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* Alfredo Astiz, a former captain and navy spy, has been sentenced to life in prison for crimes against humanity committed during the 1976-83 Argentinian military dictatorship. He and 10 other former Argentine military and police officers together faced 86 cases of kidnapping, torture, and murder of leftist dissidents. Astiz was accused of participating in the kidnapping, torture, and murder of two French nuns, a journalist, and three founders of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo. Fifteen other former military officials were also convicted of crimes against humanity; 12 were sentenced to life in prison without parole, and four received jail sentences ranging from 18 to 25 years. The court has the ability to sentence former officials as the result of a 2005 Argentina Supreme Court ruling that denied amnesty to military figures who committed crimes during the military dictatorship.

* Last week, Uruguay followed suit by passing a law that eliminates the effects of the country’s 1986 Amnesty Law, which protected police and military personnel from being prosecuted for human rights violations, and repeals a statute of limitations that would have prevented victims from filing criminal complaints as of today. In addition to this revocation of amnesty, dictatorship-era kidnappings, torture, and killings are now classified as crimes against humanity. About 30 leftists were kidnapped and/or killed during Uruguay’s 1973-85 dictatorship. Also last week, Brazil’s Congress unanimously approved a  truth and reconciliation commission to investigate more than 40 years of human rights abuses. The commission will have subpoena power, can demand any document it wants from the government, and put witnesses under oath. But it won’t result in prosecutions, since the country’s 1979 amnesty remains intact. It must look at any rights crimes from 1946 to 1988, when Brazil’s current democracy began.

Photo: mercopress.com

Today’s blog post focuses on the topic of transitional justice:

* Last week, the lower house of Brazil’s congress, the Chamber of Deputies, approved the creation of a National Truth Commission. The commission will investigate human rights abuses—including forced disappearances, torture, and arbitrary executions—committed under the country’s 1964–85 military regime. It is expected that the bill will now be promptly approved by the Brazilian Senate. While noting the bill’s significant strengths, the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) has also pointed out its challenges and subsequent opportunities for successfully bringing justice to victims and their families, as well as preventing future violations. Read the ICTJ’s commentary here.

* Current UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and former ICTJ president Juan E. Méndez published a book this month, Taking a Stand: The Evolution of Human Rights, together with South Carolina Poet Laureate Marjory Wentworth. A long-time political activist, Méndez was arrested and tortured by the Argentinean government in the 1970s. He was the first executive director of Americas Watch, in 1981, and the UN’s first special adviser on the prevention of genocide, from 2004 to 2007. Taking a Stand offers critical analysis of human rights movements throughout the world and policy recommendations on both the international and domestic levels. The book has garnered favorable reviews, in part for its reliance on facts and research in addition to the author’s personal experiences.

* On September 16, ICTJ held a panel discussion called “Why the Silence on Sri Lanka?” on accountability for crimes against humanity and war crimes committed during the country’s civil war. Earlier this year, the UN Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka released a report alleging that scores of civilians were killed by governmental operations against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam between January and May 2009. Led by Gordon Weiss, former UN spokesman in Sri Lanka and author of The Cage, and Dr. Vasuki Nesiah, academic and Sri Lanka human rights activist, the discussion focused on ways to ensure proper investigation of all crimes in Sri Lanka and other steps that will enable victims, and the country as a whole, to work toward a sustainable peace.

Photo: livejournal.com

Widespread arrests of sub-Saharan Africans by Libya’s National Transitional Council (NTC) have become a cause of concern for human rights organizations.

“It’s a dangerous time to be dark-skinned in Tripoli,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The NTC should stop arresting African migrants and black Libyans unless it has concrete evidence of criminal activity. It should also take immediate steps to protect them from violence and abuse.” After interviewing detainees, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International found that the majority of arrests were based on skin color, following from the fact that Muammar Gaddafi used sub-Saharan Africans as mercenaries. “The NTC has legitimate concerns about unlawful mercenaries and violent activity, but it can’t simply arrest dark-skinned men just in case they think they might be mercenaries,” Whitson said.

Amnesty International focused its study on the Tawargha tribe, in a town of the same name used as a Gaddafi stronghold. North Africa researcher Diana Eltahawy said there was no doubt that some Tawarghas fought alongside Gaddafi, “But anyone responsible should be brought to justice in fair trials; not dragged out of hospital beds on the assumption that all Tawarghas are ‘killers’ and ‘mercenaries’. The whole population should not have to suffer.”

The Human Rights Watch report, released September 1, said, “the sub-Saharan Africans were in overcrowded cells with a putrid stench; one cell had 26 people and six mattresses. The African men Human Rights Watch interviewed complained of inadequate water, poor sanitation, and not being allowed to make phone calls to ask family members to bring their documents.”

Photos (from top): africanspotlight.com, theatlanticwire.com

* Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have gathered evidence that the Sudanese government has committed war crimes in South Kordofan State, just north of the newly established border of South Sudan. Researchers from both organizations investigated 13 air strikes by the Sudanese government in the Nuba Mountains region, despite a ceasefire announced by Sudan’s president Omar al-Bashir on August 23. The bombing campaign began June 5 in Kadugli. Witnesses and victims in South Kordofan described indiscriminate bombing and the use of anti-personnel mines in civilian areas void of any legitimate military targets, leading human rights organizations to call the acts a violation of international humanitarian law. Despite a mounting humanitarian crisis, President Bashir announced on August 23 that no foreign aid agencies would be allowed into South Kordofan. The Famine Early Warning Systems Network has classified the food and livelihood situation of those affected by the conflict at the “Crisis” level, one below “Emergency.”

* Despite requests for a dismissal by the Kenyan government, the International Criminal Court decided today to proceed with the case against six high-ranking Kenyan government officials, on charges of crimes against humanity, murder, forcible transfer and persecution, and rape during post-electoral violence in late 2007. The defendants are Uhuru Muigai Kenyatta, deputy prime minister and minister of finance; William Samoei Ruto, minister of higher education, science and technology; Henry Kiprono Kosgey, minister of industrialization; Joshua Arap Sang, head of operations for KASS FM radio; Francis Kirimi Muthaura, head of the public service and secretary to the cabinet; and Mohamed Hussein Ali, who was police commissioner at the time of the violence. The December 2007 violence resulted in 1,100 people killed, 3,500 injured, and up to 600,000 forcibly displaced.

* “The United Nations–backed tribunal in Cambodia (ECCC) dealing with mass killings and other crimes committed under the Khmer Rouge three decades ago began its fitness hearing today into the health of two of the ageing defendants currently on trial,” the UN News Centre reported August 29. The hearing included two top Khmer Rouge officials implicated in the 1975–79 genocide. The allegations against Ieng Thirith, 79, the former social affairs minister, and Nuon Chea (also known as “Brother Number 2”), chief policy architect of the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK), include genocide, murder, torture, religious persecution, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. Ieng Thirith was found to be “cognitively impaired,” which would compromise her rights to a fair trial. Nuon Chea was declared fit to stand trial.

* The Kigali Institute of Education (KIE), a teacher training college in Rwanda’s capital yesterday held a one-day forum on the prevention of genocide called “Teaching Genocide and Community Cohesion: From Theory to Practice.”  The workshop, run in partnership with Britain’s University of Nottingham, is geared towards teaching students and teachers the basics of genocide prevention, as well as the importance of building and spreading community cohesion, in the hope of preventing a repetition of the genocidal events of 1994.

Photos (from top): unitednews.com.pk, historyplace.com

Serbia: Goran Hadjic appears in court

Goran Hadzic, the last person wanted by the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), has made his first appearance before the court today after being arrested on July 20. He was required to submit a guilty or not guilty plea, but instead his lawyers asked for and received a thirty-day extension on this deadline. Hadzic was indicted on 14 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity in 2004 for his role in the ethnic conflict that erupted in Croatia during the breakup of Yugoslavia.

From 1991 to 1993 Hadzic was leader of the Republic of Serbian Krajina (RSK), a group that fought for Serb independence from Croatia. During the fighting hundreds of civilians were killed and thousands displaced as RSK forces sought to clear about one third of the country of non-Serb ethnic groups in an attempt to establish a new state. The conflict was put to a halt only after a NATO intervention.

Hadzic’s 14 counts range from torture and unlawful imprisonment to persecution and murder of people of non-Serb ethnicity. He is also accused of helping to carry out the infamous Vukovar Massacre, in which 264 people, identified as wounded Croatian soldiers and non-Serb civilians, were removed from a hospital in the town of Vukovar and executed at a nearby farm.

Hadzic’s arrest comes only two-months after the arrest of suspected war criminal Ratko Mladic by Serbian police. Because the European Union has tied Serbia’s accession to the apprehension of all suspected war criminals, these arrests may have opened a new chapter in Serbian-EU relations by making the prospect of serious accession talks a real possibility. However, Belgrade denies that this was part of their motive. In a statement, Serbian president Boris Tadic said he believes the nation has finally “completed its most difficult chapter in cooperation with the ICTY.”

Photo: Associated Press

Bosnia: Mladic appears before ICTY again

Ratko Mladic, the commander of the Bosnian Serb army, yesterday appeared for the second time before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. The hearing was marked by heated exchanges between Mladic and the presiding judge, Alphons Orie of the Netherlands. His indictment on 11 charges—including genocide, persecution, and deportation—stems from his leadership of the Bosnian Serb army during the 1992-95 war, including the July 1995 Srebrenica massacre. In court yesterday, Mladic said he would not enter a plea without the presence of his Serbian and Russian lawyers, while the court said the Serbian attorney was not qualified to represent Mladic since he does not speak English. On Sunday, Agence France-Presse had reported that Mladic planned to boycott the hearing as a protest against issues with his representation. After Mladic’s expulsion, the judge entered pleas of not guilty on all 11 charges, but did not set a date for his next court appearance.

Laws of War: Crisis Group president Louise Arbour delivers speech

Louise Arbour, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and current president of the International Crisis Group, delivered the annual Kirby Lecture at the Australian National University on June 23. Titled “The Laws of War: Under Siege or Gaining Ground?” the speech examined the current state of international humanitarian law and the laws governing warfare.

Arbour noted that international law regarding the conduct of war has come under attack from both sides, one arguing that traditional laws of war constrain governments’ ability to fight asymmetric wars against terrorists or insurgents, the other arguing that international law gives too much leeway to states that inflict civilian casualties. While Arbour acknowledged important gaps in international humanitarian law, she said some criticisms were a result of the law’s greater effectiveness in recent years in holding perpetrators of atrocities accountable and the desire of some states to avoid being held accountable for their actions.

Arbour noted that armed conflict has changed dramatically since international treaties like the Geneva Conventions were formulated. It is not always clear whether military, counterinsurgency, and counterterrorism operations against non-state actors can be considered acts of war, which means they need to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis to determine how they should be governed under international and domestic laws. However, even if non-state actors violate laws governing warfare, Arbour argued that states should abide by them, especially when it comes to protecting civilians. Non-state violators can be held accountable through the criminal process, whereas states are still bound by their obligations under those treaties.

Even if asymmetric warfare has made it more difficult to distinguish between civilians and combatants, Arbour said today’s criteria remained useful, relevant, and necessary: “The current formulation does allow for the targeting of ‘civilian combatants’ when they are engaged in hostilities. To expand humanitarian law to allow the targeting of those civilians not directly involved in hostilities would be a dangerous step, and would entirely undermine the rationale of civilian protection.”

Arbour noted the continuing debate over what constitutes excessive civilian casualties, with one side arguing that any restriction on civilian casualties is too restrictive and the other that current laws of war allow too many civilian casualties. She said that current laws struck a proper balance between “military and humanitarian imperatives,” and that clearer standards would develop over time.

Finally Arbour discussed the concept of “lawfare”—the “use or the abuse of laws of war as a military tool.” While she cautioned against the manipulation of law for political aims, she also highlighted international humanitarian law’s potential to play a major role in protecting civilians and prevent conflict if implemented and enforced properly, and warned against attempts to cast aside or radically revise the current system of international humanitarian law.

Photo: The Guardian

Rwanda: ICTR refers genocide case to Rwandan courts

On Wednesday, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) referred one of its cases to the Rwandan judicial system. The case is that of Jean-Bosco Uwinkindi, a Rwandan Pentecostal pastor charged with genocide, conspiracy to commit genocide, and extermination as a crime against humanity. He was arrested in Uganda in June 2010 and has been in the tribunal’s custody since July of that year.

Previous requests for referral to the Rwandan courts were rejected by ICTR judges on the basis that a fair trial could not be guaranteed. In this case, however, the court noted that “Rwanda had made material changes in its laws and had indicated its capacity and willingness to prosecute cases referred by the ICTR adhering to internationally recognised fair trial standards enshrined in the ICTR Statute and other human rights instruments.” Uwinkindi’s referral is the first one granted since Chief Prosecutor Hassan Bubacar Jallow filed three new transfer requests based on his determination that the legal climate in Rwanda had changed enough to allow fair trial for the accused.

In their ruling, the ICTR judges requested that the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights be appointed to monitor the Rwandan proceedings for fairness.

The ruling, which Rwandan pro-government daily The New Times labeled “a vote of confidence in the Rwandan judicial system,” follows the UN Security Council’s Resolution 1966 asking the tribunal to find ways to wrap up all cases by 2014.

Africa: Civil society groups urge governments to support ICC

A report by African civil society groups and international organizations working in Africa calls on African member states of the ICC to cooperate with and continue supporting the actions of the International Criminal Court. Titled “Observations and Recommendations on the International Criminal Court and the African Union,” the report criticizes AU requests for delays in ICC prosecution of Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir and in the investigation of Kenya’s 2007-08 post-election violence, and condemns AU reluctance to support Security Council Resolution 1970 on Libya.

The organizations, numbering 125 and based in more than 25 countries, make seven recommendations to Africa’s 32 ICC member states: 1) support the ICC at AU summits, 2) push for accountability for serious violators of international law in Darfur and Kenya, 3) voice objections on Kenya and Darfur to the Security Council rather than the ICC, 4) address concerns about plans to expand jurisdiction of the new African Court of Justice and Human Rights, 5) cooperate with ICC prosecution of crimes in Libya, 6) comply with obligations regarding people targeted by ICC warrants, and 7) take a more active role in selection of the next ICC prosecutor.

Currently the African Court of Justice and Human Rights is allowed to rule on general legal matters and human rights treaties. The AU has proposed widening its jurisdiction to criminal prosecution for genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. Noting the complexity of these cases and the region’s lack of experience in handling them, the report advises caution. If the African Court moves ahead, says the report, it must adhere to international legal and procedural standards, have access to adequate resources to conduct investigations, and clarify its standing to make sure it doesn’t undermine ICC authority.

The recommendation regarding the Bashir warrant appears to be a response to the AU call for members not to cooperate with the arrest, while the plea for cooperation with the ICC on Libya aims to ensure that African concerns about military action don’t obstruct justice for crimes against civilians.

Photo: Human Rights Watch

On June 16, the Brookings Institution hosted a panel discussion titled “Libya and the Responsibility to Protect.” Moderated by Mike Abramowitz of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the panel featured Manal Omar of the United States Institute of Peace, Sarah Sewall of the Harvard Kennedy School, and Ambassador Richard Williamson of the Brookings Institution.

As Abramowitz said in his opening statement, several issues regarding R2P have been raised by the public, commentators, policymakers, and politicians in the context of UN Security Council Resolution 1973 and the subsequent NATO intervention in Libya. Those questions include whether the intervention has prevented a mass atrocity, whether NATO’s ongoing actions have gone beyond the original mandate of civilian protection into regime change, and why the R2P principle has been applied to Libya but not other countries facing the threat of mass atrocities. Another question is whether R2P has been useful in dealing with the Libyan situation, or if the Libyan crisis has discredited the principle of the Responsibility to Protect.

Omar of USIP focused on illustrating the situation on the ground based on conversations she had with Libyan civilians and rebels. She highlighted the importance of NATO air strikes to rebels and civilians, and Libyans’ opposition to the possibility of foreign ground troops in their country. She also discussed Libyans’ views that regime change and civilian protection are one and the same in their country, their continued belief in the eventual demise of the Qaddafi regime, and ongoing discussions within and outside the National Transitional Council about transitional justice, reconciliation, and the form of Libya’s future government. Omar added that the people of Benghazi fear mass atrocities experienced in other parts of Libya could reach them without the help of the international community, and that they especially dread the use of rape as a “tool of war.”

Ambassador Richardson noted the tension between realism and idealism inherent in a principle like R2P, especially when it comes to the use of military force, and stressed the need for international legitimacy, multilateral consensus, and careful consideration of the full menu of options. He described the Libyan case as a learning opportunity, emphasizing that R2P, like human rights before it, will take a long time to establish itself as a global norm, and that while mistakes in applying the principle will be made, each time R2P is invoked is a chance for the international community to figure out what it means and how to respond. In the case of Libya, Richardson believes that Britain and France were more anxious to get involved than the United States was because they had greater interests at stake. He also said there may be times when it’s better to negotiate with the perpetrators of mass crimes without an ICC indictment to slow down the killing and save more civilian lives. He concluded by underscoring the need for post-intervention reconstruction and stabilization plans.

Dr. Sewall, one of the authors of the Mass Atrocity Response Operation Planning Handbook, emphasized the Libyan case as a learning opportunity, both politically and militarily, echoing many of Ambassador Richardson’s points. She described R2P as a “work in progress,” and said that even if some doubt the sincerity of the concept’s motives and view it as neo-imperialism, it remains “useful in framing the debate” about cases like Libya. She said the U.S. military’s actions in Libya demonstrated a lack of thinking about MARO operations within the military, noting that outside observers viewed airstrikes—the U.S. military’s primary tool for operations when not allowed to use ground troops—as synonymous with major combat operations aimed at regime change. Dr. Sewall stressed that protection strategies used in humanitarian interventions are defensive in nature, while the primary mode of carrying out U.S. military operations is offensive, creating an obvious disconnect between the goals of the operation and the tools used to accomplish them. Noting that “military power is very imprecise, highly uncertain, and really volatile,” she said civilian casualties could cause a backlash against future interventions, which underscores not only the need to be cautious about military intervention, but also the importance of prevention at earlier stages of conflict.

Image: Daryl Cagle, MSNBC.com

Guatemala: Former military chief of staff arrested

Former Guatemalan general Héctor Mario López Fuentes was arrested last Friday in Guatemala City. As the third-highest-ranking military official, he is alleged to have been responsible for massacres and violence against the regime’s opponents during the country’s 36-year civil war. Amnesty International says General López Fuentes planned 12 massacres that killed an estimated 317 indigenous Maya in Guatemala’s Ixil Triangle from 1982 to 1983. A truth commission (Commission for Historical Clarification) backed by the United Nations found that approximately 200,000 people were either killed or disappeared during the civil war, and that 440 massacres in indigenous communities may amount to genocide. López Fuentes faces charges that include genocide, forced disappearances, and crimes against humanity. His arrest follows that of two former heads of the national police force, who are also accused of severe human rights violations during the conflict.

News of the general’s arrest comes not long after the International Crisis Group released a report on the progress of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), an investigative body created in 2007 by agreement between the Guatemalan government and the UN to strengthen the Guatemalan judicial system, investigate crimes committed by illegal security forces and clandestine security organizations (CIACS), and dismantle the CIACS, whose origins date back to the government intelligence forces during the civil war. The report states that the judicial system has come to rely on the CICIG too much as a crutch in dealing with issues involving CIACS. According to the report, the Guatemalan judicial system needs to take greater responsibility and initiative in investigating and prosecuting those crimes.

Sri Lanka: Miliband and Kouchner urge action based on UN report

David Miliband and Bernard Kouchner, the former British and French foreign ministers, published an op-ed in the International Herald Tribune on Monday, calling on the international community to carry out the recommendations of last month’s UN report on Sri Lanka. “Report of the Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka” labels abuses committed by both the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam as war crimes and crimes against humanity, and calls for the creation of “an independent, international mechanism to monitor Sri Lanka’s reconciliation efforts and independent investigations into alleged violations.”

Referring to Sri Lanka’s and the global community’s responsibility to protect civilians, the two former ministers said there was evidence the Sri Lankan government had failed to protect Tamil noncombatants from violence. Miliband and Kouchner especially stressed the need for a process to hold human rights violators accountable for their wartime actions. They said if the Sri Lankan government was reluctant to proceed on its own, the international community should move forward with implementing the report’s recommendations, which have been endorsed by the UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay.

The Sri Lankan government claims the UN report makes judgments based on “unverified information,” and says its Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) is looking into allegations of human rights violations. Kouchner and Miliband argue that the LLCR “fails standards of impartiality and independence and is deeply flawed.”

Photo: UltimaHoraOnline.com

The Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect published a policy brief May 19 titled “Tackling the Threat of Mass Atrocities in the Democratic Republic of Congo: Applying the Responsibility to Protect.” This report examines the ongoing violence in the DRC and what steps international organizations, donor governments, and the Congolese government can take to fulfill their obligations under the Responsibility to Protect.

Conflict between armed rebel groups and the DRC armed forces (FARDC), dating back to 1996, has resulted in war crimes and crimes against humanity on both sides, including mass murder, rape, looting, pillaging, extortion, forced labor, forced conscription, and the displacement of over 1 million people. Despite a 17,000-strong UN peacekeeping force (MONUSCO), an ICC investigation, and UN Security Council sanctions, the security situation remains unstable.

Within the Congo itself, the brief identifies several key issues for the government to address with regard to the FARDC, including corruption, absence of a clear command-and-control structure, lack of training in civilian protection and human rights, linkages of certain units to individual politicians, persistence of impunity for perpetrators of abuses, and conflict over natural resources and mines. The brief also calls on the DRC to take steps to fulfill its Responsibility to Protect, and urges foreign governments and multilateral organizations to support Congo’s government in doing so.

The brief says MONUSCO should deploy preventively rather than reactively, and improve communications with the local population to better protect civilians. The most urgent need, according to the Global Centre for R2P, is for security sector reform to rein in the FARDC, including prosecution of known human rights abusers in the military. Stronger and more unified institutionalization of the FARDC, standardized and coordinated training that includes civilian protection and human rights components, and civilian oversight are critical for effective security sector reform, the brief says.

Lastly, the report argues that disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration programs should shift focus from short-term disarmament to longer-term efforts to reintegrate demobilized combatants into civilian society.

Photo: Operation Broken Silence

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