Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Connect with Us Through Social Media

Human Rights USA is on the cutting edge of human rights litigation. Get involved with our groundbreaking work:

  1. Follow our blog here, or through a feed (subscribe by clicking Posts on the upper left-hand side of the page, and choosing a feed service).

  2. Become our fan on Facebook,

  3. Or subscribe to our YouTube Channel. This channel is a hub of all videos which relate to our work. Selections include: videos of our attorneys speaking at human rights events, a compilation of inspirational quotes on human rights and this video of Human Rights USA attorney Piper Hendricks speaking on Al Jazeera English:

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Human Rights USA Attorney Speaks at Conference on Torture and Accountability

costello.jpgOn Friday, June 26, Human Rights USA attorney Colleen Costello spoke at the Conference on Torture and Accountability held at the Catholic University of America. The panel, "Torture in Our Backyard," featured legal experts and human rights advocates from around the country. Colleen outlined the United States' historical role in prosecuting war criminals at Nuremberg, and discussed the ways in which those trials have influenced the shape of international human rights law today -- particularly as it pertains to the punishment of war crimes.

The conference, sponsored by the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition (TASSC), was but one of many events organized around the country in recognition of the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture. TASSC is a long-time partner of Human Rights USA, and has provided invaluable assistance in our work over the years.

Attorneys from Human Rights USA recognize the value of education and advocacy, and regularly speak at conferences and other human rights-related events.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Taylor, Sr. Trial: An Overview of the International Criminal Court Case Against Liberia's Warlord-Turned-President

Following the First Liberian Civil War, Charles Ghankay Taylor was elected to the Liberian presidency on August 2, 1997. He garnered ninety-seven percent of the vote running on the campaign slogan "[h]e killed my ma, he killed my pa, but I will vote for him." A Libya-trained warlord and commander of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), Taylor and his troops terrorized civilians from 1997 to 2003 as he sought to retain control of Liberia's natural resources and forcibly ward off armed rebel groups such as Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) and Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL). By August 2003, rebels closed in on the capital city, Monrovia, and thousands of civilians were killed or forced to flee to neighboring countries. United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) forces soon intervened to implement a cease-fire and facilitate the signing of a comprehensive peace agreement between the warring factions. UNMIL escorted the parties to Accra, Ghana where negotiations ensued.

Meanwhile, the Special Court for Sierra Leone, a joint effort between the UN and Sierra Leone, [1] released Taylor's formerly-sealed indictment as he crossed the border into Ghana. Several months earlier, on March 7, 2003, the UN-backed Special Court had indicted Taylor on 17 counts of crimes against humanity and war crimes in violation of Article 3 and Protocol II of the Geneva Conventions. It is important to note that this indictment resulted from Taylor's role in the Sierra Leonean Civil War, not the Liberian conflict. Charges included murder, sexual enslavement, rape, terrorist acts, cruel and inhumane treatment, collective punishment of civilians, conscripting child soldiers, and pillage. The UN later amended the indictment to 11 counts, but further charged Taylor with funding, arming, and training the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) and the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) of Sierra Leone, allegedly in exchange for a stake in the illicit diamond trade and political support. Leaders from these same rebel groups gained worldwide notoriety for their brutal torture tactics, including decapitation, mass rape, and severing the hands and feet and other body parts of suspected dissidents. In 1997, they became the first parties to be convicted in an international court of conscripting child soldiers.

Facing international pressure from NGOs and heads of state alike, Taylor signed the pending peace agreement on August 11, 2003, stepped down as President, and fled to Nigeria, where he had been offered asylum by then-President Olusegun Obasanjo. On December 4th, the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL) issued an international warrant for Taylor's arrest, but he continued to evade authorities for the next three years. During his disappearance, Taylor's counsel brought a motion to challenge the indictment based on sovereign immunity and extraterritoriality, which the Appeals Chamber of the Special Court dismissed on May 31, 2004. On March 29, 2006, Nigerian authorities apprehended Taylor and returned him to Monrovia upon orders from the newly-elected Liberian President, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. Taylor was then delivered into UN custody and transferred to Freetown, Sierra Leone to stand trial.

Taylor made his initial appearance at the Special Court on April 3, 2006, where he pled not-guilty to all charges. However, a UN Resolution determined that his presence in northwest Africa posed too great a threat to stability and peace in the region to continue the trial in Sierra Leone, and that no other African tribunal had the requisite space and security to host it. Thus, on June 30th, the Security Council ordered Taylor transferred to the International Criminal Court in the Hague, Netherlands. Despite the transfer of venue, the Special Court for Sierra Leone retains full jurisdiction over Taylor's case.

Nearly one year later, on June 4, 2007, Brenda Hollis (Principal Attorney) delivered the Prosecution's opening statement. Taylor then delayed the proceedings by dismissing his counsel and asking the judge for an adjournment until new counsel could be retained. The trial resumed in January 2008, and for the next year the Prosecution introduced the testimony of 91 witnesses, including amputees, rape victims, and former child soldiers, many of whom requested partial face or voice distortion and closed sessions to ensure their safety. The Prosecution rested its case on February 7, 2009. Taylor's attorneys next filed a Motion for Judgment of Acquittal, which asked the judge to rule for Taylor because the evidence presented was insufficient to support a conviction. Presiding Judge Richard Lussick dismissed the motion on May 4, 2009, and scheduled a status conference for July 6th in anticipation of the Defense's opening statement.

At the conference, both Prosecution and Defense raised issues ranging from the trial schedule to the Prosecution's request that Taylor be denied contact with Defense Witnesses. Defense Counsel Courtaney Griffiths said he planned to begin opening arguments on July 13, 2009, but asked to push Taylor's testimony back one day to July 14th. Justice Lussick agreed, but warned Griffiths that the opening statement must not reach beyond the scope of the presented evidence. The most contentious issue was the 256 people listed as potential witnesses for the Defense. Hollis pointed out that this number was three times more than those called by the Prosecution, and that if they were allowed to testify, the trial would continue for 94 more weeks (4 years). Hollis deemed this time frame unacceptable, and Griffiths asserted that not all persons listed would testify, noting that the Prosecution itself had listed 300 witnesses before calling only 91 to the stand. Hollis then requested a list of core and back-up witnesses, and an order from Justice Lussick stating that the Defense must revise and clarify the background summaries of many defense witnesses. This request for a formal order was rejected by the court as unnecessary. Hollis further asserted that the summaries of three layperson witnesses—one who will frame the war as an ethnic conflict, one who will testify to the cause of death of a victim, and one who will contest the statements of the Prosecution's expert witness—imply that they are in fact expert witnesses. Justice Lussick ruled that the Defense could proceed, but that the witnesses would be prohibited under the Rules of Evidence and Procedure if the testimony suggests they are experts.

Sentencing would follow roughly one month after the verdict, with the appeals process ending six months later. Under a January 2002 agreement between Sierra Leone and the UN, Taylor cannot be sentenced to life in prison; however, Britain has volunteered to imprison Taylor for the anticipated 50-year sentence if he is convicted. [1]

by Ally Basak Russell, International Justice Project Legal Intern Summer 2009

[1] The Special Court for Sierra Leone was set up jointly by the Government of Sierra Leone and the United Nations. It is mandated to try those who bear the greatest responsibility for serious violations of international humanitarian law and Sierra Leonean law committed in the territory of Sierra Leone since November 30, 1996. See Special Court for Sierra Leone: Home, (last visited July 7, 2009).

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Accountability: It Could Happen to Yoo

Despite the U.S. government’s attempts to resist accountability for serious human rights abuses committed against terror suspects, a judge for the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California ruled recently that John Yoo, a former lawyer for the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel and author of the infamous “torture memos,” must testify in court about his role in designing the legal framework supporting such abuses. The court's ruling is a significant breakthrough for human rights organizations such as the World Organization for Human Rights USA, which have long advocated for accountability for detainee abuse.

The lawsuit, filed in January by Jose Padilla, a U.S. citizen currently serving a 17-year sentence on terrorism charges, alleges that Padilla was tortured while detained for nearly four years before he was charged by the U.S. government. In denying the government’s motion to dismiss the suit, Judge White, a Bush appointee, concluded that “government lawyers [like any other lawyers] are responsible for the foreseeable consequences of their conduct.” The order represents the first time that a U.S. government lawyer could be held potentially liable for the abuse of detainees.

In allowing the lawsuit to go forward, Judge White rejected the government’s argument that courts are precluded from reviewing top-level administrative decisions in wartime, or that allowing allegations of unconstitutional treatment could damage U.S. national security or foreign relations. Judge White ruled that Padilla may be able to prove that Yoo’s memos “set in motion a series of events that resulted in the deprivation of Padilla’s constitutional rights.” According to the judge, the treatment alleged by Padilla violates the Constitution, “and John Yoo should have known that.”

This major decision demonstrates the importance of the rule of law. If John Yoo, or the U.S. government, is ordered to pay damages for their role in Padilla’s mistreatment, this case stands to advance the U.S. government's compliance with international human rights norms, which require states to afford justice and reparation to victims of state-sponsored human rights abuse.

While a civil remedy is an important first step, however, justice demands criminal investigations into human rights abuses committed by or at the direction of U.S. government officials, as well as prosecutions, where warranted. This case brings the United States one step closer to upholding its responsibility to investigate and punish human rights abusers, and to afford justice and reparation to victims of such abuse.

-Ari Levin, Human Rights & Anti-Terrorism Legal Intern

Leading by Example: A Case for the International Criminal Court

In July 1998, world leaders convened to adopt the Rome Statute, the Treaty to create the first permanent International Criminal Court (ICC). The ICC would provide a forum to prosecute individuals responsible for the gravest violations of international law: genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. When the final votes were tallied, the numbers reflected overwhelming international support -- 120 countries voted in favor of the Treaty, with just 7 in opposition. [1] The United States, along with China, Israel, Libya, Qatar, Yemen and Iraq, were the seven who voted “No.”

In the last eleven years, the United States has remained either staunchly opposed or profoundly skeptical of the ICC. This blog post takes a brief look at the United States government's apparently uneasy relationship with the ICC, followed by a discussion of three common misunderstandings of the nature of the Court. In short, the ICC allows individuals to assert their human rights against the power of the State, and the Court has had tremendous success in ending impunity for some of the 21st Century’s most serious abuses (click here for Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo’s reflection). But even as other countries continue to ratify the Treaty (this week, Chile became the 109th State Party), the United States' resistance threatens both the legitimacy and effectiveness of the ICC. Unpacking the myths about the ICC reveals what membership to the Court really means for the United States, and why America’s support is so critical.

A History of Resistance

In the drafting stages of the Treaty, the US supported an arrangement under which the United Nations (UN) Security Council (of which the US is a permanent veto-holding member) would maintain control over the cases that the ICC pursued. Instead, the final form of the Treaty provides for an independent prosecutor and the UN Security Council has the ability to defer – not forego – an investigation. [2] However, the Treaty contains numerous mechanisms to guard against malicious prosecutions and other unwarranted investigations. Despite these safeguards, which are described in more detail below, the United States was unsatisfied with the final version of the Treaty. Thus, many were surprised when President Clinton signed the Treaty on the last possible day, December 31, 2000, in what is known as a midnight action.

The decision to sign demonstrated symbolic support, but, as Clinton simultaneously announced that he would not forward the Treaty to the Senate for ratification, his signing is remembered essentially as an empty political move. On April 11, 2002, the day that the Treaty reached the necessary sixty ratifications to enter into force, the Bush administration “unsigned” the United States, and thus removed any lingering indication of potential support. However, with President Obama indicating legitimate interest in the ICC, it is possible that the US government may be shifting its stance.

Susan E. Rice, U.S. Ambassador to the UN, noted in her first appearance before the UN Security Council that the ICC "looks to become an important and credible instrument for trying to hold accountable the senior leadership responsible for atrocities committed in the Congo, Uganda, and Darfur." Below we’ll discuss why an overt engagement by the United States in this “instrument of accountability” will only strengthen the global response to atrocities, and heighten respect for human rights around the world.

Myth #1 – If the US signed the Treaty, the ICC would prosecute Americans for politically-motivated reasons.

A chief public concern is that if the United States became a signatory to the Rome Statute, other countries would use the ICC as a tool to conduct politically-motivated investigations that would embarrass or undermine the authority of U.S. military and political officials. However, the Rome Statute has numerous safeguards to prevent frivolous or malicious prosecution.

First, before initiating an investigation, the Prosecutor needs the approval of a panel of impartial judges. These judges are nominated by State Parties to the ICC and elected by a 2/3 majority of the parties present (provided that an absolute majority of States Parties constitutes the quorum for voting) [3] and are chosen “from among persons of high moral character, impartiality and integrity who possess the qualifications required in their respective States for appointment to the highest judicial offices.” [4] If judges or prosecutors do not live up to these high standards, the Rome Statute includes procedures for removal for abuse of authority or where impartiality is reasonably doubted. [5]

Second, the ICC can only investigate and prosecute cases of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. Each of these three grounds for prosecution has very demanding standards (for example, genocide requires a specific intent to destroy a particular group, crimes against humanity must be “widespread” and “systematic,” and war crimes have very stringent contextual requirements). [6] The Office of the Prosecutor has received over 8137 communications since July 2002 from more than 130 countries, and yet has only proceeded with 4 investigations, dismissing the rest for failing to have “a reasonable basis to proceed.”

Finally, the UN Security Council – on which the United States plays a powerful role – has the ability to adopt a resolution that will defer a prosecution indefinitely. [7] The combination of these three factors informed the Chief Prosecutor’s decision not to move forward with an investigation of the highly political and controversial war in Iraq. The ICC would not have been able to prosecute U.S. or Iraqi officials, as those countries are not State Parties, but could have proceeded with an investigation of the UK, the United States' closest ally with a substantial presence in Iraq, and party to the ICC.

However, in response to the over 240 communications received regarding the situation, the Chief Prosecutor offered a thorough and reasoned analysis of why the case fell outside of the Court’s jurisdiction. (Read Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo’s letter here.) The ICC’s management of the situation in Iraq, one of the most contentious armed conflicts in the history of the Court, seems to speak directly the fear of wrongful prosecution. The decision taken by Prosecutor Ocampo reflects the efficacy of the safeguards within the Treaty, the respect of the Prosecutor for the rule of the law, and the substantial limits of the ICC’s authority.

Myth #2 – The ICC could bypass the American judicial system and haul our leaders and our soldiers off to the Netherlands.
Even if a case involving the United States did fall within the jurisdiction of the ICC – i.e., the US was a party to the ICC and the crime alleged was genocide, crime against humanity, or war crime -- the Court still does not have immediate authority to investigate and prosecute. It is important to remember that the ICC is a court of complementarity, or a court of last resort. That means that the ICC cannot consider prosecution until the State concerned has exhausted all of its judicial and legal resources.

Under the Rome Statute, in order for the ICC to act, the State’s national system must be unwilling or unable carry out its own genuine investigation and/or prosecution. [8] The threshold for ‘unwillingness’ and ‘inability’ is extremely high. To be ‘unable’ requires nothing less than massive disruption of a legal system (i.e., a natural disaster, debilitating civil war, or complete lack of unqualified or impartial judges). And to be ‘unwilling’ requires that a country take active steps to shield someone from responsibility for ICC crimes or otherwise obstruct justice. Making a good-faith decision not to prosecute does not mean that a country is unwilling to prosecute, and such a decision must be respected by the ICC. [9]

Myth #3 – There is nothing in it for the United States.

Given the unlikelihood of a case involving the United States - a stable democratic government with an established and well-respected judiciary - coming before the international tribunal, it may seem easy to dismiss the need for American participation in and support of the ICC. Some may question whether involvement in the ICC would be of any use to the United States. We must recognize that the United States' rejection of the Court has seriously weakened the ability of the international community to take an effective stand against the gravest of human rights abuses.

While the Court can function without the United States, the lack of backing (as a signatory or donor) undermines the credibility and sustainability of the institution, especially as rejection by the world’s hegemony discourages other states from both signing and financially supporting similar international judicial institutions. The Chief Prosecutor in the case against former Liberian President Charles Taylor for atrocities committed in West Africa, noted rightfully that, no matter how good his case, "if we run out of money, I lose." The United States, and indeed the world, cannot afford to release those accused of the gravest abuses of human rights due to failure to provide adequate resources to tribunals.

As the United States takes seemingly hypocritical stances on the ICC intervention in certain crises (for example, abstaining from (thus, arguably implicitly supporting) the UN Security Council vote to indict President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan), many have noted “[t]he United States wants to create a world of universal values, rules and institutions. But [they] can't abide the fact that they might apply to [them].” Though the United States continues to be viewed as a leader in the realms of law and justice, resistance to international standards projects a dangerous double standard. Joining the ICC is an opportunity for the United States to make an overt commitment to human rights – a move that will have an instrumental impact in the promotion and protection of human rights throughout the world.

-Nadia Ben-Youssef, International Justice Project Legal Intern

[1] Van Schaack & Slye, International Criminal Law and Its Enforcement (Foundation Press 2007)
[2] Rome Statute, Art. 16
[3] Rome Statute (Art. 112 (7)(a))
[4] Rome Statute (Art. 36(3)(a))
[5] Rome Statute (Arts. 41 and 42)
[6] Rome Statute (Art. 15)
[7] Rome Statute (Art. 16)
[8] Rome Statute (Art. 17)
[9] Rome State (Art. 17(1)(b))