Iranian Sanctions Lifted

This week marks a new chapter in the world’s relation with Iran after more than a decade’s standoff and confrontation. The sanctions imposed by the United Nations against Iran have been officially lifted after the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) certified Iran’s compliance of the international agreement that ensured it would not develop nuclear weapons. Iran would now be able to access its previously frozen assets, increase its oil exports, and develop formal business and trade relations with foreign countries.

These fresh opportunities have long been awaited by the Iranian people, who had suffered deeply from high levels of inflation and shortage of necessary items, such as medical supplies, under stringent restrictions placed on the Iranian currency. Much hope has also been placed on the Iranian government to revitalise the country’s crippled economy, and attract investments from abroad through restoring international faith in the country.

However, with sabre-rattling both from the US right and the Revolutionary Guard, as well as complicated commitments in the wider Middle East, Iran’s nuclear peace is a delicate one.

Can the sanctions hold, and do they herald a new period in Iran’s relations with the wider world? And will Iran’s longstanding enmity with Saudi Arabia lead to greater conflict in the region? Whatever your view, send it in - via Twitter, Facebook or our website. The contributors with the best insights will be invited to explore their views further for our journal Sir!

Are international legal barriers sufficient?

Khoo Wu Shaun

We live in a time when international law has steadily become an accepted norm of global diplomacy. Today, unilateral invasions of other sovereign countries are decried as ‘violations of international law’; barely a century ago, the only sounds anyone heard were those of the victors announcing their success. We have come quite a long way since Bentham first coined this term in the 18th century.

Yet, international law has not shed its image of being toothless. We have seen countries act in defiance of international law, but leave happily unpunished for their transgressions. This article will examine what these international legal barriers are, and whether they are currently sufficient to deter countries from intruding on the sovereignty of other nation-states.

Questions of legality in an international context are far more complex than those in a local context. Within a country, sovereignty empowers the government to set and enforce laws on people within its jurisdiction. Globally, it is difficult to define any clear overriding principle or government which can fulfil those roles. Our closest option is the United Nations (UN), an inter-governmental organisation which serves to promote peace and cooperation between member states. The International Court of Justice (ICJ), founded in 1945, serves as the UN’s judicial branch. Its purpose is to settle legal disputes submitted to it by member states and provide advisory opinions on legal questions for the UN bodies. But, since there is no global legislation for international law, where do these legal barriers we apparently pay homage to come from?

In the landmark North Sea Continental Shelf case, the ICJ affirmed that there are two primary sources of international law: treaties, or customary international law (CIL). Treaties are more enforceable than custom, as the countries have explicitly consented to the provisions contained within the document. In contrast, CIL is derived from customary practices between states. 

Most are aware that UN Security Council (UNSC) resolutions are legally binding on all member states in the UN. In some sense, UNSC resolutions also serve as a form of international law, since it applies to all countries regardless of whether they agree with the content of the resolution. Since their legal authority flows from the UN Charter, UNSC resolutions fall under the first category of treaties and agreements. 

Thus, international jurisprudence clearly exists, although it is less obvious than national legislation. Another question arises here: since there is no global government, what kind of punishments can international law mete out, and are these effective?

Theoretically speaking, the ICJ enjoys unfettered discretion in handing down punishments to countries which have violated international law, since there is no “international legislation” which states the maximum or minimum punishment for a particular offence. Realistically, the ICJ has little room to mete out harsh punishments, as their credibility hinges on countries viewing the ICJ as a fair judicial body, and not an overly strict and punitive institution. Despite this, the ICJ has doled out quite a few punishments, from ordering a country to withdraw from an occupied territory to ordering reparations for damages. Crucially, ICJ judgements are influential in global discourse. In the case of the Legal Consequences of the Construction of a Wall in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, the ICJ ruling that Israel had violated international law served as a powerful riposte to Israel’s constant denial to the contrary.

Although the ICJ seems toothless, its judgements are actually supported by the UN Charter, which empowers the UNSC to impose punitive measures for non-compliance, such as political and economic sanctions. Interestingly, most countries voluntarily comply with the judgement even if it was not in their favour. Countries are aware that if they lose and refuse to follow ICJ judgements, they will become outcasts for refusing to comply with international law. It is telling that no country has ever blatantly refused to comply with ICJ judgements. 

Akin to how punishments deter people from harming other citizens, international law also serves to deter countries from harming the sovereignty of other nation-states. Examples of such actions include the use of force in disputed maritime areas or intentional neglect of transboundary crises. Is international law sufficiently robust as a deterrent to such actions? 

While treaties and agreements are legally binding, they also require all parties to unambiguously agree not to carry out certain actions.If, however, the country has a strong incentive to keep their options open, they would simply refuse to sign. For example, Israel and India are both powerful nuclear-armed states which have not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty due to regional security concerns. This hurts the treaty’s objective to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and its associated technology.

Perhaps UNSC resolutions are a better option since the resolutions are binding on all countries, circumventing the problem of requiring consent. However, the UNSC is only empowered to use its power in cases of “the maintenance of international peace and security”— hardly applicable to most problems in the world. Furthermore, the UNSC itself comprises countries which can protect their interests against the weight of international law – Russia and its annexation of Crimea come to mind here – and may not work in intractable situations.

The last possibility is customary international law, which appears to be the weakest tool of all three legal instruments. Yet some fundamental international principles— the right of international passage, rules on the use of force, and the duty to cooperate in transboundary environmental harm— were first conceptualised and subsequently reinforced in ICJ cases. These landmark cases have reinforced widespread agreement on certain issues, and crystallised this consensus into official CIL, thereby ensuring its fair application to all countries involved. Moreover, as we’ve seen, the ICJ has the influence and backing to ensure that its judgements are respected by the countries involved in disputes.

One drawback is that the ICJ does not have legal jurisdiction unless both countries declare they recognise the authority of the court. Some countries who have yet to officially acknowledge the ICJ have still proceeded with cases in it, somewhat undermining its authority. Furthermore, the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA), another international judicial body, recently ruled that it had jurisdiction over the Philippines’ case on China’s maritime and military activities in the South China Sea, despite China’s opposition to the proceedings. This demonstrates the growing force of international law which is slowly increasing its ability to influence global discourse and pressure countries into accepting its jurisdiction. This strengthens international legal barriers against unilateral intrusions on the sovereignty of other nation-states.

The implications of this are obvious. National legislation protects citizens, especially vulnerable ones, from harm. Similarly, international law functions as a protective barrier which shields weaker countries from the coercive pressures of stronger countries. In Nicaragua v. United States of America, the court ruled that the U.S. had illegally trained and funded anti-government rebels to overthrow the incumbent anti-American government. This sent a powerful message to the global community that superpowers cannot do as they wish: they are equally held to task by international law. 

Furthermore, global peer pressure and a body willing to persecute countries for illegal actions acts as a deterrent. For example, the U.S.’s foreign surveillance programme, PRISM, was criticised by government officials and legal experts from all over the world, forcing President Barack Obama to strengthen restrictions on the National Security Agency (NSA). In the past, the U.S. would have simply turned a deaf ear.

Having a strong understanding of its foundations, powers, and limitations is crucial towards developing this fledgling institution into an influential force for good in the world. Supranational judicial institutions, such as the ICJ and the PCA, still struggle for influence in countries where the rule of law and human rights protections are not as well-respected. It remains an uphill battle for these international courts as they slowly overturn the old belief that countries may do what they please as long as it is within their borders, or if they are the victors.

More essentially, international law serves as a platform for countries to tussle with each other over serious, but not drastic or permanent, intrusions of national sovereignty. In the past, the only available responses were acquiescence or full-out war. Today, international judicial bodies enable these countries to settle their disputes in a fair and peaceful manner. That must surely be the most important contribution that international law can make to the global community.

Hypocrisy at the Human Rights Council: backroom deals and the elevation of repressive Saudi Arabia

Amelia Cooper

The hypocrisy of the UN Human Rights Council has once again revealed itself, with the appointment of Saudi Arabia as the chair on a panel of independent experts.  

From high profile cases, such as the flogging and imprisonment of Raif Badawi, to systematic and entrenched discrimination against women, minorities and dissidents, the Kingdom demonstrates its disdain for human rights and civil liberties on a daily basis. 

Despite this, however, the country enjoys member status at the UN Human Rights Council. Not only does their position undermine a fundamental membership condition, to ‘uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights’, news recently broke that gaining their position included a clandestine vote-trading deal with Britain. 

Leaked diplomatic cables from the Saudi Arabian foreign ministry to the British state that “the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia would support the candidacy of the United Kingdom to the membership of the council for the period 2014-2015 in exchange for the support of the United Kingdom to the candidacy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia”. Another cable revealed that Saudi Arabia transferred $100,000 to Britain for “expenditures resulting from the campaign to nominate the Kingdom for membership of the human rights council for the period 2014-2016”. How this money has been spent remains unclear; however, these cables suggest that Britain was essentially contracted to bolster the reputation of one of the most repressive and abusive states in the world. As such, Britain is complicit in the whitewashing of Saudi Arabia’s reputation and the subversion of the foundational principles of the Human Rights Council. 

As if this isn’t bad enough, Saudi Arabia has just been selected as head of a five-person panel of independent experts, charged with appointing experts to fill UN mandate positions. It is a highly influential role, with the power of shaping approaches to thematic and country-specific roles through the selection of specific candidates. Saudi Arabia’s appointment has been met with anger and indignation – justifiably so – by activists worldwide. Ensaf Haidar, wife of Raif Badawi and leader of an international campaign to free him, said that giving the position to Saudi Arabia was effectively “a green light to start flogging [him] again”.

Saudi Arabia’s position as a member of the Council makes an absolute mockery of the UN system, underscored by the dubious circumstances in which they were elected. Their recent elevation, however, pours salt in the wounds of those languishing under a repressive and brutal state. 

The 29th Session of the Human Rights Council: Round-Up

Amelia Cooper

The 29th Session of the Human Rights Council closed last week, following three weeks of discussions that have culminated in the adoption of twenty-five resolutions with varying degrees of probity. In addition, six new Special Procedures mandate holders were appointed to address issues including, inter alia, the right to privacy, violence against women (including its causes and consequences), and the human rights of people with albinism. 

It is near impossible to provide a brief and cohesive summary of the Council’s session, due to the breadth of its agenda; however, there is an excellent report by the Universal Rights Group and a collection of detailed updates by FIDH for those seeking a more detailed analysis. Some outcomes are particularly notable in opening new fields for greater scrutiny (though that is not to say that they are more important than other resolutions adopted), such as: 

  • The passage of a resolution focused on the protection of migrants, including those in transit;
  • The passage of a resolution focused on the persecution of Rohingya Muslims and other minorities in Myanmar;
  • The passage of a landmark resolution condemning and seeking to combat child, early and forced marriage, the first of its kind; 
  • The adoption of a resolution focused on ensuring accountability for the violations of international law in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, following the release of a report by the independent Commission of Inquiry into the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict. The USA has received condemnation from states and CSOs alike for being the only member state to vote against this resolution; 
  • The renewal of the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on Eritrea, which will facilitate further fact-finding into and human rights monitoring of a deeply troubled state; and 
  • The creation of a Commission of Inquiry into human rights violations committed in South Sudan. 

What merits specific and focused discussion, however, is the presence of what FIDH President Karim Lahidji referred to as a ‘full-fledged offensive’ by a coalition of conservative states seeking to ‘deny the universality of human rights’. Headed by Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Russia, this group of States has become increasingly active in attempting to curtail and recharacterise human rights with subjective concepts such as ‘defamation’ and ‘traditional values’. 

This session, debates over three resolutions were the epicentres of attacks on universality, pertaining to violence against women, freedom of expression and the protection of the family. Amendments proposed by a number of states challenged the very meaning of equal human rights for all and threatened the protection afforded to individuals regardless of their sex, gender identity or sexual orientation. 

With regard to the resolution on violence against women, Egypt, Russia and a number of Gulf states submitted amendments to withdraw condemnation of marital rape and intimate partner violence. Though these amendments were fortunately voted down, the rights of the individual within a family or domestic context were threatened by the renewal of the resolution on the protection of the family. 

Despite its seemingly innocuous – and almost quaint – sounding title, the resolution shrouds a pernicious agenda that refuses, first, to recognise that the family may exist in diverse forms, including having same sex parents or child-headed families (indeed, proposed amendments to include such a fact were blocked with the invocation of the Procedural No Action motion, a device used to block substantive debate). Secondly, it fails to acknowledge that human rights violations can occur within a family context (as illustrated in the resolution on violence against women), and represents a shift away from individual rights. It is a resolution that stands in stark contrast to the ideals that the Human Rights Council was formed upon: rather than promoting equality and non-discrimination, it enshrines their antithesis. 

The concept of ‘defamation’ reared its ugly head once again during negotiations on the proposed resolution to protect artistic expression, which has since been abandoned. As previously discussed here, moving away from the defamation agenda with the passage of Resolution 16/18 was widely celebrated; I sincerely hope that it does not gain traction in coming sessions. 

As ever, therefore, a mixed bag of results from the Council: some successes which deserve to be celebrated, but also a number of failures that require public and widespread condemnation. It is clear that we cannot be complacent: if anything, public vigilance is required more than ever to ensure that the founding principles of the Council continue to provide the basis of its work, and that the attempts to undermine universal standards are soundly rebuffed. The Council will meet again in September – it is incumbent upon the international community to reaffirm the principle of human rights for all, and on us to hold the Council and our governments to account for doing so. 

Child Soldiers in South Sudan

Reports reveal further human rights abuses and child conscription

Will Yeldham, writing for the Organisation for World Peace

On June 29th the UN released a new report detailing not only ongoing child conscription by the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA), but also how attempts to verify first hand accounts were prevented by the SPLA. Members of the UN mission in Sudan (UNMISS) interviewed 115 victims and eyewitnesses in Unity State, which has been the sight of heavy fighting in recent months.  They recorded how the conflict has become characterised by 'new brutality and intensity' such as the allegation that SPLA soldiers raped then torched girls alive inside their homes. Indeed, The U.N. children’s agency also stated earlier this month that that warring forces have carried out horrific crimes against children, including castration, rape and tying them together before slitting their throats.
This corroborates the most recent report by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development. IGAD is ostensibly a trading bloc of 8 east African countries but has also provided a key platform to debate economic and security issues plaguing the region. Members of IGAD's monitoring and verification mechanism described how Major General Johnson Olony and Shilluk Militia, affiliated to SPLA, had "carried out forcible recruitment of an estimated 500-1000 youth, many of whom were children aged between 13 and 17 years". This took place between 7-9 June, when militias conducted house to house searches of Kodok and Wau Shilluk, and is only one example from the lengthy report listing similar violations.

South Sudan gained independence in 2011; however, the present conflict was sparked in 2013 when forces loyal to President Salva Kiir tried to put down an uprising led by his former deputy, Riek Machar.  In the resulting civil conflict thousands of people have been killed and almost two million displaced.  There has been renewed fighting after peace talks between the factions disintegrated in March this year and the SPLA launched a major offensive in April with fierce fighting in Unity State's northern Mayom district. 
The problems facing the international community in reducing violence and quelling the resulting human rights abuses are twofold. Firstly, the present difficulties in effectively punishing generals responsible has engendered a dangerous lack of accountability. The UN and its member states have spent many years encouraging the demobilisation of child soldiers in the region and supported the creation of the government's national Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration Commission. However, in the case of warlord David Yau Yau, UNICEF is in fact funding the reintegration of 1755 boys in his militia after he signed a peace deal that bagged him a high ranking government job. Indeed, the threat of culpability was so slight that Yau Yau gave the approximate number of children in his militia as twice that of what the DDRC found and released. Government officials who subsequently gave each of Yau Yau's soldiers monetary gifts only reinforced the benefits of child soldiering and in fact drew more children into the ranks ahead of planned release ceremonies.


All this means that, despite the illegality of the use and conscription of children under 18 in South Sudanese law, it appears as a legitimate method of recruitment to commanders on both sides of the conflict. 
Secondly, the hampering of UN investigations by SPLA forces must not be tolerated. The UN states that attempts to corroborate the eyewitness accounts featured in its most recent report were hampered by the SPLA who denied their teams access to the areas under question. "We call on the SPLA to fulfil this commitment and allow our human rights officers unfettered access to the sites of these reported violations," said Ellen Margrethe Loej, the head of UNMISS. However, the military spokesperson for the SPLA Philip Aguer Panyang stated that the accusations made in the UN report were in need of further verification and denied that troops had interfered with UN investigations stating: "Our role as an army is to facilitate humanitarian deliveries and access for civilian protection". Such denials only serve to hamper efforts to highlight and undermine the ongoing abuses. 

Both these issues lend credence to Human Rights Watch's comment that “military and political leaders on all sides have failed to make any serious attempt to reduce abuses committed by their forces, or to hold them to account”. It must be the task of the UN and the wider international community to force serious reduction in human rights violations through targeted sanctions, the proposed arms embargo and diplomatic pressure.


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