Human rights news from the IBA - February/March 2018

Different playbook for Muslim women in western media

Emad Mekay, IBA Middle East Correspondent

When a Saudi woman was arrested in July 2017 for wearing a miniskirt in an online video, there was hardly a Western outlet that didn’t cover the story. But when in September 2017 two prominent female academics, who choose the traditional garb, were arrested for calling for real political and business reform, Western media interest was absent, even though their fate is still unknown.

Muslim women in western media

Many Muslim women have been aware for some time that the Western media, particularly in the United States, tends to present them as being in need of sexual freedom or, on other occasions, oppressed and submissive or, worse, associated with terrorism. Now, academic studies are providing Muslim women with data in their struggle for an accurate Western media representation.

After using a systematic computer-generated comparison of both the quantity and quality of more than 4,500 articles that appeared over 35 years in The New York Times and The Washington Post, Rochelle Terman, a researcher at Stanford University, found that Muslim women are more likely to appear in US media coverage ‘almost exclusively’ if they live in societies with poor records of women’s rights.

‘Of course, Muslim women have been sharing this insight for years – that Western media portrays them as passive victims etc,’ Terman tells Global Insight. ‘There was nothing I “discovered” that wasn’t already known in some way. My contribution was merely to approach the issue in a quantitative way.’

Federica D’Alessandra is a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights and Vice-Chair of the IBA Human Rights Law Committee. She says the media tend to not only generalise when it comes to women but also to ignore key factors affecting rights issues in Muslim countries.

‘Many of the abuses and deprivations that can be identified in the countries in question are, I believe, the result of political outcomes, not religious precepts,’ she says. ‘The proof of this is the diversity of policies that regulate women’s rights in Muslim countries. If religion was the source of these laws, wouldn’t all Muslim countries have the same rules regulating certain types of conduct? But they don’t, and I believe Western media can and should do better in highlighting this diversity.

‘We ought to be careful with generalisations, and with attaching issues of sexism and abuse as prevalent traits of an entire religious group.’ 

Terman used a tool called structural topic modelling that enables a methodical comparison of the volume and substance of news coverage.

The study found that portrayals of Muslim women in the US media propagated a perception that Muslims in general are distinctly sexist. ‘US news coverage of women abroad is driven by confirmation bias. Journalists are more likely to report on women living in Muslim and Middle Eastern countries if their rights are violated, but report on women in other societies when their rights are respected,’ Terman says. ‘Stories about Muslim women emphasise the theme of women’s rights violations and gender inequality, even for countries with relatively good records of women’s rights.’

In other words, countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia, with repressive regimes, are featured in greater numbers, while those nations with relatively good records – such as Malaysia and Tunisia – are covered less often, says the study. Reporting about women in the Middle East devotes 73 per cent more coverage to issues like women’s rights and gender equality, compared to women in the West, and more than four times the attention to religion.

Reporting often makes little or no distinction between Muslim women living in the West or in Middle Eastern countries, leading to the perception of submissive or discriminated against women in Islam in general.

Laurens de Rooij, a postdoctoral fellow with the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Cape Town, says his work shows similar results in media in the United Kingdom when it comes to Muslim women. ‘The reason human rights respect doesn’t appear in the news is not the result of news values, but because that would suggest those countries, people, regions are like the US, UK or in the process of becoming like the US and the UK, and that is something that cannot be supported.’

Some scholars warn disparaging portrayals go beyond being a matter of nuisance or frustration for Muslim women. The level of stereotyping tends to shape public perceptions and can be used to justify Western policies.

Terman, de Rooij, D’Alessandra and others voicing concern over inaccuracies in representations of Islamic culture point to rampant Orientalism, a form of representation of others in a minimalist or negative light to justify aggressive polices to help civilise ‘barbaric or degenerate cultures’, as one of the main culprits.

D’Alessandra says the new data is, of itself, a step towards a more accurate portrayal in the media. ‘The role of the media is not the one factor that single-handedly led to the increase of hate crimes or prejudice against Muslims. And neither do I believe that the Western media has intentionally and in bad faith promoted certain narratives. But narratives are important in shaping what societies are prepared to accept and tolerate, and ultimately narratives are strongly influenced by the media.’



Closure of ICTY marks end of important chapter for international justice

At the closing of its doors on 31 December 2017, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) will have heard the highest number of cases of any international criminal tribunal to date.

The ICTY was established in May 1993 in response to flagrant violations of international humanitarian law during the Balkans conflicts in the 1990s. It has issued 161 indictments during its tenure, and heard some of its most significant cases towards the end of its mandate.

In November 2017, Ratko Mladic, Commander of the Main Staff of the Bosnian-Serb Army, was sentenced to life imprisonment, following his conviction for genocide and other crimes across Bosnia and Herzegovina.

That same month, the ICTY Appeals Chamber handed down its last judgment, in the Prlic et al case, in which it affirmed almost all of the Trial Chamber’s convictions of Jadranko Prlic, Bruno Stojic, Slobodan Praljak, Milivoj Petkovic, Valentin Coric and Berislav Pušic.

Aurélie Roche-Mair, Director of the IBA’s International Criminal Court and International Criminal Law Programme, commented: ‘The ICTY was groundbreaking in many respects. It set important legal precedents, notably shaping our understanding of individual responsibility for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. It demonstrated that the international community does not have to sit on the sidelines when courts in war-torn countries are unable to respond to atrocities.’ During its 24 years of existence, the ICTY has faced both challenges and criticisms, including lack of state cooperation resulting in delays in arresting some suspects, and lack of integration and support for defence counsel.

In preparation for its closure, the ICTY has held a series of legacy dialogues and conferences to reflect on many of its legal and operational issues. The Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals will now take over the remaining appeals from ICTY cases, while courts in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo and Serbia continue to hear cases arising from the conflict.



Film: panel discuss state obligations to tackle global poverty

A panel of experts examined the importance of bridging human rights and economic policies to mark the launch of a new report on the subject by the IBA’s Human Rights Institute in December.

The Obligation to Mobilise Resources report calls for international focus on the negative impact of economic policies, insufficiently regulated financial flows and tax evasion on human rights, in the context of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

Obligation to Mobilise Resources

Discussing these and related issues at the launch event were: former UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Magdalena Sepúlveda Carmona; Olivier de Schutter, member of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; Christian Aid’s Matti Kohonen; and Muthoni Wanyeki of the Open Society Foundation.

View the film of the panel discussion



Former Justice Michael Kirby becomes IBAHRI Co-Chair

The Honourable Michael Kirby AC CMG has been appointed Co-Chair of the IBA’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI). A former Justice of the High Court of Australia, international jurist and educator, he succeeds Baroness Helena Kennedy QC in the role.

Michael Kirby

Together with current Co-Chair, Ambassador (ret.) Hans Corell, former Under-Secretary-General for Legal Affairs and the Legal Counsel of the United Nations, Kirby now leads the IBAHRI Council, the Institute’s governing body.

Kirby served as justice of the High Court of Australia from 1996–2009, and previously held positions including Judge of the Federal Court of Australia and President of the New South Wales Court of Appeal. He has undertaken many international activities, notably for the United Nations and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Recently, Kirby acted as Commissioner of the UN Development Programme Global Commission on HIV and the Law, Chairman of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea, and was a member of the High-Level Panel on Access to Essential Healthcare.

He holds Honorary Professorships at 12 Australian and international universities, and has received numerous prestigious human rights awards, including the Australian Human Rights Medal.

More information



IBA inquiry calls for action on North Korean political prisons

Under the auspices of the IBA's War Crimes Committee, three eminent judges have called for North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un and others to face justice for crimes against humanity in its political prisons.

The inquiry, led by Navi Pillay, Thomas Buergenthal and Mark B Harmon, examined crimes committed in the country’s gulag system, including systematic murder, torture, rape and enslavement.

In a report setting out the findings, they call for the International Criminal Court or a special international tribunal to be granted the power to investigate the crimes, and to hold Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un and other officials to account.

North Korea’s political prisons should also be dismantled and the estimated 80,000–130,000 prisoners released, it says. North Korea should accept an international monitoring scheme to ensure this is achieved.

executive summary-english

Under established legal doctrine, including the principle of ‘command responsibility’, the report includes evidence demonstrating that the regime’s leadership, officials and subordinates should be prosecuted for ten of the 11 crimes against humanity enumerated in the Rome Statute.

Referenced in the report is testimony of defectors, highly detailed satellite imagery and other sources that debunk North Korea’s denial of the existence of its political prisons.

At a day-long hearing in Washington, DC, in 2016, a political prison guard and prison camp survivors, among others, provided graphic testimony of atrocities they witnessed or were subjected to. The inquiry also received a detailed affidavit from Thae Yong-ho, North Korea’s former Deputy Ambassador to the United Kingdom and its highest-ranking defector in many years.

The inquiry also calls for the country to commit to a new system of fair and transparent justice that affords proper due process to its citizens.

View the executive summary and the full report



Turkey urged to stop persecution of lawyers

The IBA’s Human Rights Institute has called on the Turkish government to cease its arbitrary persecution of lawyers in the country and to immediately release those convicted.

Following the attempted coup in Turkey in July 2016, the government has systematically targeted hundreds of legal professionals. So far, the numbers stand at 72 lawyers arrested, 1,488 lawyers prosecuted, 79 lawyers sentenced to long-term imprisonment and more than 30 bar associations shut down.

Over the past 18 months, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has declared a state of emergency in the country, which has given the executive the power to bypass parliament when drafting new laws and, says the IBAHRI, is being used as a pre-text to restrict individual’s rights and freedoms.

According to the Arrested Lawyers Initiative, grounds for arrest have commonly been affiliation with an armed terrorist organisation, with sentences reaching up to 13 years and pre-trial detentions lasting several months.



IBAHRI supports transitional justice in El Salvador

A high-level delegation of experts travelled to El Salvador in December, as part of the IBA’s Human Rights Institute project to address justice issues and rights abuses stemming from the country’s civil war, which ended in 1992.

The delegation met with legal professionals, the government, the armed forces, civil society organisations and academia to provide technical assistance and support on the rights to justice, truth and historical memory, informed by a gender perspective.

El Salvador talks

Human rights violations were widespread during the 12-year civil war, which claimed at least 75,000 lives and resulted in over 8,000 disappearances. Following a peace agreement, an Amnesty Law was passed in 1993, which denied victims of the conflict the right to have their cases investigated and meant those responsible for war crimes were not held to account.

In July 2016, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice declared the Amnesty Law unconstitutional.

Against this background, the delegation discussed current national initiatives and lessons learned from similar contexts in the region and worldwide. The IBAHRI will shortly issue a factsheet from the mission, and will follow the development of both the upcoming elections of judges and presidential elections.

Watch a panel discussion on transitional justice



Verdict sparks renewed criticism for Cambodian courts

On 16 November, surrounded by a perimeter of barricades and scowling military police, the Cambodian Supreme Court issued its most influential verdict in years. The country’s main opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), was found guilty of treason and instantly dissolved.

One hundred and eighteen of its representatives were banned from politics for five years, clearing the way for Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to easily win next year’s national elections.

For the many observers of Cambodia’s justice system, the assured outcome of the case was the latest sign that courts remain in thrall to Hun Sen and the CPP. Supreme Court President Dith Munty, who was the presiding judge in the case, and Minister of Justice Ang Vong Vathana both sit on the ruling party’s permanent committee.

Perhaps most damning for the ruling party was a leaked audio message from Hun Sen after the verdict. In the message, Hun Sen appears to conflate the courts with his party, warning party officials that next year’s election might still slip from their grasp even after the dissolution. ‘If we get bad results and lose it would be twice as bad after we already dissolved the opposition party,’ he says.

Informed observers say the case highlights longstanding failures in the justice system, including those identified in the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute’s (IBAHRI) 2015 report Justice versus corruption: Challenges to the independence of the judiciary in Cambodia. Interviews undertaken by an IBAHRI delegation hinted at numerous challenges for the judiciary: laws that hold judges under the strict tutelage of the minister, widespread corruption and bribe-taking, and a deeply felt sense that authorities will always triumph in court battles.

‘The case suggests that there is a total failure to respect the rule of law in Cambodia,’ says Helena Kennedy, former IBAHRI Co-Chair. ‘The rule of law depends on the separation of powers – the judiciary must be independent of the government. That the president of the court sits on the [CPP’s] permanent committee is an indication of this failure.’

“The case suggests there is a total failure to respect the rule of law in Cambodia

Helena Kennedy
Former Co-Chair, IBA's Human Rights Institute

The government has strongly denied accusations of judicial bias. It has instead cast the prosecution of the CNRP as a cut-and-dried protection of Cambodian sovereignty against CNRP’s alleged plans for revolution. With CNRP’s lawyers boycotting the trial, lawyers for the prosecution held the floor. Their primary evidence centred around a video of CNRP President Kem Sokha (who is himself in jail following charges of treason) boasting of ‘US support’ for his political career.

Representatives of the Ministry of Justice could not be reached for comment. But Council of Ministers Spokesman Phay Siphan defended the judges in the case and said the accusations against the Court, including those made by the CNRP’s lawyers, masked their own failure to represent their clients. ‘They accuse the court as politically affiliated to cover their wrongdoing,’ he said. ‘It’s the word they use [to] incite people against the regime.’

But Sotheara Yoeurng, the Legal and Monitoring Officer at the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, said the laws themselves were flawed. Cambodian law didn’t allow for the dissolution of political parties until February.

Then the CPP-led National Assembly passed new amendments to the Law on Political Parties that allowed the Supreme Court to disband parties if their leaders were convicted of criminal offences or for a variety of other vaguely worded offences. A later batch of amendments passed in July also prevented parties from consorting or getting help from criminals.

A CPP spokesman said the changes were directed at former CNRP President Sam Rainsy, who has battled various criminal and civil cases observers call politically motivated.

Yoeurng also called for changes to rules governing judges, saying the current law does not explicitly prevent them from joining political parties. ‘Clear-cut language has to be codified in the law(s) to prevent them from joining politics,’ he said.

Those themes were also taken up in an October report by the International Commission of Jurists, which found the lack of independent judges to be the single biggest problem plaguing Cambodian courts. ‘There are some very capable judges within the justice system,’ said Kingsley Abbott, a Bangkok-based legal adviser to the International Court of Justice. ‘However, what is required is for them to be able to conduct their work independently and impartially – free from political interference – which would require a sea change within the current system.’

Abbott urged pressure from the outside, from donors who invested heavily in judicial reform, and from Cambodian judges and prosecutors who might buck the prevailing trend.

Both efforts will likely face strong headwinds. The US, which has called the case against the CNRP ‘meritless and politicised’, recently announced sanctions against senior CPP officials for the dissolution. But China, whose judiciary has also been roundly criticised, has backed the verdict, and last year promised to help in revamping Cambodia’s court system.

To government spokesman Siphan, attempts to reform the court system and cast blame on government higher-ups could excuse misbehaviour by judges. Judges ‘cannot say [they are] under pressure,’ he said. ‘The Constitution spells out very clearly. They have a liability for whatever they decide.’