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Home Archive for category "Human Rights"

The Human Rights Committee and its Role in Interpreting the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights vis-à-vis States Parties

Published on August 28, 2015        Author: 

The role of the UN Human Rights Committee (HRC) in the interpretation of the provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (the Covenant) has recently been questioned in a post by Dr. Harrington.

Dr. Harrington recognises that the HRC has an important role in the interpretation of the Covenant, however the last word on interpretation would go to States parties. The HRC should “monitor, question and guide”, but it would be States who decide whether the observations and recommendations issued by the HRC are to be supported and implemented. This would allegedly depend on “the specificity and the context” of the recommendations and “the expertise and stature of the Committee members”. This view of the role of the HRC is not unanimously shared, as is clear from some of the comments on the post that refer to authoritative sources that qualify the HRC as the “pre-eminent interpreter of the Covenant”.

It is here argued that the main question is who can say the best, rather than the last, word on the interpretation of the Covenant. In this regard, the HRC has an interpretative authority that prevails over that of States parties, especially when it comes to examining periodic reports and formulating concluding observations. In fact, the HRC, far more than the individual States parties, has the experience in applying the Covenant that is relevant for its interpretation. Read the rest of this entry…

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Some Thoughts on the Serdar Mohammed Appeals Judgment

Published on August 10, 2015        Author: 

In this post I’d like to add a few thoughts on the recent Court of Appeal judgment in Serdar Mohammed, that we already covered on the blog last week (here and here). The case is now heading to the UK Supreme Court, and may also eventually end up in the European Court of Human Rights – although Strasbourg will be looking carefully at the Supreme Court’s judgment even if the case doesn’t find its way to it.

First off, I think everything that can be said about the ‘big issue’ of authority to detain in NIAC has already been said; those already committed to either view are not going to be dissuaded by some novel argument. For my part, I only wish to note that after the Court of Appeal’s (unanimous!) judgment it looks increasingly unlikely that the Supreme Court will overturn the finding of the lower courts (although that of course may still happen), especially bearing in mind the rigour and detail of these lower judgments. It is very difficult for any court to essentially make up rules (in reasoning by implication/analogy/structure or whatever) on who precisely can be detained in NIACs, for how long and under what exact process, in the absence of any meaningful legislative guidance. This is not a gap that most judges would feel comfortable in filling, especially when easy analogies to IACs or (much worse, between targeting and detention) break down.

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The UK Court of Appeal in Serdar Mohammed: Treaty and Customary IHL Provides No Authority for Detention in Non-international Armed Conflicts

Published on August 6, 2015        Author: 

Last week’s judgment in Mohammed v. Secretary of State for Defence is rich in analyses and observations concerning detention in non-international armed conflicts (NIACs). One of the key issues assessed concerns the power to detain in NIACs under IHL.

The Secretary of State’s position on this point commenced with a challenge to traditional classifications of armed conflict, contrasting purely internal conflicts with armed conflicts between two States (para 168). It was contended that the legal position concerning the authority to detain in a NIAC now reflects a more complex factual position than that captured under traditional classifications. A third classification must now be recognized: ‘internationalised’ NIACs. This echoes the ICRC’s Opinion Paper on internment, which speaks of ‘NIACs with an extraterritorial element’, in which “the armed forces of one or more State, or of an international or regional organization, fight alongside the armed forces of a host State, in its territory, against one or more organized non-State armed groups” (page 7).

To paraphrase, ‘if it looks and feels like an international armed conflict, let us apply IHL rules on international armed conflicts by analogy’. This is a dangerous approach that the Court of Appeal carefully avoided, instead focusing on its proposed implications.

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The Authority to Detain in NIACs Revisited: Serdar Mohammed in the Court of Appeal

Published on August 5, 2015        Author: 

As the English Court of Appeal breaks for the summer vacation, scores of international lawyers are about to descend on one of its latest decisions: Mohammed v Secretary of State for Defence; Rahmatullah and Ors v MoD and FCO [2015] EWCA Civ 843. In this 109-page long judgment, the Court upholds the conclusion reached at first instance by Leggatt J that British armed forces participating in ISAF lacked the legal authority under international law to detain suspected insurgents captured in Afghanistan.

The implications of Serdar Mohammed are considerable. The case raises difficult questions about the place the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) occupies in the international legal order and, more broadly, about the relationship between international human rights law and international humanitarian law (IHL). Those who have followed this debate will recall that we were not convinced by Leggatt J’s reasoning on these points (see here, here and here). In so far as it upholds his main conclusions, we also find ourselves in disagreement with the judgment now delivered by the Court of Appeal. Rather than rehearsing our arguments on the underlying issues in full (see in detail here), in this post we would like to briefly comment on those aspects of the Court’s decision which, in our view, take the debate forward and those which do not. Read the rest of this entry…

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The Human Rights Committee, Treaty Interpretation, and the Last Word

Published on August 5, 2015        Author: 

July 24 marked the end of the most recent session of the Human Rights Committee, a part-time body operating under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 999 UNTS 171. At its most recent session – its 114th – the Committee adopted “Concluding Observations” concerning seven States as part of the state-reporting process. It also adopted “Views” with respect to 32 individual petitions lodged against States under the Covenant’s Optional Protocol, 999 UNTS 302, finding violations in 17 cases, as reported in the UN press release issued to mark the session’s closing. The Committee also held a half-day discussion in preparation for a new “General Comment” on the right to life, possibly for release at the end of 2016, and an informal meeting with States parties, of which there are now 168, confirming the Covenant’s status as a leading human rights treaty.

As usual, the Human Rights Committee also engaged in dialogue with both national and international human rights NGOs, many of whom brought forward issues and perspectives of use to the Committee’s understanding of State reports. The Committee also heard from national human rights institutions (NHRIs). But organizations and institutions have goals and mandates, just as those who represent States operate under instructions, and one can understand that those with a goal to achieve in their efforts to influence the content forthcoming from a treaty-monitoring body may not wish to provide a critique of the treaty body itself, at least not while the Committee is meeting. But critiques have value for the overall system for the protection and promotion of human rights, with a treaty body’s sense of its role in the field having potential implications for continuing State support.

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Breaking: Court of Appeal Affirms Serdar Mohammed

Published on July 30, 2015        Author: 

Breaking news: today the English Court of Appeal  unanimously affirmed Leggatt J’s judgment in Serdar Mohammed v. MoD, finding that IHL does not contain authority to detain in non-international armed conflicts. Full (and very lengthy) judgment available here; our earlier coverage is here. Happy to report that some of our earlier posts (three I think) were cited by the Court. Obviously I haven’t yet read all of the decision, but we will have plenty of commentary in the days to follow.  I imagine an appeal to the Supreme Court is virtually inevitable.

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Tears in Our Eyes: Third State Obligations in International Law

Published on July 30, 2015        Author: 

In early January 2015 the Republic of South Korea sold 1.9 million tear gas canisters to Turkey. With this sale came much campaigning against it. Amnesty International’s “Korea, do not sell us tear gas” campaign received over 50,000 signatures of support. The goal of this campaign was to highlight how the Turkish police force has been and continues to be to this day reckless and excessive in its use of tear gas on certain domestic demonstrations. Reckless and excessive use which, according to data collected by the Turkey Human Rights Joint Platform, led to the death of 19 Turkish citizens between 2006 and 2013 — including four children.

The sale of such large quantities of tear gas to a country that has a proven track record of using it frequently and recklessly raises important questions of international law. It raises questions in particular with regard to the responsibility of third states for internationally wrongful acts and the standard of proof required to establish such responsibility. Put simply, did South Korea commit an internationally wrongful act when it sold tear gas to Turkey?

Tear gas and international law

The name tear gas encompasses a group of substances that irritate mucous membranes and cause stinging sensations and tears. The effect of tear gas is normally considered temporary for a healthy adult so long as they are able to breathe fresh air shortly after exposure. Fatalities have been caused when tear gas has been used in closed spaces, on unhealthy adults or the elderly, or when canisters have been fired directly at protesters.

The use of tear gas is prohibited in wartime both by the 1925 Gas Protocol and the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention.  The 1993 Convention, however, explicitly includes a clause in Article 1(5), inserted at the insistence of the United States, stating that “Each State Party undertakes not to use riot control agents as a method of warfare.” Article II(7) of the 1993 Convention further defines a “Riot Control Agent” as “Any chemical not listed in a Schedule, which can produce rapidly in humans sensory irritation or disabling physical effects which disappear within a short time following termination of exposure.” This clause, by implication, signals a regime of permissibility for riot control agents — including tear gas — during peacetime. Read the rest of this entry…

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Living Instruments, Judicial Impotence, and the Trajectories of Gay Rights in Europe and in the United States

Published on July 23, 2015        Author: 

Evolutionary or dynamic interpretation is one of those perennial ‘big’ topics, which we e.g. recently dealt with in our book discussion on Eirik Bjorge’s recent work on the topic. Judicial pronouncements on LGBT rights are an excellent example of this phenomenon (for some of my earlier thoughts on this, see here). In particular, on 26 June the US Supreme Court rendered its blockbuster ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, in which it held (per Justice Kennedy, and by 5 votes to 4) that the US Constitution requires full marriage equality between same-sex and different-sex couples. On reading this judgment, as well as some of the recent cases on similar questions before the European Court of Human Rights, I was struck by several points on the practical realities of dynamic interpretation that I’d like to raise in this post.

First, it really is striking that despite the many differences in the text of the relevant instruments, their history, the institutional make-up or legal culture generally, US and European courts both look at gay rights generally (or the issue of gay marriage specifically) through the same analytical lenses: on the one hand there’s private life, family life or individual liberty (or in US parlance substantive due process under the Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution); on the other hand, there’s equality or non-discrimination. And while there are many differences in the concrete legal tests being applied (e.g. proportionality in Europe, tiered levels of scrutiny in the US), there are many conceptual similarities as well.

Second, in both Europe and in the US most gay rights cases, whether under privacy/liberty or under equality, boil down to one basic, fundamental problem: if a right or legitimate interest is interfered with or restricted by the state (e.g. gays are denied the right to marry), what is the justification offered by the state for that restriction, and how then should a court assess that justification. In particular, can such a restriction ever be justified by reference to public morals, or tradition, or disapproval of a particular group or behaviour alone, absent any objectively identifiable, concrete individual or societal harm. One reason why Obergefell came out the way it did was that the opponents of gay marriage were simply unable to articulate any concrete harm to anyone; each argument they tried to make of that type was easily disprovable (e.g. if marriage is inextricably tied to procreation, why then do we allow infertile couples to get married, etc. – for an example of pretty brutal judicial questioning along these lines, one need only listen to this oral argument before Judge Richard Posner, and read this judgment.)

In other words, the big question is whether it would ever be legitimate to restrict marriage to opposite-sex couples simply because ‘we’ (say the majority in a popularly elected parliament) believe that same-sex couples are icky and yucky. Is a feeling or sentiment of yuckiness (or sinfulness, turpitude, taboo, whatever) enough to deny people legal rights? Many lawyers would stop here and simply say that such irrational considerations cannot form the basis for running a legal system. But wait – in the European Convention (unlike in the US Bill of Rights) we actually have explicit references to the protection of morals in the limitation clauses of several articles, including Article 8. And in fact the Court has said, for example, that it’s fine to keep a person in prison simply because that person chooses to walk in public without wearing any clothes, even though he causes no concrete harm to others in so doing – remember that naked rambler dude? He’s still naked, and still in prison (9 years on! – see here and here for very recent developments). And if yuckiness alone does not suffice, what then of polygamy or consensual adult incest and the like (and we do have cases like that), or some other parade of horribles?

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Russian Constitutional Court Affirms Russian Constitution’s Supremacy over ECtHR Decisions

Published on July 15, 2015        Author: 

On 1 July 2015 a group of Russian MPs requested the Russian Constitutional Court (RCC) to check the constitutionality of the Federal Law ‘On ratification of ECHR’, the Federal Law ‘On international treaties’, and a number of procedural norms. According to the applicants,

‘participation in international cooperation should not lead to a breach of human rights or contradict the fundamental principles of the constitutional system. In their view, the contested rules oblige the courts and other state bodies to implement unconditionally ECtHR decisions, even if they contradicted the Russian Constitution. As a result … the person who applies the law is put in an impossible situation, because such a conflict might be insoluble.’

Although the RCC held that the contested norms do not conflict with the Constitution, thus leaving the de jure legal status of the Convention intact, this ruling and its high publicity in Russian media clearly signifies a change in the political attitude towards the implementation of decisions of the European Court.

Position of the Constitutional Court

The Court confirmed that the contested norms do not contradict the Constitution. Thus, the Convention remains part of Russian legal system, according to Article 15 (part 4) of the Constitution. However, the Court reasoned that

‘the participation of the Russian Federation in any international treaty does not mean giving up national sovereignty. Neither the ECHR, nor the legal positions of the ECtHR based on it, can cancel the priority of the Constitution. Their practical implementation in the Russian legal system is only possible through recognition of the supremacy of the Constitution’s legal force.’

There is no revolution in admitting that ‘both the Constitution and the European Convention are based on shared basic values’ and that ‘in the vast majority of cases no conflict between the two documents can appear at all.’ There have hardly been any conflicts since 1998, when Russia ratified the Convention. However, when it comes to interpretation, apparently the position can differ. Read the rest of this entry…

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