Law and Subversion - W. Kaleck's Blog on ZEIT ONLINE

“A law student was pushed down, a radical rose up” – on the death of Michael Ratner

The global student movement of 1968 fostered a generation of determined, political lawyers in Germany (as described in the last blog) as well as to a greater extent in the United States. One of the major figures in this scene, Michael Ratner, longstanding president of the US civil rights group the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), passed away on 11 May 2016 in New York. 

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Fighting the legal mainstream

The German journal Kritische Justiz recently published a special volume with portraits of “Streitbare Juristen,” i.e. combative lawyers, including writers Franz Kafka and Kurt Tucholsky, who both studied law, or women’s rights pioneers Margarete Berent and Marie Munk. They represented a distinct tradition, standing up for the oppressed and those unjustly marginalized by the traditional legal system. For the launch of the special volume I had the chance to have long discussions with the experienced and no less pugnacious lawyers Hans-Christian Ströbele, Rupert von Plottnitz and Heinrich Hannover on being a lawyer during these post war decades.

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Going after journalists but not arms dealers

“Why does a prosecutor need five and a half years to bring charges against an arms company, but then go to great lengths to fast-track criminal proceedings against filmmakers?”, a fair question posed by the lawyer for weapons researcher and peace activist Jürgen Grässlin, who helped to uncover the illegal export of Heckler & Koch assault weapons to Mexico in the prize-winning documentary “Meister des Todes” (“Masters of Death”).

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Not just against the weak

Discussions often get heated when the topic of international criminal law comes up. This is especially true, of course, in places such as the former Yugoslavia, Argentina or Colombia, where the focus is on crimes committed close to home, but it is also true in places where courts have had to look at international crimes committed elsewhere – as happened last year in South Africa during a visit by Sudanese President Omar Al Bashir, who is the subject of two outstanding arrest warrants issued by the International Criminal Court. 

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The German Foreign Ministry and the Dictatorships

Better late than never: German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier is planning to make a statement this week on his office’s handling of the criminal sect Colonia Dignidad, a German settlement located in a huge compound in Chile. From 1961 on the group’s founder and leader Paul Schäfer was involved in drugging residents and the rape of children from the sect and the neighboring villages. After 1973, the Colonia collaborated with the Pinochet dictatorship to run a torture prison for opponents of the regime.

 

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Truthful, if not yet the whole truth – the NSU trilogy

Last weekend I decided I would watch it after all, the ARD film trilogy “Mitten in Deutschland: NSU”. In the end I was impressed to find something like this on public broadcasting. Each of the three films sheds light on important issues not only in connection with the National Socialist Underground (NSU) group, but also on a broader understanding of the reality in Germany and Europe today: unconcealed xenophobia at every turn, political parties based almost exclusively on racism and hundreds of attacks on refugee accommodation in the past few months alone.

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Sexualized Violence in Colombia: how women are helped – and hindered

The main hall of the planetarium in Bogotá, Colombia: shortly before Easter the Working Group of organizations monitoring the enforcement of the Constitutional Court’s decisions on sexualized violence in Colombia presented their new report. According to their statistics, over the last 15 years the Colombian authorities made convictions in less than 3% of cases of rape and sexual assaults. Today the hall is full; over 100 women from all over the country have come for the meeting. The women represent both the diversity and disunity in Colombia. Some of the participants have travelled a long way to be here – indigenous and afro-Colombian women, internally displaced women, women and activists from rural areas along with women engaged in political work in the capital Bogotá.

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No need for Avatar imagination

Last December, young community leaders from the Mekong states and a delegation from the Bertha Foundation network were invited by EarthRights International on a 4-day field trip in northern Thailand. We were hosted by villagers who have for decades peacefully resisted the construction of a dam that would have them expelled from their ancestral land.

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Out of sight, out of mind

Out of sight, out of mind: that seems to be the EU’s motto when it comes to refugee policies. The deal reached between the EU and Turkey on 18 March represents a new low. From now on, all migrants who are intercepted in Turkish waters, or who travel irregularly into Greece through Turkey and aren’t granted asylum or other protections, will be sent back to Turkey. Asylum claims are now to be examined in fast-track procedures in Greece.

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Argentine dictatorship 40 years on

Forty years ago, on 24 March 1976, a military junta led by General Jorge Rafael Videla staged a putsch and formally took power in Argentina. The putsch was just the final step in the process: in the preceding years, Videla’s henchmen had arranged for hundreds of opposition figures to be tortured and killed. And so began – under the banner of anticommunism and the fight against guerillas – one of the bloodiest military dictatorships of the last century, which saw an estimated 30,000 people murdered or disappeared before it ended in 1983. By the time the military putsch was carried out, there was no longer a credible armed guerilla movement – it had been wiped out over the years before. It was students, school-goers, lawyers and journalists who suffered under the dictatorship’s massive repression. The highest death toll was among Argentina’s worker and trade union movement, which stood in the way of the neoliberal restructuring policies pursued by the military junta and the business elites.

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The call for criminal sentencing reaches a crescendo

Here in Germany there’s been another surge in calls for punishment and jail sentences. Whether directed against migrants involved in criminal proceedings or against violent right-wingers – more and more political and media commentators are measuring the earnestness of society’s efforts to address certain issues by whether or not the courts handed down severe punishments or imposed pre-trial detention. You hear all the usual clichés about the general deterrent effect of prison sentences; in some cases there’s also mention of a special penalty for non-Germans, for “abusing their rights as guests here.” A look to the US system over the past decades shows us where a society can end up when the criminal justice system becomes a racist and classist tool directed against underprivileged sections of the population.

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When the rule of law no longer rules

A Paris investigatory court (Chambre de l’instruction de la Cour d’appel) summoned the former Guantánamo commander Major General Geoffrey Miller to appear on 1 March. Miller, one of the best known promoters of the torture of terror suspects, was called to give evidence on the torture program. The French investigations, which have been running for over ten years, are looking into the abuse of French citizens Nizar Sassi and Mourad Benchellali at Guantánamo during the time Miller was commander. As in similar cases in Spain, the UK and Germany, there is no doubt that European courts can – must, in fact – address the torture committed by the US army and the CIA.

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The dangers of trade deals with the Sri Lankan military

Berlin last week: German trade groups host the Sri Lankan-German Business Forum. The Sri Lankan delegation consists of President Maithripala Sirisena and three of his ministers. Sirisena and his colleagues are fervently drumming up business for Sri Lanka, where the decades-long civil war was brought to a bloody end in 2009. On the question of accountability and reconciliation, the Sri Lankan foreign minister reels off the list of promises made to the UN Human Rights Council: the establishment of a truth and reconciliation commission (one such commission was set up in 2011 but failed to look at the most serious human rights violations), a special court (from which the government is keen to exclude international judges and prosecutors) and a commission on those who disappeared during the conflict.

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Colonia Dignidad – justice long overdue for victims in this German scandal

This week sees the cinema release of Colonia, a film about the German sect in Chile known as Colonia Dignidad. The group was involved in the systematic rape of German and Chilean children over a period of decades, and during the Pinochet dictatorship the enclave was used to torture and “disappear” opponents of the regime.The film has already accomplished something: it has put a spotlight on one of the biggest scandals in West German history. The details of the story have still not been fully uncovered, but its effects continue to be felt to this day.

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The detention of Julian Assange is inhumane

The legal case of Mr Assange is highly complex and seems like Daedalus’ labyrinth, where he would be imprisoned forever, running to escape the US Minotaur trying to eat him up. Only an international judicial body has the independence to challenge the unwillingness of three major States (United States, United Kingdom and Sweden) and support the courage of one (Ecuador). This happened on 5 February 2016, when the UNWGAD rendered public its decision in the case. Having concluded that Mr Assange is currently in a situation of arbitrary detention, the UNWGAD has ordered the United Kingdom and Sweden to immediately release Julian Assange.

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A breath of fresh air for law faculties

Lasting change is always difficult to achieve without changes in education – and so it’s little wonder that German lawyers are somewhat underrepresented in the international human rights law scene. For a long time human rights, particularly as provided for under international law, were almost entirely absent from legal education in Germany. Law studies were focused on the national legal sphere and German was often the only language spoken in faculties. This is despite the fact that the European Court of Human Rights and the European Court of Justice have for a long time had a great influence on criminal law, labor law and immigration law cases.  

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Obama’s tentative steps against torture

At a recent discussion it was suggested that maybe nothing has changed at all since Barack Obama took office in January 2009 in terms of counterterrorism efforts and the US stance on the use of torture during interrogations. I responded that sweeping statements like those ignore the small but important steps, interim measures, decisions and positions that have been won from the US government by activists, victims and lawyers in a series of different disputes. It is, of course, a scandal that the Guantánamo detention center is still in existence after almost fifteen years and that people continue to be illegally detained there – despite the fact that President Obama announced six years ago that the center would close.

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Argentina: New government, new direction for dictatorship trials?

Less than 48 hours after the presidential elections in Argentina – which gave victory to the right-wing conservative candidate Mauricio Macri – the newspaper La Nación was leading with the headline “no more vengeance”. It was a reference to the ongoing criminal trials seeking accountability for crimes committed during the Argentine military dictatorship from 1976 to 1983. Over 30,000 people were murdered during this period, most of them “disappeared” in secret torture camps; many were never found. But now more than 600 former military and police officers and civilians including doctors, clergymen and judges have been convicted: Argentine society’s efforts to address past crimes, while late to get underway, eventually served as an example for the rest of the world.

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Glyphosate: organized blindness on pesticide risks

Over the past weeks we looked on in alarm as the European Food Safety Agency classified as harmless a pesticide that is highly controversial around the world. The European functionaries were acting on the basis of an assessment by their German counterparts which stated that the pesticide agent glyphosate is probably not carcinogenic and saw no reason why approval for the pesticide should not be extended – a reckless assertion given that the World Health Organization’s Cancer Research Agency concluded in March 2015 that glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic”. Indeed, the health risks of glyphosate have long been making headlines all over the world. Argentina reports high cancer rates in agricultural regions where glyphosate is sprayed aerially; Sri Lanka has banned glyphosate due to its links with chronic kidney disease, as have El Salvador and others.

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Jumping on the bandwagon of terror

They’re out in force again, jumping on the bandwagon of terror: all those who’ve been sitting on their reactionary ideas on identity and on sealing off the borders and who have long had their draft laws on national security ready and waiting. After the attacks in Paris, they feel the time has now come to push their agendas. Even before the attacks it was almost impossible to have a rational discussion on migration. And yet we have to. Migration was, is and will be a fact of life. According to the UNHCR, an estimated 60 million people were displaced in 2014 alone. But contrary to the impression often given, nine out of ten refugees stay in their own region, i.e. in the countries of the so-called Third World. Only a tenth manage a longer journey. The question is, how will Germany, and Europe, respond?

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Peter Weiss: Tackling the powerful lawbreakers

Soon a personal friend, the lawyer Peter Weiss, will celebrate his 90th birthday in New York. Born in Vienna in 1925, he fled to the US in 1941 and worked in the US Army as an interpreter at the end of World War II. At Fort Hunt near Washington, Weiss worked at a detention camp for high-level Nazis, including missile researcher Wernher von Braun and Reinhard von Gehlen, who would later go on to serve as head of West Germany’s intelligence service. After the war Weiss took up work with the Office of Military Government in US-occupied Berlin. This Office was tasked with dismantling the extensive German business cartels that had helped the National Socialists win and maintain power. One of those questioned by Weiss was Herrmann-Josef Abs, former Nazi banker and later a chief financier in West Germany. Weiss was also involved in the preparations for the Subsequent Nuremberg Trials of German business leaders.

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How Europe can blaze a trail

A pleasant surprise from the European parliament last week: delegates managed to narrowly pass a resolution calling on EU member states to recognize Edward Snowden as a whistleblower and an international human rights defender. The resolution calls on member states to guarantee Snowden protection from prosecution, extradition and transfer to third states, i.e. the United States. This is a major step, even if the resolution does not have any binding power. It has echoes of Snowden’s situation in summer 2013 as he desperately sent out asylum requests to states in Europe and elsewhere from within the transit zone at Moscow airport – to no avail. In the two years since then, discussions have been ongoing in Germany on whether or not Snowden could at the very least safely enter and leave Germany to give testimony to the NSA inquiry committee. But the German government made it clear that the political will for this is lacking. Similar reactions came from the governments in Switzerland and Sweden when the question of asylum was up for discussion there.

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Violence at Europe’s borders: We need more anger!

Anger and rage are an everyday part of our work as human rights lawyers. But however much consternation we might feel about certain rights violations, we have to keep our composure. Our job is to take legal action against rights abuses, and this is only possible with a clear head. But that can be difficult at times. I could hardly believe it when I first heard how the Spanish Guardia Civil shot rubber bullets at swimming migrants on the Moroccan-Spanish border in Ceuta on 6 February 2014. At the border, signs display welcome messages and emblems of the European Union – the winner of the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize. But shortly before reaching the territory of this Union on that February night, fifteen people died in the Mediterranean Sea.
Criminal investigations have been launched in Ceuta thanks to the work of Spanish NGOs. At the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights we are also involved in the case.

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When the USA behaves like a dictatorship

For twelve years we’ve been meeting, in New York, in London, in Madrid: The Center for Constitutional Rights, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and we at the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights convene regularly to discuss the US program of torture that unfolded after 11 September 2001 and consider what action to take and where. We had another one of these meetings last week in Berlin. But the prospects are now very different than they were a few years ago.
The first criminal complaints were submitted between 2004 and 2008 in Germany, France and Spain against former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, former CIA head George Tenet and other senior officials from the Bush administration. Initially the idea behind these complaints was the same as the one underpinning the cases taken against the Argentine and Chilean military dictatorship in the 1990’s: we wanted to shatter impunity for systematic torture by applying pressure from abroad.

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Taking on Goliath

The Facebook ruling and how clever legal initiatives can trigger political change

Last week’s ruling against Facebook from the European Court of Justice (ECJ) justifiably caused a great stir. The ECJ declared the Safe Harbour agreement to be obsolete. European politicians can no longer hide behind the myth that data protection is safeguarded by the US data centers that store and process our information. It remains unclear, however, what the consequences of this decision will be for Facebook and thousands of other internet companies.

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Silence on Indonesia’s mass murders

Indonesia is the guest of honor at this year’s Frankfurt book fair. Various literary works are tackling the country’s criminal past, just as when Argentina was the focus of the event five years ago. But while Argentine society has by now taken various steps to address the injustices of the 1976-1983 military dictatorship and has seen the start of domestic criminal proceedings, these kinds of legal responses to historical crimes are only just beginning in Indonesia. The mass murder of an estimated 500,000 people during Major General Haji Mohamed Suharto’s coup was one of the biggest crimes of the 20th century. Under the command of Suharto, who later served as president for over thirty years, the military destroyed the country’s vast, millions-strong communist and trade union movement.

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Why war crimes trials are worth the effort

A four year trial in Stuttgart costing millions of euro and a court that, on issuing its oral judgment, complains that German law is not set up to deal with such crimes: This is the “FDLR trial” held before the Higher Regional Court of Stuttgart, the trial of two Rwandans accused of carrying out grave crimes in Eastern Congo. The Court found that they were the political leaders of one of the many militias in Eastern Congo committing murder and rape, and had commanded the forces démocratiques de libération du Rwanda (FDLR) via satellite phones, text message and email. The Court sentenced the first defendant to thirteen years in prison for aiding war crimes and leadership in a foreign terrorist organization and the second man to eight years’ imprisonment. Much of the debate on the case centers around two questions that are banal and yet also fair: Was it worth it? And why in the world does a German court have to deal with war crimes in distant Congo?

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Terror zones: Fact and fiction in the war on drugs

The line between fiction and reality often blurs, especially when it comes to the drug wars in the Americas. Steven Soderbergh‟s film Traffic, Don Winslow‟s crime novels The Power of the Dog and The Cartel are based on years of painstaking research, and it shows. “There is nothing to do but be still” – that‟s the resigned conclusion of Winslow‟s anti-hero Art Keller, an agent with a US drug squad, at the close of his furious vendetta against fictitious Mexican drug boss Adán Barrera. Barrera‟s life displays a number of similarities with real life events, including his spectacular escape from a „high security‟ prison. Art‟s frustrations in the novel are also firmly rooted in reality: “The war on drugs drags on in its desultory fashion. In Mexico, in the States, in Europe, Afghanistan. The drugs still flow out of Mexico […] A few of the machine’s most monstrous cogs are missing, but its wheels still turn […] – the cartel carries on.”

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Bahrain: Prosecuting the prosecutor

Mr Ali Bin Fadhul Al-Buainain is what people might call an “honorable man”. Last week he was meeting other honorable men and women in Berne and Zurich in Switzerland – places where honorable people often mingle. Zurich has been hosting the annual meeting of the International Association of Prosecutors (IAP), a group of high-ranking prosecutors from all over the world. Meanwhile, the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva was busy last Monday examining the situation in Mr Al-Buainain’s home state of Bahrain. 32 countries, led by Switzerland, issued a statement condemning human rights violations in the Gulf state, where men and women are imprisoned for exercising their right to freedom of opinion and free association and face abuse and torture in detention.

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Nestlé and the death of a trade unionist in Colombia

The 11th of September – a truly calamitous date. And I don’t just mean the attacks on New York and Washington in 2001, even if the United States has, in its typically vigorous manner, branded that date forever as 9/11, as though all other 11th of Septembers don’t count. That the United States has claimed that date as its own is particularly jarring for many Latin Americans, for whom this date is more likely to evoke the 11th of September 1973, the day the democratically elected President of Chile Salvador Allende was ousted in a US-supported putsch by General Augusto Pinochet. This date also has another connotation in Pakistan, where in Karachi on 11 September 2012 more than 250 workers suffocated and burnt to death in a fire at the Ali Enterprises factory which had been producing clothes for customers including German discount retailer KiK. Yet another tragic commemoration: on this day the Colombian trade union movement remembers its late leader Luciano Romero, a former Nestlé employee who was tortured, repeatedly stabbed and murdered by paramilitaries on 11 September 2005. This year, to mark the ten years since his murder, activists from the Swiss organization Multiwatch are unveiling a commemorative plaque in a square in Berne that has been renamed in his honor. Like Romero’s family and colleagues and me, this group is convinced that his death had links to Switzerland where Nestlé has its headquarters.

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Non-binding morals? Working conditions in the globalized textile industry

There was a lot going on last week at ECCHR concerning working conditions in the textile industry in South Asia and the factories that produce goods for the German market. I had initially thought that I should write here again about the urgent problem of radical right-wing violence, racist attacks in Germany and the plight of refugees. But in fact the two issues are more closely linked than many people here would like to believe. We need to talk about globalization and its various aspects. Above all we need to learn to look beyond national borders and start to act on a European and international level – on the issue of refugees as well as on the global economic crisis.

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August nights of shame

“Kristallnacht in August”, “Night of Shame” – these are headlines that appeared not in reference to the recent neo-Nazi riots in Heidenau in Saxony but instead in connection with the retrospective pieces on the racist pogroms in Rostock-Lichtenhagen in northern Germany on 22 August 1992. I phone up an old activist friend in Berlin who quickly guesses what I want to ask her: “You want to know if anything has changed since then?”
That’s exactly what I was wondering.

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Fighting for the right to have rights

The European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, had guests this week from Morocco. The two human rights activists spoke about their work with refugees and migrants seeking to reach Europe via the Moroccan city of Nador. We’ve all heard or read about this before. But for me it’s always more powerful when I hear these stories first hand and am directly confronted with the violence and injustice. The shortest route from Nador to Europe involves climbing barbed wire fences to reach the Spanish enclave of Melilla in North Africa. The longer route gets migrants directly to the European continent but requires crossing the Mediterranean to reach Andalucía. It’s generally only young men between around 15 and 21 who are fit enough to scale the three to six meter high fences and run the gauntlet between violent Moroccan and Spanish border guards. Attempts to climb over the fence often result in serious injury and even death. Taking the sea route – also fraught with danger – requires money that many do not have. In this way the EU’s border regime enforces a Darwinian screening process.

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The return of secret trials

800 years of the Magna Carta: the historic charter from 1215 is being commemorated this month in Britain and further afield. The King initially guaranteed the rights set out in the charter only to the nobility. The protection was subsequently extended so that no free citizen could be denied his or her freedom or other rights except on the basis of a law or a court decision. This idea served as the foundation of the Anglo-American legal system for centuries to come. Under the charter, the right to a fair trial was held in the same high esteem as the principle of equality of arms between the parties in legal proceedings.The rights guaranteed in the charter were subsequently adopted in many legal frameworks and in the European Convention on Human Rights. But now this bastion of fundamental procedural rights is being eroded. Each new terrorism threat is met with a limitation of long-established rights.

 

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Journalistic successes and failures: the German treason affair

The significance of the netzpolitik.org case goes beyond the serious issue of criminal proceedings against two journalists. It has also put a spotlight on the relationship between the press and repressive state elements. Over the past few days there have been many explicit messages of solidarity from within the established media. This is particularly welcome given that netzpolitik.org represents a new kind of journalism which by no means enjoys universal recognition, especially on the question of whether such groups should benefit from press freedom protections. Those most acutely affected by this are WikiLeaks, Julian Assange and others who don’t fit under the rubric of traditional media and who are denied constitutional protection, even for the elements of their work that have a strong journalistic element.

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A Paraguayan Coup

Is anyone still interested in the coup in Paraguay? After all it’s been three years since Fernando Lugo, a president influenced by his studies in liberation theology, was ousted from office on 22 June 2012. The country’s Latin American neighbors suspended Paraguay from the regional alliance Mercosur in response to the abrupt, putsch-like impeachment. Experts said the dubious political maneuver, which saw the conservative Colorado party take power, was unconstitutional – though this didn’t stop the then German FDP Development Minister Niebel from expressly welcoming it. The impeachment came in the wake of police violence against land occupation by farmers in the Curuguaty province in a clash that left eleven farmers and six police officers dead. Last week saw the start of trials relating to these deaths. Will it come as a surprise to anyone to learn that the proceedings are directed solely against the landless farmers and not against any of the perpetrators within police ranks?

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Africa's Pinochet

Last Monday former Chadian dictator Hissène Habré, aka “Africa’s Pinochet”, was brought before the Extraordinary African Chambers in the Senegalese capital of Dakar. He stands accused of the torture and murder of tens of thousands of people during his eight-year presidency in the 1980s. It is a landmark trial, the first time an African former head of state has been tried by an African court for crimes against humanity.

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War criminals still feel safe from prosecution in Sri Lanka

Guest Contribution by Andreas Schüller (ECCHR)

Madan is a German-born Tamil in his mid-twenties. His parents have lived in Germany since fleeing Sri Lanka at the outbreak of the civil war in the 1980s. I meet with Madan on a number of occasions, first in Berlin and then in the Ruhr region, and hear about his experiences in Sri Lanka. I soon realize how lucky he was to have escaped, and how many like him are no longer here to tell their stories. Towards the end of 2008, Madan visited his grandmother in northern Sri Lanka, the region with the largest Tamil population. He planned to stay for three weeks but ended up spending twelve months there – a horrific year for Madan.

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A mere salve for the conscience

Guest contribution byMiriam Saage-Maaß (ECCHR)

Everyone grows up with a number of certainties. One that I probably share with many people in Germany is this: if the certification group TÜV has inspected something – with German efficiency and thoroughness – then it must be safe. TÜV and its associated companies like TÜV Rheinland have long gone beyond inspecting cars and playgrounds in Germany. Now they also carry out “social audits” of social and working conditions in factories all around the world. But the TÜV inspections of clothing factories in Bangladesh and other south Asian countries are not as comprehensive as we might expect. This was made clear by the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh in April 2013 in which more than 1,130 people died and 2,500 were injured. TÜV Rheinland had inspected the stitching facilities of manufacturer Phantom Apparel Ltd. in the Rana Plaza building just a few months before the disaster.

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The Congo Tribunal – from Bukavu to Berlin

Symbolic tribunals have been thriving lately, and with good reason: intolerable events are unfolding around the world and the institutions responsible for taking action – courts, states, the UN – are failing to react. And so it falls to political activists, seeking to overcome their powerlessness in the face of this situation, to stage their own interventions in the form of popular tribunals.

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The Mansour case: not a one-off

Two days in prison in the German capital: it doesn’t sound all that bad, given the conditions facing prisoners in other parts of the world. But anyone who has seen the inside of the detention center in Berlin Moabit would be very unwilling to spend even an hour in one of its cells. I’ve spoken to people who were badly affected after spending just one day there. Don’t be fooled by the smile on the face of Egyptian journalist Ahmed Mansour as he left the prison last Monday. The damage has been done.

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Power doesn’t always trump law

Criticism may justly be leveled against the International Criminal Court (ICC), set up in The Hague in 2002 to prosecute crimes against humanity. As I often argue, there are double standards are at play in The Hague and elsewhere. Powerful perpetrators of human rights violations are rarely brought before the courts. It is generally only the weak, the conquered or the scapegoated that end up on the ICC defendant’s bench. This isn’t good enough – indeed it is dangerous – for a Court that makes claims to universality. But criticism of the Court is often cynical and trite. The Realpolitiker, the Kissingers of this world, are delighted to see that the Court has problems. It also confirms the worldview of those on the left who have the world so well figured out that nothing new, nothing unexpected, can ever occur: “(Economic) power trumps the law – there’s no way around it.” Or is there?

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SS massacre: Distomo survivors fight for justice

Argyris Sfountouris was four years old when, on 10 June 1944, a German SS infantry division attacked the Greek village of Distomo in the foothills of Mount Parnassus in a reprisal for acts by Greek partisans. The SS slaughtered Sfountouris’ parents and 30 of his relatives. Over 200 people died in the massacre at Distomo – most of them women, children and elderly villagers. Today, 71 years later, Argyris Sfountouris takes us to the scene of these crimes – to his parents’ home in the heart of Distomo, next to the town hall and the small museum commemorating the victims of the massacre.

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Dubious confessions in Iguala

Mexico always finds a way to get under my skin. In my last few hours in the capital I get to experience its good side in Alameda de Santa Maria park in the idyllic historic quarters of Santa Maria La Ribera. No traces of the state’s drug problems are visible here. Instead there are skaters and footballers, a guitarist in the background and a man named José María Fuentes beside me on a bench. He has been homeless for 15 years and still remains an incorrigible optimist. He tells me he’s had a lot of wonderful experiences, only a few bad ones – he says he’s content with his life. I’m still in good spirits shortly afterwards as I board a flight to Paris, but reading the Mexican newspapers on the plane soon brings me back to the dark reality of the country. On this unremarkable Wednesday, La Jornada, a somewhat left-leaning paper, is full of atrocities: persecuted journalists, racist public officials, violence against Central American refugees, arbitrary arrests and allegations of police torture. And then a long article by investigative reporters from the magazine Proceso on the massacre of the students from Iguala in the state of Guerrero who “disappeared” in September 2014.

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No end to US drone strikes via Germany

We are not naive. And yet my organization, ECCHR, and London human rights group Reprieve decided to take legal action against the German government on Germany’s role in US drone strikes. The claim was submitted by Yemeni citizen Faisal bin Ali Jaber and two of his relatives to the Administrative Court in Cologne. At an oral hearing on Wednesday the Court decided to dismiss the claim – but did not find it to be inadmissible.

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Hope for Mexico

Mexico City, May 2015. In 2008 director Christiane Burkhard‟s film Trazando Aleida uncovered a chapter in Mexico‟s history that had previously gone unnoticed. The film tells the story of Aleida, a young woman who in the mid 2000s discovers that her parents are not her natural parents and that her biological grandmother is searching for her and her brother. The grandmother explains how the parents of the two children were “disappeared” in the dirty war waged in Mexico against oppositionists in the 1970s, the kind of counterinsurgency efforts seen in nearly every country in Latin America during that era. The filmmaker begins a two-pronged search. Together with Aleida she looks for Aleida‟s brother, who is eventually found in Washington, while also going on the trail of Aleida‟s parents in the Mexican state of Guerrero, where they had been active in a rural guerrilla.

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The genocide judgement and its aftermath in Guatemala

Guatemala City, 10 May 2015: It’s the second anniversary of the judgment in the genocide trial of military dictator Efraín Rios Montt. I’m sitting next to Edgar Pérez on the podium at a debate. The sturdy lawyer, a former boxer, represented most of the indigenous survivors and witnesses in that historic trial. During his speech he waves in his hand a bound copy of the 2013 court decision, a thick tome setting out why the murders and massacres carried out by General Rios Montt and his subordinates against the Ixil Maya peoples qualify as genocide – and why Rios Montt bears direct responsibility.

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Nationalism cannot be the answer to unfettered spy agencies

What really annoys me about the current debate on the BND, Germany’s foreign spy agency? It’s the nationalist undertones. Obviously I’m against spying and all illegal practices. But I also condemn lots of things that are allowed under law. It’s not that important to me whether my political allies and I are being spied on by German, French or US secret services. When, in the wake of recent developments and in particular since Edward Snowden’s revelations, I call for investigations and work to ensure that those responsible are punished for their crimes, I’m not acting in some national interest. I’m interested in the structures behind the spying, and these are often very similar, regardless of where you look. At the moment the main difference between the various intelligence agencies is their technological capacities. Mainland European states would happily adopt many of the practices of the NSA and the GCHQ if they had the technical know-how. And there’s little evidence to suggest that much has changed since the Snowden leaks in terms of the attitude of the intelligence agencies or the political will to rein them in.

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Sexual violence in war: still ubiquitous, still going unpunished

Today the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom in The Hague is marking the 100th anniversary of the first Women’s Peace Congress. In the midst of the First World War more than a thousand women from around the world gathered in The Hague – in spite of all obstacles – to protest against the various governments’ insistence on violence as the only response to international conflicts. The participants also objected to the particular injustices inflicted on women in times of war: the “odious wrongs of which women are the victims in times of war, and especially against the horrible violation of women which attends all war”.

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The U.S. at first and second glance

Last weekend at this year’s New York Triennial exhibition entitled Surround Audience: The elevator deposits me on the second floor of the New Museum, where my gaze is immediately drawn to the double installation “Freedom” by artist Josh Kline (born 1979 in Philadelphia). Standing in the room are four life-sized, uniformed and helmeted Robocop figures, with monitors installed at stomach level. The screens show videos of people being interviewed on current issues like domestic violence against women, surveillance, racist police attacks and the resultant counter-protest.

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Accountability for US torture: the long road to justice

Last week in Washington: The American Society for International Law hosts a conference in a hotel on Capitol Hill, the political heart of the city. It’s a meeting place for internationally orientated lawyers from government bodies, major commercial law firms, universities and human rights organizations. A number of podium discussions focus on human rights violations committed by the USA as part of the ‘War on Terror’ after 11 September 2001. I’m one of the speakers; our discussion is on court actions taken against the violations outside the USA.

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Prison life: Thomas Middelhoff is not the only one suffering

Why does it take high profile cases like those of businessman Thomas Middelhoff or football manager Uli Hoeneß to get the public interested in the inner workings of German prisons? Wouldn’t it be nice if this interest was born of something other than voyeurism? Wouldn’t it be nice, too, if the concern extended to the fates of less well-known detainees – the tens of thousands of prisoners being held in prison, many of them on remand awaiting trial. Rarely is attention paid to conditions in other closed institutions such as nursing homes, care centers or psychiatric wards. It takes a spectacular case to get people to take notice. So I want to make use of this rare opportunity.

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To not forget: Stolpersteine and other tributes

Extensive and much needed efforts have been undertaken in Germany to address the country’s Nazi history and counter the calls of some politicians to simply draw a line under it all and move on. Currently a lot of this work is happening on a local level. There is now a waiting list of months to get an appointment with Cologne sculptor Gunter Demnig to lay one of his Stolpersteine or “stumbling blocks”, small memorial cobblestones set into the pavement in front of the former homes of victims of the Nazi regime. Hundreds of these stones have been commissioned by neighborhood groups, schools and relatives to ensure that the lives of the murdered are remembered across Germany month after month, year after year.

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Little more than 50 years ago...

An interesting encounter in London last week: Mark Sealy, Director of Autograph APB (formerly the Association of Black Photographers), is showing me around the exhibition he curated called Human Rights Human Wrongs. In choosing the exhibits, Sealy had his pick from over 290,000 photos held in the Black Star Collection. The Black Star agency was founded in New York in 1935 by exiled Jewish photographers Ernest Mayer, Kurt Safranski and Kurt Kornfeld and supplied some now legendary black and white images to Life magazine and a range of other publications.

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Defending tolerance and diversity

Admittedly, as Berliners, our attitude can sometimes be insufferable. We like to talk up the city’s cultural richness, its appeal to young people and artists from all over the world and its actual and imagined tolerance, all in the hope that some of the city’s gloss will reflect back on us. Of course we all thought it was great when city mayor hopeful Klaus Wowereit introduced himself at the SPD party conference in 2001 with the words: “I am gay – and it’s a good thing!” and when he openly lived out his sexuality, his relationship and his lust for life throughout his time in office – even as the social deficits of social-democratic and leftist politics in the city became increasingly obvious as his tenure as mayor went on.

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Failing to protect its own citizens: Germany and the CIA

Khaled El-Masri is a German citizen. He has been subjected to a terrible injustice by Germany’s ally, the USA. El-Masri was abducted by the CIA in December 2003 after a mix up over his name – these things happen, even in the secret service, it seems. He was detained for months in Afghanistan where he was subjected to abuse and torture. All of this has been well-known for some time but was explicitly confirmed by the US Senate report on CIA torture published in December 2014. The USA have to date failed to give an apology to their victim and failed to provide adequate compensation.

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Death of a prosecutor: election battles rage on

Comments about someone else sometimes reveal more about the person doing the commenting. That’s the current situation with the two major Argentine publications Clarín and La Nación, which together almost hold a monopoly on daily newspapers. When these papers report on the death of Argentina’s state prosecutor Alberto Nismán on January 14 of this year, we learn almost nothing. The articles make it clear that the authors have made little real attempt to uncover the truth and have no journalistic ethos but are instead part of a political brigade that merely echo or indeed give voice to the messages of the Right.

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Criminal complaint against ex CIA director Tenet is just the beginning

As I read the US Senate’s report on torture last Wednesday I was filled with a cold rage. I’ve known about the reports of beatings, sleep deprivation and waterboarding for over ten years. For the last decade my colleagues and I have been pursuing legal action against the architects and planners of this post 9/11 systematic torture – with varying degrees of success. What really struck me this time though was the response of the senior figures involved.

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Germany’s secret role in repressive state spying 12 December

Germany is seen by many as the place where the Snowdon revelations have had the greatest impact. But sometimes it seems the benchmark is somewhat skewed. While concerned citizens here feel disturbed by the revelations, in other parts of the world the consequences of government surveillance include arrest, torture and death. As with arms exports, Europe and in particularly Germany are helping to provide repressive regimes with the technology they need and are managing to do so without provoking much opposition at home.

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The Vietnam War revisited

An art exhibition, a film, a key figure and a recent panel discussion have breathed new life into the debate on the Vietnam War and anti-war opposition. German artist Nghia Nuyen and his family fled South Vietnam on the Cap Anamur in 1980, shortly after the Vietnam War had come to an end. Much of Nuyen’s work takes the form of portraits in a style that is informed by van Gogh and Bacon. His installation of large scale oilpainted dollar bills can be seen at his current exhibition in Berlin.

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Swapping Self-Righteousness for Solidarity

Given the blanket German and international media coverage of the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall, I had planned to let the 9th of November pass without comment. But then friends at the German telegraph asked me to contribute a piece on secret service agencies for their anniversary edition. The telegraph is the self-styled “last authentic newspaper of the leftist opposition in East Germany,” “independent, recalcitrant, critical, ill-disposed to authorities and corporations – qualities that have been lost by many prominent so-called GDR civil rights activists.”

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Arrest Kissinger!

“Arrest Kissinger!” read the ads that ran in 2012 in the Tagesspiegel, Berliner Zeitung and taz, the three daily newspapers in Berlin. A collaborative art event by the Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar and us, the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights. Along with German and English versions, the ads also appeared in Spanish, Vietnamese, Khmer, Portuguese and
Timorese dialects, i.e. the languages of the people living in countries where the population endured great suffering under former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s realpolitik. And for these policies he is still lauded by many today.

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From Mexico to Philippines – Human Rights Defenders under Pressure

The more we hear about this story, the worse it gets. It now seems likely that all of the 43 disappeared students in the Mexican city of Iguala were massacred by uniformed and nonuniformed gangsters – police officers and members of drug gangs. And now the German government says it wants to start cooperating with the Mexican police? The same police force
that, according to Amnesty International, is involved in the systematic torture of citizens across the country. And despite German Foreign Minister Frank Walter’s comments earlier this year criticizing Mexico’s grave rule of law deficiencies and identifying the lack of investigations and inept prosecutions as the central factor in the escalation of violence. This apt appraisal of the situation must now be followed up by putting an end to the ongoing negotiations on a police treaty between Germany and Mexico and a ban on exports, including the export of small weapons.

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Naïve?

An evening in Berlin with friends, all of them lawyers. It’s easy, at first, to see us all as being in the same situation. We share many political views and all work to further human rights. But then one colleague tells us about the housing situation in Bombay. His organization, the Human Rights Law Network, is based close to the city’s courthouse. They often appear in court to fight on behalf of the very many people who are denied their rights in India, the largest democracy in the world: indigenous communities who are confronted with industrial, infrastructural or mining projects; the underclasses; the Dalit, the untouchables; women; prisoners; and many others. Neither my colleague nor any of his co-workers can afford an apartment close to the office. They don’t earn enough money, even as lawyers – albeit lawyers who work on behalf of those who have almost nothing and can therefore pay almost nothing.

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The European Arrest Warrant – Fraught with Problems

His colleague has warned me in advance: he always takes a long time to write these dedications. I take a look around the embassy’s conference room. The shutters and the curtains are almost completely shut on this afternoon in London. Nature photographs showing snakes and crocodiles on the walls; a bookcase filled with hardbacks; a stand holding the Ecuadorian flag. Julian Assange is writing a book inscription for Edward Snowden, whom I am due to meet shortly afterwards. Assange looks worse than he did a year or two ago. The way people do when they have had hardly any sun, fresh air or movement for over two years. Like in prison. In their latest submissions Assange’s lawyers have put forward the plausible argument that his situation is legally akin to imprisonment.

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My terrorists, your terrorists.

It‘s been said so many times before that it now sounds banal. But it’s true: Yesterday’s terrorists can be tomorrow’s heads of state or allies. The clearest example: the case of Nelson Mandela, whose name wasn’t removed from US terrorist lists until just a few days before his 90th birthday in 2013, shortly before his death. The USA had added Mandela and his organization, the African National Congress (ANC), to the lists during the 1980’s. In the intervening period apartheid was abolished, Mandela was democratically elected president of South Africa and went on to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

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The deadly droning overhead

Given the current global human rights situation it can be difficult to form a rational, informed approach to human rights policy. Who should we step in to protect, and how? Is it possible to act without underestimating the complexity of the problem? How can we avoid being instrumentalized or applauded by people we don’t want to be allied with? Law, and particularly international law, can offer some orientation: it defines red lines which states may not overstep, even when they claim to be abiding by the rule of law or to be acting in pursuit of humanitarian aims. And yet these rules have been broken over and over again by the USA and other Western states in many different places in the name of the ‘fight against terrorism’ and nobody was able to apply legal sanctions.

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A prize that aims to protect

Tuesday evening in Geneva, I’m attending the Martin Ennals Award Ceremony. My decision to nominate Alejandra Ancheita for this Award came as a result of discussions I had with her, with my colleagues at ECCHR – Alejandra is a member of ECCHR’s Advisory Board – and within the “Bertha Be Just Initiative” about what we as her international colleagues could do to support her work and also to protect her. The Bertha Be Just Initiative, a global network of legal human rights organizations supported by the Bertha Foundation (London), endorsed the nomination.

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Burbach is not Guantánamo

We all know the kinds of risks involved when people are confined in institutions and left alone with their supervisors, guards, handlers or however the authorities there choose to describe themselves. We frequently hear reports of abuse or even torture of residents or inmates by state or non-state officials in psychiatric, geriatric and medical facilities, army units and detention centers around the world. Indeed such stories would seem to be a constitutive element of these kinds of institutions. In states that aspire to respect the principles of democracy and the rule of law, precautions are put in place to try to avert these dangers. Key elements of any such measures include an independent monitoring of the facility, third party access, a degree of public interest and efficient supervision as well as a complaint mechanism and the availability of legal remedies. For years, human rights experts have been calling for the establishment of such a system for US detention centers in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantánamo. Similar calls are now being issued in the wake of revelations of abuse and attacks in a German refugee center in Burbach, North Rhine-Westphalia.

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Bahraini Human Rights Activist at Risk

Disheartening news from Bahrain: while the renowned human rights activist Maryam al- Khawaja has been released from custody, she is forbidden from leaving the country in the run up to her trial. The first hearings are scheduled to take place on 1 October before the High Criminal Court – a bad sign, since this court is generally where the most serious criminal allegations are handled. The accused, a Danish citizen of Bahraini background, was arrested on 30th August as she entered the country to visit her father Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, who is also a human rights activist and who has been on hunger strike since August. There are reasons to fear that at the hands of the state Maryam will be subject to the same harsh treatment as her father. One of the key organizers of the 2011 Bahrain spring, he was sentenced to life imprisonment on purported terrorism grounds. When will this catch-all charge, hauled out by states all around the world to criminalize unwanted protest movements, finally be abolished? Every criminal code in the world already has provisions on bodily harm and murder that can be used in cases of real criminal activity.

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Lone wolves, one-off attacks and a recurring litany of failures

Right wing radical violence and government secret services – it’s a never ending story. We can look to Italy, for instance, where state intelligence services are suspected to have had a  direct hand in a series of bombings carried out by right wing extremists as part of the secret NATO operation Gladio. The attacks killed 17 people in Milan in 1969 and left 85 dead in Bologna in 1980.

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Globalization from below

Over the past decades international solidarity has been an important issue for parts of the leftist movement in Germany and beyond – solidarity with the colonial and post-colonial liberation struggles in Algeria and Vietnam and against the military dictatorships in Latin America and the Apartheid system in South Africa. Since the 1990’s, globalization critics around the world have been fighting an unjust global economic system and its destructive effects. The movement was galvanized by the publication of Naomi Klein’s book No Logo, the Seattle and subsequent WTO conferences and through the World Social Forum and regional forums. Globalization from below. At first this took the form of demonstrations and protests, discussions and exchanges, but over time thematic and regional networks formed to take collaborative action. It was in this context that experts and activists from around the world met this week in Berlin to consider ways to implement the universal right to health – health for all.

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The Evidence of Things Not Seen

It feels like a long time ago, yet it’s less than a month since Michael Brown Jr., an unarmed teenager, was shot dead by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. It was a while before I got to around to rummaging through my books. The images and reports from Ferguson had reminded me, of course, of all the other similar incidents, all those black people – mostly young and male – killed over the last decades, whose names had now been forgotten by most; the brutal repression of the 1960’s black civil rights movement, the COINTELPRO program used to combat the Black Panther movement; the many films depicting the injustice of discrimination against the black population. But it also put me in mind of something else.

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Law and politics in the digital age

We are in Kiel, northern Germany, at a summer academy run by data protection expert Thilo Weichert. The conference aims to pit the idea of a “super-right” to security, a fundamental right taking precedence over all other fundamental rights, as suggested by former German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich (CSU Party), against the notion of digital human rights in the post-Snowden era. But there’s no real controversy emerging from the positions of the various speakers. Even the government representatives – the vice presidents of the German office for information security and the German domestic intelligence agency – aren’t calling for a super-right of this kind. Both see it as their role to uphold the constitution in their own way and consider data protection to be a constitutional element worth protecting. We can only hope that Friedrich’s departure signaled the death knell for the abstruse idea of holding up one right as superior to existent fundamental rights.

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A little victory

I find it difficult to watch the news these days. Seeing war looming in the Ukraine, the violent advance of the Islamic state in Syria and Iraq and the destruction in Gaza on my TV screen often leaves me lost for words. Any reasonable resolutions to the conflicts seem a long way off. Which makes it all the more pleasing to hear some good news from Argentina. My friend Cristina gets in touch, telling me that she was standing in the queue in a shop in Buenos Aires and cried tears of joy when her daughter told her what had happened. It’s a development that affects us all, great swathes of Argentine society as well as those of us who have been working to bring about justice for the crimes of the Argentine military dictatorship. Guido Montoya Carlotto, who had been missing for over thirty years, has been found.

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Abominable lawyers

Few have done more than Ingo Müller to shed light on the history of lawyers and legal thinking in Germany. Müller, himself a lawyer, vehemently challenged the Stunde Null narrative, the idea that after the defeat of National Socialism the West German elite underwent a complete transformation, suddenly becoming democrats and contributing to the democratic triumph of the German state.

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The Tom Cruise Moment

I first saw the movie, ‘A Few Good Men’, when I was a young lawyer. I loved the film and its message that no-one is above the law. Many years later, I once again saw the film and it struck me how powerful it is in promoting social justice lawyering. In the final stages of the film, the camera focuses in on Tom Cruise, the quintessential rookie lawyer, bursting with talent and passion. Committed to justice against all odds, he dons his Navy Whites, enters the courtroom for the first time and stares down the personification of Evil that is Jack Nicolson and gets his confession: ‘You’re goddamn right I ordered the Code Red’. In the final scene, Tom Cruise looks around the now empty, sun-kissed mahogany courtroom; the music rises and Tom exits the court: Good versus Evil; the triumph of Law over Injustice.

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Two Years in the Ecuador Embassy: Assange and Wikileaks Continue Their Work

Just over two years ago, Wikileaks publisher Julian Assange took refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. A few weeks later, Ecuador granted Assange political asylum for the political persecution he faced after publishing hundreds of thousands of classified documents concerning US war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as 250,000 US diplomatic cables demonstrating double dealing, criminality, and corruption.

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Straddling the Divide

It was a fairly typical meeting between lawyers that know one another but who don't get to meet very often. One of those present was Shawan Jabarin from Ramallah, head of Al-Haq, a Palestinian human rights organization formed in 1979 and one of the oldest rights group in the Middle East. He was visiting Berlin together with Hamdi Shaqqura from the Gaza based Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, in part to hold talks with members of the German parliament and representatives from non-governmental organizations. That's where I saw them again. The last time we had met was in Ramallah in 2007.

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How ruthless drug companies carry out clinical trials in India

An encouraging development: there is a growing number of judgments being handed down by courts in the Global South on damage caused by the corporate activities of European and North American companies, from human rights violations to pollution. Predictably, this development has not been so warmly welcomed by the companies involved or by the states where these firms are based. Perhaps the most extreme example is the decision from the Supreme Court in Quito, Ecuador, ordering US oil firm Chevron to pay €9.5 million in compensation after an environmental disaster in the Amazon region. A US court is refusing to enforce the judgment, claiming that the Ecuadorian judges’ decision was influenced by bribery. It doesn’t come as a great surprise that these cries of corruption and concern for the rule of law are only expressed by states following decisions by foreign courts that are damaging to the business interests of the former.

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Forced labor – not just in the DDR

Ikea, Aldi, Siemens, Quelle and many others: more than 6,000 firms from West Germany and elsewhere profited from forced labor in East Germany (the DDR). Up to 30,000 inmates in DDR prisons, many of them political prisoners, were forced to work for companies in the West. These revelations were made in a report published in Berlin this week. Ikea commissioned the report after allegations began to emerge two years ago surrounding the Swedish furniture company’s links with forced labor.

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Following the trail of cheap clothes

My colleagues are reporting back on their latest trip to Bangladesh. In the capital, Dhaka, and in Savar they spoke to survivors and families of victims of the collapse of the textile factory Rana Plaza in April 2013. Well over one thousand people lost their lives in the incident. A number of questions arise: Do those affected by the disaster wish to sue? Would this be possible? And, if yes, who should pay? We’ve held similar discussions in Pakistan, where in September 2012 a fire at textile plant in Karachi killed hundreds of workers. One of our key concerns in this work was to ensure that legal action was directed not just against the local factory owners or potentially corrupt government officials. We were more interested in investigating whether responsibility could also be held by European actors such as discount clothing retailer KIK, which outsources much of its production to Karachi, or the auditing companies in Germany and Italy that issued the factories with clearance certificates shortly before the catastrophe occured.

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Obstacles at every turn: justice for victims of sexualized violence

As though the many cases of mass murder and abuse around the world weren’t bad enough, such crimes against humanity are often accompanied by widespread sexualized violence. And while it can be very difficult, even in this age of international human rights treaties and the International Criminal Court, to bring to justice those responsible for large scale murder and abuse, taking legal action against perpetrators of sexualized violence can present even greater challenges.

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Humanitarian Bombs

Last weekend I was due to travel to Varvarin in Serbia. A place where, on 30 May 1999, during the Kosovo war, two consecutive NATO airstrikes leaving 10 people dead and 30 injured. All of those killed and injured were civilians. Together with colleagues I had been representing survivors of the attack in a case before the German constitutional court since 2006, but this would have been my first visit to Varvarin.

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So free

We are so free. In Madrid we board the train to Sevilla where we rent a car to take us to Algeciras. From here we board a ferry to cross the straits of Gibraltar – that narrowest of waterways separating the continents of Europe and Africa. At the harbor in Ceuta, an autonomous Spanish enclave on the African coast, three flags are flown: the city flag, the Spanish flag and the EU flag. My Spanish colleague Gonzalo Boye and I take a taxi to a nearby border check point. The taxi journey proves a lot more interesting than expected: it turns out that Ismael, our taxi driver, witnessed the events of 6 February of this year when 15 refugees died attempting to cross the border. We’ve come to Ceuta to try to reconstruct exactly what happened on this day.

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Why we need the principle of universal jurisdiction

Madrid, where for the last two days I’ve been at the Teatro Goya discussing the principle of universal jurisdiction. I’ve been invited to this conference by the ever controversial Baltasar Garzón, the former judge now acting as a lawyer with a client list that includes Julian Assange. Madrid, where almost twenty years ago the principle of universal jurisdiction was enjoying its heyday in a series of criminal proceedings taken against dictators from around the world, long before the International Criminal Court had begun its work. The first cases focused on the former Spanish colonies in Latin America, reaching a spectacular climax on 16th October 1998 when Garzón acting as investigative judge ordered the arrest of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in London.

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Double standards in international criminal law – an end in sight?

It’s late afternoon on a Tuesday and I’m in Berlin giving interviews. The Wall Street Journal, The Independent, Al Jazeera, they all want to know what ECCHR thinks of the decision by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in Hague to re-open preliminary investigations concerning members of the British military. This decision represents a milestone for the victims of torture and abuse as well as for international criminal justice. For us, too, the news marks an important win.

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Apartheid: Twenty Years On

Robben Island, South Africa, in March 2014. It’s a poignant moment: Ahmed Kathrada is accompanying us on the ferry over to the prison island that lies off the coast of Cape Town in the South Atlantic Ocean. Together with his two former fellow prisoners Walter Sisulu and Nelson Mandela, 84 year old Kathrada was one of the most renowned leaders of the African National Congress (ANC). He brings us around the large prison yard, the setting for the famous photo showing anti-apartheid prisoners sitting on the ground breaking stones. We visit the quarry where they were forced to work under perilous conditions. I’m filled with admiration for the calm, the composure, and the relentless fighting spirit that Kathrada and his fellow campaigners displayed from the start of their struggle in the early 1960’s right through their Long Walk to Freedom.

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Half hour hearing for a life ruined

It’s a late summer’s day in Argentinian March and I’ve returned to the Federal Court in Buenos Aires, not far from Retiro station and the port at Río de la Plata. Several different oral proceedings are held here every day in connection with the crimes of the Argentinian military dictatorship. For the last two years senior army members have been on trial here for their role in Operation Condor, the US-backed countrywide oppression of the regime’s opponents in the seventies, a period when military dictatorships controlled all of South America. The trial comprises 106 counts of abduction and murder of mainly Uruguayan victims. Further down the corridor another court is examining the secret detention and torture center El Vesubio. The center’s former detainees include German woman Elisabeth Käsemann, who was subject to abuse at the prison in the summer of 1977.

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