ECOWAS Court clarifies its human rights jurisdiction: no time limit barring human rights complaints and continuing violations are recognised

ECOWASToday, the ECOWAS Community Court of Justice clarified a long-outstanding point of contention: there is no time limit for filing complaints concerning human rights violations. This was held in the case of FAJ and Others v. The Gambia. The Court also clarified that it accepted the doctrine of continuing human rights violations. Judgment was read in court, with the full written judgment expected to be published next week.

Whether or not the ECOWAS Court had a time limit that could bar its jurisdiction over human rights claims brought before it had been unclear for some time. In the case of Femi Falana & Anor. v. The Republic of Benin & 2 Ors. the Court looked at Article 9 of the Court’s Supplementary Protocol to determine whether an application filed in October 2007 regarding an alleged human rights violation that had taken place in April 2004 was admissible. Article 9 sets out the Court’s jurisdiction, specifying in 9(1) and (2) its jurisdiction regarding the interpretation and application of the Community Treaty, directives, and regulations, and acts or omissions by its officials. This is followed by Article 9(3), which read as follows:

“3. Any action by or against a Community Institution or any Member of the Community shall be statute barred after three (3) years from the date when the right of action arose.”

This is then followed by Article 9(4), which sets out the Court’s jurisdiction in human rights matters:

“4. The Court has jurisdiction to determine case of violation of human rights that occur in any Member State.”

No specific indication regarding the time limit in human rights matters – as is present regarding actions brought against the Community or its members – is included in the Protocol. In the Femi Falana case, however, the Court interpreted the time limitation in Article 9(3) as applying to human rights claims as well. As freedom of movement did not constitute a “gross violation of human rights”, in which case no statute of limitation could have applied in accordance with UN GA Resolution 60/147.

The Court clarified today that, for interpretation purposes, the French version of the Supplementary Protocol is the preferred version. It reads as follows:

“L’action en responsabilite contre la Communauté ou celle de la Communauté contre des tiers ou ses agents se prescrivent par trois (3) ans à compter de la réalisation des dommages.”

Accordingly, the Court said, claims for the enforcement of human rights against Member States cannot be barred by the limitation period stated in the Supplementary Protocol. The Court explicitly stated that any previous decisions stating the contrary had hereby  been overruled.

The Court also took the opportunity to address the issue of continuing violations, which so far had never been clarified explicitly by the Court. While in the case of Alade v. Federal Republic of Nigeria the Court considered on the merits a case filed in 2011 by a Nigerian citizen who had been imprisoned since 2003, the issue of continuing violations was not expressly considered in the judgment.  A similar approach was taken in the case of Hydara v. The Gambia.

The Court cleared up any doubts today, when it stated that it recognised the concept of a “continuing harm” in relation to the applicants who had brought a claim concerning their existence in exile from The Gambia – the Court relied on the case of Randolph v. Togo, decided by the UN Human Rights Committee, to reach the conclusion that forced exile was a human rights violation of a continuing nature.

With this decision, the ECOWAS Court establishes itself as currently the most progressive human rights court in Africa when it comes to temporal jurisdiction. Within the region, the East African Court of Justice – which does not have explicit human rights jurisdiction, but can consider complaints about a violation of the East African Community Treaty and also concern human rights – is the most strict. The Court maintains a time limit of 2 months after the violation occurred for filing a claim before it (Article 32 of the Treaty Establishing the East African Community) and in the case of Emmanuel Mwakisha Mjawasi and Others v. The Attorney General of Kenya explicitly rejected the concept of continuing human rights violations. The African Court on Human and Peoples Rights’ rules do not impose an explicit time bar to human rights claims, but do state that applications should be filed “within a reasonable time from the date local remedies were exhausted” (Rule 40 of the Court’s Rules of Procedure). In Mtikila v. Tanzania, the African Court confirmed its recognition of the doctrine of continuing violations.

Looking further afield, the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, which can refer cases on to the Inter-American Court maintains a time limit of 6 months (Article 32 of the Rules of Procedure). The European Court of Human Rights’ time limit to receive applications is 6 months upon exhaustion of (effective) domestic remedies (Article 35(2) of the European Convention), which will be shortened to 4 months when Protocol No. 15 to the European Convention enters into force.

The ECOWAS Court’s judgment helps in furthering its firm establishment as a human rights court. The Court reportedly ruled on around 249 cases since it commenced its activities in 2001. While statistics on the exact number of human rights applications and rulings are not available, the Court’s human rights mandate has, in the Court’s own words “become the centerpiece of its judicial activities.”

Nani Jansen Reventlow is the former Legal Director of the Media Legal Defence Initiative, one of the parties representing the applicants in this case, and was involved in litigating the case until her departure from MLDI in June 2016.

Committee against Torture Weighs in on U.S. Immigration Policy

U.S. Presentation Before the Committee Against Torture (US Mission Photo / Eric Bridiers)

U.S. Presentation Before the Committee Against Torture (U.S. Mission Photo / Eric Bridiers)

 

By  Kelleen Corrigan and Lia Lindsey

Last month the Committee against Torture (“Committee”) reviewed the United States’ compliance with its obligations under the Convention against Torture (“Convention”).  Over the course of three days in Geneva, the Committee consulted with key stakeholders—including affected individuals, civil society representatives, and the U.S. government delegation—to gain insight into the United States’ adherence to its responsibilities under the Convention.  The Committee raised many issues of concern, including police brutality, applicability of the Convention to individuals at Guantanamo Bay and other detention sites, and prison conditions, as well as asylum procedures and the detention of immigrants.

As co-chairs of the Immigration Detention and Deportation Working Group with the U.S. Human Rights Network Convention against Torture Taskforce, we attended the sessions in Geneva to ensure the Committee was fully briefed on the intersection of Convention obligations and treatment of immigrants in the United States.  Prior to the review, our working group coordinated a joint shadow report.  The report, submitted to the Committee and the U.S. government, provided significant background information and case examples, as well as recommendations and questions for the Committee to pose to the U.S. delegates.

Our working group also delivered an oral statement to the Committee highlighting the most distressing abuses, specifically the increased reliance on expedited removal procedures which may result in refoulement and other rights violations; the lack of codified and binding regulations for detention facilities; serious conditions issues and abuse in detention; as well as concerns about the general overuse of detention and the lack of utilization of community-based alternatives.  We also provided additional information and examples to members of the Committee during subsequent informal gatherings.

The Concluding Observations released on November 28, two weeks after the review, reflect the Committee’s awareness and concerns about the serious shortcomings of the United States in regards to its treatment of non-citizens.  In the Concluding Observations, the Committee generally categorized its main concerns about issues affecting non-citizens into two areas:  (1) the use of expedited removal procedures and other summary processes; and (2) immigration detention.

Regarding expedited processes, the members addressed apprehension about the United States’ treatment of non-citizens along the southern U.S. border.  The Committee noted increasing reports that Customs and Border Protection personnel are not identifying or referring immigrants for asylum screening interviews as required.

As a result of inadequate screening and expedited removal processes, some asylum seekers are returned to their country of origin without access to asylum procedures.  Thus, the Committee took a critical eye to the potential of non-refoulment and made recommendations in line with assuring international protection.  These included that the United States should “review the use of expedited removals,” “guarantee access to attorneys,” and to increase its risk assessment particularly regarding individuals from Mexico and northern Central America. Continue reading

A $15 Million Dollar Torture Partnership

Poland CIA Prison

By Amrit Singh

It has been common knowledge for a while that Poland hosted a secret CIA prison where Abd al Rahim al Nashiri and other prisoners now held in Guantánamo were detained and tortured.  As Warsaw and Washington struggle in vain to hide this truth from the public, fresh revelations from the Washington Post now confirm that the CIA paid Poland $15 milllion to host that prison. In early 2003, two senior CIA officers delivered the cash in large cardboard boxes to Col. Andrzej Derlatka, the deputy chief of Polish intelligence, and two of his associates.

This is significant news for many reasons. First, Europe’s top human rights court justheard oral arguments in two companion cases brought on behalf of al Nashiri and another Guantánamo prisoner, Abu Zubaydah. The cases challenge Poland’s participation in the CIA’s secret detention program. The fact that Poland received $15 million in cash as reward for its participation further confirms the overwhelming evidence the Court has already received in support of the applicants’ claims in these pending cases.

Second, news of the $15 million payment has created a public uproar in Poland. Even skeptics of the Guantánamo prisoners’ claims are now persuaded of Poland’s complicity in torture; and those who until now clung to the idea that this complicity was driven by lofty Polish ideals cynically recognize the power of money. It will be interesting to see how the Polish authorities decide to respond. Since 2008, they have been dragging out a pending (and ineffective) investigation into the CIA prison. The new revelations raise the question of whether domestic pressure, combined with the pending European Court proceedings, will compel the authorities to stand up to Washington and fess up to the truth. Fifteen million dollars seems a paltry amount for a country like Poland to receive for sacrificing its own constitutional ideals and facing potential censure before Europe’s highest human rights court. (Significantly, in December 2012, the court held that Macedonia had violated the European Convention through its participation in the secret detention and rendition of German national Khaled el Masri).

Meanwhile, in Washington, a 6,000 page Senate intelligence committee report on CIA secret detention and interrogation continues to be withheld from the public, despite the fact that the majority of the committee believes the CIA’s secret prisons and torture techniques were “terrible mistakes.”  It is not clear when this report will see the light of day and in what form. What is clear, however, is that the truth will come out one way or another, no matter how hard the Obama administration, the intelligence community’s allies, and Republican lawmakers try to cover it up.

Yesterday the news was about Macedonia’s complicity in CIA torture; today the news is about Poland; tomorrow it will be about Romania and Lithuania, which also hosted secret CIA prisons and also face litigation before the European Court.

Indeed, that the United States co-opted as many as 54 countries into unlawful CIA secret detention and extraordinary rendition operations may ultimately mean that there is only so much the administration can do to cover up the truth.  In the face of snowballing disclosures, the U.S. and its partners in torture would be well advised to own up to their responsibility before the truth emerges by other means to embarrass them.

(Crossposted from Just Security: A Forum on Law, Rights, and U.S. National Security)

Linking Art and Protest: The Campaign to Free Dr. Wang BingZhang

Dr.WangBZ_Photo1While China’s newest internet crackdown policy has made the news recently, considered by some as the harshest campaign against pro-democracy voices in Chinese society since the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre, pro-democracy activist Dr. Wang BingZhang continues to languish in a Chinese prison serving his 11th year of a life sentence in solitary confinement.

Wang BingZhang received his PhD in coronary-arterial research at McGill University in Canada while on a Chinese government scholarship. After receiving his degree, he renounced his medical career to dedicate his life to pro-democracy Chinese activism. He found China Spring, the first Chinese magazine in the US devoted to China’s freedom, and also found several democratic parties and organizations. Dr. Wang has been in the custody of the Chinese government since July 3, 2002, after being kidnapped in Vietnam, where he travelled on June 27, 2002 to meet with Chinese labor activists. He was tried secretly on January 22, 2003 in a closed trial that lasted less than a day—violating internationally recognized concepts of due process—and was the first person to be convicted under China’s then new espionage and terrorism laws, which were passed in a post 9/11 anti-terrorism effort. His sentence is the harshest levied on a political prisoner since 1989.

Over the last few weeks, actions across New York City have called for the compassionate release of Dr. Wang. The kick off on September 9th was the staging of an art performance protest in Times Square, entitled “In the Cage with Wang Bingzhang.”  The visual representation of this protest has the possibility of increasing its impact as it draws the attention of the viewer. The first night, Dr. Wang JunTao, Democratic Party of China Leader and an organizer of the Tiananmen Square student movement, sat in the cage with Dr. Wang Bingzhang’s elder sister, Yuhua (Linda), who was visiting from Canada and has not been able to see her brother for over four years due to a visa denial by the Chinese government for reasons they claim are privileged information. Activists and passersby have continued to sit in this simulated ‘prison cage’ day and night, and are slated to do so through week’s end.  They are inviting concerned citizens to come and sit in the cage to show their support. Artist and dissident Ai WeiWei (who has tweeted his support for Wang) has highlighted the role of art in Chinese democracy movements, where art and protest meet in performance.  In this case at least, it seems the art has the potential to strengthen the protest message. Continue reading

‘Yesterday I lost a country’: Kathleen Cavanaugh on Iraq

Since 2003, Iraq has experienced significant political unrest and the emergence of ethno-religious divisions, writes Kathleen Cavanaugh of the National University of Ireland, Galway, over at OUPblog:

The ‘fear of sectarianism’ has undoubtedly shaped and formed how protest movements in Iraq (and indeed regionally) are constituted. There is a rootedness in the identity politics of the region, a ready-made framework within which these divisions are articulated. …

Politically, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has used the past seven years to consolidate his power. … Yet there are cracks in al-Maliki’s power base and despite significant popular support in the polls, political challenges to his increasingly authoritarian rule and his Baghdad-centered governance (and policies) are growing. Within the legal landscape, despite notions of equality and rights embedded in the 2005 Iraqi Constitution and its accession to the UN Convention Against Torture in 2011, serious human rights violations remain, including the arrest and detention of persons “for prolonged periods without being charged and without access to legal counsel [as well as] prisoner and detainee abuse and torture.” …

[T]en years after the US invasion, what remains is not just a democratic deficit in Iraq, but a society and political system that is fractured and bruised. … Whatever leadership emerges in 2014, shedding historical hangovers and reimagining a political community that counter and undo the politics of sectarianism, in practice and discourse, will be a formidable task.

More at OUPblog.

(Image credit: Cross by Caroline Jaine)

Torture in Kenya: Ending Impunity by Speaking the Victims’ Truth

kenya flagMy heartfelt thanks to IntLawGrrls for the opportunity to contribute this introductory post.

This month, the Committee against Torture will meet in Geneva to conduct a review of Kenya’s progress in meeting its obligations under the Convention against Torture (UNCAT). I worked with Physicians for Human Rights to submit an alternative report in April on Kenya’s efforts to comply with UNCAT. The report highlights Kenya’s inability to address torture stemming from unchecked gang activity, its failure to stop the torture of domestic violence, and its de facto acquiescence to torture in the form of female genital mutilation.

Kenya submitted a report describing its own progress and challenges faced in ending torture. Other nongovernmental organizations submitted reports about Kenya’s efforts to address the insidious, destructive problem of torture within its borders. The independent observations of NGOs are central to the UNCAT reporting process, offering alternative perspectives to the self-serving reports submitted by the states.

PHR, while largely known for its cutting-edge forensic work exposing human rights abuses, is also home to the Asylum Program. The Asylum Program is a unique model that provides direct services to asylum seekers while advocating for improved conditions in immigration detention centers and documenting human rights abuses suffered by immigrants. To document torture suffered by asylum seekers in their home countries, the Asylum Program pairs volunteer physicians and mental health experts with asylum seekers in the U.S. The medical professionals perform evaluations, prepare affidavits based on those evaluations, and submit the affidavits along with the asylum seekers’ applications, providing medical documentation to support claims of torture and abuse.

In writing the report to the Committee on behalf of PHR, I read all the medical affidavits for asylum seekers from Kenya since 2008, written by professionals affiliated with the Asylum Program. (2008 was the last time Kenya participated in the reporting process to the Committee; the Committee had been requesting a report from Kenya for each of the preceding nine years, and the country finally complied for the first time in 2008).

The affidavits make up a stark narrative of torture and ill-treatment suffered by Kenyans at the hands of the mungiki, a criminal gang that has terrorized the country with impunity for decades. Rape, genital mutilation, and beheadings characterize its violence. Despite its status as an illegal organization, Kenya has been powerless to put a stop to the mungiki’s torture and has even harmed innocent civilians in its efforts to address mungiki violence. The government allegedly formed a secret police force to kill members of the mungiki on sight. When Kenyan activists began to investigate these extrajudicial killings, the police then began targeting the activists to silence their investigations. Staff of human rights organizations faced threats and beatings from police for their work in exposing the execution-style murders of suspected mungiki members.

Continue reading