Citizen Action to Prevent Genocide

On April 7, 2014, Bukeni Waruzi from WITNESS led a session on Citizen Action to Prevent Genocide as part of the Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law’s 20th Anniversary Commemoration for the Rwandan Genocide. Mr. Waruzi began by reflecting on living in the Democratic Republic of the Congo when Rwandan refugees were fleeing the genocide in 1994. He explained that thousands of refugees poured over the border daily while he was unable to help.

WITNESS works to empower activists and demands accountability for human rights abuses through visual documentation. Individuals can take action by filming events and taking photographs, which the international community relies on for information about the situation. The organization uses this documentation not only to inform the international community but also to inspire and demand action and intervention. Mr. Waruzi discussed the importance of documenting human rights abuses to advocate for the cause, to use as evidence in later trials, and to preserve history for future generations; additionally, he noted how important the videos and photographs from the Rwandan genocide are for commemorations today. Mr. Waruzi highlighted some common problems related to citizen action, including restricted access to technology, lack of political action from key decision-makers, and protecting the safety and security of activists and survivors. Despite these hindrances, Mr. Waruzi inspired the audience to take individual action to help document and prevent human rights abuses.

Financing Genocide: Disrupting the Supply Chain for Slaughter

Ignacio Mujica with Lauren Bartlett
Ignacio Mujica with Lauren Bartlett

Ignacio Mujica has a long history working in the human rights field and currently works for Human Rights First. On April 7, 2014, Mr. Mujica spoke about the work Human Rights First is doing to stop the atrocity supply chain that is financing genocide. As part of the Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law’s 20th Anniversary Commemoration for the Rwandan Genocide, his presentation focused on “enablers:” countries, companies, and individuals that provide the means that make mass atrocities possible. Mr. Mujica explained that groups engaging in mass atrocities need financing for their ammunition, fuel, and to pay the military. In order to interrupt this network, Human Rights First tries to identify “choke points” in the supply chain.

Mr. Mujica presented Somalia and Syria as two case examples. In Somalia, the stabilizing commodity is charcoal. Somalia produces charcoal and exports it to the United Arab Emirates. The sales of the charcoal help fund the al-Qaeda affiliate group in Somalia, al-Shabaab. Although the United Nations (UN) Security Council placed an embargo on any charcoal from Somalia, it is difficult to effectively prevent the merchants from selling charcoal. In Syria, the major commodity is weapons. According to the United States Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Russia is the major supplier of weapons for President Assad’s regime in Syria. As a member of the Security Council, Russia has veto power for any UN resolutions; thus, it is unlikely that the UN will place an embargo on selling weapons to the Assad regime. In both Somalia and Syria the “choke point” is the sea shipping industry. By placing sanctions on the private shipping industry, the supply chain for financing mass atrocities can be interrupted despite hurdles present in the UN system. Although this process does not necessarily sanction the enabling countries, it uses smart sanctions to target the insurance companies for the sea shipping industry and thus provides results outside of targeting Russia or the United Arab Emirates.

Situation of the Right of Access to Justice and Suspension of Judicial Decisions in Brazil

Commissioners: Felipe González, James L. Cavallaro, José de Jesús Orozco Henríquez, Emilio Álvarez Icaza (Executive Secretary)

Petitioners: Justiça Global / Justiça nos Trilhos / Sociedade Paraense de Defesa de Direitos Humanos / Asociación Interamericana para la Defensa del Ambiente (AIDA) / International Rivers / Terra de Direitos

State: Brazil

Petitioners representing various Brazilian human rights groups presented their concerns before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) regarding indigenous and traditional groups’ access to due process rights in light of the suspension of judicial decisions in Brazil. In their March 28th thematic hearing, Petitioners described circumstances in which the Brazilian government suspended judicial decisions in favor of mega projects and developments such as railroads and dams. Petitioners asserted that the process of suspending judicial decisions puts the judicial branch at the service of the executive branch and denies justice for groups the State has traditionally discriminated against.

Photo Credit: Inter-American Commission on Human Rights
Photo Credit: Inter-American Commission on Human Rights

Petitioners described a State plan to expand a railroad, which would affect 1.7 million people, including urban and rural indigenous populations. In 2012, a judge issued injunctive relief halting railroad construction, but the decision was suspended based on the premise that it would have negative economic effects. Petitioners described problems stemming from the expansion of the railroad, including excessive noise, damage to buildings as a result of railroad vibrations, and the death of persons and livestock. Furthermore, according to the Petitioners, families and villages have been moved to accommodate the railroad expansion and, thus far, the government has failed to provide any reparations. Petitioners further asserted that the expansion was done without consulting local communities and that the businesses involved in the railroad spy on and terrorize the communities.

Additionally, Petitioners described damage to the sacred Sete Quedas (Seven Waterfalls) region because of dams built on several rivers. In 2012, a federal judge suspended dam construction on the Tapajós River, a decision that was also suspended. Petitioners claim that the Brazilian government sends in researchers with federal troops to survey potential sights and conduct environmental impact studies without consulting local groups, which Petitioners consider tantamount to a declaration of war. Petitioners call on the State to recognize and respect their territory, sacred locations, and cemeteries.

Petitioners asserted that suspending judicial decisions violates Articles 8 and 25 of the American Convention on Human Rights (ACHR). Article 8 protects the right to a fair trial and Article 25 protects the right to judicial protection. Additionally, Petitioners lament that a motion to suspend can only be used by the State, and not by individual parties, thereby creating inequality in the judicial system.

The State responded by affirming Brazil’s commitment to the democratic rule of law and the Federal Constitution of 1988. The State noted that judicial suspensions are not exceptional, but part of the 1936 Constitution. The State further claimed that judicial suspension was compatible with the ACHR as a precautionary motion whereby the judicial decision was suspended until a complete evaluation could be made to ensure economic and public security. The State emphasized that this procedural process was collegial and that minority groups as well as the government could use this process to ensure their rights were protected (a claim Petitioners disagreed with). State attorneys compared the process to recurso de amparo, a remedy for protecting certain individual rights. The State also compared the system to the common law system of administrative decisions, which the State noted was more restrictive because administrative decisions cannot be challenged through the judicial system.

Commissioner José de Jesús Orozco Henríquez reiterated that Inter-American standards are not only about access to justice but also to ensure that Articles 8 and 25 are upheld and that justice is implemented based on the merits of each case. Commissioner James L. Cavallaro noted that it is not the Commission’s position to assess the constitutionality of any domestic measure and that each country should have the space to define remedies for domestic procedures but asked the parties to submit information elaborating on instances in which an individual could submit relevant arguments after injunctive relief is suspended.

Human Rights Situation of LGBTI Persons in Belize

Commissioners: Felipe González, James L. Cavallaro

Petitioners: United Belize Advocacy Movement

State: Belize 

Petitioners representing the United Belize Advocacy Movement presented their concerns regarding state and private discrimination of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons in Belize before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). In their March 28th hearing, Petitioners described several concerning sources of discrimination and marginalization that LGBTI persons face, including legislation that criminalizes same-sex intercourse and prohibits LGBTI migrants from entering the country, unaddressed widespread public stigma that leads to violence within communities, and abusive tactics of law enforcement personnel targeting LGBTI persons.

Photo Credit: Inter-American Commission on Human Rights
Photo Credit: Inter-American Commission on Human Rights

Both Petitioners and State representatives applauded the Prime Minister of Belize’s 2013 speech where he stated that the Government will “fully respect the right of churches to propagate their understanding of morality, or immorality, of homosexuality. But what the Government cannot do is shirk its duty to ensure that all citizens, without exception, enjoy the full protection of the law.” Petitioners noted with concern, however, the intersecting issues of violence, hate crimes, and human dignity that nevertheless persist and welcomed state support to ensuring equality for all persons before the law in conformity with international obligations. In this context, Petitioners expressed serious concerns that legislative invisibility and institutional misunderstanding remain a problem for LGBTI persons and that the law prohibits same-sex intercourse and sexual minorities from immigrating to Belize. Petitioners noted that, regardless of the law’s enforcement, the law instigates discrimination and violence by both state and non-state actors. Petitioners spoke about multiple incidents of law enforcement misconduct—including arbitrary detention and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment while in custody—as well as general discrimination in education, employment, and healthcare. Petitioners proposed many issues for the State to respond to, some of which include: implementing the IACHR precautionary measures issued in 2013; reforming the immigration act that prohibits sexual minorities from entering Belize; adopting criminal legislation that imposes proportional criminal sentences for hate crimes motivated by LGBTI sexual discrimination, providing human rights training for teachers, staff, government officials, and law enforcement; implementing General Assembly Resolution 2807 (GA 2807) regarding Human Rights, Sexual Orientation, and Gender Identity Expression; and signing and ratifying the Inter-American Convention Against All Forms of Discrimination and Intolerance.

State representatives replied by emphasizing that Belize is a constitutional democracy that respects the fundamental rights of all citizens. Representatives also noted that although the Constitution affirms the supremacy of god, it also affirms the individual rights and dignity of human beings. Thus, representatives stated that all people are equal before the law and entitled to freedom from discrimination and interference in their private lives. Representatives noted that the Executive branch could not sign GA 2807 out of respect for the separation of powers because at the time GA 2807 was proposed the judicial branch had not decided a case regarding the legality of same-sex intercourse and whether or not the Belizean Constitution protects a person based on sexual orientation. Representatives asserted that the Belizean government has not encountered hate speech issues and that the freedom of expression is a protected right. Representatives also noted that there are current efforts underway to train law enforcement officials regarding human rights issues, including LGBTI issues.

Commissioner Felipe González emphasized the importance of fully implementing precautionary measures and Commissioner James L. Cavallaro asked what steps the State had taken regarding the precautionary measures issued for Caleb Orozco, one of the Petitioners present at the hearing and a victim of harassment and crime because of his work defending LGBTI rights. Commissioners also requested that the State send follow-up information regarding the other discriminatory incidents Petitioners detailed and that Petitioners provide data regarding education and employment discrimination. Noting respect for the separation of powers, Commissioner Cavallaro asked what the Executive branch’s position was regarding criminalizing same-sex intercourse and prohibiting sexual minorities from immigrating to Belize.

Petitioners agreed to provide data to the Commission; however, Petitioners noted that documentation is limited because of a perceived lack of legislative protection for minority groups and migrants, which leads to victims failing to report crimes. State representatives claimed they did not have information regarding the Executive branch’s position on current legislation, but agreed to inquire about security measures for IACHR precautionary measures and to provide a status update on each case Petitioners mentioned.

Children Face Atrocities Amidst the Syrian Conflict

Syrian Children of Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan, by Caroline Gluck/Oxfam International
Syrian Children of Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan, by Caroline Gluck/Oxfam International

As the Syrian conflict enters its third year, the United Nations (UN) estimates that 100,000 people are dead, including an estimated 10,000 children. Children have been at the center of the conflict since the beginning; in 2011, the Syrian Government arrested 15 children for painting anti-government slogans on the walls of a school in Dar’a. After unsuccessful attempts to negotiate their release and allegations that the children were being tortured while in police custody, community members began protesting the arrests of the children. In response, security forces opened fire, killing at least four protesters, deaths which activists consider the first casualties of the Syrian uprising. Following the Syrian Government’s violent suppression in Dar’a, demonstrations spread throughout the region and remain ongoing today. The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) obligates the Syrian Arab Republic, a State Party, to protect a child’s right to life and to ensure that children are not subjected to arbitrary detention or prohibited torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment (ill-treatment), and are protected from participation in direct hostilities.

Despite this obligation, the UN reported that government forces and associated militias arbitrarily detained, arrested, abducted, raped, and tortured children. Similarly, armed opposition groups recruited children for combat and support roles, abducted, raped, and summarily executed children. The UN noted that although the report attributed many incidents of killing and injuring children to government forces during the first two years of the conflict, armed opposition groups increasingly have engaged in such conduct largely due to “increased access to heavy weapons and the use of terror tactics.”

The Government arrests children not only for their own perceived or actual participation in opposition groups, but also for their relatives’ perceived or actual participation. Children apprehended by both sides in the conflict are often held in the same cells as adults, contrary to international standards for juvenile detention. Reports of ill-treatment while in detention are extensive and include, “beatings with metal cables, whips and wooden and metal batons; electric shocks, including to the genitals; the ripping out of fingernails and toenails; sexual violence, including rape or threats of rape; mock executions; cigarette burns; sleep deprivation; solitary confinement; and exposure to the torture of relatives.” The Government uses ill-treatment to extract confessions from children or humiliate them into pressuring their relatives to confess or surrender. Outside of detention centers, the UN received reports regarding allegations of sexual violence against women and girls by government forces, including gang rape in the presence of relatives at checkpoints and while searching houses of families perceived to support opposition groups. The UN received allegations of armed opposition groups also using sexual violence, however, investigation is hampered because of lack of access to many areas in Syria. Abducting children in exchange for ransom, to release prisoners, or to pressure relatives supporting the opposing side has increasingly been a tactic used by both government forces and armed opposition groups.

The CRC protects a child’s fundamental rights and freedoms. The CRC defines a child as any individual under 18 years old. State parties to the CRC must protect children from sexual exploitation, ill-treatment, arbitrary detention, and participation in direct hostilities. Articles 12–15 protect a child’s right to freedom of expression, thought, association, and peaceful assembly. Therefore, the actions of the 15 children in Dar’a who painted anti-government slogans were protected by international law, which the Government was obligated to enforce. Article 34 obligates states to protect children from all forms of sexual exploitation and abuse, which the practice of sexual violence and rape by both government forces and armed opposition groups violates. Article 37 requires state parties to protect children from ill-treatment, arbitrary arrest, and detention, and specifically requires that detained children remain separated from adults. Article 2 obligates states to protect children from punishment based on their relatives or guardians’ activities and opinions. Therefore, the practice of detaining children in units with adults, egregious ill-treatment, and punishing children for their relatives’ perceived or actual support of opposition groups is contrary to international law. In times of conflict, Article 38 requires that states ensure children under “fifteen years do not take a direct part in hostilities[;]” thus, recruiting children under 15 for combat and support roles, as well as using children as human shields or to pressure relatives to surrender, is contrary to international law.

As outlined under international law, the Syrian Government has a responsibility to protect the children in Syria from prohibited ill-treatment, sexual violence and exploitation, arbitrary arrest and detention, and participation in direct hostilities. As causalities continue to climb, the Government and armed opposition groups must recognize and protect the fundamental rights and freedoms of Syrian children or face possible criminal prosecution in domestic or international courts.