Tag Archives: human rights

A little more on the rule of law and development debate

by Rhodri C. Williams

A few weeks back, I wrote about some good news, namely the evidence that rule of law efforts – instilling accountability and legal certainty through support to formal adjudicatory institutions – is central to equitable development. As well as some bad news, that being that said evidence was difficult to measure and therefore of lesser interest to those development donors fixated on checking the log-frame boxes.

Since then, a few more iterations of this debate have crossed my desk, both of which underscored the significance of rule of law to development – and particularly the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – and sought to push back on the measurability issue. First was Mo Ibrahim on Project Syndicate with an appeal to African leaders to push for the explicit inclusion of rule of law in the SDG process. Citing concrete cases of local civil society and expert efforts to resolve disputes, title land and prevent corruption, Mr. Ibrahim concludes that:

This is the rule of law in action at the local level, and it is building, often from scratch, a culture in which disputes are settled peacefully and benefits distributed transparently. The alternative – recourse to violence in the face of unequal access to resources – has led to a cycle of political instability in many countries, with the consequent lack of economic development that has come to characterize much of Africa’s recent history.

As the debate on the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals unfolds at the United Nations this year, it is my fervent hope that African governments will endorse the inclusion within these goals of measurable targets for access to justice. To be sure, the dominant themes that are emerging in the UN discussions – jobs, economic growth, infrastructure development, and poverty reduction – are all still desperately needed across the continent. But the rule of law is a fundamental principle that does more than promote economic growth, and it would be a serious mistake not to include it in the SDG agenda.

In a very similar vein, Namati has circulated an open letter to the UN General Assembly promoting attention to rule of law and access to justice in the SDGs. Like Mr. Ibrahim, Namati notes that rule of law efforts are crucial to securing a broad variety of rights. These range from more civil and political rights concerns like freedom from structural violence (the focus of the Gary Haugen Op-Ed I blogged on earlier) to more traditionally economic and social concern such as access to and secure tenure in land. To quote Namati:

Approximately three billion people around the world live without secure rights to what are often their greatest assets: their lands, forests, and pastures.  Increasing demand for land is leading to exploitation and conflict.  Giving communities the power to manage their land and natural resources would reduce poverty and promote sustainable development.  Securing property rights for all individuals, including women, is necessary to improve financial stability and personal safety.

Interestingly, Namati not only note that inclusion of rule of law in the SDGs would be perfectly consistent with many previous UN statements and resolutions, but also rebut the measurability issue head on as one of their central advocacy points:

Where legal empowerment efforts take hold, the results are visible and quantifiable.  Women in Bangladesh who challenge the practice of illegal dowries are reporting greater cash savings.  Due to the work of community-based paralegals, grievances in Liberia are being resolved more equitably, resulting in greater food security. Prisoners in Kenya have returned to jobs and families after successfully appealing their sentences.

The emphasis on “visible” as well as “quantifiable” strikes me as astute. One of the unsatisfying aspects of sheer quantification is that it can be blind to context. Measuring the number of judicial decision referring to international human rights standards is fine, for instance, but do the rulings properly apply the standards or misinterpret them to abusive ends? And who is to be the judge of that, and on what criteria? And in either case how many such decisions actually survive appeal?

Sustained engagement with a particular development setting is not a guarantee of good analysis, but provides an opportunity for sensitivity to context and local dynamics that would not otherwise arise. The results can provide visible evidence for those minded to see it, but whether this will always be quantifiable is another question.

COHRE archive back online

by Rhodri C. Williams

Its been some time since the mysterious demise of the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE), the protean Housing, Land and Property (HLP) rights NGO that inspired and spun off so many others. One of the most direct successors to COHRE, the Global Initiative for Economic Social and Cultural Rights (GI-ESCR) was early out in placing a selection of COHRE reports and manuals in their resource library. However, COHRE itself, evicted from the web, had ceased to exist as completely as if it had never existed.

Having stumbled across a fully functioning COHRE website this morning on precisely its old, familiar URL, I am happy to announce that the org is back as a resource, even if it is no longer an active force. The site itself is frozen in time in Summer 2011 (when one might wish all of time had frozen), complete with welcomes from its then-Chairperson and Director, and a seemingly complete archive of reports and resources, including my original 2008 salvo on housing rights in Cambodia (here in pdf).

I should note that I have heard more about the demise of COHRE since I blogged on it two years ago, but have been told these things in confidence, which I do not intend to breach. Whatever the circumstances that brought COHRE down, all the involved parties appear united by a desire to focus on the positive aspects of their experience, which is itself quite a legacy. That said, if the mysterious benefactors who brought COHRE back online want to come forward, they are welcome to do so here.

Chile and the unfinished business of justice and reparation

by Clara Sandoval

Dr. Clara Sandoval is a qualified lawyer and a Senior Lecturer in the School of Law at Essex University. She is the Director of the Essex Transitional Justice Network and Member of the Human Rights Centre as well as the Advisory Board of the Human Rights Clinic. She specializes on the Inter-American human rights system, transitional justice and reparations.

Forty years have passed since the coup in Chile and we are still waiting for justice and reparation for the majority of Pinochet’s victims. As a result of the dictatorship in Chile, there were more than 200,000 exiles, more than 38,000 survivors of torture (according to the Valech Commission) and roughly 3,000 persons subjected to enforced disappearance or extra judicial killings (according to the Rettig Commission).

Don Leopoldo García Lucero, his wife Elena and their three daughters are some of those victims. He was detained in 1973 in Santiago, passed through various detention centres (among them El Estadio Nacional, Tres Alamos and Chacabuco) where he was subjected to torture (physical and mental) and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. In the summer of 1975 he was expelled from the country by decree. He arrived in the UK with his family as refugees. Since 1973 his life and that of his family has been on hold. He lives in London in social housing with his wife.

Chile has adopted important measures to deal with the legacy of mass atrocities, particularly in the area of reparation and memory, but most of them were for the benefit of the next of kin of those disappeared or killed. Meanwhile, justice (meaning the investigation, prosecution and punishment of the perpetrators of those crimes) and adequate, prompt and full reparation for torture survivors and their next of kin, those in exile and those victims who are both exiles and torture survivors remain an unfinished business.

Chile began its transition to democracy between 1988/90, and thirteen years later, in 2003, the Valech Commission was established to identify the survivor victims of torture, and only in 2004 some reparations were put in place to deal with the harm caused to torture survivors and their next of kin; these were primarily designed to provide redress to those living in Chile and not those in exile like Mr. García Lucero. In contrast, truth-seeking and reparation for victims of disappearances and killings took place just after the return to democracy at the beginning of the 1990s.

The investigation, prosecution and punishment of torture perpetrators remain a challenge in Chile. Very few cases are being investigated; the punishment of perpetrators is not proportional to the gravity of the crimes, and Chile lacks a specialized system (as it has for disappearances and killings) to investigate torture cases.

Furthermore, in Chile there are various obstacles to justice: the amnesty law remains in place (despite the judgment of the Inter-American Court in Almonacid Arellano v. Chile ruling it was contrary to human rights), and in particular, there is a law that decrees that all information that was collected by the Valech Commission remain secret for 50 years. However, this information is of extreme importance in the investigation of torture cases which occurred during the dictatorship given the difficulties to identify perpetrators without being able to cross-reference information with other persons who were detained in the same places and at the same time.

This is why the litigation against Chile in the case of Don Leopoldo García Lucero, his wife Doña Elena and their three daughters was important to REDRESS and to me as one of its lawyers. Victims, particularly torture survivors who are permanently disabled (like Don Leopoldo) and were unable to move on after what happened to them, and are in exile with their families, are extremely vulnerable people who have a right to justice and reparation, but face multiple barriers to making them a reality.

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Reparations for Chile’s exiles: upcoming guest-post on the Inter-American Court decision in García Lucero

by Rhodri C. Williams

Earlier this Fall, I had the pleasure of being invited to lecture at the Essex Transitional Justice Network’s 2013 summer school, which focused on land issues in transitional settings. I also stayed on for a seminar on land and traditions that got me back together with some familiar leading lights on HLP questions and acquainted me with a number of others. The EJTN has been doing some very interesting work at the frontiers of the transitional justice discourse, including research on economic and social rights approaches to TJ, rehabilitation as a form of reparation and, most recently, a book on corporate accountability in transitional settings.

As a human rights practitioner frequently (and rightly) accused of being a frustrated academic, the seminar was a good reminder of how many other people believe that the strain of trying to keep a foot in both camps is more than compensated for by the synergies that can result. One of the more impressive examples I encountered during my stay in Colchester was the work of ETJN Director Clara Sandoval, who is also not only a Senior Lecturer at the University of Essex Law School, but also a frequent practitioner. Recently, as a consultant for Redress, she helped to bring the case of Leopoldo Garcia Lucero v. Chile before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

The Garcia Lucero case involves the claim of an 80 year old torture survivor who was held for a year and a half in Chilean prison camps before being expelled in 1975. Since then, Mr. Garcia Lucero has struggled to make a new life in London, one among some 200,000 Chileans forced out by the Pinochet regime. Physically disfigured and permanently disabled, he sought an “effective remedy and full and adequate reparation for what happened to him” before the Inter-American Court.

In the decades since Mr. Garcia Lucero was victimized, the Chilean experience of transitional justice has come to be seen as a model in many respects. However, as Clara Sandoval noted in a BBC interview, efforts to provide reparations to victims of the Pinochet regime have been accompanied by relatively few convictions of perpetrators and largely excluded exiled victims, exacerbating their vulnerability. Meanwhile, with the recent commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the Pinochet coup, painful new revelations such as the failure of the Chilean courts to protect ordinary citizens continue to emerge.

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Will the World Bank safeguard human rights in its new high-risk strategy?

by David Pred and Natalie Bugalski

There are big changes happening at the World Bank today, which will have far reaching consequences for millions of the world’s poor.

For the first time in over a decade, the Bank is undergoing a major review of its Safeguard Policies, which serve to ensure that Bank projects do no harm to people and the environment.  While civil society groups are pushing to strengthen the policies and upwardly harmonize them with international human rights and environmental standards, the view that seems to prevail within the Bank’s senior management is that the World Bank needs to become a more attractive lender, with fewer strings attached to its loans, in order to “stay relevant” in the face of increasing competition from Brazil and China.

The World Bank, under President Jim Yong Kim, is trying to redefine itself for the 21st century. Mr. Kim has admirably reoriented the Bank’s strategy around its original poverty reduction mandate, setting two ambitious goals for the institution: the elimination of extreme poverty by 2030 and promotion of ‘shared prosperity’ to boost the incomes of the poorest 40 percent of the population.

Yet Mr. Kim often speaks about the need for the Bank to be less risk averse and support more “transformational large-scale projects” in order to achieve these ambitious goals.  Many are starting to worry that this discourse is code for gutting the Bank’s social and environmental requirements, which are seen by some as inhibiting risk taking, while returning the Bank to the business of financing mega-projects.  The irony is that the world’s poorest and most vulnerable communities – the very people the Bank has pledged to work for – are the ones who will bear the greatest risks if these concerns are realized.

One of the primary ways in which these risks materialize is in the form of development-induced forced displacement. As described by sociologist Michael Cernea, forced displacement remains a “major pathology” in Bank-sponsored development around the world.  According the Bank’s Independent Evaluation Group, more than one million people are affected by forced displacement and involuntary resettlement from active Bank projects at any given point in time. Displacement is often accompanied by threats of and use of violence and results in loss of livelihoods and education, food insecurity, and psychological trauma.

Although the Bank has a resettlement policy aimed at avoiding these harms, local communities displaced in the name of “development” continue to face impoverishment and violations of their human rights due to Bank-financed projects. Revisions of the policy that harmonize it with international human rights standards, coupled with incentives for improved implementation could end put an end to this injustice.

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The European race to the bottom on the Roma

by Rhodri C. Williams

It is something of a truism now that many Eastern European EU member states remain threateningly uncomfortable places for their Roma citizens almost a decade after having solemnly plighted their troth to the Copenhagen criteria, non-discrimination standards and all. Even the briefest perusal of the European Roma Rights Centre website provides ample evidence. To wit, for instance, this charming encounter between a busload of visibly drunken football supporters and a schoolyard of Roma children three weeks ago in Konyár, Hungary:

…the group got off the bus and threatened the Romani school children. They sang the national anthem and the anthem of Transylvania (Szekler anthem) and shouted racist, anti-Roma expressions (“dirty gypsies, we will come back soon”). They made gestures threatening to cut the children’s throats. Some members of the group also urinated in front of the school building.

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In addition, the relevant school has previously been involved in a racist scandal. Earlier this year, a teacher at the school was dismissed after making racist comments about Roma on video. He said that Roma children are primitives, dirty and smelly, but who understand the physical punishment only, and that they should have their spines broken.

The teacher was fired from the school after the incident. The NGOs are concerned that the group may have targeted the school, which is not in an obvious location for a rest stop on this route. The fact that the former teacher was also on the bus suggests that the school was deliberately targeted. The subsequent events, including threats to children and shouting racist statements should have been investigated and clarified immediately by police.

Ah, the discreet charm of the post-socialist bourgeoisie. And yet - it is also a truism that many of the more established Western European EU member states may benefit from the splashy, full-bore racism in the East in the sense that it obscures their own slightly more sophisticated versions. In recent weeks, Italy and France have come under renewed criticism on this score, as – more unexpectedly – has Sweden.

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Demonize the messenger – UN Housing Rapporteur accused of witchcraft

by Rhodri C. Williams

So here is the scenario. A wealthy Western country is early out in 2001 in extending a standing invitation to UN human rights rapporteurs to visit anytime they like. In doing so, they are taking up a Quaker initiative premised on the idea that the first step toward respecting human rights is willingness not be defensive about one’s own record.

Twelve years later, the UN Rapporteur on the right to housing announces the first visit by her mandate to said country, at a time of economic recession. Her initial PR and a subsequent set of preliminary findings praise the host country’s tradition of housing assistance for the poor and provide a reasoned set of criticisms of recent measures to deregulate private rental markets and ensure more efficient use of public housing stocks.

The response? Pandemonium. The chairman of the main party in the governing coalition speeds a letter to the UN Secretary General claiming that the rapporteur arrived uninvited, ignored the relevant government ministers and issued politically biased findings, suggesting “that the UN withdraw her claims” until a “full investigation” is carried out.

A national tabloid accuses her of being a Marxist witch while a conservative columnist is pleased to merely dismiss her as an idiot and a “Brazil nut”. She, of course being the (Brazilian) UN rapporteur Raquel Rolnik, and they being the Right Honourable conservative commentariat of the United Kingdom.

So. How has it come to pass that the United Kingdom, with its Magna Carta and its mother of parliaments is unable to engage in a reasoned dialogue with a UN human rights official? To express mild concerns about her criticism, promise to study them and let them slide gently toward the circular file like everyone else? Or conversely, why draw unnecessary attention to the report by engaging in shrill denunciation of UN activism (not to mention sexist and arguably racist ad hominem attacks on its author)?

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The World Bank adopts sound principles on land, but HRW points out gaps in practice

by Rhodri C. Williams

Two very interesting reports linked land, development and the World Bank’s role last week. Released on precisely the same day, the reports reflected a good deal of consensus on what should be done and rather less agreement regarding what is actually being done.

First, on 22 June, Human Rights Watch released a report criticizing the World Bank for failing to take human rights issues sufficiently into account in its development calculus – with one of the primary examples being the confiscation of land and villageization of its occupants in the Gambella region of Ethiopia. Then, almost as if in response, the Bank released a new study the same day asserting that pro-poor land reform in Africa could provide tremendous benefits at minimal costs by securing the rights of local communities and protecting them against encroachment by large investment projects.

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A happy ending for Eurovision?

by Rhodri C. Williams

I promise that this will be my last ever word on the Eurovision song contest. There are any number of good reasons for me to move on, not least the fact that Eurovision seems to move me to rant, which is honestly not my strongest genre. However, the best possible reason was handed to me on a plate by fresh-faced Emmelie de Forrest, who took all the honors and moved them conveniently from one peaceful Nordic democracy to another one a forty minute commute away.

And there were moments, as Azerbaijan nudged within a few ‘dix points’ of Emmelie’s comely heels, where I saw an alternative, dystopic future – a future in which I would once again be compelled to wander the darkened streets of the blogosphere, bitterly denouncing the capricious demolitions of homes in Baku, casting aspersions upon the political naifs of the European Broadcasting Union, and railing against the hypocrisy of ostensible guardians of democracy such as the Council of Europe, long since tamed by a steady diet of inflated per diems and caviar. Thank you, Emmelie, for sparing us all that.

But before I bow out of the debate about Eurovision and human rights fully, a few observations. First, despite the welcome contrast between Azerbaijan’s structural aversion to human rights (universality notwithstanding, how is one honestly to go about applying them in a dynastic autocracy fueled by oil patronage?) and Sweden’s imperfect but earnest efforts, the human rights did emerge once again as a background issue in this year’s contest.

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Breaking news – Dissident arrests, police abuse and mass evictions in downtown Malmö by Swedish Eurovision hosts

by Rhodri C. Williams

Okay, that was the first completely bogus headline I have ever run in TN. But I bet it got your attention. You were probably skeptical, and rightly so, about connecting the phrases ‘dissident arrests’ and ‘mass evictions’ with adjectives like, well, ‘Swedish’. Unthinkable, right? However, if ‘Eurovision’ seemed similarly ill-placed in such unseemly company, that’s where things get interesting.

In fact, it was only last year that Europe’s annual fiesta of pop-culture self-congratulation was hosted by Azerbaijan, a dynastically ruled pseudo-democracy where strategic location, deep oil reserves and self-interested support for the ‘global war on terror’ have bought the regime a near complete pass on human rights observance. Sound like Gaddafi’s Libya in late 2010? Well, you wouldn’t be entirely wrong there.

A key difference, one might argue, was that Gaddafi’s Libya was not eligible to join prestigious European regional organizations like the Council of Europe, which are meant to ensure mutual respect for human rights standards among their members. However, the performance of the Aliyev regime in Baku appears to indicate that Mr. Gaddafi’s problem was largely geographical.

In fact, last year’s Eurovision contest went boldly forward where no autocracy had gone before, bulldozing a shrill chorus of human rights criticism with Wagnerian pyrotechnics even as entire neighborhoods were razed to improve the view from an arena built with purloined money, protesters were roughed up by police and dumped at the edge of town, and political prisoners continued to rot in jail, unenlightened by Azerbaijan’s spectacular entrance into Europe’s vacuous pop culture scene.

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