Coronavirus Protections Threaten Human Rights in Panama

By: Elizabeth Wright

Impunity Watch Staff Writer

PANAMA CITY, Panama – Like other countries around the world, Panama has implemented measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Over the past few weeks the country has passed several different measures that require citizens to remain in their homes, impose a mandatory 14-day quarantine for those entering the country, and limit purchasing goods. Additionally, on March 13, President Laurentino Cortizo announced that the country was under a state of emergency.

While declaring a state of emergency might seem standard given the current situation, concerns have been raised regarding the freedom of Panamanian citizens. Professor of Law Antonio Bernal has expressed concern with the lack of restriction and direction in Panama’s constitution regarding the scope of a state of emergency. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has expressed similar concerns. The Court has stated that the constitutional provisions used to justify the state of emergency have the potential to violate fundamental human rights.

Countries within the Court’s jurisdiction voluntarily agree to its terms, so if the Panamanian government were to decide to issue laws which violate the basic human rights of Panama’s citizens, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights would likely intervene. The Court would first advise the government of appropriate changes and then, if the Court deemed that the country failed to make the appropriate changes, the Court would initiate a further measures against the country.

Bernal explains that while the current state of emergency seems protective, the government may begin to create laws without any oversight. For example, like in the United States, the Panamanian government decided to restrict all prison visitations. Bernal claims that this practice may be a human rights violation.

However, Juan Carlos Araus, President of Panama’s Bar argues that the state of emergency is the most appropriate way for the government to act in this situation because it expedites the law-making process. Araus concedes that the state of emergency does temporarily “suspend constitutional guarantees,” but that it is currently necessary due to the virus’ fast spread.

The upcoming weeks will be difficult for Panama and other countries around the world as they struggle to contain the spread of coronavirus. Each of these countries should be mindful of the fundamental rights of its people while making policies which are intended to protect their citizens’ health.

For further information, please see:

Reuters – Panama Imposes Full-Day Curfew, Guatemala Extends State of Emergency – 24 Mar. 2020

The Tico Times – Panama Restricts the Entry of Foreigners to the Country – 16 Mar. 2020

Westlaw – Corona Virus and State of Emergency – 14 Mar. 2020

Lexology – The Government of Panama Decrees State of National Emergency Due to the Coronavirus – 6 Mar. 2020

Venezuela Refers US Sanctions to ICC for Crimes Against Humanity

By: Henry Schall

Journal of Global Rights and Organizations, Associate Articles Editor

CARACAS, Venezuela – On February 13, 2020, the Government of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela filed a request with the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court.  This request has the purpose of seeking an investigation of United States sanctions against Venezuela, calling the sanctions “crimes against humanity.”

The current crisis in Venezuela is due to economic collapse after President Maduro took power in 2013.  This collapse caused widespread shortages in basic food and supplies causing 4.5 million people to flee. 

Strong opposition parties emerged around Maduro within the National Assembly culminating in the 2018 election, where Maduro was reelected.  This election was widely dismissed as rigged, and fifty other countries recognize the National Assembly leader Juan Guaidó as the rightful president. 

To pressure Maduro in hopes that he would step down, the United States imposed new sanctions in August 2019.  In a letter to Congress, President Trump wrote that the new sanctions were imposed due to the “continued usurpation of power by Nicolás Maduro and persons affiliated with him, as well as human rights abuses, arbitrary arrest and detention of Venezuelan citizens.”

President Trump signed an executive order which declared all property or interests in property owned by the government of Venezuela in the United States as blocked which cannot be used.   The new sanctions bar any transactions with Venezuelan officials whose assets are blocked.  President Trump’s order states, “the making of any contribution or provision of funds, goods, or services by, to, or for the benefit of any person whose property and interests in property are blocked pursuant to this order.” 

These new sanctions expand pressure on Maduro by targeting his government, but also targeting individuals, companies, and countries doing business with the government.  The United States Security Advisor John Bolton said the new sanction could be imposed on any supporters of the Maduro government, since the sanctions would force countries and companies to choose between doing business with the United States or Venezuela.  Venezuela has long blamed the United States for the current economic crisis, but the sanctions do include exceptions for humanitarian goods, food and medicine.  

In a sixty-page brief, Venezuela referred the situation in accordance with Article 14 of the Rome Statute, declaring that the Unilateral Coercive Measures imposed impose negative impacts on the people in Venezuela.  Venezuela contends these sanctions contravene international law that prevent foreign intervention in internal affairs and have caused an enormous hardship for the people of Venezuela.  The brief further declares these sanctions as crimes against humanity, citing a study by Mark Weisbrot and Jeffrey Sachs which provides statistical evidence that sanctions amount to a death sentence for tens of thousands of Venezuelan Citizens. 

On February 19, 2020, the Presidency of the ICC referred the situation in Venezuela to Pre-Trial Chamber III.  According to the ICC, a State Party referral does not automatically lead to an investigation, but it may speed up opening the investigation.  Now, the Prosecutor must consider issues of jurisdiction, admissibility and the interests of justice in determining if an investigation should be opened. 

For further information, please see:

International Criminal Court – Annex I to the Prosecution’s Provision of the Supporting Document of the Referral Submitted by the Government of Venezuela – 4 Mar. 2020

International Criminal Court – Statement of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Mrs Fatou Bensouda, on the referral by Venezuela regarding the situation in its own territory – 17 Feb. 2020

BBC – Venezuela crisis in 300 words – 6 Jan. 2020

BBC – US imposes sweeping sanctions on Venezuelan government – 6 Aug. 2019

ECOWAS Court Suspends Judicial Activities in Response to COVID-19 Outbreak

By: Katherine Davis

Impunity Watch Staff Writer

ABUJA, Nigeria – On March 20, 2020, the Community Court of Justice (ECOWAS) suspended its 2020 travel-related activities and all judicial activities until further notice in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The ECOWAS Court has taken precautionary action to ensure the safety of their staff and plan to reschedule travel-related activities as soon as the pandemic is over. Other judicial activities have yet to be rescheduled.

ECOWAS Court Judges in session. Photo Courtesy of Realness Magazine.

Judicial activities that will be affected by this suspension include day-to-day operations by the Court’s departments, case hearings and judgements, and other ECOWAS gatherings in Abuja.

In a statement released on March 20, the President of the Court, Justice Edward Amoako Asante “urged staff not to panic, but to ensure that they remain calm, healthy, and go about their duties whilst ‘maintaining personal hygiene and social distancing.’” Staff will begin to work remotely and maintain contact with their departmental supervisors to continue day-to-day operations as smoothly as possible.

Travel related activities that will be affected by this suspension include the second judicial dialogue of the ECOWAS Court with the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights and training of the ECOWAS Court’s office managers; both were to have taken place in Arusha, Tanzania. On March 23, the African Court also suspended the majority of their judicial activities, including their 56th Ordinary Session, which began on March 2.

President Asante noted that ECOWAS is following the health advisories issued by the West African Health Organization (WAHO) and the World Health Organization. The ECOWAS Institutions were advised “to strongly discourage non-essential large gatherings of people; defer, cancel or postpone meetings with over 50 participants” and to employ using remote technology if possible.

President Asante explained, “we don’t want to subject staff to avoidable risk considering the global threat posed by this pandemic and consistent with the international response.” ECOWAS will continue its regular activities as soon as the pandemic is over.

Prior to the suspension, ECOWAS was scheduled to hear ten additional cases. These cases concerned violations of human rights by the countries of Burkina Faso, Guinea, Liberia, Mali, Nigeria, and Niger. President Asante has not released a statement regarding the rescheduling of these cases and future cases.

For further information, please see:

African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights – African Court Suspends its 56th Ordinary Session Because of Outbreak of Coronavirus – 23 Mar. 2020

Community Court of Justice, ECOWAS – Court Suspends Judicial Activities Over Corona Virus – 20 Mar. 2020

World Health Organization – Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) Advice for the Public – 18 Mar. 2020

Realnews Magazine – Coronavirus: Court Suspends 2020 Travel Related Programmes – 16 Mar. 2020

Community Court of Justice, ECOWAS – Cause List of 20th January 2020 and Subsequent Days Where Necessary – 13 Dec. 2020

Case of First Impression: Inter-American Court and Sexual Violence in School

By: Abigail Neuviller

Impunity Watch Staff Writer

QUITO, Ecuador – On January 28, 2020 the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR) heard Paola Guzman Albarracin v. Ecuador, its first case pertaining to sexual violence in a school setting. Paola was a sixteen-year-old girl who took her own life after she was repeatedly sexually abused by the Vice-Principal of her school.

Petita Albarracin, mother of Paola, talking about her daughter during an interview. Photo Courtesy of the Guardian.

From the ages of fourteen to sixteen, she was sexually abused and raped by the school administrator. The sexual abuse led to a pregnancy and when her abuser took her to the school doctor for an abortion, he said he would only perform the surgery if Paola had sex with him.

Soon thereafter, Paola took her own life by ingesting phosphorus. Before she died, she told her friends on the way to school, who then alerted school authorities, but they told her to pray for forgiveness instead of seeking timely medical care.

Paola’s mother, Petita Albarracin, has continued the legal battle for over eighteen years. When she first filed suit in Ecuador, the case was dismissed. She then brought the suit to the IACtHR, an autonomous body of the Organization of American States, which rules on whether a government violated human rights.  

The IACtHR will determine whether Ecuador was responsible for failing to prevent the sexual abuse, if Paola was adequately protected from sexual violence in a state school, and if the school failed to provide her with proper medical care.

Despite this case being the first of its kind before the IACtHR, sexual harassment experienced by school students is not uncommon. In Ecuador alone, 32% of girls report experiencing some form of sexual violence while at school.

According to the United Nation’s Children’s Agency (UNICEF), three out of ten students in Latin America between the ages of thirteen and fifteen have experienced sexual harassment in school.

This sexual violence is frequently perpetrated by school teachers and administrators who take advantage of their positions of trust and authority. With students particularly, this type of violence manifests in poor school performance, high dropout rates, and social isolation.

The IACtHR is expected to rule on the case within the year. This decision will have a sweeping effect since its binding on Ecuador, but also the other twenty-two countries in Central and South America under its jurisdiction.

For further information, please see:

Center for Reproductive Rights – Center Argues Milestone Case at Inter-American Court of Human Rights – 29 Jan. 2020

The Guardian – Landmark Case Held on Alleged Sexual Abuse of Ecuadorian Schoolgirl – 29 Jan. 2020

Reuters – Americas’ Human Rights Court Hears Deadly Sexual Violence Case from Ecuador – 28 Jan. 2020

Center for Reproductive Rights – Groundbreaking Case at Inter-American Court on Human Rights Could Transform Girl’s Rights Across Latin America and Beyond – 28 Jan. 2020

Resolución del Presidente de la Corte Interamericana de Derechos Humanos – 10 Dec. 2019

Organization of American States – IACHR Takes Case Involving Ecuador to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights – 13 Feb. 2019

ICC Presidency Sets Chamber for Yekatom and Ngaïssona Trial

By: Andrew Kramer

Impunity Watch Staff Writer

THE HAGUE, The Netherlands – On March 16, 2020, the Presidency of the International Criminal Court (“ICC”), the administrative organ of the ICC, issued a decision constituting Trial Chamber V. This decision referred the case of The Prosecutor v. Alfred Yekatom and Patrice Edouard Ngaïssona to Trial Chamber V.  The Presidency appointed Judge Bertram Schmitt, Judge Péter Kovács, and Judge Chang-ho Chung to oversee the trial. 

Patrice Edouard Ngaïssona (left) and Alfred Yekatom (right) in pretrial proceedings before the ICC. Photo Courtesy of the International Criminal Court.

This decision follows a relatively short pre-trial phase in which two separate cases were brought before Pre-Trial Chamber II on November 23, 2018 (Yekatom), and January 25, 2019 (Ngaïssona).  On February 23, 2019, Pre-Trial Chamber II joined the cases in order to enhance the fairness and expeditiousness of proceedings, reduce the duplication of evidence, and eliminate inconsistency in presentation.  It is not uncommon for the pre-trial phase of some cases to last several years. 

On December 11, 2019, Pre-Trial Chamber II partially confirmed the charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity brought against Yekatom and Ngaïssona.  The two militia leaders from the Central African Republic (“CAR”) are accused of being involved in a widespread attack on the Muslim civilian population of the country between September 2013 and December 2014.  Among other crimes, Yekatom and Ngaïssona are specifically accused of murder, rape, intentionally directing an attack against a building dedicated to religion, forcible transfer of population and displacement of the civilian population, severe deprivation of physical liberty, cruel treatment, and torture.

This case has presented unique challenges for the ICC.  In a previous pre-trial appeal, The Prosecutor requested additional time to gather witnesses because this case is larger than most that the ICC has previously handled. Larger cases tend to require more witnesses, which in turn requires more protective measures, and more information to review.  However, as the Court noted, the security situation in the CAR is particularly unreliable, and the issue of witness protection has influenced the process of gathering evidence.  For example, the Court has conditioned the authorization of arrest warrants on whether witnesses could be adequately protected.

Moving forward, Trial Chamber V will hold status conferences, confer with the parties and participants, set the trial date, and determine the procedures necessary to facilitate fair and expeditious proceedings.  At trial, the Prosecution must prove the guilt of the accused beyond a reasonable doubt.  There is no separate jury in the ICC; the three judges issue a verdict, and if guilty, a sentence. 

For further information, please see:

International Criminal Court – Case Information Sheet: Situation in Central African Republic II – 17 Mar. 2020

International Criminal Court – Yekatom and Ngaïssona case: ICC Presidency constitutes Trial Chamber V – 17 Mar. 2020

Coalition for the International Criminal Court – ICC Pre Trial Chamber II confirms charges against Alfred Yekatom and Patrice-Edouard Ngaïssona – 17 Dec. 2020