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. 

Born into Statelessness: Unintended Consequences of the End of Birthright Citizenship

In October 2018, in response to growing Central and South American migrant population fleeing violence and approaching the United States, President Trump made a drastic statement that he would seek to end jus soli, or birthright citizenship, through an Executive Order. Lindsey Graham, a Republican Senator from South Carolina, lauded the President’s statement, and indicated that he intended to introduce legislation to the same effect. If successful, this new citizenship law could have a devastating impact on children born in the United States to Central and South American individuals, leaving thousands of them stateless.

As a matter of international law, states are free to determine who is or is not a national of their country without interference from the international community or international law, except in the case of stateless persons. The 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness are the two primary international instruments guiding the rights of individuals and the actions of states with regard to nationality. Many international instruments affirm the right an individual has to nationality. Specifically, the 1954 Convention defines a stateless person as someone “who is not considered as a national by any State under operation of its law.” The 1961 Convention requires that states grant nationality to those born on their territory who otherwise would be stateless, and prohibits states from withdrawing nationality from an individual when that individual would then be rendered stateless. Accordingly, under international law, the United States government is free to end, or further restrict, birthright citizenship but only in accordance with the provisions in the 1961 Convention.

Issues arise in practice when the domestic laws of nations conflict, leaving individuals in situations of de facto statelessness. According to the Pew Research Center, about 250,000 children were born in the United States to non-citizen immigrant parents in 2014, with many born to parents who lacked legal status. Because of the domestic laws of the countries from which these immigrants originate, children born to immigrant parents in the United States may lack citizenship of their state of origin. They would therefore be rendered stateless if the United States were to curtail birthright citizenship, in contravention of the 1961 Convention.

For example, the law of Brazil stipulates that individuals born abroad to a Brazilian parent are eligible to acquire citizenship after becoming an adult only if their parent registered their birth with the Brazilian authorities or if they returned to live in Brazil as a child. If the individual is not registered or does not reside in Brazil before the age of majority, he or she is not entitled to Brazilian citizenship, regardless of the nationality of his or her parents. As of 2014, there were approximately 336,000 Brazilian immigrants in the United States.

There are several issues with these requirements of affirmative action on the part of the parents or child. First, to register a child with the authorities of their own birth country, parents must first demonstrate their own citizenship, which may prove problematic. Parents could do this by showing a passport, birth certificate, or identity card. However, these individuals may have fled their homes quickly without such documents, and would therefore risk being unable to register their children even if they desired to do so.

Second, even if the child of Brazilian parents wished to acquire Brazilian citizenship, the decision is entirely in the hands of his or her parents. His or her parents must be the ones to register the child’s birth with the relevant authorities; no other adult is eligible to do this and the child himself cannot make himself known to authorities later in order to qualify for citizenship. If this is not done, the child must return to reside Brazil before the age of majority. For most children, this is a decision entirely out of their control.

Therefore, should the U.S. end birthright citizenship, children born in the U.S. of Brazilian parents would be at risk of de facto statelessness by no fault of their own. This example is meant to be illustrative, though not exhaustive. Many groups of immigrants in the United States would be forced into similarly precarious positions. The domestic laws of many Central and South American countries require parents located out of the country to register their children’s births with the national authorities in order for them to be eligible for citizenship. There are many reasons why parents fleeing violence, persecution, and economic crises may not wish to register the birth of their children. Whatever the reason, innocent children without a choice would suffer as a result of this change of law. Without careful consideration of the potential impact of this change to US birthright law, many children residing in the United States would be rendered de facto stateless and vulnerable as a result.  

John Bolton is right (sort of)—the ICC should not be able to prosecute Americans. How US law has major gaps in domestic accountability for war crimes.

John_Bolton_(33024357411)

US National Security Advisor John Bolton. Photo Credit Gage Skidmore.

It has long been known that US National Security Advisor John Bolton is no fan of the International Criminal Court (ICC). But today marked a dramatic step up in his rhetoric, ahead of the ICC’s decision about an investigation into possible war crimes and crimes against humanity in Afghanistan. Despite the fact than any ICC investigation will probably focus on the Taliban, the US is worried that American troops stationed in the country may be vulnerable to prosecution.

Ahead of the ICC’s announcement, Bolton claimed that the US will “ban its judges and prosecutors from entering the United States. We will sanction their funds in the U.S. financial system, and, we will prosecute them in the U.S. criminal system. We will do the same for any company or state that assists an ICC investigation of Americans.” (However, it seems unclear if the President actually has the legal authority to do this.)

John Bolton is right about one thing: the ICC should not be able to prosecute Americans for war crimes or crimes against humanity. The fact that the ICC can reveals huge gaps in the American domestic legal system’s ability to hold citizens and foreign nations residing in the US accountable for mass atrocities.

Bolton’s pronouncements to the contrary, the ICC only has jurisdiction over crimes included in its statute committed by citizens or in the territory of states party to the Rome Statute. That is why the ICC only theoretically has jurisdiction over Americans for crimes committed in Afghanistan (and not, for instance, Yemen). Furthermore, the ICC is a court of last resort. The principle of complementarity means that the ICC can only prosecute individuals if other states are unwilling or unable to prosecute them first.

Despite Bolton’s claim that his opposition to the ICC is to protect American service members, US military personnel are arguably more protected from ICC prosecution by the principle of complementarity than other American civilians. The US military’s court martial system is generally ‘willing and able’ to hold service members accountable for war crimes and crimes against humanity. However, there is a huge gap in the American legal systems’ ability to hold American civilians and foreign nationals residing in the United States accountable for crimes against humanity and war crimes committed abroad.

Continue reading

Cautionary tales for the Mueller Probe from the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia

 

Robert_Mueller,_2012 (1)

Photo by the National Archives and Records Administration

“I just can’t wait to hear the final report of the Mueller probe!”

Even those not normally interested in the intricate details of complex legal investigations have found themselves obsessed with the criminal investigation at the center of our nation’s political drama—the Special Counsel Investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, or the Mueller probe.

Both sides of the political aisle are awash with speculation about what the final report might reveal (and it’s probably as damning as whatever is in Donald Trump’s tax returns). Whatever you think it might disclose, we all seem convinced that the investigation will prove to the American public once and for all just what was going on during the 2016 election.

But international justice offers a cautionary tale about the ability of criminal justice mechanisms to draw a line in the sand about political events.

Very popular criminals 

IMG_4864 (1)

The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia

 

 

In 1993, the United Nations established the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in order to try those most responsible for the crimes committed during the Balkans wars of the 1990s. In December 2017, it sentenced former Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladić, also known as “the Butcher of Bosnia,” to life imprisonment for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Justice, one might infer, had been served. Who could deny the atrocities now?

After the Mladić verdict, in Srebrenica—a town whose name became synonymous with the 1995 genocide—mayor : “Mladić will be remembered in history and this sentence only strengthens his myth among the Serb nation, which is grateful to him for saving it from persecution and extermination.” For a little less than half of the Bosnian population, Mladić is not a war criminal: he is a hero.

Denials about atrocities of the war are typical and commonplace in the Balkans, even of infamous events like Srebrenica. Despite 2.5 million pages of court transcripts, the ICTY’s findings are not always accepted as true among the people for whom it was established.

There are many theories about why Bosnians have not internalized the ICTY rulings. Some argue that the trials and the judgments were too lengthy, complicated and legalistic for people to understand—the court is located far away in The Hague and the proceedings are conducted in English and French. People in the former Yugoslav simply didn’t watch the trials or read the verdicts. Some point the finger at nationalist elites, politicians and journalists, who used confusion about the ICTY rulings for their own benefit. Still others point out that the defendants were allowed to hijack the trials and use them as political platforms, undermining the ICTY’s ability to communicate with the public.

But the truth was that being subjects of international indictments for war crimes did not really lessen the popularity of any of the Balkans leaders among their constituencies. Continue reading

Applying the death penalty to drug dealers is never ‘appropriate’. It violates international law.

On Wednesday, March 21, Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a memo implementing President Trump’s plan to “get tough” on the opioid epidemic: the death penalty for drug dealers. Session’s memo “strongly encourage[s]” prosecutors to seek the death penalty in drug cases “when appropriate.” While this strategy comes as no surprise from a president who has lauded Philippine President Duterte’s approach to drug policy, it’s not “appropriate”. And it violates international law.

Lots of ink has been spilled arguing that Trump’s proposal will violate the Constitution, drive drug use underground, benefit large-scale drug dealers, and grind the federal judicial system to a halt. Less has been said about the international legal implications of the proposal.

Article 6(2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which the United States is a party, limits the application of capital punishment to the “most serious crimes.” The UN Human Rights Committee emphasizes that this category must be “read restrictively,” and the Economic and Social Council of the UN cautions that its “scope should not go beyond intentional crimes with lethal or extremely grave consequences.” Further clarifying the category, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions explained that the death penalty can only be imposed when “there was an intention to kill which resulted in the loss of life.”

According to Harm Reduction International (HRI), 33 of the 55 states that retain the death penalty apply it to drug-related offenses. These statistics, it might surprise you, already count the United States as one of those 33 countries. Though the United States has never executed anyone under the provision, 18 U.S.C. §3591(b) authorizes the death penalty for trafficking in large quantities of drugs and remains in force according to the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide.

This might be less surprising when one realizes that the United States reserved the right “to impose capital punishment on any person [. . .] duly convicted under existing or future laws” when it joined the ICCPR. This reservation does not give the U.S. the right or ability, however, to opt out of existing customary international law. And that is precisely how international human rights lawyers and scholars increasingly view the abolition of the death penalty, particularly for drug-related offenses. Giving credence to this view, of the 33 countries that retain the death penalty for drug offenses, 17 of them have never executed anyone pursuant to those laws.

Continue reading

Nationwide Class Action in the U.S. Protects the Right to Seek Asylum

A Seattle-based federal court has stepped in to protect the right to seek asylum, deciding in favor of a nationwide class constituting thousands of asylum-seekers in a case with important implications for the Trump administration’s recently-announced quota policy for U.S. Immigration Courts. On March 29, 2018, Chief U.S. District Judge for the Western District of Washington Ricardo S. Martinez issued an 18-page order granting the plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment in the Mendez Rojas v. DHS case. Judge Martinez’s forceful decision shores up the due process rights of asylum-seekers under the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and statutory rights grounded in the federal Immigration and Naturalization Act and Administrative Procedure Act, as well as protections enshrined in international refugee law more broadly.

The named plaintiffs in the suit are asylum seekers from Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, and the Dominican Republic. Collectively, they stand in for two classes of individuals certified by the Court last year, those who declared a fear of return to their home countries and have undergone a credible fear interview and been released to pursue their asylum claims, and, second, those released without first undergoing the credible fear interview. None of the named plaintiffs received notice of the one-year filing deadline or a meaningful mechanism to timely file their asylum applications. Asylum seekers must file their asylum applications within one year in order to receive asylum protection.

The class action lawsuit, brought by counsel from the American Immigration Council, Northwest Immigrants Rights Project, and Dobrin & Han, PC, included asylum seekers released from detention who are in removal proceedings in immigration court and who have yet to be placed into removal proceedings and who were not given notice of the one-year filing deadline to apply for asylum.

The Court agreed with the plaintiffs that the lack of notice to asylum seekers violates the congressional intent behind the one-year filing deadline. Created by Congress in 1996, the one-year filing deadline was ostensibly designed to guard against fraudulent asylum claims. The law’s most ardent supporters, however, made clear that the implementation of the deadline should not impede protection for genuine asylum-seekers. During discussions on the Senate floor, for instance, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) stated:

Like you, I am committed to ensuring that those with legitimate claims of asylum are not returned to persecution, particularly for technical deficiencies. If the time limit is not implemented fairly, or cannot be implemented fairly, I will be prepared to revisit this issue in a later Congress.

The Court also relied on U.S. Supreme Court precedent, specifically Mullanenoting that procedural due process requires that notice be “reasonably calculated, under all the circumstances, to apprise interested parties of the pendency of the action and afford them an opportunity to present their objections.” In this case, the Court found that the publically available DHS documents discussing the one-year filing deadline were not reasonably calculated to provide adequate notice to the asylum-seeking plaintiffs. The Court note that some of the asylum seekers in the class believed they had actually applied for asylum by virtue of undergoing a credible fear interview, in which they explained their fear of return to their home country in great detail to a USCIS asylum officer.

The Court also highlighted the problems caused by informing someone that they will be instructed on how to apply for asylum in court in the future, while the court dates referenced often take place well beyond the one-year filing deadline imposed. My 2016 article in the Wisconsin Law Reviewexamines the problems at the intersection of our burgeoning immigration court backlog and the one-year filing deadline in greater detail.

Judge Martinez signaled his sympathy regarding the extreme vulnerability of asylum-seekers, grounding his decision in the fact that “many class members have suffered severe trauma, do not speak English, are unfamiliar with the United States’ complicated immigration legal system, and do not have access to counsel.”He went on to conclude that DHS’ failure to provide adequate notice is a violation of the Due Process Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

Responding to DHS’ argument that the Court owed deference to agency “procedure,” the Court stated simply, “no deference is owed to procedures that violate a statute or the Constitution.” Currently, there is a ping pong back and forth between the agencies overseeing the asylum process. Until a Notice to Appear is filed with U.S. Immigration Court, the court will not accept an asylum application. If a case appears likely to be headed for a court appearance, however, USCIS, which includes the asylum office, routinely denies jurisdiction. There is currently no actual deadline for ICE to file a Notice to Appear with immigration court, leaving asylum-seekers and attorneys in limbo and unable to meet the deadline–a “technical deficiency” in the purest sense.

Importantly, while declining to reach the constitutional argument for a meaningful application mechanism, the Court found that defendants’ failure to provide a uniform mechanism by which an asylum-seeker could actually timely apply for asylum, assuming she gained knowledge of the deadline, violated the asylum statute and the Administrative Procedure Act. The Court concluded by ordering DHS to provide notice of the one-year filing deadline to class members who have already been released. Further, Judge Martinez ordered that DHS give notice to future asylum-seekers prior to or at the time of release them from detention. DHS is also required to adopt and publicize uniform procedural mechanisms to ensure class members can timely file their asylum applications. Implementation and the reception from immigration judges nationwide to the decision remains to be seen. Already, advocates shared a report of a judge at the Arlington immigration court refusing to enter the Mendez Rojas decision into the record because he stated that the Executive Office for Immigration Review is not bound by the Administrative Procedure Act.

Assuming implementation is successful, this decision represents a win for asylum-seekers and brings greater clarity and organization to an already-overwhelmed and backlogged immigration court system. Judge Martinez’s order represents yet another instance in which the federal courts have intervened in administrative confusion to ensure constitutional due process and justice for immigrants. The decision is a step forward in upholding American values and adhering to our domestic and international legal obligations to protect refugees from return to countries where they would face a threat to their life or freedom.

Write On! U.S. Feminist Judgments Project

backlit_keyboardThis installment of Write On!, our periodic compilation of calls for papers, includes a call to present within Feminist Judgements: Rewritten Family Law Opinions, as follows:

The U.S. Feminist Judgement Project, seeks contributions for rewritten judicial opinions and commentaries for an edited collection tentatively titled Feminist Judgments: Rewritten Family Law Opinions. The list of selected cases, a description of the process of selecting decisions, and the opinions considered but not included, are on the application website (https://goo.gl/forms/9JYv7GtR2gJMDVbY2).

Continue reading