Rights Wire

The Human Rights Blog of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice

Leave a comment

Reflecting on Japan’s pacifism and the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombings

By Carolina van der Mensbrugghe

On Sept. 17, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s controversial security bill passed, marking the biggest shift in Japan’s defense policy in half a century, despite months of protest nationwide. These protests have distressed many within the country who are despondent at the divisive polarization of opinions on whether Japan should be able to intervene militarily overseas to aid allies. Mass scale protests themselves are generally uncharacteristic for Japan, however, this issue has inspired aggressive opposition for the security bill within parliament itself. Scenes from the night of the vote were broadcast on national television, including opposition politicians piled on top of the committee chairman, wrestling away his microphone to prevent the voting process. Meanwhile, lawmakers from Prime Minister Abe’s party pulled them away and formed a physical barricade around the podium.

The debate surrounding the constitutionality of affording Japan’s defense forces a larger role overseas continues to obscure the larger underlying question: how will this symbolic shift play out practically? Japan’s self defense force has already been recognized as one of the strongest military forces in the world, with technologically advance air, sea and land capabilities. The extent to which Japan will change practically has yet to be seen, but the public response to the bills’ passing alone has been substantial.

The passage of the security bill effectively reinterprets Article 9 of Japan’s constitution, a pacifist provision stating that Japan “forever renounce[s] war as a sovereign right of the nation.” At the very least, it represents a symbolic shift towards a more hawkish Japan. Domestic opinions on this bill are often polarized, including some people favoring Japan becoming a “normal nation,” while others fear that this change will enable Japan to help the United State wage “an illegal war” in the Middle East.

Much of my work towards the end of this summer focused on speaking with individuals, in both Nagasaki and Tokyo, about their reaction to these historic changes during the 70th anniversary memorial ceremony for the atomic bombing and end of the Pacific War. Japan’s defense policy is inextricably linked to collective war memory, which has added fuel to public polarization on the topic and entrenched the media in a partisan framework.

Both Nagasaki and Tokyo’s memorial ceremonies are rooted in commemorating the past, and both used the same history to advocate for or against increased defense forces, ultimately cautioning against repeating the mistakes of the past. Whereas Nagasaki’s pacifist message for peace has usually focused on the abolition of nuclear weapons in order to ensure a peaceful future, this year marked a shift towards eliminating all forms of war, including even the potential for war. Prior to the security bill controversy, much of the protests in Tokyo focused on decommissioning Japan’s nuclear power plants and speaking out against the human rights problems in Fukushima, following the historic Great East Japan Earthquake in March of 2011. Tokyo’s memorial ceremony was not known for massive protest turnouts, but the introduction of the security bill set the stage for pacifists and hawkish nationalists to have something to rally around or against.

Some American press omitted exploring the relevance of these important memorials in contemporary politics. The New York Times described Hiroshima’s ceremony in detail, briefly touching on the city’s skepticism towards the authenticity of Prime Minister Abe’s declaration for peace. Conversely, for Nagasaki’s memorial, the Times opted to leave out any discussion of the ceremony altogether in favor of reopening the tired debate of whether it was right or not to have used the atomic bomb.

To address the deficit in content covering the nationwide protests, I’ve included below two videos that capture the concern and energy of the protests on both sides of the debate in two cities that represent its extremes, Nagasaki and Tokyo. Although the security bill has passed, the diversity in emotional response has not, and thus, a reflection on public reaction remains relevant. I intentionally left both clips as raw as possible to invite reflection, not political imposition, on viewers to experience viscerally the unfolding historic political protests within Japanese society. What is lacking in domestic debate and discussion is a safe space and public forum for compromise and discussion between both sides. Many historians and political theorists have debated the pros and cons of Japan’s militarization, as well as the relevant implications. In order for Japan to move forward in a rights-respecting way, all of these considerations should be publicly aired.

Nagasaki City, Japan (August 2-9, 2015)

Compared to five years ago, Nagasaki City’s peace events felt different. The city’s rhetoric and messages during the official peace ceremony subtly shifted away from nuclear weapons and towards war as the primary anathema. The city’s Peace Park, always decorated in symbolic crane offerings for peace, included illustrations and posters villainizing the security bill. Many communities from around Japan, including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s hometown, travelled to the city to distribute flyers in protest of the security bill and in solidarity with Nagasaki, one of two cities martyred in collective Pacifist memory as a symbol for eternal peace.

The city also seemed less concerned with international response. Whereas five years ago, I was chased down by Japanese journalists for interviews on my thoughts on the lack of American diplomatic presence at the peace ceremony, this year, the media and public shifted focus towards domestic targets and, arguably, persona non grata, Prime Minister Abe.

Nagasaki City Hall commemorated the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombing by inviting hundreds of international boy and girl scouts from over ninety countries to an International Youth Peace Conference. At the conference, a boy scout from Okinawa, a city rife with controversy over the American military presence, asked the keynote speaker, an atomic bomb survivor, what his views were on the security bill. This was not the typical nuclear weapons-related fare. His response was that only two good things that came out of the war: (1) he appreciated his family infinitely more, and (2) Japan adopted Article 9 of the Constitution as a commitment to never wage war again. In addition to participation at the conference, British, French, and even Iraqi global citizens roamed the peace park and city in observance of this special anniversary and its significance in a greater collective wish for peace.

The Peace Ceremony itself was split along partisan lines, and the audience was not afraid to chime with applause and verbal attacks depending on the speaker. Despite the unbearable heat, seating was filled to maximum capacity one hour prior to the opening remarks. Prime Minister Abe remained silent on general security matters, but restated Japan’s commitment to uphold the “Three Non-Nuclear Principles,” and to continue to provide support for aging atomic bomb survivors through the 20-year-old Atomic Bomb Survivors Relief Law. An angry voice in the audience yelled out during the Prime Minister’s speech, but was overpowered by the consistent wave of cicadas chiming before he was pulled away by security. When Sumiteru Taniguchi spoke on behalf of Nagasaki’s atomic bomb survivors, he described the security bill as “a return to wartime era” and that it “will lead to war.” He further described it as “an attempt to overturn the nuclear abolition activities and wishes held and carried out by the hibakusha and those multitudes of people who desire peace,” which drew a round of applause. Nagasaki Mayor Tomihisa Taue directed his speech towards the Prime Minister and Diet, urging them to listen to the voices of unease and concern regarding the destruction of the pacifist ideology “engraved in our hearts 70 years ago.” More applause from the crowd ensued, changing the tone of the ceremony from memorial to impassioned debate forum.

Tokyo, Chiyoda Ward, Japan (August 15, 2015)

Every year on Aug. 15, the anniversary of the end of the Pacific War, the Japanese Emperor and Prime Minister deliver memorial speeches from central Tokyo (Chiyoda Ward) to the nation, amongst invitation-only members of government and surviving family of wartime victims. Near Nihon Budokkan, the indoor arena typically used for this official speech, is the controversial Yasukini Shrine, which has been internationally and “indelibly associated with unrepentant historical revisionism, and a resurgent ethnic nationalism,” according to Christopher Pokarier, a professor of business and governance at Waseda University in Tokyo. In plain terms, it is a shrine to commemorate soldiers and other military officials fallen in war. It is central to the way many honor those who have passed in service, sometimes family, during the Pacific War. Pokarier, writing for Australia’s The Independent, notes that “right-wing groups, militaria aficionados and very many ‘ordinary’ Japanese, visit the shrine. Their motives are as diverse as their social identities, and belie simple generalizations about the meaning of Yasukuni.”

While this memorial has always been normatively divisive, this year, people in favor or against a militarily stronger Japan were faced with contemplating how society may soon be affected. One woman expressed support for the security bill on paper, but was concerned about its execution, specifically the potential for future political abuse, which could result in the unnecessary deaths of many Japanese citizens.

While it is typical to see a diverse crowd of nationalists, military-garbed hawks, ordinary citizens and fringe minority groups around Chiyoda during the commemoration ceremony, the main drag turned into ground zero for marches in support of the security bill by late afternoon this past year. Once more, the heated debate was taken to the streets, literally, as thousands of citizens marched with Japanese flags shouting “頑張ろう日本” or “Try your best/you can do it Japan.” Some citizens stood on street corners with microphones imploring passersby to “get worried” and “to think of the children because China is coming.”As I found myself on the corner of the main intersection, I filmed and watched for about two hours as thousands of people passed by, repeating these messages as others applauded.

Eventually, at least fifty police, in full body armor and helmets, blocked off the street, set up barricades right in front of where I was standing and proceeded to stop traffic by driving their squad buses into the center of the street. While at first it was unclear to me who needed protecting, the group around me suddenly turned sour and began angrily yelling at a group marching through the center of the street. It turned out to be pacifists making their way through the area, sharing their own views on the security bill.

Carolina van der Mensbrugghe was a 2015 Leitner Center Summer Fellow. She conducted an independent project documenting the stories of atomic bomb survivors in Nagasaki, Japan with help from the Nagasaki Foundation for the Promotion of Peace and Nagasaki City Hall.

The views expressed in this post remain those of the individual author and are not reflective of the official position of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice, Fordham Law School, Fordham University or any other organization.

Video and Photo credits: Carolina van der Mensbrugghe

Leave a comment

Rethinking “the conflict” in Israel/Palestine: only occupation

By Chris Beall

Five years ago, as an undergraduate student studying abroad at the American University of Beirut, I enrolled in a political science course entitled “the Arab-Israeli Conflict.” While this course was my first real engagement with this topic, exploring the issue through the lens of political science came with inherent limitations. All of the century-long tragedies, misunderstandings and bloodshed that comprise “the Arab-Israeli Conflict” were presented in a sort of constantly stale, circumscribed air of game theory and shuttle diplomacy. Barely missed peace breakthroughs were reduced to equations of narrowly expended political capital. Even the real ugly stuff—Sabra and Shatila, for example—took the form of almost inevitable strategic miscalculations and overplayed hands.

Whatever was gained in terms of a basic understanding of “the Arab-Israeli Conflict,” I always felt there was something else missing. Five years later, having just returned from the region, I find this same absence in the way people are talking about Israel/Palestine. Across the entire discourse, “the Conflict” seems to always exist in a sort of phantom academic space, lacking depth or perspective. All the statistics, the body counts, the metrics of daily oppression happen in news columns, human rights reports and policy documents. They happen on paper. That’s it. Khalas.

Paper is important, no doubt. But for anybody even casually engaged with this subject matter, it is often too easy to lose sight of any underlying reference point here, to the extent that “the Conflict” begins to exist only textually, numerically, cartographically, perhaps photographically or in breaking news video feeds. Our thinking of “the Conflict,” and subsequently the solutions we form, no longer correspond to reality. Worse, we pass on and inherit this artificial discourse: we still talk about Israel/Palestine as if it were 1967, as if the State of Israel were still a tiny fledging newcomer in the international community, as if Arab nationalism were still a thing in the region, as if the world were still divvied up in a globe-spanning Cold War. The facts accumulate, the data snowballs, but the narratives framing “the Conflict” remain totally unchanged. The world keeps talking, without ever stopping to think what, exactly, we are talking about.


This past summer, as a Leitner Summer Fellow and Legal Fellow with Palestine Works, I interned with the Al-Mustakbal Foundation for Strategic and Policy Studies (AMF) in Ramallah, the de facto capital of the West Bank. AMF is a legal think tank that seeks to pave the way for private sector initiatives to help facilitate peace and justice for Palestinians. My role at AMF was to explore the ways that decades of past fact-finding efforts may be used to design future Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation systems. But during my time in Occupied Palestine, all the nuances and complexities that I’d been taught about the issue became irrelevant, and faded from my understanding of the conflict, to the point that it seems futile to even be talking about some “Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,” even less so, some laughable notion of an “Arab-Israeli Conflict.” The academic construct we know and study—to say nothing of the even more problematic public discourse—simply does not exist. In its place, I’ve been left with something more raw and elemental, more upfront and visceral: basic occupation, through and through.

You see it in the two-hour waits at Qalandia Checkpoint, where thousands of Palestinians (those fortunate enough to have Jerusalem residence status, or those granted rare mobility permits) cross daily from the Occupied West Bank into equally Occupied East Jerusalem. In the way that parents hold their kids up on their shoulders to keep them from being crushed by the swell of humans pushing forward to enter three long and narrow shoulder-width hallway cages, moving like single-file automatons in an industrialized slaughterhouse, all metal and turnstiles and razor wire.

You see it in the streets of Hebron, deep in the West Bank, where the Arabs going about life in their streets erect nets above their shops, to catch the trash that illegal (as ruled by the International Court of Justice and a U.N. panel) Jewish settlers living in the stolen houses above nonchalantly toss out their windows. The same nets that don’t stop the urine or human excrement intentionally splashed onto the Arab streets below. These streets being the new Arab commercial center, after their last ones were deemed Jewish-only and thus inaccessible. In the way the kids get their backpacks checked at the road barricade, every day, to and from school.

You see it in what passes for justice at the Ofer Military Courts (when, for whatever reason, you’re surprisingly granted access to these military detention hearings). In the teenage Palestinian defendant who was shot three times in the leg by Israeli forces as he walked home one night, on account of sparking his lighter. He claims to have been lighting a cigarette, which the IDF presumed to be a molotov cocktail. After a preliminary investigation that produced no evidence at the scene of his shooting, the prosecutor produces a report filed hours after the incident, detailing a molotov cocktail obtained 30 meters away and conveniently destroyed onsite and hence irreproducible before the court. The kid lands an additional 18 month sentence: just long enough to complicate what remains of his high school education, as if the original bullet wounds weren’t enough.

You see it simply in talking to people, in the cafes playing backgammon or in bars drinking beer—Muslim, Christian, atheist, no matter. Your list of quotes grows, a theatre-of-horrors of aphorisms: “I just want to know what the sea feels like” (on life-long movement restrictions); or “Our government cares more about trees than people” (on the demolition of Israeli-Bedouin homes to make room for the expanding Yatir National Forest); or “When God hates a man, he makes him Palestinian” (self-explanatory).

Somehow, the daily realities that I so briefly experienced in my short 11 weeks across the West Bank and Israel get diluted and muddled out in a discourse about land swaps, statistics, political boundaries, negotiating priorities and domestic approval rates. The fallacy of allowing these sorts of issues to stand in for the entirety of “the Conflict” obstruct and deny the vast majority of circumstances that actually comprise what we’re talking about. In reality, what the world treats as a political game actually carries important and tangible human consequences, which should not be ignored.


None of this is to say that statistics, fact finding, or policy formulation don’t have role to play in all this. Rather, my concern is merely how these tools are employed. Currently, the work being done in the territories remains paralyzed by a stubborn determination to achieve an unrealistic political end goal, which in turn offsets the prospect of peace.

For example, I know from my work that Israel’s separation wall appropriates 9.5 percent of the West Bank’s land area. I know that Israeli military courts in the West Bank have 99.7 percent conviction rates for whatever unfortunate creatures get rounded before them. I know that 85.2 percent of the fertile and mineral-rich Jordan Valley has been declared off-limits to Palestinians. That Israel and its settlers have diverted over 80 percent of available water from West Bank aquifers. These kinds of statistics and figures are everywhere, and I know all of this because it has been researched and documented through the hard labors of lawyers and researchers and human rights advocates, who are not paid nearly enough for the important work that they do. These sorts of numbers add color to what we think of “the Conflict.” They show us what it looks like, what we are dealing with, what kind of stakes we are talking about. But in the absence of a discourse that recognizes the human costs of these findings, the question remains: what are we actually talking about?

The term “facts on the ground” originated in the parlance of Israeli settlers, who in anticipation of Israel being forced into political concessions took it upon themselves to incrementally alter the foundational makeup of Israel/Palestine. Crudely, if you build enough rich and lush illegal Israeli settlements encircling Palestinian East Jerusalem, then the very idea of a Palestinian East Jerusalem becomes starkly unworkable from the standpoint of some final status agreement. And these guys were successful. Since the Oslo Accords, the number of illegal settlers living in the West Bank has more than doubled, from 262,500 to at least 520,000 today. Yet, while these facts on the ground have surely frustrated the peace process, I believe that they have done absolutely nothing to change our discourse about the “Conflict” or what we believe the end goal of talks should be. We envision a solution in the form of two sides willingly coming to the negotiating table, because we envision “the Conflict” as two sides locked in a century of zero-sum politicking and combat.

But such a conception of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict is a false one. In my time over there, I never once encountered any semblance of it. It’s still by all means a military occupation, and of course there are frictions involved. But while the constantly disproportionate and asymmetrical episodes of violence are always tragic—for all parties involved—they are completely predictable products of a wholly willful and unnecessary occupation: one which implies not some adversarial struggle to be hashed out and negotiated, but rather a systematic assemblage of cruelty, in which, recent flare ups included, the daily and relentless oppression flows almost entirely one way.


This was my experience as a Leitner Summer Fellow working from Occupied Palestine: a bizarre package of disillusionment and hope bundled all into one. Until we shift our focus from solving “the Conflict” to blatantly and concretely calling for an end to the occupation, the hard work of our researchers and human rights fact-finders will remain dormant. For now, we’ve acquired a whole vocabulary and lexicon in a language that we do not yet speak. But when the discourse changes, I believe we’ll suddenly find ourselves fluent in a language that promises both action and tangible change. At which point, we’ll ironically unlock the true and horrific impact of the “facts on the ground” on the people of Palestine. I’ve no doubt that lawyers and human rights advocates will play some role in this process, but returning from my summer in Occupied Palestine, more than anything else, I’m left with the realization that this “Conflict” expired a long time ago, and that it’s time for our discussions to follow suit. Whatever we do, the survival of Palestine can no longer hinge on some idealized, long-awaited political solution to all of this. It’s time, instead, for a fresh discourse: the type that’s lessons cannot be learned from a political science course, but instead seeks both guidance and legitimacy in its struggle toward upholding basic and universal human rights.

Chris Beall was a 2015 Leitner Center Summer Fellow. He interned last summer with the Al-Mustakbal Foundation for Strategic and Policy Studies through Palestine Works in the West Bank.

The views expressed in this post remain those of the individual author and are not reflective of the official position of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice, Fordham Law School, Fordham University or any other organization.

Photo courtesy of Chris Beall.

Leave a comment

La linea, #justiciaya and new challenges to corruption in Guatemala

By Hannah Jane Ahern

The political landscape in Guatemala, which signed internal peace accords less than two decades ago between the government and the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity party, an umbrella of leftist guerilla groups that is now a political party, has shifted dramatically in the past six months. Following the exposure of a major customs tax fraud scheme implicating officials at the highest levels of government, an unprecedented grassroots social movement, which grew out of social media activism, has taken shape to demand justice and end corruption in Guatemala.


The past 500 years in Guatemala, a country of roughly 15 million people, have been marked by colonial rule, military dictatorships, and a 36-year long bloody internal conflict between the Guatemalan government and leftist guerrilla groups. That conflict lasted from 1960 to 1996, and it resulted in the genocide of indigenous Mayan people who the government claimed were guerrilla sympathizers. Roughly 200,000 Guatemalans, the vast majority of whom were indigenous Mayans, were murdered or disappeared at the hands of the military, police, paramilitary and intelligence forces, according to the Commission for Historical Clarification, the United Nations-supported truth commission established after the conflict.

The Commission determined that 93 percent of the human rights abuses that took place during the conflict were perpetrated by the government. These abuses included rape, torture, forced disappearances, and arbitrary executions. Stunningly, not a single government official or member of Guatemalan security forces was brought to justice in Guatemala until 2009, when an ex-military commissioner was convicted of forcibly disappearing Guatemalan citizens during the genocide. Guatemala has been found responsible in human rights violations in numerous cases by both the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, but they have yet to comply with all of the measures ordered by the Court in 19 of those cases.

In 2013, Efraín Ríos Montt, the de facto dictator of Guatemala from 1982-1983 who was directly responsible for at least one massacre of over a thousand indigenous Ixel people, was found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity and sentenced to 80 years in prison. Former President Otto Pérez Molina has also been accused of involvement in the Ixel massacre, and possible other acts related to the genocide, while he was in the army and stationed in that region. Ríos Montt’s sentence was annulled on a legal technicality shortly after it was issued; since then he has tried to avoid retrial by claiming that he suffers from dementia. Although the judgment was overturned, his conviction reopened public debate around the need for justice in a country where impunity has long been the norm. The hashtag #SiHuboGenocidio (“Yes there was genocide”) has remained constant on social media since 2013, and the case continues to be in the news.


La Comisión Internacional Contra La Impunidad en Guatemala (“The International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala”), known as CICIG, began investigating corruption in Guatemala in 2007. Last year CICIG and the Guatemalan prosecutor’s office discovered an extensive customs fraud scheme, now known as La Linea. Government officials were accepting bribes in exchange for non-payment of import taxes by certain companies, so that money designated for schools and hospitals ended up lining their pockets instead. In April of this year investigations revealed that then-Vice President Roxana Baldetti’s personal secretary was the ringleader of La Linea; soon after, evidence against Baldetti herself began to mount. No one knew it at the time, but La Linea and the social movement it catalyzed would lead to the unraveling of Pérez Molina’s presidency.

Having traveled and lived in Guatemala for a number of years, I have many personal ties to this small Central American country and consider it my second home. Historically, corruption has been so deeply entrenched in government that everyone I know has always taken it for granted. However, after Baldetti’s connection to La Linea was publicized last spring, something changed. I noticed a new slogan on social media: #JusticiaYa. (Justice Now.) That slogan was followed by a more specific demand, leveled at Baldetti but with a clear message for all corrupt officials: #RenunciaYa. (Resign Now.)

The first protest, organized over social media, took place on April 25. It caught everyone off guard when over 10,000 people mobilized to demand Baldetti’s resignation. Since April, there have been peaceful demonstrations nearly every week to demand that corrupt officials be brought to justice, and following the first wave of protests Baldetti was forced to resign in May. In August, she was arrested for her role in La Linea, and on Aug. 25 a judge ordered her to stand trial on charges of bribery, conspiracy and customs fraud. That same day, a court ruled that Ríos Montt would have to stand trial again, for genocide, although he will not be sentenced to prison because of his health. The #JusticiaYa movement began because of public outrage against La Linea, but its impact has gone far beyond the customs fraud scandal. The movement has sent a clear message that the Guatemalan people will no longer tolerate the impunity of the ruling class.


On August 27th my boyfriend, who is from Guatemala, and I participated in the demonstrations in Parque Central in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala’s second-largest city. Six days earlier, the prosecutor’s office announced that they had evidence implicating Pérez Molina as a leader of La Linea; in the wake of this news Guatemalans began repudiating his authority. In the days leading up to the protest, there was a new hashtag painted on signs and cars and posted on social media: #YoNoTengoPresidente. (I have no President.) We didn’t know it then, but the protest occurring simultaneously in Guatemala City that day would turn out to be the largest in Guatemalan history. It would become known simply as “#27A.”

When we arrived at the protest we wound our way through the sea of blue and white Guatemalan flags and found a cluster of family and friends standing together under the trees. We listened as student leaders enumerated the complaints and hopes of people across Guatemala. Local artists shared songs, raps and poems indicting Pérez Molina and the government for failing the Guatemalan people. We echoed chants demanding the President’s immediate resignation, even with the next presidential election only ten days away.

When I first heard about the protests last Spring, I (and many of my friends) remained skeptical about the potential to affect real change in a country that has historically been so divided and corrupt. I couldn’t comprehend the transformation that had occurred and the impact the #JusticiaYa movement had had in such a short time until I was standing there with the other protesters. What I found most inspiring was how the protests united Guatemalans from all regions, ages, backgrounds, and socioeconomic classes. As we stood in Parque Central that day among university students, local leaders, rural farmers, members of the urban middle class, Mayans, ladinos, young people, old people, and everyone in between, laughing, shouting, and singing, united peacefully in pursuit of a common goal, there was a feeling that the voice of the people was finally being heard.


In the days prior to and immediately following #27A, Pérez Molina did his best to cling to power. His public statements rejected calls for his resignation, denied involvement with La Linea, and attempted to minimize the magnitude of the movement taking place against him. In a way, though, it didn’t really matter what he said at that point: in most people’s minds he was already gone.

I left Guatemala the day after #27A feeling electrified, inspired and hopeful. On Sept. 1, Guatemalan Congress voted unanimously to strip Pérez Molina of his Presidential immunity, opening him up to prosecution. The next day—just four days before the first round of elections—a judge issued a detention order for him, and just before midnight, Pérez Molina tendered his resignation. Baldetti and Pérez Molina, once untouchable, were now both in jail, where they remain today awaiting trial.

On Sept. 6 Guatemalans went to the polls. In a surprising upset, the wealthy businessman considered to be the front-runner, Manuel Baldizon of the Lider Party, came in third place. Baldizon, the runner up in the 2011 elections, is known for his connections to narco-traffickers and for his illegal and corrupt campaign tactics. Among my friends in Guatemala, he is a symbol of everything that is wrong with Guatemala: how the ruling class profits off the desperation of the poor, and of how you can get away with anything, no matter how corrupt or illegal, if you have enough money. The message in the fact that Baldizon didn’t win (and that Jimmy Morales, a comedian with no prior government experience, came in first place) was clear. Jimmy Morales, who promised to tackle corruption in politics, went on to win the Presidential election by a landslide over the former first lady, Sandra Torres, on Oct. 25. This further echoes the message Guatemalans have been sending since the first protest in April: We will no longer tolerate corruption and impunity. We won’t be taken advantage of. And we will no longer be silent.


So many questions remain for Guatemalans about the future of Guatemala. Will Pérez Molina be found guilty, or will he escape justice on a technicality? Will the new president of Guatemala actually crack down on corruption? What effect will the new government’s policies have for the Guatemalan people? Will the vast majority of Guatemalans who live in poverty—75 percent of the population according to the World Bank—and without steady access to education, food, medical care or social services, see any real change in their quality of life any time soon?

In the realm of justice for rights abuses, even if he is found guilty again of genocide and crimes against humanity, Efraín Ríos Montt will never serve a day in prison in his lifetime. It is unclear who else will be brought to justice for acts of genocide committed by the government against its own people. Even if Pérez Molina goes to prison for his role in La Linea, will we ever know the full story of his connection to the massacres in the Ixil region while he was an officer in the army, and will he ever be held to account? Will the new government comply with the orders of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, to give some small amount of justice to victims of rights violations and ensure that those violations aren’t repeated? Moreover, will the international community continue to stand with Guatemalans as they demand justice and accountability, or will we go back to business as usual, and only put Guatemala on the map when there is gang violence or a natural disaster?

There is no question that Guatemala will face enormous challenges as it continues to grapple with the consequences of genocide, human rights abuses, political corruption, racism, poverty, weak infrastructure, structural inequalities and decades of devastating U.S. policies in the region. No one, least of all the Guatemalan people, has any illusion that inequities going back 500 years will somehow disappear, or that anything can remedy decades of violence, genocide and impunity. But one thing is certain: a momentous shift has taken place. Peoples’ fears of speaking out against their government, of standing up against injustice, and of joining forces with those who are different from them are gone.

When I returned to New York at the end of August, there were two new slogans on everyone’s lips. They continue to circulate everywhere on social media, and are forever etched in the digital history books in hashtag form: #GuatemalaDespertó. (Guatemala Awoke.) And: #EstoApenasEmpieza. (This is just beginning.)

Hannah Jane Ahern was a 2015 Leitner Center Summer Fellow. She interned at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, and spent part of her summer in Guatemala during the protests and change in government.

The views expressed in this post remain those of the individual author and are not reflective of the official position of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice, Fordham Law School, Fordham University or any other organization.

Photo courtesy of Hannah Jane Ahern.

Leave a comment

Russia’s undesirable organizations law: the next step in the assault on foreign aid and influence

By Thomas M. Callahan

Earlier this year, as the Russian parliament was discussing a draft law restricting the operations on Russian territory of so-called “undesirable organizations,” I speculated that the bill would probably not pass the legislature in my Note for the Fordham International Law Journal, which focused on legislative restraints to foreign influence in Russia. In a section on provisions under review in Parliament, I included a brief discussion of the bill to illustrate some of the kookier ideas being debated in the Russian legislature.

It passed, though, and was signed into law by Russian President Vladimir V. Putin just as my Note went to publication at the end of May. By the end of this summer, I had met and spoken with enough lawyers and other human rights workers in Moscow and across Russia to know that the law is having serious consequences: many reputable Russian human rights attorneys at a range of organizations, both international and domestic, told me that, essentially, the jig is up, and they’re on the market for private sector work. In recent weeks, I’ve started seeing more posts on Facebook than usual about fleeing the country.


Technically, the Law on Undesirable Organizations is doing exactly what it’s supposed to. But it didn’t come out of nowhere: in summer 2012, Russia had adopted the Law on Foreign Agents, a similar set of provisions dealing exclusively with domestic organizations. The Law on Foreign Agents, among other things, required some non-profits receiving operational funding from outside Russia – as human rights organizations there nearly universally do – to register with the federal government and advertise their status as “foreign agents.” In colloquial Russian, the term “foreign agent” is equivalent with “spy.” These groups are also subject to random audits that often function as raids on records and also equipment like computers.

The organizations that are required to register are those engaged in “political activity,” a term whose definition Russian courts have yet to categorically decide. But, generally, any project with an element of advocacy for policy change can constitute “political activity.” And if the advocacy is for a change to Russia’s policy on Crimea, it could constitute a “threat to the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation,” an extremist crime. Many small, politically inconsequential human rights groups, who are doing extremely brave and crucial work, are now listed as “foreign agents.” These groups must now disclose that they are a “foreign agent” on the front page of their website and any of their publications. The Law on Foreign Agents is a great facilitator of self censorship: the heads of multiple Russian human rights organizations have told me that they would prefer to fold their organization instead of paying the massive fines that come with continued operation of an unregistered “foreign agent” group, or the legal fees of appealing the determination. By February of 2015, numerous groups had chosen to shut down instead of continuing to operate with a “foreign agent” status. Furthermore, there is no due process in how organizations are identified or registered as “foreign agents.” The Ministry of Justice can add an organization to the register of “foreign agent” groups, technically, without having to actually notify the organization.

While the Law on Foreign Agents creates a more hostile environment for Russian human rights workers, it has very little practical impact, other than making Russian human rights workers a little more uncomfortable in an already inhospitable environment. More importantly, it does not cut off funding. This is where the Law on Undesirable Organizations comes in.


The Law on Undesirable Organizations is actually a set of amendments to various Russian laws, including Russia’s Criminal, Criminal Procedural, and Administrative Codes; the Law on Procedure for Exit from and Entry to the Russian Federation; and the Law on Measures Against Persons Involved in Violations of the Fundamental Human Rights and Freedoms of Citizens of the Russian Federation (usually called the Rights and Freedoms Law). .

The main feature of the Law is that it gives officials the power to deem certain non-Russian and international organizations “undesirable.” These organizations will then have their activities limited or banned in Russia, and their assets can be frozen. It was hotly discussed in the months leading up to its passage, primarily in Russia’s community of human rights workers, which I joined in 2010. The law establishes that the activities of non-Russian or international non-governmental organization that represent a “threat to the foundations of the constitutional order of the Russian Federation, the country’s defense, or the security of the State,” may be kicked out of the country.

Thus far, only the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), an American grant making organization working for “democracy promotion,” has been labeled as an undesirable organization. Since NED’s funding supported a variety of Russian civil society and human rights groups, this ban from operating in Russia could have serious consequences.

Under the new law, “undesirable” organizations in Russia are subjected to the following:

  • A ban on opening new offices in Russia
  • A ban on the dissemination of information by publication, including through the media, or Internet, and on the production or storage of such publications with the intent to disseminate.
  • Placement on a financial blacklist, after which Russian financial and credit institutions are barred from transacting with the organization
  • A bar on entry to the Russian Federation for non-nationals who “participate” in the activities of “undesirable” organizations


Unfortunately, from an international legal perspective, the Law on Undesirable Organizations is probably perfectly legal on its face. What government should be barred from restricting the operations of foreign groups working to change the political and social contours of its society? The law itself invokes state security and threats to social order and public health as impetuses for its creation. But in practice, the law is just another blunt weapon for use in the Russian government’s assault on civil society in general and human rights in particular.

In its March 2015 review of Russia’s compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the United Nations Human Rights Committee was clear about the potential for misuse and abuse in the Law on Foreign Agents. It called on Russia to amend the law to clarify its language, and recommended removal of the term “foreign agent” entirely. The Committee and other international organizations and advocates must similarly criticize the Law on Undesirable Organizations, which invokes a cynical and twisted version of sovereignty in a bid to intimidate, starve, and ultimately banish the groups that bravely report on the various human rights violations that have become a standard feature of life in Russia today.

Thomas Callahan was a 2015 Leitner Center Summer Fellow. He interned with an international human rights organization in Russia.

The views expressed in this post remain those of the individual author and are not reflective of the official position of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice, Fordham Law School, Fordham University or any other organization.

Photo Credit: jaime.silva/Creative Commons

Leave a comment

Russia’s legislature, prosecutors tighten the screws on online expression

By Thomas Callahan

With a Constitution that codifies restrictions on certain types of expression, and a storied history of targeting alternative political voices, it is unsurprising that Russia is currently in the midst of a campaign to silence inconvenient speech on the Internet.

This summer, I returned to Moscow to conduct legal research and reporting with a large international human rights organization (which I will not name due to the organization’s security concerns) as a Leitner Center Summer Fellow. I was tasked with researching and writing a report documenting this recent free speech crackdown in Russian legislation. This included reading Russian laws, tracking down copies of bills, and interviewing targeted activists across the country.


Having worked in Russia for years, and having been here when members of Pussy Riot were thrown in remote prisons on “extremist hooliganism” charges, I find no limits on freedom of expression really shocking anymore. But practically speaking, the sheer number of recent legislative restrictions to online speech means that human rights and free speech advocates in Russia are increasingly unsure about what could bankrupt an organization via administrative fine, or land people in jail. Although some of these restrictions identify concepts like “separatism” and “extremism” as general considerations, in practice, prosecutors increasingly conflate criticism of Kremlin policy in Ukraine, for example, with “threats to the territorial integrity” of the Russian Federation. These laws can also allow Facebook invitations to civil society events to be taken as incitement to rioting. Application of these laws is used mostly to harass political activists.

With many more such legislative proposals in the pipeline, it’s no wonder the old Soviet saying about living on top of a volcano – essentially, waiting for a governmental or societal eruption at any moment – has come back into vogue. The situation is so dire that since March 2014, Russia has been included in a group of only 19 governments in the world to be classified as “Enemies of the Internet” by Reporters Without Borders.

And while the main threat to freedom of expression comes from censorship laws, Russia’s legislature has been hard at work creating various other kinds of new rules for the Internet. These include – but are definitely not limited to – a new provision passed in May 2014 to Russia’s Law On Information that regulates blogs. Dubbed the “Bloggers Law,” it subjects any blog that gets 3,000 or more unique hits in a 24-hour period to many of the same federal regulations as national media conglomerates. The United Nations Human Rights Committee called this law both “vague” and “burdensome.” Indeed, it not only increases legal scrutiny, but also liability for charges like “incitement to rioting,” which is how prosecutors often refer to invitations to “unsanctioned” demonstrations. For these “mass media bloggers,” some types of speech carry a fine totaling 500,000 rubles – about 60 percent of the average annual income in Russia. In other cases, liability may reach one million rubles. With about 65 percent of Russians using the Internet regularly, these laws have real implications on the ability to access information.

Meanwhile, Russia’s prosecutors have been relying on the same, troubling old “extremism” sections of the Criminal Code to harass activists for what they say, or even share, online. In a country compliance review for the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the Human Rights Committee warned that the “extremism” sections of Russian criminal law could be used “silence individuals critical of the State party’s foreign policy[.]” One of the higher-profile cases this summer centered on exactly that fact set. Recent use of one “anti-extremism” provision that threatens speech online has included the conflation of harmless criticism of Russia’s annexation of Crimea with a “threat to the territorial integrity” of the Russian Federation.

It is generally accepted that governments can restrict certain types of harmful speech, such as hate speech. But Russia’s restrictions on online expression are blatantly used to silence unorthodox political voices, which is illegal under international human rights law. While case-by-case restrictions on free speech in specific instances, such as tangible threats to public or individual safety, could be legal, such a process is rarely used in Russia.


Aside from restricting individual voices online, Russia is creating new controls on how online information flows and is accessed. Since November 2012, Roskomnadzor (the federal media and telecom oversight agency) has maintained a list of banned websites. In its March 2015 review of Russia’s compliance with the ICCPR, the U.N. Human Rights Committee noted that the Internet black list is part of “a number of developments that create separately and jointly a substantial chilling effect on freedom of speech and expression of dissenting political opinions.”

Although a searchable database allows users to find out whether a single website has been blocked, the full list is not made public. We do know that, as of this summer, about 30,000 websites are blocked within Russia. Many of these are child pornography sites and online narcotics markets. However, many of them are also websites linked to prominent political activists. With the recent passage of a law restricting the activities of “undesirable organizations,” many international human rights groups could end up blacklisted online in Russia as well. No court order is necessary; if an official in one of a few federal agencies – or a court finds that a website has published some sort of “banned” information – Roskomnadzor will order Internet Service Providers to block access to it within Russia. Prosecutors and other federal authorities will generally point to information that would be subjected to Russia’s notoriously problematic “anti-extremism” laws when attempting to block a website.

One of many examples of unjustified interference with free speech is the Prosecutor General’s targeting this June of OZPP, a consumer protection group, after it published a legal memo advising Russian citizens against traveling to Crimea, which it called an “occupied territory.” In Russia, such an opinion may constitute a “threat to territorial integrity,” which is why the Prosecutor ordered Roskomnadzor to block parts of the organization’s website, and called on federal investigators to begin an inquiry under an “extremist” provision of the Criminal Code. OZPP could be tried under the “separatism” provision, which carries a five-year prison term. In an obvious due process violation, OZPP only learned that a case against it was already underway days later, after clients reported that they were having trouble getting its website to load.

Regulation of well-trafficked websites remains in flux, as legislative discussion opened in June on a set of amendments to the Law On Mass Media. Proposed changes would introduce the concept of “online publisher” to the law, and this is not a good thing. The bill is vague, but it would appear to subject any host website to mass media regulations if any single one of its pages gets three thousand or more unique visitors in one day. News aggregator websites, the websites of political movements and message boards are some of the main targets of this proposal.


There is no place for such broad and obvious restrictions to political speech in the year 2015, especially in a country like Russia, whose actions at home and abroad have the power to sway a whole cabal of governments in its large sphere of influence. It is also not too attenuated from these developments to note Russian prosecutors’ congenital conflation of unsanctioned civil events with “mass rioting.” This peculiarity of Russian law enforcement’s relationship with society is a metaphor for the general lack of case-by-case investigation and due process broadly in the Russian legal system. Russia must enter the twenty-first century on these issues in addition to the due process questions regarding speech specifically.

Moreover, Russia is party to both the main international regional treaties that codify freedom of expression: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the European Convention on Human Rights. Russia has an obligation to conduct case-by-case examinations of restrictions to speech, and not to create functionally blanket bans on some political questions. These types of restrictions are illegal no matter what. Under the European Convention, if a State party restricts expression, it must establish and disclose a purpose that relies on a security or other concerns commensurate with the degree of censorship. Russia fails to do this all too often, a practice that must end.

Furthermore, Article 29 of the Russian Constitution absolutely bars censorship (though this is incongruous with other sections of the constitution). Article 17 of the country’s Constitution also establishes international treaty obligations as an extrafederal basis for domestic legislative and jurisprudential practice. Under its own laws, Russia must bring its legislative and law enforcement practices into compliance with the international obligations it chose and claims to recognize.

Thomas Callahan was a 2015 Leitner Center Summer Fellow. He interned with an international human rights organization in Russia.

The views expressed in this post remain those of the individual author and are not reflective of the official position of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice, Fordham Law School, Fordham University or any other organization.

Photo courtesy of Thomas Callahan.

Leave a comment

A victims-based approach in the Inter-American human rights system

By Hannah Jane Ahern

This summer, I interned at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in San José, Costa Rica. I had a chance to observe the court in session, conduct legal research, and work on publications, press releases and speeches. My work this summer was my first exposure to legal work in international human rights, and it was also a crash course in the Inter-American System for human rights protection. I found the public hearings at the Court, and the Court’s system for ordering and monitoring reparations, to be especially compelling and effective means of promoting human rights.


The Inter-American Court of Human Rights is one of two bodies created by the American Convention on Human Rights to ensure the promotion and protection of human rights in the region (the other is the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, based in Washington, DC). The American Convention is an international treaty outlining the rights and freedoms that must be respected by States; it was adopted by the Organization of American States (OAS) in 1969 and went into effect in 1979. The Court hears cases of human rights violations committed by member states that have ratified the Convention and accepted the contentious jurisdiction of the Court. Those countries are Argentina, Barbados, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Surinam and Uruguay.

The Court is made up of seven judges, all of whom are citizens of member States of the OAS, and serve a term of six years. States submit a list of nominees to the Secretary General, and each judge is elected by representatives of the member states. They can each be reelected for a second term. The Court convenes for four regular sessions a year at the headquarters in Costa Rica, and two special sessions in other countries. During the rest of the year while the Court is not in session, there is a permanent Secretariat in San José made up of lawyers, interns and other who work on investigations, resolutions and sentences.


There were three public hearings during the 109th session that I was present for, two for contentious cases and one related to an advisory opinion. I attended the entire hearing for the first case, Chinchilla Sandoval y otros Vs. Guatemala, which involved the violation of multiple human rights of a diabetic woman with disabilities in a Guatemalan women’s prison. Among the rights violations alleged were the right to life, the right to personal integrity, the right to a fair trial and the right to judicial protection. Due to both acts and omissions on the part of the State, the victim received grossly inadequate medical care and suffered horrible pain and abuses while a prisoner. Her diabetes worsened because of lack of adequate treatment, resulting in the amputation of her leg. On the day she was scheduled to be released from prison, she was found dead, her daughter said.

During the first part of the hearing, we heard over an hour of testimony from the victim’s daughter, detailing the steady decline in health and worsening of conditions that her mother suffered over the course of nearly a decade in prison. She also discussed the mysterious circumstances surrounding her death. It was heartbreaking to hear the allegations of what this woman suffered, and to know that this was a single case among thousands of similar ones of prisoners being denied healthcare and access to justice around the world. At the same time, it was such a powerful experience to be in that courtroom, everyone listening with rapt attention, hearing the victim’s story as told by her family.

After the victim’s daughter testified, we heard from an expert witness who was a lawyer and expert in disability rights. The representatives for Guatemala gave him a particularly hard time, challenging his ability to discuss certain things. For example, they argued that he was not qualified to discuss the medical treatment received because he wasn’t a doctor. The Court rejected this argument completely, saying that medical treatment for a person with disabilities who is in the custody of the State was relevant, and they allowed him to continue. It was gripping and moving to hear from the expert witness about the legal obligations of the State in the case of people with disabilities and, in particular, those deprived of their liberty while imprisoned. While the basic facts of the case were related by the victim’s daughter, the expert witness put them in the context of the State’s internal and international legal obligations.

I also deeply appreciated the focus that the expert witness, and the Court as a whole, put on the intersectional nature of the discrimination suffered by the victim as a woman with disabilities, who is imprisoned. More judicial bodies should appreciate and emphasize the fact that so many abuses stem from multiple and overlapping forms of discrimination. Having had the opportunity to read a great deal of the Court’s jurisprudence, in addition to observing the public hearings, I have been consistently struck by the astute recognition on the part of the Court of this kind of intersectionality and the consequences that it has for so many victims of human rights violations.


After the hearings are completed, cases enter the merits phase, the stage at which Chinchilla Sandoval y otros Vs. Guatemala is at now. At this stage of the judicial process, the judges deliberate on the merits of the case, weighing the evidence of each alleged violation. The final judgment includes their decision regarding every violation, as well as an order to make reparations. The reparations ordered by the Court are intended to make the victims whole, or as close to whole as possible, as well as ensure that the violations that occurred are not repeated. Reparations always include some kind of public and permanent commemoration of the victims, as well as publication of the judgment in national newspapers or other media that will get widespread attention. They also often include orders for States to amend their internal legislation so that the violations that occurred are formally criminalized within their internal legal systems. Following the judgment and order of reparations, the Court continues to monitor compliance with the reparations until all of the measures ordered have been completed. It is a radical and comprehensive way of ensuring that States conform to the standards of the American Convention, and providing justice to victims and their families.

Working at the Court, witnessing the victims’ stories being told in a legal, international and public forum, and having the opportunity to see through some kind of justice in the form of reparations decided by the Court is the most fulfilling experience I have ever had. We hear about human rights abuses across the world all of the time in the newspaper and on the news; however, it is a completely different experience to see and hear actual victims telling their story in their own words, having a judicial body give credence to what they are saying, and working to figure out a way to right some of the horrific wrongs they have suffered.

Hannah Jane Ahern was a 2015 Leitner Center Summer Fellow. She interned at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

The views expressed in this post remain those of the individual author and are not reflective of the official position of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice, Fordham Law School, Fordham University or any other organization.

Photo credit: Eli NW/Creative Commons

Leave a comment

Shining a light on human rights abuses in Central Asia

By Zahava Moerdler

As the world focuses its attention on the nuclear deal with Iran and the debt crisis in Greece, many other important issues are left out of the global discourse. In fact, an article about the blatant human rights abuses in Central Asia rarely makes it into the newspaper, let alone onto the front page. Yet, gross injustice and repression persists in the region. Here are some worrisome examples: In Kazakhstan, there is increasing repression of freedom of expression and free media. In Tajikistan, the government persecutes people and groups working on issues such as freedom of expression, religious freedom and political participation. In Kyrgyzstan, while there is a vibrant civil society, some organization are coming under pressure and the parliament is considering two restrictive pieces of legislation: a homophobic “propaganda law” that would restrict freedom of speech and impose penalties for promoting non-traditional sexual relations and a “foreign agents” law that would force groups with foreign funding to register as foreign agents. In Uzbekistan, following the Andijan massacre in 2005, the government cracked down on civil society organizations, imprisoned human rights advocates and evicted international journalists and monitoring groups. Finally, in Turkmenistan, the government employs imprisonment to retaliate against dissenters and refuses to provide information about those imprisoned years ago who have since disappeared.

Despite the lack of media coverage about these issues, there are some in the U.S. government that are still keenly interested in the human rights situation in Central Asia. A recent hearing before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, in which U.S. government representatives laid out a number of their concerns for the region, paints a troublesome picture. First, there seems to be a connection between religious freedom and violent extremism. For example, religious repression correlates with a rise in violent extremism. Robert Berschinski from the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor testified before a Congressional hearing that heavy-handed policies of restricting expression, religion and peaceful gatherings lead to radicalization. This is followed by more restrictive governmental policies, in the hopes of combating extremism. Second, the region lacks meaningful participation in government and a robust opposition, resulting in unhealthy political systems. For example, in Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, who has been in power since 1990, was once again elected in a “predictable landslide victory.” Tajiki elections are neither free nor fair, and media coverage was restricted during the recent elections in Kazakhstan where President Nurzulran Nazabayev was re-elected without any real opposition.

Third, the region has increasingly restricted the work of civil society. In Kyrgyzstan, a law modeled after Russian laws, curtails the effectiveness of civil society groups. Any group receiving foreign funding and involved in political activities would have to register as a “foreign agent.” Additionally, any material published by such groups would have to note that they are distributed by a “non-commercial organization acting as a foreign agent.” In Uzbekistan, journalists are treated deplorably. For example, Muhammod Bekjanov, a journalist, has been imprisoned for 16 years after publishing and editing an opposition newspaper. In Tajikistan, the government has blocked Internet access and restricted freedom of expression. And in Turkmenistan, media censorship and surveillance of journalists is the norm.

One of the most alarming results of the intense human rights repressions across Central Asia is its effect on the radicalization and migration of foreign fighters to Syria and Iraq. [This trend was mentioned at the hearing, but it was also something repeatedly brought up in hearings and briefings before various panels on ISIS, Central Asia and Syria] Unfortunately, this has resulted in a negative feedback loop: governments believe that more restrictions are necessary to curb radicalization of their citizens; but more people are radicalized due to these same restrictions.

As these abuses persist in the region, the U.S. and other governments can play a role to curb growing radicalization and human rights abuses. During the hearing, Jeff Goldstein, a senior policy analyst for Eurasia at the Open Society Foundations, argued that the U.S. needs to move resources away from security programs and into governance, education, employment, health care and democratization in the region. He also stressed that there will be no effective reform where there is no will to create it. Therefore, the U.S. must work with movements on the ground in each respective country.

Allison Gill, an expert on Central Asia from Amnesty International, also suggested that the U.S. could take a number of actions specifically concerning Uzbekistan, including: take a leadership role in creating a United Nations report on Uzbekistan’s human rights record; urging the Uzbek government to open the country to independent scrutiny by allowing UN special human rights monitors and ending the restrictions on civil society; calling for the release of all imprisoned journalists and human rights defenders; providing support to Uzbekistan in its effort to amend the Criminal Procedure Code to expressly prohibit torture.

Although the situation in Central Asia seems bleak, there have been some hopeful changes. Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have both legislated against child labor in some way, and there is legislation pending to outlaw forced adult labor in Uzbekistan. Additionally, Turkmenistan recently released a number of religious leaders, demonstrating a modicum of religious freedom. These successes show how change is possible in the region. However, Central Asia still has a lot of work to do to promote democracy and freedom of expression, religion and association.

Zahava Moerdler was a 2015 Leitner Center Summer Fellow. She interned with the House Foreign Affairs Committee Democratic Staff.

The views expressed in this post remain those of the individual author and are not reflective of the official position of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice, Fordham Law School, Fordham University or any other organization.

Photo credit: Jose Javier Martin Espartosa/Creative Commons

Leave a comment

The uses and abuses of history for both Japan’s government and atomic bomb survivors

By Carolina van der Mensbrugghe

久しぶり、日本。Japan, it has been a while. My seventh time returning to Japan has not rendered me immune to the excitement and anticipation, akin to a homecoming of sorts or reunion with an old friend. As I begin another chapter, comprised of almost a decade’s worth of work, I can’t help but be reminded of how fundamental socio-political and legal questions impacting Japan’s future have changed considerably since I began my undergraduate studies.

Some of my initial questions included: Will Japan reaffirm the US-Japan alliance treaty, or move past it towards a more autonomous security vision? Will Japan uphold or reinterpret Article 9 of its constitution (which renounces war as a sovereign right)? How will these decisions alter Japan’s dynamic with other Asian countries in the region? These question have been largely answered recently, setting the groundwork for historic changes. In July 2014, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, announced a “reinterpretation” of Article 9 to allow for military action with allies. This is a significant departure from the original pacifist meaning, popularly imbued in Article 9 of the 1947 Japanese Constitution, which took a more literal approach to the text’s pledge that “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.” Public response was seen in extremes, with one man setting himself on fire in central Tokyo in protest. In May 2015, Prime Minister Abe became the first Japanese prime minister to address a joint meeting of Congress. Together with President Obama, he announced a joint vision for security, trade and historical reconciliation between the two allies. New bilateral defense cooperation guidelines were announced, some of which were newly made possible due to the divisive reinterpretation of Article 9 the previous year.

Tangled up in this fundamental question of sovereign military might—an unquestioned afterthought in most developed nations—is Japan’s postwar legacy, which remains an ever present force in contemporary domestic and international politics. How Japan deals with its history, its complex relationship with America, and civilian experience of that lived history, is central to my current work in connection with the Nagasaki City Hall and the Nagasaki Foundation for the Promotion of Peace. Prior to law school, I received a Kathryn Davis Grant to document the lives and stories of atomic bomb survivors in Nagasaki as a project for peace. There, I interacted with and interviewed the Hibakusha, survivors of the atomic bombings. Their stories and experiences are important components of Japanese history that are barely accessible in film and writing, let alone within the United States. More than ever, as the hibakusha pass away, I knew action was required to collect substantial video documentation of the stories of Nagasaki that barely exists.

This summer, I am building upon this work with a team of transcribers and translators that are combing through interviews and hours of footage and testimony. The translated testimonies are beginning to reveal the complexities of humanitarian downfalls in modern warfare and the difficulties of creating legal structures to address postwar civilian ailments. Historian John Dower documents in his book, Ways of Forgetting, Ways of Remembering: Japan in the Modern World, that it was not until 1952, seven years after the atomic bombing and end of the war, that the Japanese government began to extend special assistance to bomb victims. This decision, he says, was due in part to censorship of Nagasaki photographs and testimony, sanitized reporting of the approximately 75,000 deaths in Nagasaki and a desire to move past a visible reminder of the horrors of war.

This delay in aid had terrible consequences. While reading interview transcripts this summer, I am sitting in Espresso D Works, a New York-style hipster café enclave, hidden in ex-pat haven Ebisu, Tokyo. As I continue to sift through my translations, I come across my interview with Sakue Shimohira, age ten at the time of the bombing. Ms. Shimohira has dedicated her life to sharing her story in hopes that future generations remember the past, deepen their empathy towards others, and work toward “the dream of peace.” Her interview breaks down the results of aid-delay in shockingly personal terms:

Before, those injured by the bomb would come together and ask for reparations to cover the medical expenses of their injuries, but they didn’t get any money, and all died. Many people couldn’t bear the pain, and committed suicide. My younger sister committed suicide. Her stomach was infested with maggots [a common side effect as the result of open wounds from exposure to the atomic blast]. At night, it was too dark in the room to remove them. In the morning, I told her to get up so that I could pluck out the maggots, but they were already deep in her flesh. They writhed and fell out in droves. My sister wanted me to commit suicide with her, but since I had been fortunate enough to survive the bomb, I said that I wanted to continue to live, on behalf of my mother and other deceased family. The Hisaisha Kyogikai was [later] established in 1956 for these atomic bomb survivors. With the establishment of the organization, we continued to appeal to the government for support, but they told us to be patient, and offered no help. A lot of people couldn’t afford to go to the hospital, and died.

My concentration is broken by a barista, who approaches and asks me in Japanese whether I like Nagasaki while pointing to a book sharing the same title at my side. I respond with a short explanation of why I am here in Japan and the work I am doing this summer. Surprised by my response, the barista thanks me and remarks that I am “so Japanese” for doing this. This is not an atypical response I receive from Japanese people, many who find it surprising an American would take interest in this history and become so involved. Nevertheless, I find it surprising given that the hibakusha experiences are not isolated, but rather a unique example in an array of cases in the developed world where governments struggle to develop legal structures for victim compensation (including the recent natural and nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan).

This summer marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. Jennifer Mason from the Brookings Institute predicts that Prime Minister Abe will be under added intense scrutiny from the United States and Japan’s Asian neighbors, as he prepares for his August 15 speech commemorating this historical landmark. During a tense and rapidly changing time of nationalism in Asia, the uses and abuses of history continue to pervade. However, as John Dower reflects—and I must agree—most of these particular historical considerations leave out the fate of the nuclear victims themselves and yet they are inseparable. I will be traveling to Nagasaki shortly to document these important memorial events as they unfold. Nagasaki City Hall has graciously granted me press access to document some of the key political and educational events surrounding this anniversary. With newfound political importance, I look forward to the historical and personal narratives that will be delivered in favor of reconciliation and memory of these events, as well as what this may mean for the near future.

Carolina van der Mensbrugghe is a 2015 Leitner Center Summer Fellow. She is conducting an independent project documenting the stories of atomic bomb survivors in Nagasaki, Japan with help from the Nagasaki Foundation for the Promotion of Peace and Nagasaki City Hall.

The views expressed in this post remain those of the individual author and are not reflective of the official position of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice, Fordham Law School, Fordham University or any other organization.

Photo credit: Carolina van der Mensbrugghe

Leave a comment

An emotional second day: hearing on Americans detained in Iran before the House Foreign Affairs Committee

By Zahava Moerdler

On June 2, 2015, my second day as an intern on Capitol Hill, I attended an incredibly powerful and emotional hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. The families of four Americans detained in Iran came before the committee to tell their stories and request assistance in bringing their loved ones home.

In May, Congressman Dan Kildee introduced a resolution that would call on the Iranian government to release the four Americans currently detained in Iran. The resolution had bipartisan support and was co-sponsored by Ranking Member Eliot L. Engel and Chairman Ed Royce of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. It was brought before the committee on June 2, when four family-members gave written and oral testimony about their loved ones. For three of the witnesses, their relatives are currently detained in Iranian prisons; one witness’ father is missing in Iran. Iranian prisons are plagued by overcrowding, poor sanitation and sub-standard medical care. Prisoners face violence and abuse, with political prisoners or prisoners of conscience often targeted. The detained Americans have been tortured, are malnourished and have faced or are currently facing “show trials.” One witness detailed how his brother was not allowed to meet his lawyer until a few hours before the trial against him commenced. Another witness described how her husband was tortured and imprisoned because he had organized a Christian prayer group.

Each family member presented his or her emotional and heart-wrenching remarks. Each one hoped to increase pressure on both the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran to return their loved ones. “There is not a day that goes by when we don’t think of him, how much he must be suffering, and what we can do next to bring him home,” Daniel Levinson, son of missing former FBI agent Robert Levinson, said at the hearing. “We need – in fact, we implore – negotiators to take a more aggressive approach than merely asking Iran’s help in locating him. … America should not rest until one of its own is returned home to the family that loves him more than life itself.” Robert Levinson went missing on Iran’s Kish Island in 2007, and it is unclear who is holding him or how he is faring. He has missed his 40th wedding anniversary, the birth of grandchildren and numerous other milestones. The Levinson family just wants to know how he is doing, where he is and when he can be returned home to them.

Another panelist, Sarah Hekmati, began to cry as she described how her father, suffering from brain cancer and now wheelchair-bound, may never get to see his son returned home. Amir Hekmati, a former Marine, traveled to Iran in 2011 to visit his grandmother and other relatives. There, he was detained by police, questioned and accused and tried for espionage. He was sentenced to death. On appeal, the court reversed and issued a sentence of 10 year in prison. He is the only American to ever be sentenced to death in Iran. During his time in prison, he has been tortured and beaten. Sarah, like the other panelists, requested that the United States government make their families’ plights a priority, especially as the nuclear negotiations come to a close.

Nagameh Abedini, another speaker, has traveled around the world in a valiant attempt to bring her husband, Saeed Abedini, home. She has spent the past three years traveling around the world asking foreign leaders and dignitaries for their assistance. As immigrants to the United States, both Nagameh and Saeed cherished the freedom of religion afforded to them here. In 2012, while working to set up churches in Iran, her husband was arrested. During her testimony, Nagameh pleaded with Congress to take action so that perhaps after this trip, she would finally be able to tell her children that their father was coming home. Nagameh also discussed her worries and fears about her husband’s psychological and emotional well-being. Saeed was sent to Rajai Shahr Prison, a notorious jail for murderers and rapists, where he was told that he would not be released, and likely killed, unless he denounced his faith. Like others, Saeed has been tortured and beaten. He is currently residing in solitary confinement, a placement that Nagameh fears will have long-term deleterious effects on his mental well-being.

Finally, Ali Rezaian spoke on behalf of his brother, Jason Rezaian, a journalist with the Washington Post who was imprisoned and accused of espionage last year. Jason has spent half his marriage in jail and away from his wife, Ali stressed. Building on the other testimonies, Ali reiterated his fear of what would happen to his brother after his upcoming trial, and whether or not he would be able to see his brother again.

Although Democrats and Republicans do not agree on all issues, on this they were unanimous: the detention of American citizens and their treatment in Iran is outrageous and unacceptable. Christopher Smith, a Republican Representative from New Jersey, said, “This is something that should be talked about not on the fringes and the sidelines of the negotiations, but as a mainstay issue.” Elliot Engel, Democratic Minority Leader, said, “It would just be ludicrous and outrageous for us to have a deal with Iran that doesn’t include the bring home of our hostages.”

Each representative in attendance voiced the same concerns and anger. All promised that this issue would be a priority and that the status of these detainees would not fall by the wayside. As the hearing adjourned I thought, “How long before these Americans are returned home and at what cost?” I still wonder if this will have any bearing on the on-going nuclear negotiations. I wonder if the Iranian government will use these Americans as leverage in order to further their nuclear ambitions. And I also wonder, in light of the other human rights concerns within Iran, how the rest of the world will respond both to the plight of the Iranian people and to these four innocent individuals detained in a hostile country.

It was clear to me, as I sat in the packed room full of interns, press, staff and the public (including men and women in orange jumpsuits calling for the release of Saeed Abedini), that the individualized testimony had a profound influence on the Committee members and the public. Something I have seen time and again—like when two of the girls freed from Boko Haram testified to Congress in support of #BringBackOurGirls—is that individuals’ stories make human rights concerns real. It is easy to feel removed and distanced from the experiences of those suffering abroad. But one person’s story can give substance, meaning, emotion and humanity to human rights issues.

Zahava Moerdler is a 2015 Leitner Center Summer Fellow. She is currently interning with the House Foreign Affairs Committee Democratic Staff.

The views expressed in this post remain those of the individual author and are not reflective of the official position of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice, Fordham Law School, Fordham University or any other organization.

Photo Credit: jmiller291/Creative Commons