Spotlight on Médecins Sans Frontières UK

Each month, the HRC Blog features a significant individual or team from the Human Rights community to go under the Spotlight, answering questions put by students from the University of Essex.  This month, we feature the team from Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) UK.

About MSF UK

Doctors-Without-BordersMSF is an international, medical humanitarian organisation working to save people’s lives in conflict zones, natural disasters and epidemics.  Independent, neutral and impartial, MSF aims to alleviate suffering, protect life and restore respect for human rights irrespective of religion or political affiliation.  As COVID-19 continues to spread, MSF teams are responding to the pandemic in more than 70 countries where they already have programmes, while opening projects in new countries as required.  In Yemen, for example, MSF is supporting the Ministry of Health to run Sanaa’s principal centre to treat coronavirus and is working across the country to support a collapsed health infrastructure during what the UN has described as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

Students’ Questions Answered

The students at Essex are really excited to have the opportunity to send in their questions to the team at MSF, to learn more about their humanitarian work and some of the challenges they face, particularly during this year of the COVID-19 pandemic.  We are honoured to have two members of the their team to share their expertise:

Elizabeth Harding (EH) is MSF UK’s humanitarian representative, having previously held operational positions in Sudan, South Sudan, Philippines, Myanmar, India, Somalia and Ethiopia.

Roz Scourse (RS) is a policy advisor for MSF’s Access Campaign which works to bring down barriers that keep people from getting the treatment they need to stay alive and healthy.

 

 

COVID-19

Coronavirus_greenWhat are the challenges MSF face in terms of humanitarian access in the COVID-19 context? For example, have you had any problems accessing countries that may have locked their borders?  

(EH): Finding ways to continue with our regular medical activities has been a challenge in the COVID-19 context. Challenges with getting staff and supplies to where they were needed were particularly acute in the first few months of the pandemic. In fact, most of the issues that we had regarding getting and maintaining access was more of an exacerbation of our challenges in ‘normal times’.  

In terms of the threat that Covid-19 poses for the people we serve, we know that social distancing is impossible in cramped camps like Moria on Lesbos, and hand hygiene is undoubtedly more challenging where there is no running water, for example. COVID-19 has shown how people who are already vulnerable are facing additional risks.  

 

 

What would you see as some of the solutions that need to be put in place during the pandemic so that much needed aid reaches those most in need? 

(EH): We need to ensure that regular health services continue, and that people can access them. Despite the pandemic, babies are still being born, children are still catching preventable diseases, and conflict is still causing life-threatening injuries. It’s crucial that these medical needs are not overlooked or deprioritised as this would have a lasting impact. 

Blockages like insecurity, fear and movement restrictions present challenges but we are finding ways to adapt and minimise their impact. For example, rather than implementing mass vaccination campaigns at fixed sites where people would gather, our team in Burkina Faso used a door-to-door strategy to ensure that measles vaccinations could continue.  

 

 

Dr Theo - MSF Congo

Dr Theo – MSF Congo – ebola intervention Image courtesy of Carl Theunis/MSF

How has your experiences of dealing with other exceptional circumstances/disasters, such as “Ebola” or “terrorism”, helped in your response to COVID-19? 

(EH): MSF has a long history of responding to epidemics and has been able to use this experience when responding to COVID-19. A crucial lesson learned from our experience responding to Ebola is that interventions must be targeted to the context – one size does not fit all.  

Ebola also showed us that any intervention must be based in community acceptance. Community acceptance of the intervention and any necessary restrictions is the cornerstone for any public health intervention. An understanding of the need to be tested and treated is crucial.

But clearly there are unique elements to this pandemic too. COVID-19 is affecting countries around the world, rather than existing as an outbreak in a single region. This brings with it more challenges in terms of the different reactions of different states and availability of supplies. 

 

 

Because of the pandemic, states have adopted state-centred approaches to regulations, giving them exceptional powers based on a medical emergency.  What were the consequences of this for MSF at the initial phase in the complete lockdown of humanitarian activities? 

(EH): While experiences differed across different countries, in some contexts it did became more difficult for staff to travel and for supplies to be sent where they were needed in the initial period.  In some places we had to adapt our response and to prioritise what we really needed to do.

Crucially, almost 85% of MSFs workforce in our projects are host-country staff who are locally hired and were able to continue providing medical care.

 

 

Giving birth in Dasht-e-Barchi

Giving birth in Dasht-e-Barchi, Afghanistan Image courtesy of Sandra Calligaro

I know MSF works very efficiently in developing countries, especially those with humanitarian emergencies arising. However, during the covid-19 pandemic developed countries have also complained that they do not have the resources to handle the crisis. Do you think that is true? Have you provided assistance or training in the UK ,for example, during the lockdowns? 

(EH): Our COVID-19 response has included interventions within Europe to meet very specific needs and gaps in support for particularly vulnerable populations including in France, Belgium, and the UK.  

In the UK we supported the COVID CARE centre for the homeless in London. This reflects MSF’s ambition to provide assistance according to the needs, irrespective of location. Our team in London were able to partner with other actors to fill a gap when needs were very high and then we were able to hand our programme over. This work in Europe did not divert from what we are doing elsewhere, with MSF present in over 70 countries.   

 

 

Are MSF doctors having to make decisions about who gets priority for treatment when hospitals are overwhelmed with COVID cases? If so, how are those decisions made? 

(EH): As a medical organisation, all care is done on a triage basis, so according to the urgency of the patient’s needs. In a lot of places where we work there is often limited resources so we have to adapt to work within such limitations, providing the best care possible and in the best interest of the patient.  

(RS):  Ideally, we would like to see a situation where these decisions don’t have to happen, and we don’t have shortages or the need to ration available treatments. In relation to COVID-19 medical tools (i.e. potential future treatments, ventilators, PPE etc.) we need to ensure there are no barriers that are artificially limiting supplies, such as intellectual property barriers and a lack of technology transfer from pharmaceutical companies. Past experiences have shown that when available supplies are limited, this can lead to nationalistic control and hoarding, and result in barriers to access predominantly for low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). We are already seeing this with COVID-19 vaccines. 

As a starting point, we need to ensure global open sharing of data and knowledge related to COVID-19 medical tools, and that all intellectual property related to COVID-19 technologies are waived. This has already been proposed by South Africa, India and other countries at the World Trade Organisation in order to maximise global supplies of COVID-19 technologies and bring down prices. All products should be openly licensed, and technology transfer should be pursued to ensure that other manufacturers around the world are able to start producing successful products. 

 

 

COVID_VaccineWill MSF get access to COVID-19 vaccines and how will the distribution of those vaccines to countries without stable governments, such as Yemen, be prioritised and managed? 

(RS): We are pushing for proportional shares of COVID-19 vaccines to be made available to populations in crisis‐affected humanitarian settings, including refugees, asylum seekers, marginalised communities and people living in conflict areas.  These are groups who have the least access to, or are excluded altogether from, national health services. A “global humanitarian buffer stock” was originally built into the design of the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access Facility (COVAX), led by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Global Vaccine Alliance (Gavi), where 5% of supplies were to be dedicated to humanitarian needs.  However so far this has not materialised, especially since COVAX is struggling in general to secure enough doses of future COVID-19 vaccines. 

MSF is in discussions with WHO and others on how a humanitarian buffer stock could work, with supplies from COVAX or directly from companies or countries.  France have already committed to contributing some of their doses agreed through bilateral deals with companies to a humanitarian buffer stock. We are asking other high-income countries (HICs) with bilateral deals (e.g. UK, EU) to commit to the same. 

Countries such as Yemen are part of the COVAX Advance Market Commitment (AMC), which consists of 92 low and middle-income countries (LMICs) who will be able to receive donor support from other “self-financing” countries within the COVAX Facility, whose contributions will fund vaccine doses for these 92 LMICs. Allocation of doses should be in line with the WHO Fair Allocation Framework and aims to reach priority populations within all countries included.  However, this remains to be seen, largely because many HICs have made bilateral deals with companies for their COVID-19 vaccines outside of COVAX, leaving limited available global supplies for COVAX and therefore LMICs. 

 

 

The global health system seems to lack an international standard of response to global health crises, prompting a politicised and state-interest approach.  Every state regulates for itself, prioritising its own needs, leaving those in greatest need at the back of the queue.  However, IHL advocates a humanitarian principle of impartiality where help should go first to where it’s needed the most.  How is MSF able to reconcile IHL with political reality? 

(RS): In the area of access to medical treatments, diagnostics, and vaccines: MSF have been advocating for equitable access to COVID-19 medical tools, prioritising health-care workers globally and those at highest risk/of most need.  This has not materialised in many ways: HICs have pre-booked the vast majority of future COVID-19 vaccines, as well as issuing export bans on potential treatments (e.g. UK export ban on dexamethasone).  85% of the available global supplies of the Pfizer vaccine until the end of 2021 have already been sold to HICs, meaning there will be months if not years of delay before LMICs could have access (the Pfizer vaccine may not be the most appropriate for LMICs due to the cold chain requirements, but it demonstrates this issue). 80% of the Moderna vaccine have also been sold to HICs. 

As such, we are focusing on advocating for efforts which aim to maximise available supplies (e.g. IP waiver described above), as well as manufacture by developing countries so that in the medium to long term, they can supply to their own populations and regions.  This requires the lifting of IP barriers, but also technology transfers from companies producing these products to transfer this technology, knowledge and know-how to manufacturers who are able to produce. 

 

 

OTHER

Measles intervention in Boso Manzi

Measles intervention in Boso Manzi – Image Courtesy of MSF/Caroline Thirion

How would you assess peoples’ ability to access healthcare in conflict areas at the moment? 

(EH): Conflict can undoubtedly hamper people’s access to healthcare. Some of the key barriers for individuals to access healthcare in conflict areas include whether the person knows and feels comfortable to come to a health centre, as well as very practical considerations including overcoming distance in order to reach care, and whether the routes available are safe. In some such settings, people can face limited options in terms of the type of care present (primary, secondary, maternity).

In conflict zones, as elsewhere, our teams consider the risk of acute health needs, for example trauma or epidemics (measles, diphtheria, cholera). These are made more challenging in situations of conflict where recent displacement or congested camp settings may also result in increased need for healthcare.

 

 

In MSF experience, what are some of the complementarities between public health and other frameworks such as international humanitarian law which contain fundamental legal protections including on the delivery of healthcare services?

(EH):  Elements of these frameworks very much influence MSF’s work around the world. While MSF is founded on the principles of independence, neutrality and impartiality, we are also guided by the principles of medical ethics and see the influence of public health and IHL in our work.  For example, under IHL, MSF expects access to medical care to be protected even in conflict zones, while public health approaches influence how we carry our work in conjunction with the communities we seek to serve.

 

 

What is the negotiating process when MSF enters war or conflict zones? What are the challenges of this process?

(EH): MSF teams try to communicate with all actors present in any given area, including the authorities, actors involved in the conflict, and the community. Our safe access depends upon the acceptance of all these actors.   Of course these discussions can be complicated but the security of the team and the acceptance of the community are vital.

 

 

MSF Mocha surgical hospital

MSF Mocha surgical hospital, Yemen – Image courtesy of Agnes Varraine-Leca/MSF

There is an increasing call to reduce the dependency of developing countries on foreign aid and, focus on strengthening the country’s autonomy to make decisions on their development priorities.  As an organisation working in areas of conflict zones, natural disasters and epidemics, how does MSF feel they could strengthen the healthcare system in these countries during these periods of transition? 

(EH): As a medical humanitarian organisation, MSF is designed to respond fast to emergencies. Our model, including our independent financial model, means that we can act quickly to help the people in greatest need. These are not normally intended as long-term responses, but as critical responses to meet urgent needs. Our medical teams step in where the needs are acute, and close projects or hand over to other actors when this acute phase ends.

The majority of our projects involve working with the existing health systems to provide support, supplies and to build capacity – for example, in Sana’a, Yemen, MSF supported the Ministry of Health to run the city’s principle centre to treat COVID-19.

 

 

When you are working in a country like Yemen, so politically fractured, what are the issues with negotiating access/delivery of supplies etc?  

(EH): In negotiating access and the unhindered delivery of medical care, MSF commitment to its principles of independence, impartiality, and neutrality is crucial. These principles enable us to offer assistance based solely on our assessment of medical need.

Wherever we go, we make sure that people in the communities where we’re working understand that we will provide assistance to anyone who needs it. We run radio campaigns and hold meetings with everyone from government ministers to local armed groups, community elders to women’s groups.

Gaining their acceptance is key to our being able to work in difficult environments such as Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Yemen.

 

 

Drones targetWhat transparency is there from western governments around their counter-terrorism activities in countries like Somalia, Pakistan and Yemen?  In particular, what processes are in place between MSF and the US for example regarding potential drone strike activity that might impact on your work or endanger your field staff?

(EH):  We expect states to uphold their responsibilities under IHL, which protects medical facilities against being targeted.  In areas of high risk we do as much as possible to inform all actors of where we’re working, what we’re doing and why we are there.  

 

 

When working in conflict zones, how do you ensure an equality of treatment for all sides, without intimidation from dominant political/tribal forces? 

(EH): In a conflict situation, we don’t take sides. We go where people’s medical needs are greatest. In the ward of one MSF field hospital, you might find wounded civilians alongside injured soldiers from opposing sides. Hostilities and weapons have to be left at the gate.   Wherever we work, we make sure that local people understand that MSF is politically neutral and will provide assistance to anyone who needs it. 

 

Dehumanising the dogfight: the next step in the unmanned arms race

by Pauline Canham

Last month, an artificial intelligence (AI) algorithm was pitted against a human pilot in simulated F-16 fighter jet dogfights.  The AI pilot won, 5-0.  The US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) hosted the ‘AlphaDogfight’ Trials as part of the Air Combat Evolution (ACE) program, which looks at future possibilities of teaming machines with humans to enhance defence capability through “complex multi-aircraft scenarios”.  

This article will look at the issues raised by removing the human element from lethal action, before outlining the growing calls, from the human rights community, for a ban on autonomous weapons.  First, though, it is worth taking a step back to understand how we got here, through a brief history of the use of unmanned drones, the precursor to fully autonomous weapons.

f-16-2520441_1280

A brief history of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs)

The use of pilotless aircraft for surveillance during conflict emerged during the Vietnam War with the US using what they called “Lightning Bugs” on reconnaissance missions.  The Israeli Defence Force (IDF), too has used drones or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) since the 1970s, as decoys and intelligence gathering vehicles, during wars with Egypt, Syria and Lebanon.

The merging of these robotic eyes-in-the-sky with lethal weaponry would be a pivotal moment for post 9/11 policy making and play a significant role in what President Bush called “a different kind of war”, in which the risk to American military personnel was removed through delivering death by remote control.

The use of remotely piloted drones to assassinate the enemy, rather than risking troops on the ground, found favour, particularly following the catastrophe of the Iraq war and the deeply damaging CIA torture program, and became a go-to counter-terrorism tool for Obama.  The low risk to American lives and the often-sold precision accuracy of drones gave them an ‘ethical’ flavour that appealed to those who wanted revenge with a clean conscience.  It was a way for Obama to appear tough on terrorists, but maintain his Nobel Peace Prize winning status as a man who espoused human rights and the rule of law.

Along with indefinite detention without trial in Guantanamo Bay, the drone program is one of the few surviving policies of the War on Terror, now into its 20th year.  Claims of the precision accuracy of drones, though, have been challenged by various studies in the countries of their operation, including Yemen and Afghanistan, where drone strikes were found to be “10 times more likely to kill civilians than conventional aircraft”.  In July 2020, on publishing her report into the drone assassination of Iranian General Soleimani, the UN Rapporteur on Extrajudicial and Arbitrary Execution, Agnes Callamard described the surgical precision of drones as a “myth”.

Removing the human from lethal action

Removing the human from battlefield operations is given as a significant advantage by operating states, claiming that machines are less likely to make mistakes and offer higher levels of precision and lower risk to military personnel.  The AlphaDogfight trials also exposed the fear, or feeling of “self-preservation”, of the human pilot as a limiter in performing risky manoeuvres that might provide an edge in battle.   The Pentagon’s Director for Research and Engineering for modernisation, Mark Lewis, said that the advantage of an AI pilot is that it will be prepared to “do things that a human pilot wouldn’t do”.  

Whilst this lack of fear may appear advantageous, it serves to illustrate the argument against fully autonomous weapons; they don’t have human attributes that indeed include fear for themselves, but also compassion towards others.  They are, in effect, weapons of dehumanisation, with no ability to recognise the humanity in those they fight against, or any way to distinguish between combatants and civilians.  As things stand, the use of remotely controlled drones, operated by ‘pilots’ that are stationed thousands of miles away from the target, has seen lethal strikes that have caused catastrophic civilian casualties through a misinterpretation of activities including weddings, funerals and jirgas (traditional community assemblies), that were wrongly assumed to be terrorism related. 

Jeremy Scahill, author of  The Assassination Complex, refers to this as the ‘tyranny of distance’, a phrase borrowed from the 1966 book about the precariousness of Australia’s isolation and distance from its coloniser.  The lives of the Yemeni, Pakistani, Afghani and Somali targets of drone strikes are indeed permanently precarious, and the distance of the innocent victims of robotised drone violence makes them invisible, not just to the ‘pilots’ of the drones themselves, who initiate the strike, but also to the publics of those governments who deploy such weapons.

Political theorist and author of Just and Unjust Wars, Michael Walzer has voiced his concerns about drones, stressing that their advantages make their use easier and more likely and this should trouble us, as the traditional reciprocal risks of going to war add weight to jus ad bellum considerations.   Removing the human from one side of the battle with the enemy has been described by some as “remote controlled hunting” , with the moral equality of combat removed due to a lack of risk reciprocity.

Further, as the development of these hi-tech weapons depends on the depth of defence budgets, asymmetries of power and violence have resulted in violations of human rights in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Palestine, Somalia, Yemen, Iraq and Libya, where communities live in constant fear of strikes.  These are communities that have been psychologically traumatised, their privacy denied and their cultural and religious practices undermined.  As a Stanford Law School study in Pakistan concluded, innocent men, women and children have been killed simply by dint of their behaviour such as gathering in groups, or carrying weapons, considered, by the United States to be consistent with terrorist activity.

Imagine, then, the spectre of full autonomy in the use of armed drones,  offering the prospect that such behavioural ‘signatures’ could be programmed into targeting algorithms that would totally disregard any cultural context. 

Calls for a ban

As yet, there is still little in the way of international law to specifically regulate the use of drones or autonomous weapons, other than International Humanitarian Law (IHL), – a.k.a the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC) – which covers areas of operation within zones of existing armed conflict; or International Human Rights Law (IHRL), which requires the justification of self-defence, limited by necessity and proportionality for any counter-terrorism operations.  

Furthermore, there are ambiguities around the use of IHRL extraterritorially, which allows the US to sidestep accountability on a technicality, namely Article 2 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which limits the obligations of a state to “ all individuals within its territory and subject to its jurisdiction”.  In addition, the state of exception that ushered in Bush’s “different kind of war” has become permanent, and the ability to flout international law under the guise of a universal project of global security and human rights, has slipped quietly under the radar, with the suffering of thousands of innocent victims out-of-sight.

There are now growing calls for a ban on fully autonomous weapons and a treaty, seeking to ensure that humans maintain control over the use of force and lethal decision making.  A 55-page report released by Human Rights Watch in August 2020, “Stopping killer robots: Country positions on banning fully autonomous weapons and retaining human control”, listed the positions of 97 states involved in discussions on the topic since 2013.

The United States position on negotiating a new international treaty on fully autonomous weapons is that it is “premature”, arguing that IHL, as it currently stands, is sufficient.  Rather interestingly, China supports a ban on the use of autonomous weapons, but not on their development as they currently seek to develop themselves as a hi-tech military superpower, with a focus on machine-learning, AI and autonomous weapons systems.  The United Kingdom, meanwhile, joined the United States in insisting that existing IHL is adequate and “has no plans to call for or to support an international ban” on such weapons.  Opposition parties in Germany too have called on Chancellor Merkel to take a tough stand on the issue, arguing that without restraints, there is a very real danger of a new arms race.  However, Merkel’s coalition voted down the motion, and critics point to German arms sales of “new weapons with autonomous functions” as playing a key role in that vote.

Conclusion

The Vice President of Heron, the small Maryland company that developed the algorithm that won the dogfight competition, said that despite ethics concerns, it is important to forge ahead with employing AI within military hardware because “if the United States doesn’t adopt these technologies, somebody else will.”   Such a position simply ensures an acceleration of the race towards a global proliferation of robotic violence, noted by UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres in his 2020 Report on Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict. In the report, he stressed the “moral and ethical issues in allowing technology to decide whether to take a human life”, adding that the current absence of debate “leaves a policy vacuum that has to be addressed by Member States.” 

In his Nobel Peace Prize speech, Obama’s warning-cum-US national security strategy, that “modern technology allows a few small men with outsized rage to murder innocents on a horrific scale”, would become the modus-operandi of the War on Terror.  If the international community does not come together to curtail the further development of unmanned and autonomous lethal weapons, those few small men will become many.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

PC_AJPauline Canham is the HRC Blog’s student editor.  Pauline is studying a Masters Degree in Human Rights and Cultural Diversity at Essex, after 20 years in the broadcasting sector, working for the BBC and AlJazeera, with a focus on large change projects including the BBC’s move into the new Broadcasting House in 2013, and the re-launch of Al Jazeera’s Arabic Channel in 2016.

Remembering Srebrenica

this article was originally posted on University of Essex News on 5th July

 

25 years ago this month, a genocide unfolded in Srebrenica.  To mark Srebrenica Memorial Week, Essex Human Rights Centre has issued a statement and Members of the Centre have offered reflections.

 

***Trigger Warning: this report contains descriptions of sexual violence and genocide.

The Srebrenica genocide

Between late 1992 and the spring of 1995, the conflict in the former Yugoslavia led to thousands of Bosnian Muslims seeking refuge in the area around Srebrenica, a town in eastern Bosnia and Herzegovina.

To protect this group, on 16 April 1993 the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 819, demanding all parties treat “Srebrenica and its surroundings as a safe area which should be free from any armed attacks or any other hostile act.”

Despite this – and the presence of United Nations peacekeepers in the area – on 6 July 1995, Bosnian Serb forces attacked Srebrenica.

Following a decree from the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic that the Bosnian Serb Army should make life “unbearable” for those living in Srebrenica, more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim boys and men were detained, abused, tortured and executed.

The International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia established that the ethnic cleansing that took place in Srebrenica amounted to genocide.

 

A statement from Essex Human Rights Centre to mark Srebrenica Memorial Week 2020

In the worst mass atrocity on European soil since 1945, over 8,000 Muslims, including children, were massacred, in July 25 years ago. Today, we honour the memory of those who were slain in Srebrenica, express solidarity with the survivors and reflect on the lessons of that savagery.

The important lesson that we draw from this and other genocides is that they do not happen spontaneously. Such atrocities begin with attitudes of intolerance and unchecked expressions of hostility towards others based on their identity. They are led by entrepreneurs of hate, catalyzed by discrimination and powered by impunity. They tell a tragic tale of numerous missed opportunities and are an indictment of our collective failure to stop the escalation of intolerant attitudes to mass slaughter at every stage of that collapse. The Srebrenica genocide was the tragic outcome of a sustained campaign over several years that drew on discrimination, exclusion, forced deportation, torture, systematic sexual violence and mass murder.

All of us can and should act to combat such horrors. We must challenge the exclusion, scapegoating and stigmatisation that fray social capital and destroy the pillars of trust amongst various communities resulting in devastation for all. This is all the more important in our interconnected world where every one of us can contribute online and offline to build trust and promote inclusion.

 

 

Reflections

Dr Ahmed Shaheed, Senior Lecturer in the School of Law and UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief said: “Today, as we remember Srebrenica, we join the surviving friends and families in paying tribute to the victims of this genocide. We call on all to be clear-eyed about the lessons of the past and reject discourses of denial, and to work collectively to strengthen the societal foundations of peace and trust. ‘Never again’ must well and truly mean ‘never again’.”

Dr Carla Ferstman, Senior Lecturer in the School of Law and Human Rights Centre, and formerly the Executive Legal Advisor of the Commission for Real Property Claims of Refugees and Displaced Persons in Bosnia and Herzegovina, one of the international institutions established as part of the peace process to address the consequences of ethnic cleansing, noted that: “The genocide in Srebrenica occurred within a context of ethnic cleansing involving mass expulsions of the civilian population, unlawful confinements, enforced disappearances, mass rape, sexual assault, torture, as well as the destruction of mosques and community centres. It has left massive scars on the local population. There have been vital efforts to secure accountability, which have resulted in important convictions of senior military leaders for the genocide. But it is also important to recognise the need to secure justice for victims, to recognise the suffering they have endured, and to ensure their right to a remedy and reparations. That fight continues.”

Dr Andrew Fagan, Director of the Human Rights Centre, said: “One of the main reasons for the establishment of the modern human rights movement was the Holocaust: a European genocide. Despite the development of a vast body of international human rights law and the growth of a global human rights movement, the world witnessed another European genocide barely half a century later.

“Srbrenica bears many lessons for us today. One of the most important is that the human rights community must never assume that our work is complete, particularly in those parts of the world where it is wrongly assumed that human rights are largely secure.

“The vital need to never become complacent is fundamental to the Human Rights Centre’s approach to supporting the human rights project and hence the importance of remembering the genocide suffered by Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica in 1995.”

Our thanks to Amnesty International for the image used on this page.

 

 

 

Proposed amendments to the Human Rights Act to disadvantage UK war crimes victims

by Alexandra Fowler (first published on Oxford Human Rights Hub)

On 18 March 2020, the UK Minister for Defence introduced into the UK Parliament his promised package of new legislation designed to ‘protect veterans’. Entitled the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill, the proposed laws would amend the UK’s Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA) in ways that impact on its human rights obligations, including under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

Civil Claims by Victims in UK Courts

Civil claims for compensation in UK courts for death, abuse and other mistreatment amounting to war crimes can be brought in two ways; the first is an action in UK common law for the tort of assault and/or battery.  The second avenue is that under the Human Rights Act 1998, which was enacted to give effect to the UK’s obligations under the ECHR. Importantly for victims, Article 13 of the ECHR (see HRA ss6-8) requires a member State to grant an effective remedy (often monetary compensation) for violations of protected rights. The HRA/ECHR regime applies in whichever territory the UK exercises sufficient authority and control (jurisdiction), and this can occur outside EU territory (Al-Skeini). While time limitations may operate to refuse civil redress in tort, an HRA claim can still be upheld, such as in Alseran (2017).

Against this background, the Bill’s Section 11 proposes to insert a new provision (s7A) in the HRA which imposes a maximum of six years’ time limit (or 12 months from the date that the victim knew or ought to have known that the alleged violation was committed by UK troops) for bringing civil claims under the HRA in connection with overseas operations. Although this appears to bring things in line with the time period for personal injury claims under the Limitation Act 1980, the provision is troublesome because in recent conflicts in which the UK has been involved war crimes victims already face substantial difficulties in making claims. As in Alseran, many if not most victims have been prevented by both the local law and by logistics from making claims until long after the alleged abuse took place, often significantly more than six years. The existing HRA requires courts to take such factors into account in deciding whether the claim has been improperly delayed.  The new Bill will take this discretion away, resulting in most, if not all, of the remaining claims from Iraq and Afghanistan being time barred, and future claims running the risk of being so too.

US_Troops_Afghanistan

Is a Time Bar consistent with UK Obligations under the ECHR?

Is the time bar restriction in the new Bill consistent with the right to a remedy stipulated in Article 13 of the ECHR? Much of the European Court’s caseload deals with unreasonable delays in obtaining a remedy, and the Committee of Ministers has accepted that deadlines within national systems to accelerate or conclude investigations and/or the judicial process are legitimate (see Rec(2004)6 on the improvement of domestic remedies). Given the provisions in the Bill, many alleged victims will probably find that a judicial remedy is not available by the time they finally lodge a claim, but it is true that on the face of the law an opportunity has been given for a remedy in the courts.

Of course, remedies need not be judicial. The UK operated an extensive system of administrative remedies over the years of its involvement in Iraq, and its Ministry of Defence paid nearly 1500 claims totalling almost £22 million in compensation for war crimes over the period 2003/4 – 2016/7.  In addition, over 4500 claims from Afghan civilians had been made, up until 2015, resulting in out-of-court payments of estimated £5.3 million.

If this Bill is enacted, the operation of a credible administrative compensation mechanism will be essential to avoid potential liability for breaches of ECHR Article 13. Even so, it sends a very detrimental signal to the world about the UK’s commitment to justice and human rights.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alexandra_fowlerDr Alexandra Fowler is a specialist in public international law at the University of Westminster, London. She holds a Doctor of Juridical Studies from the University of Sydney, and has taught international law and constitutional law at a number of Australian universities.  Her research interests include victim compensation in international humanitarian law, international human rights and international criminal law, and transitional justice;

Poignant memories of Yemen after 5 years of war

by Pauline Canham, Student Editor

I stepped off the Yemenia Airways flight, and onto a bus, transporting me and a dozen or so Yemeni nationals the short distance to the arrivals terminal at Aden International Airport.  It was April 2014 and my brief visit to the country, once dubbed ‘Arabia Felix’ or ‘fortunate Arabia’, came amidst a build-up of political tension.  Just 11 months after my visit, Yemen would tragically descend into what is now described as the world’s worst humanitarian disaster.

The coming week marks the 5th anniversary of the launch of ‘Operation Decisive Storm’, the Saudi Coalition offensive against Houthi rebels on 25th March 2015.  The anniversary was marked with the closure of airports to all traffic, except for humanitarian aid, due to concerns that the coronavirus would exacerbate what is an already catastrophic situation.

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Yet again at the top of IRC’s Emergency Watchlist for 2020, the fragile hope brought about by a recent de-escalation in the conflict was rocked by a renewed surge in fighting in some provinces.  The UN Special Envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths said last week that Yemen is at a “critical juncture” and urged warring parties to “de-escalate now” to prevent a slide back to greater violence.   His statement came after what he described as “the most alarming military escalation” which included a Saudi air strike in February that killed more than 30 civilians.  He also reiterated calls for access to the Safer Oil Tanker, as fears of an environmental disaster grow.  The ship, anchored in the Red Sea, contains 1.15 million gallons of crude oil, and experts fear it could explode at any time, due to a lack of maintenance.

In a statement to the Security Council on 12th March, the UK Permanent Representative to the UN, Karen Pierce said that the crisis “cannot be allowed to deteriorate any longer”.  The renewed violence has pushed even more people out of their homes and into camps around the country with three quarters of the 4.3 million internally displaced being women and children.

 

UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia unlawful

The civilian death toll in Yemen led to a British High Court ruling in 2019 that declared UK sales of arms to Saudi Arabia unlawful.   Despite this, the Government has continued to grant arms licenses to the Saudi Kingdom, in what were described as “inadvertent breaches” of the ruling.   The UK, US and other European Governments came under pressure to cease arms trading with Saudi Arabia after a number of so called ‘targeted’ attacks resulted in high civilian casualties.  One such attack killed 40 children and injured 56 while they were travelling on a school bus in the Sa’ada district in 2018.

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Despite Human Rights Watch describing that incident as a war crime, Saudi Arabia has increased its arms purchases and those involved in the business of selling them have been accused of having blood on their hands.  In what appeared to be an eerie echo of German-American political philosopher, Hannah Arendt’s theory of the ‘banality of evil’, an official working at the UK Export Control Joint Unit, which signs off on shipments of weapons to Saudi Arabia said “I’m doing what I’m told and doing my job, but I’m uncomfortably aware that Adolf Eichmann said the same thing.”

Amnesty International is calling on the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate executives and officials involved in the sales of arms used in alleged war crimes in Yemen.  Working alongside the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), they are requesting an investigation into 26 specific airstrikes which resulted in the unlawful killing or injuring of civilians “and destroyed or damaged schools, hospitals and other protected objects.”

 

Memories of a different Yemen

My flight from Qatar to Yemen’s southern coastal city of Aden in 2014 had felt unexpectedly like a family outing, with me in a role akin to visiting cousin from a distant land.  There was a fair amount of curiosity as to why I might want to visit Yemen during such a ‘delicate’ moment in time.  Though the Saudi-led intervention was still almost a year away, sporadic violence was commonplace and protests by Al Hirak Al Janoubi (Southern Secessionist Movement) were held regularly in Aden.  Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) had been very active in Yemen and there had been kidnappings of Westerners by the group or their affiliates.

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But whatever apprehension I had before my departure was quickly soothed.  I was welcomed warmly from the very moment I stepped on the Yemenia jet in Qatar all the way through to my eventual departure from Aden.  I was embraced by the famously generous Arabic culture of my hosts, Yemeni people considered by many as the friendliest and most welcoming to visitors in the world.

Of course security was tight, there were checkpoints all over the city, we had several power cuts, and on one occasion Aden Mall was evacuated due to an escalating skirmish in the surrounding streets, but what I witnessed was a resilient community continuing with life undeterred.  The beaches were busy with families enjoying the spring sunshine, children swimming, young men riding horses along the sand and women having lunch with friends.  It was a happy atmosphere with no hint of the tragedies yet to come less than a year later.

IMG_3677My hosts took me to Aden’s historic sites, long since abandoned by visitors from around the world who used to flock to the South Arabian coast for winter sun.   The stunning 11th Century Sira Castle, embedded into a rocky peninsula in a prime defensive spot in the Gulf of Aden, and the incredible Cisterns of Tawila, estimated to be 1500 years old.  But my lasting memories were not of rock and stone, but rather of joy, laughter, friendship and a sense of living life in the moment that I realised I had lost.

On the way back to the airport, as I stressed about getting there on time, my friends pulled over at a small roadside tea stand.  Little glass cups of red tea were passed through the window and as I sipped at the sweet hot liquid, my friend turned up the car stereo, stepped out into the middle of the road and began to dance.  These poignant memories have become more precious with every anniversary of the war that passes.

What now for Yemen?

This anniversary brings with it the threat of coronavirus on top of an already perilous humanitarian situation.   But for Yemen’s collapsing health system, coronavirus is simply another issue on a growing list of threats.  Among the immediate concerns, in addition to the escalation in violence, is the impending rainy season, which every year heralds the onset of a rise in cholera cases.  In 2019, Yemen recorded 860,000 cases of the disease and 56,000 cases have already been recorded in 2020.  Oxfam’s Yemen Country Director said “This is a health crisis hiding in plain sight.  It’s shocking that this ongoing crisis is getting so little attention.”   With health workers needed evermore urgently, they too are coming under attack, being targeted by all warring parties in a blatant violation of humanitarian law.

Yemen hospital

The situation on the ground in Yemen is incredibly complex, with various proxy battles playing out between vying Gulf neighbours, most notably Saudi Arabia, UAE and Iran.  The UAE, officially part of the Saudi Coalition, recently tested the relationship with the Kingdom when it backed Al Hirak Al Janoubi to seize Aden from forces loyal to President Hadi, still internationally recognised as Yemen’s leader.   The Yemeni people, as always are caught in the cross-fire between major global powers, hungry to secure their positions in such a strategic location on the Bab al-Mandeb strait at the mouth of the Red Sea.

As we hunker down to protect each other from coronavirus, Yemen slips silently into a 6th year of war, unreported by a world focused on an unseen enemy of a different nature.

About the Author:

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Pauline Canham is the HRC Blog’s student editor.  Pauline is studying a Masters Degree in Human Rights and Cultural Diversity at Essex, after 20 years in the broadcasting sector, working for the BBC and AlJazeera, with a focus on large change projects including the BBC’s move into the new Broadcasting House in 2013, and the re-launch of Al Jazeera’s Arabic Channel in 2016.

Gender, War and Technology: Peace and Armed Conflict in the 21st Century

By Emily Jones 

Technology is vastly changing contemporary conflict. While there has been a lot of recent focus by international lawyers on topics such as drone warfare and autonomous weapons systems, very little has been published on these issues from a gender and law perspective. Seeking to bridge this gap, I recently co-edited a Special Issue for the Australian Feminist Law Journal on Gender, War and Technology: Peace and Armed Conflict in the 21st Century alongside Yoriko Otomo and Sara Kendall. The issue brings together a wide array of voices. Several different technologies are discussed; from drone warfare to lesser known technologies being used in conflict settings such as evidence and data collection technologies and human enhancement technologies.

As the introduction to the Special Issue notes, gender is used throughout the Special Issue in multiple ways, highlighting women’s lived experiences in conflicts as combatants, victims, negotiators of peace agreements, military actors and as civilians, as well as being used as a theoretical tool of analysis, ‘considering issues of agency, difference, and intersectionality, and contesting gendered constructions that presuppose femininity, ethnicity, and passivity.’ Intersectionality is also a key theme throughout the issue, with articles also ‘considering issues of race, colonialism, ability, masculinity and capitalism (and thus, implicitly, class).’ War is understood in light of feminist scholarship on conflict, noting how war and peace work on a ‘continuum of violence’ with neither war not peace being as easy to define as legal categorisations suggest.

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A Bad Decision from GTMO: Why the Commission Lacks Jurisdiction over 9/11 Defendants

By Tara Van Ho

This week, US courts issued two important cases for international law, in the areas of business and human rights and the laws of armed conflict. First, the US Supreme Court’s Jesner v. Arab Bank decision foreclosed the use of the Alien Tort Statute to hold corporations accountable for their role in violations of human rights. Then, the US military commission at Guantanamo Bay found it had personal jurisdiction over the 9/11 defendant in US v Mohammad, et al. To do this, the commission had to determine an armed conflict existed between the US and Al Qaeda on 9/11.

Both cases significantly warped international law.

I’ll address both cases through a series of posts here, at Nadia Bernaz’s Rights as Usual, and on my own blog. In this post, I’ll address issues with the most significant decision of the Mohammad judgment: the finding of the commission that on 9/11 the US was engaged in an armed conflict.

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Derogations from the European Convention on Human Rights During Armed Conflict?

By Daragh Murray

The UK Joint Committee on Human Rights is currently conducting an inquiry into the Government’s proposed derogation from the European Convention on Human Rights during armed conflict.

Prof. Françoise Hampson, Prof. Noam Lubell and Dr. Daragh Murray of the Essex Human Rights Centre submitted written evidence to the Committee.

The submission addressed derogations from human rights law treaties in the context of military operations. It argued that the derogation regime does not nullify the applicability of human rights law, but rather allows for the modification of specific human rights obligations in response to emergency or exceptional circumstances.

The submission suggests that derogations play a key role within the international human rights law system and that derogations during military operations may be both appropriate and necessary. In particular, in situations of armed conflict, derogations may be required in order to ensure the coherent co-application of international human rights law and the law of armed conflict. As such, appropriate derogations permit the application of both human rights law and the law of armed conflict, ensuring the existence of a legal ‘bottom line’ that is appropriate to the situation.

The full text of the submission is available on the Committee’s website.

 


Disclaimer: The views expressed herein are the author(s) alone.

Supreme court rulings open door to future ‘war on terror’ litigation in Britain

By Daragh Murray

The UK Supreme Court has handed down three landmark judgements relating to the activities of UK authorities and officials in the fight against terrorism. The court ruled on January 17 that cases could now proceed against UK officials accused of involvement in detention and rendition operations – even if foreign states and their officials were the “prime actors” of alleged human rights violations. This means that cases can now proceed against, among others, the former foreign secretary Jack Straw.

Another key element of the rulings relates to the authority to detain people in armed conflict, and the interplay between the law of armed conflict and international human rights law.

The Supreme Court’s rulings will have a significant impact on future litigation in relation to the activity of UK authorities and officials abroad. As a number of the claims relate to the extraterritorial application of the Human Rights Act and its application to UK armed forces, these cases are particularly sensitive in the current political climate.

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