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

ICC Authorizes Investigation into Afghanistan

By: Andrew Kramer

Impunity Watch Staff Writer

THE HAGUE, The Netherlands – On March 5, 2020, the Appeals Chamber of the International Criminal Court (“ICC”) authorized the Prosecutor to begin investigations into alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Afghanistan dating back to May 1, 2003.  All sides of the armed conflict may now be subject to investigation.

A crater caused by a car bombing in Kabul, Afghanistan. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack. Photo Courtesy of the New York Times.

This judgement amended a previous decision of Pre-Trial Chamber II, which had unanimously rejected the Prosecutor’s previous request for authorization to conduct an investigation on April 12, 2019.  Pre-Trial Chamber II determined that an investigation into the Situation in Afghanistan would not serve the interests of justice, and successful investigation and prosecution would be unlikely.  In the resulting appeal of this decision, the Appeals Chamber found that the Pre-Trial Chamber erred in considering the “interests of justice” factor.  According to the Appeals Chamber, the Pre-Trial Chamber should have addressed only whether there was a reasonable factual basis for the Prosecutor to proceed with an investigation. Additionally, the Appeals Chamber found that the Prosecutor had indeed met that burden during the Pre-Trial proceedings.

This decision has drawn criticism from the United States government, who may now be the subject of prosecution in the Court.  The United States is not a state party to the ICC and has never been since the Court’s inception. While speaking with reporters in Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the ruling a “truly breathtaking action by an unaccountable, political institution masquerading as a legal body.”  Last year, the United States government revoked the visa of ICC chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda after she indicated her intentions to pursue the case. Pompeo previously stated the United States would revoke the visas of any staff involved with prosecuting war crimes in Israel, as well.

The Appeals Chamber decision has furthered the Court’s goal of becoming a truly independent body, and holding any nation accountable for its actions, however upsetting the United States may cause allied nations to distance itself from the Court.  While other United States administrations have been cautiously neutral in supporting the ICC, the Trump administration has taken a firm stance against the Court and its legitimacy. The absence of any significant enforcement mechanism in the Court leaves the ICC only as powerful as the member nations deem it to be.  If the United States chooses to not comply with ICC demands, it may frustrate prosecution attempts with little recourse, and delegitimize the Court.

For further information, please see:

International Criminal Court – Appeals Chamber Decision on the Situation in Afghanistan – 5 Mar. 2020

International Criminal Court – ICC Appeals Chamber Authorises the Opening of an Investigation – 5 Mar. 2020

The New York Times – I.C.C. Allows Afghanistan War Crimes Inquiry to Proceed, Angering U.S. – 5 Mar. 2019

International Criminal Court – ICC Judges Reject Opening of an Investigation Regarding Afghanistan Situation – 12 Apr. 2019

African Commission Seeks Justice in South Sudan Despite Non-Cooperation by State Government

By: Eronmwon Joyce Irogue

Impunity Watch Staff Writer

JUBA, South Sudan – The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (“ACHPR”) expressed its fears concerning the “non-implementation of the Revitalized Peace Agreement on the Resolution of Conflict in South Sudan of September 2018” in a press statement released in February 2020. The war crimes court of South Sudan was established through the 2015 and 2018 peace deals with the goal of bringing violators to justice and providing retribution for victims of the atrocities committed during the South Sudan Civil War. This court is now threatened by the South Sudan government’s use of “US-based lobbyists” to prevent the court’s creation.  

South Sudanese soldier walks past group of women. Photo Courtesy of Reuters/Siegfried Modola.

Many human rights violations have occurred in South Sudan, but they peaked in 2013 during the armed conflict between President Salva Kirr Mayardit’s forces and opposition forces led by former Vice President Riek Machar. In 2014, South Sudanese Civil Organizations wrote an open letter to ACHPR to address the incessant violations of human rights and humanitarian law in Sudan, urging ACHPR to issue a resolution and establish a Commission of Inquiry.

In 2018, the Commissioner Rapporteur on the Human Rights Situation in South Sudan sent a Letter of Concern to the President of South Sudan. The letter highlighted the increase in violations of women’s right to security and cited the more than 150 women who have been attacked and raped in the Northern region of South Sudan between November and December 2018. This demonstrates the continuing high rate of human rights violations in South Sudan despite the civil war having ended.

The ACHPR is substantially limited in South Sudan because it is the only African Union country which does not permit the ACHPR to hear cases. Due to this arrangement, human rights violations, especially those perpetrated against women, will continue unless the South Sudanese government stops delaying the creation of the war crimes court and recognizes the importance of the brokered peace deal. This will be the first step in the right direction for South Sudan and Africa.

For further information, please see:

African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights – Press Statement on the Human and Peoples’ Rights Situation in South Sudan – 21 Feb. 2020

Human Rights Watch – South Sudan Cynical Bid to Block War Crimes Court – 30 Apr. 2019

African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights – Letter of Concern to The Republic of South Sudan – 28 Dec. 2018

Human Rights Watch – Open letter To The Members of The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights From South Sudanese Civil Society Organizations – 7 Mar. 2014

Open Society Justice Initiative – African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights – June 2013

Russia’s Criminal Investigation Procedures Don’t Comply with Convention on Human Rights

By: Jacob Tyson

Impunity Watch Staff Writer

STRASBOURG, France – On February 4, 2020, the European Court of Human Rights (“ECHR”) found the Russian government responsible for 29 cases of torture and inhuman or degrading treatment by police officers, violations of Article 3 and Article 13 of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, and awarded 835,000 euros in pecuniary damages to the victims. The treatment the victims received included electric shock, strangulation, needles being placed under fingernails, rape, and threats of torture toward family members.

Man is arrested by Russian law enforcement. Photo Courtesy of The Moscow Times/AP.

The case revolved around whether the complaints were credible and admissible even though they relied on faulty investigations. The Court opined that medical examinations, especially in cases of ill-treatment toward prisoners and detainees, are an essential safeguard of human life and the justice process. However, without this information, human rights investigations can be inadmissible in court. Here, multiple applicants were not examined until weeks after their complaints of torture. Upon examination, the forensic experts were not provided with enough information which made it impracticable for the experts to create an accurate picture of what happened to these prisoners. The experts, instead, relied on the pre-investigation inquiry by the Russian authorities.

According to the Court, this was an inadequate effort by the Russian government. The Court held that the mere carrying out of a pre-investigation inquiry under the Code of Criminal Procedure of the Russian Federation is insufficient to comply with Article 3 of the Convention. “It is incumbent on the authorities to institute criminal proceedings and conduct a proper criminal investigation in which a full range of investigative measures are carried out,” the Court wrote.

This could have a significant impact on criminal procedure in Russia, as well as other Council of Europe member states, to ensure more thorough and accurate investigations into police brutality and inhumane prison practices. However, since 2015, Russian President, Vladimir Putin, signed a bill allowing the Constitutional Court to circumvent rulings of the ECHR and any other rulings by international human rights bodies in an effort to protect Russian legal sovereignty. It is unlikely this ruling will affect the way Russia conducts its investigations in the future or in its 15,000 currently pending ECHR applications.

For further information, please see:

European Court of Human Rights – Applications nos. 47821/09 against Russia – 4 Feb. 2020

МБХ – ЕСПЧ Присудил Россиянам 1 Млн Евро за Незаконные Обыски и Пытки в Полиции – 4 Feb. 2020

The Moscow Times – Russia Ordered to Pay $1M to Police Brutality Victims – 5 Feb. 2020