The Inter-American Commission selects its new Executive Secretary

On July 27, 2016, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights announced that it had selected Paulo Abrao to be its next Executive Secretary, the tenth since the establishment of the Commission.  Reportedly, the Commission received over 90 applications for the post which, pursuant to Article 11 of the Commission’s Rules of Procedure, shall be filled by a “person of independence and high moral standing with experience and recognized expertise in the field of human rights.”  Of the five finalists, Abrao, at 41, was the second with the least experience, claiming 15 years, 5 more than Lisa Shoman, a Senator in the National Assembly of Belize, who claimed 10 years.  He will also be the youngest Executive Secretary in the Commission’s history.  The post is for four years, from August 2016-August 2020, renewable once.

The Due Process of Law Foundation organized a letter signed by the major human rights organizations in the hemisphere to promote greater transparency in the process of the selection of an Executive Secretary.  Among the issues that they proposed the most interesting was that the Commission give the reasons for selecting the successful candidate.  Unfortunately, this did not happen and one can only guess at the reasons.  What did happen and what was totally unique was that the five candidates were invited to participate in a public panel organized by the Open Society Justice Initiative, the Due Process of Law Foundation and the Center for Justice and International Law to present themselves and answer some general questions previously posed by the participants at the event.   Only four of the candidates participated; Lisa Shoman was unavailable.  No one present at the session was permitted to ask a question directly of the panel, all questions had to be submitted at the time of registration for the event.  The two and a half hour session can be viewed over the internet:

Paulo Abrao is currently the Executive Secretary of the Institute for Public Policies on Human Rights of MERCOSUR and Chairman of Brazil’s Amnesty Commission, in charge of the policies on reparations and memory for the victims of the dictatorship. In the past, he was Brazil’s Secretary of Justice, Chair of the National Committee for Refugees, and Chair of the National Committee against Human Trafficking.  He was seeking the post of Executive Secretary, at a time when the OAS and the Commission are experiencing their greatest crisis, because:

“In recent decades, the IACHR and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights have had an essential impact in the incorporation of human rights treaties by national juridical systems, in the insertion of our countries in the international systems of human rights, in the application of the international juridical standards by States and in the development of public policies with a focus on human rights. It is a permanent challenge to deepen this work, to continue in the advance of the capacity to build dialogue and cooperation networks among the Inter-American Human Rights System, the States and civil society.” (Excerpted from the cover letter to his application).

Now that the Constitutional Chamber of the Salvadoran Supreme Court has annulled Salvador’s Amnesty Law, Brazil is the only country that continues to refuse to implement an order of the Inter-American Court to render without effect its Amnesty Law.  Perhaps the designation of a Brazilian Executive Secretary can precipitate a turnaround on this issue.  Also, the fact that the Brazilian Supreme Court holds its deliberations in public, this would be a wonderful model of transparency for the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to follow, given that the Commission is holding more and more of its sessions in secret.

Paulo Abrao will assume a very difficult job at a very difficult time.  We can only wish him the best of luck and success.







Technology for Accountability Lab MOOC


The Program on Liberation Technology (LibTech) at Stanford’s Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law together with the National Democratic Institute (NDI) are proud to launch a free massive open online course dubbed Technology for Accountability Lab.”

The course is geared for global democracy activists, software developers and other stakeholders to conceptualize, plan and implement technological tools and advocacy strategies to improve transparency by opening political and governmental processes.

This 10-week course – which starts on August 9, 2016 – will feature video lectures by Stanford professors Terry Winograd and Larry Diamond, as well as lecturers from NDI, Transparency International, Sunlight Foundation, Creative Commons, ProPublica, and other experts.

To to learn more about the course and register, visit the course link. Please share this announcement widely with interested participants and professional networks (#TFALAB).

También de este lado hay sueños

With protestthe arrival of the Democratic National Convention, protesters have converged on Philadelphia.  At least for the moment, the historic selection of the first female presidential candidate in U.S. history seems to have been overshadowed by yet another e-mail debacle.  The New York Times reported yesterday on backers of Bernie Sanders who surrounded City Hall, making their voices heard.  Today, another protest (pictured at left) marched past my front door, chanting, “Not one more deportation!” and asking the Democrats to be the anti-Trump party.  As one woman’s sign read, “También de este lado hay sueños” — there are also dreams on this side.  President Obama and his Homeland Security secretary, Jeh Johnson, have shamefully trampled on too many of those dreams.  Here’s hoping that Hillary Clinton continues to propound more humane immigration policies, and that immigrant voters can make their dreams count in the November election.

You go, ‘Grrls!

Here is our final round of updates! Each year at IntLawGrrls, we like to take the opportunity to celebrate the numerous achievements of our contributors. Below, we’ve provided a most impressive list of awards, new jobs, publications, and other accomplishments by the ‘Grrls whose contributions have kept the blog going. Many congratulations to all of you!

Lucy Reed, past President of the American Society of International Law and formerly a partner at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, has joined the faculty of the National University of Singapore as Professor and Director of the Centre for International Law.

Rebecca Gould started a new job as Reader in Comparative Literature and Translation Studies at the University of Bristol (UK). She was awarded the 2015 Florence Howe Award for Feminist Scholarship from the Women’s Caucus of the Modern Languages Association for her article “Engendering Critique: Postnational Feminism in Postcolonial Syria,” Women Studies Quarterly 42(3/4): 209-229.

Cassandra Steer joined the McGill Institute of Air and Space Law for an 18 month fellowship. During that time, she has become Secretary of the Space Security Committee of the International Astronautical Federation; the member for Canada on the ILA Space Law Committee; and been invited to contribute to the McGill Manual on International Law Applicable to Military Activities in Outer Space as an Associate Expert. Since May 2016, she has also been honoured to take on the role of Executive Director with Women in International Security (WIIS) Canada, which is an affiliate of WIIS Global. She hopes to continue to expand her profile as a space law and policy expert in issues of international security, international law and international relations.

Jennifer Huang since graduating law school has shifted her focus to international environmental law. She is now an International Fellow at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES). She tracks and researches international climate policy, focusing on key issues in the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) negotiations, and helps facilitate dialogue among international policymakers and stakeholders.

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Making the Case to End Gender Imbalance on International Courts: Data Matters

On June 16th, American University Washington College of Law’s Academy on Human Rights and Humanitarian Law hosted a panel on “Women’s Representation in International Organs and Tribunals: A Challenge for the Inter-American Human Rights System and Beyond” as part of its “Human Rights Month” programing.

The discussion highlighted recent data showing that women are found in dramatically low numbers on the benches of the majority of international courts, and articulated how —GQUAL– the Campaign for Gender Parity in International Representation – seeks to remedy this imbalance.

One of the key aspects of the GQUAL campaign is to promote a better understanding of the effects of women’s absence or under-representation in these spaces. Parity advocates argue that equal representation of women lends “greater depth, breadth and legitimacy to decisions made by institutions.” Others underscore that on its face, it is troubling that women are not part of the very international bodies that are making decisions about war and peace, genocide, and the scope of human rights protections.

Some scholars and practitioners credit the presence of women as investigators, prosecutors and judges as helping to advance the cause of gender justice before international criminal tribunals in the past decade. For example, female judges like Navi Pillay (International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda), Elizabeth Odio Benito (International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia) and Teresa Doherty (The Special Court for Sierra Leone) helped develop jurisprudence that defined rape and sexual violence as genocide, rape as torture, and forced marriage as a crime against humanity.

To fully understand the importance of women in international tribunals, it is important to look at the whole picture. Women’s presence as judges and prosecutors undoubtedly matter, but perhaps so does their role as defense counsel. How do we glean whether and at what point of the proceedings their interventions matter the most? Does the presence of women change how female victims and participants are treated as others have suggested? As advocates for gender parity, where can we find the data we need to back up our claims that gender diversity matters? It turns out, it already exists in the form of the Gender Jurisprudence Collections (GJC) created by the War Crimes Research Office and the Women and the Law Program of American University Washington College of Law.

The GJC was created in response to a request by gender justice advocates who lamented the absence of a digital case document repository that was comprehensive, searchable, and keyed to significant gender issues. The GJC now contains more than 31,000 documents issued by thirteen international and hybrid tribunals, domestic courts, and human rights bodies. Users can search the database by up to 30 criteria and more than 130 keywords, including: the manner in which crimes are characterized (such as genocidal rape or rape as torture); substantive elements of the crimes (such as the definitions of consent or coercion); and procedural aspects of prosecutions (such as how courts address witness credibility or handle protective measures).

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Introducing Angie McCarthy

AngieMcCarthyheadshotIt’s our great pleasure today to introduce Angie McCarthy as an IntLawGrrls contributor. Angie is the Program Coordinator for the Women and the Law Program at American University Washington College of Law (WCL) where she works alongside university faculty and staff to integrate gender into all aspects of legal education and supports grant-funded projects that connect the WCL community with the legal needs and concerns of women and LGBTI persons.

Prior to joining the Washington College of Law, Angie was a Graduate Fellow at Peace Brigades International-USA where she supported field projects engaged in protective accompaniment of human rights defenders in Colombia, Guatemala and Indonesia, and conducted outreach and training activities aimed at increasing awareness of the fields of human rights and peace and conflict resolution in the U.S. She has also worked and volunteered with several women’s organizations both domestically and abroad, including the NGO Committee on the Status of Women at the United Nations and the New Women’s Movement in South Africa. Angie holds a JD from American University Washington College of Law and an MPhil in International Peace Studies from Trinity College (Dublin, Ireland). Her current research interests include the intersections between environmental justice and reproductive justice, the criminalization of abortion and pregnancy outcomes, and the prevention of violence against Native American women. Recent publication: “State Obligations to Protect the Lives and Health of Women After Abortion or Miscarriage,” Human Rights Brief, Volume 21, Issue 2 (2014).

Her first post will look at ways of addressing the gender imbalance on international courts. Heartfelt welcome!

El Salvador’s Constitutional Court Invalidates Amnesty Law; Will Prosecutions Follow?

After years of deliberations, the Constitutional Chamber of El Salvador’s Supreme Court ruled on July 13 that the country’s 1993 amnesty law is unconstitutional and must be stricken. The 4-1 decision, although long expected, has caused uproar in El Salvador, where neither side in the civil war has been supportive of prosecutions for past crimes and where rampant criminality and insecurity are present-day scourges. The four-person majority of judges Sidney Blanco, Florentín Meléndez, Rodolfo González and Eliseo Ortiz, grounded the decision in the rights of the victims to access to justice, to judicial protection of fundamental rights, and to full reparations. It makes extensive use of international law, especially the jurisprudence of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. It will provide new hope for the long-suffering victims of the country’s twelve-year civil war, but will also complicate the country’s politics and challenge a weak and compromised prosecutors’ office.

The complaint was brought by a number of NGO representatives and victims of rights violations, alleging that the amnesty law was illegally passed and violated El Salvador’s international commitments and constitution. The 1993 amnesty was passed to deal with the crimes of both sides in a civil war that cost some 75,000 lives. The amnesty was passed just three days after a U.N. sponsored Truth Commission issued its report. The Commission found that most of the massacres, assassinations, forced disappearances and torture committed had been carried out by the armed forces or by death squads connected to them.

The text of the decision

The Court first dismissed the procedural illegality argument, but used the occasion to note that the amnesty was not, as the Prosecutors’ office argued, a part of the peace accords that ended the civil war. On the contrary, those accords had stressed the need to end impunity for human rights violations. The Court thus confronted head-on one of the central myths of the country’s political classes, that amnesty was required by the peace accords. Rather, the Court held that the legislature had to balance the need for reconciliation with the need for justice for the victims. It cited with approval in this regard the 1992 Law of National Reconciliation, which provided amnesty for political crimes, but expressly excluded “grave violent events from January 1, 1980 on, which have left their mark on society, and demand the most urgent public knowledge of the truth” that were mentioned by the U.N.-backed Truth Commission.

In its July 13 judgment, the Court held that the amnesty is unconstitutional as applied to all crimes against humanity and those war crimes that violate the fundamental guarantees of Protocol II of the Geneva Conventions, committed by either side in the conflict. The amnesty violates the country’s international obligations to investigate and prosecute under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the American Convention on Human Rights, Protocol II, and the constitutional right of the victim of a crime to civil damages and to judicial protection of fundamental rights. Regarding war crimes, although Protocol II calls for the “widest possible amnesty,” that provision must be read in light of all the country’s international obligations, and the amnesty cannot be absolute. With respect to crimes against humanity, those crimes are by definition not subject to amnesty or statutes of limitations and are subject to universal jurisdiction.

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