Bringing Pres. al-Bashir to Justice

Controversy erupted on Tuesday, September 17th, when US officials confirmed that Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir submitted a Visa request to attend the United Nations General Assembly this month. President al-Bashir announced this Sunday that he does, indeed, have plans to travel to the US and has already booked a New York hotel, although the US has not yet stated whether or not he would be granted a visa.

As President of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir is an accused war criminal. He has two warrants of arrest for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, issued by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in March 2009 and July 2010.

On September 18, 2013 the ICC published a press release calling on US officials to arrest al-Bashir and extradite him to the ICC, should he travel to the United States. Human Rights Watch has also issued a statement asking UN Members to oppose al-Bashir’s visit to the Conference.

This is a turning point in deciding the future power of the ICC. Pres. al-Bashir would be the first visitor to the United Nations (and the US) with a standing ICC warrant for his arrest. To give background on this, in 2005, the Security Council voted for SCR 1593, to refer the atrocities in Darfur to the ICC, and to hold Pres. al-Bashir’s government accountable. The US abstained from the vote because it does not recognize the ICC’s jurisdiction over states not signed onto the Rome Statute (which includes the US). However, the US must still adhere to any Security Council Resolution that passes, including SCR 1593, which urges all states, including those not signed to the Rome Statute, to “cooperate fully” with the Court in bringing Pres. al-Bashir to justice. Accordingly, the US should immediately apprehend and extradite Pres. al-Bashir to the ICC if he steps foot on US soil.

US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Powers called the potential visit “hugely inappropriate.” In response, the Sudanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement saying that the US has no legal right to stop a member state from attending the UN Conference. In the Agreement Between the United Nations and the United States Regarding the Headquarters of the United Nations Sections 11, 12 and 13 effectively establish that the US is not allowed to hinder representatives of Members from travelling to the UN, regardless of their Government’s relation to the US, or the member’s status as an alien. The US is asked to grant Visas “without charge and as promptly as possible”. However, under Section 13 (f) of the same agreement, “The United Nations shall, subject to the foregoing provisions of this section, have the exclusive right to authorize or prohibit entry of persons and property into the headquarters district and to prescribe the conditions under which persons may remain or reside there.”

Because the UN Security Council referred the Darfur conflict to the ICC and requested all states to assist in bringing President al-Bashir to trial, the US would not be acting outside of its power as host country in extraditing him. In the past, the US has even encouraged other states to allow the transfer of war criminals to the ICC – such as when Bosco Ntaganda turned himself in to the US embassy in Rwanda.

An estimated  300,000 people died in the conflict in Darfur. The ICC holds al-Bashir allegedly criminally responsible for ten counts of individual criminal responsibility, including five counts of crimes against humanity (for murder, extermination, forcible transfer, torture and rape), two counts of war crimes (intentionally directing attacks against civilians and pillaging), and three counts of genocide (genocide by killing, by causing serious bodily or mental harm, and by deliberately inflicting harsh conditions of life). Attacks against the civilian population of Darfur (largely compromised by the Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa ethnic groups) were lead by the Sudanese Armed Forces and their allied Janjaweed Militia. As the President of the Republic of Sudan and the Commander-in-Chief of the Sudanese Armed Forces since March 2003, al-Bashir must be tried for the crimes he had a role in organizing.

The Global Justice Center works to advance human rights, and in doing so, hold perpetrators of war crimes accountable. We recognize the dangers of inaction from the international community, and seek to end impunity.

One example of this is our Burma Initiative to challenge the amnesty clause in the Burmese constitution. Victims in conflict and postconflict countries, whether in Burma or Sudan, must not be denied access to justice through legal processes adhering to international law. In Syria, we have a recent example of the dangers of turning a blind eye to violations of fundamental international law, the chief among these being laws banning genocide and the use of weapons of mass destruction against civilians. These laws must not just be written on paper, but put into effective practice.

For there to be sustainable peace and rule of law, there must first be justice through international channels. President al-Bashir is not an exception to international laws. He must be brought to justice, and should he enter US territory, the US should surrender him to the ICC for trial.

Justice in Syria

All the talk this week will be whether the United States will launch air strikes on Syria, in the wake of the Syrian government’s alleged use of chemical weapons against civilians in the country’s ongoing civil war. During yesterday’s Senate hearing, Secretary of State John Kerry made the case that President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has committed egregious human rights violations, including the violation of one of the most important norms of international law: the ban of using weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) against civilians. President Obama emphasized that potential US strikes is about protecting this fundamental international norm, which is threatened by the Syrian government’s alleged gassing of its own people. Yet, Syria has long been in a state of unrest – and the Global Justice Center takes a look a few other areas in which Syria is violating international law, particularly when it comes to equal protection and rights for women.

Impunity

As has been evident throughout the conflict in Syria, neither the government nor the rebel faction shave been held accountable for their crimes – even when these crimes do not respect international law. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon noted that government abuses were largest in scale. In its 2013 Annual Report on Syria, Amnesty International wrote that “the government took no steps to investigate the numerous allegations against their forces or to bring anyone to justice for alleged gross human rights violations, crimes against humanity or war crimes. The government maintained a reign of impunity, including legislation giving members of the security forces effective immunity for unlawful killings, torture, enforced disappearances and other human rights violations.”

The Global Justice Center is all too familiar with the dangers of governmental impunity through its work with the Burma Law Project. The Burma Constitution perpetuates injustice as a policy by giving complete amnesty to the military for its crimes, including systematic rapes of ethnic women. It also excludes women, just as 2012 Syrian Constitution. With the human rights violations mounting in Syria, including an alarming number of reported rapes and sexual crimes, it is clear that no matter how the conflict in Syria ends, perpetrators must be held accountable on both sides. The international community cannot allow yet another example of war crimes, especially gender-based violence, to be carried out with impunity.

In addition, according to Women under Siege, a journalism project founded by Gloria Steinem, sexual violence is and has been rampant in Syria throughout the conflict. It is perpetrated by both sides, without justice for victims (or, in many cases, even necessary medical care). Women Under Siege has been collecting reports of sexual violence in Syria to document the way rape is being used to terrorize and intimidate the Syrian people. With this data they have created a live, crowd-sourced map. The crimes documented went largely unpunished and represent only a small part of the whole, because sexual violence in Syria is largely underreported.

“With no clear future for Syria in sight, refugees are understandably cautious about who they speak to and trust with sensitive and personal information… It may be hard to put their trust in a stranger when, time and again, there has been little justice for victims of wartime rape.” – Lauren Wolfe, Director, Women Under Siege.

Gender Equality

According to data from the WEF Gender Gap Report on countries’ gender equality progress since the Arab Spring, overall the region’s score increased by a dismal 1.2% from 2010 to 2012. Syria, on the other hand, decreased by 5.3%. That’s right: Syria is moving backwards on women’s rights issues, mainly because of decreases in estimated earned income. In addition, in a list of 135 countries, Syria was ranked an abysmal #111 in the Gender Gap Index for “political empowerment” in 2012 by the report.

“[Syria]’s civil war has coincided with reduced political participation for women and sharply curtailed access to the country’s shattered economy,” wrote Max Fisher, Washington Post’s foreign affairs blogger, in an article.

But Syria is not only moving backwards; the basis on which it started never had equal opportunities for women in the first place.

“While the penal code no longer fully exonerates perpetrators of so-called honor crimes, it still gives judges options for reduced sentences if a crime was committed with “honorable” intent. The nationality law of 1969 prevents Syrian women married to foreign spouses the right to pass on their citizenship to their children or spouses,” Human Rights Watch stated in its 2012 World Report on Syria.

When this tragic and deadly conflict finally comes to an end, any future government in Syria must look towards building long-term stability. A major key to that is to have a government and a constitution that is representative. Women’s rights are not something that can be pushed to the side and fixed only after the country is considered “stable.”In reality, ensuring women’s rights is anecessary step to achieving long-term stability. There must be increased participation in the political process by women if the country is to fulfill the pledge in the 2012 Syrian Constitution of a multi-party system, replacing ade facto one-party system that has hindered democratic reform for the past several decades.

As the world waits to see if the US will strike and what the global fallout from such action will be, it is critical to examine the roots of injustice if Syria can ever hope to move forward.

Donate now to help the Global Justice Center establish global human rights through the rule of law.

Letter to Louise Arbour: RE: The International Crisis Group’s Policy Urging Unconditional Engagement with Burma’s Military Rulers Contradicts States’ Absolute Obligations to Respond to Burma’s Serious Breaches of Peremptory Norms of International Law, Sep

Letter to Louise Arbour: RE: The International Crisis Group’s Policy Urging Unconditional Engagement with Burma’s Military Rulers Contradicts States’ Absolute Obligations to Respond to Burma’s Serious Breaches of Peremptory Norms of International Law, September 2011

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GJC Rises for V-Day's One Billion Rising Campaign to End Gender Violence

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE - February 14, 2013

[NEW YORK, NY]– Today, the Global Justice Center rises. We support V-Day and its One Billion Rising campaign to end violence against girls and women. One in three women will be subjected gender-based violence in their lifetime, including sexualized violence. That’s one billion women.

As Aung San Suu Kyi Visits US, International Law Violations in Burma Constitution are Highlighted

Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s is in Washington DC today to received the Congressional Gold Medal. She will also be meeting with President Barack Obama. This is a proud moment for the Burmese community and for the Global Justice Center, which has worked tirelessly on democracy issues in Burma.

However, we also recognize that Burma’s transition to democracy is far from complete. A major obstacle continues to be the country’s constitution, which entrenches military influence over Burma’s civilian government. Daw Suu Kyi said herself that amending the constitution must be a top priority, and we agree with her. The Global Justice Center calls for the international community to challenge the constitution as a violation of fundamental international law—including the UN Charter.

Burma has seen substantial change these past few years; a civilian government was formed, political prisoners were released (Suu Kyi herself being one example), and, this April, opposition parties were allowed to take part in the by-elections, carrying 43 out of 44 open parliamentary seats (but continuing to exert little influence overall). However, Burma has yet to fully commit to democracy. The Burmese civilian government still owes its parliamentary majority to the fraudulent elections of 2010, and the current constitution hinders further democratization and gives complete autonomy to the military. This makes it nearly impossible to prosecute Burma’s military rulers, who are guilty of egregious crimes—including the use of systematic rape of ethnic women as a weapon of war, torture, forced relocation and forced labor. All are rampant violations of fundamental international law, including the Geneva Conventions and the UN Charter. The impunity accorded to the military under the current constitution leaves civilian victims, particularly those in the conflict areas of the Burmese border, virtually without legal protection. Activities of the Myanmar military are also in breach of a set of agreements that govern nuclear development.

The Burmese government and the international community must ensure that Burma is meeting international law requirements. Yet, because the constitution gives the military a “legal vacuum” the government would be legally unable to fulfill these obligations. Thus Burma’s new constitution stands in breach of core international commitments.

The Global Justice Center urges the international community to stand with the people of Burma and challenge the legality of the constitution.

(For an in-depth analysis of the constitution and restraint it puts on the civilian government, read GJC president Janet Benshoof’s report, co-written with the Burma Lawyers Council or see the Global Justice Center Project Page on Burma.)

Malawi Upholds International Law for the Sake of Economic Interests

Under the leadership of newly appointed president Joyce Banda, Malawi has refused to host the upcoming African Union summit due to its unwillingness to condone the ongoing impunity of Sudanese leader Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of genocide, war crimes, and human rights atrocities committed in Darfur under his command. Although an ICC arrest warrant has been out for Bashir since 2010, he has repeatedly attended meetings and summits in a number of African countries over the past two years, including in Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti and Chad. Even the former Malawian president Bingu wa Mutharika welcomed Bashir at a regional economic summit last year. As the ICC has no law enforcement mechanism of its own, it relies on the local officials of member nations to apprehend individuals accused of crimes by the Court.

Bashir is wanted by the ICC for multiple international legal offenses as a result of his major role as Sudanese President in the atrocities in Darfur, which began in 2003 and resulted in the deaths of an estimated 300,000 people and the displacement of almost 4 million. In 2009, a warrant was issued for his arrest on five counts of crimes against humanity (murder, extermination, forcible transfer, torture, and rape) and two counts of war crimes (intentionally directing attacks against a civilian population or against individual civilians not taking part in hostilities and pillaging). While the Court stopped short of issuing a warrant on charges of genocide, upon further investigation of the evidence, such a warrant was issued just a year later in July 2010. The effect of charging Bashir with the crime of genocide was to oblige all states party to the UN Genocide Convention (all UN member states) to arrest the accused upon entry into the country or stand in violation of the Convention by condoning impunity for genocide, a significant violation of the convention which could plausibly (and should) result in serious political, diplomatic, or economic consequences.

The July AU summit was set to be held in Lilongwe next month, but will now be moved to the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. The decision came after President Joyce Banda threatened to arrest Omar al-Bashir upon his entry into Malawi, in accordance with the ICC warrant currently issued for his arrest. She has also declared her intention not to attend the meeting and to send Malawi’s vice president as the country’s representative at the summit. Banda has avoided questions as to whether her absence at the meeting is in protest of Bashir’s attendance, and she has repeatedly stated that her first concern is maintaining the health of the Malawian economy and ensuring continued revenue from foreign donors.

While Banda’s move is clearly a step in the right direction in terms of the ICC’s international legal effort to apprehend Bashir, the President’s actions were likely motivated more by the desire to protect Malawi’s economic interests than as an expression of righteous indignance at al-Bashir’s continued impunity in the face of international condemnation. Banda has indicated that her boycott of the summit was intended to placate western governments and organizations which contribute significant sums of foreign aid to Malawi, donations which comprise an estimated 40% of the country’s annual GDP. She has noted that a visit from Bashir would be frowned upon by international donors and said in a statement, “My main agenda is to put Malawi on an economic recovery path and that’s what I am trying to do.”

Many have argued that we should be concerned by the way aid conditionality is being used under the ruse of “Malawi’s best interest” – is that to remain under donor colonization? It’s always more powerful to know choices are made from conviction rather than under threat.  It would of course be ideal if countries were motivated to comply with ICC mandates—to which they are already signatories—simply on the basis of justice and respect for the rule of law. However, in the current international political climate such idealism is unfortunately not the reality. The truth is that state actions are motivated by a multitude of economic, social, and political factors, and it’s important to take all of these into account when assessing government action.

In addition, while it is legitimate to point out the flaws in the conditionality of foreign aid, it is also important to consider the alternative. Should governments and institutions contribute significant sums of aid money to countries whose governments openly flout the international legal mandates with which they have officially agreed to comply? Should there be no circumstances under which foreign aid contributions are denied to a government that openly supports the impunity of accused war criminals and perpetrators of genocide such as Omar al-Bashir? In response to allegations of “donor colonization,” international legal experts have responded by contending that continuing and reverberating voices and pressure from the CICC, various NGOs, activists, and political leaders are essential pieces of the puzzle to ensure compliance with the ICC. In other words, these institutions and actors have a unique power to influence government to take the right steps towards compliance with the ICC.

The international community has a legal obligation to ensure that human rights violations and crimes against humanity are not condoned by any state. In order to achieve this end, governments often resort to economic sanctions and the (sometimes limited) political tools at their disposal. While criticism of the use and distribution of foreign aid is a vital aspect of non-governmental oversight, it is important to consider each situation from multiple perspectives. Perhaps President Banda’s actions were motivated by economic and political interests rather than strong personal conviction, but the refusal to welcome Bashir into the country was an obligation Malawi had already assumed as a member of the UN and an official supporter of the ICC. In addition, the resulting discussion over international legal compliance and respect for international norms is a valuable opportunity to highlight the continued impunity of accused war criminals such as Omar al-Bashir and the legal obligation of the international community of states not to tolerate or condone the failure of governments to comply with international law.

Letter to the NY Times Editor, Keep Up the Pressure on Myanmar’s Generals

A version of this letter appeared in print on page A30 of the New York edition with the headline: Change in Myanmar.

Janet Benshoof, President of the GJC, responds to an OpEd about Myanmar. She explains in this letter that sanctions are not enough to exact lasting democratic change in Myanmar; the focus should be on the Constitution.

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The Legal Obligation to Prevent Genocide in Burma

The GJC publishes this fact sheet explaining the legal obligation of states to prevent (not just punish) genocide. Burma is now the number one state in the world at risk of genocide; it is therefore the obligation of all states to act against genocide in Burma.

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GJC Attends “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields” Screening at the UN

On Tuesday, June 13, 2011 several GJC staff members and legal interns attended a screening of the controversial and disturbing documentary “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields” at the Church Center in front of the UN Headquarters.  The event was presented to senior diplomats, UN staff and NGOs.  The film documents the final weeks of the Sri Lankan Civil War which lasted from 1983 to May 2009.  During the war, rebels known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) fought to create independent Tamil state in North and Eastern territories of Sri Lanka, but were ultimately defeated by government forces.

The documentary explains how the Sri Lankan government pressured UN representatives to leave the Tamil occupied regions before launching a major offensive, leaving few or no international observers of the horrors which were to follow.  

The footage shows Sri Lankan soldiers committing extra-judicial killings of bound prisoners, photographs suggesting torture, and interviews of a woman who handed herself over to government forces and claims she and her daughter were raped and that she witnessed others being raped and killed.  Other footage suggests that such treatment of women may be systematic.  The film also shows displaced civilians killed by the government after being moved to a “no fire” zone and hospitals that were deliberately shelled by the government.  

Many of the accounts in the film are corroborated by a UN Report released by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in March 2011.  The report found that as many as 40,000 people were killed in the last weeks of the conflict.  The Secretary General has expressed concern over potential war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by both sides and has urged the Sri Lankan government to investigate alleged violations and to “advance accountability.”  

The government, however, has rejected the report and called it “biased, baseless and unilateral.”  The Sri Lankan government further claims that the footage of “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields” is fake and that the film is not even-handed.  The film, however, has been authenticated by UN specialists and suggests that war crimes were committed by both sides, with the LTTE engaging in suicide bombings, using civilians as human shields and enlisting child soldiers.


The screening was followed by a panel discussion which included Sri Lankan Permanent Representative to the UN Dr. Palitha Kohona and Former Major General and current Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN Shavendra Silva.  Kohona claimed many of the interviewees were lying and denied that the government engaged in systematic human rights abuses.  He stated that Sri Lanka is “a mature democracy” and that any violations by individual soldiers should be dealt with internally, asserting that calls for accountability from the international community are “paternalistic.”  He also rejected the 40,000 casualties figure suggested by the UN, claiming that if one counted all the bodies in the film “you would not come up with a total of one hundred persons.”  Silva alleged that the filmmakers were funded by the LTTE and demanded that the country be allowed to deal with issues domestically.


The screening timely comes soon after the Sri Lankan Justice Ministry has received a summons from a US Federal Court for President Mahinda Rejapaksa.  The summons is connected to three civil cases filed under the Hague Conventions and the US Torture Victims Protection Act by relatives of victims of alleged extra-judicial killings.  The Sri Lankan government has indicated that it will not respond to the summons.  The cases will be founded on the principle that the US, as well as other countries, may exercise universal jurisdiction over war crimes and crimes against humanity.  


Similarly, the GJC is currently investigating the possible use of universal jurisdiction to prosecute Burmese war criminals.  Specifically, the Burmese military junta routinely employs rape, torture, slavery, murder, mass imprisonment and abduction of children to fill its military quotas, all of which war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide.  Moreover, the new Burmese Constitution provides military criminal impunity for war crimes and crimes against humanity.  Given that Burma is a party to the Fourth Geneva Convention and to the Genocide Convention, which require parties to enact domestic legislation to implement the treaties, the Burmese Constitution is a prima facie violation of its obligations.


In addition to the UN Security Council’s ability and, indeed, imperative to declare the Constitution “null and void,” fellow state parties may refer the issue of Burma’s noncompliance to the ICJ.  As with the recent US summons of Sri Lankan President Rejapaksa, however, states need not necessarily rely on the Security Council or the ICJ to ensure accountability for war crimes.  For violations of rights that are erga omnes, or owed to all, any state may use universal jurisdiction to arrest and prosecute suspected war criminals.  GJC is working to encourage certain states to exercise this tool to arrest and try Burmese officials who travel to their territory.


“Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields” may be viewed online at the British Channel 4’s website until July 13:
http://www.channel4.com/programmes/sri-lankas-killing-fields/4od 

“Advancing Human Rights and Ending Impunity in Burma: Which External Leverage?” Report Released

The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and, Global Justice Center partner, the Burma Lawyers Council (BLC) released a report entitled: “Advancing Human Rights and Ending Impunity in Burma: Which External Leverage?”. The report catalogues the presentations of leading exiled Burmese organizations, international and regional human rights NGOs, as well as renowned international legal experts from an FIDH-BLC joint seminar in May 2009.

As said by 2003 Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi in the introduction of the report: “We know that there can be no effective treatment by simply wiping the slate clean and starting anew…Burma cannot claim international legitimacy by merely plastering onto one of the worst dictatorial systems in the world a mask of democracy that fools no one.”

Global Justice Center President Janet Benshoof gave the keynote remarks, calling to end impunity in Burma through an International Criminal Court (ICC) referral, which would demand criminal accountability. This accountability is essential to sustainable peace and national reconciliation in Burma:

“The legal duty to ensure Senior General Than Shwe and other top criminal perpetrators are prosecuted for perpetrating crimes of concern to the global community is neither an option nor a “lever” for change. This legal duty, just like the criminal culpability of these perpetrators, exists today and forever. It can never be negated, suspended, or replaced by a statute of limitation, peace agreements, talks, sanctions, elections, negotiations or amnesties.

However, generations of men, women, and children of all ethnic and religious backgrounds have lived and died in Burma without knowing peace, without having received any forms of redress or justice and, without experiencing the most basic guarantees of human dignity embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They are entitled to justice in their lifetime. I believe we can make this happen.”

Please access the full report here:

http://www.fidh.org/IMG/pdf/FIDH_BLC_Burma_seminar_final_internet.pdf

To read more about criminal accountability in Burma, please reference the Global Justice Center “How to Talk About Burma” tool:

http://globaljusticecenter.net/publications/Advocacytools/BurmaQ&A.pdf