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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.

April 2019

People in the News

         Radovan Karadžić

In a much-anticipated judgment, the Appeals Chamber of the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals (MICT) has upheld virtually all of Radovan Karadžić's convictions. In March 2016, the Trial Chamber of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) convicted Karadžić of genocide, crimes against humanity and violations of customs of war through participating in a joint criminal enterprise and found him responsible for some of the acts of his subordinates in the Srebrenica genocide. The MICT judgment set aside the ICTY sentence of 40-years imprisonment and imposed a sentence of life imprisonment.

MICT Prosecutor Serge Brammertz made this statement after the appeals judgment was issued: “Karadžić led massive ethnic cleansing campaigns, displacing millions, killing tens of thousands and subjecting so many ordinary, innocent people to rape, torture, sexual slavery and other maltreatment. He oversaw the more than three years long Siege of Sarajevo, spreading terror in the city to achieve his political goals. He made UN peacekeepers hostages and human shields. And in Srebrenica in July 1995, he joined with Ratko Mladić and others to expel 30,000 women, girls and elderly from their homes, and to kill thousands of Bosnian Muslim men and boys.” According to ICL Media Review, the outcome of the appeal judgment has been met with allegations of bias and “politics winning over justice” within Bosnian Serb political community.

Gavin Newsom
credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) has praised California Governor Gavin Newsom’s moratorium on the execution of death row inmates. His executive order temporarily halts the execution of the 737 inmates currently on death row in California, closes the execution chamber at San Quentin prison, and ends the use of lethal injections in the state. However, the moratorium does not change current sentences or mention anything about releasing the inmates. While there has not been an execution in this American state since 2006, California holds a quarter of the United States’ death row population. In a press release, the IACHR noted that Governor Newsom’s decision is consistent with the international trend of eliminating the death penalty and hopes other US states with the death penalty will follow the Governor’s action.

credit: via Bing (CC)

Jean Pierre Bemba, whose 2016 conviction by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for war crimes and crimes against humanity was overturned on appeal in 2018, is now seeking compensation from the Court for miscarriage of justice and losses sustained from seizure of his property. Bemba’s defense team claims he is entitled to compensation from the ICC under Article 85 of the Rome Statute, stating that his trial represented a miscarriage of justice due to prosecutorial missteps during the investigation and errors in evidence. In addition, the defense claims damages for Bemba’s incarceration over ten years, which resulted in loss of liberty and injury to feelings, aggravated damages as a result of the Prosecutor’s refusal to avow that the detention was false imprisonment, and financial losses associated with legal costs as well as the Court’s negligent handling of his assets. 


credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images

In other ICC news, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has announced that the Trump administration will revoke and deny all travel visas to ICC officials investigating alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by US personnel in Afghanistan since 2003. Members of the CIA and the US military are suspected of torturing detainees in Afghanistan after the US invasion in 2001. Pompeo also stated that the travel ban could apply to ICC officials investigating the Israel/Palestine situation and that the US would enact economic sanctions if the Court did not change its course. While the Trump administration claims it is committed to upholding international law, the travel ban is the US’ latest step away from doing so. The travel ban follows the FBI’s move to shut down its War Crimes Unit earlier this year and US National Security Advisor John Bolton’s attacks against the ICC in a speech last September. 

credit: AFP

A Myanmar court has sentenced Rhakine leader Aye Maung to 20 years in prison for treason and defamation. Maung, a member of parliament and the former chairman of the Arakan National Party – which is renowned for hardline views against the Rohingya Muslim minority – was sentenced after giving an allegedly inflammatory speech in January 2018 one day before deadly riots occurred. In his speech, Maung condemned the ruling National League for Democracy for treating the ethnic Rhakine as “slaves.” According to Aljazeera, “the ethnic Rakhine Buddhist population, some of whom are accused of aiding soldiers in the anti-Rohingya campaign, also feels marginalised by the state.” Writer Wai Hin Aung was arrested along with Maung, and after the two were sentenced, many Rhakine locals expressed disapproval of their punishment. Maung is unsure if he will appeal the sentence as crimes of treason in Myanmar can carry a death sentence.    

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Mergia Negussie Habteyes, a US citizen, recently stood trial in a Virginia District Court and pleaded guilty to illegally obtaining US citizenship by hiding his role as a civilian investigator in the late 1970’s under Ethiopia’s “Red Terror” regime. Negussie, now 58, admitted to his involvement in the persecution and abuse of Ethiopian detainees. Upon conviction, Negussie’s citizenship will be automatically revoked. Assistant Attorney General of the Department of Justice Criminal Division stated, “Individuals who participate in the kind of brutal human rights violations perpetrated by this defendant should not be able to find safe haven in the United States by misrepresenting themselves and their past.” A sentencing hearing is scheduled for May 2019. 

Yasmin Sooka

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner of Human Rights (OHCHR) recently announced that 23 individuals suspected of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity in South Sudan could be brought to justice in courts outside of the country. The UN Human Rights Council noted that while there have been improved security and peace in parts of the country after last year’s signing of the Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan, the southern region of the country has continued to experience unrest and violence. Yasmin Sooka, Chair of the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan, stated that the Commission framed the alleged crimes “in multiple ways to allow future prosecutions to take place in jurisdictions inside and outside South Sudan. This allows for the prosecution of war crimes and crimes against humanity in states that are parties to relevant treaties on torture, enforced disappearance and attacks on UN personnel, for example.” 

credit: FIFA via Getty Images

Mahfuza Akhter Kiron, a Council member of the world football association FIFA, was recently arrested in Bangladesh for stating that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed promotes cricket over football, and that the Bangladesh Cricket Board received more state support than the Bangladesh Football Federation. Kiron’s remarks about the Prime Minister were deemed defamatory and she was jailed for three days before being conditionally released. However, there is still a possibility she could face a criminal investigation for her comments. Kiron’s arrest continues the Prime Minister’s crackdown on free speech in Bangladesh, which many say stifles political dissent and the free press. 

Developments in International Justice

logoAn American federal judge has ruled to proceed with a lawsuit filed by torture survivors of the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq against private military contractor CACI Premier Technology Inc. The trial is scheduled to begin on 23 April 2019 in Virginia. In 2008, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) filed the case on behalf of the Abu Ghraib survivors against CACI for the company’s role in the torture. CACI has since attempted to dismiss the case 16 times. US military investigators uncovered that CACI worked with US soldiers to “soften up” detainees in order to receive information from them. In 2018, a court ruled that the treatment of the detainees constituted torture, war crimes, and inhumane treatment under the Alien Tort Statute. In a CCR press release, plaintiff Salah Al-Ejaili stated, “More than ten years passed for us to reach this point and achieve justice. We faced a lot of obstacles along the way that we had to surpass and we stayed patient because we wanted to win our right to equality in the law.” 

chagosThe Digital Freedom Fund (DFF) recently met with the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights to discuss the effect of digital technology advancements on the human rights of poor and vulnerable people. The DDF noted that while digital rights often focus on civil and political rights, such as freedom of privacy and expression, they also largely affect socio-economic rights like those to health, housing, and social security. The UN Special Rapporteur criticized countries like the US and UK for the increase in automated welfare services, which often lead to poor individuals becoming the testing grounds for these new technologies. The digital welfare state often seems to outline a trade-off for welfare applicants —give up some of your civil and political rights to gain socio-economic rights. 

Guatemalan war victims.
credit: Johan Ordonez/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Proponents of justice in Guatemala fear that the government is backsliding on the rule of law. President Jimmy Morales stated in January that he was terminating the agreement that established the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), the international mechanism that investigates and prosecutes serious crimes in the country. The President claimed that CICIG violated national and international law and compromised the sovereignty of Guatemala. Although Guatemala’s Constitutional Court ruled the President’s decision unconstitutional, Guatemala’s Supreme Court accepted a request from Congress to begin impeachment hearings for three Constitutional Court judges who have supported CICIG. The Commission has prosecuted numerous high-level Guatemalan government officials and, without its existence, Guatemala’s justice system could face difficulty ensuring accountability for crimes, including corruption.  

In another move against those challenging President Morales, a Guatemalan judge issued an arrest warrant for Thelma Aldana, the country’s former attorney general and current presidential candidate. The arrest warrant was related to alleged corruption involving illegal hiring, although Aldana denies these charges.  Aldana has worked with CICIG to impeach President Morales in relation to a campaign finance investigation.  

Advocates for justice in Guatemala have countered these setbacks by challenging the congressional vote scheduled to grant amnesty for war crimes. The vote was suspended after multiple lawmakers walked out of a recent session. The amnesty proposal has also been criticized by international organizations, including those in the Inter-American human rights system, and foreign governments. 

ecthrThe International Criminal Court (ICC) is gaining and losing an Asian State Party. Malaysia will officially become the 124th State Party to the ICC on 1 June 2019. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who established the Kuala Lumpur War Crimes Tribunal in 2007 as an alternative to the ICC, expressed his interest in joining the Court last year. ICC President Chile Eboe-Osuji declared himself inspired to see Malaysia join the ICC.

But the Philippines has now formally withdrawn its ICC membership. In March 2018, President Rodrigo Duterte announced the Philippines would withdraw from the Court after prosecutors opened a preliminary investigation into alleged crimes against humanity and mass murder committed by President Duterte and his administration during his war on drugs campaign. Mr. O-Gon Kwon, President of the Assembly of State Parties, expressed his regret over the Philippines’ withdrawal and stated that he hoped its departure was only temporary. ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda announced that the Court will continue its preliminary examination because it still has jurisdiction over crimes committed in the Philippines while it was a member. There was also a last-minute filing of a complaint before the ICC by two former Philippine government officials, along with a group of Filipino fishermen. They accuse China's President Xi Jinping of "crimes against humanity" for irreversible environmental degradation caused by China’s construction projects on reefs and atolls in the South China Sea. 

credit: Daily Express

What might be the impact of international law relating to treaties on the Brexit impasse? In a recent commentary, scholar Elvira Dominguez Redondo explores the surprising move to invoke article 62 of the Vienna Convention of the Law of Treaties (VCLT) in order to bring about a third vote by the UK Parliament on the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement. Article 62 is a little-known provision of the VCLT that codifies an expression of customary international law pertaining to a fundamental change of circumstances that might terminate a treaty. As Marko Milanovic writes in his own commentary on the issue, the requirements of article 62 are quite strict and it has never been successfully applied in real life. Jurisprudence from the International Court of Justice has also set a very high threshold for its application. Redondo cautions that, while article 62 might seem like an escape route, it is difficult, or even impossible, to corroborate the existence of a customary rule. 

attSri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena has asked the United Nations to reconsider a 2015 resolution that opened an investigation into wartime atrocities committed against the ethnic Tamil population during the country’s 37-year civil war. The investigation, which has already been extended by two years, expired in March and produced no results. The President stated that he did not want the UN to force the investigation, which could “re-open old wounds” or threaten peace in Sri Lanka. President Sirisena, who belongs to the majority Sinhalese community, garnered support from the Tamil minority population after he promised to hold Sinhalese military officials accountable for crimes. The UN has acknowledged President Sirisena’s previous reconciliation efforts and constitutional reforms but stated that his actions are inadequate and lack urgency.

credit: Shabelle Media Network

A recent Amnesty International report states that the United States may have violated international humanitarian law through its use of air strikes in Somalia. The air strikes have killed 14 civilians, with 8 more injured, over the past two years. Rules regulating US air strike procedures have been broadening since 2016, which has drawn attention from international humanitarian rights groups. Brigadier General Donald Bolduc stated that the burden of proof on targets has changed, therefore allowing for more air strikes and an increased chance of civilian casualties. Amnesty’s report called for the US to exercise greater transparency and accountability with the air strikes in addition to providing reparations to the victims and their families. 

Publications and Resources of Interest

coverIn a new short video, scholar Jean-Pierre Gauci, Associate Senior research fellow at the British Institute of International and Comparative Law, explains the purpose and implications of groundbreaking research by the Mirpuri Foundation on the search and rescue of migrants at sea. The research project brings together the fields of human rights and shipping, seeking to provide practical guidance on the legal obligations of search-and-rescue activities while also taking into account commercial challenges. Importantly, the project also offers training for NGOs, States, owners of private vessels, ship masters and representatives of shipping companies so that they are better equipped to respond appropriately to people in distress on the seas. Gauci asks, “How does the obligation to obey instructions from the search-and-rescue country inter-relate with the obligations to respect human rights under the guiding principles of business and human rights, and human rights obligations more generally?” View the complete video (under 4 minutes in length) here.

Tensions surrounding the search and rescue of migrants are illustrated by a recent incident - over 100 migrants picked up by an oil tanker bound for Libya subsequently hijacked the vessel and insisted that the captain take them to Italy instead. The ship was ultimately escorted to Malta where the migrants were arrested. Italy's interior minister called this "piracy on the high seas," while  Mediterranea, a private group operating a rescue ship, called for compassion for the migrants and urged European countries to act  “in the name of fundamental rights, remembering that we are dealing with human beings fleeing hell.”

personA recent book by Phil Clark, of the School of Oriental and African Studies, outlines a number of compelling reasons to question the record of the ICC in Africa. In Distant Justice: The Impact of the International Criminal Court on African Politics (Cambridge University Press 2018), Clark ponders the following question: Is the ICC, headquartered in The Netherlands, fit for purpose in investigating and prosecuting complex atrocity cases in far-flung parts of the world? In a new issue of the African Research Institute’s Counterpoints, Clark comments that in attempting to dispense justice from The Hague, with mainly non-African staff who have limited experience in Africa and spend minimal time on the ground, the Court consistently falls short when its model of “distant justice” is applied to African conflict zones. 

credit: EU Today
In a Politico article, journalist and commentator William Echikson recently tackled the resurgence of anti-Semitic sentiment in Europe. Although anti-Semitism has never disappeared from Europe, the collapse of Europe’s more centrist political parties has allowed the fringes to expand. The result has been an uptick in both symbolic and physical violence against Jewish communities. Echikson notes that “the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency at the end of last year found that 90 percent of respondents felt anti-Semitism is growing in their country, and 30 percent said they have been harassed. Over a third avoided going to Jewish events or sites out of fear for their safety.” The situation is exacerbated by both the Netanyahu and Trump administrations’ cozy relations with “Holocaust-revisionist” political leaders in Eastern Europe. Echikson concludes that “[s]trengthening and protecting Jewish life in Europe will require us to strengthen and protect Europe itself.”

credit: Justice Hub

A recent Justice Hub commentary describes how a group of young Liberian artists are joining the debate around accountability for war crimes using the medium of cartoon and comics. Author Felix Lüth writes that discussions about punishment for the crimes committed in Liberia’s two civil wars, starting in the late 1980’s and continuing until 2003, are very much alive. While some may feel that storytelling through cartoons may not be appropriate for serious and complicated questions, Lüth notes that they “help with making complex issues more accessible both in terms of the message and reaching a broader audience.” 

International Justice in the News
is edited by Leigh Swigart, Director of Programs in International Justice and Society, and Samantha Lauring '19.

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