The U.S. Can’t Be a Global Leader on Democracy While Banning Abortion at Home

Excerpt of Ms. Magazine Op-Ed co-authored by GJC Legal Advisor Elena Sarver.

Last month, the Supreme Court of the United States heard arguments in a case that could set off a new era of abortion bans across much of the country. It also marked the start of President Biden’s Democracy Summit, a high-level conference bringing together world leaders, civil society and the private sector to discuss challenges and opportunities facing democracy internationally. One of the stated themes of this first of two planned summits is a focus on human rights.

The proximity of these two moments is more than mere coincidence. Yes, the U.S. faces an unprecedented crisis for the right to abortion. But we must also recognize the numerous links between democracy and reproductive rights. A most basic and fundamental freedom in a democracy is the ability to control decision-making around one’s own reproduction. When this freedom is removed, it threatens the ability of half of the country’s population to participate equally in society. So, if the U.S. hopes to credibly host a marquee event to promote its return to global democratic leadership, it must contend with cracks in that facade here at home.

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Crimes Against Humanity: Little Progress on Treaty as UN Legal Committee Concludes its Work

Excerpt of Just Security Op-Ed co-authored by GJC President Akila Radhakrishnan.

The United Nations General Assembly’s legal committee again missed the opportunity to take action this year on the draft text of a new treaty on crimes against humanity proposed by the International Law Commission. The failure, in the form of a vote Nov. 18 on a draft resolution that simply took note of the draft articles, leaves a critical gap in the legal architecture for preventing and punishing mass atrocity crimes. The result deprives a range of victims and survivors the effective protection and justice they deserve.

As this series has demonstrated, it is imperative to adopt such a treaty for a host of reasons. Even amid substantive disagreements on what the new treaty should include, those cannot be debated and resolved until there is forward momentum and a concrete schedule for such discussions. However, despite overwhelming support from States to establish such a process this year, a few States that appear vehemently opposed to the project stalled concrete progress yet again.

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UN Recognition of the Myanmar Junta Will Hurt the World Body’s Moral Credibility

Excerpt of PassBlue Op-Ed from GJC partners Women's League of Burma.

Nine months ago, Myanmar witnessed the demise of what was still the beginning of a slow transition to a democracy. In the early morning hours of Feb. 1, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing and his fellow generals seized power in a well-orchestrated coup d’état. Soon after, the junta began rolling out a campaign of repression and violence. If history is any indicator of what to expect, the worst is yet to come.

While we prepare for this dangerous, uncertain future, diplomats at the United Nations are weighing a decision with massive implications for international action against the coup. The junta is demanding recognition as Myanmar’s official representative, despite its illegitimacy and crimes against its own people. The United States and China reportedly reached a deal that silenced Myanmar’s current representative, Kyaw Moe Tun, during September’s high-level addresses to the UN General Assembly. Yet the question of military recognition appears far from settled. The UN body tasked with decisions on official representation, the Credentials Committee, is set to meet on Dec. 1. The committee consists of the US, China and Russia as well as six other countries.

Here’s what we know: The people of Myanmar are tired of diplomatic compromises. They are urgently demanding that the UN reject the military junta in all forms. This is a regime that stole the November 2020 general election in which the National League for Democracy won a resounding landslide. Its bloody, illegal rule must not be rewarded by leading human-rights bodies like the UN.

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Mississippi abortion ban tees up Supreme Court to overturn Roe

Excerpt of Courthouse News article mentioning a legal brief by the Global Justice Center.

Proponents of the abortion right say bans like that of Mississippi will not prevent the practice but instead just make it less safe. An amicus brief from Human Rights Watch, the Global Justice Center and Amnesty International says unsafe abortions are one of the leading causes of maternal mortality and morbidity. 

“The lesson for this case is clear: If an abortion ban like H.B. 1510 is upheld, more women in Mississippi are likely to die,” the brief states. 

If the court were to overturn Roe, abortion providers say low-income and minority women would be impacted the most. 

“You just shouldn't be able to have access to an abortion only based off on where you live or how much money you make and what access you have, but right now in the United States, that's what's going on,” Brewer said. 

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Opinion: There is no middle ground on human rights — including abortion rights

Letter to the Editor from GJC President Akila Radhakrishnan to The Washington Post.

Aaron Tang’s Oct. 28 Thursday Opinion essay, “A view on abortion that originalists should embrace,” outlined a dangerous path forward for the Supreme Court that is in direct conflict with an internationally recognized fact: There is no “middle ground” on a human right.

It is abundantly clear that the six-week and 15-week abortion bans before the court violate human rights outlined in treaties such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which the United States has ratified.

In a 2018 “general comment” on the treaty, the U.N. Human Rights Committee made it clear that state parties, including the United States, may not “regulate pregnancy or abortion … in a manner that runs contrary to their duty to ensure that women and girls do not have to undertake unsafe abortions.” A decision to uphold either of these bans would put the United States out of compliance with its international legal obligations.

Human rights, including abortion access, can’t be negotiated away for reasons of political acceptability. It’s time American legal observers of all stripes recognize this, and for judges to take this into account.

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Expanding Justice for Gender-Based Crimes with a Treaty on Crimes Against Humanity

Excerpt of Just Security article by GJC President Akila Radhakrishnan and GJC Legal Advisor Danielle Hites.

Over the last 30 years, the world has seen progress, largely due to feminists, in delivering justice for gender-based crimes — particularly sexual violence. However, most of this progress has relied on retrofitting gender-specific experiences into pre-existing legal frameworks that didn’t care much for gender. Take, for example, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda’s groundbreaking finding of rape as an act of genocide in the Akayesu case, or much of the jurisprudence out of the International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia related to sexual violence, including finding rape as a form of torture. These precedents were built on gendered readings of crimes whose definitions make no explicit reference to sexual or gender-based violence.

The Rome Statute that created the International Criminal Court (ICC) was certainly an improvement on the Genocide and Geneva Conventions in its explicit codification of sexual and gender-based crimes. But the last 20 years of the Court’s practice have also shown its limitations, with only two standing convictions for sexual and gender-based crimes.

Given this track record, a new convention on crimes against humanity could be a gamechanger for the effective prevention and prosecution of gender-based crimes.

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Symposium on the Current Crisis in Myanmar: Untangling Myanmar’s Credentials Battle and the Implications for International Justice

Excerpt of Opinio Juris article by GJC Legal Director Grant Shubin.

Of the many perspectives offered by outside observers in the wake of the Myanmar military’s (Tatmadaw’s) attempted coup, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights cogently cut to the core of it: “This crisis was born of impunity.” 

As if to tacitly acknowledge this fact, in his first speech since illegally deposing democratically elected officials, Tatmadaw Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing told the people of Myanmar that, “no one is above the law”. He went on, “no one or no organization is above the national interest in state-building and nation-building.” But, of course, the Tatmadaw and Min Aung Hlaing have for a generation been above the law. 

This impunity, which finds its roots in the military’s privileged position baked into Myanmar’s 2008 Constitution as well as in the international community’s mortgage on Aung San Suu Kyi’s ability to politically navigate the country out of the military’s grips, was nevertheless beginning to show cracks.  And it is these cracks that make the crisis within the crisis—the question of who is credentialed to represent Myanmar at the UN General Assembly, the representative of the National Unity Government or the junta—so urgent. 

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House’s Two Major Spending Bills Omit Long-Standing Abortion Restrictions—But Senate Battle Remains

Excerpt of Ms. Magazine article by GJC Special Counsel Michelle Onello.

The U.S. House of Representatives has passed two major spending bills—a package of federal appropriations authorizations and a foreign aid appropriations bill—which do not include decades-old discriminatory reproductive rights prohibitions that have prevented women, especially women of color, from exercising their basic sexual and reproductive health rights in the U.S. and abroad.

The two bills, passed largely along party lines, will face a difficult path in the evenly-split Senate and stand in stark contrast to the recent rash of state-level abortion restrictions and the increasing possibility that the Supreme Court will overturn Roe v. Wade.

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Myanmar’s Garment Workers Are Fighting for Freedom. It’s Time We Fought with Them.

Excerpt of Women's Media Center op-ed by GJC Legal Intern Courtney Vice.

Since Myanmar’s military seized power in a coup d’état on February 1, garment worker union members across the country have stood at the forefront of protests and marches. Thanks to their activism, there is now a long overdue spotlight on their struggle, both as workers and as allies in the movement against the coup. Yet, they are not only fighting for an end to military dictatorship; they are also fighting for the elimination of systemic harassment and violence that has plagued their lives long before the coup.

Myanmar’s antiquated labor system has created a breeding ground for this abuse. International sanctions were dropped in 2016 as Myanmar moved toward democracy and started to set its own labor standards. After the removal of these sanctions, the garment industry boomed. Western brands seeking cheap labor flocked to the country, setting up numerous factories. In 2018, the garment industry accounted for 31 percent of all of Myanmar’s exports.

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The UN Leader Is Sworn In (Again); Myanmar’s Downhill Slide; the US Envoy’s Rising Star

Excerpt of Pass Blue that quotes GJC Legal Director Grant Shubin.

The UN General Assembly passed its first resolution addressing the Feb. 1, 2021 coup in Myanmar, with 119 in favor, 1 against (Belarus) and 36 abstentions. This resolution was voted on the same day the Security Council held a closed meeting on the country’s situation, revealing little about what occurred in the session and still not producing a resolution on the matter.

Grant Shubin, legal director of the Global Justice Center, said, in part, “The bright sides of the General Assembly’s resolution, including the call on all nations to prevent arms flows into Myanmar, are in stark contrast to the Security Council’s failure to take decisive action.”

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How US Abortion Politics Distorts Women’s Lives in Conflict Zones

Excerpt of New York Review of Books that quotes GJC President Akila Radhakrishnan.

According to Akila Radhakrishnan, a human rights lawyer and president of the Global Justice Center, international humanitarian law supersedes national abortion laws: doctors in humanitarian settings have an obligation to provide care regardless. This is analogous, she argued, to the doctor’s duty to provide care to any person injured in a conflict even if the laws of country they are working in forbid the provision of care to people affiliated with so-designated terrorist organizations. The International Committee of the Red Cross also has guidelines that tell aid workers that in emergencies, international humanitarian law takes precedence over domestic rules.

“It’s unclear why [abortion would be different],” said Radhakrishnan. “We seem reluctant to make these connections when it comes to women’s bodies…. the denial of abortion, certainly to rape victims, has also been found to be torture. But you don’t see that same kind of outcry from a broad constituency when abortion services are denied.”

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Beyond the Coup in Myanmar: A Crisis Born from Impunity

Excerpt of Just Security op-ed authored by GJC President Akila Radhakrishnan and GJC Legal Director Grant Shubin.

In his first speech since illegally attempting a coup d’etat, Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing told the people of Myanmar that, “no one is above the law.” He went on, “no one or no organization is above the national interest in state-building and nation-building.” But in reality, Min Aung Hlaing and indeed all of the military (Tatmadaw) are very much above the law in Myanmar.

Of the coup’s many potential causes, perhaps the most overt is that military leadership thought they could get away with it. The military’s constitutional insulation from civilian oversight and control, the failure thus far to hold them accountable for human rights abuses and international crimes, and even periodic cheerleading from the international community for a “democratic transition” emboldened the military into thinking that subverting the will of the people could be done without major consequence. To quote the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights, “This crisis was born of impunity.”

After all, the military has been getting away with genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, so why not a coup?

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Reversing the Coup is No Solution for Myanmar

Excerpt of The Diplomat op-ed authored by GJC President Akila Radhakrishnan and GJC Special Counsel Michelle Onello.

Almost as soon as news spread of the Myanmar military’s brazen coup on February 1, we began hearing calls for a “reversal” of the coup. Now, the international community’s efforts have focused on restoring the pre-coup status quo, as evidenced by the recent (and failed) ASEAN emergency summit.

These proposals and initiatives ignore the persistent demands from protestors and ethnic groups for a radical and fundamental shift in Myanmar. Perhaps most importantly, they fail to acknowledge that the rapidly deteriorating situation in Myanmar cannot be resolved with a return to the precarious pre-coup balance of power because it’s precisely this unsustainable framework that led to the coup in the first place.

Without a recognition of the need for a complete restructuring of the underlying political and legal system so that it grants ethnic groups a meaningful role and assures justice for the military’s past and present crimes, history will keep repeating itself and the people of Myanmar will continue to suffer.

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UN calls for restoration of democracy in Myanmar, end to violence

Excerpt of Al Jazeera article that quotes GJC President Akila Radhakrishnan.

Civil society groups said the Security Council needs to agree on a more robust response.

“The military has already reneged on the flawed ‘consensus’ it reached with ASEAN leaders, so it’s critical the international community not treat last weekend’s outcome as a legitimate path forward for Myanmar,” Akila Radhakrishnan, president of the Global Justice Center, said in a statement ahead of the closed-door briefing.

“The Security Council must keep its focus on the solutions long demanded by Myanmar’s people, in particular women-led civil society groups, including a global arms embargo, targeted sanctions, and a referral to the International Criminal Court. It’s unconscionable that the Council has yet to act and they cannot deflect their responsibility to do so because others, like ASEAN, have ‘acted’.”

The military, which ruled Myanmar for almost 50 years, until it began tentative moves towards democracy a decade ago, has acknowledged that some protesters have been killed but accused them of initiating the violence.

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Biden urged to end US aid ‘abortion ban’

Excerpt of The Guardian article that quotes GJC President Akila Radhakrishnan.

The group want clear guidance issued on Helms and another misinterpreted law, the Leahy amendment.

“The US is the largest funder of global health, including family planning, and is the only donor nation to single out abortion in this way,” the letter says. “Many US abortion restrictions, including the Helms amendment, have consistently been in place for decades, causing generations’ worth of harm – and they will continue to do so if action is not taken. This is a matter of utmost urgency as bodily autonomy and reproductive freedom are increasingly under siege.”

During his first 10 days in office, Biden rescinded the Mexico City Policy – known as the “global gag rule” – which stopped overseas groups that received US aid using money from other sources to fund abortion services. Kamala Harris, the US vice-president, co-signed a bill to repeal the policy permanently – currently, it can be reintroduced or rescinded by each president.

Akila Radhakrishnan, president of the Global Justice Center, said the belief that the Helms amendment banned abortion under all circumstances had become “normalised”.

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Russia, the Current Big Spoiler in Advancing Global Gender Rights

Excerpt of Pass Blue article that quotes GJC Legal Director Grant Shubin.

At issue is not only violence — rape and other forms of sexual assault — but also a revival of attempts by Russia, China and their allies to downgrade human rights, reproductive and otherwise, and to push those topics out of the Council’s purview into economic and social branches of the UN, where they can fall into an abyss.

Grant Shubin is a human-rights lawyer who is the legal director of the Global Justice Center, a civil society organization based in New York. He is dubious about American leadership in the long term.

“Throughout the Trump years,” he said in an interview with PassBlue, “it was proven that the international human rights movement and the international human rights system do not rely on the United States to keep functioning.”

In government terms, he added, “The US is just not a functioning model,” marked as it is by making the enjoyment of people’s human rights “conditioned on the whipsaw nature of American foreign policy and of American politics.”

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Biden Plans to Repeal Trump-Era Sanctions on ICC

Excerpt of Foreign Policy article that quotes GJC President Akila Radhakrishnan.

After Trump, “they’ve done a reasonable job but they’ve also had a pretty low bar to clear,” said Akila Radhakrishnan, president of the Global Justice Center, a nonprofit advocacy group.

Radhakrishnan said even if Biden lifts the sanctions, the fact that the United States imposed sanctions in the first place could still cause lasting damage to Washington’s reputation on global human rights.

“What it shows is that the U.S. is willing to allow things like self-interest to get in the way of independent judicial institutions when it finds them inconvenient for its own policies,” she said. “That, considering the things we say we stand for and advocate for worldwide, is deeply problematic.”

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Myanmar’s Coup Is Devastating for Women

Excerpt of Foreign Policy op-ed by GJC President Akila Radhakrishnan and GJC Special Counsel Michelle Onello.

The Myanmar military’s forceful takeover of the civilian government on Feb. 1, and its deadly crackdown on peaceful protesters who have marched in the streets ever since, are a dangerous setback for democracy and the rule of law in the country. But they’re especially devastating for women.

The coup, which ousted State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, not only threatens to reverse the progress made over the past decade to ensure that women in Myanmar have more opportunities, power, and influence in society but also places an unaccountable military with a history of gender-based violence in control of every aspect of government. Beyond the direct threat this poses to women’s physical safety, this rule—if left unchecked—will reinvigorate Myanmar’s long history of patriarchal oppression.

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International rule of law: historic firsts in ICC’s conviction of Dominic Ongwen

Excerpt of International Bar Association article that quotes GJC Legal Advisor Danielle Hites.

Danielle Hites is a legal advisor at the Global Justice Center and previously worked at the Coalition for the ICC. She was pleased the Court foregrounded victims and did not just charge sexualised and gendered crimes under the catch-all category of sexual violence.

‘There were also charges of enslavement in general, torture and outrage upon personal dignity. It was an important distinction’, she says. ‘They’re recognising that sexual and gender-based violence can’t just be siloed into one category, there are gendered elements to all of these crimes and they can be committed in gendered ways and often are’.

But recognising the gendered perpetration of crimes in court is very difficult – partially, Hites says, because it is a more specific kind of harm, but also because the legal frameworks for convictions were created to make it more difficult.

Reaching this conviction for forced pregnancy was particularly challenging, as the Court noted in its discussion, because of the history of its incorporation into the Rome Statute. Hites says, ‘there were so many countries that either didn’t want forced pregnancy included in the Statute because they were concerned that their own national laws on reproductive autonomy would be implicated, or they felt it was already covered by unlawful detention or rape.’

Because of the resulting narrow definition and ‘ridiculous’ high standards for conviction of the crime, Hites says, there are ‘so many barriers to access to justice’.

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Reset or revolution: Biden’s first 100 days

Excerpt of International Bar Association article that quotes GJC President Akila Radhakrishnan.

Another cause for concern is gender inequality. Akila Radhakrishnan, President of the Global Justice Center, says that on some issues Biden has said the right things and taken the right initial steps, but on abortion the administration has been ‘profoundly disappointing’.

Radhakrishnan notes that the Biden administration has shown its comfort and ability to stand up against white supremacy, and to stand up for LGBTQ+ rights, at least in rhetoric and initial gestures. She asks, ‘so when it comes to abortion, why are we seeing them not utilise the terminology of abortion? Why have we seen nothing on broader commitments beyond repealing the gag rule?’

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