Human rights news analysis - Global Insight June/July 2021

Black Lives Matter: civil rights advocates warn against complacency after Chauvin guilty verdict

Jennifer Venis

In April, former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was convicted of the murder and manslaughter of George Floyd, who was Black. Floyd was arrested by Chauvin and three other officers in May 2020, on suspicion of trying to use a fake $20 bill. Chauvin, who is white, knelt on Floyd’s neck for over nine minutes.

A 17-year-old bystander’s video recording of the killing sparked global racial justice protests and calls to reform or defund US policing.

Chauvin’s sentence is expected in June, but he is appealing the verdict. His lawyer, Eric Nelson, has alleged misconduct by prosecutors and jurors, and argues Chauvin was denied a fair trial due to pre-trial publicity ‘so pervasive and so prejudicial’ it created a ‘structural defect in proceedings’.

Matt Kaiser, Vice Chair of the IBA Criminal Law Committee, says that having a fair trial when there’s a public video is ‘a complicated question, especially when you have cases that get a lot of notoriety and press play’.

‘I suspect that merely going to [a] Black Lives Matter protest after the video came out is probably not going to be the kind of thing that would warrant a reversal. I worry a little more about some of the statements made before the jury was sequestered. I think those arguments may have a bit more traction with an appellate court’, he adds.

Judge Peter Cahill criticised politicians like Congresswomen Maxine Waters, who attended a protest nearby and said if Chauvin was not found guilty, ‘we’ve got to get more confrontational. We’ve got to make sure that they know that we mean business’.

Waters explained that she meant confronting the justice system, but, even as Judge Cahill denied the request for a mistrial, he told Nelson that Waters’ comments could help him get the trial overturned on appeal.

If the verdict stands, Chauvin may face a longer sentence of up to 40 years’ imprisonment, as Judge Cahill agreed with prosecutors’ arguments that Chauvin abused his authority as a police officer, and treated Floyd with ‘particular cruelty’.

Despite relief at Chauvin’s conviction, this result produces complicated feelings in advocates for criminal justice reform. Kaiser says, ‘our prison system is broken, and excessively punitive, and he’s probably going to spend the next 12–20 years in solitary confinement for his own safety. Which is a horrible thing for anyone’.

Paige Fernandez, Policing Policy Advisor at the American Civil Liberties Union, agrees it’s ‘conflicting’. She tells Global Insight that ‘this is a punitive consequence for a singular individual, it’s not the system being held accountable. It’s really in many ways not Chauvin being held accountable, because the criminal legal system is the only form of accountability we have in the US, but accountability requires self-reflection and repair and apology and changed behaviour, which you don’t get through that system’.

She highlights that Chauvin is only the eighth officer convicted of murder since 2005 in the US, although there have been over 16,000 killings by police in that time.

Kaiser hopes the verdict may increase accountability for police violence, in that the incentive structure for prosecutors has changed now public sentiment is more in favour of prosecuting police after wrongdoing.

He also suggests that individual officers might be deterred from dangerous conduct by the greater risk of prosecution, and that more people feeling empowered to record police encounters could lead to more prosecutions.

But Fernandez is less hopeful. ‘This isn’t producing any change in our criminal legal system. In the week since [Chauvin] was convicted there have been a ton of grand juries who have not brought other officers to trial and prosecutors who have decided to not file charges. This isn’t going to fix the harms.’

To Fernandez, individual accountability is not justice. ‘Justice, to be very clear, would be George Floyd being alive today’, she emphasises. ‘But stepping back and thinking about the legal system and our police institutions at large, justice is really dismantling these systems of harm and oppression. It means dismantling our policing institutions, our criminal legal system at large, dismantling jails and prisons and reducing mass incarceration. It’s taking money away from police, limiting the role of police, reducing their power and developing other systems of public safety.’

Kaiser worries that focus on individual accountability could mean the harder work of reform gets abandoned. ‘A lot of work reforming policing in the US is happening, just because of our structure of government, in states or localities. But you’re only going to be able to get politicians to work on it if there’s sustained public interest in reform’, he says.

Pressure is also coming from abroad. The UN is being pushed to launch an inquiry into police brutality in the US, and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights is due to produce a report on the topic in June 2021.

IBA and IBAHRI condemn anti-Asian hate crimes and call for fortification of anti-racism legal frameworks


The IBA and the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI) condemn the surge in hate crimes targeting Asian communities in countries with minority Asian migrants and descendants who have become discriminatorily associated with the spread of Covid-19.

The IBAHRI calls on states, including Australia, Canada, European states and the United Kingdom to urgently address the rise in such crimes through the strengthening and implementation of national anti-racism legal frameworks and the establishment of expeditious investigations and prosecutions.

Commentators have said that the former US president Donald Trump’s speeches that referred to COVID-19 as the ‘China Flu’ fuelled hate and violence against people of Asian descent in the US. According to data from Stop AAPI Hate – a coalition that tracks and responds to incidents of hate, violence, harassment, discrimination, shunning, and child bullying against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the United States – there have been 3,800 incidents of hate directed at Asian Americans reported over the course of roughly a year during the pandemic; a significant increase on the previous year’s figure of 2,600. In addition, the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, based in California, found that the number of anti-Asian hate crimes reported to police rose 150 per cent during the first quarter of 2021.

On 16 March 2021, eight people, six of whom were Asian women, were killed in shooting incidents across three massage parlours in Atlanta, Georgia. These attacks drew greater national and international attention to the physical assaults, racial slurs and verbal abuse Asian communities in the US have faced during the Covid-19 pandemic. Other attacks include a brutal assault, captured on CCTV, of a 65-year-old Asian woman on 30 March 2021. She was later hospitalised. The following month, on 26 April, a 61-year-old Chinese American man was killed as the result of a racially aggravated assault. Both attacks occurred in New York.

IBA President, Sternford Moyo, stated: ‘We call on world leaders to address prejudice against Asian communities. Furthermore, where pertinent, we call for people in power and of influence to refrain from espousing rhetoric that may perpetuate racism and potentially lead to members of any segment of society being victimised and violently attacked.’

Read full press release

IBAHRI and High Level Panel call for press freedom

The International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI) published a statement with members of the High Level Panel of Legal Experts on Media Freedom for World Press Freedom Day on 3 May 2021. The statement, which was signed by the Rt Hon Lord Neuberger of Abbotsbury, Amal Clooney, Baroness Helena Kennedy QC and Professor Can Yeginsu, discusses ‘the need for independent judges and a free press in democracy’.

The statement explains: ‘Together, [the rule of law and freedom of expression] hold power to account, enforce the rights of individuals and shed light on matters of public interest – and they also monitor each other.’ The statement calls on governments to ‘work to maintain the independence and integrity of their own judiciaries, and demonstrate respect for the principle of open justice’. Media freedom is of utmost importance because ‘the loss of a free, independent media is essentially the loss of democracy’.

As part of their work on media freedom, on 29 April, the High Level Panel held an event ‘The Challenges ahead for States: Perspectives from the High Level Panel’. This event was a part of UNESCO's World Press Freedom Day Conference.

Read the full statement here.

IBAHRI delivers virtual training in Peru

The International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI) partnered with the National Mechanism for the Prevention of Torture in Peru to deliver a series of eight virtual workshops on ‘Investigation and Documentation of Torture: Theoretical Approaches to the Istanbul Protocol’. Over 75 judges, prosecutors, public defenders and forensic medical professionals participated in the training, alongside members of the Ombudspersons Office from Lima and seven regions in the north of Peru. This series of workshops continues the IBAHRI’s programme of work on torture prevention in the region.

As part of their work on torture prevention, the IBAHRI submitted input to the UN Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishments for a report on accountability for torture and ill-treatment. This will be presented at the 76th session of the UN General Assembly, which will take place in October 2021.

IBA submits CAHAI consultation response

The International Bar Association Working Group on AI and Human Rights, comprised of members of the IBA Business and Human Rights Committee, the Technology Law Committee, the IBA Legal Policy & Research Unit and Queen Mary University, submitted its response to a Council of Europe multi-stakeholder consultation on 9 May.

The Ad Hoc Committee on Artificial Intelligence (‘CAHAI’) consultation looked at human rights due diligence for artificial intelligence (AI). Questions included defining AI systems in view of the elaboration of a legal framework based on the Council’s standards; assessing opportunities and risks arising from AI systems; the impact on human rights, democracy and the rule of law; identifying potential gaps in existing binding legal instruments relating to AI; looking at the various elements of a legal framework on AI systems; and more. The response to the consultation mentioned current regulations that will be effective in guiding and regulating the design, development and use of AI systems that remain compatible with standards for human rights, democracy and the rule of law. Examples include the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation, the EU Cybersecurity Act and the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. The response also highlighted gaps in the existing regulations that would need to be addressed at the Council of Europe as the legal framework is established.

The Working Group’s response to the CAHAI consultation can be downloaded here.

IBAHRI condemns the sentencing of veteran Hong Kong pro-democracy figures

The International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI) and the Bar Human Rights Committee of England & Wales (‘BHRC’) have condemned the prosecution, conviction and sentencing of several pro-democracy figures from Hong Kong. Martin Lee QC, Dr Margaret Ng and Jimmy Lai are among those who pleaded not guilty in February earlier this year to accusations of organising and participating in the 2019 pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.

Schona Jolly QC, Chair of the BHRC, described the ‘continued misuse of the Public Order Ordinance to silence and repress legitimate and peaceful expressions of dissent’ as a ‘grave blow to the protection of fundamental human rights’.

The IBAHRI and BHRC have called on the Hong Kong authorities to take immediate and urgent steps to safeguard and ensure that the rights to peaceful assembly and free expression, including the freedom to dissent, are protected in accordance with international legal obligations.

Belarus: IBAHRI calls for reinstatement of Lyudmila Kazak after disbarment ruling

In a statement on 16 April, the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI) expressed deep concern that the disbarment of prominent human rights lawyer Lyudmila Kazak by the Belarus Ministry of Justice’s Qualification Commission on Advocacy Issues has been upheld by the Minsk City Court. The IBAHRI calls for Kazak’s professional reinstatement.

Throughout her 22 years of practice, Kazak has defended public activists, political prisoners, human rights defenders and journalists, including Maria Kolesnikova, a leader of the opposition in Belarus.

She learned on 15 April 2021 that her appeal against being disbarred had failed. The reason given for revoking the veteran lawyer’s licence is that ‘[she] disobeyed the lawful demand of a police officer in the performance of his official duties, thereby committing an administrative offence under Article 23.4 of the [Administrative] Code.’

IBAHRI Co-Chair and former Justice of the High Court of Australia (1996–2006), the Hon Michael Kirby AC CMG, called for Kazak’s disbarment to be annulled and for her lawyer’s licence to be reinstated.


‘Ms Kazak’s case is a stark example of a concerning pattern of disbarment of lawyers in Belarus who represent opposition candidates or express views sympathetic to the opposition,’ he said.

Read the full statement here.

Russia attacks fundamental freedoms and rule of law as Navalny’s network targeted

Ruth Green, IBA Multimedia Journalist

The international community breathed a collective sigh of relief on 23 April when opposition leader Alexei Navalny ended a 24-day hunger strike in prison after finally receiving medical care. Yet ongoing efforts to suspend his political organisation and restrict other fundamental freedoms threaten to cripple Russia’s already deteriorating human rights situation.

On 26 April, the Moscow prosecutor’s office ordered Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) and its regional network to suspend all activities, pending a court ruling on whether to designate the opposition group as ‘extremist’.

The move, which would give the authorities the power to arrest FBK staff, supporters, and even crowdfunding donors, was yet another nail in the coffin for the ailing Kremlin critic, who was imprisoned in February on a range of charges shortly after returning from Berlin where he received treatment for Novichok poisoning.

The hearing, due to take place on 17 May, was postponed until 9 June to allow Navalny’s legal team more time to review additional documents submitted by the prosecution. Meanwhile, on 18 May the Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament, quietly approved three bills that look set to further tighten the screws on political freedoms in the country.

One bill proposes blacklisting ‘undesirable’ organisations, expanding the scope of a 2012 law that requires foreign-funded non-governmental organisations in Russia to register as foreign agents. Another would ban members of ‘extremist’ organisations from becoming lawmakers in what is being viewed as a thinly veiled attempt to prevent Navalny from standing in Russia’s upcoming parliamentary elections in September.

The pressure on Navalny’s wider circle has been relentless. Thousands of Russian civilians were arrested earlier this year after taking part in unauthorised rallies to protest against his imprisonment.

In mid-April, lawyer and journalist Lyubov Sobol, a close associate of Navalny, was sentenced to a year of community service for trespassing. Ivan Pavlov, a lawyer and founder of human rights group Komanda 29 (Team 29), which acts as counsel for the FBK, was detained by the Russian authorities on 30 April after a raid on the hotel where he was staying in Moscow.

Professor Philip Leach, Director of Middlesex University’s European Human Rights Advocacy Centre, is acting for Navalny in a case at the ECtHR that calls on the Court to use the interim measures mechanism to stop the FBK and other organisations from being liquidated.

He says the latest efforts in Russia to crack down on the Putin critic and his wider network are extremely perturbing. ‘From the raids on his offices and on staff and the freezing of the bank accounts, right up to more recent events – the attempt on his life, his imprisonment and now the attempt to liquidate the Anti-Corruption Foundation and its regional offices – it’s very clear that they are all being targeted and they want to stop them from operating’, says Leach. ‘It's clearly a direct threat to the rule of law and to the democratic process in Russia.’

As civil liberties are increasingly curtailed in Russia, resentment is already building, says Oksana Antonenko, Director, Global Risk Analysis at Control Risks. ‘The popularity approval rating of President Putin is falling’, she says. ‘There’s been more and more unhappiness, particularly amongst the young generation of Russians, but also across the country.’

Since 2019 the Kremlin has introduced a series of laws aimed at expanding its control over freedom of speech, internet infrastructure and online content. The new laws require domestic internet service providers to store users’ metadata and entitle the security services to access this metadata with no prior judicial authority.

The legislation has also served to embolden Roskomnadzor, Russia’s telecommunications watchdog, to block access to content that the government deems a threat. It has issued fines against Facebook, Google, Telegram, TikTok and Twitter over their refusal to remove posts that helped galvanise support for the mass protests that took place earlier this year.

In April, the watchdog said it was backtracking on a threat to block Twitter after the platform agreed to accelerate efforts to delete flagged content. Alexa Koenig, Co-Chair of the IBA Human Rights Law Committee and Executive Director of the Human Rights Center at UC Berkeley believes it’s critical that social media and other online platforms stand up to state-backed efforts to impose internet shutdowns or curb online speech. ‘It's important that the companies hold to their commitment to protecting freedom of expression and access to information’, she says. ‘Both to limit Russia's ability to censor speech, but also to strengthen norms around what is expected with regards to online speech.’

Koenig says social media has an important role to play in strengthening accountability, both for human rights violations in Russia and other authoritarian regimes. ‘Facebook and Twitter's commitment to freedom of speech and access to information can safeguard human rights when used to push back against government censorship and to preserve citizens' ability to share their experiences with the international community – information that can be critical for advocacy, accountability and humanitarian purposes.’

Image: / Sergey Otroshko