years of discrimination and abuse, for example, prolonged domestic violence. “Many women have been convicted and sentenced to death in shoddy, unfair trials that have often failed to follow due process or consider mitigating factors, such as long-term abuse, violence and sexual assault,” said Amnesty International’s senior director for research, advocacy and policy. The Business Leaders Against the Death Penalty campaign marked 10 October by adding 100 signatories to a declaration calling for the end of the death penalty around the world and criticizing capital punishment for perpetuating inequality. By the end of 2020, 108 countries had abolished the death penalty. Learn more about capital punishment around the world at

book cover Standing Up for Justice, with picture of a figure holding scales

International legal scholar and judge Theodor Meron recently launched a book published earlier in 2021. Standing Up for Justice: The Challenges of Trying Atrocity Crimes draws on both the author’s personal experiences, including his childhood in Poland during World War II, and his participation in a wide range of professional spheres in later life. These include his university teaching career as well as his service as President of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), President of the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals, and a Judge of the Appeals Chambers of the ICTY and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. Meron reflects on the rule of law, the principle of fairness in trying atrocity crimes, judicial independence and impartiality in international criminal courts, and how acquittals and the early release of prisoners interact with international justice and accountability, before addressing the all-important question: does international criminal justice work? Meron was a frequent and active participant in the Brandeis Institute for International Judges, a program which ran from 2002-2018.

A New York Times “opinion video”, featuring climate activist Greta Thunberg, uses animation and cold hard facts about climate change to deliver a powerful message about the urgent need to lower carbon emissions. Yet the video ends on a somewhat positive note. “We’re Facing a Climate Disaster: Why is Greta Thunberg Hopeful?”, directed by Norma V. Toraya and Jared P. Scott, effectively presents the need to keep global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius to avert disaster and also highlights the pressure that activists around the world are exerting to bring about policies for meaningful movement toward this goal. In less than 8 minutes, the video manages to expose the inaction and hypocrisy of world leaders, the reality of climate injustice, and the critical role of citizen action.

Some memorable lines from the video? “The climate crisis cannot be solved within today’s political and economic systems. That is not an opinion; it is a fact. And since the truth is uncomfortable, unpopular, and unprofitable, the truth doesn’t stand much of a chance. The emperors are naked, every single one. It turns out our whole society is just one big nudist party.”

Developments in International Justice

Brussels court building

As COP 26 gets underway in Glasgow, the world’s attention is even more focused on the topic of climate change. Below are three relevant developments related to climate change, international commitments and human rights.

The Brussels Court of First Instance made a significant ruling last summer that challenged Belgium’s lack of action on climate change. In a recent ASIL Insight, Charlotte Renglet and Stefaan Smis comment on the closely watched “climate case.” “In its 84-page judgment, the court ruled in favor of the claimant association Klimaatzaak and found that Belgium's current mitigation policies were insufficient to adequately address the effects of climate change. This was considered a violation of both the general duty of care recognized under Article 1382 of the Belgian Civil Code as well as Articles 2 and 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protect the right to life and the right to private and family life.” Access the full judgment in French or Dutch, with a non-official translation available in English.

The Republic of Vanuatu, a Pacific nation with 280,000 residents spread across 80 islands, intends to ask the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for an advisory opinion on the rights of present and future generations to be protected from the impacts of climate change. Like other small Pacific island nations, Vanuatu is experiencing rising sea levels and regular storms that could destroy its economy, despite its having contributed little to global warming. According to The Guardian, Vanuatu prime minister Bob Loughman has repeated his call for comprehensive global action on climate change. He noted that “the issues are increasingly beyond the control of individual national governments and international cooperation is therefore essential for Vanuatu and other small island developing states to combat the threat of climate change.” Inside Climate News reports that Vanuatu is working to build a coalition of countries to support a UN general Assembly resolution asking the ICJ to issue an advisory opinion on climate change. In a recent commentary, Columbia Law Professor Michael B. Gerrard explains what it might mean for the ICJ to weigh in on climate change, emphasizing that it would be important to formulate a question to the ICJ that would generate a clear answer.

logo with a flame and laurels

The United Nations has recently taken three steps toward recognizing the relationship between the health of our planet and human rights, and the need to look at climate change though a human rights lens. The International Justice Resource Center reports that on 8 October, the UN Human Rights Council adopted its first-ever resolution to recognize the human right to a healthy environment. The Council also created a new special procedure, the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of climate change. Several days later, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child published its decision concerning a complaint in which 16 children alleged that five States are violating their rights to life, health, and culture by “causing and perpetuating the climate crisis.” While the Committee rejected the complaint for failure to exhaust domestic remedies, it “recognized that a State may be internationally responsible for the reasonably foreseeable extraterritorial harms to human rights caused by emissions originating in its jurisdiction.”

about 20 judges posing on a staircase

The International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) recently celebrated its 25th anniversary. Based in Hamburg, ITLOS exercises both contentious and advisory jurisdictions with a bench of 21 judges. It has developed this area of law through its interpretation of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea over the past quarter century through cases from across the globe. These have involved diverse matters, including maritime boundaries, freedom of navigation, fisheries, seabed mining, protection of the marine environment, and the arrest and detention of vessels. View a short film about ITLOS, and read more about its 25th anniversary activities, at this page on the ITLOS site. Readers may also review its newly updated digest of jurisprudence.

The Hague District Court, in a long-awaited verdict, has ruled that ethnic profiling is acceptable. The case involved the complaint by a Dutch citizen, Mpanzu Bamenga, that he had been targeted for extra security in a Dutch airport based solely on his skin color. Amnesty International, which was involved in the case, commented: “Today’s ruling that the Dutch border police can continue to use ethnic profiling not only throws international human rights law out of the window, but also tramples Article 1 of the Dutch constitution. By ruling that police can target people based on skin colour and race the court has allowed a practice that is in a clear violation of the prohibition against discrimination to continue. We will appeal this decision.”

A commentator in Insider Voice, used more direct language: “With this ruling, the court has grouped the color of the skin and the nationality: it cemented the idea that to be Dutch is to be white. Of course, this was something the racialized Dutch already knew, but the court ruling made it official.”

Recent activity at the national level supports the notion that animals deserve dignity and rights, much as humans do.

Sri Lanka’s recently established Flora and Fauna (Well-being and Regularization of Registration of Tamed Elephants) Regulations deal with various provisions for the protection and well-being of domesticated or tamed elephants. They include regulations on their working activity and conditions, living environments, the provision of sufficient fresh and nutritious food, medical examinations, and the use of the elephants in the tourist and film industries. Insider adds some more details: baby elephants cannot be taken from their mothers for work, and elephant handlers, known as “mahouts”, cannot drive elephants while impaired by alcohol or drugs.

A US court has weighed in on the status of the offspring of the hippos once owned by the Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. The Animal Legal Defense Fund asked a district court in Cincinnati to grant the animals the status of “interested persons” with legal rights, in order to protect them from sterilization or killing by Colombian authorities, who see the growing population of hippos – native only to Africa – as a threat to local biodiversity. Although this ruling has no legal effect in Colombia, The Hill reports that it is “part of a bigger movement of advocating that animals’ interest be represented in court.” Watch a video about Escobar’s hippos from CBS News.

logo of the TRCC that has a graphic of a tree

After 22 years of a living under a brutal dictatorship, then making significant steps toward transitioning to a democratic society, the Republic of The Gambia seems to have faltered. In 2016, longtime authoritarian leader Yahya Jammeh was voted out of office, then forced from the country with the help of the military forces of neighboring countries. His successor, President Adama Barrow, established a Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC) that collected harrowing testimony about the repressive and violent activities of the Jammeh regime. The final report of the TRRC, scheduled to come out on 30 September 2021, is now facing an uncertain outcome – as reported by JusticeInfo – with President Barrow having joined forces with Jammeh’s political party in advance of the December 2021 presidential election. Al Jazeera reports that Gambia is facing a “litmus test,” and that this political alliance “gives rise to fears that Jammeh, who has been in exile in Equatorial Guinea since January 2017, may soon return to the country and reinsert himself in Gambian politics.” Some even think that a pardon for Jammeh may be part of the deal. More recently Human Rights Watch has joined 16 other groups in support of the United Nations Working Group on Enforced Disappearances’ call for a hybrid court to prosecute crimes during the presidency of Yahya Jammeh in Gambia, and for a new international inquiry of a 2005 massacre of West African immigrants in that country.

Publications and Resources of Interest

graphic of a woman adn the words Hague girls Part one: Fleering - Ewurabena

A newly published book by Ewurabena recounts the real-life experiences of a human rights lawyer who encounters challenges in her home country, Ghana. Hague Girls Part One: Fleeing tells how the author became the victim of a journalistic smear campaign that forced her to flee Ghana with her young family. As one reviewer wrote, “This is a captivating story about the vulnerabilities of the personal characteristics of decency and integrity in a world where jealousies, personal animosities and self-interest drive agendas. It is also a story of the cowardliness of those holding authority and of political willingness to support smear campaigns. But more than that, it is the story of the strength of character of one woman who persevered in her belief in the rule of law to steadfastly right the wrongs that had been committed against her.”

Hague Girls Part One: Fleeing is now available.

What does the reestablishment of Taliban control in Afghanistan mean for its rich cultural heritage? Many will remember the destruction of the 6th century Bamiyan Buddhas – designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO – in 2001 by the Taliban, which considered the gigantic statues to be idols and thus antithetical to Islam. A new series of articles in Cultural Property News delves into a complex array of questions regarding the fate of cultural heritage in Afghanistan, noting that the Taliban government “has no interest whatsoever in preserving its ancient cultural heritage or respecting living cultural traditions that are not entirely in line with Taliban policies and social mores.” The articles approach the subject from diverse perspectives, including the evolution of Afghanistan’s domestic cultural property law and the deep historical context of cross-border empires and trade found in the region.

a banner that says Cultural Property News

black and white photo of soldiers putting a box into storage with onlookers

Transfer of the Nuremberg Trial Archives to the Peace Palace, March 14, 1950. Image credit: National Archives of the Netherlands / ANP, CC0

To mark the 75th anniversary of the Nuremberg International Military Tribunal (IMT), the Stanford University Center for Human Rights and International Justice has significantly expanded the records it has digitized from those historic trials as part of its Virtual Tribunals Initiative. Stanford has worked with the Registry of the International Court of Justice in The Hague to obtain a complete digital corpus of the Nuremberg proceedings. “Our aim is to create a resource that enables users to draw on that experience and knowledge in ways that can assist governments, institutions and experts in improving how we achieve accountability for mass atrocity crimes,” said Center Director David Cohen.
banner that says Stanford Center for Human Rights and International Justice
According to the Sierra Sun Times, this additional collection, to be known as the Tad Taube Archive of the International Military Tribunal of Nuremberg, “will allow the public to easily browse and discover the contents of over 5,000 trial records – including 250,000 pages of digitized paper documents – showing in meticulous detail the efforts of the IMT, a group of representatives from four Allied countries – the U.S., the U.K., the Soviet Union and France – who were tasked with prosecuting former officials of the Third Reich and holding them accountable for the horrific acts inflicted during World War II and the Holocaust.” The archive is particularly captivating for the range of human narratives that emerges from the variety of documents and transcripts. Access the digitized records.

banner of the British Institute of International and Comparative Law

Special Opportunity

Readers may wish to attend the online conference on 17 to 19 November, hosted by the British Institute on International and Comparative Law. Culture, Art, Cultural Identity and Small States will explore how small states manage the balancing act of preserving their cultural identity with being members of a globalised world. Register here.