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International Legal News

Weekly update: 8 February 2021 – 14 February 2021

The following media round up on international and foreign policy issues from around the world for the period of 08 - 14 February 2021.

The Guernica Group will provide weekly media updates from the International Criminal Court, European Court of Human Rights, United Nations, European Union and other sources. Should you wish to contribute or submit a media summary, opinion piece or blog, please send to Ned Vucijak for consideration.

United States of America (USA) / United Nations (UN) – 8 February 2021

Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that the United States will return to the UN Human Rights Council as an observer. Mr Blinken said in a statement the move is part of the Biden administration’s recommitment “to a foreign policy centered on democracy, human rights, and equality.”

In a brief statement issued by his Spokesperson, UN chief António Guterres said he welcomed the decision from the US to re-engage: “The Human Rights Council is the world’s leading forum for addressing the full range of human rights challenges. The Council’s mechanisms and special procedures are vital tools for ensuring action and accountability.”

Turkey – 9 February 2021

In the case of Ramazan Demir v. Turkey, the European Court of Human Rights held that there had been a violation of freedom of expression under Art.10 of the Convention. The applicant, a lawyer who was suspected of belonging to a terrorist organisation and was in pre-trial detention, complained that he had been denied access to law-related websites, and in particular the European Court of Human Rights site, in order to prepare his defence.

The Court pointed out that there was no general obligation under the Convention to provide detainees with access to the Internet or to specific websites. However, given that access by detainees to specific websites for the purposes of training and rehabilitation was already provided for in Turkish law, and that the Turkish Government had not explained why Internet access should be restricted in this particular case, the Court found a violation of the right to receive information.

North Korea – 9 February 2021

A new report by the UN human rights office concludes that the government of North Korea continues to commit violations of human rights and has found that torture, wrongful imprisonment and forced labour are rife in prisons, amounting to possible crimes against humanity. Citing interviews with former detainees, the report said it continued to receive “consistent and credible accounts of the systematic infliction of severe physical and mental pain or suffering upon detainees, through the infliction of beatings, stress positions and starvation in places of detention”.

Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, urged the international community to “prioritize justice and to take immediate steps to prevent further infliction of serious human rights violations against the people of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.”

Germany – 9 February 2021

The German authorities stated that German prosecutors have charged a 100-year-old man with over 3000 counts of being an accessory to murder, while serving as a Nazi guard at the Sachsenhausen camp between 1942 and 1945. He is accused of material and intentional contributions to the killings that took place in the camp. A state court in Neuruppin, located in the town of Oranrienburg where the camp was located, will have to evaluate the case and the defendant’s fitness to stand trial, and set a trial date. The prosecution considers the accused fit to stand trial despite his advanced age.

One week before, the prosecutors charged a 95-year-old woman who worked as a secretary of the SS commandment at the Stutthof concentration camp, with accessory to murder. These cases rely on a legal precedent established in 2011 in Germany where anyone who assisted with the operation of Nazi camps can be prosecuted for accessory to murders committed there.

Saudi Arabia – 10 February 2021

Leading Saudi Arabian women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul has been released from prison after some 1,000 days in detention and amid persistent international pressure for her to be set free. Al-Hathloul was arrested in May 2018 along with several other female activists, after making a name for herself as one of the few women to openly call for women’s right to drive in the deeply conservative kingdom. She also called for an end to Saudi Arabia’s restrictive male guardianship system that had long limited women’s freedom of movement. In November 2018, human rights organisations began reporting accusations that Saudi interrogators had tortured al-Hathloul and at least three other detained women, including with electric shocks and whippings, and had sexually harassed them. The authorities again subjected al-Hathloul to almost three months of incommunicado detention in mid-2020, prompting her to go on a two-week hunger strike in October, her second since her arrest.

United Arab Emirates (UAE) – 10 February 2021

Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the UAE authorities have held Michael Bryan Smith, a UK national, in detention for more than 10 years on a 6-year criminal sentence despite having pardoned him in 2014. Prison authorities have denied him access to medication and adequate health care throughout his detention. Michael Page, the deputy Middle East director at HRW stated, “[n]othing about the details of Michael Smith’s extradition to the UAE and his court proceedings there, both civil and criminal, inspire any faith in the UAE judiciary’s ability to abide by its own laws, let alone international standards…[h]olding a detainee beyond his prison sentence and depriving him of adequate medical care for a serious health condition demonstrates the UAE’s total contempt for the rule of law”.

Egypt – 11 February 2021

UN independent human rights experts have urged Egypt to remove human rights activists Ramy Shaath and Zyad El-Elaimy from its list of terrorists and stop abusing counter-terrorism powers. The experts said they are extremely concerned about the impact on the rights of Mr Shaath and Mr El-Elaimy following this listing last year. This includes fair process, right to freedom of assembly and association, the negative impact on their family life, their right to work and their right to participate in public affairs, and the fact that Mr Shaath and Mr El-Elaimy were added to the list ‘without evidence’ and in their absence. The rights experts include members of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention which issued a recent opinion that found Mr Shaath was arbitrarily detained and should be immediately released.

United Kingdom (UK) / Nigeria – 12 February 2021

The UK Supreme Court has ruled that the two Niger Delta communities can bring their legal claims for a clean-up and for compensation against the oil company Shell and its Nigerian subsidiary in an English court.

The villagers, from the Ogale and Bille communities, say they have been affected by oil pollution for years because of Shell’s operations in Nigeria, including the pollution of their drinking water.

Shell did not dispute that both communities had been severely polluted by its oil, or that there was yet to be an adequate clean-up of the pollution. Instead, it argued that Royal Dutch Shell plc could not be legally responsible for the harm caused to the communities, and so the cases should not be heard in England.

The communities have been fighting for five years to have their cases heard in the English courts. They are pursuing legal claims against Shell through the English courts because they say there is no prospect of obtaining justice in Nigeria.

Pakistan – 12 February 2021

In a landmark verdict, Pakistan’s Supreme Court has ruled that imposing the death penalty on prisoners living with a serious mental illness, particularly those who do not understand the nature of the punishment, “will not meet the ends of justice”. In a statement, the country’s leading rights group, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, stated that they welcome the judgment recognising that prisoners with a mental illness are among the most vulnerable and cannot in good conscience be executed.

The executive director of Justice Project Pakistan, Sarah Belal, asserted that “[w]ith this ruling, the supreme court of Pakistan has laid the groundwork for much broader prison reforms. It is a monumental judgment not only in terms of how it looks to uphold the rights of people with psychosocial disabilities, but also how it binds the federation and provinces to uphold the standards of due process and fairness.”

International Criminal Court (ICC) – 12 February 2021

British human rights lawyer Karim Khan QC has been elected as the new chief prosecutor of the ICC. Karim Khan will replace Fatou Bensouda from the Gambia and will begin his nine-year term with the challenge of trying to obtain more convictions, and developed acceptance, of the court’s jurisdiction worldwide. He won the votes of 72 out of 123 countries in the second round of voting and will begin his term at the Court in the Hague on 16 June.


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