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Coming Debates to Advance New Treaty on Crimes Against Humanity Will Require Skillful Leadership

Excerpt of Just Security op-ed co-authored by GJC President Akila Radhakrishnan.

The resolution adopted recently at the United Nations General Assembly’s legal committee on draft articles for a treaty on crimes against humanity creates a two-year process for debate and discussion of the proposal within the committee. This opens the door for the possible adoption of a new, critically needed, global treaty on crimes against humanity within the next three or four years. Such a treaty would close several gaps in the legal architecture of atrocity crimes — particularly the legal obligation to prevent crimes against humanity, a duty not imposed by complementary regimes, including the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court and the proposed Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty.

As Just Security readers will recall from previous articles, the project had been stuck for the past three years. Each year, an overwhelming majority of States voiced their enthusiastic support in the Sixth Committee. This was then followed by weeks of debate and the adoption of a disappointing resolution “taking note” of the International Law Commission’s work to produce the draft articles and placing it on the agenda for the following year. The primary culprit was not the draft articles themselves or States’ unwillingness to debate this important potential treaty. Instead, it was a product of the working methods of the Sixth Committee, which insist upon “consensus” (meaning de facto unanimity) for any concrete action to occur with respect to ILC products. As we have already noted here and here, this not only prevented any action with respect to the draft articles, but imperiled the legitimacy of the International Law Commission and the Sixth Committee itself.

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A tale of two Supreme Courts

Excerpt of The Hill op-ed authored by GJC Legal Advisor Ashita Alag.

In a moment with major repercussions for the future of reproductive rights around the world, the Supreme Courts of India and the United States issued historic rulings on abortion only a few months apart. In the U.S., the fall of Roe v. Wade in June unleashed havoc on the country’s health care system. Yet, in India, the story has unfolded far differently.

Last month, the Supreme Court of India held that a distinction made in Indian law between married and unmarried women and their access to abortion up to 24 weeks was arbitrary and should be abolished. The ruling in the case X v. The Principal Secretary, Health & Family Welfare Department further expanded the right to abortion by clarifying that the listed set of circumstances that allow women to receive abortions up to 24 weeks under current law is not exhaustive. As a result, the right to abortion should be extended to all women who undergo a change in their material circumstances. The court further explained that this could include instances such as financial insecurity caused by losing a job or being diagnosed with a chronic illness.

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On Crimes Against Humanity, Protect the UN Sixth Committee’s Integrity With Action

Excerpt of Just Security op-ed co-authored by GJC President Akila Radhakrishnan.

Enthusiasm for negotiating and adopting a new global treaty on the prevention and punishment of crimes against humanity has been growing since the issuance of a model draft treaty 16 years ago, particularly after the United Nations International Law Commission (ILC) submitted a final set of draft articles to the General Assembly on Aug. 5, 2019. Although paragraph 42 of the ILC’s report recommended the “elaboration of a convention by the General Assembly or by an international conference of plenipotentiaries on the basis of the draft articles,” progress on this important treaty has stalled in the U.N. General Assembly’s Sixth Committee. But there are ways the Sixth Committee, the U.N. General Assembly panel that considers legal issues, could make progress on the ILC’s draft text, thereby fulfilling its role within the U.N. system and increasing the likelihood that this critical treaty will be negotiated and adopted in the near future.

The Sixth Committee Deliberations over the Past Three Years

When the ILC’s text was introduced to the Sixth Committee in 2019, it was not the first time the idea of a new treaty had been floated at the General Assembly. The ILC had assiduously canvassed State reactions since beginning work on the topic in 2013, and the draft took into account extensive State comments. Thus, a significant majority of States in 2019 were willing to proceed quickly to a Diplomatic Conference to negotiate the treaty, which Austria offered to host. A handful of States demurred, however, asking for more time to study the draft, and an even smaller number opposed the treaty entirely. The result was a disappointing resolution “taking note” of the draft articles and promising to revisit them the following year. Austria, joined by 42 other States, expressed disappointment.

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic made matters worse. Strict limitations on working methods were imposed, causing the Sixth Committee to adopt a technical rollover resolution again simply “taking note” of the draft articles. This time Mexico, joined by 13 other States, voiced concerns that this ran the “risk . . . of getting caught in a cycle of consideration and postponement of the articles without concrete action, which could undermine the relationship between the General Assembly and the ILC."

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Reproductive Rights Are Under Attack. Climate Change Will Make It Worse.

Excerpt of Women's Media Center op-ed authored by GJC Legal Intern Dakota Porter.

In the wake of ruling to overturn Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court quietly limited the EPA’s power to combat climate change with their decision in West Virginia v. EPA. The decision prevents a nationwide cap on carbon emissions, allowing states with extractive industries and massive carbon outputs to go under-regulated. So, just as the court has paved the way for states to deny essential reproductive health care, it has also cemented the country’s position as one of the biggest contributors to climate change in the world.

These two cases are more connected than you may think.

Climate change, and the inevitable mass migration it has already unleashed, heightens the need for sexual and reproductive health services — the crisis is linked to higher rates of infectious diseases, gender-based violence, and disability, which all influence reproductive outcomes. Unfortunately, in the wake of natural disasters, the availability of and access to such health services is sparse or absent. When drought, floods, hurricanes, or other disasters strike, climate change strains the government’s and the humanitarian sector’s abilities to provide resources like contraception and STI testing.

As our understanding of the relationship between climate change, migration, and reproductive rights grows, it’s time we demand action that takes these intersecting harms into account.

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Roe Is the Past, Human Rights Are the Future

Excerpt of The Nation op-ed authored by GJC President Akila Radhakrishnan.

All of us in the abortion rights movement have long prepared for the day Roe v. Wade would be reversed. But nothing could fully brace us for the pain of reading Justice Samuel Alito’s majority opinion, which categorically declared that abortion is not a constitutional right. While we took to the streets to rage and mourn the destruction of our rights, we heard from feminist allies and partners around the world—some of whom had successfully fought deeply entrenched patriarchal forces to secure historic advances for abortion rights in their country and offered lessons for our struggle. There is an immense amount to learn from them, but there is one lesson in particular to embrace: We must place human rights at the center of our demands for unfettered access to abortion.

Since the Supreme Court decided Roe in 1973, the story of abortion access in the United States has been one of steady regression. In 1976, Congress passed the Hyde Amendment to restrict the use of federal funds for abortion except in limited circumstances. This decision was upheld by the Supreme Court in Harris v. McRae, which found that that neither the federal government nor states were required to pay for abortion services—severely undercutting the realization of a constitutional right. Subsequent years saw Planned Parenthood v. Casey limit Roe through the imposition of the “undue burden” standard, Gonzales v. Carhart limit later abortions, and National Institute of Family and Life Advocates v. Becerra limit regulation of anti-abortion “crisis pregnancy centers.” And just under 50 years after Roe, the court dealt its killing blow to abortion rights in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.

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