International Criminal Court opens investigation into alleged crimes against humanity in Venezuela

By: Christopher Martz

Journal of Global Rights and Organizations, Managing Editor

The International Criminal Court opened a formal investigation at the beginning November into allegations of torture and extrajudicial killings committed by Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and his security apparatus. This is the first time a country in Latin America is under investigation for possible crimes against humanity from the ICC.

Andreina Baduel wears a T-shirt that reads in Spanish “Justice and Freedom” and holds a sign with pictures of people during a protest against political prisoners outside the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (SEBIN), known as the Helicoide, in Caracas, Venezuela, Wednesday, Nov 3, 2021. Andreina’s father, former Defense Minister Raúl Isaías Baduel, died while in prison. The sign at right reads “Enough persecution!.” Photo courtesy of AP Photo and Ariana Cubillos.

On November 3rd, standing next to Maduro, ICC Prosecutor Karim Khan said he was aware of the political “fault lines” and “geopolitical divisions” that exist in Venezuela.  He continued, stating “I ask everybody now, as we move forward to this new stage, to give my office the space to do its work… I will take a dim view of any efforts to politicize the independent work of my office.”

The ICC announcement follows a lengthy preliminary probe started in February 2018 — later backed by Canada and five Latin American governments opposed to Maduro — that centered on allegations of excessive force, arbitrary detention, and torture by security forces during a crackdown on antigovernment protests in 2017.

The announcement was celebrated by human rights groups and the U.S.-backed opposition. Notably, since its creation two decades ago, the ICC has mostly focused on atrocities committed in Africa.

Jose Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director for Human Rights Watch described the announcement as turning point. He stated that the investigation can provide hope to the many victims of Maduro’s government while also serving as a reality check that Maduro could be held accountable for crimes committed by his security forces and others with total impunity in the name of the Bolivarian revolution. However, It could be years before any criminal charges are presented as part of the ICC’s investigation.

Maduro responded that he disagreed with Khan’s criteria in choosing to open the probe, but expressed optimism that a three-page letter of understanding he signed with Khan allows Venezuelan authorities to carry out their own proceedings in search of justice, something allowed under the Rome statute. Maduro emphasized the importance of the letter of understanding, stating that collaboration was key to obtaining justice.

Maduro’s government last year also asked the ICC to investigate the U.S. — which is not among the ICC’s 123 member states — for its policy of economic sanctions focused on removing Maduro. Venezuela considers the U.S. sanctions tantamount to “unlawful coercive measures” that have subjected millions of Venezuelans into poverty.

United Nations investigators have repeatedly reported patterns of rights abuses in the authoritarian country that constitute “crimes against humanity.”

A report by the United Nations’ top human rights body last year concluded that Maduro, and members of his administration, coordinated activities and supplied resources for arbitrary detentions, torture, disappearances and extrajudicial killings. It recommended that the findings be probed by international courts.

One political detainee told U.N. investigators of being held in a coffin-like vessel in the basement of intelligence police headquarters. Another female witness who was arrested following street protests told a U.N. panel she was tortured with electric shocks and threatened with rape.

For further information, please see:

Reuters – ICC prosecutor says he will open investigation into Venezuela  – 03 Nov. 2021

The Washington Post –International Criminal Court opens probe into alleged crimes against humanity in Venezuela – 04 Nov. 2021

Your Basin – International Criminal Court to probe abuses in Venezuela – 03 Nov. 2021


Progress in Recognition of Climate Refugees

By: Michelle Leal

Journal of Global Rights and Organizations, Notes and Comments Editor

NEW ZEALAND – On January 7, 2020, the UN Human Rights Committee took a step towards protecting future climate refugees in its ruling of Ioane Teitiota v. New Zealand

Island Nation of Kiribati Affected by Climate Change. Photo Courtesy of Oxford Human Rights Hub.

Ioane Teitiota, a national of Kiribati, sought refugee status in New Zealand. Teitiota claimed refugee status based on the changes to Kiribati’s environment caused by sea-level rise associated with climate change. A refugee and protection officer declined to grant Teitiota refugee status. Teitiota appealed, but the Immigration and Protection Tribunal (IPT) dismissed Teitiota’s case in June 2013. Over the next two years, Teitiota applied to the High Court, Court of Appeal, and Supreme Court for leave to appeal the IPT’s decision. However, all three refused to grant leave to appeal. In September 2015, Teitiota and his family were deported from New Zealand to Kiribati. 

In February 2016, Teitiota brought a case against the New Zealand government at the UN Human Rights Committee (HRC). Teitiota claimed that by forcibly returning him to Kiribati, New Zealand violated his right to life under Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Specifically, Teitiota argued that the rise in sea level and other climate change effects had caused Kiribati to be uninhabitable. Further, Teitiota claimed that there were violent land disputes caused by the increasingly scarce habitable land. Finally, Teititiota argued that environmental degradation made subsistence farming difficult, and saltwater contaminated Kiribati’s freshwater supply. 

The HRC noted that while the right to life under Article 6 of the Covenant must be interpreted broadly, there is a high threshold for proving a real risk of a violation exists. With the high threshold in mind, the HCR ultimately rejected Teitiota’s claim. 

Notably, the HRC expressly recognized the sudden-onset and slow-onset events caused by climate change that created a real risk that Kiribati may become submerged. However, the HRC found that this risk was not imminent as required for a violation under Article 6. Further, the HRC highlighted the Kiribati Government’s current efforts to curb climate change and noted that there was still time for intervening acts by the international community to combat climate change. 

Additionally, the HRC rejected Teitiota’s claim regarding violent land disputes caused by increasing unhabitable land. The HRC stated that Article 6’s “risk to life” must be personal and that a situation of general violence was not enough. Since Teitiota was never personally threatened or involved in an instance of land violence, the land violence failed to be a violation under Article 6. Finally, the HRC determined that while farming and freshwater access became increasingly difficult, it was not impossible, and therefore, Teitioa’s deportation did not violate Article 6. 

Although Teitiota’s claim was unsuccessful, many regard the HRC determination as ground-breaking. The ruling set forth new standards that could facilitate the success of future climate refugee claims. Namely, the standard that states must consider human rights violations caused by the climate crisis when considering asylum seekers’ deportation. With this landmark first step towards recognizing climate refugees and the number of climate-related refugees likely rising, it will be interesting to see how states handle these claims in the future. 

For further information, please see:

Amnesty International – UN Landmark Case for People Displaced by Climate Change – 20 Jan. 2020

New Security Beat – Climate Migration and Cities: Preparing for the Next Mass Movement of People – 19 Oct. 2020

Oxford Human Rights Hub – Teitiota v New Zealand: A Step Forward in the Protection of Climate Refugees under International Human Rights Law? – 28 Jan. 2020

UN Human Rights Committee, Refworld – Ioane Teitiota v. New Zealand – 7 Jan. 2020

Christopher Jones v. Tanzania Reparations Ruled On

By: William Krueger

Impunity Watch Staff Writer

ARUSHA, Tanzania – On October 1st, 2002 Christopher Jones and Erasto Samson were alleged to have stolen valuables from Habibu Saidi and assaulted him with a machete strike to the face. Jones was a second-hand clothes street trader in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

Image of the African Court on Human and People’s Rights. Photo Courtesy of the African Court.

After a trial in the Morogoro District Court, Jones and Samson were found guilty of the charges on February 13th, 2004, and were both sentenced to thirty years in prison and twelve cane strokes, a form of corporal punishment. Jones had filed appeals for his conviction to the High Court of Tanzania on February 26th, 2004 but was dismissed. Jones then filed with the Court of Appeal of Tanzania on September 21st, 2005. The Court of Appeal of Tanzania responded on March 27th, 2009 by amending his sentence to remove the twelve cane strokes but otherwise denying action on his thirty-year term of imprisonment.

Jones had alleged to the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights in an application received by the Court on May 11th, 2015 that he was wrongly convicted of the offense against Habibu Saidi as the victim incorrectly identified some of the stolen items. Jones argued that the applied sentence was incorrect because the statute used in his conviction was amended in 2004 to allow a sentence of thirty years. Finally, Jones alleged that the United Republic of Tanzania failed to provide him with counsel or any form of legal assistance as promised under the 1977 Constitution of the United Republic of Tanzania. For the injustices Jones alleges to have suffered he asks for his guilty verdict to be reversed, to be immediately released from prison, and to issue Tanzania to pay an order of reparations.

Tanzania’s response to the Court states that Jones has not invoked the jurisdiction of the court and should be dismissed. Tanzania goes further and says that even if jurisdiction was invoked then Jones’ complaint should be dismissed for being inadmissible under Rules of the Court and that the Court itself has no jurisdiction to compel Tanzania to release Jones from prison via order. Tanzania asks for the Court to find that its treatment of Jones did not violate the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the 1977 Constitution of the United Republic of Tanzania. Tanzania also requests that the court find Jones’ sentence to not be excessive or discriminatory.

In the final judgment of the case by the Court, it found that Jones was not wrongly convicted as there was testimony by multiple witnesses beyond Habibu Saidi and he was apprehended on the scene of the robbery by authorities. On the allegation that Jones was not provided legal assistance by Tanzania, the Court found that Jones was never offered legal aide and thus Tanzania had violated Article 1 and 7 (1) (c) of the Charter. The Court ruled that Jones’ thirty-year sentence for armed robbery was correct as Tanzania had allowed a minimum sentence of thirty years for armed robbery since 1994. The Court ruled that Jones would be able to seek reparations for the failure of Tanzania to provide him with legal assistance.

On September 25th, 2020 the Court released its ruling on the reparations for Jones. Jones was not ordered to be set free as his conviction was found to be just by the Court. The only reparation to be granted to Jones was 300,000 Tanzanian Shillings for not being granted legal aid by Tanzanian authorities.  

For further information, please see:

African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights – Judgment (Reparations) – 25 Sept. 2020

African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights – Judgment Summary – 25 Sept. 2020

African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights – Judgment – 28 Sept. 2017

ICC to Accept Amici Curiae for Jurisdictional Issue in Palestine

By: Andrew Kramer

Impunity Watch Staff Writer

Demonstrators outside the International Criminal Court in The Hague calling for the Court to prosecute the Israeli military. Photo Courtesy of the Guardian.

THE HAGUE, the Netherlands – On February 20, 2020, Pre-Trial Chamber I of the International Criminal Court (“ICC”) issued a decision granting the requests of 43 parties to submit amici curiae briefs regarding the Situation in the State of Palestine. The parties, representing nations, esteemed professors, human rights organizations, and legal associations, have until March 16, 2020 to file their observations.  

Amici curiae, literally “friends of the court,” are individuals or groups who are not parties to the case, but which have a strong interest in the matter.  Courts may authorize an individual or group to become an amicus curiae, and submit information or advice regarding issues in the case.

In the decision, the Court limited the scope of submissions only to the issue of the Court’s jurisdiction in Palestine, specifically the territories of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza. At the root of the issue is whether Palestine is a sovereign state capable of granting the ICC jurisdiction over its territory. 

Although Palestine acceded to the Rome Statute, the ICC’s founding document, Palestine’s recognition as a sovereign has been fiercely contested.  While 138 of the 193 United Nations member states recognize the sovereign, the State of Palestine is not currently recognized by any North American country, Australia, and most of Western Europe.

Each of the seven countries which have requested leave to file an amicus brief indicated an intention to argue that the ICC does not have jurisdiction in Palestine.  Even countries which have previously recognized the State of Palestine, such as Brazil, doubt the Court’s jurisdiction there.  These countries reason that the ICC should only be involved in cases where jurisdiction is undisputed, and indicate an unwillingness to “politicize the Rome Statute.”  This stance has drawn criticism from many pro-Palestine individuals and organizations, which argue opponents to ICC jurisdiction are attempting to shield Israel from the possibility of international criminal prosecution for offenses allegedly committed on Palestinian territory.

This issue of jurisdiction regarding the Situation in Palestine could prove to be a pivotal decision for the development of the ICC.  A ruling in favor of jurisdiction would be an ambitious step for the Court in prosecuting human rights offenses, but may cause the Court to fall out of favor with the Western nations which largely comprise it.  Alternatively, while a ruling against ICC jurisdiction would be consistent with views of the nations who do not recognize Palestine, it could set the precedent that the ICC will only respond to the complaints of territories which are unequivocally sovereign.  This could leave individuals who have suffered human rights offenses in unrecognized territories without recourse.

For further information, please see:

International Criminal Court – Court Records: Situation in the State of Palestine – 20 Feb. 2020

International Criminal Court – Decision on Applications for Leave to File Observations – 20 Feb. 2020

International Criminal Court – Palestine: Preliminary Examination – 28 Jan. 2020

United Nations – Status of Palestine in the United Nations – 26 Nov. 2012