Go On! Book Launch: The Construction of the Customary Law of Peace: Latin America and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights

You are welcome to register for participation in the book launch of The Construction of the Customary Law of Peace: Latin America and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights on October 1st at 5pm, live streamed via Zoom:

https://www.jus.uio.no/ior/english/research/news-and-events/events/other/latin-america.html

At present, Latin America may be characterized as a region that has enjoyed an epoch of “long peace”, due to the lack of inter-state wars. Simultaneously we have seen a diametric rise in intra-state violence, evidenced by its ranking as having the highest level of violence in the world, and in particular having the highest levels of violence against workers and women.

This book explores the regional normative evolution of peace from its negative form (absence of violence) to its positive form (equality, non-discrimination, and social justice) and the challenge of articulating a pro homine peace in an increasing authoritarian populist context.

Bailliet has interviewed the sitting judges in The Inter-American Court of Human Rights. The court has established a large amount of case law regarding migrants, indigenous and elderly people’s rights. The court also employs orders demanding protection of human right advocates and other civil society actors participating in protests subject to state repression.

The sitting president for The Inter-American Court of Human Rights, Elizabeth Odio Benito, views women as the heart of peace, and concludes that the court protects peace because it protects women’s rights. At present there is a high level of polarization in the region, evident by societal mobilization and counter-mobilization regarding abortion, access to IVF, violence against women and family rights.

The book seeks to explore to what degree The Inter-American Court of Human Rights is capable of developing a framework for sustainable peace within the context of the triad human rights, democracy and development.

PROGRAMME:

17:00 Welcome and introduction by Cecilia Bailliet

17: 10 Prepared comment by Professor Thomas Antkowiak, Professor of Law and Director of the International Human Rights Clinic at the Seattle University School of Law (live streamed from the US).

17:30 Prepared comment by Professor Benedicte Bull, UiO.

Discussion:   Challenges to peace in Latin America 

Hilary Charlesworth nominated to International Court of Justice

Delighted to see that Australia has nominated Hilary Charlesworth for election to the International Court of Justice.  The election will take place on November 5, 2021, for the seat that opened upon the untimely passing in May 2021 of James Crawford, whose term was to end in 2024.

Hilary Charlesworth, the Harrison Moore Chair in Law and Laureate Professor at Melbourne Law School and a Distinguished Professor at Australian National University, served on the ICJ as judge ad hoc for Australia in Whaling in the Antarctic (Australia v. Japan) (2011-2014), and is currently serving as judge ad hoc for Guyana in Arbitral Award of 3 October 1899 (Guyana v. Venezuela)

Photo from the ILG2 post, Women of the ICJ: Judge Xue Hanqin (China), Judge ad hoc Hilary Charlesworth (Australia), Judge Joan E. Donoghue (USA) and Judge Julia Sebutinde (Uganda), next to a portrait of Judge Rosalyn Higgins (Great Britain), the first woman to serve on the ICJ.

Hilary has twice been recognized for her accomplishments by the American Society of International Law, receiving the award for “preeminent contribution to creative scholarship” with Christine Chinkin for the book they co-authored, The Boundaries of International Law: A Feminist Analysis, as well as the Goler Teal Butcher Award, together with Prof. Chinkin, “for outstanding contributions to the development or effective realization of international human rights law.” In 2021 she received the Distinguished Scholar Award from the International Studies Association, and was previously awarded an Honorary Doctorate by the Université Catholique de Louvain in Belgium.

Hilary Charlesworth has been a member of the Executive Council of both the Asian Society of International Law and the American Society of International Law, and served as President of the Australian and New Zealand Society of International Law. She has been a visiting professor at a number of institutions including Harvard, Columbia, New York University, Michigan, UCLA, Paris I and the London School of Economics, and has delivered the General Course in Public International Law at the Hague Academy. 

Hilary is also a fellow IntLawGrrl (her ILG profile here).  In 2012 she and her co-authors Christine Chinkin and Shelley Wright shared their reflections as they looked back on their pathbreaking article, “Feminist Approaches to International Law,” 85 American Journal of International Law 613-645 (October 1991). Their post capped a fascinating month-long IntLawGrrls series on the work.

Heartfelt congratulations on the nomination, Hilary!

Migrant Worker Women Advancing Gender Equity through the USMCA

Men only, 1835 years old. 

In 2021, seeing a job posting with those words is startling. Shocking even. But more than a year into a world-changing pandemic that has pushed millions of women out of paid work, U.S. employers continue to discriminate against women, posting ads like that one. To evade legal consequences, U.S. businesses discriminate in Mexico, hiring men to work in the United States with temporary H-2 guestworker visas while turning women away. Other U.S. businesses discriminate by hiring women but channeling them into lower-paying jobs with poorer conditions than those they hire men for. Although the U.S. government knows that H-2 employers discriminate against women, it has done little to stop them. 

For more than fifteen years, since I founded Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, Inc. (CDM)—the first transnational workers’ rights organization based in Mexico and the United States—I have heard from women in Mexico about patterns of abuse in the U.S. H-2 programs. Migrant women have courageously spoken out about blatant discrimination in H-2 recruitment and hiring, sexual harassment and other violence against women at work, unfair pay, and unlawful working conditions. Women report discrimination in industries ranging from Maryland’s blue crab processors to fruit and vegetable sorting. Sex discrimination persists in H-2 labor supply chains even though U.S. law prohibits employers and labor recruiters from discriminating against women. Laws prohibiting discrimination protect all women who work in the United States, even if businesses hire them outside of the country.

Today, migrant women continue the fight for gender justice. In March, in honor of Women’s History Month, CDM and workers’ rights organizations across North America joined migrant women in filing the first viable state-to-state complaint under the new United States-Mexico-Canada trade agreement (USMCA). The USMCA’s labor chapter, Article 23, requires the United States to enforce its anti-discrimination laws, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In failing to root out discrimination in H-2 recruiting, hiring, and employment and neglecting to ensure gender equity in the program, the United States is violating Article 23. 

In the complaint, we collectively make three demands:

  1. The U.S. government must end sex discrimination in the H-2 guestworker programs once and for all.
  2. The government must ensure that all workers have access to Legal Services Corporation-funded civil legal services. (Without lawyers working in solidarity with them, it is nearly impossible for migrant women to access justice through U.S. courts.)
  3. The government must investigate discrimination complaints from women in the H-2 program under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, rather than ignoring or summarily dismissing them.

And to increase pressure on the Administration, we are filing a supplemental complaint with Professor Sarah Paoletti, a Practice Professor of Law and the Director of the Transnational Legal Clinic at the University of Pennsylvania School of Law. The supplement will address the U.S. government’s obligations under the ILO and international human rights law to end discrimination in the H-2 program.

We have reasons to be hopeful that the USMCA can serve as a tool to improve access to transnational justice for migrant workers. Unlike NAFTA—the old trade agreement with its toothless labor side accord—the USMCA has a mechanism for migrant workers and their advocates to push governments to comply with labor and employment laws—or face sanctions. Concretely, this means that the U.S. government may face sanctions if it maintains the status quo and ignores the grave abuses that the petitioners report in the H-2 program. It means that the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission must end its practice of failing to investigate and meaningfully respond to migrant women’s discrimination complaints. And it means that the U.S. Departments of Labor and Homeland Security must stop allowing H-2 employers to discriminate without consequences. In receiving and reviewing our petition, the governments are legally responsible for showing us that they meant what they said about protecting migrant workers’ and women’s rights when they signed the agreement. 

The historic process for the migrant women petitioners began in Mexico, where we filed the USMCA complaint with the Mexican government. Mexico formally accepted the complaint and is now investigating discrimination and other abuses in the agricultural and protein processing industries, the industries in which the petitioners work. Earlier this month, Mexico asked the United States to honor its obligations under the USMCA and invited cooperation in doing so. And now the Biden-Harris Administration has the opportunity to make good on the promise of the USMCA and proactively address the urgent issues we raise in the complaint.

For too long, U.S. businesses have used the H-2 programs to bypass our civil rights and labor laws. Left without government oversight, H-2 employers have enacted their sexist, racist, and ageist ideas about the kinds of workers who maximize profitability. Sex discrimination in the H-2 program harms not only migrant women from Mexico but also U.S.-based workers. 

Over the next year, as we rebuild the U.S. economy for a sustainable and equitable recovery, justice for migrant women must be at the fore of the government’s labor and employment policies and practices. And next Women’s History Month, we look forward to celebrating meaningful, sustainable reforms in the H-2 program that will end discrimination against migrant women and promote access to justice. 

We would be grateful for your support in standing with migrant worker women to fight against discrimination. Please email me (rachel@cdmigrante.org) to join the supplemental complaint on the U.S. government’s obligations under the ILO or to submit an amicus in support of migrant worker women. 

Violence, Justice, Equity: Reflections on International Women’s Day

On this International Women’s Day (IWD), the official UN theme for 2021 is “women in leadership: achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world.” The elimination of discrimination and violence against women and girls are targets of the Millennium Development Goals and the UN Agenda 2030, which emphasizes inclusivity in its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including gender equality and the empowerment of all females in Goal 5. Goal 10 aims to reduce gender and socioeconomic inequalities globally, including through the elimination of discrimination, violence, exploitation, forced marriage, and female genital mutilation.

Dating back to the first celebration in 1909 in the United States, IWD is rooted in socialist women’s leadership in struggles for labor and economic justice, such as the 8-hour workday and limits on women’s and children’s labor; political justice, such as suffrage and liberation from fascism and autocracy; a refusal to sacrifice husbands and children to wars; and breaking down false barriers between “public” and “private” life that conceal the important roles of mothers and wives. Women’s efforts against poverty and violence have also been consistent IWD themes, including the structural violence of female subordination—“a tolerance of violence against women and children” and being “subjected to a life of sub-humanity for the sheer fact alone that they were born female,” as noted on IWD 2012.

To imagine a gender-equitable future from this historical moment in 2021 requires reckoning with how women and girls have been faring. For instance, since the start of the pandemic in the US women—disproportionately women of color—have left the work force at four times the rate of men, reversing previous gains. One of the more well-known outcomes of the COVID-19 pandemic is the escalation of domestic violence and sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), triggered by prolonged social isolation, household tension in close quarters, and increasing strains on individuals and families due to deteriorating health, socio-economic, and/or political conditions. The “Forever Wars” and other conflicts around the world have also raged on during the pandemic, adding to the world’s refugee crisis in which 75-80% of displaced persons are women and children. Trauma is understandably a common preoccupation of our time.

Working at the intersection of human rights and trauma mental health, I have spent the last year writing about SGBV and trauma-informed approaches to interviewing female survivors for purposes of investigating human rights violations such as genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and mass detention of people seeking refuge from violence and poverty. Among multiple things competing for our attention, mine has been focused intensely on militarism, conflict-related SGBV, impunity, and feminist activism amidst growing societal & global inequities and increasing violence in many forms—criminal, sexual, domestic, and political—during the pandemic. In the ongoing and escalating struggle for gender justice, urgent attention to violence remains important. Among the types of violence and harm SGBV stands out for several reasons. It is the only serious crime for which many justice systems require victims to prove lack of consent to the harm inflicted. Across diverse legal systems, redress for SGBV is difficult to attain due to attribution of blame and complicity to victims/survivors as well as impunity for perpetrators. SGBV has also historically been the least punished offense committed during wartime.

In the long history of international feminist activism, it is only recently that women’s efforts led to the recognition of conflict-related SGBV as a war crime against the long-standing idea that sexual violence against women, girls, men, and boys is an expected military reward or byproduct of war. Women’s campaigning for redress of this injustice, through UN human rights and women’s rights conferences and particularly since the 1990s International Tribunals for Rwanda and the Former Yugoslavia, resulted in its designation as a crime against humanity. “From time immemorial, rape has been regarded as spoils of war. Now it will be considered a war crime,” said Judge Pillay of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (later, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights).

However, all forms of SGBV persist, supported by strong ideological underpinnings: state-supported violence, militarized masculinity, and victim-blaming alongside perpetrator impunity. These thrive in a broader context of social, economic, civil, and political inequities. SGBV is founded on sexist beliefs and compounded by other structural inequalities in the context of globalized discourses of militarized masculinity that merge sex and violence, and which are amplified through warfare. The globally pervasive threat of SGBV reduces the quality of life for targeted persons—disproportionately women, girls, and gender non-conforming persons—and is particularly acute in hyper-masculinist institutions in which sexual assault rates are often highest, such as in militaries. Conflict-related SGBV inflicts collective trauma by systematically targeting individual bodies in furtherance of broader social harms such as the mass displacement, dispossession, and extermination of entire neighborhoods and communities. Female survivors of conflict-related SGBV have reported feelings of complete insecurity and multiple losses: bodily integrity, health, loss of family and their livelihoods, disorientation and lack of belonging, profound dispossession of their personal identity, and marginalization.

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The Black and White Campaign in Turkey and its Repercussions Amidst Rising Femicides and an Increasing Hostility Towards the Istanbul Convention

Pinar Gültekin a 27-year-old University student was brutally beaten and burned to a crisp by her ex-boyfriend on 21stJuly 2020 in Turkey adding to the country’s long list of femicides. The victim was reported missing for six days before being found dumped in a bin strangled to death by her former partner for disagreeing to reconcile with him. 

While the news of Gültekin’s death ignited demonstrations all across the country and women and men alike took to the street’s, the death of Pinar and similar atrocities against women in Turkey inevitably raises a few questions. What should happen when a 27-year-old girl is strangled to death and burned to a crisp by her ex-partner? What are the repercussions of a mother being stabbed to death by her husband in a café in front of her child? What happens when a girl is stabbed and burned to her death because she resists rape? What happens when the mysterious death of an eleven-year-old girl is deemed “suicide” by the judiciary. Maybe the answer to the above-mentioned questions lies not in what happens but how it happened or who/what perpetrated the incidents. While the atrocities may be perceived by some as interpersonal their prevalence only against a particular section of the community indicates towards an institutionalisation of violence abetted by a chauvinist patriarchal society. 

Violence against women existed long before the expression “femicide” was devised in 1976 by Diana E. Russell at the first “International Tribunal on Crimes Against Women in Brussels, Belgium”. While the term is defined by the “United Nations Office in Drugs and Crime”as the gender-based homicide of women it not just refers to the killing of women but condones an entire system of Judicial administration that fails to safeguard the women and prosecute the perpetrators. The concept is similar to “rape culture” except applying only in cases of murder concerning a women’s sexual orientation, indigenous identity, dowry-related issues. However, contrary to majority perception the acts under no circumstances are unrelated and spasmodic but is abetted by a chauvinistic society exhibiting unequal power structures and conventionally defined gender roles where women often find themselves pushed to the margins. Encouraged by Right-Wing Populist Parties the above-mentioned manifestations of violence against women in Turkey has increased exponentially over the decades.

The misogynistic heteronormative dogmas embedded in the social fabric of Turkey gets exemplified by the Global Study on Homicide, 2018 conducted by the “United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime” which reportedly delineated the death of 89,000 women in Turkey in 2017. Turkey has been ranked114 of 167 countries in the “Women, Peace and Security Index, 2019” and 130thof 149 countriesin “WEF’s the Global Gender Gap Index, 2020”. The data is at face value enough to glean the status and treatment of women in the country. 

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To Detain or Not to Detain? Deciphering Detention in Non-international Armed Conflicts

Internment is a frequent occurrence in armed conflicts. Particularly in the aftermath of the litigation surrounding the Guantanamo Bay detention facility and the US’s justification for the displacement of human rights norms, questions about its authority to detain individuals in non-international armed conflicts (“NIACs”) received increased attention. This post will take a closer look at these questions – in particular, the legal basis for detention in NIACs under international humanitarian law (“IHL”) and human rights law (“IHRL”).

In international armed conflicts (“IACs”), the detention regime is sufficiently grounded in the Geneva Conventions. Articles 21 and 4A of the third Geneva Convention confer on states a right to detain prisoners of war, only so long as the circumstances that made internment necessary continue.

In comparison, in NIACs, the IHL basis itself is debatable. For one, the Geneva Conventions do not authorise detention or even prescribe procedures to challenge detention in NIACs. At most, Common Article 3 regulates the treatment of persons deprived of their liberty and Articles 5 and 6 of Additional Protocol II contemplate that internment occurs in an NIAC. This is not to say that contrary views don’t exist. Goodman constructed a case for why IAC rules on detention can be extended by analogy. Goodman reasoned that IHL itself permits States to a fortiori undertake those practices in an NIAC that they can implement in an IAC. However, this argument is not completely reasonable since some NIAC rules are arguably more restrictive, in that they divest ‘fighters’ of privileges that they would otherwise enjoy in IACs – whether it is combatant immunity or rules of targeting.

This question came up before the British High Court in the Serdar Mohammed case. The claimant alleged that his capture and detention by Her Majesty’s armed forces in Afghanistan, from 7 April 2010 till 25 July 2010, was unlawful because it exceeded the authorized period of detention as per the arrangement between Her Majesty’s armed forces and the State of Afghanistan. This amounted to a breach of his right to liberty under Article 5 of the European Convention of Human Rights (“ECHR”). In response, the Secretary of State argued that Article 5 of the ECHR was not the correct legal basis here, since IHL rules on detention in NIACs displace or modify the ECHR. To establish that IHL permits detention in NIACs, the Secretary of State theorized that the implicit power to kill those participating in hostilities in an NIACSs would have to logically encompass the power to detain. However, the Court rejected this argument noting that it was not convinced that the regulation of restrictions of right to life under IHL could be read as an ‘authorization’ to kill. Even if it is, the power to kill does not go further than justifying the capture of a person who may lawfully be killed.

The Secretary of State also suggested that the norms of IACs under the Geneva Conventions and Additional Protocols could be transposed to NIACs by analogy. However, the Court was not sympathetic to this proposition either. Mainly because the drafting history of the Geneva Conventions reflected a clear intent not to authorise detention in Common Article 3. The drafters feared that such a power would enable insurgents to claim that they would also be entitled to detain captured members of the government’s army by operation of the principle of equality of belligerency.

Upon appeal, the British Supreme Court employed alternative reasoning to authorize detention. Instead of IHL, the Court grounded its ruling in IHRL. The Court essentially followed the Hassan case, where the applicant’s brother was detained in Iraq by British forces for over 6 months in 2003.  The applicant’s primary contention was that the Geneva Conventions, in so far as they applied to the NIAC in Iraq at the time, did not permit the British forces to act in violation of Article 5(1) of the ECHR. There the European Court of Human Rights (“ECtHR”) found that Article 5(1) of the ECHR, which permits detention on six permitted grounds, can also invoked to authorize detention during international armed conflicts. The only caveat the Court added was for such detention to not be unduly broad, opaque or discretionary. The Court in Serdar Mohammad went one step further, to extend Article 5(1) to NIACs.

Fortunately, in so doing, the British Supreme Court did not displace IHL completely (an erstwhile view that met with much censure). It chose instead to marry IHRL with IHL. Nonetheless, the decision must still be viewed with caution. For one, it offers little justification for why State parties should not invoke the ECHR’s derogation clause under Article 15.

Moreover, the Court in Serdar Mohammed did not engage with the past jurisprudence of the ECtHR on detention in NIACs where the only condition on which detention was allowed was if there was a clearly worded Security Council resolution to support such detention. Even if the requirement of a resolution is seen as dispensable, it is callous to ignore the requirement of explicitness – either in the IHRL/IHL treaty or in State support (in case the position attains customary status).

With treaty language such as that in the ICCPR (illustratively, Article 9 only proscribes arbitrary arrest or detention), it is easier to cull out an IHRL basis for detention. However, this task is far more onerous when it comes to the ECHR – which does not contain harmonizing language per se. Till such time as explicit authorization is missing, States should strive to comply with the rule of derogation. To ensure effective compliance, international courts should also work towards setting a baseline below which rights cannot be derogated from, thereby protecting the integrity of the IHRL/IHL treaty and identifying the minimum rights that States are bound to afford to those within their jurisdiction.


China’s Liability for Uighur Genocide Under International Law- Part I

Introduction

In the past few months, there has been an increased focus on China’s treatment of Uighur Muslims in the north-western city of Xinjiang.  Beijing has employed an elaborate policy that seeks to prevent Uighur Muslims from practicing their religion as well as their culture. Under the pretence of re-educating the community, the Chinese authoritarian regime has detained Uighur Muslims in internment camps where they are being subjected to physical and mental torture on a regular basis. During the course of their detention, Uighur Muslims are being forced to commit acts that are in violation of their religious beliefs. Moreover, Beijing has been using its influence and economic power to bring back Uighur Muslims who have been living abroad or fled from Xinjiang so as to ensure that they are unable to practice their religion as well as raise their voice against the mass detention of their community. Once they are forcefully brought back, they are subjected to widespread torture that amounts to human rights violations. This systematic oppression of the Uighur Muslim community has been termed by many as ‘cultural genocide’.

 For a long time, the deplorable situation of Uighur Muslims was ignored by the international community. However, due to changing political considerations and rising anti-Beijing sentiment due to the Covid-19 pandemic, several countries including the US have called out Beijing over its treatment of the Uighur Muslim Community. Moreover, in an effort to seek justice for the Uighur Muslim Community, two Uighur activists groups known as the East Turkistan Government in Exile and East Turkistan National Awakening Movement have filed a complaint against People’s Republic of China before the International Criminal Court.

The complaint has been filed against top leaders of the Chinese Communist Party officials on the grounds that China’s detention of Uighur Muslims amounts to genocide and crimes against humanity. It is worth noting here that the Uighur exiles are being represented by a group of leading international lawyers based in London. According to Anne Coulon, one of the lawyers working on the case, the team is “in possession of overwhelming and very serious evidence that can support charges of crimes against humanity and genocide against Chinese Officials”. She further noted that “The seriousness of the alleged acts is such that the prosecutor should open an investigation”.

The purpose of this article is twofold: firstly, it shall discuss whether there are sufficient grounds to hold China accountable for genocide as well as crimes against humanity under public international law, and secondly, it shall attempt to establish whether China can be brought before the ICC.   

China’s Obligations under International law

Even though religious freedom is guaranteed under Article 36 of the Chinese constitution, it is impossible for Uighur Muslims to seek constitutional relief under the authoritarian regime of the Chinese Communist Party. In such a scenario, international law seems to be the only legal recourse available to the Uighur Muslim Community.

China is a state party to the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Crime of Genocide. Under Article I of the convention, state parties to the convention are required to punish and prevent genocide under international law. Apart from the Genocide Convention, China is also a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESR). Article 20 and Article 27 of the ICCPR provide safeguards against religious discrimination. Similarly, Article 13(3) of the ICESR provides for the parent’s right to educate their children in accordance with their religious beliefs.

Under the Rome Statute, China can be held liable for its treatment of Uighur Muslims as per Article 6 and Article 7. Article 6 of the Rome Statute defines genocide by listing several acts such as killing, sterilization etc that are “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethical, racial or religious group”. Similarly, China can be held liable for Crimes Against Humanity under several provisions of Article 7 of the Rome Statute. However, China is not state party to the Rome Statute and that prevents ICC from exercising jurisdiction over the crimes. The next part will analyse whether there is a way through which the international criminal court can exercise jurisdiction over the crimes or not.

Go On! Climate Change and Cultural Extinction: A Human Rights Crisis

Photo credit: UNICEF/Akash

The negative impacts of climate change on the enjoyment of cultural rights — along with the positive potential of cultures to serve as critical tools in responding to the climate emergency — must be placed on the international agenda. A cultural rights perspective is a critical component of the holistic approach needed to respond to catastrophic climate change.

To address these issues, an inter-disciplinary panel will convene in a side event / webinar via Zoom on 21 October co-hosted by UN Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights Karima Bennoune and the Human Rights Program of the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College in New York. The following day, the Special Rapporteur will present her pathbreaking new report on climate change and cultural rights to the UN General Assembly.

Date: 21 October 2020 Time: 1:15pm – 2:45pm EDT / 5:15pm – 6:45pm GMT

Advance registration required. Click here to register.

Panelists:

Mary Robinson, Chief of The Elders; Former President of Ireland, Former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and Former Special Envoy of the UN Secretary-General for Climate Change

Karima Bennoune, UN Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights

David Boyd, UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment

Joshua Castellino, Executive Director, Minority Rights Group International

Noa Petueli Tapumanaia, Chief Librarian & Archivist, Tuvalu National Library and Archives Department; Tuvalu national librarian

Mohamed Hizyam, youth activist, Maldives (video message)

Moderated by Stephanie Farrior, Distinguished Lecturer, Human Rights Program, Hunter College

Interview with Professor Mallika Kaur

Mallika Kaur is a lawyer and writer who focuses on gender and minority issues in the United States and South Asia including post 9/11 violence, racial discrimination, farmer suicides, and transitional and transformative justice. She is also a lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law.  She writes regularly for online and print media as well as academic publications; her work has been published in Foreign Policy, Washington Post, California Law Review among others. We would also like to take this as an opportunity to thank Mallika for all the work and efforts she has contributed to INTLAWGRRLS over the past several years.

Her book titled “Faith, Gender and Activism in the Punjab Conflict: The Wheat Fields Still Whisper” was published by Palgrave Publishers a few months ago. I had the honor of interviewing her with regards to her new book. The interview is transcribed below.

Question: What was your motivation behind writing this book? Why did you specifically choose to cover Punjab’s human rights movement?

Answer: I did not in fact set out with the motivation of writing a book. It was not a part of any academic project or research agenda. It was something that came out of my own journeying. I grew up in Chandigarh, Punjab, having been a part of a community of folks who read their news in English, discussed it perhaps in Punjabi, and largely did not talk to their kids about the armed conflict at all. A seminal year in the conflict history was the Indian Army’s attack on Punjab, epicentered at Darbar Sahib (akin to Temple of David or Mecca) in June 1984. This provoked a visceral reaction from Sikhs, indeed even many non-Sikhs. Yet, within months—I was a toddler still—the justified necessity of the June massacres had taken hold in the non-Sikh psyche of India. Since then, any demands for truth-telling–about that June or the decade of mass violence that followed—have been considered suspect by the majority community and the successive governments of India.

As an adult, my legal and international human rights interest was around courts and commissions and possibility of a regional mechanism for South Asia. I was initially interested in those questions but eventually what I landed on in my work was how powerful stories are in unwrapping things that have been largely silenced for a very long time.

Punjab has been a laboratory of several nation-building projects in India: the Partition in 1947, the not so revolutionary Green Revolution in the 60s-70s, and various attempts at stifling dissent in the 80s and 90s. But these multiple upheavals that contextualize Punjab’s present have seldom been woven and written together, much less by a Sikh woman.

Through this book, I have tried to fight against this idea that the Punjab conflict was just about violence against violence with men combating on both sides. I tried to find stories of people who were non-combatants but chose the dangerous work of human rights defence. The book is trying to re-shift focus from “leaders,” combatants and an obsession with violence to a more nuanced and inclusive approach. Instead of just Indira Gandhi and other perpetrators, the book hopes the limelight comes to rest on women leaders like Paramjit Kaur Khalra, Kuldeep Kaur, Amar Kaur, unnamed women like the police officer who secretly helped inmates in one of Punjab’s many torture centers, and Baljit Kaur, who you see on the cover of the book. Within this marginalized conflict, I am looking at further neglected gender issues. For the men’s stories, I highlight the dangerous tendencies that were conveniently ascribed to all turbaned and bearded Sikh men, and then the general prohibition society imposes on men that makes it quite impossible for them to admit many emotions, much less speak about sexualized torture.

Question: How did you approach and research this topic?

Answer: The story-collection, writing, having the subjects of the story read it, all happened over many years, which was fine because this writing did not have any specific deadline of restriction. One of the benefits of doing a project entirely on your own time and dime! People were generous once they understood where the questions were coming from. They shared their personal archives including videos, legal files and other documents. The book eventually combines legal cases, scholarly analysis, community memory and personal narrative. The hybrid approach is necessary to tease the nuances lost in a more straightforward memoir, collective biography or academic examination. Further, memoir snapshots provide the reader the needed history of the author narrating the history of the conflict: exposing my vantage point and influences directly.

The book is all and not at all about Punjab. When generations of violence may have made silence more expedient than excavation, how might we learn about conflicts’ complexities of the past and their manipulated shadows in the present? Most linear, neat, cited and chronological tellings of conflicts overlook essential dynamics such as gender and trauma.

Each chapter centers on a key case from the year (or years) of its focus, starting in descending order from 1995, the supposed end of the conflict. Legal case details are available to varying extents, which is instructive: till the mid-90s, legal remedies were de facto suspended in Punjab. Case descriptions thus also draw from non-legal sources. Each case necessarily invokes additional cases. And then advocating for the need to embrace complexity and reject binary understandings, each chapter also contains an interwoven section that quickly traverses the earlier history of Punjab, starting in ascending order from 1839, the transition from Sikh rule to British colonial rule. The two timelines, descending from 1995 and ascending from 1839, converge in the final chapter, on the pivotal year, 1984.

Question: What kind of audience did you have in mind while writing the book?

Answer: The audience of this book is pretty large and varied. It includes scholars, lawyers, policy makers, activists, students, and general readers. By presenting convergences between different forms of violence–current and historical, interpersonal and mass social violence—I believe this book has already engaged a variety of readers. I have received very different reactions and reflections from people of various walks of life over the last months. Women who read between the lines when the women in the book remained silent about certain things. Men who have expressed they never thought of some basic gendered dynamics in how even the more popular stories from the Punjab conflict are spoken about.

Also, I strongly felt that since the violence was rendered so common in Punjab, I had to figure out a way of telling the story in a way that is not limited to lawyers or one academic discipline. That it could be understood by anybody who cares about human rights defenders who do the work of helping us retain our belief in humanity during the worst of atrocities! And it’s meant for those unnamed activists and defenders who may be feeling alone in the world. Despite the world today feeling ever-growing in its apathy and ever-shrinking in its attention span towards even the worst of crimes, you are not alone. Different points and places in history have felt the same and still there are people, like the protagonists of this book,  who have made choices against the tide. They felt they really got something out of it, out of this unsalaried and uncelebrated work. They regularly gained inspiration from the folks they worked with and defended. They felt a sense of collective as they became part of history. When you consider the tenacity of centennial litigants like Chaman Lal, it’s hard not to be moved!

Question: What was your approach while selecting the three human rights defenders for the book?

Answer: These three were in fact my windows on many other human rights defenders, some I named earlier, who were always at much more risk and suffered much more. The life stories of the three people you see on the cover of the book, Baljit Kaur, Justice Ajit Singh Bains and Inderjit Singh Jaijee, became trusted vehicles for traveling through Punjab’s recent history. Each of them is credited with saving countless lives.

Speaking of the approach while selecting these three, I’m reminded of a video I watched, which Baljit Kaur took in the late 80s. A Sikh man, a former Army officer is narrating how he was himself picked up, tortured and almost killed. He was speaking in perfect English so this was somebody with enough higher education. He had been treated this way as he had spoken against a young boy being killed. He mentioned that these folks fighting for justice, Baljit Kaur and her colleagues, were in fact the ones preserving the nation’s unity and integrity. Contrary to being seditious or dangerous as the politicians would have folks believe, it was human rights defenders who were providing ordinary people some hope that the legal and justice system could be the answer rather than further violence.

Unfortunately, people fighting for justice often fight very lonely battles. These protagonists had one another. And they had faith in a higher power that kept them going. And they had a lot of pride in Sikh history that they had heard of or witnessed when younger, through anti-British struggles, for example. Still, it was not like they were joined by a large number of other folks living in Chandigarh, Punjab who were enjoying the same relative privilege of upper class these three protagonists had during the 80s and 90s. So it was very fascinating to hear their stories as to how they surrounded police stations, how they compiled reports, how they visited Amnesty International and learnt how to make video footage to appropriately document what was happening at a time international human rights groups were not allowed in Punjab by the Indian government.

Question: How was your experience while interviewing people on this difficult past?

Answer: What I find fascinating especially about my three protagonists is that they are buoyant spirits, so young-at-heart in their 80s, 90s, even though they have seen such horrific things in their lifetimes. These protagonists have made more change than most of us will be able to make in our lifetime. I found this very uplifting despite the subject matter being very difficult.

Since I allowed myself a hybrid approach, and use memoir in the book as well, I put myself very explicitly into the discussions around the legal cases and this too helped me make sense of people’s trauma experiences. Some of the irrational reactions of these people started making more sense because they had gone through very unnatural set of circumstances. The whole Sikh community had been demonized for several decades. And now in India of 2020, the issues of creating an ‘enemy within,’ and what that does to social fabric, is again playing out. Where for example students, including pregnant women, who are protesting new discriminatory laws are picked up and booked indefinitely under draconian laws, themselves iterations of laws previously used in Punjab and then finally repealed on the books. How can we say the unlearnt lessons of past conflicts are not relevant to India today? I am not didactic about the parallels in the book. There is space for the reader to draw lessons for themselves.

Question: What do you think of the post-conflict scenario of Punjab in terms of violence against women and gender-based violence?

Answer: So, the first thing is that I don’t describe Punjab as post-conflict anywhere in the book because there has been no catharsis, no reconciliation, no period of transition, or justice, towards sustainable and inclusive peace. The estimates of those killed vary from police estimates of 25,000 to civil society estimates of 250,000. Even this variance speaks volumes about how the conflict has lived on; there is no closure, no semblance of transparency. Nobody was able to document the dead. Those who attempted to document it, like Jaswant Singh Khalra, whose amazing story I detail in Chapter 2, were killed. We went from this period of heightened killing and mayhem to an abrupt and strident “normalcy” in Punjab.

Coming to your question about gender and violence against women, I think the situation for women remains really bad through these subsequent decades, if not worse. Of course, across India we are dealing with shameful realities like marital rape being still legal. Dowry, being a ubiquitous feature of almost all weddings, despite being illegal. Ideas of honor and purity instead of autonomy and rights being tied to women’s bodies. And then some women’s bodies being deemed as not worthy of honor even: the Dalits of India disenfranchised by caste, or the women in conflict zones, who were blatantly immediately excluded from the changes that were proposed after the much publicized and horrific Delhi rape of 2012. Women who suffered in Punjab in the 80s and 90s at the hand of State forces have seen no reparations, not even in the form of recognition, much less apologies or restitution.

Question: What is next on your research agenda? Would you like to interview more female reformists of Punjab or write about some other aspect of Punjab region or the conflict?

Answer: I remain interested broadly in how we can make connections between different forms of violence that our communities negotiate – current and historical, in the U.S. and in home countries, interpersonal and mass social violence. I have also been writing and teaching on how lawyers specifically manage trauma, their clients’ and their own. Though most importantly right now, through COVID, I am focusing on the work that I have been doing since 2002, advocacy and crisis response for victims of gender-based violence. Working on gender-based violence as a practicing lawyer in the U.S., I am also really fascinated by comparatives. Right now in the U.S. there are a lot of discussions about alternatives to how domestic violence/ intimate partner violence response has been closely tied to increased policing, especially since the 70s. This is a complicated discussion here. Then add other contexts where feminists are fighting for the police to take domestic violence seriously. Or, even more complicated, cases in India where domestic violence laws are not protecting those they were meant to but are regularly manipulated by the upper-class litigants looking for an end-run. This is a part of my broader interest and possible future writing. And I dream of the time and headspace to write fiction someday! But really, I am presently quite consumed with working on the increased challenges faced by domestic violence survivors where I currently live. This too is a lesson from the protagonists of the book: make a difference where you can, don’t overlook the obvious local needs.

The Quest For Gender Based Asylum: Exploring ‘Women’ as a Particular Social Group

The United Nations Convention Concerning the Status of Refugees, 1951(‘Convention’) is the centerpiece of international refugee protection that provides protection to individuals who are forced to flee their homes due to a well-founded fear of persecution. The United States of America (‘US’), one of the treaty’s signatories, has adopted Article 1(A) of the Convention without any substantial reservation, understanding or declaration (‘RUDs’). Section 101(a)(42) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, 1952(‘INA’) grants asylum if an alien is unable or unwilling to return to his/her country of origin because s/he has suffered past persecution or has a well-founded fear of future persecution on account of ‘race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.’ 

Notably, both the Convention and the INA leave out ‘gender’ as a ground for persecution. However, this has not stopped women from making claims of asylum on the basis of their gender. In fact, the US records a 30-year-long quest in establishing gender as a protected category in asylum law. In the recent decision of Jaceyls Miguelina de Pena-Paniagua v. William P. Barr (‘De Pena’) the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit recognized gender as a legal basis for granting asylum, allowing the US to finally become a safe haven for women fleeing domestic violence. The Harvard Immigration and Refugee clinic that represented the asylee, a Dominican woman escaping domestic and sexual violence, expressed that the Judge saw domestic violence for what it was–persecution for her gender, and that the decision has finally put gender on par with other grounds for asylum. 

Persecution of Women 

In order to obtain asylum, an asylum-seeker must prove past persecution or a well-founded fear of future persecution. The term ‘persecution’ has not been defined in the INA or Convention. There is no universally accepted definition of persecution, however most acts of bodily violence have been recognised as such. The Board of Immigration Appeals (‘BIA’) has defined persecution as a ‘threat to the life or freedom of, or the infliction of suffering or harm upon, those who differ in a way regarded as offensive.’[i]

While considering the case for women, instances of persecution can be split into two categories:

  1. The firstkind occurs within private spheres, where the persecutor is generally an individual who shares an intimate relationship with the woman, such as a romantic partner or relative. This include acts of sexual/domestic violence, economic/emotional abuse, or regressive cultural practices such as female genital mutilation, honour killings, etc. 
  2. The secondkind is where the persecution is carried out or condoned by a public or private, non-state actor, such as Governments, or militant groupswho specifically subject women of an  ethnicity to sexual violence or subjugation. This category encompasses forced population control strategies, penalties that restrict women’s reproductive freedoms, sexual assault, rape, trafficking, forced marriages, etc. 

Evidently, in both categories, women are persecuted because of their gender and their particular societal status as women.  If persecution is studied as a means of exerting control over a race, religion or particular social group, it is clear that women fit this bill.

Additionally, the asylum-seeker must also prove that she is unable or unwilling to return to, or is unable to avail protection from persecution in, her home country. Interestingly, in most cases of persecution of women, the government and the law enforcement are unresponsive to domestic violence or sexual violence, and in some cases, are even responsible for it. 

Women as a Particular Social Group 

Defining a PSG is extremely important because, depending on how narrowly or broadly it is construed, it can result in vast differences in who is granted asylum. The UNHCR Executive Committee in 1985 recognised that women asylum-seekers who face harsh or inhuman treatment due to their having transgressed the social mores of the society may be considered as a PSG. In 1991, the UNHCR issued guidelines on the protection of refugee women in which it reiterated the same principle. The US BIA also has provided some guidance on the matter. In the Matter of Acosta, the BIA recognised that a PSG should share a common, immutable characteristic, such as sex. It is relevant to note that sex and gender are conflated in refugee law. However one can argue that gender is also an ‘immutable characteristic’, as it fundamental to an individual’s identity or conscience. Later, ‘social visibility’ and ‘particularity’ were identified as additional factors for PSGs. 

The issue that women face while claiming membership to a PSG is that they have to prove the group’s constitution, characteristics and then establish that they fit the set criteria. This double liability makes it harder for women to seek asylum. While certain women have been successful in making a claim for asylum in the US – women who refuse to undergo the process of female genital mutilation, and victims of domestic violence, there are still gaps that can only be filled by classifying ‘women’ as an independent PSG. 

Case for the wider group of ‘women’

The decision of the First Circuit in De Pena makes an effort to classify women as a PSG. While the asylee only made a case of belonging to the PSG of Dominican women who were unable to leave or escape a domestic relationship, the court positively considered and advocated for the wider category of ‘women’ to be classified as a PSG.

The main objection in construing ‘women’ as a PSG, is that it encompasses a large number of people and this will open floodgates to a large number of women seeking asylum.[ii]But in De Pena, the court acknowledged the view of Perdomo v. Holder that if race, religion and nationality refer to large classes of persons, PSGs may do as well as they are equally based on innate characteristics. Therefore a PSG cannot be rejected because it represents too large a portion of the population as this would misunderstand the function of the protected categories. Gender, like all other grounds, only functions to recognise the reason an individual is persecuted and does not imply anything larger.[iii]

While US asylum law only recently has recognized gender as a protected status, other countries set a good example for the way forward. In 1993, the Immigration and Refugee board of Canada released guidelines for gender-related persecution. Interestingly, this has not led to an explosion of claims. Further, in 2006, the House of Lords recognized that gender alone may fall within the definition of a PSG. Such definitive cases and specific guidelines aid the cause of women asylum seekers, and go a long way in recognizing the case for women as a particular social group. 


[i]Hernandez- Ortiz v. INS, 777 F.2d 509, 516 (9th Cir. 1985); Guevara-Flores v. INS, 786 F.2d 1242 (5th Cir. 1986).

[ii]Andrea Binder, Gender and the Membership in a Particular Social Group Category of the 1951 Refugee Convention, 10 Colum. J. Gender & L. 167 (2001), p 191.

[iii]Andrea Binder, Gender and the Membership in a Particular Social Group Category of the 1951 Refugee Convention, 10 Colum. J. Gender & L. 167 (2001), p 191.