Edward Snowden speaks on a panel at RightsCon 2016
RightsCon, an annual conference on technology and human rights, took place in San Francisco this year with three days of panel discussions. The conference brings together human rights defenders, lawyers, engineers, government officials, corporate representatives, and technologists to discuss technology’s benefits as a tool for protecting human rights and its pitfalls as a catalyst for rights abuses.
The conference was held from March 30 to April 1, 2016 and included over 250 sessions and more than 1,000 participants. The conference featured speakers such as the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye; the Assistant Director-General for Communication and Information at UNESCO, Frank William La Rue; the OSCE Special Representative on Freedom of the Media, Dunja Mijatović; the President and Chief Legal Officer of Microsoft, Brad Smith; transparency activist Edward Snowden; Executive Director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Cindy Cohn; and, Ron Wyden, the United States Senator for the state of Oregon. The panel discussions addressed topics including freedom of expression, violent extremism, government surveillance of communities of color, online harassment, digital tools for human rights defenders, and the right to privacy. The following brief descriptions represent a portion of the discussions that took place at RightsCon this year. Read more
Ben Emmerson speaking at the UN
Credit: UN Photo/Paulo Filgueiras
Before the United Nations Human Rights Council on March 15, 2016, the UN Special Rapporteur on the protection and promotion of human rights while countering terrorism, Ben Emmerson, presented his report focused on violent extremism and the human rights implications of measures taken to eradicate it. See Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, UN Doc. A/HRC/31/65, 22 February 2016. The report comes partly in response to the January 2016 release of the UN Secretary-General’s Plan of Action of Preventing Violent Extremism, which outlined a comprehensive strategy encompassing both security-based counter-terrorism initiatives and those aimed at addressing the underlying conditions which prompt individuals to turn to extremism. [UN Press Release: Plan of Action]
The Special Rapporteur, through the report, addresses a shift in the international community’s focus away from a strict security-based approach to counterterrorism and toward an approach aimed at addressing the conditions which give rise to extremism, a term that is often broadly defined and can be manipulated to target specific groups and suppress freedom of speech. Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, paras. 9, 21, 39. Therefore, the Special Rapporteur calls for a more precise definition of extremism to avoid confusing the term, which may encompass a range of activities beyond terrorism, with other terminology, such as terrorist acts. See id. at paras. 13, 24. Reflecting the contents of the report, in recent statements, the Special Rapporteur has focused on the right to freedom of expression, asserting that measures to counter terrorism and extremism must not suppress the peaceful expression of views deemed “extreme” and must be implemented in compliance with international human rights obligations. [OHCHR Press Release: Counterterrorism] Additionally, the report examines the impact of national measures countering violent extremism on the right to freedom of movement and nondiscrimination in addition to the impact on freedom of expression. Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, paras. 41-46. Read more
Credit: Adam Thomas via Wikimedia Commons
The United Nations Human Rights Committee has found Australia in violation of the right to liberty protected by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) due to its continued detention of Guantanamo Bay prisoner David Hicks following his transfer to Australia, despite evidence that the American military proceedings against him had been unfair. See UN Human Rights Committee, Hicks v. Australia, Communication No. 2005/2010, Views of 5 November 2015. Mr. Hicks was formerly detained in Guantanamo Bay, but he accepted a plea bargain in exchange for a transfer to his home country, Australia. [OHCHR Press Release] In accordance with the plea agreement, Mr. Hicks pleaded guilty to providing material support to terrorists before a military commission. [NPR] After he was transferred to Australia, Mr. Hicks continued to serve the remaining seven months of his seven-year sentence. [UN News Centre] Last year, a U.S. court quashed his conviction, finding that material support did not constitute a war crime and he therefore should not have been subjected to military proceedings. [BBC]
The Committee held that States must not carry out a sentence that resulted from a clearly unfair trial and found that, in this case, Australia had sufficient knowledge of the procedural flaws that Mr. Hicks had experienced. [UN News Centre] The Committee went on to state that Australia should have investigated the matter further before enforcing the remainder of the sentence. See UN Human Rights Committee, Hicks v. Australia, Views of 5 November 2015, paras. 4.7-8. Australia, therefore, has an obligation to ensure that a sentence carried out within its territory was not the result of a trial that violated the ICCPR. Id. The Committee’s decision contributes to a growing body of human rights decisions on the detention, transfer, and custody of those individuals held by States as part of the “war on terror.” Read more
Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
Credit: UN Photo/Amanda Voisard
Human rights monitors have expressed alarm at China’s ongoing crackdown on those critical of the government. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, recently drew attention to the Chinese government’s continued oppression of human rights defenders and government critics, specifically referring to a wave of arrests and harassment of civil society actors that began after the implementation of a controversial National Security Law last July. [OHCHR Press Release: China 2016; OHCHR Press Release: China Security Law 2015] Some 250 human rights lawyers, legal assistants, and activists have been arrested in the ensuing eight months, and an additional 15 human rights lawyers were arrested last month, a majority of whom face charges of subversion of state power and could face between 15 years to life in prison. Among those arrested are some of China’s most prominent human rights lawyers, including Li Heping and Wang Yu, both known for defending activists and political dissidents. [Guardian; Reuters] Mr. Zeid echoed human rights organizations in calling on China to release those lawyers who were arrested for performing their professional duties. [OHCHR Press Release: China 2016; Amnesty: Activists; Human Rights Watch]
The High Commissioner also stressed the crucial role of civil society and public participation in ensuring national security and the rule of law. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has called for the Chinese government to ensure that its national security efforts do not oppress the rights of public interest workers to exercise their freedoms of expression, assembly, and association and has, therefore, criticized China’s ongoing treatment of human rights defenders as threats to the country’s peace and security. The oppression in China is part of an increasing global trend to use national security measures to dilute the power and freedom of human rights workers. Accordingly, Mr. Zeid urged governments to recognize and respect the importance of human rights and public participation in ensuring national security and upholding the rule of law. [OHCHR Press Release: China 2016] Read more
The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) has released new principles intended to guide its Member States in implementing counter-terrorism and security measures that comply with regional and international human rights norms. As African States increasingly face real and practical challenges posed by terrorism, the Principles and Guidelines on Human and Peoples’ Rights while Countering Terrorism in Africa (Principles and Guidelines) aim to explicitly define governments’ human rights obligations in this context and encourage States respond to security threats in ways that: prioritize victims’ needs, address the root causes of extremism, recognize the need to regulate modern developments including the use of private contractors and rendition, and include a commitment to implementing their human rights obligations. [ACHPR Press Release] Although the ACHPR adopted the Principles and Guidelines in May 2015, they were officially released on January 29, 2016. Read more
Credit: UNHCR/V. Tan
A recent report from the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic (COI) has revealed that all sides to the conflict in Syria have subjected those captured, kidnapped, or arrested to violence and rights abuses that amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. See UN Human Rights Council, Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Deaths in Detention in the Syrian Arab Republic, UN Doc. A/HRC/31/CRP.1, 3 February 2016 [hereinafter Deaths in Detention]. The report details the killings, arbitrary detentions, and torture committed within both State detention centers and anti-government groups’ detention centers between March 2011 and November 2015. Id. at para. 2.
According to the COI Chair, Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro:
Nearly every surviving detainee has emerged from custody having suffered unimaginable abuses. For ordinary Syrians, the spectre of arrest or abduction, and the near-inevitable horrors that follow, have paralysed communities across the country.
[OHCHR Press Release]
The COI relied on hundreds of interviews with former detainees and with family members of detainees who were killed while in detention. Deaths in Detention, para. 2. The experts estimate that tens of thousands of people are detained in government detention centers. See id. at para. 4. While the State is responsible for the bulk of detainee abuses, anti-government groups including the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (ISIS) and Jabhat Al-Nusra have also held civilians and soldiers for prolonged periods of time in makeshift detention centers, where they have tortured and executed detainees. Id. at para. 5.
The COI determined that both the State and anti-government groups have violated international human rights law and international humanitarian law by intentionally housing detainees in life-threatening conditions, engaging in torture, and committing extrajudicial killings. See id. at paras. 98, 103. By identifying the government agencies and individuals responsible for detainees, and by pointing to evidence of their knowledge of these abuses, the COI clearly signals where it believes accountability lies. See id. at paras. 40-64. The report recommends that all groups cease these practices, and calls on the UN Security Council to impose sanctions against both State and anti-government groups and representatives and to refer the situation to the International Criminal Court or other tribunal. See id. at paras. 106-07, 109. Read more
Children in Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan
Credit: UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office
The ongoing civil war in Syria has uprooted more than in 4.2 million Syrian refugees and 7.6 million internally displaced persons, and these numbers are predicted to increase. [UNHCR Press Release] A survey of individuals at a UNHCR refugee camp in Turkey revealed that more than half of them left Syria because it is too dangerous to stay, often noting that government forces had destroyed their homes or threatened them with violence. [Washington Post] U.S. President Barack Obama stated that Syrian individuals seeking to enter the United States are “themselves victims of terrorism.” [International Business Times] Indeed, the numbers of registered refugees reported by UNHCR only include those fleeing Syria out of fear of persecution, and do not include economic migrants. See UNHCR, Refugees. Moreover, although coverage has focused heavily on the flows of people into Western Europe or across the Atlantic, nearly 90 percent of Syrian refugees have fled to neighboring countries, including Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. See UNHCR, Syria Regional Refugee Response.
However, in the aftermath of the recent terrorist attacks on Paris, some politicians in Europe and the United States have proposed limiting or stopping their countries’ acceptance of refugees and have encouraged public xenophobia. [NY Times: House Bill; Reuters: Europe; Spiegel] In response to the refugee crisis, human rights organizations such as Amnesty International have urged States to ratify the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (Refugee Convention) and the 1967 Protocol, establish fair asylum procedures, and ensure access to basic services, such as health and education. See Amnesty International, The Global Refugee Crisis: A Conspiracy of Neglect (2015).
Leaving aside arguments of morality and decency, this post reviews governmental reactions to this humanitarian crisis in view of their existing international legal obligations with regard to accepting and hosting refugees. Read more
The UN Security Council considers the situation in Burundi.
Credit: UN Photo
Amid an ongoing human rights and political crisis in which hundreds have lost their lives, civil society and human rights bodies are calling on Burundian authorities to avoid inciting violence, put a stop to attacks against advocates and journalists, and cooperate with monitoring efforts. On November 12, 2015, the UN Security Council unanimously voted to adopt a resolution condemning the killings and human rights abuses in Burundi and threatening possible sanctions against responsible parties. [The Guardian] The resolution came at the same time as the United Nations (UN) and African Union (AU) met to discuss moving peacekeepers from the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo to Burundi. [The Guardian] The international and regional actions seek to end a spate of violence and repression that began in April 2015 surrounding the re-election of President Pierre Nkurunziza in a vote boycotted by the opposition. [VOA News] The political unrest, which has led to over 240 killings and an estimated 200,000 displaced, now threatens to devolve into civil war and mass atrocities that some are warning could resemble the 1994 Rwandan genocide. [VOA News] Read more
Juan Mendez, Special Rapporteur on torture
Credit: UN Photo/Loey Felipe
On October 20, the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, Juan E. Méndez, presented his seventeenth expert’s report to the Third Committee of the UN General Assembly during its 70th Session, in New York. [Anti-Torture Initiative] The report addresses the extraterritorial obligations that arise under the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) and its Optional Protocol.
The report expounds on when positive and negative obligations apply extraterritorially; defines jurisdiction with regard to the control a State party must have over a situation in order to trigger obligations; the application of the exclusionary rule without regard to location; and the duty to investigate and prosecute torture as part of international cooperation. See Interim report of the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, UN Doc. A/70/303, 7 August 2015.
Mr. Méndez stated:
I am calling upon States to exercise jurisdiction over acts of torture and ill-treatment, regardless of the locus where wrongfulness took place, and to provide civil remedies and rehabilitation for victims of acts of torture or other ill-treatment, regardless of who bears responsibility for mistreatment or where it took place.
[UN News Centre] Watch Mr. Méndez present his report on UN Web TV. Read more
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and interim President of Burkina Faso, Michel Kafando
Credit: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe
Burkina Faso’s interim President Michel Kafando was reinstated on September 23, 2015, following a truce agreement between coup leaders and the national army. [BBC News: Reinstated; Al Jazeera: Coup leaders sign truce] This truce agreement came after the September 16th coup in which members of the Regiment of Presidential Security (RSP, for its French name: Régiment de sécurité présidentielle), calling themselves the National Democratic Council, under the leadership of General Gilbert Diendéré, kidnapped interim President Kafando, Prime Minister Zida, and two ministry officials, Augustin Loada and Rene Bagoro. [The Guardian: Warning Shots; The Guardian: Violent Protests] Following this, the military announced that it was in power and that the transitional government, which had been put into place in November 2014, had been dissolved. [Al Jazeera: Military Claims Control; Al Jazeera: Transitional Government] Under the agreement that was reached on September 23rd, the RSP agreed to step down and return to its barracks and the national army agreed to withdraw its troops from the capital, Ouagadougou, and guarantee the RSP’s safety. [Al Jazeera: Coup leaders sign truce]