Human rights news from the IBA - February/March 2017

Trump presidency: despite millions on women’s marches many ‘fear rights won over years are in jeopardy’

Yola Verbruggen

Though millions took to the streets across the world in women’s marches, President Trump took the first opportunity to show that he was not about to bow to the protestors.

On 24 January, just days after his inauguration, he reinstated the ‘global gag rule’, thereby withdrawing funding for any organisations providing family planning counselling, which includes abortion.

The rule divides Republicans and Democrats and, almost by matter of tradition, a new president either rescinds or reinstates the order depending on their party affiliation.

‘Many women in the United States fear that rights they have won over the years are in jeopardy as a result of this election,’ says Philip Berkowitz, Vice Chair of the IBA’s Discrimination and Equality Law Committee. ‘They are concerned, with good reason, that Trump’s agenda will run contrary to issues of deep concern to women – reproductive rights, sexual harassment, pay equity and gender-based discrimination, among others.’

Rights groups have been quick to speak out against the order. ‘While he has also moved quickly to act in many other harmful ways, I think his message to women is clear – crushing access to abortion globally will be a priority for his government. This order will be the direct cause of deaths from unsafe abortions, and Trump is clearly fine with that,’ says Heather Barr, Human Rights Watch’s Senior Researcher on Women’s Rights.

Reportedly, text accompanying the draft executive order named ‘Moratorium on New Multilateral Treaties’ specifically calls for the review of the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

For many women’s groups in the US, the ratification of CEDAW is a big issue, though not frequently campaigned on because organisations struggle to run campaigns focused on international issues or treaties, says Terry O’Neill, an attorney and President of the US-based National Organization for Women Foundation (NOW). ‘The rumblings that we have heard, indications that the Trump Administration might actually decide to simply withdraw the US from CEDAW altogether, it’s completely outrageous.’

While the US’ failure to ratify CEDAW has not stopped previous administrations from working to improve equality globally and at home, many women fear that this may change with Trump now in the White House.

According to estimates on the Women’s March website, 4.8 million people took part in 673 marches worldwide. From Germany to South Africa and Antarctica women and men tweeted photos of signs reading ‘Women’s rights are human rights’ and ‘Equality is the only way’.

Trump’s agenda will run contrary to issues of deep concern to women – reproductive rights, sex harassment, pay equity and gender-based discrimination, among others

Philip Berkowitz
Vice Chair, IBA Discrimination and Equality Law Committee

But the march was not only about women’s rights, according to Human Rights Watch. ‘I think the large number of people who marched is a sign of enormous frustration by both women and men who believe in equality; we simply can’t and won’t accept things going backwards in the dramatic way that they are clearly about to,’ says Barr. ‘The marches also tapped into anger over many other issues that relate to gender discrimination – a whole range of racist, xenophobic and anti-environmental positions Trump took as a candidate and seems hell-bent on seeing through as President.’

Hans Corell, former Legal Counsel of the United Nations and Co-Chair of the IBAHRI, says that, as a country with a major influence over the UN, the US has the responsibility to enforce its Charter and conventions. ‘The US should show the way, lead the way, and they don’t,’ he says.

When, in 2015, Corell stood before 2,000 lawyers in Tehran, speaking about the importance of the ratification of CEDAW in a country where women’s rights are severely restricted, Corell thought it best not to mention that the US, considered by many around the world as a moral leader, is not party to this Convention. The IBAHRI urged the new President to ratify the agreement in an open letter sent to Trump following his election.

Some Republicans have dismissed the notion that a Trump presidency could mean a deterioration of women’s rights and equality. Carrie Almond, President of the National Federation of Republican Women, refutes claims that Trump would harm the empowerment of women around the world. Instead, she thinks that the new President will advance equality. ‘I think he has already started it, by appointing such great women to his cabinet. To me, that demonstrates his commitment to making sure that all Americans are embraced in his Administration. I think Mr Trump leads by example,’ Almond says.

One of the organisers of the Women’s March in Oklahoma voiced careful optimism for women’s rights advocates. ‘I actually think that it is going to be slightly easier to achieve these changes on a local level under a Trump Administration. Right now, people are angry and they saw all these issues coming to the forefront and now they want to do something about it,’ says Lindsey Kanaly, who works as the attorney for a local energy company. ‘Everything that we marched for is much larger than Trump. These issues have been around for decades. All Trump did was put a face to it.’

IBAHRI open letter calls on President Trump to address human rights in the United States

Following a historic victory in November, Donald Trump was officially inaugurated on 20 January as the 45th President of the United States. In an open letter addressed to President Trump before his inauguration, the IBA's Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI) outlined what his priorities for the protection of human rights should be and asserted that the US has recently undergone ‘a retreat from many rights and liberties’, to the extent that ‘the United States is no longer the leading model for the rule of law and democracy, as it once was.’

The letter states that one of Trump’s priorities if he is to restore the country’s leadership role in the defence of human rights should be to rectify the US’ non-ratification of major global human rights treaties. For instance, the US is not a party to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child or the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, nor has the country joined two-thirds of the world’s nations in ratifying the Rome Statue of the International Criminal Court – acourt which the IBAHRI calls ‘the future of international criminal justice’.

Trump must also defend and advance human rights with regard to how the US treats its citizens and its enemies. The open letter urges Trump to ensure that prisoners are always treated humanely and not subjected to torture, to close the infamous detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, and to reduce the imposition of the death penalty with the aim of completely prohibiting the punishment altogether. The IBAHRI has also urged that the US enforce non-discrimination measures to protect the rights of all minorities, whether on the grounds of race, gender or sexual orientation.

Moreover, the IBAHRI’s letter highlights ‘the need for the rule of law in international relations’, calling on the President to accept the responsibility that a superpower such as the US has for maintaining international justice, peace and security. Not only does this require that the US sets an example by keeping strict adherence to the rule of law, but it also requires it to commit to enforce measures such as the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. 

The open letter, signed by the IBAHRI Co-Chairs Baroness Helena Kennedy QC and Ambassador (ret.) Hans Corell, concludes by advising: ‘Your election slogan was: "Make America Great Again". A step towards this would be to strengthen American adherence to human rights principles so that it is an example to the whole world.’

To read the open letter in full, visit: tinyurl.com/TrumpOpenLetter.

Joint Civil Society Statement on human rights in Zimbabwe

On Human Rights Day (10 December) 2016, the IBAHRI issued a joint statement with seven other organisations strongly condemning the government of Zimbabwe’s failure to respect and protect citizens’ right to peacefully assemble. The statement expressed particular concern at the number of human rights defenders and protestors who have been threatened, abducted, arbitrarily detained and tortured in apparent retaliation for exercising their constitutional rights. As well as the IBAHRI, the statement was signed by Amnesty International USA (AIUSA), Freedom House, Friends of Angola, Front Line Defenders, Solidarity Center, Trade Union Congress of Swaziland and Vanguard Africa.

The full statement can be read at tinyurl.com/HRday2016-Zimbabwe.

Legal advisor to Aung San Suu Kyi and Myanmar government shot dead in Yangon

Yola Verbruggen

The recent fatal shooting of Ko Ni, a prominent lawyer and legal advisor to the Myanmar government, sent shockwaves through the country, where political assassinations are extremely rare.

Sixty-three-year-old Ko Ni was a legal advisor to Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) and a former political prisoner. He was an outspoken critic of the military’s involvement in politics and religious intolerance in his country.

His cowardly shooting on Sunday as he stood waiting for a taxi in front of Yangon’s airport while holding his grandson –his back towards the gunman – has shaken the country, currently going through a difficult transition marred by religious tensions.

‘The premature death of Ko Ni has deprived Myanmar of a citizen who cared deeply about, and was committed to, advancing the rule of law and progressing human rights in his country,’ said Mark Ellis, Executive Director of the International Bar Association.

‘He was a founding senior member of the Independent Lawyers’ Association of Myanmar (ILAM), which the IBA supported in its establishment, and was instrumental in working towards bringing together different factions for a successful outcome. The ILAM will stand partly as his legacy as to what can be done when cooperation is paramount in an endeavour,’ he continued.

A taxi driver, Nay Win, who pursued the gunman, was also shot and later died of his injuries in a Yangon hospital. The shooter was apprehended but his motive remains unclear.

Myanmar’s ruling party has condemned the killing as a ‘terrorist act’ and called on its members to remain calm. The International Crisis Group condemned the murder as a hate crime. ‘While the motive of the attacker is not known at this time, this killing has all the appearances of a hate crime, and is of grave concern at a time of heightened communal and religious tensions in Myanmar,’ the organisation said in a statement.

Scores of people mourned Ko Ni at his funeral on 30 January in Yangon, with some reports estimating the crowd at over 10,000 people of all faiths.

Members from his party and civil society activists fear that the motivation behind his killing is political, either linked to his opposition to the military and the constitution, or related to his interfaith work.

Ko Ni was Chairman of Yangon-based Laurel Law Firm; he had been working on constitutional amendments to curtail the role of the military in government and an Interfaith Harmony Bill, Reutersreported. He had also been critical of the NLD for not fielding any Muslim candidates in the 2015 election.

Ko Ni was a tireless supporter of human rights in Myanmar, particularly religious rights. This outrage is an attack on the rule of law and the whole legal profession in Myanmar

Phillip Tahmindjis, Director
IBA’s Human Rights Institute

According to his family, Ko Ni had received death threats for the work he was doing. ‘He always said that someone had to stand for the truth. I always said something would happen to him. And he said: “People only die once. I will die doing what is right”,’ his daughter, Yin Nwe Khine, told The Guardian.

The shooting took place as Ko Ni returned from a government-sponsored trip to Indonesia to discuss sectarian strife in Myanmar. Religious tensions have been extremely high in Myanmar after deadly attacks on border police outposts in Rakhine State last October, which the army said were committed by Rohingya Muslims. The army has launched an extensive security operation to suppress the violence, causing thousands of Rohingya to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh. Human rights organisations have accused the army of committing severe human rights abuses in the area.

The Rohingya are a persecuted minority who are denied citizenship under Myanmar’s 1982 Citizenship Law.

‘The murder of Ko Ni is a tragedy.  He was a tireless supporter of human rights in Myanmar, particularly religious rights. This outrage is an attack on the rule of law and the whole legal profession in Myanmar,’ said Phillip Tahmindjis, Director of the IBAHRI.

Ko Ni played an essential role in the IBA’s work in Myanmar. ‘Ko Ni played such an instrumental role in the formation of ILAM and cooperated with the IBA many times. A great loss for his country, he will be very much missed,’ said Shirley Pouget, former IBA Senior Programme Lawyer, who worked extensively with Ko Ni.

Several rights groups have called for an investigation into Ko Ni’s death. UN Special Rapporteur on Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, also condemned the murder. ‘Ko Ni’s passing is a tremendous loss to human rights defenders and for Myanmar. The State Counsellor and the NLD-led government must get to the bottom of this senseless act, and give answers to his family and to us all,’ Lee said in a statement.

With Myanmar’s transition still in process, Ko Ni’s skills will be sorely missed, said Janelle Saffin, an Australian former politician and lawyer who has previously lectured and published on constitutional law within Myanmar. ‘He loved his family, his country, the NLD and the law. He desired and advocated constitutional change as did many across the country. He spoke out loudly in keeping with his larger-than-life spirit and stature,’ she told the IBA.

Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, Co-Chair of the IBAHRI, expressed deep concern about the killing. ‘I was utterly shocked at the news. I had met Ko Ni and knew he was working hard to engender respect for human rights, particularly religious freedom in Myanmar. An independent judiciary and an independent legal profession are vital to the rule of law and democracy. The protection of lawyers is a vital duty of the state. Myanmar is still in the process of transition and its justice system is fragile. We must all express our alarm and despondency at this event and press the Myanmar government to take this very seriously indeed,’ she said.

Former IBAHRI Co-Chair Juan E Méndez ends tenure as UN Special Rapporteur on Torture

As Juan E Méndez’s six-year term as UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment came to an end, the IBAHRI applauded his incredible contribution to the fight against torture.

A torture victim himself in the 1970s under an Argentinian military dictatorship, Méndez has devoted the last 40 years to combating the use of torture. As UN Special Rapporteur, he has undertaken numerous UN country visits, including recent visits to Brazil, Tunisia, Georgia and Ghana, helping to increase the visibility of torture on the international stage.

Méndez has also focused more specifically on issues such as solitary confinement and treatment towards asylum seekers. Increasing awareness of the need to apply torture discourse to situations not normally associated with torture has been core to Méndez’s mandate and mission.

The internationally renowned human rights lawyer and former IBAHRI Co-Chair emphasised the importance of altering the public opinion of torture as a necessity. In his final report he concluded that it was necessary to adopt a set of universal standards for non-coercive interviewing. Méndez plans to continue his work in this field as an academic and facilitator, working with many of the organisations and individuals who campaign against torture, including the IBAHRI.

Task force aims to protect rights of people with albinism

Often the target of human rights violations, persons with albinism are in danger of attack and even death. In part, this is because certain countries continue to hold superstitions surrounding people with albinism: a genetically inherited condition that results in a lack of pigment in the skin, hair and eyes. A lack of understanding about the condition also results in their particular health needs being unaddressed.

As a result of the dangers that people with albinism face, the IBA has established a Task Force on the Enjoyment of Rights by Persons with Albinism. It aims to identify the international legal framework that states should refer to in order to protect, promote and fulfil the rights of persons with albinism. The Task Force has so far attended the Annual Conference on Disability Rights in Africa in November 2016, as well as the Action on Albinism in Africa Working Group.

To further its goals, the Task Force will publish a report of its findings in 2017 that will examine the human rights systems of the United Nations and sub-Saharan Africa, and then attempt to define the obligation of states to ensure that persons with albinism may have their human rights fully realised.

Brazil prison riots spark call on legal profession

Since the start of 2017, Brazil’s prisons have witnessed some of the deadliest violence in their recent history. Over 100 people have been killed and many convicts have escaped due to an ongoing feud between Brazilian gangs that sparked a string of prison riots in the states of Manaus, Roraima and Rio Grande do Norte.

Violence is common but rarely on such a scale. In a statement following the prison riots, IBAHRI Co-Chair Baroness Helena Kennedy QC stated that endemic overcrowding and underfunding were largely responsible for the tragedies, as well as ‘systemic failures in ensuring safety and delivering proper assistance to the prison population’.

Overcrowding in Brazil’s prisons has been extensively documented and denounced by numerous international organisations. This includes when Juan Méndez, Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment for the United Nations, in 2015 called on the Brazilian federal and state authorities to address the issue.

In December 2016 an IBAHRI delegation visited a local police station in Curitiba, Brazil and discovered that there were over 20 prisoners in each of the police station’s two cells. Each cell had been built to accommodate four detainees. Concerns remain that the increasing backlog of pre-trial detainees makes efforts to achieve safe and humane living conditions all the more difficult.

The IBAHRI has since urged Brazil’s legal profession to work with urgency to improve prison conditions to avoid similar occurrences of violence and ensure the human rights of both inmates and guards are upheld.

The IBAHRI in Mexico

Throughout November, the IBAHRI, in partnership with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Mexico, ran a series of torture prevention workshops for judges, prosecutors and public defenders in the country. Funded by the British Embassy, and bringing together high-profile national and international experts, the programme offered training for professionals from the states of Cuidad de México, Estado de Mexico, Nuevo León and Oaxaca. Working together with the Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales, (Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences) and civil society representatives, the IBAHRI also launched a project to produce a manual guide on context analysis for the investigation and documentation of torture cases. The IBAHRI will continue to work with the Mexican legal profession in 2017.