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Home Archive for category "Human Rights"

Copenhagen – much ado about little?

Published on April 14, 2018        Author:  and
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The Ministers of the Council of Europe adopted the ‘Copenhagen Declaration’ Friday April 13 concerning the perpetual reform of the European Human Rights System. Previous installments were agreed at Interlaken, Izmir, Brighton and Brussels.

On the face of it not much is new in the Declaration. It is still interesting, not least for what the Ministers agreed not to include from the draft circulated by the hosts April 5. The Danish draft urged states to reign in the Court by a dramatic extension of the ‘margin of appreciation,’ and by more control through political ‘dialogue.’ The robust rejection of these proposals also show us how the Court is independent yet accountable, to states committed both to protect human rights in Europe, and to complex conceptions of sovereignty and subsidiarity.

The agreed declaration is strikingly different:  Instead of being skeptical to the Court’s achievements and its course, the final Declaration is explicitly supportive of the Court and its independence from the states. The large backlog of cases gives reasons for “serious concern”, though the principal problem is not the Court, but rather some states’ failure to implement the Court’s judgments.  Read the rest of this entry…

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OPCW Confirms the Identity of the Chemical Agent in Salisbury Attack

Published on April 13, 2018        Author: 
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The OPCW Technical Secretariat released yesterday the findings of its investigation into the Salisbury affair. The report confirms the UK account of the nerve agent, without however specifically naming it in the unclassified executive summary; it also states that the agent was of a high purity, implying its manufacture by a state, but without naming Russia as the source (much in the same way as the UK’s own chemical weapons lab). Here are the key bits:

8. The results of analysis of biomedical samples conducted by OPCW designated laboratories demonstrate the exposure of the three hospitalised individuals to this toxic chemical.
9. The results of analysis of the environmental samples conducted by OPCW designated laboratories demonstrate the presence of this toxic chemical in the samples.
10. The results of analysis by the OPCW designated laboratories of environmental and biomedical samples collected by the OPCW team confirm the findings of the United Kingdom relating to the identity of the toxic chemical that was used in Salisbury and severely injured three people.
11. The TAV team notes that the toxic chemical was of high purity. The latter is concluded from the almost complete absence of impurities.
12. The name and structure of the identified toxic chemical are contained in the full classified report of the Secretariat, available to States Parties.

UPDATE: See also this letter from the UK National Security Advisor to the NATO Secretary-General, providing some previously classified intelligence about the Skripal poisoning.

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Was the UN Human Rights Council Wrong to Back China’s “Shared Future” Resolution?

Published on April 10, 2018        Author: 
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On March 23rd, the 37th session of the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution (A/HRC/37/L.36) introduced by China, calling for “mutually beneficial cooperation” among states to promote human rights, with “the aim of building a community of shared future for human beings.” The vote was contested, with 28 states voting in favor, 17 abstaining, and one, the United States, voting against the motion. There has also been considerable criticism by legal experts and political officials in the West, who have argued that China’s resolution is an attempt to indirectly excuse its own rights lapses or to dilute the idea of international monitoring.

The substantial opposition, or at least discomfort, with the resolution seems somewhat inconsistent with the general thrust of the text, which consists largely of affirmations of the importance of human rights and endorsements of existing UNHRC practices and procedures. However, two aspects of the document (aside from the dissonance between rhetoric and practice) have been identified as problematic by critics. The first is the apparent focus on “state to state” obligations rather than on individuals as the focus on international human rights law, and the associated invocations of “cooperation” and “multilateralism” as opposed to “unilateral” critique. The second, and as I will argue the less convincing of these criticisms, is that by giving international endorsement to China’s “community of shared future” concept, the UNHRC is being made a vehicle for ideological propaganda of the Xi Jinping administration.

Dividing Positions from Practice

There are reasons to take the first ground of critique quite seriously. There is no question that China has historically sought to shift focus from individuals as rights-bearers to the rights and obligations of states, as well as to avoid external criticism for its rights record. It has opted out of optional protocols that establish individual complaint mechanisms in international human rights treaties and has, for example, issued reservations to Article 20 of the Convention against Torture allowing confidential inquiries by the Committee of the CAT. In terms of its practice on the UNHCR and in other UN human rights contexts, it has by various means discouraged NGOs and individuals from engaging with reporting mechanisms, rising to the level of harassment or detention of civil society members seeking to do so. In one of the more infamous such cases, the activist Cao Shunli, who sought to participate in China’s Universal Periodic Review in 2013, was apprehended by police at Beijing’s airport and then detained for several months—only to die while in custody, allegedly due to refusal of state security agents to provide medical care for several long-term illnesses. Read the rest of this entry…

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Revising the verdict in Ireland v UK: time for a reality check?

Published on April 6, 2018        Author: 
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There is a general misunderstanding about the revision judgment that was delivered by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) on 20 March 2018.  The Court does not have the power under the Convention (ECHR) to revise a past final judgment because it considers it is wrong or was wrongly decided.  It only has an inherent power to revise a judgment where an error has been made concerning matters that were unknown to the Court and which, had they been known, might have had a decisive influence on the outcome of the case.  This power is exercised sparingly and reluctantly because there is almost a presumption that judgments have been correctly decided and should not be revised.  All revision requests will thus be subject to strict scrutiny in the interests of preserving legal certainty.

The newspaper headlines that the Court had found that the five techniques did not amount to torture is thus misleading.   The Court has decided not to alter the original judgment’s characterisation of the five techniques.  It has made no finding of its own about torture and it has made this clear.

Apart from the victims’ understandable sense of injustice and bewilderment there is an air of unreality surrounding these proceedings.

Firstly, it is beyond doubt that if the same issue was decided today the five techniques would be held to amount to torture.  The law on torture has evolved considerably since 1978 – the date of the Court’s original judgment – to take account of society’s sensitivity to and condemnation of the use of torture. The present Court has expressed the view that an increasingly high standard is required in the protection of human rights and that this “inevitably requires greater firmness in assessing breaches of the fundamental values of democratic societies.” The decision of the Court in 1978 to characterise the five techniques as only amounting to inhuman and degrading treatment which was strongly criticised at the time by many commentators is arguably one of the reasons for this increasingly high standard. Another is the realisation that torture has not been eradicated and that it can involve many different and sophisticated forms of unlawful treatment, such as water-boarding, and other variants of sensory deprivation techniques. It is a sad consequence of the old Court’s characterisation that it was used by the US government to assert that ‘water-boarding’ did not amount to torture. This was entirely spurious and self-serving since US government lawyers chose to ignore the marked evolution of the concept of torture that had occurred since 1978.

Read the rest of this entry…

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Why the ECHR Decided not to Revise its Judgment in the Ireland v. The United Kingdom Case

Published on April 5, 2018        Author: 
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The European Court of Human Rights (“ECtHR”) recently rejected a request by Ireland to revise its judgment in the 1978 Ireland v. The United Kingdom case, where the Court found that the use by the then U.K. government of five techniques of interrogation on fourteen individuals amounted to “inhuman and degrading treatment” in breach of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (“ECHR”), but did not rise to the level of torture. In the recent revision request Ireland asked the ECtHR to revise the original judgment, based on evidence that has recently become available, and to find that the five techniques did amount to torture.

The Court rejected Ireland’s request, a decision that was met with disappointment by human rights advocates. Grainne Teggart, Amnesty International’s Northern Ireland campaigns manager remarked that this was “a very disappointing outcome, for the men and their families” and argued that the Court “missed a vital opportunity to put right a historic wrong.” Without taking away from the anguish of the fourteen individuals who suffered and continue to suffer as a result of being subjected to the harsh interrogations, it is necessary to understand the reasoning behind the Court’s decision and challenge the notion that it was a denial of justice.

A revision request is not an opportunity to fix the Court’s past mistakes or re-evaluate a case in light of more recent case-law. Rather, it is a technical process that allows the Court to revise a judgment only when new facts emerge which should have been made available to the Court at the time of the original judgment and which would have had a decisive influence on the Court. Should the Court agree to revise a case where any new fact or later case law would point to a different outcome, or where it finds the Court simply made a mistake, it would lead to complete chaos and uncertainty. In this case, the decision to deny the revision request was justified on the basis of maintaining legal certainty, a fundamental aspect of justice. Read the rest of this entry…

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Right of Access to a Court in Civil Claims for Torture Committed Abroad: The European Court Grand Chamber Decision in Naït-Liman

Published on April 3, 2018        Author: 
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The Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights has announced its judgment in the case of Naït-Liman v Switzerland, confirming that the refusal of the Swiss courts to examine a refugee’s civil claim for torture in Tunisia was not a violation of Article 6 § 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The decision addresses the concepts of forum of necessity and universal civil jurisdiction, and has important implications for civil claims arising out of wrongful acts that have taken place abroad.

Initial Proceedings

In April 1992, Tunisian national and political activist Abdennacer Naït-Liman was arrested in Italy and flown to Tunis, where he was handed over to members of the Tunisian authorities. Naït-Liman subsequently alleged that on the orders of the then Minister of the Interior, Abdallah Kallel, he was detained for 40 days and brutally tortured with bats, electric shocks, and suspension. He escaped Tunisia in 1993 and travelled to Switzerland with his wife and children, where he was granted refugee status in 1995 and Swiss nationality in 2007.

Naït-Liman learned on 14 February 2001 that Abdallah Kallel was in Switzerland receiving treatment at a hospital, and filed a criminal complaint against him. Kallel was, however, able to leave Switzerland before he was apprehended by the Swiss authorities. Read the rest of this entry…

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Two Times Too Many: Botswana and the Death Penalty

Published on March 30, 2018        Author: 
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Without wanting to trivialise the hard work needed to litigate human rights cases, it is often implementation that is considered the pinnacle of achievement. Put simply, it is one thing to convince a commission or court that a countries’ policies or actions contravene a human rights instrument, it is quite another for that country to implement the decision. A blog post therefore about another failure by another country to implement another human rights decision may not immediately pique the interest of EJIL:Talk! Readers. But I hope this case might just do so.

In November 2015, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights rendered a decision following a case brought by NGOs Interights and Ditshwanelo acting on behalf of detainee Mr Oteng Modisane Ping, challenging Botswana’s use of the death penalty. The complainants alleged, inter alia, that the death penalty is by its very nature a violation of Article 4 (right to life) of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. In addition, they argued that Botswana’s specific death penalty procedures also violated of Articles 1, 4 and 5 of the African Charter. In particular, they contended that hanging violated the prohibition of torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment under Article 5 of the African Charter.

Whilst the African Commission did not go so far as to declare the death penalty itself in contravention of the African Charter, it did pronounce that the use of hanging as a method of execution violated Article 5 of the African Charter (the decision can be accessed here, see in particular paragraph 87). This pronouncement was lauded by many as a significant step towards the eradication of the death penalty in Africa, since hanging is a form of execution favoured by several African countries. (Although it should be noted that the African Commission does not render binding decisions like its judicial cousin the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights, but rather recommendations.) Read the rest of this entry…

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A New Extraterritorial Jurisdictional Link Recognised by the IACtHR

Published on March 28, 2018        Author: 
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In its recently published Advisory Opinion on “The Environment and Human Rights of 15 November 2017 (in EJIL: Talk! summarized here; on its potential diagonal effect see here), the Inter-American Court is the first human rights court to recognise a new extraterritorial jurisdictional link based on control over domestic activities with extraterritorial effect. This post explains how the conclusions of the Advisory Opinion specifically on the first question recognise a new extraterritorial jurisdictional nexus (1) and argues that despite certain welcome developments (2), the Inter-American Court failed to give a comprehensive guideline as to the limits of the jurisdictional link (3).

1.    Summary of the new jurisdictional test

In its advisory opinion, the Inter-American Court had to answer the question whether a State Party has jurisdiction under Article 1(1) of the Pact of San José over a person situated outside the territory of that State Party if his or her human rights have been violated as a result of damage to the environment or of the risk of environmental damage that can be attributed to that State party.

This is the first occasion the Inter-American Court faces the question of the extraterritorial applicability of the American Convention on Human Rights. Therefore, the Court examined the case law of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the European Court of Human Rights and other treaty regimes and confirmed the Convention’s extraterritorial applicability, recognising two alternative bases of extraterritorial jurisdiction: effective control over territory or persons. However, the Inter-American Court did not stop here and accepted a third jurisdictional link “when the State of origin exercises effective control over the activities carried out that caused the harm and consequent violation of human rights” (para. 104(h)). The Inter-American Court widens extraterritoriality by establishing a new jurisdictional link that departs from the criteria for extraterritorial jurisdiction of effective control over territory/persons: it is based on the factual – or, as the Court formulates, “causal” – nexus between conducts performed in the territory of the State and a human rights violation occurring abroad (paras. 95, 101-102). While the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) vaguely recognised that “acts of the Contracting States […] producing effects […] outside their territories can constitute an exercise of jurisdiction within the meaning of Article 1” (e.g. Al-Skeini), it has never applied it as a standalone basis to establish the State’s extraterritorial jurisdiction. Read the rest of this entry…

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Part 2: A few steps forward, a few steps sideways and a few steps backwards: The CAT’s revised and updated GC on Non-Refoulement

Published on March 21, 2018        Author:  and
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CAT’s Defiance in Response to State Pushback

In Part I of our analysis of the new CAT General Comment, we noted that state pushback on a range of issues, for example diplomatic assurances and post deportation redress, was successful as evidenced by the committee’s amendments to the now adopted GC.  In this post, we discuss the areas where the CAT stood its ground in the consultation process and resisted state pushback, on some occasions even pushing certain doctrines beyond the position stated in the draft GC, despite states’ concerns.

Reverse Burden of Proof

The draft GC proposed a reverse burden of proof in cases where an individual “cannot elaborate on his/her case”. This would be, for example, if she has no possibility to obtain documentation regarding her alleged torture or is deprived of her liberty (para 40). There was pushback against the reverse burden of proof from several countries with the US, Russia, Norway, Finland, Denmark, and Australia all arguing that this was not reflective of the wording of the Convention or the Committee’s caselaw, which suggests that the burden is always on the complainant to present their case.  While a reverse burden of proof is occasionally mentioned in the committee’s caselaw, this only ever shifts after the complainant has provided enough evidence to substantiate their case (see e.g. SPA v Canada, at para 7.5).  Despite this pushback, and the lack of grounding in the Committee’s caselaw, a reverse burden of proof has been retained in the adopted GC demonstrating the Committee’s use of the GC to engage in dynamic interpretation of the Convention.

Internal Flight Alternative Read the rest of this entry…

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Part 1: A few steps forward, a few steps sideways and a few steps backwards: The CAT’s revised and updated GC on Non-Refoulement

Published on March 20, 2018        Author:  and
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On 6 December 2017, after a year long consultation process with states and civil society representatives, the Committee against Torture (CAT) adopted its revised General Comment (GC) (now No.4) on the implementation of Article 3 of the Convention against Torture (the Convention)  in the context of Article 22.

In a decaying global human rights climate, in particular towards people on the move, this GC has been much awaited.  Non-refoulement claims are the single most common claims raised before all UN Treaty bodies.  Non-refoulement cases are over 80 percent of  CAT’s  caseload. In addition to this, the  Human Rights Committee (HRC), the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) also receive individual petitions concerning non-refoulement, and turn to CAT for guidance.

Twenty-three state parties to the CAT (out of 162 in total) provided written comments on the draft GC prior to its adoption. These, in almost every case, pushed back on the standards the Committee aimed to develop.  The significant majority of the twenty three States responding were asylum and migration destination states in the global north, well known for their anti migration rhetoric. Alongside these, countries that have a disproportionate burden of asylum seekers, such as Turkey and Morocco also responded. China, the US, the UK, Qatar and Egypt, even though they do not recognise the right to individual petition before CAT,  also provided written comments. The states that provided the most detailed and expansive submissions were: the United Kingdom, Norway, Denmark, Australia, Canada, the United States, the Russian Federation, France and Switzerland.

Over these two blog posts, we identify which issues were subject to state pushback and how CAT responded, highlighting the areas where CAT stood its ground and where it conceded. Read the rest of this entry…

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