ICC issues landmark judgment: Bemba convicted as commander-in-chief for sexual violence crimes (Part 2/2)

Yesterday was a day of firsts for the International Criminal Court (ICC). Jean Pierre Bemba Gombo’s conviction is the ICC’s first for sexual violence (see part 1 of this post), including against men. And, not only that, it is the first conviction of a military commander for crimes committed by soldiers under his command – Bemba did not commit any of the crimes himself. Here are some highlights in relation to this second important issue.

First conviction for command responsibility

As I wrote earlier, Bemba stood trial (and was convicted) as President and Commander-in-Chief of the Mouvement de libération du Congo (MLC) for three counts of war crimes (murder, rape, and pillaging) and two crimes against humanity (murder, and rape) committed by MLC soldiers in the Central African Republic (CAR) in 2002-2003. The MLC had entered the CAR to assist then CAR President Ange-Felix Patassé to suppress an attempted military coup. There, the MLC soldiers engaged in a campaign of pillage, murder, and rape against the civilian population. While he did not commit these crimes himself, Bemba stood trial because “he knew” that his troops were committing these crimes, and “did not take all necessary and reasonable measures within his power to prevent or repress their commission”. He is the first person to have been charged at the ICC with command responsibility under article 28 of the Rome Statute. The Trial Chamber included a detailed analysis of the applicable law under article 28, and of the evidence in relation to Bemba’s responsibility.

The Chamber found that Bemba was the MLC’s military and political leader from its creation throughout the entire period of the charges. He took the most important decisions, and held broad formal powers, including controlling the MLC’s funding and issuing operational orders to commanders in the field. The Chamber stressed: “the determination of whether a person has effective authority and control rests on that person’s material power to prevent or repress the commission of crimes or to submit the matter to a competent authority” (698). It found that Bemba maintained such primary disciplinary authority over his troops in the CAR, and that he was “both a person acting as military commander and had effective authority and control over the contingent of MLC troops in the CAR throughout the 2002-2003 CAR Operation” (705).

The Chamber also discussed a broad range of evidence proving Bemba’s knowledge of the commission of crimes by the MLC, including logbooks and intelligence reports, NGO publications and communications, and local and international media sources (706-718). Bemba was in regular communication with his commanders in the field, received updates on troop movements, politics, combat situation, and allegations of crimes, and at times specifically discussed these international reports with his commanders. As it was clearly established that Bemba knew crimes were being committed, the Chamber felt it was “not warranted” to make determinations on the “should have known” element of article 28(a).  Continue reading

ICC issues landmark judgment: Bemba convicted as commander-in-chief for sexual violence crimes (Part 1/2)

Today, 21 March 2016, was a historic day for the International Criminal Court (ICC). Trial Chamber III unanimously convicted Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo (Bemba) for his responsibility as commander-in-chief for crimes of murder, pillage, and rape committed by soldiers under his effective authority and control in the Central African Republic in 2002-2003. This makes Bemba not only the first person to be convicted by the ICC for crimes committed by troops under his command, but the first person to be convicted of sexual violence. I have not yet finished reading the 364-page judgment in full, but in this two-part blog post, I provide some initial highlights on these two questions. Citations are to paragraphs in the judgment.

First conviction for sexual violence

As I wrote previously, Bemba stood trial for two counts of sexual violence: rape as a war crime and as a crime against humanity. The judgment is the ICC’s fourth, but the first to include a conviction for sexual violence. Thomas Lubanga was convicted in 2012, but the case did not include sexual violence charges. Mathieu Ngudjolo and Germain Katanga were tried for rape and sexual slavery, but Ngudjolo was acquitted in full in 2012, and Katanga partially acquitted of the sexual violence charges in 2014. Bemba’s conviction thus marks an important turning point for the ICC regarding accountability for sexual violence.

Importantly, the rape charges in this case were based on evidence from both male and female victims of rape. The trial judgment describes in quite some detail specific acts of rape committed against both men and women. The Chamber heard testimony about rape in public, rape in front of family members and communities, gang rapes, and rape of young girls, some as young as 10 years old. Men were also raped, including when trying to prevent their wives or daughters from being raped. Rapes were often committed in conjunction with other crimes, such as pillaging, and marked by violence, often including beatings and threats with weapons.

The judgment reiterates many of the Rome Statute’s gender sensitive legal standards. The Chamber emphasised that rape under the Rome Statute is a gender-neutral crime: it is committed by the “invasion” of a part of the victim’s body (or that of the perpetrator) by “a sexual organ”, can include same-sex penetration, and can thus encompass both male and female perpetrators and victims. Oral penetration can also amount to rape (100-101). The Chamber also recalled that invasion using objects or any other part of the body constitutes rape under the Rome Statute (99). The fact that acts are committed by force, threat of force or coercion, by taking advantage of a coercive environment, or against a person incapable of giving genuine consent for the Chamber gives the invasion of a body “a criminal character” (102). The Chamber reiterated that a victim’s lack of consent is not a legal element of the crime of rape at the ICC (105). Finally, the Chamber noted that in analysing the evidence, it was guided by Rules 70 and 71, which detail important principles regarding evidence of sexual violence. Continue reading

Why we should be watching the ICC on 21 March

On 21 March 2016, Trial Chamber III of the International Criminal Court (ICC) will deliver the trial judgment in the case against Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo (Bemba). It will be an important day in the life of this now 14-year-old institution. If Bemba is convicted as charged, he will not only be the first military commander to be convicted for crimes committed by troops under his command, but it will be the first conviction at the ICC for sexual violence. Both issues have been the subject of fierce litigation.

Command responsibility

Bemba stood trial as President and Commander-in-Chief of the Mouvement de libération du Congo (MLC) for five counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by MLC soldiers in the Central African Republic (CAR) in 2002-2003. The MLC had entered the CAR to assist then CAR President Ange-Felix Patassé to suppress an attempted military coup. There, the MLC soldiers are alleged to have engaged in a campaign of pillage, murder, and rape against the civilian population. While he did not commit these crimes himself, Bemba stood trial because “he knew or should have known” that his troops were committing these crimes, and “did not take all necessary and reasonable measures within his power to prevent or repress their commission”. He is the first person to have been charged at the ICC with command responsibility under article 28 of the Rome Statute.

This mode of liability, however, was disputed. During the confirmation of charges hearing in 2009, the Prosecution originally submitted that Bemba was responsible as a co-perpetrator under article 25(3)(a). When the Pre-Trial Chamber, adjourning the confirmation hearing, indicated that the evidence appeared to suggest a different mode of liability, the Prosecution amended the charges, bringing both article 25(3)(a) and article 28 in the alternative. Amnesty International was subsequently accepted as amicus curiae on the issue of superior responsibility. The Pre-Trial Chamber eventually confirmed charges against Bemba under article 28, finding substantial grounds to believe that he “knew that MLC troops were committing or were about to commit crimes”.

In September 2012, the mode of liability was again the subject of discussion, this time following a Trial Chamber decision to use the controversial Regulation 55. Whereas the Pre-Trial Chamber had only confirmed charges on the basis that Bemba “knew” crimes were being committed, the Trial Chamber notified the parties and participants that it may consider the alternate form of knowledge, namely that “owing to the circumstances at the time, … [he] should have known that the forces … were committing or about to commit such crimes”. The Defence objected and sought leave to appeal, which the Trial Chamber rejected. After further back-and-forth between the Defence and the Chamber concerning the need for additional investigations, the Trial Chamber reiterated in a decision in 2013 that it had not yet made a “formal decision” on the recharacterisation. It reserved judgment on the matter for its article 74 decision. The question is thus likely to be addressed extensively in the upcoming trial judgment, and will hopefully provide important clarification on the responsibility of military commanders for the actions of their troops and for failures to prevent, repress or punish the commission of crimes.

Continue reading

Go On! IBA Conference ‘Legal Challenges to Modern Warfare,’ The Hague, 30-31 Jan. 2016

The 2016 International Bar Association (IBA) annual conference on international criminal law will focus on “Legal Challenges to Modern Warfare.” The conference will be held in The Hague on 30 and 31 January 2016.

The conference is the second in as many years organized in by the IBA’s War Crimes Committee, which is chaired by UK barristers Jonathan Grimes and Steven Kay QC. Last year’s event—titled “Legal Challenges for 2015”—introduced what has become the overarching theme for this fledgling series, and featured discussions on highly topical issues affecting the global order, such as determining what constitutes aiding and abetting in the context of Islamic State’s financing activities, and the legal aspects of ongoing conflicts in the Crimea, the Middle East and Sri Lanka. The interactive format of the panels, based on the notable BBC political talk show Question Time, spurred lively debates, and drew the audience members in to a conversation they otherwise would have simply watched as observers.

The 2016 conference promises to be just as dynamic, with the organizers adopting the same format, and the choice of a fresh set of timely subject matters. The programme includes panels on targeted missile attacks, and supporting sides in the context of regime change, both directly relevant to the ongoing Syrian conflict, which has seen aerial bombings of ostensibly military or hostile targets by foreign governments, and an unending debate on the international scene over the geo-strategic (if not moral) merits of supporting one side of the conflict over the other(s).

One important panel is scheduled to discuss the contentious topic of peacekeepers’ responsibilities and liabilities, which has caused considerable ink to be spilled not only in academic publications, but in courtrooms and the press as well. Most recently, a decision by a United States District Court, now in appeal, found that the United Nations is immune in a lawsuit filed following a cholera breakout in Haiti alleged to have been caused by its peacekeeping force. This case, coupled with galvanizing leaked reports of sexual misconduct by French peacekeeping forces in Central African Republic, could generate interesting arguments on the legal value of international organization’s privileges and immunities and their duty to provide an appropriate mode of settlement for private law matters.

Other panels will look at new methods of warfare, cyber warfare being one, and the ever-evolving ways of dealing with those who engage in them. The participants at the conference will be treated in any event to a stimulating exchange of ideas and the chance to hear, meet and exchange with some of the top experts in the field.

Online registration and the preliminary conference program are available at: http://goo.gl/tDKE3Q

Strike at Kunduz: Did the United States Violate International Humanitarian Law?

Reports recently surfaced that United States forces carried out an air strike against a Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres) hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan. Twenty-two civilians died as a result of the attack – twelve Doctors Without Borders staff members and ten patients; thirty-seven additional individuals were injured during the attack. By all accounts, the United States-executed bombing took place as part of a larger military operation to re-capture Kunduz from the Taliban forces. The strike was horrific, as described by a Doctors Without Borders President, Dr. Joanne Liu:

“Our colleagues had to operate on each other. One of our doctors died on an improvised operating table — an office desk — while his colleagues tried to save his life.”

This post will explore the most relevant question: whether the United States’ bombing of the Doctors Without Borders hospital constituted a violation of international humanitarian law and whether the individuals responsible for this operation committed a war crime?

The answer to the above question is not easy and it depends on numerous factors, including an accurate factual accounting of what truly happened. The United States’ government first claimed that the bombing was a mistake; that narrative changed over the last few days, when Gen. John F. Campbell, the American commander in Afghanistan, offered detailed congressional testimony to lawmakers, and clearly stated that the attack was “a U.S. decision made within the U.S. chain of command.” President Obama himself officially apologized to Dr. Liu. According to White House officials, President Obama also told Dr. Liu that he would make any changes necessary to ensure that such incidents were less likely in the future, and he promised a “full accounting” of who was to blame, and whether the military’s rules of engagement needed to change. In addition, Doctors Without Borders have confirmed to the press that they shared the hospital’s GPS coordinates with the United States’ military numerous times, including as late as September 30. In light of General Campbell’s testimony, President Obama’s apology to Dr. Liu, and the fact that Doctors Without Borders shared the hospital’s precise location with the United States’ forces very recently, it seems unlikely that the bombing was simply a mistake. Jonathan Horowitz on Just Security has already laid out four different hypotheticals for what could have led the United States to conduct the attack against the Doctors Without Borders hospital; two of these hypotheticals include scenarios where the United States did not know that it was bombing a hospital. This post will discard these two hypotheticals because it seems implausible, in light of recent developments, that the United States’ military did not know that it was attacking a hospital. Two other plausible scenarios which Horowitz correctly lays out include the possibility that the United States intentionally targeted the hospital which was being used for medical services only, or that the United States intended to bomb Taliban fighters who it believed were located either in the hospital or somewhere nearby. If either of the latter two factual scenarios were true, did the United States violate international humanitarian law? Most likely – yes.

Civilians, as well as hospitals and medical professionals cannot be an object of an attack under international humanitarian law – even if the enemy is receiving medical treatment inside a hospital. Hospitals lose their protected status only if they are being used by the enemy to launch attacks. However, even if a hospital becomes a legitimate target of a military attack, international humanitarian law’s principle of precautions still requires that the attacker take precaution to minimize or avoid harm to civilians. Principle of proportionality additionally requires that attacking forces must ensure that the attack will not cause civilian harm excessive to the anticipated military advantage. If one assumes that the United States deliberately targeted a hospital which was being used for civilian and medical purposes only, then the United States violated international humanitarian law, and individuals involved in these attacks committed war crimes. Even if the attacked hospital had been treating Taliban fighters, the same conclusion would apply because, as stated above, hospitals do not lose their protected status under international humanitarian law if they are treating enemy forces.

If the United States attacked the hospital because it suspected that Taliban fighters were located near or in the hospital itself, the relevant principles of precautions and proportionality would still apply. The United States would have to demonstrate that its forces took appropriate precautions – that those who planned the attack chose the most appropriate means and methods in order to avoid or minimize incidental loss of civilian life, and injury to civilians and civilian objects. In addition, the United States would have to show that it conducted an appropriate proportionality assessment – that its military commanders knew, when ordering the strike against the hospital, that civilians would be killed and/or injured, but that they concluded that military advantage gained from the attack would outweigh civilian harm. In other words, the principle of proportionality authorizes military attacks if the expected civilian harm is not excessive to the anticipated military advantage; those carrying out the attack have an obligation to cancel or suspend the attack if it becomes apparent that the attack will not be proportionate. It is unclear, at best, that the United States will be able to prove that its military actions against the hospital in Kunduz satisfied the principles of precautions and proportionality. The general public is still in the dark regarding more specifics about United States’ targeting operations in Kunduz and how important the attack against the hospital was in relation to the overall military strategy in this region. What is clear, however, is that the civilian harm caused by the attack was significant, and that the United States has a lot of explaining to do in order to justify this attack. In addition, the United States would only be justified in attacking the hospital if it could demonstrate that the Taliban fighters present in the hospital or its vicinity were launching attacks themselves against United States’ forces (as stated above, if Taliban fighters were in the hospital because they were receiving medical treatment, then the hospital could not become a legitimate military target). Doctors Without Borders has vehemently disputed any such allegations, and it is not clear as of now what the United States’ government’s position on this issue is.

The only way that we may find out what truly happened in Kunduz is through an independent investigation. Thus far, the United States has committed to conducting an investigation by the Department of Defense. In addition, NATO and a joint United States-Afghan group will also investigate. Doctors Without Borders has called for a separate independent investigation by the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission. The Commission is a body set up under the Geneva Conventions which can investigate violations of international humanitarian law; however, affected countries (here the United States and Afghanistan) must consent. It is unlikely that either will. Because of the gravity of the alleged conduct, they clearly should. A military investigation conducted by the military which itself may have carried out the illegal operation is insufficient and inappropriate.

In passing: Lt. Cmdr. Bill Kuebler, defense attorney at GTMO for Omar Khadr

kueblerShocked and saddened to read that U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander William Kuebler died from cancer on July 17, at age 44. (photo credit)

Bill’s representation of Omar Khadr, born in Canada and seized by U.S. forces in an Afghanistan battle, is recounted in an Ottawa Citizen obituary. I feel compelled to add my own recollection.

We met in December 2008, at Guantánamo. The occasion was the first set of military commissions hearings since November 4, 2008, when voters chose then-Sen. Barack Obama to become the next U.S. President. Because Obama had pledged to shut down GTMO, many of the lawyers, media, and observers aboard the chartered jet that took us to the U.S. military base at the southwestern tip of Cuba were calling this “The GTMO Farewell Tour.”

The week began with a failed attempt by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his codefendants to plead guilty to capital charges of masterminding the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. It ended with a hearing in Khadr – a hearing in which Kuebler proved himself a master of his craft. As I wrote at page 13 of my report for the National Institute of Military Justice:

‘Of particular interest was the effort of Navy Lt. Cmdr. William C. Kuebler (pronounced “keebler”), lead military counsel for Omar Khadr, to gain admission during this pretrial hearing of photos made during the firefight at which Khadr was captured. Kuebler argued that the photos would help the defense to make its case for compelling certain witnesses, whose testimony, it was said, would exonerate Khadr by indicating that he was buried beneath rubble at the time someone threw the grenade that killed a U.S. servicemember. The judge refused, and Kuebler went forward without the photos. But the dispute whetted the appetite of the media to see the photos, and some published a next-day story suggesting Khadr’s innocence.’

This understanding of the importance of public scrutiny, combined with an ability to inform the public even as a request was denied, illustrated Kuebler’s diligent representation of his client, Khadr – who, today, is out of prison and living in Alberta, Canada, released on bail while appeals are pending. “Khadr owes more to Bill than to any other advocate,” the Citizen obituary aptly states. And so we pause in his memory.

(Cross-posted from Diane Marie Amann)

The government of Sudan, the bombing of civilians, and the silence of the international community

The recent elections in Sudan call into question the legitimacy of the government soon to be re-elected. Even if the elections had been free and fair (which they have not), the government’s legitimacy would be challenged unequivocally by the fact that the very same government currently being re-elected into power is authorising the continual and systematic bombardment of civilians who are technically part of its polity.

On average, the Sudanese government has dropped three bombs a day on rebel held territory in its Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile States since April 2012. The impact of this bombing campaign on those living in the area has been devastating. Not only do the bombs often kill or maim civilians, but they also coincide disproportionately with planting and harvesting cycles, as well as market days, suggesting a deliberate strategy to decimate livelihoods. Yet despite the disruption to the local economy, the government of Sudan refuses to allow humanitarian access to these areas, citing fears that aid would be used to support rebel fighters.

As a result, 1.7 million people – roughly half of the population of the two states – have been displaced. Those who have remained, live with the daily threat of aerial bombardment, of government land forces breaking through the rebel Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement–North (SPLM-N) frontline, and a chronic lack of food and medicine.

A report released today highlights the voices of civilians living in the midst of this conflict. It emphasises the devastating impact of the conflict on every aspect of people’s lives. But it also talks of the resilience and resistance of those who are living through it. Despite unrelenting attacks against them, local organisations and activists have taken it upon themselves to educate the population about the means of surviving Antonov[1] attacks, in particular by digging foxholes and learning when and where to take cover.

This resilience, in many respects, is fuelled by defiance: many people have remained in Southern Kordofan not only because the alternatives are bleak (most of those who have been displaced have fled to South Sudan, itself in civil conflict), but because they see their ongoing presence as a form of resistance to a state they believe is trying to destroy them. As a result, many aspects of day-to-day life continue in rebel held areas of Southern Kordofan, as evidenced by children going to school and markets functioning (albeit under the daily threat of bombing and with chronic shortages.)

Furthermore, the extent to which the current government of Sudan is seen to lack any form of legitimacy is reflected by the fact that civilians are putting their faith in alternative structures of government. The rebels have recently set up a civilian administration in conjunction with the military structures that already exist, which the findings in the report demonstrate are broadly accepted by the civilian population. Civilians hope that this administration will eventually create an alternative, inclusive form of governance – in contrast to those of the Sudanese state, which they see as highly exclusionary.

However, it is important not to over-romanticise this resilience which, not surprisingly, is being severely depleted. The population’s efforts have certainly helped to minimise civilian casualties and allowed many people to remain in Southern Kordofan despite the substantial impact of the conflict. But their ability to survive is also being worn away by the continuing onslaught.

While primary responsibility for what is taking place lies with the government of Sudan, it seems unlikely that they will end their military campaign in the foreseeable future – and certainly not without considerable coercion from the international community (or at least certain parts of it). But the international community has remained, for the most part, silent.

Courageous local organisations and citizen journalists have been reporting on the intolerable circumstances in which civilians live in Southern Kordofan. Yet these organisations remain limited in their external reach. Indeed, civilians caught up in this conflict are struggling to have their voices heard – or rather, heeded. With the government of Sudan blocking independent media and international organisations from the field in a deliberate effort to cover up the consequences of the violence, there is both insufficient awareness at the international level about what is taking place, and a failure to mobilise around what information is available, with reports from NGOs regularly being dismissed as biased.

One of the strongest messages that came through the research was that those living in Southern Kordofan do not want pity: they want solidarity. They want the international community to acknowledge what is taking place and work with them to end the conflict. Their resilience is not being matched by support from the international community, which appears caught between denial and helplessness. The consequent lack of decisive action is proving disastrous, and the disconnect between the standards of international humanitarian and human rights law and their lack of enforcement could not be more stark.

It is hard to see a military victory for either side any time soon. Furthermore, for as long as the government fails to put in reforms that have been demanded, for decades, by those on the peripheries within the broader context of Sudan, there will be a reason for people to fight. In this context, a stalemate is unacceptable – a stalemate that is taking an intolerable toll on a civilian population that has been depleted of most of its reserves.

So what can the international community do? Obviously, there are no easy answers. It has already tried to call the president of Sudan to account in Darfur with an arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court. This strategy has so far failed to reap any direct benefits to those in Darfur, let alone those in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile. One recommendation that the report makes is for the United Nations or the African Union to conduct an independent inquiry into what is taking place. Once such an “official” body has documented the situation for themselves, key members of the international community will find it harder to dismiss the evidence of massive attacks on civilians. Maybe this will lead to action. Or maybe not. But for now it might be a step in the right direction. At the very least it would send a powerful message to the people of Southern Kordofan that the international community are aware of their plight, and it would shed some light on an increasingly dark chapter of Sudan’s already shady recent history.

(This post first appeared on OpenDemocracy https://www.opendemocracy.net/arab-awakening/lucy-hovil/silence-over-sudan%E2%80%99s-bombing-of-civilians)

[1] Antonovs are cargo aircraft designed in the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Because they are cargo planes, they lack any sort of guidance system and bombs are simply rolled out of the cargo hold, and are therefore inherently indiscriminate.

Read On! Taking Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Seriously in International Criminal Law

Evelyne Schmid, Taking Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Seriously in International Criminal Law, Cambridge Studies in International and Comparative Law, 2015.

At least sincoverpictce Amartya Sen’s economic research, it is well-known that many of ‘those who fall victim to adverse human agency are not injured by proximate violence but as a result of being compelled to live in subhuman conditions’. To address this fact, scholars and practitioners have been debating whether the mechanisms commonly used to address legacies of widespread abuse could engage with economic, social and cultural abuses. Should they be encouraged to do so? And can international law(yers) be of any help in this regard? Continue reading

Increased prospects for Transitional Justice after the political transition in Sri Lanka?

Since the end of the Sri Lankan armed conflict in which the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) were destroyed by the Sri Lankan armed forces in 2009, Sri Lanka was the archetype of a hard case for Transitional Justice. The Sri Lankan government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa adopted a completely intransigent posture by failing to credibly investigate the past. Instead, it set up flawed mechanisms resembling truth commissions in an attempt to ease international pressure on accountability. Unsurprisingly, these commissions largely exonerated the government of any systematic wrongdoing. In addition, the government brutally suppressed dissent, presided over the persecution of the Tamil and Muslim minorities and attacked local human rights activists who cooperated with UN mechanisms.

In this context, human rights campaigners within the country turned to the international community. In 2010, the UN Secretary General mandated a Panel of Experts (POE) to advise him on accountability in Sri Lanka. The Panel looked into allegations of international law levelled against both sides during the final phases of the armed conflict and found credible allegations of a wide range of violations of human rights and humanitarian law by both sides, some of which amounted to war crimes and crimes against humanity. Amid growing calls for further international action, the UN Human Rights Council took the significant step in Mach 2014 of mandating an OHCHR investigation into these violations. Despite these developments, prospects for international justice for human rights abuses and related crimes that took place during the war remained slim. Indeed, China and Russia’s strong support for the Rajapaksa regime appeared to preclude the prospect of a referral by the UN Security Council to the Prosecutor of the ICC. Even at the UN Human Rights Council which mandated the ongoing investigation, there was only limited support for decisive international action on Sri Lanka.

On January 8, against all odds, the Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa was unseated by his former Minister of Health Maithipala Sirisena, who managed to rally a wide array of political parties around the defense of rule of law, transparency and democratic values. However, no consensus on post-war justice was found within this broad ad hoc alliance. While there is enthusiastic support for robust international action on accountability within the minority Tamil community which bore the brunt of the war, representatives of the majority Sinhalese community—about 80 percent of the country’s population—are mostly opposed to international trials. This explains why Sirisena—who needed a substantial if not majority share of the Sinhalese vote to secure victory at the presidential elections—vowed to protect all citizens from international tribunals. Nevertheless, during the campaign, the Sirisena camp indicated that issues of accountability for alleged war crimes will be dealt with domestically and hinted vaguely at the need for truth commissions, apologies and forgiveness.

Continue reading

Precipitating Politics Around The Revival of Prosecutions in Bangladesh

This is part 3 of a three-part series on the Bangladesh International Crimes Tribunal.  Part 1 (overview) and 2 (deep history) are here and here, respectively.

Fast forward to the present day. Prosecuting local collaborators for crimes committed at Liberation emerged as a central campaign pledge of the Awami League and now-Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed during the 2008 elections when the Awami League “Grand Alliance” emerged triumphant. The law was not invoked until 2010 when authorities arrested four leading politicians from the rival Islamist political party, Jamaat-e-Islami. Jamaat-e-Islami had been banned from political participation following the 1971 war of independence, and its leaders went into exile in Pakistan. The ban was eventually lifted. The party revived, was mainstreamed, and eventually joined in multiparty alliances with, most prominently, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). It is now the principal Islamist political party in Bangladesh and a key opponent to the majority Awami League. The most recent general elections were held on January 5, 2014. Jamaat-e-Islami was barred from participating, and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and other opposition parties chose to boycott the elections. As a result, 154 of 300 seats went uncontested, so Awami League candidates won by default. The rise of the Awami League, and the marginalization of any credible political opposition, has cleared the way for the government to launch targeted prosecutions against key political opponents under the 1973 Act.

Once prosecuting political opponents became policy, Parliament amended the 1973 Act several times to make it operational. The legislation, which mostly incorporates the Nuremberg/Tokyo definitions of the crimes and benefited from the assistance of international law experts, was quite forward leaning for its time in terms of substantive law. By today’s sensibilities, however, the legislation is outdated and does not reflect recent developments in the law occasioned by the work of the ad hoc criminal tribunals.

The real concerns, however, relate to a number of procedural infirmities contained in the statute itself and in amendments to the Constitution that deny procedural protections to individuals detained or prosecuted under the 1973 Act. For example, 1973 amendments to the Constitution protect the Act from legal attack. Notably, Article 47(3) states:

(3) Notwithstanding anything contained in this Constitution, no law nor any provision thereof providing for detention, prosecution or punishment of any person, who is a member of any armed or defence or auxiliary forces or who is a prisoner of war, for genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes and other crimes under international law shall be deemed void or unlawful, or ever to have become void or unlawful, on the ground that such law or provision of any such law is inconsistent with, or repugnant to any of the provisions of this Constitution.

Article 47A also withdrew certain procedural rights from individuals subject to Article 47(3)—including the right to enjoy the protection of the law, the prohibition of ex post facto prosecutions, the right to a speedy and public trial, and the right to challenge the court’s jurisdiction.

The legislation itself invalidates additional rights, including the right against self-incrimination (the statute provides that defendants shall not be excused from answering any question on the ground that the response will incriminate the suspect). Long pre-trial detentions have led the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention to declare that several defendants hve been subjected to arbitrary detention in violation of international law, notably the ICCPR. In addition, idiosyncratic Rules of Procedure and Evidence govern the Tribunal, so any protections contained in the normal criminal procedure code, including rights of appeal, are inapplicable. For example, the law imposes an obligation on the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court to dispose of any BICT appeal within 60 days—a tall order given that no interlocutory appeals are allowed. In practice, although the accused ostensibly enjoy the right to counsel of their choice, the Bangladesh government and Bar Association have made it virtually impossible for outside counsel to adequately represent their clients by, among other things, restricting their travel to the country and their presence in interrogations. Several trials—including that of Abdul Kalam Azad, the first case to go to verdict—have proceeded in absentia. A U.S. citizen, Ashrafuzzaman Khan, and a U.K. subject, Chowdhury Mueen-Uddin, have also been sentenced to death in absentia for crimes against humanity. Such trials are not, per se, contrary to international law, but defendants must be given a right to a retrial if and when they are apprehended. No defendant in his right mind would appear voluntarily before a tribunal so stacked against him.

Among other retrograde elements, on February 17, 2013, the International Crimes (Tribunals) (Amendment) Act of 2013 amended the law again to allow for the prosecution of “organizations” for their role in the 1971 War of Liberation. (There is some talk that the law may need to be amended anew to enable the prosecution of “parties” in addition to “organizations” if it is to serve its intended purpose). This baldly political move is aimed directly at Jamaat-e-Islami, notwithstanding that its continuity with its liberation-era predecessor is questionable. After the BICT sentenced Abdul Quadar Mollah, the assistant secretary-general of Jamaat-e-Islami, to life imprisonment for crimes against humanity in February 2013, the Act was further amended to allow the prosecution to appeal a sentence or a verdict of acquittal. The amendments were made retroactive. On the prosecutor’s appeal, the Supreme Court converted Mollah’s sentence from life imprisonment to death, a final sentence that does not admit the right of judicial appeal. Despite calls on December 11, 2013, from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon to Sheikh Hasina herself, Mollah became the first BICT defendant to be executed. He was hanged on December 12, 2013 after a last minute stay of execution was lifted, on the eve of the upcoming Victory Day celebrations. Indeed, trials and appeals proceeded at a breakneck pace in 2013, apparently in an effort to achieve results in advance of the January 2014 elections.

The BICT has also been mired in corruption allegations. In December 2012, The Economist broke the story, based upon leaked emails and recorded Skype conversations, that a BICT judge had been seeking outside advice on how to rule from the Brussels-based director of the Bangladesh Centre for Genocide Studies, who was also apparently collaborating with the prosecution. The leaked correspondence suggest that the government was pressuring the judges to issue their judgments more quickly. The judge eventually resigned, but the BICT nonetheless responded with threatened contempt of court charges against The Economist’s journalists. Other journalists and media outlets that have been critical of the BICT have also been hit with contempt charges.

Individually, these infirmities are deeply troubling. Collectively, they fundamentally undermine the fairness of the proceedings, especially given that the death penalty is on the table.

The international community initially supported this effort at historical justice, given the longstanding impunity stemming from the war of independence. Human Rights Watch, for example, called the trials an important and long overdue step to achieve justice for victims. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) offered assistance, and the European Union passed resolutions supporting the trials. However, this support soon soured when it was clear that the process had been corrupted and was more political than legal.

The United States’ position toward the BICT has been a guarded one. While acknowledging the need to address the atrocities committed during the war, the United States has also called for proceedings to be free, fair, transparent, and consistent with international and domestic due process standards. The United States Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues, Stephen Rapp (my former boss), has visited Bangladesh five times (most recently in August 2014) in an effort to bring the proceedings better into line with international standards. Before the trials began, he wrote an extensive analysis of the original legislation, which was later leaked to the press, setting forth his concerns and suggestions for improvements. He was later criticized for offering his views, even though they had been solicited by Bangladesh. Some of these suggestions—including the recognition of res judicata and double jeopardy, the right to a fair and public hearing with counsel of the defendant’s choice, placing the burden of proof on the prosecution, and establishing a system of witness protection—were at least partially implemented. Others—having to do with interlocutory appeals, interrogation rights, disclosure obligations on the prosecution, and enabling the participation of foreign lawyers in court—were disregarded. Now that proceedings are fully underway, the prospects of genuine legal reform are dim. The goal now seems to be to keep the defendants alive.

And What of the Birangonas?

The suffering of Bangladesh’s rape victims continues. Indeed, these women were twice made the victim. The first breach of their rights and dignity occurred when they were subjected to mass rape on a staggering scale. Although we will never have accurate numbers, all accounts suggest that tens of thousands of women were systematically kidnapped, raped, and mutilated.  Many did not survive their ordeal.  Those who did suffered a second kind of assault in the aftermath of the war. Rather than being treated with compassion, given medical and psychological assistance, receiving reparations, or getting access to meaningful justice, many survivors were instead silenced, ostracized by their families, and treated as pariahs in their own communities. The only medical services on offer were makeshift abortion clinics staffed by experts who were flown in to conduct late-term abortions. Many “war babies” who were not aborted were put up for international adoption. For many women, the only tangible recognition they received for what they had suffered were the plaques eventually bestowed on them. Although labeled “Birangonas” (war heroines), this supposed honorific turned out to be little more than a cruel hypocrisy. Many survivors continue to live in poverty and shame.

The propaganda value of violence against women has long been recognized. There is now the risk that these women—who for years have been hidden away, ignored, ostracized or worse—will be injured a third time when their legitimate claims for justice will be used to justify a deeply illegitimate process.  They will be trotted out in support of the trials under the illusion that their stories matter. Once the victims have played their part in justifying a flawed process, they will be relegated back to the shadows once again. As criticism mounts about the BICT, Bangladesh’s Birangonas will come to realize that offering them the opportunity to achieve justice for what befell them was never the goal.