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. 

 

Spotlight on Clive Stafford Smith OBE

Part 2 of 2

Each month, the HRC Blog features a significant figure from the Human Rights community to go under the Spotlight, answering questions put by students from the University of Essex.  This month, we feature Clive Stafford Smith OBE.  Part 1 covered questions about the death penalty and COVID19.   

 

NINTCHDBPICT000589082437Note from the Editor: This week is a particularly poignant one for Clive as it would have been the 60th birthday of Edward Earl Johnson, who was wrongfully executed in a Mississippi gas chamber in 1987 at the age of 26.   Edward’s tragic case came to the world’s attention through the documentary, Fourteen Days in May, which captured Clive’s attempts to halt the execution and followed Edward’s last few days and very final moments.  I would urge anyone interested in human rights and justice to watch this powerful documentary and support the work of Reprieve , the organisation Clive founded to give free legal support to the most vulnerable and forgotten people in this world. 

I would like to thank Clive for spending some of his precious time in answering our questions and for his inspiration to those of us joining the growing global human rights defence team.

 

About Clive

Clive Stafford SMithClive Stafford Smith is the founder of ‘Reprieve’ and a well known human rights lawyer.  He has spent his career fighting against the death penalty in America, only taking cases of those who could not afford a lawyer, assisting in the representation over 400 prisoners and preventing their execution in 98% of cases.  Clive is also known for his work in representing detainees at Guantanamo Bay, successfully suing the US government to gain access to the facility, and helping to secure the release of some 80 detainees to date, with seven clients still there.  In addition to visiting and representing the detainees, Clive tracked down the families of ‘disappeared’ prisoners across the Middle East, prompting some unwelcome ‘interest’ from US allies, including the Jordanian Secret Police, who detained him in 2004.  In 2000, Clive was awarded an OBE for ‘humanitarian services’ and has won a raft of awards in the field of human rights.

 

Students’ Questions Answered

Clive was gracious enough to allow the students at Essex an opportunity to send him  some questions about his experiences and ongoing work in the field of human rights.  Clive answered questions on a range of topics.  In this second part, we explore the topics of Guantanamo Bay,  criminal justice reform and the decolonisation of the curriculum.  Clive also has some wise words of advice for our human rights students.

 

COUNTER-TERRORISM  & GUANTANAMO BAY

Clive&HonorBound

Clive at the entrance to Guantanamo Bay

Q: What challenges does the use of new technologies in counter-terrorism measures create for human rights activists?

A: There is no such thing as a challenge, only an opportunity.  But certainly the Drone Age means that we kill people around with world with some degree of impunity.

And for those of you who have read I, Robot by Isaac Asimov, it is notable that his first law of robotics (coined in 1950, shortly after the first use of a nuclear bomb) states: “A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.” Sad to say, like the Manhattan Project and nuclear weapons, the military is in charge of most AI being used in drones, and the only use is to kill people. Again, we have the world upside down.

 

Q: To what extent do you believe that removing the human element in extrajudicial executions through the use of unmanned drones in the war on terror has led to an increase in human rights violations and blow-back on western powers?

A: This is indubitably true, as it has lowered the threshold for warfare (we can kill people in Waziristan without risk of American body bags – indeed while our “drone pilots” are drinking coffee in Nevada). We have also ignored hundreds of years of the developments of the law against assassination, and are going around the world killing people.

And that is just the Americans and the British. In turn, we encourage others, like the Russians (in Salisbury) and the deranged President Duterte (in the Philippines).

 

Q: Does the Guantanamo Bay Periodic Review Board still exist and does it still operate?  And what are the prospects for those already cleared for release being allowed to return to their home countries during Trump’s tenure..…Abdul Latif Nasser being one.

A: The “review processes” in Gitmo have always been a sham – “kangaroo courts” in the words of UK Justice Steyn. Nobody has been cleared since Trump became president so it does not matter that the PRB still exists in theory.  Nobody is going to be released by Trump, based on his midnight tweets. It is back to the middle ages, when a king could just lock you up without trial based on his fiat.

 

CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM

Black Lives Matter Black Friday

Q: With the George Floyd protests and Black Lives Matter movement garnering an unforeseen amount of international pressure for racial justice, civil rights activists are championing for total criminal justice reform in the US.  If this were to occur, in what context would you see this happening? What would be your primary goals in the implementation of a ‘just’ criminal justice system?

A: By and large I would encourage people not to tinker with the machinery of death and incarceration. It is anathema. I would no more send someone I love to prison, no matter what they did, than I would thrash my 11 year old child. Prison solves nothing at all.

Yes, there are some dangerous people. Many of them are currently policemen with guns, but others are those who start wars, and there are people who commit serious offences like murder. But if you think you would never murder, you need to ask yourself why? Is it because you are somehow morally superior (like the Klan?) or is it because you had many benefits that others do not have?

There are other solutions to our societal problems, but for that you may have to wait for my next (thrilling) book…

 

DECOLONISING THE CURRICULUM

UDHRQ: Many people are calling for the de-colonisation of the educational curriculum in Europe and America.  Do you believe the same is necessary in the theory and practice of human rights in order to provide genuinely universal implementation?

A: It is not so much de-colonisation that we need, as de-mystification. What we are taught in schools and in life is just nonsense on many levels. People were not “men of their times” they were barbarians. As are we today in many ways. The more interesting issue is whether we cannot look at ourselves today and identify the way in which we, as a society, are just mad.  Obviously racism is mad.

I challenge everyone to come up with at least one practice that you see around you where the overwhelming majority of the world (or your country) thinks it is totally right and justified, but you think they are all a bit deranged. Racism is not good enough as there are lots of people who think that is insane. So you have to go much further afield. If you can’t think of any, then I fear you are a subject of indoctrination in the same way as the people were who burned the witches in Salem.

One example might be the idea that Britain should have closed borders and clutch close to our breasts all the benefits we have from pillaging other countries, just because we happened to get away with it and now say we are “British”. But in my world there are many examples. I sit watching the world around me with bemusement.

At a very simple level, human rights are about humans. They are not about British people or Americans.  It is telling in this regard that the US has not ratified one human rights convention that is enforceable in a US court; just as it is telling that the British think that “parliamentary supremacy” means that Priti Patel can tell us how nasty we should be to other people (rather than supremacy over a nasty executive, originally perhaps King Charles 1).

 

ACCOUNTABILITY

Campaignagainstarms tradeQ: With economic interests at the heart of international relations, what are the prospects for holding the states with the biggest pockets accountable for human rights violations?  And if existing mechanisms are not working to provide that accountability, what can we do as human rights advocates to make real change?

A: “Accountability” does not mean prosecuting people and putting them in prison. On one level, that makes us as unpleasant as them. Rather, it means bringing power to the powerless, and putting a stop sign up to abuses. That is remarkably easy, partly because you and I are not afraid of anyone, and politicians are afraid of everyone.

Power is not just about law, which is only one tool in our tool box. It is as much about the court of public opinion. So those of us who are privileged – which includes everyone who has the spare time to read me rambling on – just has to do what my mother told me to do, which is to get between the haters and the people who are being hated, and just say ‘No’.

 

FINDING NEW TACTICS THAT WORK

social mediaQ: As a Human Rights Lawyer, one needs to keep on transforming ways to keep the cause alive but sometimes bringing change is difficult.   How have the tactics changed over the years to today, when social media has become such an important tool for mobilizing causes?

A: You’d be bored to death if you did the same things all the time, but the rules actually remain the same. The most important rule is that we are Brer Rabbit and the when they misbehave the government plays Brer Fox (as do the other bad guys). That means that the government is very big and quite strong, but not terribly clever; whereas you are small, rather clever, and a teeny bit arrogant. So all you have to worry about is getting a bit ahead of yourself.

Our job is persuasion. Another flaw the liberals have is that they are too pious and take themselves too seriously.  Humour is a much more persuasive tool than piety.  And we have to remember that we are trying to persuade people who speak different languages.

There is good in everyone but you have to find it. An example would be a capital jury trial: the jurors can only get on the case if they promise that they can impose the death penalty so you are foolish if you preach to them that the death penalty is immoral. It also does not work to quote Shakespeare as I once did (“The Quality of Mercy is not Strain’d”). On the other hand, in the US the chances are they are Christian, which means that the death penalty is really about Matthew chapter 5, verse vii: “Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy.” Translated to a juror, this means that if you do as the prosecutor wants and show no mercy, you get eternal damnation; if you do as I suggest and show mercy, you go to heaven. Your choice.

 

HIGHS, LOWS AND SOME WISE WORDS

Cliveypoo_opt-150x150Q: What has been your greatest achievement and your biggest failure or regret throughout your career?

A: Hard to say here. I have learned huge amounts from people I have represented, and also been able to hand back lives to a fair number of people who were being tormented by one government or another. That is cool, but I don’t think of it as an achievement, so much as a privilege.

On the other side of the ledger, notwithstanding losing six clients to the chamber (including Edward Earl Johnson – you can watch that miserable failure online.  My greatest failure by far is the fact that I advocated life without parole as an alternative to the death penalty in the 1980s at a time when life generally meant 7 to 10 years.  Jurors would vote death because they were afraid of parole and so I wrote a fairly influential article about how we should have “truth in sentencing” so that life meant life – purely to avoid the death penalty.

Taking the fact that there are now 206,000 people serving LWOP in the US, and that they each serve at least 25 extra years each, I recently calculated that my bright idea had caused perhaps a total of 1,954 MILLION days of additional prison misery for people.

I don’t beat myself up about this too much. I think it was an astoundingly stupid thing to advocate, but the best I can do is never to allow another of my clients to suffer LWOP.

 

Q: Do you have any unfulfilled burning ambitions left?

A: I am not sure I have any “ambitions” – that is an odd word.  I do have lots and lots of things I want to do. And they change every day as there are fascinating things all around. I just wish there were 72 hours in the day.

 

Q: What advice do you have for any students embarking on a career in human rights?

A: I am afraid I have a full lecture (rant!) on this, and we will have to share it sometime. But in a word, never accept the foolish rules society (and your teachers!) foist upon you.  Do not ask yourself, for one thing, how you can ‘get’ a job – rather, think how you can create the job you want to do.  I have never had a real job in my life and I do not plan to have one. Instead, I have always created the job I want, and raised the money to fund it.  When you think how much time you waste on other things like Latin and Maths (I have never found a Roman to talk to, and while I did Further Maths A level it has no relevance to my life), it is astounding that we spend so little time working on creating a job we’d like to do.

 

 

 

Spotlight on Clive Stafford Smith OBE

Part 1 of 2

Each month, the HRC Blog features a significant figure from the Human Rights community to go under the Spotlight, answering questions put by students from the University of Essex.  This month, we feature Clive Stafford Smith OBE.  This is part 1 of 2.

 

About Clive

Clive Stafford SMithClive Stafford Smith is the founder of ‘Reprieve’ and a well known human rights lawyer.  He has spent his career fighting against the death penalty in America, only taking cases of those who could not afford a lawyer, assisting in the representation over 400 prisoners and preventing their execution in 98% of cases.  Clive is also known for his work in representing detainees at Guantanamo Bay, successfully suing the US government to gain access to the facility, and helping to secure the release of some 80 detainees to date, with seven clients still there.  In addition to visiting and representing the detainees, Clive tracked down the families of ‘disappeared’ prisoners across the Middle East, prompting some unwelcome ‘interest’ from US allies, including the Jordanian Secret Police, who detained him in 2004.  In 2000, Clive was awarded an OBE for ‘humanitarian services’ and has won a raft of awards in the field of human rights.

 

Students’ Questions Answered

Clive was gracious enough to allow the students at Essex an opportunity to send him  some questions about his experiences and ongoing work in the field of human rights.  Clive answered questions on a range of topics.  This first part focuses on the Death Penalty and the impact of COVID 19

DEATH PENALTY

HangingQ: Due to the racial bias in its administration, historic links have been made comparing the death penalty in the US to lynching methods previously used in the South. From your experience working on capital punishment within the US criminal justice system, in what ways would you agree that the death penalty is a “direct descendant of lynching”, and in what ways would they differ?

A: First, it must be said that the US has a direct form of lynching today, which is the assassination programme, a simple case of “execution without trial” (which is what lynching was). The archetype of this is the case we have pending of Bilal Abdul Kareem, an African American comedian-turned-war-correspondent who is in Syria, and who the US has tried to killed five times to date. So there is more than one form of US death sentence.

But in terms of the death penalty as it is more commonly conceived, it is only a system of societal control, the same as lynching. The underpinnings of lynching involve a racism that seeks to play poor white people (the KKK and their ilk) against (primarily) poor black people to prevent them seeking common cause – a demand for equality.  Likewise, it is ludicrous to think that the death penalty solves anything.  Instead, it is a way to pretend that we are solving the manifest problems in society (crime, which is mainly rooted in poverty, the proliferation of guns, drugs, and a lack of healthcare) by blaming a small number of disproportionately black ‘criminals’ and executing them.  Of course, this does nothing to solve the problems.

At the same time as with lynching, where the ‘victim’ was generally a white woman (who might only have been the object of a cat-whistle, but might have been raped by someone), we use the death penalty to value people differently.  As Justice Brennan wrote in his dissent in the McCleskey case:

At some point in this case, Warren McCleskey doubtless asked his lawyer whether a jury was likely to sentence him to die. A candid reply to this question would have been disturbing. First, counsel would have to tell McCleskey that few of the details of the crime or of McCleskey’s past criminal conduct were more important than the fact that his victim was white. Petitioner’s Supplemental Exhibits (Supp. Exh.) 50. Furthermore, counsel would feel bound to tell McCleskey that defendants charged with killing white victims in Georgia are 4.3 times as likely to be sentenced to death as defendants charged with killing blacks. Petitioner’s Exhibit DB 82. In addition, frankness would compel the disclosure that it was more likely than not that the race of McCleskey’s victim would determine whether he received a death sentence: 6 of every 11 defendants convicted of killing a white person would not have received the death penalty if their victims had been black, Supp. Exh. 51, while, among defendants with aggravating and mitigating factors comparable to McCleskey’s, 20 of every 34 would not have been sentenced to die if their victims had been black. Id., at 54.  Finally, the assessment would not be complete without the information that cases involving black defendants and white victims are more likely to result in a death sentence than cases featuring any other racial combination of defendant and victim.  Ibid. The story could be told in a variety of ways, but McCleskey could not fail to grasp its essential narrative line: there was a significant chance that race would play a prominent role in determining if he lived or died.

I was privileged to represent Warren in his last appeal, and it is indubitably true that he died because the US could not face the fact that he was being killed due to the colour of his skin.

 

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Q: Your decades’ long work seeking to counter the death penalty in the US will have exposed you to the depth and extent of racism in the United States. How do you think the human rights community can contribute to the struggle to denounce and overcome racism in the US?

A: First, British people should take a look in the mirror.  At least the US talks about racism and tries to confront it.  The British don’t, and the comments I have heard from British people in the past BLM-weeks have been sad. “I believe all life matters,” is a refrain you would never hear in the US, any more than you would go to the funeral of someone’s child and hear someone say, “I believe the life of my own child matters too.”

Also, the British legal system is rife with racism yet nobody talks about it.  At current rates, it would take 100 years for there to be proportional BAME parity among QCs and judges (and 50 years for women).  Almost three quarters (74%) of judges went to private schools.

That said there are real problems in the US, a country that was built on slavery (much as the wealth of Britain was made, in large part, on the same dreadful practice).  Yet at least in the US we have the tools to combat it.  We can question jurors about racism (Turner v. Murray) – there is no questioning at all in the UK.  We can challenge racism in all the stages of the legal process (Rose v. Mitchell, McCleskey v. Kemp) – it is unheard of in the UK. We can challenge the racial decision making by jurors (Tharpe v. Sellers) – it is a crime to speak to jurors about their service in the UK. And so forth.

But the real issue is that we need people who are making the effort. That means you.

 

Q: What kind of practical obstacles have you faced in your journey of bringing justice to those facing the death penalty?

A: There are many. Some of the rules of the US Supreme Court are just fatuous for their failure to take into account reality.

 

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Marita and Kris Maharaj

When I started doing capital trials, I had just graduated Columbia Law School, and most of my colleagues had gone to firms on Wall Street where they were paid $1,000 an hour to waste their lives representing corporations over money. We were paid $1,000 for an entire capital case.  And when the clients were on death row, they were meant to represent themselves – they could only have lawyers if they had volunteers…

 

 

And then there is the issue of innocence – the US Supreme Court has held that “mere” innocence is not enough to release someone from death row (Herrera v. Collins).  This is why Kris Maharaj – my British client sentenced to death 33 years ago, now 81 years old – remains in prison despite the magistrate judge finding that he is innocent by “clear and convincing evidence” last September 13th – nine months ago.

But there are many other reasons.  One is the standard of proof.  While people say they must find a person guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt”, my not very scientific studies suggest that judges think this means around 83% sure – which we may translate as saying they are aiming to convict one innocent person in every six cases, or one million of the 6 million Americans who are in prison or facing it. (As Robin Hood reminds us, if you aim that low, you always miss.)

Sad to say, similar problems permeate the British system too.

 

Q: How does the approach to working on behalf of detainees in certain black sites/ secret prisons differ from cases of prisoners facing the death penalty and is one more challenging than the other?

A: Part of the problem with black sites is that you cannot get to your client, there is no rule of law, and they have no legal rights.  So that is much more challenging.  But at the same time, we have got 740 of the 780 people out of Guantánamo largely through publicity, as generally public opinion favours those being held without trial more than it favours those being held on death row after an unfair trial.

 

 

COVID 19

Coronavirus_greenQ: How has the COVID19 pandemic, considering government responses to the outbreak in particular, impacted upon detention centres like Guantánamo Bay and US death row prisons?

A: Prisons are, in the words of the Washington Post, “petri dishes of the virus.”  My clients cannot “social distance” from anyone.  The best example is Kris Maharaj: 81 years old, held now in a dormitory with 45 other old men, locked in their in “quarantine” now they have had 4 men test positive, which means you are locking him in with the virus, in beds that are 3 feet apart, 24/7.  We got him off formal death row in 2002, but now the State of Florida is intent on executing him by Covid 19, before we can get him out of prison.

 

Q: Do you think lockdown measures have caused attitudes to change towards detention or have helped to raise awareness about the conditions experienced by detainees?

A: No. I think people think they have had it like prison which is nonsense.

 

Q: How has Reprieve’s work been impacted by the COVID19 pandemic?

A: I can really only speak for myself. It is busier than ever and actually I have generally found I waste lots of time travelling when I can get much more done by staying home. The only thing I really miss is being able to go to Guantánamo and see the clients in person, but at least I can talk to them regularly on the phone.

 

Part 2 of our Spotlight with Clive Stafford Smith OBE will cover the topics of counter-terrorism, The US Criminal Justice system and the ‘de-mystification’ of the curriculum.

 

 

Spotlight on Sami Al Haj

By Pauline Canham

Each month, the HRC Blog will feature a significant figure, or team from the Human Rights community to go under the Spotlight, answering questions put by students from Essex University.  This month, we feature Sami Al Haj.

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Image courtesy of Al Jazeera Media Network

About Sami

Sami Al Haj is the Director of the Centre for Public Liberties & Human Rights at the Al Jazeera Media Network (AJMN) in Doha, Qatar.  He was born in Sudan and started working for Al Jazeera as a cameraman in 2001.  Shortly after the events of 9/11, he was sent to cover the US invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, an assignment that would change his life forever.  After two months, while crossing from Kandahar across the border into Pakistan, Sami was arrested and detained by Pakistani Intelligence on 15th December 2001 and subsequently handed over to the Americans.  Nothing could have prepared Sami for the horrors that were to come and the course that his life would take as a result.  After some time at the infamous Bagram detention facility, where he experienced harsh and humiliating treatment, he was transferred to a facility in Kandahar and then on to Guantanamo Bay, where he remained as Prisoner 345 for 6 years, without charge.

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While there, according to Sami’s lawyer and founder of Reprieve, Clive Stafford Smith, “Sami endured horrendous cruelty – sexual abuse and religious persecution”. He was beaten, deprived of sleep and force-fed after going on hunger strike.

On 1st May 2008, Sami was released without charge.  He said that he was glad to be free but sad that his ‘brothers’ remained in the hands of “people that claim to be champions of peace and protectors of rights and freedoms.  But a true just peace doesn’t come from military force or threats to use…bombs or economic sanctions.  Justice comes from lifting oppression and guaranteeing rights and freedoms and respecting the will of the people…”

Shortly after his release, and his long awaited reunion with his wife and son, Sami returned to Al Jazeera, where he created a new team dedicated to the field of human rights and civil liberties.

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Students’ Questions Answered

Sami_al_haj_smSami was gracious enough to allow the students at Essex an opportunity to send him and his team some questions about his experiences and ongoing work in the field of human rights:

 

Q: It is almost 20 years since 9/11 – What are the biggest changes faced by journalists and humanitarian aid workers operating on the ground in war zones, and have the policies of the war on terror had a ‘chilling effect’ on journalists’ ability to hold truth to power?

A: Regrettably,  journalists are now facing a far worse reality with regard to field coverage. Authorities, militias, and armed groups all endeavour to suppress the voice of truth.   Counter- terrorism policies went to the extent to limit the range of ethical journalism and criminalize journalists.  Press freedom has been compromised all over the world.

 

Q: To what extent do you believe that the CIA Enhance Interrogation Program at Abu Ghraib and other so called ‘black sites’ emboldened repressive regimes in their own torture practices?

A: Tyrants and dictators felt at ease seeing the free world legitimizing water-boarding and torture, we can see that in the Middle East and elsewhere.

 

Q: After your experiences at Guantanamo, do you believe in the universality of human rights both as a concept and in practice?

A: Indeed. My personal experience has provided me with a more humane universal vision and understanding.   I believe human rights should be granted to all individuals regardless of their race, religion or nationality.   Human Rights mechanisms and intentions are good.   However, unfortunately, in practice, things are quite different.

 

Q: Were you told why you were being detained in Guantanamo?   And what gave you the strength to endure your detention?

A: My guards told me that I was being brought to Guantanamo and I would never leave alive.   No information was given except that YOU ARE GUILTY, YOU ARE A TERRORIST!!   I endured due to my strong belief in Allah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful.  Throughout my tormenting experience, I believed that I would go out and support my family.

 

Q: To what extent do we see a repetition of the policies of exceptionalism that we saw immediately after 9/11 playing out now in Syria, and how can we ensure a fair judicial process to those accused of involvement with ISIL?

A: Unfortunately, all Middle Eastern regimes  do not believe in an independent judiciary system, and the British and Americans do not want the defendants to stand trial in London nor in Washington DC.

 

Q: How can journalists, humanitarian workers and human rights practitioners maintain their safety in hostile environments?

A: They should adhere to safety guidelines, and subject themselves to strict professional training.   At our Centre at Al Jazeera, for example, we have a Safety Section, and we provide journalists in the Middle East and elsewhere with workshops on the necessity of safety.

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Q: Can you tell us more about your team and objectives at Al Jazeera?

A: The Public Liberties and Human Rights Centre first started as a specialised desk within the Al Jazeera Arabic newsroom in 2008 and expanded to become a Centre in 2015.  The Centre now has a team of 14, all based at Al Jazeera’s headquarters in Doha, spread between the Arabic and English newsrooms and online, writing articles and doing research.  Our aim is to ensure human rights content across all AJMN platforms, to raise awareness and competence of international humanitarian law with journalists in the field,  and inform the public about human rights issues and legislation.  In addition, we endeavour to build and develop strategic partnerships with international, regional and local organisations to identify human rights violations and contribute to the promotion of freedom of expression and the press.

 

Q: How does Human Rights fit with Al Jazeera’s core business?

A: Human Rights issues are no longer fleeting news, but at the core of what the Al Jazeera Media Network does.  Al Jazeera’s interest in human rights has clearly emerged as a key element during analysis and discussion both in general and more particularly in the area of press freedom and the detention of journalists.

 

Q: What achievements you are most proud of in the work that you have done over the last 12 years?

A: I believe, over the last 12 years, we have done very well with regard to spreading the culture of human rights in the Middle East and North Africa.  We are now an effective partner of UNESCO, specifically with respect to Press Freedom and we work closely with the International Press Institution.   Our editorial section has contributed over 5,000 pieces and 6 full length documentaries and our partnership section has held more than 60 workshops with international experts from the UN and other global institutions benefitting over 1000 journalists from Al Jazeera and other media organisations.  We are also very proud of our Global Solidarity Initiatives, working in partnership with other media organisations in the areas of press freedom, anti-hate speech, protection of journalists and humanitarian workers, safeguarding displaced persons, rights of prisoners and detainees, and consolidation of transitional justice and the rule of law.

 

Q: What do you see as the biggest challenges and the top 3 priorities for human rights advocates around the world?

A: The biggest challenge right now is the rise of the far right all over the globe.  The top 3 priorities are Right to Religion, Right to Health and Press Freedom.

 

Q: What one piece of advice would you give to a human rights student just starting out on their career?

A: Never compromise.

 

My thanks to Sami and his team for engaging so generously with the questions from our students.  The HRC Blog Editorial team will be publishing further Spotlights in the coming weeks and months and welcome suggestions from students, staff and alumni for subjects they’d like to see featured.