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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.

March 2019

People in the News

Photo of Judge Philippe Couvreur
Diplomat Magazine

Mr. Philippe Couvreur, Registrar of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) since 2000, has announced his plan to step down from his position in July 2019. Overall, he has been with the Court for 37 years, beginning as special assistant to the Registrar and Deputy-Registrar, then going on to hold the positions of Secretary, First Secretary of the Court in Legal Matters, and Principal Legal Secretary before being elected Registrar. According to an ICJ press release, Mr. Couvreur “has exercised his duties with consummate professionalism, skilfully discharging the multiple and wide-ranging responsibilities attached to the role of Registrar in particular, in terms of providing judicial, diplomatic and administrative support to the Court.” The ICJ is currently preparing to elect a new Registrar. 

Photo of Bengladesh Prime Minister Hasina (right) and Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda
Prosecutor Bensouda (l) and
Prime Minister Hasina 

credit: BSS

Bangladeshi Prime Minister Shiekh Hasina has welcomed the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) decision to send a team to Bangladesh. The ICC opened a preliminary examination in September 2018 into alleged crimes committed against the Rohingyas in Myanmar, including their deportation to Bangladesh. After meeting with ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda in Germany, on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference, Prime Minister Hasina guaranteed her support for the ICC team that is arriving in the beginning of March. 

Photo of former Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo
credit: AFP

In other ICC news, Belgium has agreed to host Laurent Gbagbo, former President of the Ivory Coast, following his acquittal by ICC judges in January. He had been charged with crimes against humanity in connection with violence following a disputed 2010 election that left 3,000 dead and 500,000 displaced. Gbagbo will not be allowed to leave Belgium while awaiting the prosecution’s appeal against his acquittal. He was released  by the ICC under specific conditions which include surrendering his passport and identity documents, reporting weekly to authorities, and refraining from making public statements about the case. Belgium also must ensure that Gbagbo will be returned to the ICC if needed. 

A photo of a man standing with a shirt off. His back is seen to be whipped and bruised as a result of torture.
credit: Getty Images

Two former Syrian intelligence officers have been arrested in Germany for their alleged involvement in torturing detainees jailed for anti-government activities. The two men, Anwar R and Eyad A, are believed to have sought asylum in Germany after leaving Syria in 2012. Anwar R is suspected of committing crimes against humanity through the brutal torture of around 2,000 prisoners while he was in charge of a General Intelligence Directorate prison. Eyad A is suspected of aiding and abetting a crime against humanity at the same prison. Another Syrian suspected of carrying out similar crimes has been arrested in France. According to The Guardian, this is “the first time that western criminal prosecutors have arrested alleged torturers working for Bashar al-Assad.” While the Syrian government denies such acts have been committed against persons opposed to the president, the Syrian Network for Human Rights estimates that around 13,600 people died due to torture in prisons between March 2011 and August 2018, with a majority of these deaths occurring in facilities run by the Syrian regime.        

Photo of Sheldon Adelson in a crowd being applauded
credit: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo

The US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit has decided to move forward with the case of Al-Tamimi et al v Adelson et al, which involves billionaire Sheldon Adelson and more than 30 other pro-Israel defendants. According to Reuters, "[t]he plaintiffs, including 18 Palestinians and Palestinian-Americans as well as a Palestinian village council, alleged a conspiracy among many defendants to expel non-Jews from the disputed territories, and accused the defendants of committing or aiding in genocide and other war crimes.” In 2017, a federal district judge rejected the case, saying it raised political questions that could not be answered in American courts. However, the Court of Appeals judge opined that the higher court could still decide if the defendants committed war crimes without addressing the political question of territorial sovereignty. 

A photo depicting a person holding an Airbnb sign while an Israeli settlement is seen in the background

In related news, Amnesty International has criticized online booking companies – including Airbnb,, Expedia, and TripAdvisor – for allowing tourists to stay in Israeli settlements located on disputed occupied land. Amnesty International claims that the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories violates international humanitarian law and constitutes a war crime. When these companies advertise settlements as travel destinations, they are legitimizing the existence of settlements, said Amnesty, which also declared that “war crimes are not a tourist attraction.” After calls from other human rights groups, Airbnb promised to remove all listings from settlements in the West Bank. It did not, however, agree to do the same for listings in East Jerusalem, and it still has hundreds of them there. 

Developments in International Justice

Logo of the GBI. It depicts a badge with the words "Department of Justice Federal Bureau of Investigation" surrounding it.
credit: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

The US has taken another step away from the international community with the closure of the FBI’s International Human Rights Unit. According to Just Security, this unit “takes the lead on investigating individuals within the United States who have been accused of committing international crimes, including war crimes, torture, genocide, female genital mutilation, and the recruitment of child soldiers. It also investigates international crimes committed against or by U.S. citizens abroad and enforces immigration statutes that can be invoked against abusers who cannot be prosecuted for their underlying crimes for whatever reason.” While agents from the war crimes unit will continue their work in the FBI’s civil rights program, the unit’s closure has sparked concern that perpetrators of international crimes could avoid facing justice. Foreign Policy notes that human rights advocates have become increasingly concerned with President Donald Trump’s support for “ruthless autocrats” such as Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and they worry that the closure could be political.

Photo of Chagos Island from above, showing the ocean and clouds as well as the islandIn a nearly unanimous judgment, the International Court of Justice has issued a clear message about residual resistance to decolonization. The central issue in Legal Consequences of the Separation of the Chagos Archipelago from Mauritius in 1965 (Request for Advisory Opinion) was the UK’s continued sovereignty over a group of islands in the Indian Ocean. The BBC explains, “it is half a century since the UK took control of the Chagos Islands from its then colony, Mauritius. The British government evicted the entire population, before inviting the US to build a military base on Diego Garcia, one of the larger atolls.” In the majority opinion, ICJ President Abdulqawi Ahmed Yusuf said the detachment of the Chagos archipelago in 1965 from Mauritius had not been based on a “free and genuine expression of the people concerned,” and that the continued administration by the UK “constitutes a wrongful act.” In an EJIL: Talk! commentary, Marko Milanovic notes that the separation of the Chagos archipelago from the British colony of Mauritius was “contrary to the right to self-determination and … accordingly the decolonization of Mauritius was not completed in conformity with international law.” The UK has been directed to return the Chagos Islands to Mauritius. Response from the UK government has focused on the fact that the judgment is a non-binding advisory opinion, requested by the UN General Assembly. The only dissenting opinion came from Judge Joan Donoghue, a US national.

A hand holding a cannabis leaf
credit: Medical News Today

The World Health Organization (WHO) has recommended that international restrictions on cannabis should be revisited given increasing evidence that the drug has multiple medical benefits. Under the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961, cannabis is classified as a Schedule IV drug, which means it is highly restricted, even for research purposes. The WHO Expert Committee on Drug Dependence suggested cannabis should be classified only as a Schedule I drug, indicating that it still can have harmful health effects but is not as dangerous as fentanyl analogues, heroin and other opioids. In addition to evidence of health benefits, attitudes around cannabis have been shifting, with several countries around the world, including parts of the US, having legalized it not only for medical but for recreational use.  

The logo of the European Court of Human Rights. The logo depicts the building outline of the Court (two buildings coming together through a smaller building), with the title in French as well ("Cour Europeenne des droits de l'homme."The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that there were multiple violations of the European Convention on Human Rights in the case of Mammadov and Others v. Azerbaijan. Mammadov, a Talysh language specialist and editor-in-chief of an Azerbaijani-Talysh newspaper, died in detention in 2009 after being held in an unacknowledged location where he claimed he was denied proper medical care. The Court unanimously ruled that there had been violations due to Mr. Mammadov’s deprivation of medical care, lack of investigation into his claims of ill treatment, failure to record his detention, a lack of sufficient reasons to justify his pre-trial detention, and failure to conduct an effective investigation into his death. 

Photo of men looking at computer screens.
credit: CNN

The United Nations, African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and human rights groups have criticized several African nations for shutting down internet access in recent months. Zimbabwe, Gabon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Sudan all temporarily blocked internet access in order to suppress political discussion and protest. There has been some pushback against this governmental action from domestic courts – after Zimbabwe’s recent shutdown in January, the country’s High Court ruled it unconstitutional. The shutdowns have raised the question of whether internet access is a fundamental right. Human rights groups claim that blocking access violates international human rights law because the internet is crucial to the credibility of democratic elections and also hinders people from using necessary online services. Read more details from the International Justice Resource Center.

A picture of hands holding wooden guns and showing them to one another.Mozambique became the 100th state party to ratify the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), which entered into force in 2014. The ATT aims to create responsible transfers of arms and to address the human rights violations that have occurred due to the unregulated transfer of armed weapons. Helen Durham, Director of International Law and Policy at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), reflected on the momentous occasion, stating: “The ICRC played a significant role in the negotiations of the ATT, and I am so pleased to see this major milestone of its 100th ratification. Mozambique has joined the ranks of States who have committed to placing humanitarian interests at the forefront of responsible arms transfer decisions.” 

A photo of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons building in the Hague.
OPCW Headquarters in The Hague
credit: Reuters/Piroschka van de Wouw/File Photo

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) was authorized as of last month to identify perpetrators of chemical weapons attacks in Syria. The move came after member states granted the OPCW powers to assign blame to perpetrators after the increase in chemical weapon usage, particularly in Syria. A team of ten will have access to previous OPCW investigations and is tasked with assigning blame to those who carried out attacks. The team will first investigate poison gas attacks that occurred in Syria and then will expand more globally. The European Union and United States supported giving the OPCW its new powers, while the decision was opposed by Syria, Russia, and Iran. After the OPCW identifies perpetrators, it will refer them to United Nations organizations that are able to hold these individuals accountable. 

A person holding a crab in between their hands
credit: NTB Scanpix/Terje Bendiksby via Reuters

The Norwegian Supreme Court has unanimously ruled that fisherman from the European Union must obtain permission from Norwegian authorities before catching snow crabs in Arctic waters north of Norway, in the Svalbard Archipelago. The Supreme Court also upheld fines imposed on Latvian fishers for fishing off the coast of Norwegian Islands with only an EU license. The court claimed that snow crabs are sedentary animals, meaning that under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the crabs belong to Norway’s waters. In addition to snow crabs, Norway’s waters also contain oil and gas. According to Politico, this dispute between the EU and Norway has been seen “as a proxy fight for an even more valuable prize: oil.” The court’s ruling will make it harder for nations to access this resource as well. 

Photo of Esther Kiobel
Esther Kiobel
credit: Getty Images

The case of Kiobel v. Shell was recently revived in a Dutch court after earlier making its way through the US judicial system and finally being dismissed by the Supreme Court. Esther Kiobel, the widow of Ogoni activist Dr. Barinem Kiobel, is suing the Shell oil company for being complicit in the murders of Dr. Kiobel and several other Ogoni activists. The activists protested environmental damage caused by oil pollution in the Ogoni region of Nigeria. In 1994, Nigerian military forces illegally detained the activists and, after a secret trial, the men were convicted of murder and executed. Mrs. Kiobel claims Shell helped the Nigerian authorities carry out the executions, although Shell has denied the allegations. More than twenty years later, Mrs. Kiobel was able to testify in a court in The Hague and is demanding compensation from Shell. She recounted the trauma and hardships she has endured since her husband’s death and is asking for justice. 

Publications and Resources of Interest

Book Cover of "Courts and the Environment." Cover shows different landscape scenaries in a collage.The role of domestic justice institutions in forming and crystallizing decisions that protect and conserve the environment is explored in a recent book. Courts and the Environment, edited by Christina Voigt of the University of Oslo and Zen Makuch of Imperial College London, examines the challenges, opportunities and solutions for courts adjudicating environmental cases. It offers a critical analysis of the practice and judgments of courts from various representative jurisdictions with global influence, including the National Green Tribunal in India, the Land and Environment Court in Australia, and the District Court of The Hague in the Netherlands. The expert contributors bring together a wealth of knowledge in order to enhance mutual learning and understanding towards an environmental rule of law. 

Photo of a man sitting with his bare back to the camera.A new paper explores male victims of sexual violence in northern Uganda and how they conceptualize justice. In “Examining Male Wartime Rape Survivors’ Perspectives on Justice in Northern Uganda” (Social and Legal Studies, January 2019), author Philipp Schulz contributes towards a gender-inclusive and holistic understanding of gender justice debates. In a Justice Hub blogpost, Schulz writes that both official acknowledgment of their suffering and reparations are needed to address the situation of survivors. The latter are particularly important: “Due to the sexual violations and their physical and psychological consequences, the majority of male survivors were for a long time unable to provide for their families as they are socially expected to.” 

Sign that says "Justice vs. Peace" and is pinned up with a pushpinAn Opinio Juris commentary explores the proposed use of amnesty in three countries with past and ongoing conflict: the Central African Republic, Guatemala, and Venezuela. Author Priya Pillai writes that the “heyday of amnesties” seemed to be past. “With developments in international law – the obligation to prosecute, the right to the truth, the right to reparations and guarantees of non-repetition – the power of amnesties seemed to be waning.” Yet the proposal to establish some sort of amnesty in these three situations, despite the diversity of conditions and desired outcomes among them, demonstrates the enduring attraction of this transitional justice tool as countries grapple with the justice vs. peace conundrum. Read the full commentary here

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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