Tag Archives: human rights

Human Rights in War

A new report by Amnesty International contends that Russia may have committed war crimes when it launched an airstrike on a market in Syria last week. According to the report, Russia may have killed as many as 200 civilians since it began using its air power to strike rebel forces in Syria last November. Amnesty International accuses Russia of using cluster munitions—bombs that carry dozens of bomblets—during its airstrikes. Amnesty avoids calling Russian attacks purposeful, suggesting that targets may have been based on faulty intelligence.

Russia responded, stating that the report was “groundless” and “full of lies,” and denies they have used cluster munitions in Syria. The Russian government also pointed out that US airstrikes have also resulted in civilian casualties, most notably in Afghanistan, where a US airstrike accidentally targeted a medical facility run by the non-governmental organization Doctors Without Borders, killing at least 19 people.

Yet the legality of Russia’s actions in Syria are less than clear. The Convention on Cluster Munitions prohibits the use, transfer, and stockpile of cluster bombs by countries that have ratified the convention. While 107 countries have ratified the agreement, countries that have the largest stockpile of such weapons—including Russia, China, the United States, Israel, Pakistan, India, and Brazil—have refused to do so and are thus not subject to the agreement’s provisions. Similarly, the Rome Statute and Protocol I of the Geneva Conventions prohibit the deliberate or indiscriminate targeting of civilians in war. But making the case that Russia deliberately targeted civilians—rather than aiming for a military target but accidentally striking civilians—is a difficult claim to substantiate, and one that Amnesty did not make in the report.

What do you think? Has Russia violated international humanitarian law during its airstrikes in Syria? Has the United States violated international humanitarian law in Syria, Iraq, or Afghanistan? And if so, what can be or should be done to prevent such violations by Russia or the United States in the future?

Preventing Torture and the Responsibility to Protect

New and graphic video released by Syrian dissidents shows massive torture regime allegedly orchestrated by Syria’s President, Bashar al-Assad. The Coalition for a Democratic Syria, a group of Syrian Americans campaigning for a more interventionist US policy to address what they describe as a genocide being perpetrated by the Syrian regime, says the video highlights the need for a more aggressive international response.

The United Nations Convention against Torture, ratified by 158 countries including the United States and Syria, defines torture as “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him, or a third person, information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimating or coercing him or a third person, for for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or pother person acting in an official capacity.” States are expected to take measures to prevent torture in territories under their jurisdiction, including investigating accusations of torture. More broadly, the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), a still-contested principle in international human rights law, would suggest that the United States and other parties have a responsibility for intervening to prevent gross human rights violations around the world.

What do you think? What responsibility does the international community have to prevent acts of torture in Syria and elsewhere? What limits, if any, exist on that responsibility? Would you support intervention in Syria to protect human rights and prevent torture? Why?

Political Dissidence in Russia

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putting last week ordered the release of several high profile prisoners over the past two weeks in an effort to improve the country’s beleaguered human rights record ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Saatchi. Billionaire (and former political rival to Putin) Mikhail Khodorkovsky fled Russia and sought asylum in Germany. Thirty members of Greenpeace arrested for protesting Russian drilling operations in the Arctic were also freed, as were two members of the Russian punk rock group Pussy Riot.

But the move appears to have had little success, and the two members of the group took to the media to call for a “Putin-free system.”

Meanwhile, President Obama named several gay and lesbian athletes as part of the US Olympic delegation, and other international leaders have announced their intention to boycott the games. But many people are asking whether a boycott will make a difference.

What do you think? Will a boycott of the Winter Olympic Games affect human rights policy in Russia? Should the United States boycott the Olympics? Why?

Enforcing Human Rights Through the Courts

A Meeting of the European Court of Human Rights

A Meeting of the European Court of Human Rights

The European Court of Human Rights is hearing a case centering on the extraordinary rendition and alleged torture of two men currently held at the United States’ Guantanamo Bay detention facility in Cuba. The case was brought by lawyers for Abu Zubaudah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, both al Qaeda members, against the government of Poland. In it, lawyers for Zabaudah and al-Nashiri allege that they were seized and flown to secret US-administered “black sites” in Poland, where they were subject to waterboarding, mock executions, and other ill treatment. Lawyers allege that all of this took place with the knowledge and consent of the Polish government. Lawyers for the Polish government do not contest the accusations but assert that the Polish government should be allowed to undertake its own investigation before the case is brought to the European Court. A similar suit filed by lawyers for Khaled al-Masri against the government of Macedonia in 2012 was successful, resulting in an order by the European Court that the Macedonian government compensate al-Masri.

The use of the European Court of Human Rights is an interesting twist in the protection of human rights of alleged terrorists. One of the key features of the extraordinary rendition program was that it took place outside the United States, and thus beyond the reach of US courts. Do you think that the European Courts will be able to effectively protect the rights of suspected terror suspects held incognito by the United States in Europe? Why?

Truth and Reconciliation: The Global Politics of Justice

Bethuel Kiplagat, Chair of Kenya's Truth Justice and Reconciliation Commission in 2010.

Bethuel Kiplagat, Chair of Kenya’s Truth Justice and Reconciliation Commission in 2010.

The BBC is reporting that a long-awaited report investigating violence and human rights abuses in Kenya will recommend some prosecutions of key officials for their roles. The Truth Reconciliation and Justice Commission was established in the aftermath of post-election violence that rocked Kenya following the 2008 presidential elections. However, its mandate was broader and included looking at past injustices from the Kenyan independence in December 1963 through the disputed February 2008 elections. According to the BBC’s coverage, Ahmed Sheikh Farah, who sat on the committee, indicated that “victims would be happy” with the recommendations but also warned that “we have been centered on reconciliation—healing, unity, that kind of focus.”

The report comes at an interesting time in Kenya’s political history. About six weeks ago, Uhuru Kenyatta won the presidency and was sworn into office. However, Kenyatta has been charged by the International Criminal Court with orchestrating some of the violence following the last presidential election. That violence resulted in more than 1,500 deaths and displaced more than 300,000 people from their homes.

Truth and reconciliation commissions are interesting instruments. They are generally charged with revealing wrongdoing rather than achieving justice per se. And they have been growing in popularity in recent

Archbishop Desmond Tutu presides over South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu presides over South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

years. One of the earliest was Argentina’s National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons (the Comisión Nacional sobre la Desaparición de Personas, or CONADEP). CONADEP was established shortly after the collapse of Argentina’s military government in 1983, and was charged with investigating the fate of the estimated 30,000 persons who were “disappeared” by the Argentine government between 1976 and 1983. Perhaps the most famous was South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which was established in 1995 and was charged with witnessing and recording the crimes and human rights abuses committed by both state and opposition forces during the apartheid era. Other notable examples include Brazil’s Comissão Nacional da Verdade, which is currently investigating human rights abuses by the country’s former military government, and Canada’s Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which is currently investigating human rights abuses in the country’s residential school system for the Canada’s first nations.

Most truth and reconciliation commissions represent an effort to expand understanding rather that to achieve justice. They generally lack the power to prosecute offenders. Indeed, in many cases, like the South African TRC, individuals offering testimony before the commission were generally granted amnesty for any confessions they offered. The emphasis, in other words, is on promoting transparency and providing a historical record and testimony rather than on achieving justice in the traditional sense. But this also a source of controversy, as victims can sometimes feel as though the perpetrators of violence and human rights abuses can escape punishment.

What do you think? Do truth commissions represent an instrument of justice by witnessing and providing a historical record of human rights abuses? Or do they undermine justice by permitting human rights abusers to escape criminal prosecution? Leave a comment below and let us know what you think.

The International Criminal Court and Global Governance

Libyan leader Moammar Qaddafi, the target of an ICC arrest warrant.

The International Criminal Court’s decision this week to issue an arrest warrant for Libyan leader Moammar Qaddafi has revived debate about the power and usefulness of the ICC in world politics.  The ICC is an international governmental organization (IGO)–an organization whose members are states–that was created by the 1998 Rome Treaty and today has 114 members.  Its purpose is to prosecute individuals accused of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.  (The charges against Qaddafi, his son, and his military intelligence chief were for crimes against humanity stemming from the regime’s  crackdown on anti-government protesters).  The ICC operates according to the principle of complementarity, which means that it can only act when national court systems are unable or unwilling to take action against the perpetrators of such crimes.  The United States has refused to sign the Rome Treaty and has expressed fears that its soldiers or government officials could be subjected to politically motivated prosecutions by the court, but it has increasingly shown a willingness to use the ICC as a tool to accomplish its foreign policy goals, as discussed in this piece by Colum Lynch.

“Global governance” refers to efforts to move beyond an anarchic system of sovereign states and create structures that can make and enforce rules at the global level.  The ICC is obviously a crucial part of these efforts.  However, a fundamental weakness of the ICC (and other global bodies) is that it does not have an army or police force that can enforce its arrest warrants and bring indicted war criminals such as Sudan’s President Bashir or Libya’s Moammar Qaddafi to justice.  One commentator described the ICC indictment as a fairly impotent call for Qaddafi to “please turn yourself in, now.”  Without “teeth” to enforce its dictates, the ICC must rely on cooperation from state actors, and a number of analysts have raised doubts about whether the NATO forces that are carrying out the bombing of Libya will extend their mission to enforcing the arrest warrant against Qaddafi and his associates.  David Kaye, director of the International Human Rights Law program at UCLA’s School of Law, put it this way:

“Arresting the three would require “boots on the ground,” a scenario that has largely — if not categorically — been taken off the table, especially by the United States. The last time NATO faced such a predicament, in Bosnia in the 1990s, it long resisted devoting any of its resources to enforcing arrest warrants issued by the UN International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, even when it had significant numbers of troops on the ground.”

Beyond questions of enforcement, other analysts have argued that the ICC indictments, while morally and legally justified, represent a tactical blunder that reduces the chances of a peace deal that could end the bloodshed in Libya.  Foreign policy analyst and former National Security Council official James Lindsay argued in a May 17 Op-Ed piece that an arrest warrant “…would give [Qaddafi]  additional reason to dig in his heels. With the threat of arrest and trial in The Hague hanging over his head, he knows he will not have the option given dictators of old – going into exile to Paris (Baby Doc Duvalier) or retreat to Saudi Arabi (Idi Amin)…Both a rebel victory and a stable ceasefire remain out of reach. A diplomatic initiative to persuade Gadhafi to step down offers one way out of the current stalemate. But Monday’s ICC indictment simply gives him another reason to hang on and fight.”  For other thoughtful articles on the conflict between justice and peace in this case, see here and here.

The Atlantic’s Max Fisher provides a somewhat different view, arguing that “Ultimately, the arrest warrant is likely to serve as little more than another bargaining chip in any negotiations over ending Libya’s civil war. That’s a good thing — as fighting worsens and civil society degrades, anything that makes peace more likely is essential — but it’s not quite international justice in the legal sense of the term.”

A final critique, aimed not at the indictment of Qaddafi per se, but at the inconsistent application of international law (i.e., why Qaddafi and not others?)can be found here.

What do you think?  Was the ICC’s indictment of Qaddafi a wise step?  How can the structural impediments to global governance (foremost among them, state sovereignty) be overcome to enforce human rights globally and consistently?  Or would the surrender of state sovereignty to supranational organizations actually create more problems than it solves?

Is the UN Impotent to Act on Syria?

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is believed to be responsible for the deaths of over 1,300 civilians since anti-regime protests began in March.

The news from Syria is growing more ominous by the day, with reports of continued bloody crackdowns on protesters, troops marching north for a major offensive, refugees fleeing across the border into Turkey, and the apparent use of Palestinians as cannon fodder against Israel as a diversionary tactic. 

Meanwhile, the United Nations appears unable to take even modest steps to address the situation.  Since Russia is a strong ally of Syria and is one of five countries (along with the U.S., Britain, France, and China) to possess veto power on the UN Security Council, it is widely believed that Russia would veto any resolution calling for economic sanctions or military force against Syria.  Russia, China, and other Security Council members also believe that the U.S., France, and Britain have  moved well beyond the UN mandate to protect civilians in Libya and are now seeking regime change.  They oppose any condemnation of Syria that might open the door to another Libya-type intervention.  Thus, French and British UN representatives have carefully worded their draft resolution on Syria to remove any potentially objectionable mention of sanctions or threats of intervention.  In short, the resolution condemns Syria’s crackdown but contains no “teeth.”  It is therefore unlikely to have any effect on the ground in Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad, like his father before him, is determined to crush any opposition that threatens his grip on power. 

Is the UN Security Council, with its veto powers bestowed on the “Big 5” victors from World War II, a relic of a bygone era that needs to be ditched or dramatically reformed?  After all, we’ve seen this deadlock all too frequently before, with Russia and China blocking action on Kosovo and Darfur, and the U.S. vetoing any resolution that condemns Israel’s behavior.  Will the UN stand by as a massacre unfolds in Syria?  Does any global organization whose structure prevents it from acting against such atrocities deserve to call itself a protector of international peace and security?  Does it even deserve to exist?