State responses to COVID-19 have revealed that many national governments are not prioritizing access to safe abortion and other reproductive health care services, despite their vital importance to ensure the well-being of all persons. In this free webinar, Professor Dipika Jain and Payal Shah will offer comparative perspectives on reproductive justice in India and globally, in the context of COVID-19 and beyond the pandemic. In a new article just published in the Columbia Journal of Gender and Law, the speakers examine the transformative potential of jurisprudence from the Indian Supreme Court on reproductive rights. They argue that it is critical for the judiciary to move beyond privacy-based arguments and incorporate a comprehensive equality-based analysis that accounts for the impact of gender, caste, indigeneity, age, and socioeconomic status. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought to light deep-rooted inequalities in access to healthcare services, in India and other countries. In these circumstances, restrictions on access to abortion disproportionately impact marginalized persons, making it imperative for law and policy-making to adopt an equality analysis in their approach.
Friday, May 15
12:00 PM EST/9:30 PM IST
Please register through the following link: https://indialawcenter.lawschool.cornell.edu/ReproductiveJustice
Last week, the German court in Koblenz began hearing evidence for the trial against two former Syrian state officials, Anwar R. and Eyad A. The two men came to Germany seeking asylum, after having defected from the Syrian government. Anwar R. was charged with torture, murder, rape, and sexual assault, while Eyad A. was charged with aiding and abetting crimes against humanity.
The Syrian civil war has remained largely unsolvable from a peace-keeping perspective, and largely untouchable from a legal perspective. Yet, Germany is trying one of the most meaningful criminal cases in the international community in recent years. This comes at a time when local court systems around the world are shutting down, reducing the number of cases heard, or adapting to online forums. Despite a global pandemic, some of the victims of the Syrian civil war are going to have their day in court.
The step to prosecute Syrian state officials is monumental because no other court system has successfully brought such a case to trial. Attempts to try Syrian state officials in other courts have primarily been thwarted, for example Russia and China voted to block United Nations referral to the International Criminal Court (ICC) and Spain’s court dismissed the criminal case against Syrian state officials for lack of jurisdiction. While there has been some notable successes, such as the conviction of a “low-level” soldier in Sweden for war crimes, high ranking officials in the Syrian government have evaded prosecution.
Germany’s progress poses a greater question regarding the future of international crimes: Will they be primarily tried in international courts and tribunals, or will they be “outsourced” to domestic courts? German action in the Syrian case suggests that the future of international criminal prosecution will be in the hands of individual states, who step up when international organisations and courts do not. Additionally, a pattern has emerged among the individual states who are attempting to try cases connected to the Syrian civil war. The pattern indicates that states who experience an influx of refugees and asylum seekers may be the ones best suited for prosecution of international crimes committed on foreign soil. Germany had more access to witnesses and more support for this prosecution in part because of the number of witnesses that are now living within their borders.
To properly prepare for the outsourcing of international crimes committed in other countries, states must consider a few key things. Continue reading
This blog piece was co-authored by Jaime Chávez Alor, Latin America Policy Manager at the Cyrus R. Vance Center for International Justice of the New York City Bar, and was originally posted on the website of the International Legal Assistance Consortium (ILAC).
Guatemala is just one of the slew of countries like Brazil, Nicaragua and Hungary that was already experiencing rule of law backsliding long before Covid-19. However, as highlighted in ILAC’s most recent rule of law assessment report, there was a window of opportunity to return to combating corruption and strengthening the rule of law in Guatemala with the ushering in of a new executive in January 2020. Guatemala’s new president, Alejandro Giammattei, even took early steps to show he was serious about fighting corruption by signing an inter-institutional cooperation agreement and establishing a presidential commission against corruption. Even though there were initial signs of hope, there are already unfortunately several reasons to fear that the rule of law will continue to backslide and that the chance for justice will be postponed during the pandemic.
Further rule of law backsliding during Covid-19 is already happening
We have already seen Guatemala’s Congress use a Covid-19 discussion to pass a bill that amends the NGO law. The amendment restricts development NGOs and has been heavily criticized since it was first introduced in March 2017 as being inconsistent with the right of association and freedom of expression. Yet, on February 11, it was “surreptitiously approved after being introduced by three congressmen during a discussion of emergency measures to confront the coronavirus, thus deceiving all transparency and debate in the parliamentary process”. Guatemala’s Constitutional Court provisionally suspended enactment of the law, but its final ruling is on hold as the Court is not in session due to Covid-19.
Added challenges to judicial nominations
More than six months have passed since Congress should have elected judges to Guatemala’s highest benches, including the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals. What was already a nominations process plagued by technical failures and corruption scandals has been further delayed and is likely to become even less transparent due to the pandemic. In the midst of the national quarantine, Guatemala’s Congress met on March 17, and elected judges to the Supreme Electoral Tribunal. The Congressional session to elect the judges was closed to the media as a measure to apparently prevent spreading of the virus. In response, many sectors within Guatemala expressed concern over the lack of transparency in the election process. Despite these concerns, the nine newly elected judges took the bench on March 27.
Almost as worrying is the fact that the first order issued by the new judges suspended the annulment of six different political parties, economic sanctions against former political candidates, advertising companies and political organisations, several of whom had allegedly illicitly financed past elections. The judges justified their order by stating that the affected parties were unable to appear in their defense due to the public health crisis. This begs the question of whether the judges used Covid-19 as a pretext to justify their ruling after being influenced to suspend the annulments and sanctions. If the answer is yes, this is not a good start for the legitimacy of the newly formed Tribunal which is meant to administer justice and root out corruption in electoral matters.
Covid-19 as a pretext for limiting civil liberties
Not only was the media excluded from the Congressional session to elect new judges to the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, but the government has placed further restrictions on journalists seeking to access and cover other Congressional sessions. On April 4, in response to the limitations, the Human Rights Ombudsman filed an amparo with the Constitutional Court claiming that the restrictions violated Guatemala’s constitution. Similarly, about a week later, more than a hundred journalists, columnists, activists and civil society organizations demanded that President Giammattei and his government stop threatening their freedom of expression and independent journalism. The demand arises from the fact that the government has attempted to silence media outlets critical of the government’s response to the pandemic by using intimidation tactics and excluding journalists from official WhatsApp groups where the government disseminates Covid-19 information.
Can the Constitutional Court continue to resist?
The Constitutional Court has remained a pocket of resistance throughout the attacks on the justice sector and the rule of law in Guatemala, and hopefully this will remain true in spite of the pandemic. In addition to the amparos pending before the Constitutional Court regarding the NGO law and the restrictions placed on journalists, the Court continues to receive amparos during the pandemic. This includes amparos filed by the Human Rights Ombudsman to decentralise Covid-19 testing and for President Giammattei’s failure to appoint a head of the Presidential Secretariat for Women which works to protect the rights of women and children, an amparo requiring President Giammattei to guarantee water and electricity services throughout the health emergency and an amparo to guarantee that the conditions of employees are not modified during the pandemic. It is unclear how these pressing constitutional questions will be resolved while the Court is not in session and how much of a backlog the institution can manage once it is up and running again. How long can justice be postponed during a public health crisis?
 WOLA, “Guatemala: National and International Organizations Condemn Approval of NGO Law,” https://www.wola.org/2020/02/organizations-condemn-approval-of-ngo-law/ (18 Feb. 2020).
 An amparo is a remedy to protect constitutional rights and is common to many legal systems in Latin America.
The American Journal of International Law is issuing a worldwide call for papers for an Agora symposium to be published in the October 2020 issue of the Journal. The topic – “The International Legal Order and the Global Pandemic” – recognizes that the present crisis raises foundational questions for the international legal order that extend beyond the immediate challenges to public health and economic stability.
More information about the Agora can be found here: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/american-journal-of-international-law/information/worldwide-call-for-papers-the-international-legal-order-and-the-global-pandemic.
The COVID-19 pandemic has triggered an equally urgent digital rights crisis.
New measures being hurried in to curb the spread of the virus, from “biosurveillance” and online tracking to censorship, are potentially as world-changing as the disease itself. These changes aren’t necessarily temporary, either: once in place, many of them can’t be undone.
That’s why activists, civil society and the courts must carefully scrutinise questionable new measures, and make sure that – even amid a global panic – states are complying with international human rights law.
Human rights watchdog Amnesty International recently commented that human rights restrictions are spreading almost as quickly as coronavirus itself. Indeed, the fast-paced nature of the pandemic response has empowered governments to rush through new policies with little to no legal oversight.
There has already been a widespread absence of transparency and regulation when it comes to the rollout of these emergency measures, with many falling far short of international human rights standards.
Tensions between protecting public health and upholding people’s basic rights and liberties are rising. While it is of course necessary to put in place safeguards to slow the spread of the virus, it’s absolutely vital that these measures are balanced and proportionate.
Unfortunately, this isn’t always proving to be the case.
The Rise of Biosurveillance
A panopticon world on a scale never seen before is quickly materialising.
“Biosurveillance” – which involves the tracking of people’s movements, communications and health data – has already become a buzzword, used to describe certain worrying measures being deployed to contain the virus.
A panopticon world on a scale never seen before is quickly materialising
The means by which states, often aided by private companies, are monitoring their citizens are increasingly extensive: phone data, CCTV footage, temperature checkpoints, airline and railway bookings, credit card information, online shopping records, social media data, facial recognition, and sometimes even drones.
Private companies are exploiting the situation and offering rights-abusing products to states, purportedly to help them manage the impact of the pandemic. One Israeli spyware firm has developed a product it claims can track the spread of coronavirus by analysing two weeks’ worth of data from people’s personal phones, and subsequently matching it up with data about citizens’ movements obtained from national phone companies.
In some instances, citizens can also track each other’s movements – leading to not only vertical, but also horizontal sharing of sensitive medical data.
Not only are many of these measures unnecessary and disproportionately intrusive, they also give rise to secondary questions, such as: how secure is our data? How long will it be kept for? Is there transparency around how it is obtained and processed? Is it being shared or repurposed, and if so, with who?
Censorship and Misinformation
Censorship is becoming rife, with many arguing that a “censorship pandemic” is surging in step with COVID-19.
Oppressive regimes are rapidly adopting “fake news” laws. This is ostensibly to curb the spread of misinformation about the virus, but in practice, this legislation is often used to crack down on dissenting voices or otherwise suppress free speech. In Cambodia, for example, there have already been at least 17 arrests of people for sharing information about coronavirus.
Oppressive regimes are rapidly adopting “fake news” laws
As well as this, some states have restricted free access to information on the virus, either by blocking access to health apps, or cutting off access to the internet altogether.
AI, Inequality and Control
AI and other automated learning technology are the foundation for many surveillance and social control tools. Because of the pandemic, it is being increasingly relied upon to fight misinformation online and process the huge increase in applications for emergency social protection which are, naturally, more urgent than ever.
Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, the digital rights field had consistently warned about the human rights implications of these inscrutable “black boxes”, including their biased and discriminatory effects. The adoption of such technologies without proper oversight or consultation should be resisted and challenged through the courts, not least because of their potential to exacerbate the inequalities already experienced by those hardest hit by the pandemic.
Eroding Human Rights
Many of the human rights-violating measures that have been adopted to date are taken outside the framework of proper derogations from applicable human rights instruments, which would ensure that emergency measures are temporary, limited and supervised.
Legislation is being adopted by decree, without clear time limitations
Legislation is being adopted by decree, without clear time limitations, and technology is being deployed in a context where clear rules and regulations are absent.
This is of great concern for two main reasons.
First, this type of “legislating through the back door” of measures that are not necessarily temporary avoids going through a proper democratic process of oversight and checks and balances, resulting in de facto authoritarian rule.
Second, if left unchecked and unchallenged, this could set a highly dangerous precedent for the future. This is the first pandemic we are experiencing at this scale – we are currently writing the playbook for global crises to come.
If it becomes clear that governments can use a global health emergency to instate human rights infringing measures without being challenged or without having to reverse these measures, making them permanent instead of temporary, we will essentially be handing over a blank cheque to authoritarian regimes to wait until the next pandemic to impose whatever measures they want.
We are currently writing the playbook for global crises to come
Therefore, any and all measures that are not strictly necessary, sufficiently narrow in scope, and of a clearly defined temporary nature, need to be challenged as a matter of urgency. If they are not, we will not be able to push back on a certain path towards a dystopian surveillance state.
Litigation: New Ways to Engage
In tandem with advocacy and policy efforts, we will need strategic litigation to challenge the most egregious measures through the court system. Going through the legislature alone will be too slow and, with public gatherings banned, public demonstrations will not be possible at scale.
The courts will need to adapt to the current situation – and are in the process of doing so – by offering new ways for litigants to engage. Courts are still hearing urgent matters and questions concerning fundamental rights and our democratic system will fall within that remit. This has already been demonstrated by the first cases requesting oversight to government surveillance in response to the pandemic.
These issues have never been more pressing, and it’s abundantly clear that action must be taken. The courts can be an important ally in safeguarding our digital rights, also in the current crisis, but we must give them the opportunity to play that role.
This blog has been cross-posted from the Digital Freedom Fund blog.
In response to the COVID-19 crisis, the American Journal of International Law (AJIL) is issuing a worldwide call for papers for an Agora symposium to be published in the October 2020 issue of the Journal. The topic – “The International Legal Order and the Global Pandemic” – recognizes that the present crisis raises foundational questions for the international legal order that extend beyond the immediate challenges to public health and economic stability. Papers can address any aspect of this topic from a historical, institutional, doctrinal, normative, critical, or geopolitical perspective, or a mix of approaches, including but not limited to:
- state responsibility for pandemics;
- the design and operation of international institutions, such as the World Health Organization, and other forms of international cooperation;
- challenges to the promotion and protection of human rights during pandemics, including emergency and police powers, surveillance technologies, and the impact on migration and refugees;
- the disparate consequences of pandemics for minority groups, economic inequality, or intergenerational equity;
- the relationship between climate change and pandemics;
- controversies over innovation for medical treatments and vaccines and the cross-border distribution of goods, services, and knowledge;
- threats to the global financial system; and
- historical analyses of pandemics and insights for present and future challenges
Papers should not exceed 5,000 words, inclusive of footnotes. The deadline for submissions is July 1, 2020. Submitted papers should be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The selection of papers will be based on importance, novelty, and quality of analysis, with particular attention given to papers likely to have lasting relevance. An effort will also be made to publish a diverse array of contributions. Authors are asked to conform to AJIL’s style manual, which can be found here.