Human rights news analysis - Global Insight October/November 2021

Business and the legal community must work collaboratively to bridge digital divide

Ruth Green

The Covid-19 pandemic has shone a spotlight on the digital divide that exists globally, and on the disadvantages suffered by those who, for example, lack access to the internet. In-House Perspective reports on how business and in-house teams are joining forces to address these issues.

The pandemic has significantly increased our reliance on the internet and technology. At the same time, the gap between those who have access to digital technologies and those who do not has grown exponentially.

Now it’s time for businesses and in-house counsel to help bridge that gap, says Lani Cossette, Senior Director and Chief of Staff of Microsoft’s UN Office in New York. ‘Those of us in tech have been talking about the digital divide for a long time, but it’s a seriously difficult problem to address something that requires lot of people working together at scale,’ she says.

The enormity of the task becomes all too evident when you acknowledge that an estimated 3.7 billion people still lack internet access worldwide, says Catalina Botero Marino, former Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression for the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. ‘It seems to me that today, after what we have experienced over the past year, no one is surprised by the idea that the possibility of enjoying and exercising basic human rights depends, to a large extent, on adequate access to the Internet,’ she says.

Botero Marino, who is also a Council Member of the IBA’s Human Rights Institute Council, says this problem became particularly acute in poorer countries throughout the pandemic. ‘The right to education, which already presents enormous challenges in the Global South, was severely affected and only those with adequate internet connectivity, computers, and digital literacy, were able to enjoy it to some degree,’ she says.

However, as lockdown measures resulting from the pandemic forced billions of workers to telecommute and locked billions of children out of classrooms worldwide, she says it’s become clear that the digital divide is an ongoing challenge in developed nations too. ‘The profound inequity in the impact of the health crisis revealed, once again, the urgency of demanding that States take seriously the right of people to access their rights and, to this end, it is urgent and unpostponable to provide access to the internet for everyone.’

Cossette agrees the pandemic has helped businesses like Microsoft and governments alike refocus their attention on this immense challenge. She’s well versed in handling issues related to digital access rights, having previously worked in Brussels with Microsoft’s European Union Government Affairs team, where she oversaw all manner of transatlantic and global data transfer and access issues in the cloud computing era.

Today, as part of the company’s UN affairs team, she is working to expand on Microsoft’s existing relationship with the UN and advocating for a multilateral, human-centred approach to digital access. ‘There’s such a noted political will now in looking towards addressing the digital divide,’ she says. ‘Our main focus is going to be trying to use our voice and help advance solutions, sustainable financing ideas and really trying to advance work on what we’re calling human-centred connectivity.’

‘There’s a lot that needs to happen when a person gets access to the Internet in terms of being part of the economy, being able to change jobs and to reskill,’ she explains. ‘We’re hoping to capture all of this attention and interest in moving forward and really being able to make a difference.’

Although Microsoft has been engaging with the UN on many of these issues for well over a decade, Cossette says the decision to set up a dedicated presence at the UN in 2020 was driven by the recognition that member states can’t address global problems in a silo. ‘Global problems – like the digital divide and other issues – are our problems too and as a business increasingly so,’ she says.

“Global problems – like the digital divide and other issues – are our problems too and as a business increasingly so


Lani Cossette, Senior Director and Chief of Staff, Microsoft’s UN Office

Rebecca Marmot is Chief Sustainability Officer at Unilever. She says the multilateral collaboration between business, government and civil society has been key to the success of TRANSFORM, a joint initiative between Unilever, Microsoft, the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Development Office (FCDO) and EY, which enables innovative social enterprises to reach low-income households in developing countries.

‘Digital technology can deliver transformative solutions, but this depends on forming partnerships to bring together the necessary skills, expertise and support,’ says Marmot. ‘TRANSFORM exemplifies this collaborative approach. Through TRANSFORM, Unilever and Microsoft have partnered to bring together Microsoft’s world-class technical expertise and Unilever’s understanding of consumers and behaviour change. Together we can ensure that digital solutions are made available to underserved communities and that the presence of technology translates into usage and economic gain for all.’

Cossette says it’s also incumbent on the legal community – both in-house and private practice – to play its part in closing the digital divide worldwide. ‘We can do better by speaking up to recalibrate the dialogue on the digital divide to be more technology-agnostic; to advocate for affordable and scalable solutions; to champion a rights-protecting policy and regulatory framework; and to find ways to reduce regulatory hurdles to deployment.’

Botero Marino agrees that lawyers, regardless of their position or practice area, have an important role in advancing digital rights for all. ‘Lawyers can assist in the design of public policies that take Internet access seriously in all its dimensions,’ she says. ‘We can build persuasive and robust arguments about the need to close the digital divide to satisfy other rights to which we are entitled; we can conduct strategic litigation that leads courts to protect equality and non-discrimination in Internet access as an essential safeguard for the access to other fundamental rights; and, when we act as judges, we can make decisions that give real effectiveness to declarations of rights by protecting fundamental conditions for the exercise of those rights.’

Credit: Marynchenko Oleksandr / Shutterstock


IBA and IBAHRI react to Taliban takeover of Afghanistan

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The International Bar Association and its Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI) have called for the international community to hold the Taliban to its promises of peace and of respect for women’s rights within Afghanistan, which the group have suggested will be given ‘within [its] religious framework’. This follows the Taliban’s takeover of the country in mid-August and its subsequent statements to the world’s media.

The IBA and IBAHRI have expressed concerns about reports of the Taliban persecuting civilians who worked in some capacity for the former regime in Afghanistan. Together they have called for swifter and better coordinated action by states towards increasing the number of routes available to safe havens and the expediting of visas for the transfer and resettlement of Afghans, including members of the judiciary, legal professionals, human rights defenders, non-governmental organisation workers, journalists and media workers.

‘Beyond being horrified by the shocking scenes of the sheer desperation of many of Afghanistan’s citizens attempting to flee their homeland […] we call on the international community to improve coordination in providing safe passage and havens to those who worked hard to build a more inclusive society in Afghanistan with respect for the Rule of Law and an individual’s human rights’, said IBA President Sternford Moyo.

Moyo also led calls for the establishment of a UN special envoy on Afghanistan for the monitoring of civilians killed and of human rights breaches.

On 20 August, the IBA Judges’ Forum highlighted its particular concerns for the personal safety and professional wellbeing of Afghan judges, especially the country’s 250 women judges. It called for the international community to unite in assuring protection for all judicial officers in Afghanistan.

The Forum’s comments follow concerns expressed by the IBA and IBAHRI earlier in the month about the safety of judges given the Taliban’s takeover, particularly in the context of the killing of two female judges in January. It’s reported that female judges, as well as prosecutors and their families, will be at particular risk from Taliban reprisals.

Read the full statement

Image: Trent Inness / Shutterstock.com (right)

IBAHRI and legal groups condemn attacks on the Belarusian legal profession in new report

The International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI) published a new report on 27 July, Lawyers Under Threat: Increasing Suppression of the Legal Profession in Belarus, which examines 24 cases of retaliatory acts against lawyers in the country since Alexander Lukashenko’s controversial re-election as president in August 2020.

The cases involve lawyers who have defended prominent opposition figures or publicly raised concerns about human rights and rule of law violations. In seven of the cases, the Belarusian government arrested, detained and prosecuted individual lawyers seemingly because of this work.

The report – which was prepared in collaboration with the American Bar Association Center for Human Rights and Lawyers for Lawyers – contains recommendations for the country’s government to ensure the legal profession is afforded full independence in accordance with international law and standards. These recommendations include the reinstatement of lawyers disbarred since last August and the introduction of adequate protections for the integrity and independence of lawyers through the establishment of a fully independent bar association.

Commenting on the report, IBAHRI Co-Chair and former Justice of the High Court of Australia, the Hon Michael Kirby AC CMG, highlighted that ‘the targeting of lawyers specifically, whether it relates to whom they represent or for exercising their own freedom of expression and assembly, is in clear contravention of the United Nations Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers’.

Read the report


IBAHRI continues work on torture prevention

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The International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI) continued its programme of work on torture prevention in Peru. In September, the IBAHRI held phase two of its virtual workshops for ‘Torture prevention and the Istanbul Protocol: Fostering National Preventive Mechanism’s collaboration with state bodies, civil society, and legal and medical professionals in Peru’. IBAHRI Programme Lawyer Cath Kent and IBAHRI Programme Administrator Aurora Garcia facilitated the sessions, which took place on Zoom.

Back in May, the IBAHRI, in partnership with the National Mechanism for the Prevention of Torture in Peru and together with a team of experts, delivered four virtual workshops on ‘Investigation and Documentation of Torture: Theoretical Approaches to the Istanbul Protocol’. A total of 77 judges, prosecutors, public defenders, forensic medical professionals and members of the Ombudspersons Office from Lima and seven regions in the north of Peru participated in the training.

Image: nito (right), Ga Stock (left) / Shutterstock.com

IBAHRI publishes Azerbaijan report

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The International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI) published a country report on Azerbaijan in both English and Russian. Entitled The Bar and lawyers in Azerbaijan and authored by Intigam Aliyev, the report covers key themes relating to the legal profession in Azerbaijan, with particular focus on ensuring its independence, freedom and increased transparency. The report also covers key cases and judgments regarding Azerbaijani lawyers.

The topics covered in the report include the issues of institutional independence of the lawyer’s office, management of the Azerbaijan Bar Association (ABA), ensuring access to justice, holding examinations for obtaining the qualifications of a lawyer, as well as the professional ethics of lawyers and disciplinary proceedings against them. These issues are framed in the context of international standards for the independence of lawyers and Azerbaijan’s compliance, or lack thereof, with international legal obligations.


In the introduction, Aliyev highlights the situation in Azerbaijan and describes the need for systemic transformation to ensure a fair justice system. ‘As with many countries, in Azerbaijan lawyers continue to be prosecuted for carrying out their professional duties. The authoritarian regime is not interested in either an independent judiciary or a strong and independent legal profession’, he says. ‘The authorities do not want to lose control over lawyers and do not allow reforms of the legal profession. Unfortunately, there is currently no effective protection mechanism for lawyers against state interference.’

The report includes recommendations for change, in order to ensure the state does not interfere with lawyers and the ABA can run autonomously. Recommendations include a new code of ethics, compliance with international standards and more transparency regarding documentation and procedure.

Read the reports in English and Russian here.


High Level Panel raises concerns about fairness of trials of Myanmar political leaders

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The High Level Panel of internationally renowned lawyers reviewing the trials of political leaders State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and President U Win Myint in Myanmar reported that presently, the proceedings fail to meet the minimum standards for fair trials established under international law.

The High Level Panel – whose members include Dr Mark Ellis, the IBA’s Executive Director, and Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, Director of the IBA’s Human Rights Institute – had previously asked the Supreme Court of the Union in Myanmar to facilitate its trial review through video-recorded and live-streamed hearings, or at minimum, an audio recording, and through contact with the prosecuting lawyers and the defence team. The Court’s failure to respond to this request has forced the High-Level Panel to conclude that as of this moment, there is no public trial that can be independently reviewed by the Panel or by anyone else. The Panel has called for cooperation from the Court to ensure the minimum standards are met.

The Panel have used information from limited but reliable sources to identify several concerns in regard to the trials. These include concerns that the political leaders were denied access to legal assistance for two months, even after they requested to see lawyers, and though this assistance is now in place, the defendants’ time with their lawyers is limited to only 30 minutes at each meeting.

The political leaders face numerous charges. In the case of State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, for example, these include breaking state secrecy law and sedition.

Read the press release

Image: 360b / Shutterstock.com (left) wikimedia.org/Pete Souza (right)


Covid-19: Pandemic heightens calls for international court to tackle grand corruption

Ruth Green, IBA Multimedia Journalist

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In April 2020, while the world was still reeling from the rapid spread of Covid-19, an op-ed in The Boston Globe quietly warned that the pandemic would be ‘a bonanza for kleptocrats’ and underlined the need for a supranational court to help tackle grand corruption.

Reports flooded in of Covid-related cronyism. It seemed the authors, Justice Richard Goldstone and The Honorable Mark Wolf, were right. ‘The corruption numbers are absolutely startling,’ says Goldstone, Honorary President of the IBA’s Human Rights Institute. Although we may never know exactly how much kleptocracy has hampered national efforts to combat the virus, Goldstone says the consequences are already undeniable: ‘Navi Pillay, when she was UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said correctly that “corruption kills”. It literally does. It's taken the lives of millions of people. It's taken away food that they need to survive, and many other awful things have been done as a result of corruption.’

Although 187 countries have ratified the UN Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC), domestic enforcement is still severely lacking in many jurisdictions. Wolf says for too long the international legal framework has failed to address the demand side of transnational bribery and corruption, particularly when it involves public officials. ‘You can only prosecute organisations and individuals that bribe foreign officials,’ he says. ‘You can't prosecute those foreign officials themselves. There’s a gaping hole in the system and there's nothing to hold leaders who extort bribes accountable.’

This conundrum is what spurred Wolf to first propose the idea of an international anti-corruption court (IACC) in 2012. Five years ago, Wolf and Goldstone set up Integrity Initiatives International (III). Through it they have worked to strengthen national anti-corruption efforts worldwide, including helping establish an anti-corruption court in Ukraine.

There’s a gaping hole in the system and there's nothing to hold leaders who extort bribes accountable

The Honorable Mark Wolf
Senior Judge, US District Court for the District of Massachusetts

Wolf currently serves as a senior judge for the US District Court for the District of Massachusetts and has seen the damage caused by kleptocrats in the US alone. He started working for the US Attorney General’s office in 1974 at the tail end of the Nixon administration, just months before the president resigned over the Watergate scandal. He also led the Public Corruption Unit in Boston from 1981-85 that secured 44 consecutive convictions, including against corrupt officials close to Boston Mayor Kevin White.

In 2019, Colombia called on the UN to establish the IACC. This was shortly followed by Peru and international support has grown exponentially ever since. By June 2021, over 100 Nobel laureates, former presidents, high court justices, business leaders, and other prominent leaders from over 40 countries signed a declaration supporting the Court’s creation.

‘The time for a dedicated international institution on the same lines as the International Criminal Court (ICC) has come,’ says IBA President Sternford Moyo, who is one of the signatories. ‘The adverse effects of corruption are, in many cases, comparable to the effects of crimes against humanity. Given the frequent cross-border transfer of looted resources to tax havens and jurisdictions which uphold secrecy in connection with such resources, and the fact that international aid to poor countries would be unnecessary but for corruption, it has assumed strong international dimensions and requires international collaboration and cooperation to fight and combat it effectively.’

Like the ICC, the proposed IACC would act under the principle of complementarity, only acting as a court of last resort. It’s also envisaged that the Court would have the ability to freeze laundered funds and keep them until they can be repatriated.

Both Goldstone and Wolf agree that having the support of the world’s major financial centres will be critical to its success. ‘The main argument against the Court is not that it's illogical, but that it's impossible because countries ruled by kleptocrats won't join it,’ says Wolf. ‘But we're convinced that it could be created and be effective initially by as few as 25 representative countries from around the world, particularly if they include financial centres like Switzerland and Singapore and some countries that are attractive destinations for illicit funds.’

Nicola Bonucci is the former Director for Legal Affairs for the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, a member of the IBA Anti-Corruption Committee Advisory Board and a litigation partner at Paul Hastings in Paris. He says the prospect of an IAAC is ‘undoubtedly attractive’. However, he cautions against considering it a panacea to resolving the broader problem of enforcement and implementation of anti-corruption legislation and treaties like UNCAC. He suggests a regional approach could be more feasible: ‘There are several regional Anti-Corruption Conventions – in the Americas, Africa, Europe and the Middle East, but a notable exception Asia – which provide a robust legal framework,’ he says. ‘It may certainly be easier to reach consensus at the level of a region than at a universal level.’

Claudia Escobar, a former magistrate of the Court of Appeals of Guatemala and III board member, is a strong advocate for regional institutions. However, she believes a supranational court may be the only solution for some jurisdictions like her native Guatemala, where she has experienced grand corruption first-hand after exposing illegal interference in the country’s judiciary by high-ranking political officials.

She points to the UN-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), which ramped up anti-corruption efforts in the country in 2006 by investigating and prosecuting serious crimes and strengthening the rule of law in the country. However, since CICIG’s dismantlement in 2019, Escobar fears that Guatemala and other countries in Central America will find it increasingly difficult to fight impunity and corruption with national institutions alone. ‘CICIG was a good example of what can be done in a country that doesn't have the tools to fight corruption by itself,’ she says. ‘That’s why I really back the creation of an international anti-corruption court. I think that there are places where there is no other choice because the institution itself is not going to be able to do it.’

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