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Holding States to Account for Gender-Based Violence: The Inter-American Court of Human Rights’ decisions in López Soto vs Venezuela and Women Victims of Sexual Torture in Atenco vs Mexico

Published on January 21, 2019        Author: 
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In two recent decisions, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR) has affirmed the existing binding obligations of States to address gender-based violence against women by State and non-State actors. The López Soto vs Venezuela decision (published in November 2018) is the IACtHR’s first ruling on State responsibility for acts of sexual torture and sexual slavery by a private actor and its first case for gender-based violence against Venezuela. The Women Victims of Sexual Torture in Atenco vs Mexico decision (published in December 2018) sets out the State obligations in cases of sexual torture by state security forces. Both rulings build on the IACtHR’s prior gender jurisprudence and set important new precedents by providing detailed content to the duties of due diligence and by explaining the circumstances in which States can be held liable for breaching them.

The López Soto vs Venezuela case examines the circumstances in which acts of gender-based violence by private actors can be attributed to the State. In 2001, a well-connected private individual kidnapped Linda Loaiza López Soto, then 18 years old, in Caracas, Venezuela, holding her hostage for over three months. During her captivity, she was brutally tortured, raped and humiliated. In her February 2018 testimony before the IACtHR, she provided a harrowing account of the sadistic abuse she endured, the multiple surgeries she underwent for her injuries following her rescue, and the lasting impact of these injuries. López Soto brought her case before the IACtHR after domestic authorities failed to duly investigate and prosecute the crimes, convicting her abductor of lesser charges.

The Court focused its analysis on two contentious issues: (1) whether the conduct of a private actor could be attributed to Venezuela; and (2) whether this conduct amounted to torture and sexual slavery under international law, as argued by the plaintiff. Read the rest of this entry…

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Joint Blog Series on International Law and Armed Conflict: Better Safe Than Sorry: Transferring Detainees Safely to Coalition Partners

Published on January 19, 2019        Author: 
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The third post in our joint series hosted by the ICRC Humanitarian Law & Policy BlogEJIL Talk! and Lawfare, and arising out of the 6th Transatlantic Workshop on International Law and Armed Conflict, “Better Safe Than Sorry: Transferring Detainees Safely to Coalition Partners” by Tilman Rodenhäuser (ICRC) is available now over on Lawfare.

Here’s a taster of Tilman’s post:

Faithful application of the principle of non-refoulement can mean that it is not possible to lawfully transfer a person to another authority—for instance when the recipient authority is notorious for torturing or otherwise ill-treating detainees, or for executing them without fair trial. Practically, this means that the international forces are stuck with the detainee during extraterritorial operations. Short-term solutions in such situations include keeping a detainee in accordance with applicable procedural safeguards, finding an alternative authority to which transfers are lawful, or releasing the detainee. For longer-term solutions, states should work more systematically with partners to ensure humane treatment of detainees, including through assisting in developing necessary rules and procedures, training partner forces, or jointly managing certain detention facilities.

In light of the various legal and operational challenges that extraterritorial detention may entail, it could seem tempting to avoid taking prisoners at all, for instance by conducting “partnered operations” in which only local partners take detainees.

Read the rest of Tilman’s post over on Lawfare.

Other posts in the series:

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The UN Human Rights Committee Disagrees with the European Court of Human Rights Again: The Right to Manifest Religion by Wearing a Burqa

Published on January 3, 2019        Author: 
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It is perhaps unsurprising to observers of the UN Human Rights Committee’s (HRC) jurisprudence that in the recent decisions of Yaker v France and Hebbadi v France, the HRC came to the opposite conclusion to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) regarding the compatibility of the so-called ‘French burqa ban’ with the right to manifest religion. In SAS v France, the ECtHR had found that although the French Loi no 2010–1192 interdisant la dissimulation du visage dans l’espace public of 11 October 2010, JO 12 October 2010 (herein after the ‘burqa ban’) interfered with the right to manifest religion, it did not constitute a violation of article 9 European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) as it pursued the legitimate aim of ‘living together’ and fell within the State’s margin of appreciation (see my earlier post on this case). In contrast, in Yaker and Hebaddi, the HRC found that the same law violated not only article 18, the right to thought, conscience and religion, but also article 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the right to equality before the law.

The HRC’s freedom of religion or belief jurisprudence has consistently diverged from that of the ECtHR when the right to manifest religion by wearing religious clothing is at issue. Both bodies have heard directly analogous cases, but while the HRC has found that restrictions on religious clothing justified by reference to either secularism or public order violate article 18 ICCPR, the ECtHR has deferred to the State’s margin of appreciation and declined to find a violation (see my earlier post on this blog). As a result, the HRC’s decisions in Yaker and Hebbadi were not entirely unexpected, especially as in its Concluding Observations on the fifth periodic report of France in 2015, the HRC had expressed ‘the view that these laws [including the burqa ban] infringe the freedom to express one’s religion or belief and that they have a disproportionate impact on members of specific religions and on girls’ (para 22). However, its decision in these cases remains noteworthy as a result of: its consideration of ‘living together’ as a legitimate aim under the article 18(3) ICCPR limitations clause; the HRC’s recognition that the burqa ban constituted intersectional discrimination; and the nuanced approach adopted to the gender equality argument. The analysis here will focus on Yaker, although the HRC’s reasoning in both cases is identical. Read the rest of this entry…

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A Quick Holiday Update on Ukraine/Russia Litigation before the ECtHR

Published on December 24, 2018        Author: 
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Last week the European Court of Human Rights published a press release which is worth flagging for readers, with an update on litigation concerning various aspects of the conflict in Ukraine pending before it. As things stand, there are more than 4000 individual cases before the Court with a nexus to the conflict, whether in Eastern Ukraine or Crimea. There are currently five pending interstate cases between Ukraine and Russia, the latest one filed in November, concerning the Kerch Strait incident (see this prior post by James Kraska) and in which the Court has indicted interim measures. The Court has now decided to adjourn many of the individual cases, pending its decision in the interstate cases on the applicability of the Convention, specifically with regard to the Article 1 ECHR jurisdiction of both Ukraine and Russia; for a discussion of this issue, see my recent ICLQ article with Tatjana Papic on the applicability of the ECHR in contested territories.

The full press release is reproduced below.

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In the name of the European Club of Liberal Democracies: How to Evaluate the Strasbourg Jurisprudence

Published on December 20, 2018        Author: 
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How should the European Court of Human Rights be reformed? Para. 41 of the Copenhagen Declaration of April 2018 seeks to scrutinise, for this purpose, recent developments in its jurisprudence, to decide, before the end of 2019, on further reform (para. 5 Copenhagen Declaration). What is a meaningful idea for such scrutiny? This post provides a legal reconstruction of the Court with respect to who it represents and in whose name it decides, that is in the name of the European club of liberal democracies. From here on, it flags the identity crisis of the club as the Court’s most important challenge. It also shows the procedural margin of appreciation doctrine as a possible path to the Court’s future, with a reformed role that focuses on the essentials of the club.

The focus “in whose name?”

An evaluation of the Court’s jurisprudence needs an idea of its democratic legitimacy, not least because it often confronts elected governments. The question, ‘in whose name’ the Strasbourg Court is deciding, evokes such an idea. Indeed, many national courts state right at the outset that they decide In the name of the people or the republic, whatever is conceived as the ultimate source of their legitimacy. Accordingly, most evaluations of domestic courts start from this premise.

In the judgements of the ECtHR, as those of any international court, nothing of that kind is written. So the question is what could feature in there as a short formula which provides a similar idea? One might consider referring to the Convention. It would then read In the name of the European Convention on Human Rights, as if a domestic court would start with In the name of the law. Yet, this is a step too short: the legitimacy does not stem from the law itself, but from its approval by parliament. Accordingly, the basis of the Court’s democratic legitimacy stems from the national ratifications of the Convention.

Hence, in a normal international controversy between two states, one could consider a court to decide In the name of the high contracting parties litigating before the court. But this makes little sense for the Strasbourg court: most controversies at the ECtHR are between a state and a national of that state. A different formula is needed. Read the rest of this entry…

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Are “Transparency” Procedures and Local Community “Consultations” Enough? A Human Rights “Feedback Loop” to International Economic Law Reforms of 2018

Published on December 12, 2018        Author: 
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It is nearly the end of 2018, and so many “reform” efforts are underway throughout all realms of international economic law that one is inclined to think all our good intentions must lead somewhere, eventually.  There is an UNCITRAL Working Group for Reforming Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) that involves Member States, and to a different degree, academic inputs through the Academic Forum (see the blog’s series of posts on these authored by Anthea Roberts, found here, here, here, here, and here).  New trade agreements have been announced, such as the NAFTA renamed 2.0 version United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA, recently discussed here by the Max Planck Institute’s Pedro Villareal and Franz Ebert), a renegotiated Korea-US trade agreement (details here), or the forthcoming entry into force of the US-less 11-nation bloc of the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) on 30 December 2018 (see details here).  With the United States having changed its defense and leadership of the WTO and the multilateral trading system towards a policy of not shirking from initiating open bilateral trade wars to force renegotiations – such as the temporary trade truce with China (contents here) and tariffs slapped on the EU, Canada, and other allies (see Joseph Weiler’s ever prescient portents about the precarious US position here, and further discussions here, here, and here), it is not at all surprising that other States this year have been strategically realigning their economic partnerships, whether it be through deepening EU-Africa trade partnerships; Japan recently concluding a new trade pact with the EU; or more countries moving out of the Western orbit of economic influence towards China’s own expansive march with debt-financed investment projects in the Belt and Road Initiative; or China and/or India leading the state of negotiations at the pending 16-member mega-regional agreement, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), allegedly set to be finalized by early 2019.  All these, apart from the uncertainties of securing any prospective UK-EU treaty, which, as of this writing is still up in the air after British PM Theresa May pulled back from forcing a catastrophic vote at the House of Commons (noting, of course, that the European Court of Justice issued a landmark ruling on 10 December 2018 declaring that the UK can voluntarily revoke Brexit).

Political expediencies and treaty negotiation pragmatisms aside, we have to wonder whether the “efficiency” of these developments will indeed result in “efficacy” or “effectiveness”, and for which constituencies of the international economic system.  Despite the multitude of public policy-driven reform efforts (such as expanding amicus participation, transparency guarantees, as well as public consultations in ISDS, setting out more detailed environmental and labor chapters in trade agreements, or announcing more infrastructure financing avenues for developing countries in new institutions and initiatives), what I have not seen in a year of attempted reforms is any deliberate shift towards broadening global economic governance beyond the usual voices at the negotiating table.  The same political, economic, intellectual, or social elites are crafting the new rules and institutions in the international economic system, with the contours of any local community consultations actually left to be operationalized according to the political auspices and national mechanisms of individual States.  To a great extent, this is understandable, since a relentless cacophony of voices might be anathema to achieving any final treaty text or clear institutional decision (e.g. the Aristotelian version of the tyranny of an extreme democracy).  But to a large extent, this “business as usual” approach remains just as discomfiting as the many paeans regularly being made these days (see here, here, here, for example), towards building in some kind of consultations process for local communities that are somehow intended to depict a “more inclusive” international economic system.  Is it enough that local communities are “being heard” by their respective States, or should the new rules and reforming institutions of the international economic system also start making sure that States are indeed listening?  

Once communities have been “consulted”, one way or another, where is the (hopefully objective and largely depoliticized) “feedback loop” that enables local communities to actually see what the State’s ultimate decision-making process has been with respect to reforming international economic treaties, decisions, and institutions?  That process remains shrouded in mystery – owing to the usual fictions of States claiming to need opacity during hard treaty bargaining.  I make the (rather obvious, but surprisingly still ignored) argument, in this post, that States’ human rights obligations to their populations make it imperative to build in a genuine “feedback loop” for any consultations or transparency procedure that may be contemplated in the continuing reform of international economic law.  A feedback loop is a necessary control mechanism in the communication process that enables communicants to verify whether their respective inputs or views have been used, recycled, revised, or discarded by the decision-maker.  To the best of my knowledge, this still doesn’t exist in the architecture of international economic law and its limited spaces for public participation.  There is “consultation” but no meaningful opportunities for communities’ real-time verification of what their States have promised, traded, conceded, or otherwise bargained at the negotiating table.

It is not enough that local communities just be “heard”, but we should all be properly informed of how community views translate (or not) into the State’s international economic decision, so as to ensure that communities can strategically and effectively participate as fellow constituents of the international economic system.  This is all the more urgent as States persist in these reforms through to the new year, when communities are, in the first place, at the frontlines of the international economic system’s felt impacts on environment, health, economic, social, cultural, civil, and political rights.  If there is any constituency that deserves the information on how States have been making all of these reform decisions, it is our communities who have to live through the consequences of these decisions, years after all the politicians and negotiators have come and gone.  With better information as to States’ actual international economic decisions coming from an actual “feedback loop”, communities are better empowered to choose (or reject) leaders who make these lasting decisions.  The “feedback loop” is thus central to a genuine right to self-determination, in its economic and political dimensions.

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Complementarity (in)action in the UK?

Published on December 7, 2018        Author: 
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Editor’s Note: This post is part of our Joint Symposium with Justice in Conflict on Human Rights Watch’s Report, Pressure Point: The ICC’s Impact on National Justice 

In response to the 2014 re-opening of an International Criminal Court (ICC) preliminary examination into the situation in Iraq, Britain put in place legal measures to address the alleged crimes committed by UK forces in Iraq currently being examined by the ICC. These measures include a specialized investigatory unit, known as the Iraq Historic Allegations Team (IHAT), replaced last year by a smaller service police investigation, known as SPLI. British authorities argue that their efforts represent “a clear demonstration of complementarity in action”, therefore precluding an ICC investigation.

In Pressure Point – a recent research report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) investigating the claims made about positive complementarity in four case studies, including the Iraq / UK situation – HRW rightly paints a more murky picture of the legal processes in Britain as well as the ICC’s ability to influence them. Indeed, HRW observes that legal responses in Britain have been “piecemeal, ad-hoc, and almost exclusively driven by the efforts of individual victims, their families, and legal representatives”. It also concludes that the ICC’s examination “neither catalyzed national investigative activities in the UK, nor impacted the existing domestic structure established to address allegations of abuses by British armed forces in Iraq” in any significant way. My own research similarly points to significant challenges in making positive complementarity work in the Iraq / UK situation.

In this post, I consider some of the key challenges for ensuring positive complementarity in Britain and reflect on what this tells us more broadly about the ICC’s complementarity regime. Read the rest of this entry…

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The ICC’s Impact on National Justice: Can the ICC Prosecutor Catalyze Domestic Cases?

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Editor’s Note: This post is part of our Joint Symposium with Justice in Conflict on Human Rights Watch’s Report, Pressure Point: The ICC’s Impact on National Justice 

The International Criminal Court (ICC) is a court of last resort. Under the court’s treaty, the Rome Statute, which marks its 20th anniversary this year, the world’s worst crimes are admissible before the ICC only if national authorities do not genuinely investigate and prosecute cases. Far from simply a jurisdictional limitation, this principle of “complementarity” transforms the ICC from a single institution into a broader system for prosecuting international crimes, rooted in national courts.

Bolstering national proceedings is crucial to giving full effect to the Rome Statute system. It’s also necessary to broaden victims’ access to justice. The number of situations in which the ICC should act is probably far greater than the court’s founders envisioned. The ICC’s limited resources—provided all too sparingly by its member countries—mean it is struggling to keep up.

More attention should be paid to the ICC’s potential as an active player on national justice. Under the concept of “positive complementarity” it can serve as part of a wide array of efforts to press and support national authorities to carry out genuine investigations and prosecutions. The ICC is not a development agency, but it can lend expertise, broker assistance between other actors, and maintain focus on the need for accountability.

This is the case when the ICC opens its own investigations, as there will be a need for additional domestic investigations and prosecutions to bring comprehensive accountability. But the ICC’s Office of the Prosecutor has a particularly important role to play when it is still considering whether to open an investigation, during “preliminary examinations.”

This is because the prosecutor’s office has unique leverage in some of these preliminary examinations. If national authorities have an interest in avoiding ICC intervention, they can do that by conducting genuine national proceedings. By making the most of this leverage, the prosecutor’s office can be an effective catalyst for justice. The office recognizes that opportunity and has made it a policy goal to encourage national proceedings when it is feasible.

Human Rights Watch supports these efforts, given that they could help extend the reach of justice. But building on a set of 2011 recommendations, we wanted to take a fresh look at whether and how this policy is working, with a view toward strengthening its effect.

Our findings are set out in a May 2018 report, Pressure Point: The ICC’s Impact on National Justice; Lessons from Colombia, Georgia, Guinea, and the United Kingdom. 

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Towards Universality: Activities Impacting the Enjoyment of the Right to Life and the Extraterritorial Application of the ICCPR

Published on November 27, 2018        Author: 
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On October 31st, the Human Rights Committee (HRC) adopted General Comment no 36 on the right to life (GC36, available here) to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR/the Covenant). The Comment includes a number of interesting elements including, the introduction of the right to life as the ‘supreme’ right, and the relationship between the right to life and the environment. This post examines the endorsement in GC36 of the notion of ‘impact’ as constitutive of jurisdiction for the purpose of the extraterritorial application of the Covenant.

Impact as Exercise of Jurisdiction

In para. 63 of GC36, the Human Rights Committee adopts the ‘impact’-approach to the interpretation of Art. 6 in conjunction with Art. 2 (1) of the Covenant:

In light of article 2, paragraph 1, of the Covenant, a State party has an obligation to respect and to ensure the rights under article 6 of all persons who are within its territory and all persons subject to its jurisdiction, that is, all persons over whose enjoyment of the right to life it exercises power or effective control.  This includes persons located outside any territory effectively controlled by the State, whose right to life is nonetheless impacted by its military or other activities in a direct and reasonably foreseeable manner. […]

Readers of this blog will be familiar with the debates on the extraterritorial application of human rights treaties. To quickly recap, the application of human rights treaties Read the rest of this entry…

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Climate Change before the Courts: Urgenda Ruling Redraws the Boundary between Law and Politics

Published on November 16, 2018        Author: 
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On the 9th of October, the Hague Court of Appeal upheld the first-instance judgment in the Urgenda case, ordering the Dutch State to reduce greenhouse gas emissions more progressively than planned by the government. The appeal judgment was applauded across the world and welcomed as a source of inspiration for climate change litigation in other jurisdictions. At the same time, the ruling has evoked criticism in the Netherlands, where commentators wondered if the court had not overstepped the boundary between law and politics, violating the separation of powers (eg in Dutch here, here, and here). The ruling raises intricate questions concerning the proper role of domestic courts in securing compliance with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) in matters of general policy. Arguably, the judgment expands the role of courts beyond what Dutch constitutional law allows them to do, but this expansion fits with the increasing emphasis put on the notion of subsidiarity by the Member States of the Council of Europe.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Human Rights

The Court of Appeal confirmed that by 2020, the Dutch government should have reduced the cumulative volume of greenhouse gas emissions by at least 25 % compared to the situation in 1990. The government had agreed to a 49 % reduction target for 2030 and a 80-95 % target for 2050 (para 46), but disputed that it was legally obliged to commit to a reduction target of at least 25 % for 2020, in light of the EU’s commitment of 20 %. The appeal court agreed with Urgenda that a reduction of 20 % by 2020 would not be sufficient to meet the 2030 target and that reduction efforts should not be delayed (para 47).

According to the court, the State’s refusal to commit to at least 25 % breached its duty of care under Articles 2 and 8 of the ECHR. In interpreting these Articles, the court ruled that ‘the State has a positive obligation to protect the lives of citizens within its jurisdiction under Article 2 ECHR, while Article 8 ECHR creates the obligation to protect the right to home and private life’ (para 43). The court noted ‘a real threat of dangerous climate change, resulting in the serious risk that the current generation of citizens will be confronted with loss of life and/or a disruption of family life’ (para 45). In this context, the State’s duty of care required a reduction of at least 25 % (para 73). Read the rest of this entry…

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