Rule of Law Backsliding and a Rapidly Closing Space for the Justice System in Guatemala

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The rule of law has rapidly continued to backslide in Guatemala since my last post on ILAC’s report on the Guatemalan judiciary and our call for support to the United Nations-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). I had originally planned to discuss in this post how the current situation in Guatemala reflects the challenges and opportunities for promoting justice globally in the context of the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. But, with such significant rule of law backsliding, the more pressing question is if it is possible to push back against this rapidly closing space for the justice system in Guatemala without CICIG?

Rule of law backsliding

In 2018, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court ruled against President Morales’s attempts to bar CICIG’s Commissioner from reentering the country, and since the beginning of the new year President Morales has retaliated against the Guatemalan justice system.

On January 7, President Morales declared that he was unilaterally and immediately terminating the agreement establishing CICIG even though its mandate does not expire until September. He also demanded that all CICIG officials leave the country within 24 hours. In his declaration he stated that CICIG had severely violated national and international laws and that it put the security, public order, governance, human rights, and above all the sovereignty of Guatemala at risk. This type of authoritarian overreaching to attack and dismantle the rule of law follows the pattern of authoritarian trends globally, as evidenced by V-Dem Institute’s 2018 Annual Democracy Report.

Two days after President Morales’s declaration, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court ruled that his unilateral decision was unconstitutional. This was a step forward for the rule of law in Guatemala and it appeared that the justice system was pushing back against a closing space. Nevertheless, this positive momentum was short lived. Later that same day, Guatemala’s Supreme Court accepted a request from Congress to begin impeachment hearings against three Constitutional Court magistrates and to lift their immunity. The magistrates subject to that request are those who have consistently ruled in favor of CICIG. The impeachment proceedings are currently pending before Congress, and the ultimate decision on whether to lift the magistrates’ immunity and possibly remove them from the bench now lies with a Congress which is heavily aligned with President Morales.

In addition to President Morales’s unconstitutional unilateral decision to terminate CICIG’s mandate, another recent alarming indicator of rule of law backsliding is that Guatemala’s Congress is considering an amendment to its National Reconciliation Law which would grant amnesty to those convicted of serious human rights violations within 24 hours of the amendment’s ratification. This would result in the freeing of more than 30 convicts, most of whom are former military officers, and end any ongoing or future trials for crimes which occurred during Guatemala’s 30-year internal conflict.

Rule of law without CICIG?

CICIG, as a hybrid of international experts and authorities working with national criminal investigative institutions, has provided a mechanism for “accomplished and courageous leaders and prosecutors to emerge” in Guatemala’s attorney general’s office. The result was the prosecution of high-level government officials, including former presidents, ministers, and army officers, the breakup of over 60 criminal networks and 310 related convictions, fighting corruption throughout the judiciary and government, and strengthening the rule of law through programs, projects, and legislation. It is estimated that CICIG has contributed to a net reduction of more than 4,500 homicides from 2007 to 2017. CICIG thus brought Guatemala closer to achieving the targets of Sustainable Development Goal 16 (SDG 16) of the United Nations 2030 Agenda by: significantly reducing all forms of violence and related death rates (Target 16.1); promoting the rule of law at the national level and ensuring equal access to justice for all (Target 16.3); significantly reducing illicit financial and arms flows, strengthening the recovery and return of stolen assets, and combating all forms of organized crime (Target 16.4); and substantially reducing corruption and bribery (Target 16.5).

In ILAC’s recent report on the Guatemalan judiciary, we recommended to the government of Guatemala that in order to guarantee the rule of law for all persons (relating to SDG 16, Target 16.3) it must: support the independence of justice operators, including ensuring adequate resources are made available to the justice sector to ensure that it can perform its vital function, and guaranteeing the safety of justice operators, in particular judges in jurisdictions such as the High Risk Courts; confirm state support for the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary; and ensure that the state complies with court judgements and provides adequate resources for the enforcement of judgements, such as those by the Constitutional Court.

The continuance of Guatemala’s rule of law achievements and the support and oversight for implementing our recommendations, however, relied on CICIG’s existence.

Pushing back

Given the significant rule of law backsliding, is it possible to push back against the rapidly closing space for the justice system in Guatemala? First, it is important to note that Guatemala will hold presidential and congressional elections this summer. The elections, if conducted in a free and fair way, could bring about significant change to the current political climate. And, although the international community could not prevent an abrupt end to CICIG’s mandate, there is resistance to the closing space on the national level. Guatemalans have openly protested against the rule of law backsliding, and just last week Guatemala’s Attorney General opened an investigation into first lady Patricia Marroquin de Morales’s alleged cashing of unreported campaign checks made out to President Morales during his election bid.

This push back by civil society and justice sector actors on the national level against the closing space is hopefully a signal that the change brought about by CICIG’s work will have a lasting effect on the Guatemalan justice system. The international networks of judges, lawyers, and human rights organizations must support and encourage civil society and legal professionals in Guatemala and raise awareness of the dangers of the current rule of law backsliding. With such support, Guatemala’s civil society and the justice system’s actors and institutions can hopefully withstand the executive and legislature’s attacks on the rule of law.

ILAC was established in 2002, to facilitate cooperation by international and regional actors involved in rebuilding justice systems and the rule of law in conflict-affected countries. In 2017, ILAC selected a delegation of experts from candidates put forward by its 50+ member organisations to carry out an assessment of the justice sector in Guatemala. The delegation traveled to Guatemala in October 2017, meeting with over 150 Guatemalans, including judges, prosecutors, lawyers, human rights defenders and business leaders. Follow the latest ILAC news at www.ilacnet.org and on Twitter @ILAC_Rebuild.

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Carrots, Sticks, and the ICC: Prospects for Cooperation? Part 2

The contributions discussed in part one may be used to frame an analysis of the Court’s recent request to Belarus to cooperate in the arrest and surrender of al-Bashir. The ICC has issued two arrest warrants for al-Bashir, one in 2009 and one in 2010, for alleged war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. Since the arrest warrants were issued, al-Bashir typically travels to non-states parties, who are under no obligation to arrest him. Indeed, Belarus has neither signed nor ratified the Rome Statute. However, he has also visited states partieswho do have an obligation to arrest, including (but not limited to) Chad, Kenya, Djibouti, Malawi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Jordan, Uganda, and South Africa. Despite the Court’s request to these states parties for cooperationin the arrest of al-Bashir, national governments such as those of Chad, Jordan, and South Africa have refused to comply, using the justification that al-Bashir’s status as head of state provides him with immunity from arrest. This opinion is also promoted by the African Union, which has asked for an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice on the issue of immunities of heads of state and government within the Rome Statute system.  

The relations between Belarus and Sudan are strengthening in several key areas. Al-Bashir and Belarus’ President, Alexander Lukashenko, signed agreements on ‘friendly relations and cooperation’in 2017 emphasizing dynamic trade and joint projects in the industrial and agricultural sectors. Al-Bashir’s speculated travel to Belarus is for the purpose of finalizing trade deals and enhancing bilateral relations. However, the link between the two countries is long(er)standing. Belarus is a Sudanese armament provider. In 2006, a military cooperation protocolwas signed by the two countries covering training, exchange of experiences, and military science. Belarus has a reputation as an arms exporter to rogue states. Since Belarus is under no legal obligation to cooperate with the ICC, the arrest and surrender of al-Bashir highly unlikely. The high probability that Belarus will ignore the Prosecutor’s request contributes to a culture of impunity and staunch criticism of the Court.  

Inasmuch as states pursue political and economic (self) interests, the UNSC expressed a need for accountability for the atrocious crimes committed in Darfur under the leadership of President Omar al-Bashir at the ICC. The majority of states agree that the gravity of the crimes covered by the Rome Statute are so abhorrent that they are an offence to humankind and should not go unpunished. It is necessary to question the elusiveness of state cooperation in the situation concerning al-Bashir and consider what can be done to facilitate a different, more just outcome. Relying on Belarus is insufficient without the political backing of the UNSC to oblige all member states to enforce their referral and facilitate cooperation by all states to this end.   

Political strategizing for the majority of states requires a balance of hard and soft power; this includes the promotion of international criminal justice and the use of international institutions, which creates a sense of solidarity among Member States. Expectations of behaviour establish trust. The rules-based order in the Rome Statute system contributes to a shared commitment to these goals. The referral of the situation in Sudan to the ICC by the UNSC signals that the perpetration of atrocious crimes is unacceptable, even for states who have neither signed nor ratified the Rome Statute. Appeals to sovereign power, interests, or status as a head of state are irrelevant. This could be a significant moment for the international criminal justice project, but the transfer of political power (UNSC) to legal action (ICC) has been weak and haphazard. The lack of organizational support and state cooperation to see justice done devalues international criminal law and subjects the ICC to a serious legitimacy crisis.  

The lack of credible commitment on the part of the UNSC to enforce this referral, or to provide the necessary political support has undermined (and continues to undermine) the ICC’s ability to see justice done. The UNSC has failed to take measures against states who choose not to execute the arrest warrant, which ought to be an obligation that emanates from the referral itself. The need for the UNSC to take a bigger role in the enforcement of its own resolutions remains an important focal point in the discussion on cooperation more broadly.  

The obsequious attention paid to al-Bashir and his disregard for the indictment by the ICC has led to increasing frustration on the part of those who oppose impunity and demand justice and accountability for the victims in Sudan. The role of civil society is particularly important in this regard. Depending on states such as Belarus to cooperate with the execution of an arrest warrant in the absence of political or legal obligations is fundamentally flawed. How persuasive is a sharp carrot when the states involved have the stick? 

This blogpost and my attendance to the 17thAssembly of States Parties are supported by the Canadian Partnership for International Justice and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

Despite UN inaction Haiti’s cholera victims fight for justice

Two years after the UN promised to do better, the victims of the UN cholera epidemic in Haiti are still fighting to make the organization keep its promises. On December 1 2016, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon publicly apologized to the Haitian people for the UN’s role in causing a devastating cholera epidemic that has claimed more than 10,000 lives and infected more than 800,000 people since 2010. Promising to right the UN’s wrongs in Haiti, Ban Ki-moon rolled out a $400 million plan to control cholera and provide assistance to victims.

Yet eight years into the epidemic and two years since this grand promise the UN is still refusing to keep its promises or honour its legal obligations. The UN’s response to cholera has always been one of charity, never a program of the justice that it is tasked with promoting globally. Ban Ki-moon, choosing his lawyers’ advice over the UN Charter’s directives, carefully avoided any admission of legal responsibility. None of the plan’s promises were enforceable by the victims. Two years later, in a textbook demonstration of the importance of accountability and the rule of law, none of the promises have been kept.

The UN had promised to place “victims at the centre of the work” of its $200 million victim assistance plan, and to consult with them in developing the package. It promised to consider not only community-based assistance but also “payment of money to the families of those individuals who died of cholera.”

Victims took the UN at its word, and prepared for the consultations. They met in groups to study and discuss the pros and cons of different approaches. They participated in victim committees and consultation training sessions, and brought the nuanced discussions home to their villages for more discussion.

In the meantime, the UN’s limited fundraising efforts yielded limited results, so the promised material assistance project was replaced with a “pilot consultation” in a single municipality, Mirebalais. The UN’s public comments on victim assistance discussed only community projects, with individual compensation apparently off the table.

The UN declined to include the victims who had prepared for the process in the Mirebalais pilot. Instead, a few selected cholera victims were included in larger focus groups of local political, religious and community leaders. The consultation process went ahead without transparency as to how it was being conducted and without clarity as to how these victims were selected. Reports from those meetings indicate that individual compensation was not presented as an option, and that the voices of the cholera victims – who contracted the disease in the first place because they were too poor to afford clean water – were predictably marginalized among the discussions of the leaders, who arrived with their own agendas for community development.

This obviously flawed process produced the conclusion it was designed to produce: that Haitians wanted community projects, not individual compensation. The UN now intends to expand on this “success” in other heavily affected communities. So the victims need to keep fighting for justice. As many of these victims often state, “it is not for the wrongdoer to decide what is justice for the victim.”

On the anniversary of the introduction of cholera, cholera victims in the town of Mirebalais—where the epidemic started–commemorated the day by organizing a requiem Mass to memorialize those who died from the disease. Victims then marched to the former UN base that recklessly discharged cholera-laden waste into Haiti’s largest river system, to lay flowers near the river.

To this day, the UN cholera continues to kill and sicken Haitians. Beyond the ongoing threat, the long-term consequences persist for those who have already been sick or lost loved ones. Crushing burial costs, loss of livelihoods, death of breadwinners, and ensuing accrual of debts has devastated those who already struggled to meet their basic needs.

This latest commemoration of cholera victims, so many years since the outbreak, is the utmost demonstration of victim perseverance. Despite the devastating economic impacts and struggles that victims face, they have continued to mobilize for justice. Together with organizations like the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI) and MOLEGHAF, they come out to protest month after month to remind the UN of its obligations to provide justice and reparations to those who have suffered so much from cholera. Victims have also filed claims through the UN’s legal process as well as a class action lawsuit in New York through their legal representatives the BAI and the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti (IJDH). On Human Rights Day in 2015, they delivered over 2,000 handwritten letters to the UN’s peacekeeping headquarters in Port-Au-Prince. In 2017, victims told their individual stories in a powerful video message to the UN.

Victims are not alone in rejecting this effort at replacing justice with charity. In June, over 100 US Congressional leaders called on the Secretary-General to ensure a just response to Haiti cholera victims. The following month an open letter signed by 60 human rights organizations worldwide to the UN Secretary-General, including Amnesty International and the International Service for Human Rights, opposed what they saw as problematic consultations of victims. It criticized the UN’s adoption of a charity-based as opposed to rights-based model that appeared to abandon the individual payment approach.

Charitable community projects are not a substitute for the remedies that cholera victims are entitled to by law, and victims are not giving up the fight. The UN’s grand promises to cholera victims two years ago will only be effective if it actually listens to victims, respects their perspectives and allows them to influence the development of policy. As the UN undertakes to review its efforts in Mirebalais, it is not too late to recognize that justice will only be served when victims are truly placed at the centre.

On borrowed time: Five years after the Rana Plaza disaster, the Bangladesh Accord faces court-ordered closure

 

Five years ago, sometime before 9am on 24 April 2013, cracks started to appear in the Rana Plaza building in the Dhaka District of Bangladesh, revealing a structural failure that caused the eight-story commercial building to collapse. The building contained five garment factories supplying major global brands and retailers.

It only took 90 seconds for Rana Plaza to collapse, but it took two weeks to search for the dead. When the search ended on 13 May 2013, the total of lives lost was over 1,100.

The tragedy spurred textile and clothing companies into action. In May 2013, global fashion brands and retailers and trade unions signed the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh (the “Bangladesh Accord“), a ground-breaking worker safety agreement. Adidas, H&M and Esprit are amongst the signatories.

The most famous pillar of the Bangladesh Accord is its five-year legally binding agreement between brands and trade unions to ensure a safe working environment in the Bangladeshi ready-made garment industry. This feature gained notoriety when a case was filed at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in October 2016 by two global unions, IndustriALL Global Union and UNI Global Union, to hold two unnamed multinational companies to account. The case eventually settled for $2.3 million in January 2018.

There are, however, additional components to the Accord, including, importantly, the creation of an independent inspection programme.

The Accord, which gathered the support of more than 250 brands and retailers from over 20 countries, was originally established for a limited time of five years – until May 2018.

In May 2017, the Remediation Coordination Cell (“RCC“) was established under the government of Bangladesh’s National Initiative, with a view to take over from the Accord to implement the remediation process for garment factories.

In June 2017, leading fashion brands and global trade unions announced at the OECD Global Forum on Responsible Business Conduct that they would enter into a new agreement, which would come into effect in 2018. Later that year, a transition agreement (the “2018 Transition Accord“) was signed, extending the Accord’s mandate for another three years, and allowing it to continue its operations until the RCC was ready to take over the platform’s responsibilities.

Everything seemed on track to guarantee a smooth continuation of the Accord’s activities… until judicial proceedings were started by a Bangladeshi factory owner who had failed to remedy safety breaches, and was therefore removed from the list of factories that Accord signatories are allowed to source from.

The factory owner sued the Accord. In April 2018, in an extraordinary unilateral action, the Bangladesh High Court issued a “suo moto” restraining order against Accord office operations. The restraining order is due to come into force on 30 November. This means that, in two days, the Bangladesh Accord will have to close its Dhaka office, severely limiting its scope of work and its ability to inspect thousands of factories supplying clothes for brands such as H&M, Esprit and Primark.

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ILAC launches report of Guatemalan justice sector and calls to extend CICIG’s mandate

We at the International Legal Assistance Consortium (ILAC) launched our assessment report of the justice sector in Guatemala on October 10, in Washington D.C., and on November 6, in London (the report is available both in English and Spanish). ILAC, established in 2002, is an NGO based in Stockholm, Sweden, which conducts rule of law and justice sector assessments, coordinates programs, and engages in policy dialogue. As a consortium of over 50 professional legal organizations along with individual experts, we gather legal expertise and competencies from various contexts and legal traditions to help rebuild justice institutions and promote the rule of law in conflict-affected and fragile states.

ILAC’s report of Guatemalan justice sector

ILAC’s assessment team traveled to Guatemala in October 2017, and met with over 150 Guatemalan judges, prosecutors, lawyers, human rights defenders, and business leaders to assess the role and capacity of courts and prosecutorial services. The team also examined several thematic issues facing the justice sector in Guatemala today, including the legacy of Guatemala’s conflict and impunity, disputes involving development projects on land claimed by indigenous peoples and local communities, criminalization of protests, and violence and discrimination. 

“A fragile peace”

Although Guatemala has been at peace for over 20 years, its history of inequality and a civil war that lasted over 30 years have left a legacy of impunity, corruption, racism, and violence which fundamentally threaten stability and equitable development. Since 2006, however, justice sector actors have been supported by the United Nations-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (known as CICIG) which aims to investigate criminal groups undermining democracy. CICIG may conduct independent investigations, act as a complementary prosecutor, and recommend public policies to help fight the criminal groups that are the subject of its investigations. This is an innovative institution for the United Nations and is unique in the sense that it combines international support, independence to investigate cases, and partnerships with the Guatemalan Attorney General’s Office.

While the assessment report identifies ongoing rule of law challenges in Guatemala, it highlights the vital role CICIG and its current Commissioner, Mr. Iván Velásquez of Colombia, play in supporting the Attorney General’s Office to address the identified challenges. In fact, the majority of our recommendations are reliant upon CICIG’s continued presence in Guatemala as the country’s judiciary is not yet equipped to address and resolve corruption and impunity on its own. The American Bar Association, an ILAC member, has stated that:

it would be impossible to instill the rule of law within Guatemala at this time without the support of an international body. While many prosecutors and judges have – at great personal risk – performed their responsibilities with integrity, the pressures on the criminal justice sector writ large are so great that it is not currently able to operate independently without international support.

An abrupt end to CICIG’s mandate may also potentially result in backsliding of judicial and prosecutorial independence and integrity. Our report therefore includes a specific recommendation for a four-year extension of CICIG’s mandate.

In light of this recommendation, it is also worth noting that CICIG currently enjoys widespread public support in Guatemala and, according to a recent report by the International Crisis Group, “is a rare example of a successful international effort to strengthen a country’s judicial system and policing.”

ILAC joins call to extend CICIG’s mandate

Our assessment report comes at a crucial time as the future of CICIG is in jeopardy. In August, Guatemala’s President Jimmy Morales announced that he would not extend CICIG’s mandate beyond its current expiration date in September 2019 (note that CICIG is currently investigating President Morales for illegal campaign financing). President Morales simultaneously barred Mr. Velásquez, who at the time was in the United States, from re-entering Guatemala. Subsequently, President Morales ignored an order by Guatemala’s Constitutional Court allowing Mr. Velásquez to return (the Constitutional Court has reaffirmed that order just this past Thursday). President Morales has also developed a rhetoric accusing CICIG of presenting “a threat to peace” in Guatemala and constructing “a system of terror.” 

Our report is an acknowledgement of CICIG’s role in laying the foundation for a stronger and more resilient judicial system in Guatemala. And, in order to continue to build upon this foundation, we join the call for Guatemala to recommit to the work of CICIG under Mr. Velásquez and for an extension of CICIG’s mandate.

While we are neither the first nor the only observer to point out these challenges to the rule of law, we hope that the report will provide clear notice to state authorities that failure to address the documented and well-understood obstacles to the independence and effectiveness of the justice sector can only be taken as unwillingness to strengthen the rule of law in Guatemala. Without an effective and independent system of justice, the rule of law and human rights cannot be secured.

In a future post we will elaborate upon how the current situation in Guatemala reflects the challenges and opportunities for promoting justice globally in the context of the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and particularly SDG 16.

To learn more, you can read the report press release here.

You can follow ILAC on Twitter here

Human Rights and the U.S. Gun Violence Crisis: A New Approach

With the most recent mass shootings at Thousand Oaks Bar in California and the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Americans are once more reeling from the shock and horror of seeing their compatriots mowed down while undertaking normal daily activities. Innocent men, women, and children have been killed or injured whilst worshiping; enjoying a concert; spending an evening out with friends; attending school; or simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Each time shots ring out, the media is full of conversations about “gun rights” and the Second Amendment. But what about human rights? What about the right to life; the right of association; the right to health; the right to safety and security; the right to attend school and receive an education?

11.02.2018- Gun Panel Photo by Mary ButkusOn November 2 and 3, more than 150 people attended a conference at the School of Law entitled, The U.S. Gun Violence Crisis: An Interdisciplinary and Human Rights Approach. Co-sponsored by the Whitney R. Harris World Law Institute at Washington University School of Law, the Washington University Institute of Public Health, The Public Interest Law & Policy Speakers Series, and the American Branch of the International Law Association (International Human Rights Committee), the event brought together leading scholars and experts in the fields of law, psychiatry, sociology, medicine, and public health policy to focus on new approaches to the U.S. gun violence epidemic.

11.02.2018- Gun Panel Photo by Mary ButkusMike McLively, director of the Urban Gun Violence Initiative at Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, opened the conference by highlighting the scope and scale of the U.S. gun violence epidemic. He noted that more than 30,000 people die each from gun violence – violence that is, for the most part, easily prevented by simple and common sense regulation or even executive action. He noted that more than 60 percent of those killed by gun violence have committed suicide with a gun; deaths that were largely preventable through simple measures like waiting periods to purchase firearms. Others noted the disproportionate impact of gun violence on communities of color and young people, as well as the exportation of the U.S. gun violence crisis to third countries through the trafficking of weapons from the United States. The usefulness of international human rights regimes in reframing thinking about this issue, and the important work already being done on this issue by U.N. bodies was noted by several participants. Barbara Frey, in particular, has worked on this issue for many years at the U.N. in her capacity as the alternate U.S. member of the U.N. Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and as Special Rapporteur to the Sub-Commission on the issue of preventing human rights abuses committed with small arms and light weapons.

Epstien_WLM_0156Lee Epstein, Ethan A.H. Shepley Distinguished University Professor, spoke insightfully about the history of the relationship between the Second Amendment in the U.S. Supreme Court and the evolution of conversations around gun rights. Professor Epstein noted that the relatively recent emergence of an individual right to bear arms can be traced to a flurry of recent law review articles advocating for this position. She suggested that further social science research and legal research could therefore contribute to the solution of the current crisis.

alpers_wlm_0227.jpgFinally, Philip Alpers, founder of GunPolicy.org, concluded by offering a comparative analysis of the crisis and its resolution in Australia as a result of legislative action, gun buybacks, and a change in legal and popular culture with respect to guns and gun ownership.

During the second day of the conference, speakers met to discuss the conference, as well as a Report on the topic prepared by Harris Institute Fellow Madaline George and myself. The Harris Institute’s Report, which concludes that the U.S. government has failed in significant respects to adequately protect the human rights of individuals living in the United States from gun violence, will be published in the coming months. The papers from the conference will appear in a special symposium issue of the Washington University Journal of Law and Policy in 2019. The Institute has already presented testimony on the U.S. Gun Violence Crisis to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and is working on testimony before other human rights bodies as well.

To learn more about the Harris Institute’s Gun Violence Initiative, visit our website.

Experts' Meeting at Washington University School of Law

Safeguarding ‘distinction’ inside the wire: Humanitarian-peacekeeper interactions in South Sudan’s Protection of Civilians sites

Following the outbreak of violence in December 2013, tens of thousands—and eventually hundreds of thousands—of internally displaced persons (IDPs) sought refuge at UN bases in South Sudan. These sites came to be referred to as Protection of Civilians (PoC) sites, guarded by forces from the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) under a robust PoC mandate. In response, many international humanitarian actors, ranging from UN agencies to NGOs, sought to live and work ‘inside the wire’ of the PoC sites as well. They wanted to be close to the war-affected populations they serve, and were also seeking to protect their own staff from violent attacks. As a general rule, global civil-military guidance dissuades humanitarian actors from co-locating with military actors in conflict settings. In recognition of the exceptional circumstances, however, the UN Humanitarian Country Team in South Sudan approved the temporary use of military force protection by humanitarian actors; this has enabled them to reside in the sites.

South Sudan’s PoC sites have generated considerable interest from policymakers and scholars alike, some of whom have drawn attention (pp. 39-40) to the complex relationships of diverse international actors operating in the sites. What is missing at this juncture, from a legal perspective, is a robust account of the challenges that co-location in the sites poses for the civilian-combatant distinction in international humanitarian law (IHL). Drawing on field research[1] conducted in South Sudan in 2015, this article highlights one slice of the international community where interactions are shaped by struggles over ‘distinction’: the humanitarian-peacekeeper relationship.

As one UN civilian actor notes, the PoC sites in South Sudan are spaces where the UN mission ‘comes closest’ to humanitarian actors. Another civilian member of UNMISS surmises, ‘I’ve never seen another example where humanitarians and UNMISS work so closely’. This issue of physical proximity is also flagged by a humanitarian NGO actor living in one of the PoC sites. He is concerned that the mere fact of his presence in the site undermines any efforts his organization might make with regard to distinction from UNMISS. An individual working for a different humanitarian NGO picks up this thread. He explains that co-locating with UN military forces leads ‘fiercely independent’ humanitarian NGOs to fear that they are compromising the humanitarian principles of neutrality, independence, and impartiality. It is adhering to these principles, he explains, that helps humanitarian actors to demonstrate they are distinct.

It is apparent that the attempt to safeguard distinction from UN military actors is not always, or only, about compliance with international law. Much of the time, humanitarian NGOs are also hoping to influence local perceptions. One component of this perceptions work involves the attempt to secure the trust and acceptance of the war-affected populations they seek to serve. As one humanitarian actor explains, it is local beneficiaries who matter most; the ‘element of distinction is purely from their perspective’. Continue reading