Rebuilding the master’s house instead of repairing the cracks: why “diversity and inclusion” in the digital rights field is not enough

Paul Sableman, CC BY 2.0

Silicon Valley is not the only sector with a “white guy” problem: civil society struggles with this as well. Oddly, it wasn’t until I looked at the group photo taken at the Digital Freedom Fund’s first strategy meeting that I noticed it: everyone in the photo except for me was white. I had just founded a new organisation supporting strategic litigation on digital rights in Europe and this had been our first field-wide strategic meeting, bringing together 32 key organisations working on this issue in the region. This was in 2018. In 2019, the number of participants had increased to 48, but the picture in the group photo still was pretty pale, with the team of my organisation accounting for 50% of the 4 exceptions to that colour palet. And while gender representation overall seemed fairly balanced, and there was a diverse range of nationalities present, some voices were noticeably absent from the room. For example, the overall impression of participants was that there was no one with a physical disability attending.* It was clear: something needed to change.

In all fairness, the participants themselves had clocked this as well –– the issue of decolonising the digital rights field had significant traction in the conversations taking place in the course of those two days in February. I have been trying to find good statistics on what is popularly referred to as “diversity and inclusion” (and sometimes as “diversity, equity and inclusion”; I have fallen into that trap myself in the past when speaking about technology’s ability to amplify society’s power structures), both in the human rights field more widely and the digital rights field specifically, but failed. Perhaps I was not looking in the right places; if so, please point me in the right direction. The situation is such, however, that one hardly needs statistics to conclude that something is seriously amiss in digital rights land. A look around just about any digital rights meeting in Europe will clearly demonstrate the dominance of white privilege, as does a scroll through the staff sections of digital rights organisations’ webpages. Admittedly, this is hardly a scientific method, but sometimes we need to call it as we see it. 

This is an image many of us are used to, and have internalised to such an extent that I, too, as a person who does not fit that picture, took some time to wake up to it. But it clearly does not reflect the composition of our societies. What this leaves us with, is a watchdog that inevitably will have too many blind spots to properly serve its function for all the communities it is supposed to look out for. To change that, focusing on “diversity and inclusion” is not enough. Rather than working on (token) representation, we need an intersectional approach that is ready to meet the challenges and threats to human rights in an increasingly digitising society. Challenges and threats that often disproportionately affect groups that are marginalised. Marginalisation is not a state of being, it is something that is done to others by those in power. Therefore, we need to change the field, its systems and its power structures. In other words: we need a decolonising process for the field and its power structures rather than a solution focused on “including” those with disabilities, from minority or indigenous groups, and the LGBTQI+ community in the existing ecosystem.

How do we do this? I don’t know. And I probably will never have a definitive answer to that question. What I do know, is that the solution will not likely come from the digital rights field alone. It is perhaps trite to refer to Audre Lorde’s statement on how “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” in this context, but if the current field had the answers and the willingness to deploy them, the field would look very different. Lorde’s words also have a lot to offer as a perspective on what we might gain from a decolonising process as opposed to “diversity and inclusion”. While the following quote focuses on the shortcomings of white feminism, it is a useful aide in helping us imagine what strengths a decolonised digital rights field might represent:    

“Advocating the mere tolerance of difference between women is the grossest reformism. It is a total denial of the creative function of difference in our lives. Difference must be not merely tolerated, but seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic. … Only within that interdependency of different strengths, acknowledged and equal, can the power to seek new ways of being in the world generate, as well as the courage and sustenance to act where there are no charters.”

The task of re-imagining and then rebuilding a new house for the digital rights field is clearly enormous. As digital rights are human rights and permeate all aspects of society, the field does not exist in isolation. Therefore, its issues cannot be solved in isolation either –– there are many moving parts, many of which will be beyond our reach as an organisation to tackle alone (and not just because DFF’s current geographical remit is Europe). But we need to start somewhere, and we need to get the process started with urgency. If we begin working within our sphere of influence and encourage others to do the same in other spaces, to join or to complement efforts, together we might just get very far.

My hope is that, in this process, we can learn from and build on the knowledge of others who have gone before us. Calls to decolonise the academic curriculum in the United Kingdom are becoming increasingly louder, but are being met with resistance. Are there examples of settings in which a decolonising process has been successfully completed? In South Africa, the need to move away from the “able-bodied, hetero-normative, white” standard in the public interest legal services sector is referred to as “transformation“. And efforts to “radically re-imagine and re-design the internet” from Whose Knowledge center the knowledge of marginalised communities on the internet, looking at not only online resources such as Wikipedia, but also digital infrastructure, privacy, surveillance and security. What are the lessons we can learn from those efforts and processes?

This is an open invitation to join us on this journey. Be our critical friend: share your views, critiques and ideas with us. What are successful examples of decolonising processes in other fields that the digital rights field could draw on? What does a decolonised digital rights field look like and what can it achieve? Who will be crucial allies in having this succeed? How can we ensure that those currently being marginalised lead in this effort? Share your views, help us think about this better, so we might start working on a solution that can catalyse structural change.

This post was cross-posted from the Digital Freedom Fund blog

* As observation was the method used for this determination, it is difficult to comment on representation that is less visible than other categories such as religion, socioeconomic background, sexual orientation, etc.

The Failure to Protect International Law & Human Rights in the U.S.-China Trade Talks

Recent weeks have featured developments in yet another high-profile international crisis in the White House.  The Trump Administration has continued its negotiations with China in an effort to reach a long-awaited trade deal.  Yet, during round table discussions in May, White House officials willfully ignored the elephant in the room: China’s ongoing mass human rights violations and persecution of minorities.  Despite growing media coverage depicting China’s inhumane treatment of its minority Uighur Muslim population, the U.S. has steadfastly refused to take effective action to leverage its trade position to combat China’s violations of international law.  This simply marks the latest in the U.S.’s retreat from international law, closely following its bullying of the ICC into closing its investigation into Afghanistan.

Recent years have sparked increased persecution of the Uighurs, a largely Turkic-speaking Muslim minority based in Xinjiang, an autonomous region within China. China has targeted the Uighurs through its “Strike Hard Campaign against Violent Terrorism.”  Under the auspices of national security and counter-terrorism, the Chinese government has arbitrarily arrested large numbers of Uighur Muslims throughout Xinjiang, placing many in detention centers and prisons, and forcing others into hundreds of political “re-education” camps.  Many of the detainees are not charged with crimes and have been deprived of due process rights to challenge their detentions.  Pursuant to research by the Council on Foreign Relations, Uighurs detained in the re-education camps are forced to renounce Islam, learn Mandarin, and praise communism. Reports of forced self-criticism, psychological and physical beatings, and torture have also emerged from the camps.

To easily identify and monitor Uighurs, the Chinese government has implemented a mass surveillance system throughout Xinjiang and other Chinese provinces. China’s use of facial recognition software, police checkpoints, and cell phone monitoring has effectively turned Xinjiang into a surveillance state. China uses this surveillance to identify those in violation of restrictive laws against Uighur Muslims, including the banning of long beards and the use of Muslim names for newborn children.

While the exact number of Uighurs detained is unknown, officials within the Trump Administration have estimated that the figure falls between one and three million.  These conditions, disturbingly reminiscent of the concentration camps employed by Nazi Germany, have prompted widespread charges that China is actively engaging in ethnic cleansing.  In fact, China’s targeted attack on the Uighurs encompasses violations of various international human rights treaties to which China is a party, including the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Moreover, China’s mass detention, torture, and enforced disappearances of Uighurs could constitute crimes against humanity or even genocide under international criminal law.

International human rights organizations, legal scholars, and state governments have vocally condemned China’s international crimes and human rights violations, yet minimal practical action has been taken against the Chinese government.  While calls have been made for the U.N. to commence an investigation into China’s treatment of the Uighurs, at this point, none has been ordered.  In fact, the practical impact of any potential investigation is uncertain.  In its role as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council and a non-party to the Rome Statute, China enjoys a substantial level of protection against sanctions and ICC prosecution.  

The U.S. has been aware of China’s ongoing human rights violations for years.  Members of Congress have repeatedly requested that the Trump administration impose sanctions on high-ranking Chinese officials in response to growing evidence of Uighur mistreatment.  In a July 2018 op-ed, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recognized China’s mass detention of Uighurs, while applauding the “Trump administration’s [passion for] promoting and defending international religious freedom.” Yet, while the U.S. government apparently considered issuing sanctions, it has failed to effectively act to halt China’s persecution of the Uighurs.

In early April, a group of 43 bipartisan member of Congress wrote to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin, and Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, again formally requesting economic sanctions be imposed against China for its gross human rights violations against the Uighurs. Yet, despite growing publicized condemnation and concern, the current administration’s conduct indicates it will do little to bring China into compliance with international law.  The ongoing trade talks with China present the perfect opportunity for the current administration to call for China to end its persecution of the Uighurs under threat of sanctions.  Yet, as the New York Times reports, the U.S. has not raised the issue of China’s international crimes at any time during the trade talks, viewing it as a potential impediment to negotiations.  Instead, in mid-May, following failed U.S.-China round table trade talks, President Trump issued an executive order declaring a national economic emergency and empowering the U.S. government to ban the use of technology of “foreign adversaries” deemed to pose a risk to national security. Nearly immediately thereafter, the U.S. Department of Commerce placed Huawei Technologies, the company responsible for creating many of the surveillance tools used to monitor the Uighurs, on a “trade blacklist,” thereby greatly obstructing its ability to conduct business with U.S. companies.  Yet, in failing to publicly address China’s mistreatment of the Uighurs and Huawei’s complicity in the Uighur surveillance while taking such action, the Trump administration fell significantly short in defending international law and human rights.

As a world power and a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, the U.S. bears responsibility to bring an end to China’s ongoing international crimes.  The Trump administration’s failure to effectively leverage its trade position to bring China into line with international law not only undermines the U.S. policy of promoting global freedom of race and religion, but also prioritizes its commitment to capitalism and financial profit at the expense of human rights. 

Safeguarding women after disasters: some progress, but not enough

Hundreds of Mozambicans were killed and thousands made homelessrecently by Cyclones Idai and Kenneth. Almost immediately, there were reports of a sadly familiar story: women being forced to trade sex for food by local community leaders distributing aid.

Globally, international organisations appear to be grappling with the issue more seriously than before. Yet reports about sexual exploitation keep coming. How does the aid community strategise to protect women’s safety in disaster situations?

Over the past 15 years, I have done research on sexual exploitation of displaced women in Uganda and Colombia. I have also worked with a variety of humanitarian organisations on accountability and legalisation. Through this, I have identified the factors necessary to bring justice to the victims of predatory aid workers.

Sexual exploitation must be recognised as a real and widespread problem. There must be staff and management accountability. Transgressions must be sanctioned through disciplinary or penal measures. But there are also major dilemmas that need to be understood and tackled by governments, agencies and, most importantly, local communities.

Sexual exploitation in aid

The sexual exploitation of disaster and conflict victims is a global – and longstanding – phenomenon. Over the last 25 years, there have been radical changes in the standards of global public morality around the conduct of personnel working for international organisations and NGOs when vulnerable adults and children are involved.

Nevertheless, the willingness to see sexual exploitation as an inherent feature of the international community’s intervention to bring development, humanitarian aid or peace has been much slower to evolve.

It was only 24 years ago that UNHCR issued guidelines on sexual violence and refugees that expressly mentioned international refugee workers as being implicated in sexual violence against refugees.

The sexual abuse of vulnerable women and girls in several African countries by international aid workers was recently described as “endemic”. It was also noted that perpetrators easily moved around the sector undetected.

Several recent cases have been reported from Cote d’ivore, to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Namibia, Liberia, Sierra Leone, South Sudan and the Central African Republic.

These have involved aid workers and peacekeepers, as well as local aid workers and government employees.

In my research on refugees, accusations concerning “sex for resettlement” registration surface regularly. I found these to be frequent while working on refugee resettlement in Kampala 15 years ago. Despite the UNHCR’s promise to reform, similar accusations keep resurfacing, most recently in Kenya. The time has come for the international community to seriously debate the power mechanisms embedded in the resettlement process that enable sexual exploitation to fester.

What will fix the problem?

The first step is to organise accountability.

Humanitarian accountability first emerged as a concern in the 1980s. It was institutionalised in the 1994 Code of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and NGOs in Disaster Relief . The 1996 Joint Evaluation of Emergency Assistance to Rwanda was a defining moment.

That report resulted in several sector-wide initiatives. Five years ago efforts were made to streamline these in the revised Core Humanitarian Standards.

Throughout this period, sexual exploitation has been considered the worst possible behaviour humanitarian workers can be guilty of. But it has not been clear what constitutes exploitation and in which relationships it takes place. The lack of a definition, the unwillingness to articulate and enforce robust norms for professional behaviour and the absence of effective complaint mechanisms and protections for whistle-blowers have contributed to a culture of impunity for predatory behaviour against aid recipients.

Early policy responses to sexual exploitation were concerned with reputational issues. But over the past 15 years the humanitarian sector has seen a flurry of institutional initiatives to grapple with this specific issue. The effort to prevent sexual exploitation and abuse is led by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee.

The aid sector is now engaging in “safeguarding exercises”. These emerged after the Oxfam scandal in Haiti. The organisation was seen as failing to act on sexual misconduct by staff in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake, and then to have attempted a cover-up.

Safeguarding includes all actions by aid actors to protect staff from harm (abuse, sexual harassment and violence) and to ensure staff do not harm beneficiaries.

This broad definition represents both a welcome recognition of the scope of the problem and an opportunity for a comprehensive approach. But it also creates some new challenges. Three are particularly worth noting.

The challenges

Who gets a voice: There has been vocal concern about the lack of inclusiveness in how safeguarding is practised. Critics have noted that a safeguarding industry was hatched with little attention to local and national context or participation. There is a view that safeguarding is yet another Western-centric practice. I think this critique is true. But it also creates a dilemma: should global norms about sexual exploitation in international aid be up for local negotiation?

Regulation and criminalisation. In recent years, there have been calls to regulate foreign aid actors more robustly. This is understandable. Aid actors have operated with a great deal of license and even impunity under the humanitarian banner. But drawing up new laws also creates problems. This is particularly true in a context where African civil society generally is under pressure from new restrictive laws that curtail their activities.

Responding to the call to “do something”, the international community has embraced criminalisation and criminal prosecutions to promote and strengthen the fight against impunity. But opting for criminal law and the courtroom rests on a deeply simplistic framing of structural power imbalances in aid. Legal strategies are costly and slow. The focus on sexual violence in disasters and conflicts also risks crowding out concern for other aspects of women’s lives.

Localisation: Since 2016 there has been a significant focus on the localisation of aid. The Charter for Change focuses on contracting, resource allocation, transparency and communication. It highlights the importance of not undermining local capacity. The process is generally painfully slow and a shockingly small percentage of international aid funding is actually allocated to local actors.

At the same time, there is a persistent call for international actors to do, control and know more about what goes on locally to limit corruption, incompetence and abuse. This call comes partly from media in donor states addressing taxpayers, but also from watchdogs within the sector.

This is also the case for sexual exploitation. In its report, Human Rights Watch demands that “international partners, particularly the UN, should ensure greater oversight of the conduct of local officials during the distribution of humanitarian aid”. This will not come for free.

The question is how a balance can be found between control and localisation – and who gets to determine what this balance should be.

This post was originally published at https://theconversation.com/safeguarding-women-after-disasters-some-progress-but-not-enough-116619. For an extended critical commentary on the rapid rise of the Safeguarding concept in the aid sector, see https://jhumanitarianaction.springeropen.com/articles/10.1186/s41018-019-0051-1

Digital rights are *all* human rights, not just civil and political

The UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights consults with the field

This post was co-authored with Jonathan McCully

Last week, following our strategy meeting, the Digital Freedom Fund hosted the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Professor Philip Alston, for a one-day consultation in preparation for his upcoming thematic report on the rise of the “digital welfare state” and its implications for the human rights of poor and vulnerable individuals.

This consultation highlighted the true breadth of human rights issues that are engaged by the development, deployment, application and regulation of new technologies in numerous aspects of our lives.

The consultation brought together 30 digital rights organisations from across Europe, who shared many examples of new technologies being deployed in the provision of various public services. Common themes emerged, from the increased use of risk indication scoring in identifying welfare fraud, to the mandating of welfare recipients to register for bio-metric identification cards, and the sharing of datasets between different public services and government departments.

While many conversations on digital rights tend to centre around civil and political rights — particularly the rights to freedom of expression and to privacy — this consultation brought into sharp focus the impact new technologies can have on socio-economic rights

At DFF, we subscribe to the mantra that “digital rights are human rights” and we define “digital rights” broadly as human rights applicable in the digital sphere. This consultation highlighted the true breadth of human rights issues that are engaged by the development, deployment, application and regulation of new technologies in numerous aspects of our lives. While many conversations on digital rights tend to centre around civil and political rights –– particularly the rights to freedom of expression and to privacy –– this consultation brought into sharp focus the impact new technologies can have on socio-economic rights such as the right to education, the right to housing, the right to health and, particularly relevant for this consultation, the right to social security.

The UN Special Mandates have already started delving into issues around automated decision-making in a broad spectrum of human rights contexts.

The UN Special Mandates have already started delving into issues around automated decision-making in a broad spectrum of human rights contexts. In August last year, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression produced a detailed report on the influence of artificial intelligence on the global information environment. This follows on from thematic reports on the human rights implications of “killer robots” and “care robots” by the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and the UN Special Rapporteur on the enjoyment of all human rights by older persons, respectively.

The poor are often the testing ground for the government’s introduction of new technologies.

The UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights has similarly placed the examination of automated decision-making and its impact on human rights at the core of his work. This can already be seen from his reports following his country visits to the United States and United Kingdom. In December 2017, following his visit to the United States, he reported on the datafication of the homeless population through systems designed to match homeless people with homeless services (i.e. coordinated entry systems) and the increased use of risk-assessment tools in pre-trial release and custody decisions. More recently, following his visit to the United Kingdom, he criticised the increased automation of various aspects of the benefits system and the “gradual disappearance of the postwar British welfare state behind a webpage and an algorithm.” In these contexts, he observed that the poor are often the testing ground for the government’s introduction of new technologies.

The digital welfare state seems to present welfare applicants with a trade-off: give up some of your civil and political rights in order to exercise some of your socio-economic rights.

The next report will build upon this important work, and we hope that the regional consultation held last week will provide useful input in this regard. Our strategy meeting presented a great opportunity to bring together great digital rights minds who could provide the Special Rapporteur with an overview of the use of digital technologies in welfare systems across Europe and their impact. It was evident from the discussions that the digital welfare state raises serious human rights concerns; not only when it comes to the right to social security, but the right to privacy and data protection, the right to freedom of information, and the right to an effective remedy are also engaged. As one participant observed, the digital welfare state seems to present welfare applicants with a trade-off: give up some of your civil and political rights in order to exercise some of your socio-economic rights.

It was clear from the room that participants were already exploring potential litigation strategies to push back against the digital welfare state, and we look forward to supporting them in this effort.

Cross-posted on the Digital Freedom Fund blog and Medium.

Accountability for harms to children during armed conflict discussed at ILW panel

NEW YORK – Ways to redress offenses against children during armed conflict formed the core of the panel that our University of Georgia School of Law Dean Rusk International Law Center sponsored last Friday at International Law Weekend, an annual three-day conference presented by the American Branch of the International Law Association and the International Law Students Association. I was honored to take part.

► Opening our panel was Shaheed Fatima QC (top right), a barrister at Blackstone Chambers in London, who led a panel of researchers for the Inquiry on Protecting Children in Conflict, an initiative chaired by Gordon Brown, former United Kingdom Prime Minister and current UN Special Envoy for Global Education.

As Fatima explained, the Inquiry focused on harms that the UN Security Council has identified as “six grave violations” against children in conflict; specifically, killing and maiming; recruitment or use as soldiers; sexual violence; abduction; attacks against schools or hospitals; and denial of humanitarian access. With regard to each, the Inquiry identified legal frameworks in international criminal law, international humanitarian law, and international human rights law. It proposed a new means for redress: promulgation of a “single instrument” that would permit individual communications, for an expressed set of violations, to the Committee on the Rights of the Child, the treaty body that monitors compliance with the Convention on the Rights of the Child and its three optional protocols. These findings and recommendations have just been published as Protecting Children in Armed Conflict (Hart 2018).

► Next, Mara Redlich Revkin (2d from left), a Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science at Yale University and Lead Researcher on Iraq and Syria for the United Nations University Project on Children and Extreme Violence.

She drew from her fieldwork to provide a thick description of children’s experiences in regions controlled by the Islamic State, an armed group devoted to state-building – “rebel governance,” as Revkin termed it. Because the IS sees children as its future, she said, it makes population growth a priority, and exercises its control over schools and other “sites for the weaponization of children.” Children who manage to free themselves from the group encounter new problems on account of states’ responses, responses that Revkin has found often to be at odds with public opinion. These range from the  harsh punishment of every child once associated with IS, without considering the extent of that association, to the rejection of IS-issued birth certificates, thus rendering a child stateless.

► Then came yours truly, Diane Marie Amann (left), Emily & Ernest Woodruff Chair in International Law here at the University of Georgia School of Law and our Center’s Faculty Co-Director. I served as a member of the Inquiry’s Advisory Board.

Discussing my service as the Special Adviser to the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court on Children in and affected by Armed Conflict, I focused on the preparation and contents of the 2016 ICC OTP Policy on Children, available here in Arabic, English, French, Spanish, and Swahili. The Policy pinpoints the crimes against and affecting children that may be punished pursuant to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, and it further delineates a “child-sensitive approach” to OTP work at all stages, including investigation, charging, prosecution, and witness protection.

► Summing up the conversation was Harold Hongju Koh (2d from right), Sterling Professor of International Law at Yale Law School and former Legal Adviser to the U.S. Department of State, who served as a consultant to the Inquiry.

Together, he said, the presentations comprised “5 I’s: Inquiry, Iraq and Syria, the ICC, and” – evoking the theme of the conference – “international law and why it matters.” Koh lauded the Inquiry’s report as “agenda-setting,” and its proposal for a means to civil redress as a “panda’s thumb” response that bears serious consideration. Koh envisaged that in some future administration the United States – the only country in the world not to have ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child – might come to ratify the proposed new  protocol, as it has the optional protocols relating to children in armed conflict and the sale of children.

The panel thus trained attention on the harms children experience amid conflict and called for redoubled efforts to secure accountability and compensation for such harms.

(Cross-posted from Diane Marie Amann)

A Transformative Approach to Personal Laws

It’s been a busy few weeks for the Indian Supreme Court with both gains and loses. Notably, in the Sabarimala judgement, Justice Chandrachud observed that the rationale used by the Bombay High Court in Narasu Appa Mali v State of Bombay, which held that personal laws should not be subject to fundamental rights, is not sustainable. Chandrachud, however, only overrules Narasu on the point that customs are not subject to fundamental rights.

This exposition in itself is unremarkable since the Supreme Court in Sant Ram v. Labh Singh had already held that customs are subject to a fundamental rights challenge. The ratio of Narasu Appa Mali only extended to uncodified religious law which hasn’t been modified by either custom or usage. Thus, while the outcome remains unchanged, the observation by Chandrachud that the reasoning of Narasu is flawed, segues into the question of whether personal law can be counted as law and thereby lays the groundwork for a challenge to personal laws when it arises.

What are personal laws?

To set some context to the debate, it might be useful to understand what personal laws are. The idea that religious sphere is entirely distinct is of recent vintage it was through a process of construction during the British era that a separate space was carved out for certain religious laws, generally governing family matters like marriage and divorce. Thus, the first point to note is that there is nothing inherently personal about personal laws. The scriptures gained jurisdiction over certain matters because the colonial state said so, and this determination was due to sociopolitical rather than religious reasons.  It is untenable therefore to think that the body of laws referred to as “personal laws” derive their validity from religion, rather than the state. Second, personal laws were shaped by male elites of each religious community using the colonial state. For example, with regard to Hindu personal law, there was a forced homogenization and enforcement of Brahmanical law. Today, many personal laws are alleged to promote the subordination of women and other minorities. However, to have a fundamental rights review, ‘personal laws’ has to fall under the definition of ‘law’ or a ‘law in force’ in Article 13 of the Constitution.

Narasu Appa Mali v State of Bombay

The petition in Narasu challenged validity of the Bombay Prevention of Bigamous Hindu Marriages Act, 1946 which sought to render bigamous marriages void as well as criminalize the offence of bigamy. What the Court ultimately ended up deciding was the question of whether coming into force of constitution, muslim polygamy is void because it violates Art. 15. This might be explained by the dominant narrative prevailing in the country during the early 1950s. At the time the judgement was pronounced, the Hindu Code Bill was still in deliberation and the general sentiment was that only the Hindus were being ‘punished’. It might be useful to keep this context in mind while evaluating the rationale of the two judge bench.

Prior to determining whether muslim polygamy is unconstitutional, the Court had to answer the question of whether it is law in the first place. To answer this question, the Court looked at Article 13 and applied the principle of ‘Expressio Unius Exclusio Alterius’ i.e. the expression of one excludes the other, and its present application. It characterised customs & usages as deviations from personal laws and relied on Article 112 of the Government of India Act, 1915 which had discussed customs as different from personal laws, to say that personal laws cannot be laws under Article 13. The inclusion of various provisions in the Constitution that relate to state regulation of personal law, such as Article 17 (Abolition of untouchability), Article 25 (Freedom of Religion) would be redundant had the drafters wanted to include personal laws within the definition of law. It further relied on Art. 44, which asks the state to endeavour to build a Uniform Civil Code, to say that there is a presumption by the drafters that different personal laws will exist even after independence. Moreover, Article 44 and Entry V of the Concurrent List seems to suggest that the drafter’s intent was to give this power to the legislature and not the judiciary. It also referred to Article 372 of the Constitution. Pre-constitutional laws continue in force by virtue of this Article, and that they can be amended by the President. The Court reasoned that since the President had no power to modify personal laws, personal laws do not derive their validity from Article 372 of the Constitution.

Re-evaluating Narasu Appa Mali

Narasu has never been challenged in the Supreme Court. Previous decisions such as John Vallamottam v Union of India and C Masilamani Mudaliar v Idol of Sri Swaminathaswamiswaminathaswami which are commonly cited as examples of the Court subjecting personal laws to a fundamental rights review, only dealt with codified personal law.

However, there is some literature offering a contrary view. Krishnan argues that the term ‘includes’ in Article 13 is an inclusive definition. For example, Art. 13(3)(a) does not use the word “common law” and yet we subject that to Part III. There is no evidence to suggest that the drafter were referring to the Government of India Act, 1915 in drafting this section. As Bhatia argues, Article 17 could have just been incorporated by way of abundant caution. The corrosive and pervasive nature of caste discrimination could have made the framers include a specific article prohibiting untouchability as an extra measure to leave nothing to chance.  Moreover, the scope of Article 25 is way broader than personal laws.  It protects an individual’s right to practice her religion rather than protecting religious norms or rules. Article 44 is located in Part 4 of the Constitution (Directive Principles of State Policy) and therefore casts no positive obligation on the State. Many Directive Principles duplicate obligations that would arise from fundamental rights themselves.

However, the question ultimately comes down to how we understand our constitution. Should we read the Constitution textually, debating the technical points of law or should we read it as a transformative document capable of bending the moral arc of the Indian polity towards justice. In the words of Chandrachud-

“Custom, usages and personal law have a significant impact on the civil status of individuals. Those activities that are inherently connected with the civil status of individuals cannot be granted constitutional immunity merely because they may have some associational features which have a religious nature. To immunize them from constitutional scrutiny, is to deny the primacy of the Constitution.”

Not only was the Constitution transformative in the sense that it indicated a break from India’s past, but it also has a transformative potential. At the heart of transformative constitutionalism is vision of change, a redemptive potential. By subjecting personal laws to a fundamental rights challenge would mean acknowledging how some of these laws have becomes sites of hierarchy and subordination, where minorities like women and lower castes are denied equal moral membership of society. A transformative vision places the individual dignity at the forefront of its endeavours and values constitutional morality over societal morality. Here’s hoping that when the challenge to personal laws comes, it is also on these grounds.

Making the Case for Protecting Cultural Heritage under the Alien Tort Statute

On July 29, 1990, Moses Thomas, then-commander of the Special Anti-Terrorist Unit of the Armed Forces of Liberia, ordered his troops to massacre nearly 600 unarmed men, women, and children taking refuge in St. Peter’s Lutheran Church from the country’s civil war. For nearly three decades, Thomas and his forces evaded accountability despite the massacre being one of the most horrific attacks on civilians in the country’s history.

Twenty-eight years later, on February 12, 2018, the Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA) filed a case in U.S. federal court on behalf of four Liberian citizens who survived the church massacre by hiding under church pews and dead bodies while their loved ones were murdered around them.

In the suit, the survivors alleged several claims for war crimes and crimes against humanity under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS), which confers jurisdiction to U.S. federal courts over claims of international law violations brought by non-nationals. In one claim, the plaintiffs allege that Moses Thomas had committed a war crime by intentionally directing attacks against a building dedicated to religion. CJA’s case against Thomas marks the first time such a claim has been brought under the ATS.

The intentional attacking or destruction of religious property—a form of cultural heritage—is as much a human rights violation as the physical destruction of a people. Nonetheless, this form of violence is on the rise throughout the world, occurring both in times of armed conflict and peace, systematically and sporadically.

In the last decade alone, Sufi religious and historic sites have been destroyed and graves desecrated in Libya; cultural and religious sites, artifacts, and manuscripts have been destroyed during the occupation of northern Mali; temples, monasteries, shrines, and millenniums-old sites, such as Palmyra, have been destroyed in the Syrian Arab Republic; Coptic churches and monasteries in Egypt, Jewish sites in Tunisia, and hundreds of shrines belonging to the Sufi sect of Islam across Northern Africa have all been targeted and destroyed. This list of incidents—incidents that have had a profound effect on cultural and religious communities globally—is in no way exhaustive.

Such deliberate destruction of cultural heritage violates numerous human rights, including the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, and the freedom to take part in cultural life. Intentionally attacking cultural and religious property also is in violation of international humanitarian law—though the targeted nature of recent attacks shows, in many instances, that what once were protected structures during armed conflict have now become strategic military targets. Such acts of destruction additionally violate many States’ treaty obligations under several binding international legal documents.

Despite the extensive legal framework aimed at protecting such cultural and religious property, accountability for their destruction is slow or wholly unpursued. CJA’s case may thus lay the groundwork for one viable avenue to change this tide. The question, however, is whether the claim alleged by CJA for the destruction of religious property meets the legal thresholds for cognizability under the ATS established by the U.S. Supreme Court. Continue reading