Solitary Confinement Amounting to Torture

Image of concrete walls allowing some sunshine with a small window near the top.
jmiller291. Solitary Confinement, Old Geelong Gaol 7. Creative Commons for Flickr.

In the United States, the earliest experiments with solitary confinement began over two centuries ago, during the Enlightenment. Champions of the idea of natural rights, thinkers of the era found that public corporate punishment was incompatible with the development of a free citizen. Instead, silence and solitude would allow prisoners to reflect and that would induce repentance that would drive prisoners to live a more responsible life, making individuals the instrument of their own punishment. However, as the United States’ first silent prisons and penitentiaries were publicized, renowned nineteenth-century thinkers such as Alexis de Tocqueville and Charles Dickens visited these institutions to observe these revolutionary systems. Once intrigued, these icons now condemned these silent prisons as de Tocqueville remarked,

This absolute solitude, if nothing interrupts it, is beyond the strength of man; it destroys the criminal without intermission and without pity; it does not reform, itkills.

As other physicians and experts echoed their concerns, reporting the high risk and evidence of insanity and death of inmates existing in solitude, it gained the attention of the United States Supreme Court which influenced a new philosophy in correctional administration and gradually reduced the regularity of the practice.

This period of relief lasted until prisons began using solitary confinement to segregate more “threatening” and “dangerous” prisoners who were considered a risk to the safety of other prisoners and staff. Then, retribution and deterrence replaced rehabilitation as the professional purpose of corrections. As the U.S. responded by institutionalizing longer sentences, building more prisons, and abolishing parole, the use of solitary confinement rapidly increased with prison growth.

Today, the United States not only incarcerates more people than any other nation, but we also expose more of these people to solitary confinement than any other nation. The United States holds around 100,000 prisoners in solitary confinement typically as punishment, as a tactic to control overcrowded institutions, and as safety from or for the general population.

As individuals, inmates tell us what it is like in solitary confinement. In solitary confinement, your world is a gray concrete box. You may spend around 23 hours a day alone in your cell which are only furnished with a toilet, sink, and bed. When prisoners are escorted out of their cells, they are first placed in restraints through the cuff port and sometimes with additional leg or waist chains and tethered by the hooks on their cuffs to an officer. Prisoners are controlled by bodily restraints, with pervasive and unforgiving round the clock surveillance, and the restricting hallways and cells they exist in. They are lead to solitary exercise each day and a brief shower three times a week then back to their cells. Confined to their own concrete cells, prisoners are both physically and psychologically removed from anyone else. Prisoners depend on officers to bring them anything they may need and are allowed to have such as toilet paper, books, or letters they may receive. Many prisoners relate with dark thoughts that haunt them in isolation. Many become angry and hateful behind compliance.

Where many express anger, they all express a struggle to maintain dignity and a sense of self or humanity. Being alone, prisoners forget how to interact with others. Feeling as though they have nothing to live for in isolation, prisoners may give up on these things. Many interviews describe watching others who were locked in indefinite solitary choosing between giving up by either through suicide or turning into an unfeeling and uncaring creature. Correctional facilities’ workers express their concerns as to why and how they become desensitized through strict policy, regulation, and the specialized emotional stance necessary to interact with these prisoners. Acting as servants for the lives of some bad apples, observing civilized men be reduced to the natural man, and acting in adherence to authority with little voice heard by superiors, this work requires a specialized emotional stance.

Instead of regular and healthy social relationships important to human survival, these prisoners are embedded in a structure that extends itself into them. It enters their mind and sometimes switches off the human inside or sometimes forces it to become violent enough to compete. In this way, it also robs them of self-determination, liberty, and other forms of autonomy.

Image of protesters of solitary confinement holding signs connecting solitary confinement to torture and mental illness.
Felton Davis. 16-11-23 02 Union Square Vigil. Creative Commons for Flickr.

Because the practice of solitary confinement is a global one and brings claims of widespread abuse, the UN special rapporteur presented his report, or evaluation, of solitary confinement. This rapporteur defined prolonged solitary confinement as isolation for more than fifteen days because studies show that the effects of solitary confinement may become irreversible after this point as the rapporteur concluded that solitary confinement can amount to torture or cruel inhuman and degrading treatment.

International and domestic laws prohibit all forms of Racial Discrimination, which address variations in solitary confinement’s demographics, and rights of persons with disabilities which protect individuals with mental, or other, illnesses. They also guarantee the rights of women and children or juveniles, which are especially vulnerable under conditions of solitary confinement or isolation. Both sides address the minimum standards for the treatment of prisoners. More specifically, they address conditions of solitary confinement which always may apply to every individual.

Domestically, the Eighth Amendment reveals how the United States Constitution addresses Solitary Confinement. The Eighth Amendment prohibits the government from inflicting “cruel or unusual punishment” on someone convicted of a crime. This allows these prisoners to challenge their conditions while in custody and the actions of prison officials. To do this, prisoners must first show that the challenged condition is “sufficiently serious” and that prison officials acted with deliberate indifference to the condition. Close observation of court decisions reveals that there is no organized methodology to determine what makes a condition “sufficiently serious”. This decision is made in each case by the personal standards of judges. The judge may question why the prisoner was placed there; however, the Supreme Court has not made a ruling whether intent should play a part in this evaluation. Courts disagree whether it should matter why the individual was placed in solitary confinement. Also, the Amendment did not answer when a prison condition is punishment or not. The debate remains whether the effect of the conditions on the prisoner or the intent of officials makes them punishment. In court, Eighth Amendment analysis hinges on the motivations of state actors and prison officials it is supposed to act as a check against. The conditions of the Eighth Amendment fail to protect prisoners from inhumane treatment through the scope of prison officials’ intent and judges’ objective analysis.

The ICCPR is international law that prohibits torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. It later states that people deprived of their liberty shall be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of a person and the treatment approach for prisoners should be aimed at efficiently improving their reformation and social rehabilitation.

In 2015, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Mandela Rules that prohibited restrictions and disciplinary sanctions that could amount to torture or cruel and degrading treatment or punishment, such as Indefinite Solitary Confinement, Prolonged solitary confinement, or to place a prisoner in a dark or constantly lit cell. It defined solitary confinement of prisoners for 22 hours or more a day without meaningful human contact and prolonged solitary confinement for any time period over fifteen days. It states that solitary confinement should only be used as a last case resort for the shortest time possible and given due process to each case. Finally, it paid special attention to protect prisoners with disabilities which may be magnified, and especially vulnerable women and children from solitary confinement.

Through these treaties and agreements, States do not only assume obligations internationally but to their own people as well. Just like our own constitution, these international laws were agreed to and are legally binding to regulate the conduct of states with their citizens. However, without international forces to enforce and regulate these agreements, states may ignore or lose sight of their importance.

Despite these resolutions, Domestic laws are vague so that it is doubtful they meet minimum requirements regarding the ones set by human rights instruments. This creates debate and little guarantees in the legal system. They also undermine fundamental guarantees of due process, are applied randomly, and do not protect the prisoners’ rights.

Today tens of thousands of humans remain alone in concrete boxes in the United States. This report concludes that their conditions are emotionally, physically, and psychologically destructive. They are destructive because it robs us of many things that makes life human and bearable like stimulus through social interaction and interaction with the natural world. Under total control and out of the public eye, people may be subjected to incredible human rights violations. By allowing our government to ignore these people, we are accepting this indifference towards others under its care. By ignoring their human rights, in this way, we diminish our own.

Hashtags and Human Rights

A picture of nine hands each with different words on them. On the red, Freedom. On the second red, Trust. On the orange, Justice. On the limeish green, Love. On the green, Rule of Law. On the sky blue, Peace. On the darker blue, Prosperity. On the pink, Dignity. On the purple, Equality.
PSHRC – Punjab State Human Rights Commission. Source: Punjab State Human Rights Commission, Creative Commons

Throughout the history of humankind, the way in which people transmit news has evolved exponentially, from the word of mouth in the olden days to a simple click, swipe, and 240 characters. It connects you and I to events happening around the world, from concerts to social movements concerning human rights. But, to what extent does the hashtag, only a recent medium for communication, bring people together around a common goal or movement?

The hashtag originated in 2007 by Chris Messina as a way “to provide extra information about a tweet, like where you are or what event you’re referring to.” Later that October, during the San Diego wildfires, Messina simply created the hashtag “#sandiegofire” and included it with tweets, allowing others to engage with the conversation and gain an awareness of current events.

In terms of human rights, the hashtag has also been influential in bringing people together under a common cause, be it international crises, sexual harassment, or even just helping organizations raise money to cure diseases. Hashtag activism, as this is called, “is the act of fighting for or supporting a cause that people are advocating through social media like Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and other networking websites.” It allows people to “like” a post and “share” a post to another friend, thus spreading awareness about the issue at large.

Where and How has the hashtag been influential?

As you might recall in 2014, many people around the world took part in the #ALSIceBucketChallenge, where participants would dump a bucket or a container of ice water on their heads. This challenge went so viral that a “reported one in six” British people took part. It also went so far as involving celebrities like Lady Gaga, which demonstrated its far reach and effectiveness. Despite many calling this challenge a form of slacktivism, (where one would simply like the post and involve very little commitment), the ALS Association raised over $115 million USD. Due to this striking number, the Association was able to fund a scientific breakthrough that discovered a new gene that contributed to the disease.

An image of a woman reacting to a splash of water from the top of her head. Basically a standard reaction from when someone does the Ice Bucket Challenge.
Free Stock Photo of ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. Source: Pixabay, Creative Commons

Then in 2017, the #MeToo movement sprung from the shadows, calling out sexual predators and forcing the removal of many high-profile celebrities, namely Harvey Weinstein. It went way beyond Turkana Burke, the founder of the MeToo movement from more than a decade ago, expected. It was through the use of social media that made #MeToo movement as large as it is today. As of 2018, the hashtag was used “more than 19 million times on Twitter from the date of [Alyssa] Milano’s initial tweet.” This effect, known as the Harvey Weinstein Effect, knocked many of the United States’ ‘top dogs’ from the limelight, revealing what could be behind the facade of power, wealth, and control that they hold. From Weinstein to George H.W. Bush to even U.S. Senate Candidate for Alabama Roy Moore, their reactions varied as much as the amount of people accused. Weinstein was ultimately fired, H.W. Bush apologized for his actions, and Moore denied the accusations. Through increased awareness and the ability to connect to virtually everywhere, women and men began to tell their stories and call attention to the actions of sexual predators.

An image of six people holding up a sign that spells out #METOO.
Pink Letters Forming the Word #MeToo. Source: Rawpixel, Creative Commons

Both the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge and the MeToo Movement allude to key human rights concerns, with ALS involving the life of a person through a disease and MeToo involving sexual harassment charges and claims. By eliminating the one thing that threatened the life or sanctity of a person (Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), a push towards human rights became realized. This demonstrates how hashtags are effective at promoting human rights issues among the general public, allowing these concerns to be confronted and resolved.

But where has the hashtag been limited in practice?

In April 2014, “276 schoolgirls were kidnapped from the remote northeast Nigerian town of Chibok by Boko Haram.” Soon after this event, #BringBackOurGirls shot up to the trending page of Twitter, and was shared more than four millions times, making it one of Africa’s most popular online campaigns. Alongside massive support from the public also came backing from famous individuals such as Kim Kardashian, Michelle Obama, and many others. Even though this campaign helped bring to light the domestic conflict that “claimed at least 20,000 lives,” it only resulted in limited support and is, arguably, an indicator of ‘slacktivism’. With a majority of support coming from Twitter users residing in the United States, Nigerian politics dismissed this outrage as some sort of partisan opposition against the Nigerian president of the time. As Ufuoma Akpojivi (media researcher from South Africa) said, “There is a misconception that embracing social media or using new media technologies will bring about the needed change.” Even with the global outrage at the kidnapping of teenagers, not much action took place because of partisanship and US disconnection with Nigerian citizens.

An image of former First Lady Michelle Obama holding up a sign saying #BringBackOurGirls.
MJ-UPBEAT Bring Back Our Girls! Source: mj-upbeat.com, Creative Commons

Following, in 2018, hashtags such as #NeverAgain, #MarchForOurLives, and #DouglasStrong emerged as a response to the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School, where teen personalities and activists Emma Gonzáles, David Hogg, and others began campaigning against the accessibility of guns. Such a movement gained considerable support, with over 3.3 million tweets including the #MarchForOurLives hashtag and over 11.5 million posts related to the March itself. Through the use of social media, the movement was born; however, one of the key things that March For Our Lives disregards is the bureaucratic system that the government embodies. Even though activists want rapid and sweeping changes to the system, Kiran Pandey notes how “there is only the trenchant continuation of political grandstanding, only this time it’s been filtered through the mouths of America’s youth.” Even with such declarations facing our bureaucratic system, alienating people with diverse viewpoints have made the movement weak and ineffective. It does not help when many people, including our friends and family own a gun. By attacking these owners and not focusing on saving lives, this movement has been, and will arguably be, stagnant until bipartisanship is emphasized and utilized.

An image of three kids surrounding a sign that says No Guns No Violence.
WR Nonviolence — Nonviolence makes the world a better place. Source: Waterloo Region Nonviolence, Creative Commons

Though both #BringBackOurGirls and #MarchForOurLives caused widespread protests and promoted awareness about the key issues of the time, it failed to generate support due to its limited field. In #BringBackOurGirls, many of the mentions came from U.S. Twitter users. Because the conflict was and is taking place in Nigeria, many of these tweets and protests have little to no say in the matter of forcing Boko Haram to return the kidnapped Nigerian girls. In the case of #MarchForOurLives, the movement failed to gain traction simply because of its push to call out those in support of having guns and the NRA caused the issue of safety and security of the person to become a partisan issue. Both issues are key human rights issues, however, they fail to capitalize on actual support and exclude those who have diverse views on the issue at hand.

How exactly could someone make a hashtag go viral?

Well, according to ReThink Media, an organization that works to build “the communications capacity of nonprofit think tanks, experts, and advocacy groups,” building a hashtag campaign for social impact includes three key areas to manage a hashtag campaign:

  1. Having a List of Your Supporters
    • Having influencers and connectors can help in a great way. By using a specific hashtag to a broad fanbase or following, having those influencers can help jump-start a movement and gain awareness rapidly about key issues of the time.
  2. Using the Right Terms at the Right Time
    • “Take too long to decide and the news cycle might pass you by.” By using terms that appeal to everyone and using them during critical news-worthy moments, it is easy to be able to attract everyone quickly. For example, if there was some type of crisis going on in the United States, having a relevant hashtag that appeals to everyone could allow more people to support that movement. Using terms that solely appeal to a political side may only be limited in scope.
  3. Have Supplemental Support Once the Hashtag Gets Posted
    • By using certain graphics or memes, combined with the regular posting of the hashtag overtime, during mid-day, more people could potentially get involved and push the movement towards social impact. It also allows people to gain awareness and spread that message to more people in their following.

Overall, hashtags can be effective when incorporating supplemental supporters and a non-partisan central focus. By supporting the movement through influencers and spreading awareness, such a movement could gain traction and provide real-time results, such as the removal of sexual predators from positions of power and gaining funding in order to cure a disease. However, a hashtag’s reliability is solely dependent on the users that spread it. Thus, social media can help people gain a social consciousness and support pivotal human rights issues when they matter most to those affected.

The Power of Technology

Movies such as Blade Runner, IRobot, or the Matrix portray a futuristic ambiance in regard to artificial intelligence overpowering humanity. At first glance, these movies can seem unrealistic and a bit absurd. However, in recent years, it appears to be less ridiculous as it hints at a bit of truth. There is no doubt that technology has advanced at a rapid speed in the last ten years. As each year passes, it seems there is a new device or software that can somehow make your life easier. Technology is used in every aspect of our life – from our homes to our work to the stores we visit. Often times, it can seem inescapable. If you turn your attention to your surroundings, you are likely to see people on their phones or computers – whether they are searching the Internet, looking through Instagram, or sending a text.

It is alarming to consider how technology affects every aspect of our lives. It even influences human rights such as the right to privacy or freedom of expression. There are numerous concerns that people have about the role and impact of artificial intelligence. People are concerned about the rise of “machine autonomy” and how gradually it can diminish “the status of humans”. Furthermore, there are concerns on the use of artificial intelligence in terms of “unjust and unequal political, military, economic and social contexts.”

For example, the U.S. seems to be moving towards an artificial arms race by using, killer robots, or lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS). People concerned about giving these killer robots the power to decide whether someone lives or dies with little to no human control. Google created a military program called Project Maven, where a machine is used to analyze the drone surveillance footage which can be used for extrajudicial killings, meaning people could be killed without any legal processing. There have been aimed at Google urging them to reconsider what the data is used for. Google has since then declined to renew their contract.

Google is not the only company that has dealt with controversy in terms of technology and how it affects people’s human rights. A data firm by the name of Cambridge Analytica was caught using data from Facebook in order to build voter profiles. Employees acquired private Facebook data of millions of users, then they sold the information to political campaigns.

Freedom of Expression. Source: Flickr, Creative Commons

Another rising controversy with technology is how artificial intelligence (AI) systems have fostered “discriminatory practices”. The University of Cambridge published a study on the Malicious Use of Artificial Intelligence which details how “terrorists, criminals, and rogue states could potentially use AI’s with an intent to harm people. It foreshadows an increase in cybercrime, misuse of drones and manipulation of elections. While the report is seen as a warning, it provides a series of recommendations: policy-makers and technical researchers working together, being mindful and proactive about the possibility of AI misuse, and expanding the stakeholders in regards to preventing and reducing the risk of malicious use of AI. The goal of their report was to grab the attention of governments, organizations, and individuals. However, we need more than a call-to-action such as effective and enforceable legislative control. We cannot deny the entanglement between our everyday lives and technology and must confront the difficulty in deciding where to draw the line between beneficial and malicious use of technology.

A  Rwanda’s Minister for Justice and Attorney General, Johnston Busingye about the country-wide DNA database. In order to make this proposal work, scientists will collect DNA samples from all 12 million citizens in Rwanda, giving them access to personal medical and genetic information. Their reasoning for implementing this program is to decrease the number of crimes. There has been backlash from human rights campaigners because they believe the data could be misused by the government and violate international human rights laws. However, Busingye made a statement assuring the people that their end goal, using the data to determine who is responsible for the crimes, is genuine. The proposal has still not officially been approved but are waiting for the budget and the proper legislation to be passed in order to make it legal.

Rwanda is not alone in attempting to create a mandated DNA program whereas countries, such as China and Kuwait, have already set this program in motion.. People are concerned about how  Muslim Uighur minority. Researchers believe the Uighur minority is “systematical detained in re-education camps”. In response, China denies all these claims. Similarly, four years ago, Kuwait passed a law that required their citizens and visitors to give their DNA samples; however, the law was revoked because it violated articles 30 and 31 of Kuwait’s Constitution in regards to personal liberty and privacy.

Human Rights China. Source: Wikimedia, Creative Commons

As the debate for technology and AI continues, the Human Rights Watch aims to ban developing and using these killer robots. However this technology is nothing new – the focus is on how, when, and why individuals should or should not use them. Furthermore, the question of human intervention arises. While using DNA collection in certain circumstances, such as finding criminals, can be beneficial, there poses a question of how people use the date and if it infringes on our human rights. The numerous databases worldwide have no common structure among themselves. Thus, there are concerns on how countries obtain the data and whom they share the information with. The DNA database can trace anyone through “biological tagging”, even those who innocent or have no relation in regards to the crime in question. Other possible challenges could include how the information is kept and used. For example, when determining whether or not an individual is a good fit for a job the hiring company could access the data and that affects the individual’s rights. Furthermore, the data could be used by criminal organizations. Both killer robots and DNA collection have benefits such as solving more crimes and military advances; however, it ultimately challenges the principle of privacy.

The Silenced Women of the Rwandan Genocide and their Fight to be Heard

Trigger warning: this blog references graphic physical and sexual violence. Please do not read if easily affected by these topics.  

The Uncondemned Movie Poster

On Thursday, September 21, the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Institute for Human Rights and UAB’s Women’s & Gender Studies Program hosted the screening of the documentary: The Uncondemned. The film explores the challenges and triumphs of a group of fledgling lawyers, investigators, and Rwandan women during a trial after the Rwandan Genocide. From their juridical victory, the legal definition of genocide was expanded to include acts of rape.

Background

Over the course of four months in the summer of 1994, roughly 800,000 Rwandan citizens were massacred in the east-central area of the country. The ethnic majority of Rwanda, the Hutu, murdered most of the Tutsi minority in an attempt of “ethnic cleansing” as a result of ethnic and religious tensions between the two groups. This decimation of the ethnic Tutsis became known as the Rwandan Genocide.

Skulls of the victims of the Rwandan Genocide lined up
Death – Rwandan Genocide

On April 6, 1994, a plane carrying General Juvenal Habyarimana, a moderate Hutu leader, was shot down by an unknown assailant. All the passengers on the plane crashed to their deaths, including the Burundian president, Cyprien Ntaryamira. Rumors place blame on the extremist Hutus for the murder as part of a revolt against the power-share agreement Habyarimana agreed to sign in accordance with the Tutsis. Another argument blames the Tutsis in the crash, using the act of terrorism as an attempt to regain power in Rwanda. Almost immediately after the plane crash, the murder of the Tutsi people began. Extremist Hutus began slaughtering Tutsis and moderate Hutus by setting up roadblocks and raiding homes. Radio stations ran by the extremists were encouraging civilians to attack and kill their neighbors.

The church played a significant role in the division among the Hutu and Tutsi. Hutu pastors preached on how “the war should be brought to the Tutsi, because they will come to wipe us away.” The church taught to kill their Tutsi neighbors as they claimed the Bible designated the Tutsi as their mortal enemies. During the genocide, not even the churches were safe. Hutu militiamen raided them and murdered anyone seeking refuge there. Pastors often trapped those hiding in the churches and alerted the Hutus.

The genocide was as horrifying as it was dehumanizing. Not all Hutu fighters had access to guns or even machetes, and much of the genocide was conducted using simple weapons such as sharpened sticks, large rocks, and common household items such as forks and knives – making death slow and painful. According to the film, bodies could be found in every village and on every hill. Its simplicity and scope earned it the title as the “most efficient genocide in modern history.” The first reconnaissance mission conducted by the United Nations (UN) reported one thousand Tutsi were killed in twenty minutes when the investigators first arrived.

Tragically, women endured gender based violence during the genocide. The total number of rape survivors will never be known, however countless women testified to being raped during the genocide. Stories of rape, whether gang-raped or with objects, are consistently mentioned. If they were not killed after being raped, the women were sold into sex slavery or forced into marriage. Additionally, they were traded among groups of men for them to sexually abuse them. Once the men were “done” with them, their reproductive organs were gruesomely mutilated with machetes, knives, bare sticks, or even acid. After pleading with her rapists to kill her, one woman testified they responded: she was to be kept alive so she would “die of sadness.”

The film shows the use of rape as a psychological weapon to strip the humanity from more than just the individual Rwandan woman. The rapists wanted to both degrade larger groups of women the rape survivors were a part of and as a means to assert their superiority and population control. Throughout the history of armed conflict, women often become the targets of sexual violence– this is a common weapon used in larger crimes against humanity, such as genocide. Whether it comes in the form of physical abuse, rape, mutilation, or sex slavery, being a woman becomes a risk factor – no matter the age, religion, ethnicity, political affiliation, or any other characteristic outside of biology. Niarchos concludes rape is used to inflict terror and force cooperation, both on the female survivor and others in her close community. In Rwanda’s case, rape was used to humiliate Tutsi women and terrify the community as a whole; making the suffering of Tutsi women a violent means to the Hutus’ political end.

The UN declared rape as a war crime in 1919, however in cases prior to the Rwandan Genocide, rape was never prosecuted in this manner. In Resolution 1820 that was adopted by the Security Council at its 5916th meeting, of the UN Security Council noted “women and girls are particularly targeted by the use of sexual violence, including as a tactic of war to humiliate, dominate, instil fear in, disperse and/or forcibly relocate civilian members of a community or ethnic group.” The International Criminal Tribunal of Rwanda (ICTR) was the first time rape was pursued as a war crime and was the first tribunal enacted since World War II. The film, The Uncondemned, tells of the efforts taken by the UN to connect rape to genocide. The documentary focuses on the case the mayor of Taba, Jean Paul Akayesu, who was the first to face charges of inditement over genocide – including rape.

The team of lawyers sent by the UN was ambitious but inexperienced. Most were in their 30s, recently graduated from law school, and were taken to task by gathering intelligence to prosecute this case that was like none before it. More importantly, they deduced they must prosecute it in a way that laid the groundwork for future cases – setting legal precedence.

Woman praying in front of others.
Woman Praying – Rwanda by Brice Crozier

Doctor Odette Nyiramilimo of Le Bon Samaritain Clinic in Kigali was one of many doctors who said almost every woman and adolescent girl who survived the Rwandan Genocide was raped. As she examined victims immediately after the genocide, she asserted that at least two cases of rape were coming in each day to her clinic. As mentioned before, the exact number cannot be known, which is due to a number of factors such as the stigmatism that surrounds rape. Across the globe, rape survivors are shamed and seen as guilty for the violent crimes committed against them. Eisler asserts this is especially prominent in societies that value men over women. Fear of reprisal compromises the reporting of rape, and this is particularly true in the case of Rwandan survivors. Bernadette Muhimakazi, a Rwandan women’s rights activist in an interview with Human Rights Watch, states many of the women were afraid to say anything because they know who their perpetrators are. These women know exactly who killed their families and who violated them. In many cases, these women live in the same community as their perpetrators.

“Women here are scared to talk because it was their neighbors who raped them.”

– Bernadette Muhimakzai

Prior to the visibility the tribunal brought, rape was viewed as a negligible outcome of war. The testimonies of the Rwandan women changed this perception, and rape was legally billed as a true war crime. The team the UN pulled together to prosecute this case proved to be successful in their endeavors, and justice prevailed; Akayesu was convicted of crimes against humanity and acts of genocide. The film concludes with rape survivors coming forth to name their rapists. While their sense of inner peace may never be fully restored, the tribunal gave the women a sense of justice and vindication.

Are We Failing Syria Yet Again? Response to the Chemical Attack on Syrian Civilians

Destroyed city of Azas, Syria. Source: Creative Commons, Christiaan Triebert.

One of the worst chemical attacks turned a rebel-held area in the north of Syria into a death zone. Bombs were dropped from war planes in the early morning of April 4, 2017 and the spread of poisonous gas started shortly thereafter. Close to 70 people died, with pictures of dying children and grieving relatives going around the world. The Syrian military accused insurgents, but it seems clear that only  the Syrian government has the ability to carry these types of bombings. Shock and condemnation was the reaction of governments and the public around the world. Two days later, President Trump ordered airstrikes, his first military action while in office.

Why this outcry and action now? People have been dying in Syria for months and years  – think Aleppo – and the response has been, for the most part, fairly limited. We have seen dying children and assaulted women, airstrikes on civilian areas, and death and suffering everywhere. I would argue there are three reasons for this strong response, both in the public and in the political realm.

  1. The footage of the attacks themselves.
  2. The violation of most important rules of international law.
  3. A new administration in the White House.

Let me explain.

Source: Creative Commons, Códice Tuna Colectivo de Arte.

 

First and most obviously, it is the footage of children and older adults struggling to breathe, frothing at their mouths, and lying motionless in the mud as aid workers desperately try to help. It is the incredible grief by a father, who lost 22 members of his family in the attack, and who can be seen clutching the bodies of his 9-month-old twins. It is the level of individual suffering that most of us can relate to as human beings with families of our own, and the gruesomeness of the attack shakes us to the very core.

However, there is a second reason why this attack is cause for special consideration. The use of chemical weapons rises to the most serious violation of fundamental principles of international law: (1) the  deliberate targeting of civilians is a crime against humanity, the “worst of worst crimes” and on par with genocide, and (2) the prohibition of the use of chemical weapons in warfare is one of the most widely acknowledged and respected rules of the international law of war.

Crimes against humanity are deliberate, systematic attacks against civilians or a significant part of the civilian population. Crimes against humanity were first described and prosecuted in the Nuremberg Trials at the conclusion of WWII and have since entered international criminal law as one of the major crimes for prosecution of individuals. While there is no international treaty specifically dealing with crimes against humanity, the Statute of the International Criminal Court lists mass murder, massacres, dehumanization, genocide, human experimentation, extrajudicial punishments, death squads, forced disappearances, recruiting of child soldiers, kidnappings, unjust imprisonment, slavery, cannibalism, torture, mass rape, and political or racial repression (e.g., apartheid) as crimes that reach the threshold of crimes against humanity if they are part of a widespread or systematic practice.

The prohibition of the use of chemical weapons has its origins in the late 19th century. Shortly after the establishment of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in 1864 – the institution that oversees international humanitarian law, also known as the “law of war” – states decided to regulate and ban weapons that inflict excessive and unnecessary harm to the people affected by war (e.g., the Hague Declaration concerning Asphyxiating Gases of 1899).  The horrific injuries sustained by soldiers from poisonous gas in WWI and experiences of both combatants and civilians in later conflicts (e.g., in Vietnam) accelerated these efforts, which resulted first in the Geneva Gas Protocol (1925) and then in the Chemical Weapons Convention (1993). The Chemical Weapons Convention  prohibits the use of chemical weapons in all circumstances, which means in both international (meaning between states) and non-international war (any other type of conflict, including civil wars). Only 13 states have not signed either the Geneva Gas Protocol or the Chemical Weapons Convention (Syria is not one of them). The prohibition of chemical weapons is a universal norm, which means that it binds all parties to armed conflicts, whether state or non-state actors, as a rule of international customary law.

This ban of chemical weapons is strengthened by the fact that it is illegal under international humanitarian law to use weapons that do not distinguish between military and civilian targets. So-called indiscriminate weapons are those that cannot be directed at a military objective or whose effects cannot be limited. Similar to the prohibition of the use of chemical weapons, this rule is not only international custom, but has also been affirmed in various international treaties, including the statute of the International Criminal Court and the Additional Protocol to the Geneva Convention. The UN General Assembly and other UN organs have supported this principle in multiple resolutions and the International Court of Justice, the highest court in the world, reaffirmed the principle of distinguishing between civilian and military targets in the Nuclear Weapons advisory opinion (ICJ, Nuclear Weapons case, Advisory Opinion). While there is no definite list of indiscriminate weapons, the ICRC generally cites chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons, anti-personnel landmines, mines, poison, explosives discharged from balloons, cluster bombs, booby-traps, certain types of rockets and missiles, and environmental modification techniques.

In other words, the chemical attacks by the Syrian regime on its own population broke two fundamental rules of international law.

Third, we have a new administration in the White House whose policy towards Syria and the Middle East is most likely to be very different than the one of its predecessor (it is too early to tell for sure).  President Trump expressed that the use of chemical weapons in Syria “crossed a lot of lines for me” and changed the way in which he views the Syrian dictator Bashir Al-Assad. The decision to use airstrikes against Syria was made shortly thereafter. President Trump’s words, and in some way, his actions, remind us of President Obama’s reaction to the use of chemical gas against civilians in Syria in 2013. President Obama, who used the word “red line” in connection with the 2013 attack, also contemplated air strikes. However, in an unexpected turn around, Obama decided to seek congressional approval for military action against Syria. The proposed bill never received a floor vote because the Syrian government accepted a U.S.-Russian deal to turn over its chemical weapons stockpile and sign and ratify the Chemical Weapons Conventions.

Sunset at the White House. Source: Creative Commons, Ted Eytan.

 

What does this mean? Were the airstrikes legal? What are the political consequences? From a legal point of view, the situation is complicated, but more easily explained. Under international law, the  use of force against another state is illegal, unless it is in self-defense, authorized by the UN Security Council, or on the invitation of the state affected. Security Council authorization is unlikely to happen considering that Russia is a veto-power holding member of the Security Council and has made it clear that it does not see the need for a condemnation of the attack. The U.S. has not given any indication that the airstrikes were in self-defense. Syria has certainly not invited the U.S. to strike its airbase. So, in most interpretations of international law, the airstrikes are illegal. President Trump said in a press conference in the evening of April 6 that “it is in this vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons,” which could hint at a future justification of the airstrikes within framework of self-defense. There is some discussion over whether the unilateral use of force on behalf of civilians, also known as humanitarian intervention, should be seen as legitimate, if not legal. However, considering the situation in Syria and the U.S. military involvement against the Islamic State, Russia’s engagement, and the geopolitical situation, it would be very difficult for the U.S. to argue for a purely humanitarian justification of U.S. action. While the airstrikes authorized by President Trump were very limited – hitting a somewhat remote airbase – and no formal declaration of war has been made, Syria could very well see the airstrikes as an informal act of war.

Under U.S. law, the President may authorize military action for defense, but not for offensive wars. Offensive wars require congressional approval. Congressional approval was given for military action after the 9/11 attacks, which gives the President far reaching authority to combat terrorism. The Obama administration has interpreted this rule to include and authorize the fight against the Islamic State, and so far, the Trump administration seems to go along with this interpretation. Regardless, a war against Syria, a state, not a non-state actor, is a completely different beast. A war against Syria would most certainly need congressional approval, and members of Congress have already called for the administration to bring any future military action before Congress.

In terms of political consequences, it’s too early to tell if this was a one time engagement and what the Trump administration will do next. Russia’s involvement in Syria complicates matters as not only U.S.-Syrian relations, but also U.S.-Russian relations are at stake. Russia has reacted strongly and called the airstrikes a “significant blow to Russian-U.S. relations.”   Either way, an in depth discussion of strategy will be important, especially considering that interventions tend to be much more complex and complicated endeavors than they first appear. America, as many countries before her, has learned this the hard way. And if we really want to help the “beautiful babies” in Syria, as President Trump claims, we need to open our borders to allow Syrian refugees to find safety.

However, while these discussions over legality and Russia-U.S. relations are certainly important, they are not sufficient. What we need to focus on is the question over what the consequences of military action will be. We cannot be distracted from what has to be the end goal: a political settlement of the conflict. Only a termination of violence and war will end the tremendous suffering of Syrian children, women, and men. Any military action has to be judged on whether it advances or hinders an end to the conflict.

What is the International Criminal Court and Why Should I Care?

Windows of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. Source: Roman Boed, Creative Commons
Windows of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. Source: Roman Boed, Creative Commons.

What is the International Criminal Court and how did it develop?

The ICC is not a substitute for national courts. It is the only court with global jurisdiction that a state can go to when it cannot carry out the investigation and trial of perpetrators that have committed war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity. It is also not to be confused with the Court of Justice which settles disputes between states.  The idea of having an international court first developed in 1948 with the United Nations General Assembly (UN GA). In order to prevent atrocities such as the Holocaust from ever happening again, the UN GA adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. This convention called on criminals guilty of committing or creating a genocide to be tried by an international court that did not yet exist. Therefore, the International Law Commission (ILC) was brought in to assess the desirability and feasibility of creating a court with global jurisdiction. During the ILC’s process of drafting a statute, the Cold War halted efforts in creating such a court.

The discussion of establishing an international criminal court was not on the agenda of the international community for many years. It finally resurfaced in 1989 Trinidad and Tobago were battling massive drug trafficking. The UN GA once again called upon the International Law Commission to continue the drafting efforts that were abandoned in the early 1950s. The 1990s brought horrendous genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes from all over the world- particularly in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Rwanda. Due to the international climate at the time, the United Nations decided that it could not wait for an international criminal court to develop fully in order to take control of these crimes. Instead, the UN Security Council put in two ad hoc courts in order for individuals to be held accountable for these crimes – the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR).

The quest for a permanent international criminal court continued when representatives met in Rome, Italy, from June 15th to July 17th of 1998. A total of 160 countries participated in this conference with the goal of negotiating an international treaty that would serve as the basis for an international criminal court. With 120 votes in favor of such a court, the Rome Statute was adopted, officially creating what we know as the International Criminal Court. The ICC was established in The Hague in the Netherlands, on July 1, 2002 when the Rome Statute entered into force. However, the reach of the court was diminished by the fact that the following countries either did not sign or did not ratify the statute: Bahrain, China, India, Indonesia,  Iraq, Israel, Kuwait, Lebanon, Malaysia, Nepal, Pakistan, Sudan, Thailand, Turkey, Ukraine, the United States, and Yemen. The absence of three permanent members of the UN Security Council – the U.S., China, and Russia – has been a particular challenge for the new court. 

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The International Criminal Court in The Hague. Source: Alkan Boudewijn de Beaumont Chaglar, Creative Commons

How does the International Criminal Court function?

There are four components that make up the ICC: The presidency, Office of the Prosecutor, chambers, and registry.

The Presidency

The presidency is the head of the court that consists of three judges who are elected by an absolute majority by the 18 judges that makeup the Court. One judge is the president and the other two are vice presidents who all serve two three-year terms. The presidency takes on a significant administrative role by representing the Court as a whole to the world and safeguarding the enforcement of sentences levied by the Court itself. It also helps organize the work of the judges.

The Office of the Prosecutor

The office of the prosecutor has one of the most important roles: They conduct investigations and prosecutions. The office of the prosecutor is mandated to “receive and analyze information on situations or alleged crimes within the jurisdiction of the ICC, to analyze situations referred to it in order to determine whether there is a reasonable basis to initiate an investigation into a crime of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes or the crime of aggression, and to bring the perpetrators of these crimes before the Court.” Within the office of the prosecutor, there are three divisions: the investigation division, the prosecuting division, and the jurisdiction, complementarity, and cooperation division. The former two divisions are self-explanatory, but the latter’s duty may be a little difficult to understand. The jurisdiction, complementarity, and cooperation division works with the investigation division in analyzing information that is received, as well as, evaluating situations referred to the Court. In order to have a case heard by the ICC, one must go to this division which will either approve or reject a case to be heard. They will judge the legitimacy of a case on the basis of the analyses of information pertaining to that particular situation.

The Chambers

The chambers’ responsibility is to guarantee and carry-out a fair trial. Similar to the office of the prosecutor, there are three divisions within the chambers: the pre-trial chambers, trial chambers, and appeals chambers. The eighteen judges plus the three judges in the presidency (for a total of 21 judges) are assigned to one of these three chambers. The pre-trial chamber is composed of seven judges with one to three judges presiding over each sub-chamber. Their job is to make sure that the investigation and prosecutorial proceedings are fair in order to protect the rights of suspects, witnesses, and victims. After these proceedings are completed, the pre-trial chambers decide whether or not warrants of arrest should be issued, as well as summons to the office of the prosecutor at their request. They also are responsible for confirming or not confirming the charges the suspect has been given. Current cases in the pre-trial stage are the Barasa case of Kenya, the Hussein case of Darfur, Sudan, the Al-Bashir case of Darfur, Sudan, and the Harun and Kushayb case of Darfur, Sudan.

The trials chamber works to ensure the fairness of the trial itself and that such a trial continues to appropriately comply with the rights of suspects. They are also responsible for the needed protection of witnesses and victims in necessary. Along with those roles, this chamber is the one that decides whether a suspect is guilty or innocent of the charges and if guilty, they determine the punishment whether that be through monetary compensation or going to prison (prison time cannot exceed thirty years to a life sentence). Current ongoing trials are as follows: the Gbagbo and Blé Goudé case of Côte d’Ivoire, the Bemba et. al case of the Central African Republic, and the Ntaganda case of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The appeals chamber steps in if the guilty plaintiff would like to appeal his or her trial or proceedings that the pre-trials chambers or trials chamber conducted. This chamber is made up of the President of the Court along with four other judges. Just like the appellate courts we have here in the states, the appeals chamber can amend, reverse, or uphold the prior chambers’ decision. In some cases, they may order a new trial with a different trials chamber. Currently, there is one appeals case- the Bemba case of the Central African Republic.

The Registry

The registry supports the Court administratively by ensuring  a fair, impartial, public trial. More specifically, the ICC describes the registry as “the core function of providing administrative and operational support to the Chambers and the Office of the Prosecutor. It also supports the Registrar’s activities in relation to defense, victims, and communication and security matters.” Communication matters consist of having responsibility and authority over the Court’s primary information, as well as outreach services and activities.

600 persons visited the International Criminal Court (ICC) on Sunday, 29 September 2013, when it opened its doors for The Hague International Day. Visitors engaged with speakers representing the Judges, the Prosecution, the Defence, the Legal Representatives of Victims, and the Registry during an interactive session held in the ICC Courtroom in The Hague (Netherlands). They had the opportunity to participate in a one-hour presentation in the ICC public gallery. Questions from visitors focused on the various aspects of the Court’s work, including its mandate, structure and ongoing cases.
600 persons visited the International Criminal Court (ICC) on Sunday, 29 September 2013, when it opened its doors for The Hague International Day. Visitors engaged with speakers representing the Judges, the Prosecution, the Defence, the Legal Representatives of Victims, and the Registry during an interactive session held in the ICC Courtroom in The Hague (Netherlands). They had the opportunity to participate in a one-hour presentation in the ICC public gallery. Questions from visitors focused on the various aspects of the Court’s work, including its mandate, structure and ongoing cases.

Why Should I Care?

In summary, the ICC is much more complex than one might think, and rightfully so. This Court gets the worst of the worst cases in terms of cruelty. They try individuals who have been accused of participating in genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, etc.  In order to maintain a fair and impartial trial, there are many administrative roles within each division and chamber that work to achieve the goal of accountability. The ICC was a concept that had been thought of long before it was actually established and it is the only permanent international criminal court that tries individual perpetrators.  Some may think that the ICC doesn’t really matter or holds no significant importance when it comes to trying and punishing individuals, but actually, the ICC has a very compelling role in such matters.