Pro-Democracy Demonstrations in Thailand Shed Light on the Government’s Troubling Constraint on the Right to Freedom of Expression

By: Rachel Brenner

Journal of Global Rights and Organizations, Associate Articles Editor

BANGKOK, Thailand – Recent pro-democracy demonstrations have put a spotlight on Thai authorities pressuring them to allow peaceful protests, end police crackdowns on nonviolent demonstrations, and stop the repeated use of serious criminal charges against individuals exercising their right to freedom of expression. Since demonstrations organized by the People’s Movement began on July 18, 2020, the Thai government and police have shown increased hostility toward protestors. Protestors are calling for the drafting of a new constitution, an end to harassment for exercising freedom of expression, and the dissolution of parliament.

Pro-democracy protesters during a rally near the Democracy Monument in Bangkok, Thailand on August 16, 2020.

On November 17th, police in Bangkok used water cannons laced with purple dye and teargas chemicals, teargas grenades, and pepper spray in an attempt to prevent peaceful protestors from reaching the national parliament. Demonstrators had planned to protest outside the parliament as debates over proposals for seven different constitutional amendments were underway. The Erawan Medical Centre in Bangkok reported at least 55 injuries, most of which resulted from teargas inhalation.

On November 18th, the spokesperson for the UN Secretary-General “expressed concern regarding the human rights situation in Thailand.” He emphasized that the Thai government must refrain from the use of force and ensure the full protection of Thai people who exercise their right to peaceful assembly. UN guidance on less-lethal weapons in law enforcement states that “water cannons should only be used in situations of serious public disorder where there is a significant likelihood of loss of life or injury,” and should only be used to the extent required to achieve a legitimate policing objective. In 1996, Thailand endorsed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which protects the right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. However, Thailand has consistently subdued discussions about human rights and public reforms.

Thailand’s royal family is protected by one of the world’s strictest defamation laws, known as lese majeste law. This controversial law, which is punishable by a maximum of 15 years in prison, prohibits defaming, insulting or threatening the royal family. Between July and November 2020, Thai Lawyers for Human Rights noted that at least 175 protestors had been prosecuted for taking part in political demonstrations. Many protestors face illegal assembly penalties, while some protest leaders face a more serious sedition charge. Additionally, at least five pro-democracy leaders face accusations of lese majeste in connection with the demonstrators’ call to reform the monarchy.

The lese majeste charges against pro-democracy leaders were the first time since 2018 that the law has been enforced, indicating that the Thai government is becoming increasingly frustrated with pro-democracy demonstrations. A senior researcher on Thailand at Human Rights Watch states that “as pro-democracy protestors break the longstanding taboo that prohibits Thai people from criticizing and challenging the monarchy, reactions from the state are becoming harsher.” The UN expressed concern over the charges, which inhibit the exercise of free speech, and urged the Thai government to amend the lese majeste law. Regardless of the government’s intolerance to listen to the demonstrators, these charges are unlikely to stop the movement due to the protestors’ outrage with Thailand’s outdated political system. 

For further information, please see:

Amnesty International- What’s Happening in Thailand: 10 things you need to know- November 6, 2020

CNN- Thai protest leaders report to police on charges of insulting the monarchy, as authorities’ tolerance wears out- November 30, 2020

CNN- Thousands protest in Bangkok after Thai parliament votes on constitutional reform- November 18, 2020

Statement by International NGO’s on Pro-Democracy Protests on November 17 and 25, 2020- November 25, 2020

UN News- Thailand: UN rights office deeply troubled by treason charges for protests- December 18, 2020

Vanghele and Others v. Romania Dismissed After No Response by Applicants to Court

By: William Krueger

Impunity Watch Staff Writer

STRASBOURG, France – On January 21, 2021 the Fourth Section of the European Court of Human Rights (Court) joined together and dismissed 19 applicant complaints of Article 3 of the Convention violations by the Romanian government. In the decision of Vanghele and Others v. Romania, the Fourth Section was composed of Armen Harutyunan, Jolien Schukking, Ana Maria Guerra Martins, and Viktoriya Maradudina.

The exterior of the Aiud Prison located in Aiud, Romania. Photo Courtesy of The National Administration of Penitentiaries.

The first application was introduced to the Court on May 1, 2016 by Adrian Vanghele, with other applications arriving from George Orbulescu, Florin Gabriel Popescu, Petrică Dobre, Gavril-Lucian Ciupea, Silviu-Sorin Ungureanu, Ion Horga, Dumitru Ignat, Fănel Serea, Mădălin-Ionuț, Adrian Stoica, Gabriel Dorel Popu, Dănuț-Marian Nastas, Marian Dincă, Alexandru-Cristian-Anton Gheorghe, Mihai Dumitru, Gheorghe Albu, Ambrosie Teglaş, and Alin Dondoți. Three of the applicants had even included notice of a representative to act on their behalf: Stocia Nicolae of Norway, Daniela Voduță of Vaslui, Romania, and Titiana-Daniela Satnoianu of Braşov, Romania. The three represented Horga, Ignat, and Teglaş respectively. The letters of all nineteen applicants were introduced to the Court from May 1, 2016 to March 13, 2017. Generally, in the applications the nineteen had complained that their detentions in Romanian facilities were in violation of Article 3 of the European Convention. Article 3 states that: “No one shall be subject to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” After the introduction of the letters, the Court informed the Romanian government of the complaint levied against it. The Romanian government submitted a response to the Court of its opinion on the admissibility of the complaints and the merits of an Article 3 violation. The applicants were invited to give their own observations; but none of the nineteen applicants replied.

In September 2020, the Court had sent each applicant a letter via registered mail that any observations submitted would be invalid as time had expired. The Court had set a new deadline however for all applicants in the same letter while reminding them of Article 37 in the European Convention. Article 37, specifically section 1(a), grants the court the right at any stage of a proceeding to strike an application from the list of cases if “the applicant does not intend to pursue his application.” All nineteen of the letters would be returned to the court in November 2020 without response. Most of the applicant’s letters would be returned to the court unclaimed, with four being returned as the applicant had been released from incarceration. According to court records, all nineteen applicants had been released from prison before the mailing of the letters. The Court was not notified of a change of address by any applicant and never received correspondence by an applicant or their representative.

In the Court’s decision, the Fourth Section concluded that the nineteen applicants must not desire continuing litigation. The Court then applied all of Article 37 section 1 to find there was no special circumstance that would lead the court to continue on the applicant’s behalf. The Court finished by joining all nineteen applications together and then striking the applications from the list of cases.

Vanghele and Others v. Romania was not the first time that alleged abuse of incarcerated individuals may have occurred under Romanian authority as according to a State Department of the United States Report on Human Rights Practices in Romania: prisons are overcrowded and undermaintained by Council of Europe standards, 633 complaints made by incarcerated persons to the National Penitentiary Authority in Romania were not referred to prosecutors, and medical care in Romanian prisons was insufficient.

European Court of Human Rights – European Convention – 6 Feb. 2013

European Court of Human Rights – Vanghele and Others v. Romania Decision – 21 Jan. 2021

European Court of Human Rights – Forthcoming Judgments and Decisions – 5 Jan. 2021

United States Department of State – 2019 Reports on Human Rights Practices: Romania – 11 Mar. 2020

Jade Mining in Myanmar Poses Severe Human Rights Abuses to the Health and Safety of its Workers

By: Kathryn Sharkey

Journal of Global Rights and Organizations, Associate Articles Editor

HPAKANT, Myanmar – If anyone has ever purchased jewelry made from jadeite, perhaps they should consider how that necklace or ring came into their possession. Jade mining in Myanmar has received little to no recognition from mass media, but even more unfortunate is the lack of recognition that its labor has resulted in the loss of thousands of lives.

Jade pickers hold onto each other while carrying large stones up steep hills where the stones will be cracked open in search of any jadeite slivers. Photo Courtesy of TIME.

Many people have died trying to make a living by searching for jade stones. Some of these individuals are children, who are forced into labor. Despite the high-risk environment, these workers desperately continue to search for jade stones to feed the billion-dollar industry. Led by China, this industry relies heavily on Myanmar mines since they have produced approximately seventy percent of the world’s jade.

These jade pickers spend hours every day and sometimes, even more dangerously, hours at night, sifting through rocks and dirt searching for “stones of heaven.” The environment and conditions under which they labor is anything but “heaven.” Precarious working conditions pose extreme risks for the jade pickers who often work on unstable, steep ground and are at severe risk of being swept away or buried by unexpected mudslides during the monsoon season. In 2020 alone, almost two hundred workers died as a result of mudslides. Amongst those lost were many child workers. Bodies are almost never recovered due to the terrain and the fact that most laborers are illegal migrants, drug addicts, and rarely thought to be persons worth finding. Some workers die due to rampant infection within mining camps, such as HIV from unsanitary needles. Nearly all of them die alone and terrified. Families of those who have died in the mines receive almost no compensation for their loss.

The industry itself is tight-lipped about labor conditions and most of Myanmar’s mines are completely closed off to unwanted visitors. Many of these mines are also run illegally and without proper licensing. Security appears to be overboard, but the Myanmar army maintains control over the jade mines. According to a senior campaigner at Global Witness, “If you keep the jade business in a black box and don’t let any information get out, it’s hard to put pressure on the people that control the industry.” The army has made sure of that.

Stones found by the workers vary in price depending on size. Most workers only make a small wage each day, but some who fail to find any stones walk away with no pay for that day. Supervisors or corporate entities profit off of larger stones, forcing jade pickers to earn little profit.

The National League for Democracy has failed the laborers, having made no effort to implement regulatory policies to help curb the devasting conditions under which vulnerable adults, and especially young children, operate in. Civil and human rights activists have been advocating for change but calls for reform are largely overlooked. The industry has remained corrupt and will likely continue to pose severe risks to the health and lives of Myanmar’s men, women, and children working there for the foreseeable future.

For more information, please see:

BBC News – ‘I feel guilty for surviving’: The deadly hunt for jade in Myanmar – Aug. 3, 2020

International Labour Organization – Child labour in Myanmar’s jade mines is a deadly gamble – Jan. 10, 2021

The Diplomat – A Deadly Gamble: Myanmar’s Jade Industry – July 13, 2020

The National News – Jade trade in Myanmar thrives on exploitation, rights abuses – Sep. 29, 2008

TIME – Myanmar’s Jade Mines May Yield Great Wealth – But They Leave A Long Trail of Death – Mar. 9, 2017

Ratification of African Court Protocol Symbolizes a New Hope for Human Rights in the Democratic Republic of Congo

By: Chelsea Simpson

Journal of Global Rights and Organizations, Technical Director

ARUSHA, Tanzania – The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) ratified the African Court Protocol to the African Charter of Human and People’s Rights in an attempt to safeguard human rights.

Photo of protestors in Congo advocating for government officials to adhere to the constitution and peacefully conduct democratic elections. Photo Courtesy of Human Rights Watch, Congo.

On December 8, 2020, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) officially deposited its ratification instrument of the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights. This ratification is in support of the establishment of the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights. Its purpose is to promote and protect human rights and freedoms in Africa.

The move to ratify the protocol is a positive step in the right direction for safeguarding human rights in DRC. Human rights violations have been a major concern in the DRC for many years, and increasingly so in the past three years due to the long-delayed presidential, legislative, and provisional elections. The delayed elections led to substantial unrest in the DRC. Amnesty International reports that by December 2019 over one million Congolese were forcibly displaced as a result of election violence. The violence also resulted in the death of over 1,500 civilians and thousands more injured. A widespread critique is that these continued human rights abuses are perpetuated by a lack of accountability by the perpetrators. Accordingly, DRC’s ratification of this protocol gives positive hope towards a new future of human rights protections in DRC.

This picture captures the unrest following delayed presidential elections of the Democratic Republic Congo. Photo Courtesy of PLUStvAfrica.

Although the ratification of the protocol is a bold step in the right direction for human rights in DRC, there is still more DRC can do to safeguard the human rights of its citizens. Currently, 31 member states of the African Union have ratified the protocol. Only six of the 31 member states to the protocol have deposited the Declaration under Article 34(6) to allow NGOs and individuals access to the African Court directly. Those six member states are Burkina Faso, Gambia, Mali, Malawi, and Tunisia.

Under Article 34(6) of the victims of human rights violations would be allowed to fiercely bring their cases to the African Court in hope of attaining justice. The allowance of this access to justice is a possible solution towards ending the culture of impunity and accountability in DRC.

This step for DRC is one of the necessary many on the journey of human rights protections. Swift action should be taken to continue the protection of human rights in DRC. Although the ratification of the protocol proves a willingness to acknowledge an issue of adherence to human rights protocols, further attempts to end the culture of impunity through signing the 34(6) declaration should be taken.

For further information, please see:

African Court – Democratic Republic of Congo Ratifies the Protocol on the Establishment of the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights – 11 Dec. 2020

Amnesty International – The Democratic Republic of Congo 2019

BBC News – DR Congo Elections: Five Things to Know – 30 Dec. 2018

Jurist – DR Congo Ratifies Protocol Establishing African Court of Human Rights – 16 Dec. 2020  

The Citizen – DR Congo Now Ratifies African Court Protocol – 13 Dec. 2020

Transgender Rights Victory in Europe

By: Veronica Devries

Journal of Global Rights and Organizations, Associate Articles Editor

BUCHAREST, Romania – The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has held in the case of X and Y v. Romania that the applicants had experienced a violation of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Article 8 covers the right to respect for one’s private and family life.

Pride parade in Bucharest, Romania in 2019. Photo Courtesy of Balkin Insight and Robert Ghement.

The case concerned X and Y, two Romanian nationals registered female at birth, that applied for their civil-status records to be changed from female to male. They were born in 1976 and 1982, respectively, and live in the United Kingdom and Bucharest. X brought an action in 2013 against Bucharest’s first district’s local council. X presented several medical certificates to confirm that he suffered from a gender identity disorder. Despite this, the district refused to change his gender, stating that the change was “premature” as X had not undergone gender reassignment surgery. X moved to the United Kingdom in 2014 and obtained male forenames thereafter the courts in Romania had refused to change his gender.

Y brought an action against the local council for the third district in Bucharest. Y requested authorization to undergo gender reassignment surgery, along with various administrative changes, including a civil-status change of their gender like X had requested. In May 2013, the court stated that the applicant would not be able to apply for a change in forename until the gender reassignment surgery had been performed.

In their complaints, the applicants stated that the Romanian state had not established a clear process for the legal recognition of their gender identities, as the state was effectively making gender reassignment surgery a prerequisite for a civil-status change.

On January 19, 2021, the ECHR ruled that the state’s refusal to provide the requested administrative changes without the applicants having undergone surgery was an “unjustified interference” of the applicants’ right to respect for private and family life. This right is found in Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

In its decision, the ECHR held that the state had unreasonably required gender reassignment surgery in order for the administrative change to occur. In a statement, the ECHR stated “…the national courts had presented the applicants, who did not wish to undergo gender reassignment surgery, with an impossible dilemma; either they had to undergo the surgery against their better judgement…or they had to forego recognition of their gender identity…”

The ECHR required Romania to pay 8,653 euros to X in damages, and 7,500 euros to Y in damages, in addition to paying costs to each applicant.  

For further information, please see:

Balkan Insight – European Court Rules Romania Violated Trans Rights – 19 Jan. 2021

European Convention on Human Rights – 1 June 2010

European Court of Human Rights – Press Release – 19 Jan. 2021

Radio Free Europe News – European Human Rights Court Fines Romania For Transgender Rights Violations – 19 Jan. 2021

TGEU – Third Party Intervention X v Romania and Y v Romania – 19 July 2018