For Hissène Habré, a Trial by Refusal

by Thierry Cruvellier*

DAKAR, Senegal — Surrounded by 10 muscular prison guards, Hissène Habré, his frail body entirely swathed in white, looked smothered in his chair. He was sitting in the front row of the immense courtroom, fingering Muslim prayer beads. His boubou covered all but his eyes, and they were partly hidden by his glasses.

Mr. Habré, the 72-year-old former president of Chad, is accused of crimes against humanity, war crimes and torture regarding the deaths of an alleged 40,000 people during his rule between 1982 and 1990. July 20 was the first day of his trial before the Extraordinary African Chambers, a special court he has repeatedly denounced as “illegitimate and illegal.” And almost as soon as it started, it stopped: Mr. Habré, and his lawyers, refused to participate, and on the next day the proceedings were suspended.

The Habré trial is the event of the year in the field of international criminal law. With tensions growing between the African Union and the International Criminal Court — which African states accuse of being biased against them because it prosecutes mostly crimes committed in Africa — the E.A.C. was being touted, at least by Senegal’s justice minister, as the advent of an “Africa that judges Africa.”

Hissène Habré after a court hearing in Dakar in June. Credit Seyllou/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Hissène Habré after a court hearing in Dakar in June. Credit Seyllou/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

But on the first day of what may be the court’s only trial, Mr. Habré derided the E.A.C., or C.A.E. in French, as the “Comité administratif extraordinaire,” the Extraordinary Administrative Committee. He called the judges — two from Senegal, one from Burkina Faso — “simple functionaries tasked with carrying out a political mission.” As the hearing was about to begin, Mr. Habré stood up and shouted, “Down with imperialism! Down with traitors! Allahu Akbar!” A dozen of his partisans rose from their seats nearby and chanted: “Long live Chad!” “Long live Habré!” “Mr. President, we are with you!” Continue reading

Blasphemy Statutes Deny Human Rights

By Vani Sathisan, Sanhita Ambast and Reema Omer*

Blasphemy prosecutions are undermining the rule of law in Myanmar, India and Pakistan.

Hdtin Lin Oo

Writer and National League for Democracy information officer Htin Linn Oo (right) arrives at Chaung Oo Township Court in Sagaing Region on March 24. (Than Naing Soe/The Myanmar Times)

Blasphemy laws, such as section 295(a) of these countries’ penal codes, are inconsistent with human rights, including freedom of opinion and expression; freedom of thought, conscience and religion; the right to liberty; and the right to equality before the law without discrimination. They are also applied arbitrarily, and accused people are often punished after unfair trials.

Section 295(a), enacted by colonial authorities in 1927 to curb communal tension, is the same in all three countries. It states that “deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs” shall be punished with imprisonment, a fine or both.

In a litany of recent cases, however, courts have convicted individuals in the absence of evidence of any deliberate and malicious intent to insult a religion. People have been severely punished simply because their acts of expression without such intent were perceived to be at odds with conservative interpretations of a religion. In Myanmar, at least, statements offensive to minority religions go unpunished. Continue reading

Silence on Investment Projects Is not the Answer

By Vani Sathisan and James Tager*

Letpadaung Copper MineOver the past three months, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) has written to investors, developers, an international audit company and an environmental research institute to ask for the public disclosure of information relating to two of Myanmar’s largest economic development projects: the Dawei and Kyauk Phyu Special Economic Zones (SEZs). The ICJ asked for information regarding environmental impact assessments (EIA), environmental management plans, and financial audit reports. The ICJ received no substantive responses.

The Dawei and Kyauk Phyu SEZs, two of Myanmar’s three proposed SEZs, are key elements of the country’s economic development plans. Transparency about the proposed projects is vital to ensure the protection of those whose rights will be affected by these massive investment projects. The Myanmar government, and interested investors, must remove the secrecy around these projects and provide the basic information requested regarding these projects.

In a country where businesses normally proceed without input from local communities, such secrecy has fostered serious human rights abuses, including land misappropriations, loss of livelihoods, serious environmental damage, and violent curtailments of freedom of expression and association. Continue reading

Yugoslavia Tribunal: Legacy of War

By Eduardo Reyes*

ICTYThe end is near for the groundbreaking international tribunal established to try alleged crimes committed in the conflicts of the former Yugoslavia. Eduardo Reyes travelled to The Hague to assess its achievements.

There was a time in the mid-1990s when it seemed the main legacy of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) would be the fact that it had been constituted and issued indictments.

The first court of its kind since the Nuremberg and Tokyo tribunals, it faced an enormous obstacle that those predecessor tribunals did not. In many cases, its indictees remained politically powerful, well connected and at large.

Where the areas in which the indictees lived had been pacified, such was the fragile nature of peace it was widely believed their apprehension risked restarting a conflict that had left more than 100,000 dead in Bosnia and Herzegovina alone. Continue reading

Bashir Flight Leaves ICC in Stalemate

By Dr Miša Zgonec-Rožej*

Omar Al Bashir

Omar Al Bashir

South Africa’s failure to arrest the Sudanese president is the latest incident in a troubled relationship between the court and African states.

Sudan President Omar Al-Bashir was allowed to leave South Africa on 15 June  in defiance of a temporary order issued a day earlier by the High Court in Pretoria, which required South African authorities to prevent him from leaving the country until an application submitted by a human rights group was heard by the court. Just hours after Bashir’s departure from South Africa after attending the African Union (AU) summit in Johannesburg, the court ordered that President Al-Bashir be arrested and surrendered to the International Criminal Court (ICC).

As a state party to the ICC, South Africa thereby breached its obligation under the Rome Statute to execute the ICC arrest warrant issued against the president. This highlights an ongoing problem for the ICC: without states’ cooperation, and lacking its own enforcement mechanisms, the court is forced to leave cases suspended indefinitely.

 Lack of immunity

President Bashir has been sought by the ICC for his alleged involvement in genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes committed during the conflict in Darfur.  Sudan is not a party to the Rome Statute which established the ICC, but the ICC has jurisdiction as a consequence of a 2005 referral to it by the UN Security Council of the situation in Darfur. The African Union, however, has continually opposed the prosecution by the ICC of heads of states during their term of office. The AU has requested the suspension of proceedings against President Bashir and called upon AU members not to arrest and surrender him. Continue reading

Twenty Years Since Srebrenica: No Reconciliation, We’re Still At War

by Refik Hodzic*

Image: TOPSHOTS-BOSNIA-WAR-SREBRENICA-ANNIVERSARYRight now, people in the Balkan region are still living a war, this time for the ‘truth’ about ethnic superiority that will shape the attitudes of future generations.

Bosnia and Herzegovina is about to mark the twentieth anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide – a somber moment of remembrance, seen by many as an opportunity to promote the notion of reconciliation between the country’s ethnic groups. The United Kingdom seems to be the leading proponent of such an approach, with a draft resolution commemorating Srebrenica already circulating among the Security Council members and the ‘interested states,’ primarily Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia.

However, a brief glance at the public discourse around the anniversary paints a very different picture, one of no political agenda for reconciliation, of no social project aimed at overcoming the legacy of the conflict from the ‘90s, of a continuing struggle for ethnic dominance. Indeed, can we constructively talk about reconciliation in a country still gripped by war?

It is not a war for territory anymore, with the cannons having fallen silent 20 years ago with the signing of the Dayton Peace Accords, but it is a war nonetheless. A war fought by ‘other means,’ a vicious fight for the dominant narrative of the past, for the ‘truth’ as the foundation of political projects largely rooted in wartime goals of ethnic separation and dominance. This war is mainly fought out in political arenas, but also in the media, in classrooms, churches and mosques, at family dinner tables, and its consequences are bound to have a lasting impact on the region’s stability. Continue reading

Letpadaung Convictions Taint the Legal System in Myanmar

by Vani Sathisan, International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) International Legal Adviser, and Hayman Oo, ICJ Legal researcher, in Yangon

Letpadaung Copper Mine

Letpadaung Copper Mine, Myanmar

“They can imprison my body, but never my mind,” U Nay Myo Zin told us when we asked him whether he expected to be released, right before police led him into the Dagon Township courtroom for the verdict last week. The Court was teeming with police guards and supporters of the accused chanted slogans at the police, “not to kowtow to the military government” and that “the legal system lacks principle.” U Nay Myo Zin then added, “I will never surrender.”

He was one of the six human rights activists, besides Daw Naw Ohn Hla, Daw Sein Htwe, Ko Tin Htut Paing, Daw San San Win and U Than Swe, who were sentenced to four years and four months in prison with hard labour.

Their conviction, after a trial that didn’t meet basic standards of fairness and due process, highlights the tremendous pressure on the country’s judiciary at a time when Myanmar desperately needs to show improvements in the rule of law. Continue reading

Whistleblower Protection at the UN: Reasons for Despair or Hope?

By Rishi Gulati*

[The author has had no involvement in the cases mentioned below; this entry should not be construed as legal advice in any way or form whatsoever]

Anders Kompass United Nations

Anders Kompass, the director of field operations for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

In a recent article in the Guardian, it was disclosed that French authorities thanked a senior UN official, Mr Anders Kompass for disclosing sexual abuse by French troops. That article says in part:

Sources close to the case say Kompass, director of field operations for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Geneva, disclosed the report to the French because of the UN’s failure to act quickly to stop the abuse identified in its own internal report.

Hinting that the allegations represented just a fraction of what had taken place, a UN spokesman said on Friday: “It is possible, it’s horribly possible” that more allegations of sexual abuse of children by French and other soldiers in the Central African Republic could come to light.

The same report says that: “The official, Anders Kompass, has been suspended by the UN and faces dismissal for what the organisation says is a “breach of protocols” in releasing a confidential internal UN document.” I will return to the Kompass case shortly. But before that, some points on the UN whistleblower protection system, or the lack of it.

Problems facing whistleblower protection at the UN

The internal rules of the UN contain several layers, one of these layers is known as the Secretary-General Bulletins. These possess binding force. Under the Secretary-General’s Bulletin on protection against retaliation (ST/SGB/2005/21) the UN Ethics Office protects staff from being punished for reporting misconduct or for cooperating with an official audit or investigation – commonly known as “whistleblower protection.”

But are whistleblowers rights at the UN actually protected? There are some very disturbing findings. Continue reading

Can International Law Change the World?

By Shehzad Charania

International Court of Justice

The International Court of Justice

This week, at the Residence of the British Ambassador to the Netherlands, Ambassador Sir Geoffrey Adams opened the British Embassy Annual Lecture Series on International Law.  The guest speaker for the Inaugural Lecture was Judge Sir Christopher Greenwood of the International Court of Justice.

Ambassador Adams explained that the lecture marked the occasion of the Global Law Summit, which took place this week in London, as well the year in which we commemorate 800 years since the signing of the Magna Carta of 1215.

Judge Greenwood’s lecture was entitled “Can International Law Change the World?”.  He began by referring back to the Magna Carta itself.  He explained that Magna Carta had changed “a world”: the law of England, albeit slowly and tentatively.  It established equality before the law; in particular, that even the King was subject to the law; and that justice was not to be sold or denied to anyone.  These principles form the foundation of the rule of law.

So could international law change the world in a similar way, Judge Greenwood asked.  He used as his point of reference the First and Second Hague Peace Conferences of 1899 and 1907.  The inspiration for those conferences had been a belief that international law could indeed change the world.  Specifically, the hope was that these conferences would legislate on the way war was conducted, including the reductions of certain armaments and prohibition of others, and set up an international court, the Permanent Court of Arbitration, which would enable States to settle their differences by law rather than war. Continue reading

Is the International Community Abandoning the Fight Against Impunity?

by David Tolbert*

Court HammerTwenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and more than a decade after the establishment of the International Criminal Court, shockingly little is being done to stop massive human rights abuses. The prospects of victims receiving justice, let alone bringing perpetrators to account, seem ever more remote.

In recent days, we have witnessed horrific atrocities by Boko Haram, with only a limited response by the international community. The bloody handiwork of ISIL is grabbing headlines, and there seems to be no coherent strategy to address its barbarity. In Syria conflict rages, with untold civilian casualties as a divided UN Security Council sits on the sidelines. Gaza is struggling to recover after its umpteenth destruction. Eastern Ukraine is rocked by daily attacks on civilian targets, and very few seem to remember the downing of a civilian airplane there, in which 295 people died. This somber list could go on and on.

In my view, the response by the international community to these horrors is one primarily of lip service and well-worn shibboleths. Indeed, powerful states often seem to be casting support to whichever group of killers best suits their interests, with only faint rhetorical nods to human rights.

This is not only a professional reaction to these disturbing trends; it is also born of deep personal concerns and experiences. I joined the United Nations in 1993 to work on issues in Palestine and started my new job on the very day the Oslo Accords were signed, marveling at both the apparent breakthrough and my seeming good fortune to be part of an era of peace building. Several years later I joined the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and later sat across a jail cell desk from one of the principal architects of the Balkan tragedy, Slobodan Milosevic, whose prevarications were then being made from behind bars, far from the halls of power. In 1998, I was in Rome for negotiations on the International Criminal Court; I was both awed by the apparent flowering of international justice and a bit nervous that the world perhaps did not understand fully the implications of such a groundbreaking step. Continue reading