CCIL 2018: “The Role of International Criminal Law and the ICC in Responding to the Alleged Crimes Perpetrated Against the Rohingya”

On November 1 and 2, 2018, the Canadian Council on International Law (CCIL) held its annual conference in Ottawa, Canada. This conference is touted as one of the premier international law conferences in the world, bringing together scholars and practitioners from across Canada, the United States and Europe. This year’s topic was “International Law at the Boundaries,” which recognized the role of non-state actors and ideas that seek to push international law to its limits.

One particular panel discussed three important, and even novel, issues within international criminal law: (1) jurisdiction over crimes committed by a non-state party; (2) sexual and gender-based violence; and (3) the role of social media in contributing to these crimes. “The Role of International Criminal Law and the International Criminal Court (ICC) in Responding to the Alleged Crimes Perpetrated against the Rohingya,” examined the ongoing situation in Myanmar and the ICC’s role in holding perpetrators of international crimes accountable. Fannie Lafontaine of Laval University’s Faculty of Law and the Canadian Partnership for International Justice chaired the panel of three speakers: Payam Akhavan of McGill University’s Faculty of Law, Valerie Oosterveld of Western University’s Faculty of Law, and Kyle Matthews of the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies.

Akhavan discussed the ICC’s jurisdiction over the crimes committed against the Rohingya. This has been an area that has required some thought because Myanmar is not a party to the Rome Statute of the ICC, and therefore the Court does not have jurisdiction over crimes committed on its territory unless a referral by the United Nations Security Council is made (which has not happened yet and has been suggested to be unlikely). Akhavan highlighted how the ICC’s jurisdiction is currently being established through the crime of forced deportation as an underlying act of the crime against humanity. Forced deportation involves the crossing of international borders, and because the act of deporting the Rohingya ended on the territory of a state that is a party to the Rome Statute—Bangladesh—the Court has jurisdiction to try those responsible for forcing the Rohingya into Bangladesh.

Oosterveld ended the panel with a discussion of sexual and gender-based violence in the context of the Rohingya. She discussed the many ways that Rohingya women and girls are targeted and then humiliated through public gang-rapes to promote terror, and even ‘branded’ by their perpetrators biting them. Men and boys suffered similar treatment in detention from their captors trying to gain information.

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WHERE DO THE ROHINGYA GO?

In a historically important decision, the Pre-Trial Chamber of the International Criminal Court has today decided that the Court may exercise jurisdiction over the alleged deportation of the Rohingya people from Myanmar to Bangladesh. The Prosecutor submitted her request to the Court under Article 19 (3) of the Rome Statute of the ICC submitting that even though most of the crimes against the Rohingya have taken place within the sovereign territory of a non-state party Myanmar, over which the ICC is unable to exercise jurisdiction, one discrete incident, that is the incident of border crossing into the territory of a member state Bangladesh, creates enough ground to attract the jurisdiction of the ICC over the crime of deportation associated with the border crossing. This is a step into unchartered waters for the ICC – never before has the principle of territoriality of a crime been reviewed independently of the “territorial integrity” of states. To venture into this area would be to bring the obligations of three states – Myanmar, Bangladesh and India (into which Rohingya populations have entered seeking asylum) under general principles of international law into question – for a group whose terrible suffering has been at the forefront of all human rights billboards this year.

Two provisions of the Rome Statute have been provocatively interpreted by the Prosecutor and the Pre Trial Chamber in its majority ruling on admissibility today. These are Articles 19 (3) and 119 (1). 19 (3) is the Prosecutor’s power to approach the Court in the matter of determining certain judicial questions before embarking on a course of action that may involve invoking the Court’s jurisdiction. The Chamber notes that at the heart of this request is question of invoking the jurisdiction of the Court under Article 12 (2) (a) in the context of an alleged forceful deportation of the Rohingya from the Rakhine region of Myanmar into Bangladesh. The Chamber then relies on old jurisprudence from the PCIJ in the Mavrommatis Palestine Concessions and the ICJ’s more recent East Timor (Portugal v. Australia) as well as a host of other cases from various other international courts and tribunals to hold that the definition of “dispute” is one that is open to judicial interpretation. It thus finds that its jurisdiction is subject to “dispute with Myanmar” and that it is competent to entertain this request under Article 119 (1). Further the Chamber relies on a general principle of international law – Kompetenz Kompetenz and cites a powerful battery of precedents to establish that as an international court of law, it has the power to determine its own jurisdiction under the Rome Statute and exercise its jurisdiction to admit the request made by the Prosecutor.

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The Role of Mercy in India

There has been such a sustained focus on the right to impose death that it sometimes eclipses its essential corollary, namely the sovereign right to spare life. In India’s modern political system, this power to spare life remains in the form of executive clemency. Executive clemency, enumerated in Article 72 of the Indian Constitution, represents an escape valve where officials unaffiliated with the judiciary can survey the landscape and make decisions on factors beyond the law. Thus, the most logical use of clemency powers is when an individual wrongly convicted, can demonstrate that the system failed or that they are innocent. Critics, however, have argued that this conflicts with the demands of justice and equality, demands a liberal state presumably must heed. Due to mercy’s arbitrary and capricious nature, the state, they argue, should be lawful, not merciful. A study of the mercy petitions rejected by various Presidents in recent history lends some merit to their argument since it reveals a trend of politicization of mercy.

For example, the rejection of Saibanna’s mercy petition came right after the December 16 gang rape; a time when the government needed a facile gesture to show that it was tough on crime against women. He had been sentenced to death for murdering his second wife and daughter after having been convicted for murdering his first wife, however his case was riddled with glaring judicial blunders from start to end. Both the trial court and the High Court convicted and sentenced Saibanna under s. 303 of the Indian Penal Code which provided for mandatory death sentence but had been struck down as unconstitutional some twenty years earlier. The Supreme Court took full notice of the s. 303 issue but then noted that the session’s court faulty finding did not prejudice the cause of the accused since there was no record of any mitigating circumstances.

However what the Court failed to consider was that in cases under s. 303 there is no sentencing hearing, and hence no opportunity to bring on record mitigating circumstances. Moreover, the Court squarely based its death sentence verdict on the erroneous view that Saibanna, already undergoing a life sentence, could not be sentenced to life imprisonment again, and therefore the death sentence was the only available punishment. Thus in effect, the Supreme Court revived mandatory death sentencing. So glaring were these errors that a campaign had been launched pursuant to which fourteen eminent retired judges of the High Court and the Supreme Court
wrote to the President asking him to commute these death sentences. They said that it would be unconscionable and a blot on the administration of justice to execute Saibanna whose petition had been pending for 25 years. These factors should have necessitated the commutation of the death sentence by a government with even an iota of respect for the rule of law. Continue reading

New supplements to the International Protocol on documentation and investigation of sexual violence in conflict for Iraq, Myanmar and Sri Lanka

Cover_Myanmar_Burmese supplement.jpgOnce hidden and unspoken, reports of sexual violence now feature prominently in daily media dispatches from conflict zones around the world. This visibility has contributed to a new emphasis on preventing and addressing such violence at the international level.

Promoting the investigation and documentation of these crimes is a key component of the international community’s response. However, this response requires thoughtful and skilled documenters.  Poor documentation may do more harm than good, retraumatising survivors, and undermining future accountability efforts.

Recently, the Institute for International Criminal Investigations (IICI) and international anti-torture organisation REDRESS, with the funding support of the United Kingdom’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), have launched a series of country-specific guides to assist those documenting and investigating conflict-related sexual violence in Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Iraq.

The guides (available in English, Burmese, Tamil, Sinhalese, Arabic and Kurdish on the REDRESS and IICI websites) complement the second edition of the International Protocol on the Documentation and Investigation of Sexual Violence in Conflict, published in March 2017 by the FCO.

The Protocol aims to support practitioners to document appropriately by providing a “set of guidelines setting out best practice on how to document, or investigate, sexual violence as a war crime, crime against humanity, act of genocide or other serious violation of international criminal, human rights or humanitarian law”. It is a tremendous resource for practitioners, covering theoretical, legal and practical aspects of documentation.

However, as the Protocol itself makes clear, documentation of conflict-related sexual violence is highly context-specific. Each conflict situation and country has individual legal and practical aspects that must be considered alongside the Protocol’s guidelines.

The guides aim to fill this gap by addressing the context for and characteristics of conflict-related sexual violence in the three countries. They address legal avenues for justice domestically and at the international level, specific evidential and procedural requirements and practical issues that may arise when documenting such crimes.

The publication of these guides on the three different countries highlights some interesting comparisons and contrasts.  Although the background to and most common forms of sexual violence differ from country to country, the motivations for the violence have parallels. Similarly, the stigmatisation of survivors is a grave concern in each country, influencing all aspects of daily life for them and the way that institutions and individuals respond to the crimes committed against them.

In all three countries, a landscape of almost complete impunity prevails, and in many situations survivors, their families and practitioners face significant threats to their security – often from state actors (e.g. police, military, state security). This harsh reality is borne out by the fact that although the drafting of the supplements relied heavily on the experience and input of local practitioners, due to security concerns, very few were able to be individually acknowledged for their contributions.  Continue reading

Remembering Female Prisoners of Conscience on International Women’s Day

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Female Prisoners of Conscience (starting top left, clockwise): Diane Rwigara (Rwanda), Khadija Ismayilova (Azerbaijan, now released), Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee (Iran), and Atena Daemi (Iran) 

Today, as we celebrate International Women’s Day, let us take a moment to consider the plight of female prisoners of conscience, a group of women distinguished both by their exceptional heroism and by their extreme vulnerability.

As the United Nations has increasingly emphasized in recent years, even among activists, journalists and politicians generally, Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRDs) face heightened danger; they are “subject to the same types of risks as any human rights defender, but as women, they are also targeted for or exposed to gender-specific threats and gender-specific violence.” The factors behind these heightened risks are complicated, but can relate both to the type of work that WHRDs often engage in (advocacy related to women’s issues), as well as who the WHRDs are (women, challenging traditional gender roles). Far too often, WHRDs face stigmatization, exclusion, violence and imprisonment.

Take the case of Diane Rwigara, for instance, a 35-year-old Rwandan politician currently being held in pre-trial detention. Diane’s crime was attempting to run against Rwanda’s authoritarian president Paul Kagame in the most recent election. Within 72 hours of her announcement of her candidacy, nude pictures allegedly of Diane were leaked on social media. When this public shaming failed to intimidate her, she was arrested—along with her mother and sister—and charged with a slew of specious offenses related to forgery, incitement to insurrection, and promotion of sectarian practices. Although Diane and her female relatives were arrested about six months ago, the government has refused to release her and her mother on bail while they await trial. There have been credible reports that the women have been tortured while in prison. If convicted, Diane’s mother and sister could spend up to seven years in prison; Diane herself faces a 15-year-sentence.

Sadly, Diane’s story is not unique. In fact, it hews closely to the authoritarian playbook on how to target a WHRD. Those who follow prisoner of conscience cases might remember a similar fact-pattern playing out with respect to Khadija Ismayilova, a prominent Azerbaijani investigative journalist, who was arrested in 2014, after a leaked video of her having sex with her boyfriend—obtained through illegal surveillance in her home—failed to shame her into silence.  After spending nearly 18 months in prison, Khadija was finally released in May 2016, however she remains under a travel ban for at least three more years.

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On the Job! [Helton Fellowship]

On the Job! compiles interesting vacancy notices, as follows:
ASIL

 Applications are welcome from recent or current law graduates for the position of Helton Fellow.  The holder of this position receives funded contributions from ASIL members, interest groups, and private foundations to pursue field work and research on significant issues involving international law, human rights, humanitarian affairs, and related areas. Deadline is Monday, January 15, 2018; details here https://www.asil.org/about/helton-fellowship-program.

You Go, ‘Grrl!

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“There are too many men in India today.”  So reads the first line of an an op-ed in today’s New York Times entitled “How to Fix India’s Sex-Selection Problem” penned by IntLawGrrls editor Sital Kalantry (congratulations!).   Most of our readers are familiar with the issue of sex-selective abortion and the resulting imbalance in the ratio of males to females in India.  Sital explains that the statistics suggest a correlation (though not causation) between a large male surplus and violence against women.  Rather than the more commonly-presented solution of banning sex-selective abortion, which she argues is unrealistic, Sital suggests the possibility of sperm sorting, which enables parents who want a girl to select the appropriate chromosomes prior to artificial insemination.  Indian law currently prohibits sperm sorting, and she proposes an amendment to “allow pre-implantation sex selection” for families who want a girl child.  The backstory, data, and details are available in Sital’s new book, Women’s Human Rights and Migration, which was published this month by the University of Pennsylvania Press (another congratulations!).  A longer update on the book, which I am in the middle of reading, will be forthcoming soon, but in the meantime I recommend both the op-ed and the book for those looking for a nuanced and thoughtful exploration of the issue of sex-selective abortion in India. You Go, ‘Grrl!