Tensions Rise Between Serbia and Kosovo with Possible Land Swap

By: Katherine Hewitt
Impunity Watch Reporter, Europe

PRISTINA, KOSOVO* –  While Serbia and Kosovo signed an agreement in 2013 to normalize relations, tensions still remain between the two countries, especially in relation to borders.   In an attempt to normalize, Presidents of the two nations have discussed a land swap, which falls along ethnic lines.  Solving border disputes would also help speed up integration into the EU.

A potential swap would be handing northern Kosovo over to Serbia, which is predominately Serbian, for the Preševo Valley, which is predominately Albanian.

Protesters in Pristina. Photo Courtesy of BIRN.

Members and supporters of the opposition party took to the streets of the capital on 29 September chanting “No bargaining with national land!” to protest the potential land swap.  Opposition parties say that this land swap directly violates the territorial integrity of Kosovo.  In previous statements the head of the opposition party, Avdullah Hoti, said that nobody should have the ability to mess with the borders of Kosovo. (Kosovo’s territorial jurisdiction was laid out in a UN Resolution in 1999). It is seen that the leaders are putting territorial integrity at stake just to normalize relations and please the EU.

At the same time, President Thaci of Kosovo visited the Northern part of Kosovo under consideration for the swap.  Special police were deployed to the region as a result.  This sparked alarm in Serbia, with the Serbian officials putting Serbian police and Military on high alert.  Serbian Interior Minister called the Kosovar move, “an Albanian attack against the North of Kosovo.” Serbian news sources claimed that several Serbians had been detained.

For more information please visit:

Radio Free Europe – Thousands Protest in Kosovo Over Possible Land Swap with Serbia – 29 September 2018

Washington Post – Tension flares in Kosovo over possible land swap with Serbia – 29 September 2018

Balkan Insight – Thousands in Kosovo Protest Against ‘Border Correction’ Proposals – 29 September 2018

Background on the land swap:

The Guardian –Could land swap between Serbia and Kosovo lead to conflict? – 22 August 2018

Balkan Insight – Opposition Demands Vote to ‘Protect Kosovo’s Territory’ – 29 August 2018

*All references to Kosovo are in relation to UNSCR 1244 (99).

India’s Supreme Court Upholds Biometric Identification System

By: Charlotte Volpe
Impunity Watch Reporter, Asia

NEW DELHI, India – On September 26, 2018, a five-justice panel of the Supreme Court of India upheld the constitutionality of the national biometric identification system, Aadhaar. While noting its constitutionality in a 4-1 ruling, the court also placed strict limitations on Aadhaar’s scope and reach.

Woman in Amritsar, India scans her fingerprints during Aadhaar registration process. Photo courtesy of Narinder Nanu.

The ruling maintained that Aadhaar could be required for accessing public benefits and filing income taxes. However, the court struck down on private companies’ ability to require Aadhaar identification from their customers for access to their services.

Aadhaar – “foundation” in Hindi – is an expansive biometric information database administered by the Indian government that includes the fingerprints and iris scans of 1.2 billion people – 9 out of 10 Indians. The program was originally founded in 2009 as a foolproof digital identification system for all Indians, particularly for those who have traditionally struggled to produce formal proof of identity.

The biometric information in Aadhaar’s database is matched to a unique 12-digit number, which serves as an ID and ensures that government services are received by intended parties. Welfare recipients use this number to verify their identity upon collecting benefits or joining government work programs.

With Narendra Modi’s election in 2014, Aadhaar’s use expanded past its original intent of streamlining public services delivery. Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party granted private companies access to Aadhaar biometric data for customer verification purposes, placing Indian citizens’ fingerprints at corporations’ fingertips. Everything from opening a bank account or setting up a cell phone line required an Aadhaar number.

The court’s ruling on Aadhaar’s constitutionality invited pushback from critics and supporters alike.

Privacy-advocates lamented that upholding Aadhaar violates data security protections and facilitates the potential for a surveillance state. Activists worry that mandating Aadhaar registration for receipt of government benefits may preclude some of India’s most vulnerable populations from access to public services and subsidies.

Private companies were disappointed by the court’s ruling, which places severe limitations on their ability to utilize Aadhaar in their customer sign-up processes. Using Aadhaar’s biometric data verification was significantly more cost-effective than traditional paper-based means of identity proof.

The court’s decision to uphold Aadhaar with severe restrictions sets an example for future data privacy and security inquiries. National governments will continue to grapple with the balance act between enhanced security and ease, and privacy protection. India’s Supreme Court ruling sets a precedent for future questions on this issue that are certain to arise.

For further information, please see:

The Economist – A court upholds but curbs India’s giant biometric ID system – 27 September 2018

Human Rights Watch – India: Top Court OK’s Biometric ID Program – 27 September 2018

The New York Times – India’s Top Court Limits Sweep of Biometric ID Program – 25 September 2018

Pakistan High Court Releases Ex-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif

By: Charlotte Volpe                                                                                                             Impunity Watch Reporter, Asia

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – On September 19th, the Islamabad High Court announced the release on bail of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, his daughter Maryam Nawaz, and his son-in-law. The three were convicted in July by an anti-corruption court due to inquiries related to their ownership of high-value properties in London, drawing scrutiny on how government officials could afford such luxury real estate abroad.

Supporters of former PM Nawaz Sharif celebrating the Islamabad High Court’s decision. Photo courtesy of Anjum Naveed.

Sharif was ousted from office last year by the Supreme Court for alleged acts of corruption related to the properties the family owned in London.

The ruling to release the Sharifs has been praised by observers as the court’s declaration of its authority and assertion of proper judicial process, independent of external influences. Back in July, independent lawyers and analysts viewed the court’s sentencing of the Sharifs as unsubstantiated by enough evidence linking the family to the London properties. The court too has now come to that conclusion.

Sharif’s political supporters and his party, the Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz (PML-N), are in high spirits. They contend that his conviction was an attempt by Imran Kahn and his rival party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), to discredit Sharif as a political candidate for the general elections in July and harm his chance for re-election.

Kahn, the favored candidate of the Pakistani military, swept the elections and is now prime minister. 

PLM-N supporters feel that this is clear indication of PTI involvement leading to Sharif’s original conviction in July. PTI supporters, however, retort that Sharif would never have been released if there was a PTI conspiracy to undermine him.

In any case, the Islamabad High Court’s overturning of their sentence will allow the Sharifs to resume rallying support for PLM-N. Seen by many as her father’s chosen political successor, Maryam in particular has added personal grievance towards Kahn and will likely begin mobilizing support against him and the ruling PTI party.

For more information, please see:

The Economist – Pakistan’s former prime minister is freed from prison – 20 September 2018

The New York Times – Pakistan Court Releases Nawaz Sharif, Ex-Prime Minister, From Prison – 19 September 2018

Al Jazeera – Pakistan court releases ex-PM Nawaz Sharif and daughter – 19 September 2018

The Telegraph – Pakistan court orders release of former prime minister Sharif and daughter – 19 September 2018

European Court of Human Rights Judges that UK Surveillance Violates Freedoms

By: Katherine Hewitt
Impunity Watch Reporter, Europe

STRASBOURG, France – In the case of Big Brother Watch and Others v. the United Kingdom, the Chamber voted that some parts of the UK’s Investigatory Powers Act of 2016 violated human rights.  This is the latest occurrence in a five-year challenge directed towards the UK’s surveillance policies.

European Court of Human Rights rules that UK policies towards surveillance violate right to privacy and expression.  Photo Courtesy of European PhotoPress Agency. 

Applicants lodged complaints about the bulk interception of communications, obtaining data from communication service providers, and intelligence sharing with foreign governments.  Advocates such as Big Brother Watch note, “Under the guise of counter-terrorism, the UK has adopted the most authoritarian surveillance regime of any Western state, corroding democracy itself and the rights of the British public.”

The Chamber found that the bulk interception strategy violated Article 8 of the Convention that states individuals have a right to a private life without interference by a public authority.  The judges deemed that there was not enough oversight on filtering who was selected for interception or what communication data was read.  It is important to note that the Court did not find the idea of a bulk interception regime a violation of human rights but rather the way in which the UK was handling the strategy.  Additionally, using communication service providers to obtain data was found as a violation of privacy.

Both of these aspects were also found to violate Article 10 as well, which protects freedom of expression.  The Court ruled that there are no safeguards in place for the protection of the data that is collected.

Intelligence sharing was not found to violate Article 8 or 10.

This case involved three joined applications: Big Brother Watch and Others v. the United Kingdom, Bureau of Investigative Journalism and Alice Ross v. the United Kingdom, and 10 Human Rights Organisations and Others v. the United Kingdom.  Those included were Amnesty International, American Civil Liberties Union, Bytes for All, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, the Legal Resources Centre (South Africa), Liberty and Privacy International, Open Rights Group, English PEN and Dr Constanze Kurz.

Of the case decision, activist Carolina Wilson Palow says, “Today’s judgment rightly criticises the UK’s bulk interception regime for giving far too much leeway to the intelligence agencies to choose who to spy on and when. It confirms that just because it is technically feasible to intercept all of our personal communications, it does not mean that it is lawful to do so.”

The Chambers decision is not final.  During the next three months either side has the opportunity to appeal the decision to the Grand Chamber of the Court.  There is the possibility of appeal as many activists believe that the decision did not go far enough in condemning bulk surveillance.

For more information please visit:

Amnesty International – Campaigners win vital battle against UK mass surveillance– 13 September 2018

European Court of Human Rights- Press Release: Some aspects of UK surveillance regimes violate Convention- 13 September 2018  (link to download press release)

European Court of Human Rights: Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms 

EURACTIV – UK guilty of human rights abuse, ECHR finds in groundbreaking surveillance case -14 September 2018

Head of OAS Refuses to Rule Out Military Intervention Against Venezuela

By: Karina Johnson
Impunity Watch Reporter, South America

CARACAS, Venezuela — On Friday, September 14, the secretary-general of the Organization of American States (OAS) Luis Almagro held a press conference addressing the ongoing economic crisis in Venezuela.

President Nicolas Maduro’s 2018 electoral win has been widely denounced as illegitimate by member-states of the OAS, the Lima Group, and many in the international community. (Photo Courtesy Ariana Cubillos, Associated Press)

During the press conference where he spoke to Venezuelan migrants in Colombia, Mr. Almagro stated that the OAS would not rule out military action to overthrow Nicolás Maduro, the president of Venezuela, and restore democracy.  Mr. Almagro further alleged that the Maduro regime is “Perpetrating crimes against humanity toward its population and violations of human rights.”

However, Mr. Almagro’s statements have been condemned by the Lima Group, a coalition of Latin American countries plus Canada, formed in 2017 specifically to address the Venezuelan crisis.  The Lima Group has accused Mr. Almagro of promoting military interventionism against Venezuela—a sentiment echoed by the Venezuelan government.  “Almagro attacks Latin America and the Caribbean. . . [and] intends to revive the worst military intervention on the continent,” said Venezuelan Vice President Delcy Rodriguez.

Venezuela denounced the American Convention on Human Rights in 2012 but remained a member-state of the OAS until 2017, when President Maduro announced Venezuela would begin the two-year process to withdraw from the organization.  In June 2018, OAS held an extraordinary assembly to vote on suspending Venezuela from the OAS with a majority voting in favor of suspension.

In 2017, the Maduro Administration replaced Venezuela’s legislative branch, the National Assembly—which was dominated by opposition parties—with the regime-controlled “Constituent Assembly.”  The administration has gone further to stay in power by blacklisting and jailing opposition candidates and shutting down critical news outlets.

Critics of the Maduro Administration have proposed that a military coup is one of the last hopes to restore a legitimate constitutional democracy in Venezuela.  They have also warned that allowing President Maduro to remain in power could lead to a return to the Latin American military dictatorships of the mid-20th century.

At least 2.3 million people have fled Venezuela’s political and economic crisis that began in 2014 following a sharp decline in crude oil prices.  Approximately 93% of Venezuelans still in the country do not earn enough to buy food, and most must devote hours every day just to find food.  According to a recent report by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Venezuelan security forces have killed over 8,000 people in non-protest related operations since 2012.

For more information, please see:

Independent – Venezuela government guilty of ‘worst human rights crisis in its history’ – 21 September 2018

Al Jazeera – Lima Group rules out military intervention in Venezuela – 17 September 2018

BBC News – How Venezuela’s crisis developed and drove out millions of people – 22 August 2018

PBS – 5 reasons why the crisis in Venezuela could get worse – 27 July 2018

United Nations Human Rights OHC – Venezuela: Continued impunity amid dismal human rights situation – UN report – 22 June 2018

Foreign Policy – It’s Time for a Coup in Venezuela – 5 June 2018

Reuters – OAS calls extraordinary assembly to vote on suspending Venezuela – 5 June 2018

Al Jazeera – Venezuela’s crisis explained from the beginning – 23 March 2018