Today we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the world’s most universally ratified human rights treaty. The treaty requires the commitment of states that embrace it to do all possible to ensure children’s wellbeing, dignity and protection. The U.S., accompanied by Somalia and South Sudan, are the only three countries that have failed to ratify this important instrument of international law. One hundred and ninety-four nations – including all of America’s closest allies — have ratified the CRC. To say that the US is in bad company is an understatement.

The CRC was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1989 and became one of the most rapidly and widely adopted human-rights agreements. The United States signed it in 1995 but never ratified it. Signing a treaty implies that a country endorses its principles, whereas ratification means committing to be legally bound by it. Treaty ratification under US law requires that after the President sends the treaty to the Senate it must be approved by a two-thirds majority, the same standard required for a Constitutional amendment. The Convention on the Rights of the Child has never made it to a vote.

The Convention upholds the ideal that all children, everywhere, have the same human rights to survive and thrive, to learn and contribute to society. The CRC recognizes every child’s right to develop physically, socially and mentally to his or her fullest potential, to be protected from discrimination, exploitation, abuse, discrimination, and violence; to express his or her views freely and to participate in decisions affecting his or her future.

Most American laws are already consistent with the ideals of the CRC, but not all. A notable exception is that in the United States children under 18 can be incarcerated for life without parole. Since the treaty prohibits cruel and degrading punishment of children, those laws may be deemed in contravention of the treaty. Opponents of the treaty say it would usurp American sovereignty. Although America has laws against child abuse, a third of states allow corporal punishment in schools and none bans it at home. Parent-rights groups claim the treaty would undermine parents’ authority, particularly over religious and sex education.

Studies by the Children’s Defense Fund, UNICEF, and others show that, relative to its wealth and compared to other industrialized countries, the U.S does not fare well with regards child poverty, teen birth rates, low birth weight, infant mortality, child victims of gun violence, and the number of minors incarcerated. It is incomprehensible how the richest nation on earth allows one out of six children to live under the poverty level; how its laws permit a child to be killed by guns every three hours; or how so many children and families live without basic health insurance.

Ratification of the CRC in itself would not immediately change the situation of children in American. However, it might help establish a national framework to establish clear objectives that the federal and state governments, private organizations, and individuals, can use to shape policies and initiatives to better meet the needs of children and their families.

Internationally, ratification of the CRC would help enhance U.S. standing as a global leader in human rights. Additionally, as a party to the Convention, the U.S. would be eligible to participate in the Committee on the Rights of the Child (which is the international body that monitors the CRC’s implementation), and work toward strengthening further progress for children in all countries.

On behalf of President Bill Clinton, Madeline Albright signed the CRC in 1995, signaling the U.S. government’s intention to move toward ratification. But the George W Bush administration took no further action. President Obama has done nothing tangible towards getting the treaty ratified by the U.S. Senate.

As a presidential candidate in 2008, referring to the CRC, Barack Obama underscored the importance of the US returning “[…] to its position as a respected global leader and promoter of human rights” and promised to “[…] review this and other treaties to ensure that the U.S. resumes its global leadership in human rights.” Over 100 CEOs and leaders of prominent American child welfare organizations and faith-based groups have made a joint appeal to President Obama to order such a review.

As we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the CRC, many of us hope that the United States will join the international community in embracing the CRC as a safeguard for the defense of children’s rights and well being everywhere.


Gibraltar has been a British Overseas Territory since 1713, when Spain, under the Treaty of Utrecht, ceded it to Britain in perpetuity. The territory is just 2.6 square miles in size, and its population is estimated to be around 30,000. Gibraltar applied for full UEFA (Union of European Football Associations) membership and was accepted by the UEFA Congress in May 2013. Therefore, the Gibraltar “national” team will be able to compete in the UEFA European Championship beginning with the 2016 edition of the tournament.

The political situation of Gibraltar has been in dispute for decades. Spain argues that presently Gibraltar is much bigger than it was in 1713, and that in fact, part of its airport as well as housing on the west side of the island are built on reclaimed land. Spain asserts that the cession in the Treaty of Utrecht 1713 does not include the isthmus with the airport on it and the territorial waters, as the Treaty makes no mention about reclaimed land or territorial waters.

Gibraltar demands its right of self-determination pursuant to the universally recognized principle of international law, but Spain cites the UN principle of territorial integrity, through UN Resolution 1514 (XV), which says “any attempt at the partial or total disruption of the national unity and the territorial integrity of a country is incompatible with the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations.” Under the UN Principles of Decolonization, territorial integrity takes precedence over Gibraltar’s right to self-determination. So, Spain argues that Spanish integrity takes precedence over Gibraltar’s right to be independent.

The UK notes that Gibraltar was ceded by Spain in the Treaty of Utrecht 1713, giving “the full and entire propriety of the town and castle of Gibraltar, together with the port, fortifications, and forts there unto belonging… forever, without any exception or impediment whatsoever.” It cites longevity of occupation, and argues that the UN principle of territorial integrity, as per UN Resolution 1514 (XV) does not override the principle of self-determination. The same resolution says: “All peoples have the right to self-determination; by virtue of that right they freely determine their political status.”

There was a referendum in Gibraltar in 1967, which called on both Spain and the UK to take into account the “interests” of the people of Gibraltar. In the referendum, 12,138 of the 12,237 voters chose “voluntarily to retain their links with the UK.” The referendum was condemned by the UN General Assembly, and not recognized by any international body or state. In 2002 after diplomatic talks between the UK and Spain, a sovereignty referendum was held. Voters overwhelmingly rejected a plan to share sovereignty over Gibraltar between the UK and Spain. People from Gibraltar believe the right of self-determination was given to it by the UK in 1960, and that the UN Charter enshrines the right to self-determination of all colonial peoples.

The UN does not recognize Gibraltar as an independent state or its right to self-determination because, among other things, the population of Gibraltar is a community artificially created from heterogeneous origins since 1713 by “colonial processes” rather than indigenous, and therefore thought it might not fulfill the criteria for any form of nationhood that could be interpreted as giving a right to UN “national” self-determination principles.

A large part of the reason for the conflict between Gibraltar and Spain is about money. Spain has accused Gibraltar of being a corporate tax haven, allowing companies and wealthy individuals to avoid paying millions. Spain also believes the border is being abused and draining Spanish resources. Smuggling – cigarette smuggling in particular – and also alleged circumventing of Spanish residency taxes are claimed to be two of the major trans-border issues. Fishing rights are another point of contention, with both sides complaining about incursions by the other into their territorial waters.

The most recent confrontation between the Spanish and the British authorities in Gibraltar happened in 2013, when the police and naval vessels created a maritime cordon around the Gibraltar tug Eliott and the barge MHB Dole as dozens of purpose-built concrete blocks were dumped into the sea. The Gibraltar Government said the reef would encourage marine life and help regenerate the seabed. However, in marking the boundary of British Gibraltar territorial waters in that area, the line of cement blocks also prevents Spanish fishermen from raking the seabed for conch in breach of Gibraltar laws.

Gibraltar is another example of a population demanding its right to self-determination, and although the UN has clear rules based on international law as to what elements must be met for a people to become independent, conflicts around the world based on the right to self-determination are still prevalent (e.g. Catalonia, Northern Cyprus, Kurdistan, the Basque Country, etc.). When considering the competing claims of Gibraltar and Spain both governments have good arguments for their position, and it does not look that the conflict between Spain and Gibraltar will be resolved any time soon.

But at least the Gibraltar national team will be eligible to play in the Euro 2016 football championships. Gibraltar will play against Germany, Scotland, Poland, the Republic of Ireland and Georgia in Group D of the qualifying rounds. The blind draw had originally put Gibraltar in Group C alongside Spain but the UEFA Executive Committee had decided earlier that Gibraltar could not meet Spain, too much political tension I suppose….



Last month President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda signed into law a bill imposing harsh sentences for homosexual acts, including a penalty of life imprisonment for “aggravated homosexuality.”  Homosexual acts when one person is infected with HIV, “serial offenders,” and sex with minors, are examples of what is considered “aggravated homosexuality” under the new law.

The Ugandan anti gay law was first proposed in 2009, when an earlier provision, since dropped, proposed the death sentence for homosexual activity in certain cases. Gordon Brown, the then Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, and Stephen Harper, the Canadian Prime Minister at the time, publicly expressed their opposition to the bill. The government of France also criticized the bill, citing a “deep concern.” The European Parliament passed a resolution threatening to cut financial aid to Uganda, and even the Swedish government, which had had a long-term relationship with Uganda, said that it would revoke its $50 million development aid to the country if the bill passed. Dirk Niebel, the Federal Minister of Economic Cooperation and Development in Germany, also indicated at the time that financial aid to Uganda would be cut if the bill passed.

The US response was similar, stating that Uganda’s participation in the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) would be in jeopardy if the anti gay bill became law. Some African countries, including Uganda, benefit from AGOA, US legislation approved by Congress in 2000 for the purpose of helping the economies of sub-Saharan Africa. AGOA reduces tariffs on products imported from some African countries to promote commercial activities and help their economies.

Such strong international opposition resulted in the bill being eventually shelved, and led some to thinking that Uganda’s president would abandon its efforts to continue promoting anti gay policies in the country. However, last month, the new version of the bill which now punishes with life imprisonment some homosexual offenses, was enacted into law in Uganda.

Sadly, Uganda is not the only African nation with harsh anti gay laws. According to Amnesty International, homosexuality is illegal in 38 of 54 African countries, where most sodomy laws were introduced during colonialism. On January 2014, Nigeria’s president Goodluck Jonathan signed into law a new law that mandates a 14-year prison sentence for anyone entering a same-sex union, and a 10-year term for “a person or group of persons who supports the registration, operation and sustenance of gay clubs, societies, organizations, processions or meetings.”

The great majority of Western countries have expressed near-universal condemnation of the new laws. Denmark, Norway, and the Netherlands immediately stalled aid to Uganda over its new law. The World Bank froze a $90 million new loan. When Nigeria’s president approved his country’s new law, the European Union warned that he should not forget his “obligations” under international law. Shortly after Museveni’s announcement that the anti gay bill had become law in Uganda, U.S. President Barack Obama warned that enacting the bill would affect relations between the two nations. He described the proposal as an “affront and a danger to the gay community” in Uganda.

However, despite the response by the international community in opposing African anti-gay laws, in most African countries these laws are overwhelmingly supported by the general public, providing opportunities to win political points for presidents seeking election or re-election. In the cases of both Uganda and Nigeria, lawmakers claimed to be in favor of tougher legislation against homosexuality to counteract the influence of Western lifestyles that risked destroying family units.

The latest development in Uganda happened last week, when a mixed group of Ugandans and NGOs filed a petition against the country’s controversial anti-homosexuality law, saying it is unconstitutional and infringes on fundamental rights to non-discrimination and equality, as well as rights to privacy, freedom of expression, thought, civic participation, assembly and association.

The question remains, what is the most effective response by the international community to such anti gay laws?

Some have suggested suspending visa privileges for officials supporting the new laws; suspending bilateral delegations or exchanges in areas of interest to countries that have enacted anti gay laws; reviewing and potentially revoking participation in AGOA of any African country which criminalizes homosexuality; and ending any other form of economic aid to these countries.

However, some argue that suspending all financial support to these African countries would only be detrimental to those most in need.

Is the international community obligated to act when a nation or group of nations violate fundamental human rights? Are economic sanctions the most appropriate response? As usual, there are no easy answers in international law and relations.




According to UNICEF at least 16 children have been killed and 60 seriously injured since last month’s outbreak of violence in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic (C.A.R.). At least two of these children were beheaded and one child was severely mutilated.

According to the UN, 1,000 people have been killed and about 370,000 have been displaced in armed conflict in Bangui in December. More and more children are being recruited into armed groups, and they are also being directly targeted in atrocious revenge attacks. During the past month, the UN said the number of child soldiers in C.A.R. had more than doubled to 6,000 as fighting escalated.

The armed conflict in the Central African Republic started in December 2012 and led to the overthrow of President Francois Bozize in March by Séléka (also called the Séléka CPSK-CPJP-UFDR). The armed group is comprised of an alliance of several militia groups that were active in the C.A.R. The coup plunged the C.A.R. into chaos. Looting and attacks became widespread; state buildings, ministries, and schools were looted and in some cases destroyed altogether.

Former Séléka rebel leader Michel Djotodia, who is now president, has not been able to control ex-rebel militias, who were not incorporated into the army after the coup of March 2013. These former Séléka rebels, who are Muslim, are battling Christian self-defense groups known as Anti-Balaka.

Since the coup of March 2013 overthrowing President Francois Bozize, uncontrolled elements of Séléka and unknown armed groups have been carrying out attacks against the civilian population. By September 2013 fighting had extended to other parts of the country including Bouar in the west towards Cameroon and to the east of the capital in Damara. By October 2013 the UN Security Council approved logistical support to the African Union peacekeeping force (AFISM-CAR) on the ground and permitted French troops to control the airport. By November 2013, peacekeeping forces reported having witnessed summary executions and mass displacement as whole communities, terrified by the brutality of the armed groups, fled their homes.

During the last few months the fighting has been relentless, and according to UNICEF, the results are grim:

Over 1000 people dead

495,000 internally displaced people

1 million people are food insecure

1.6 million people in need of assistance (total number of inhabitants: 4.6m)

60% of health structures have been destroyed since December 2012

90% of medical facilities have no more stock

And now the children are being targeted.

Targeted attacks against children constitute an obvious violation of international humanitarian, human rights law, as well as the laws of armed conflict.

So, what to do?

Should the international community intervene?

If so, how should it be done?


Unmanned aerial systems (UAS), also known as drones, are aircraft either controlled by ‘pilots’ from the ground or autonomously following a pre-programmed mission. In addition to the term “drone”, these types of crafts may also be referred to as “unmanned aircraft,” “remotely piloted aircraft,” or “unmanned aerial vehicles.” There are dozens of different types of drones, the most commonly used fall into two categories: those that are used for reconnaissance and surveillance purposes and those that are armed with missiles and bombs.

A report released today by Amnesty International titled “ ‘Will I Be Next?’ U.S. Drone Strikes in Pakistan” contains information on 45 drone strikes it says were carried out by the United States in North Waziristan, Pakistan, between January 2012 and September 2013. In some of the attacks, it says, the victims were not members of militant groups like al Qaeda or the Taliban, but just ordinary civilians.

The report by Amnesty International was made public the day before Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is due to meet U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington and calls for certain measures to bring the drone program in line with international law, including conducting impartial investigations into the cases documented, bringing those responsible for human rights violations to justice and offering compensation to civilian victims’ families.

Most of us are familiar with UAS from their use in such places as Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen. The main characteristics of UAS are that they do not carry a pilot onboard, but function from “pilot” control from the ground or elsewhere, and they use pre-programmed flight coordinates. The use of UAS have many advantages for the military such as low costs—both for flying as well as maintenance and acquisition, longer flight times and less risks to pilots.

UAS began to show their usefulness at the beginning of the Cold War as a reconnaissance tool. Over time, they have evolved into being used for three categories of action: as attack weapons, operation or strike tools, and as surveillance or reconnaissance systems. All the functioning of the UAS is generally controlled via a laptop computer, a kit mounted on a vehicle or in a larger fixed facility. The current military inventory for unmanned aerial vehicles exceeds 6,000 spread out among all branches of the military, with significant increases planned in the future.

In addition to the report released by Amnesty International, a report issued in conjunction with an investigation by Human Rights Watch details missile attacks in Yemen, which the group believes, could contravene the laws of armed conflict, international human rights law and Barack Obama’s own guidelines on drones. Human rights groups have accused US officials responsible for the secret CIA drone campaign against suspected terrorists in Pakistan of having committed war crimes.

The criticism launched against the US for their use of UAS in Pakistan is based on allegations that drone attacks have killed innocent civilians. Amnesty International has highlighted the case of a grandmother who was killed while she was picking vegetables and other incidents, which could have broken international laws designed to protect civilians.

According an internal Pakistani report leaked earlier this year, at least 10 civilian deaths were confirmed as a result of CIA drone strikes in 2009. The New America Foundation estimates that up to 207 civilians were killed from 2006 to 2009, along with up to 198 people who were not identified in reliable media reports to be either civilians or militants.

The United Nations Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW or CCWC), concluded at Geneva on October 10, 1980 and entered into force in December 1983, prohibits or restricts the use of certain conventional weapons which are considered excessively injurious or whose effects are indiscriminate. The aim of the Convention and its Protocols is to provide new rules for the protection of military personnel and, particularly, civilians and civilian objects from injury or attack under various conditions by means of fragments that cannot readily be detected in the human body by X-rays, landmines and booby traps, and incendiary weapons and blinding laser weapons.

To the extent that drone attacks are not sufficiently accurate to prevent civilian deaths, some argue that they are in contravention of the Geneva Convention. Additionally, as the applicability of international humanitarian law is sometimes unclear, human rights groups argue that America’s battle with al-Qaeda does not meet the intensity required under the laws of war to amount to an armed conflict.

Do we need the UN to step in and provide a definition of armed conflict for purposes of the use of drones by the US military (or CIA)?

Is the preemptive use of drones to strike at terrorists justified as part of a “new” kind of almost continuous war where the enemy may strike at any time and without any warning and thereby justified under Article VII of the UN Charter?

Is the US use of drones in contravention of international human rights law, which only permits using deadly force when strictly and directly necessary to save human life?

Catalonia and The Right of Self-Determination

International Human Rights Law is concerned, above all with the equality and dignity of every human being. It, therefore, sets limits to the collective rights of both majorities and minorities, neither of which can be used to overrule the freedom and equal dignity of the individual.

Asbjórn Eide

On September 27th, 2012, the Catalan Parliament approved the holding of a referendum on Catalonia’s independence from Spain. Regional President Artur Mas has demanded that a referendum on independence be held in 2014; but thus far he has been unable to get the central government’s approval for such a vote. Some have suggested that Catalonia demands its independence under the international law right of self-determination.

The principle of self-determination is prominently embodied in Article I of the Charter of the United Nations. The right to self-determination is the right of a people to determine its own destiny allowing them to choose its own political status, and to determine its own form of economic, cultural and social development. The right to self-determination is also recognized in other international instruments, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

The right to self-determination is indisputably a norm of jus cogens, which are the highest rules of international law and must be strictly obeyed at all times. Additionally, both the International Court of Justice and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States have ruled on cases in a way that supports the view that the principle of self-determination has the legal status of erga omnes. Ergas omnes obligations of a State are owed to the international community as a whole and, thus, may be seen as broader even than jus cogens.

Under present international law, the following four factors are relevant to answering the question of whether a “people” may achieve independence. These factors are: 1) location, 2) the will to exist, 3) denial of “internal” self-determination, and 4) brutal oppression. The fourth concept, brutal oppression, establishes secession as the remedial aspect of self-determination.


The language “all peoples have the right of self-determination” has no territorial limitation, however, most scholars agree that “a people” must exist within a confined and established territory. The ICJ has found that groups found in East Timor, Western Sahara, and Palestine had a right to self-determination as peoples. The concept of location is not exact, yet its importance rests in localizing the will of all peoples concerned.

Will to Exist

“A people” comes into existence when a group asserts its will to exist and becomes aware of its identity based on given political considerations. If the majority of a group remains genuinely passive in safeguarding its identity, the group is not a bearer of the right to self-determination. Under international customary law, leaders of groups claiming self-determination on behalf of the group must actually represent the entire group and not merely factions or parties within the collective.

Denial of Self-Determination

Political rights, in particular the right to participate in elections—to vote and to stand for election—on the basis of universal and equal suffrage; to take part in the Government as well as in the conduct of public affairs at any level; and to have equal access to public service are essential to determine if the group within the larger region is deprived of fundamental rights. For minorities to participate effectively in public affairs, they must have an ability to express their opinions on decisions affecting them. This includes the right to participate substantively in decisions on the regional and national levels. To ensure such participation, states should reserve seats for minorities in decision-making bodies. Political representation without considering minority aspirations in the decision-making processes undermines the concept of self-determination.

Brutal Oppression

Brutal state oppression of its domestic groups confined within state borders results in a clear deprivation of the right to self-determination, and in questioning state’s borders. In the external aspect of self-determination, all peoples have the right to “determine freely their political status and their place in the international community based upon the principle of equal rights.” Minorities must undergo a parallel form of brutal oppression to exemplify characteristics of “a people” with a remedial right to self-determination. Without the total denial of “internal” self-determination, courts will stop short of examining whether a group constitutes “a people.”

Remedial Aspect of Self-Determination — Secession

Secession is the effort of a group or section of a state to withdraw itself from the political and constitutional authority of that state, with a view to achieving statehood for a new territorial unit on the international plane. Any claim of right to secede will be interpreted very strictly because if the right to secede were universal, the resulting fragmentation could undermine peace and security, and create several thousand independent states (some say as many as 5,000). However, remedial secession may exist for “peoples” under specific circumstances.

Secession over territorial integrity might be legally permitted under very narrow circumstances such as when a state (1) persistently refuses to grant participatory rights to a religious or racial group, (2) grossly and systematically tramples upon their fundamental rights, (3) denies the possibility of reaching a peaceful settlement within the framework of the state structure, and (4) commits gross fundamental human rights breaches.

Even if it is an option, the right to secession may be unwarranted if the state stops the discrimination and institutes legal remedies. In absence of concrete evidence showing human rights violations, and denial of participation in government rising to the point of calling into question the state’s territorial integrity, alternate modes of self-determination compatible with territorial integrity should be exercised. They may include enhanced local self-government in a demographic area, or union with confirmation of territorial unity.

The Case of Catalonia

To assert a successful claim of self-determination through secession, Catalonia would have to show that it had been the victim of severe current oppression.

The Catalans already have self-determination within the Spanish State. Spain is a democratic country in which Catalans have full and equal rights as Spanish citizens. Catalonia joined the Kingdom of Castile as a partner in Spain over five centuries ago through legitimate means. Although since then Spain has increasingly imposed itself on the administration of Catalonia, and Catalan language and culture have been banned for periods, Catalonia today enjoys autonomy within Spain, under a Constitution that was written by seven respected legal scholars, two of whom were Catalans. Catalan nationalists regularly win elections within Catalonia to govern Catalonia and to represent Catalonia in Madrid.

The current Catalan self-government is founded on the Spanish Constitution of 1978. This Constitution recognizes 17 autonomous regions. Autonomous Catalonia has a constitution of its own and is represented and governed, to a considerable extent, by the Generalitat de Catalunya, the regional “Government of Catalonia,” composed of a Parliament, a President and an Executive Council.

The powers of the Generalitat are exclusive, concurrent and shared. When it comes to exclusive responsibility – for example, culture, development of Catalan Civil Law and tourism – the regional government has both executive and legislative powers. The concurrent powers are those areas of competence in which both the state and the region have jurisdiction. As a rule, the central government establishes the basis for legislation and the Generalitat assumes the further legislative development and execution. Regarding the shared powers, the region can assume the execution of state legislation. The areas of the Generalitat responsibility embrace a wide sector of social life. The most important issues are: regional economic policy; regional planning, building and housing policy; energy and environment; culture and media; education, universities and research; public health and social services; tourism, leisure and sport; police and public order.

Although many Catalans may not be satisfied with the level of autonomy granted to Catalonia under the current constitutional regime, they are able to, and do indeed, affect change through constitutional and democratic means. The United Nations Charter sanctifies existing states except under extreme scenarios; if Catalonia cannot meet these legal standards, Catalan nationalists must find another means to achieve their goal of self-determination independent of the Spanish State.

In 2010, the Spanish Constitutional Court reached a decision regarding Catalonia’s autonomy charter, the Catalan Statute of Autonomy. The verdict came after four years of debate over the limits of Spain’s decentralized method of rule. The Catalan statute dates back to 1979, and a commission of the Catalan Parliament convened to reform it in February 2004. In their decision, the Court rejected 14 of 223 articles in a decision that otherwise approved the statute. In particular, the Court refused to acknowledge Catalonia’s self-recognition as a nation in the legal sense, emphasizing the “indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation.” Spain’s decision allowed Catalans to claim Catalonia as their nation in a historical sense, as the constitution still labeled Catalonia a “nationality,” but denied the attempt to create a legally recognizable nation.

Since the 2010 decision, a powerful nationalist movement has surfaced seeking to confer Catalonia legal nationality. Some argue that Catalonia’s governmental leaders might be utilizing the claim to self-determination as a political tool to distract from their bad management of resources in the region. Others claim that Spain is taking advantage of Catalonia’s resources, which constitute about 1/5 of the Spanish economy and failing to provide appropriate economic support to the region. Regardless of the position one takes on the issue of Catalonia’s independence under international law principles Catalonia does not appear to have a valid claim for self-determination as international law establishes express limitations on the exercise of minority rights and autonomy, amongst which the loyalty to the central government.

However, the question remains: Should an internationally recognized claim of self-determination be absolutely necessary for a region to secede? Can a region demand to be recognized by the international community as an independent country even if it does not meet the requirements for self-determination as of right? Should Spain’s central government do as England with Scotland, and allow for a referendum on the issue of whether Catalonia should become independent from Spain?


Michael Hayden, the former head of the CIA and National Security Agency, said last week that: “The United States does conduct espionage,” and the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution protecting the privacy of American citizens “is not an international treaty.”  On its face this statement is a correct interpretation of law as the Fourth Amendment as well as other Constitutional protections have been held not to extend beyond the borders of the US.

The allegations that have been leveled against the NSA by whistleblower Edward Snowden, outline a vast program of spying on a scale not previously seen. The amount of data collected by the federal agencies involved, if true, is staggering and conducted in an indiscriminate manner in order to mine as much data as possible. It would be naïve to think that the US is alone in spying on its citizens and others, but it would seem that the voracity and abilities employed by the US are unparalleled. Moreover, the US not only spied on its enemies but also seemed willing to conduct widespread data intercepts of its allies, something that is not sitting well in Europe and elsewhere.

As regards its international obligations, the US is a member of the international community and is thus bound by the treaties it enters into as well as customary international law. Although not a treaty, one of the most widely approved international documents is the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which the US is a signatory. Article 12 specifically states that:

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

The information collected from sources such as the internet, emails, social media networks, internet service providers, search engines, etc., belonged to someone and it should be considered private personal data. The US neither asked for permission nor consent to collect the data.

Additionally, as regards spying on diplomatic missions, the US might be afoul of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which at Article 27, states as follows:

The official correspondence of the mission shall be inviolable. Official correspondence means all correspondence relating to the mission and its functions…

Finally, the type of spying conducted by the US is likely violative of customary international law as defined in Article 38 of the Statute of the International Court of Justice.  This is generally determined through two primary factors: the general practice of states and what states have accepted as law. A very strong argument can be made that the protection of personal private data is customary international law as virtually every country on earth has some form of data protection law and is widely applied. In this regard, the US is on very shaky legal footing if its spying is as widespread and unfocused as has been reported. For the international community, to have the US government repeat as a mantra that the US has not violated the Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution because its spying did not target US citizens, is not just insufficient, but borderline offensive. Perhaps US citizens will believe that their government is not spying on them, or perhaps they will demand a better explanation and hold their government accountable for what amount to blatant violations of the right to privacy.

Nuclear Testing, International Law and North Korea

A nuclear test can be defined as a nuclear explosion detonated for either military or peaceful purposes. The history of nuclear testing began on 16 July 1945 at a desert test site in New Mexico, when the United States exploded its first atomic bomb. This initial test was the culmination of years of scientific research under the banner of the so-called the “Manhattan Project”.

A few months later, on 6 August 1945 a US B-29 bomber dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, instantly killing around 80,000 people. Three days later, a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, causing the deaths of 40,000 more. In the months following the attack, roughly 100,000 more people died slow, horrendous deaths as a result of radiation poisoning. The dropping of the bombs remains the only nuclear attack in history.

Efforts to Control Nuclear Power

Around the mid-1950s, in the midst of the arms race of the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union started conducting high-yield thermonuclear weapon testing in the atmosphere. In 1959, radioactive deposits were found in wheat and milk in the northern United States. As scientists and the public gradually became aware of the dangers of radioactive fallout, they began to raise their voices against nuclear testing, leading to the Partial Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty (PTBT) signed in 1963. Representatives of the United States, the Soviet Union, and Great Britain signed the PTBT, which prohibited the testing of nuclear weapons in outer space, underwater, or in the atmosphere.

In 1968 the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was adopted. The NPT is a worldwide treaty that bans all members except the United Kingdom, China, France, Russia, and the United States from having nuclear weapons and commits those five states to eventually eliminating their atomic arsenals. The 187 states that subscribe to the NPT include every significant nation state with the exception of India, Israel, Pakistan, and North Korea.

The latest international law development in efforts to ban nuclear testing took place in 1996 with the opening for signature of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT). The CTBT established a de-facto international norm on nuclear testing, banning all nuclear explosions in all environments, for military or civilian purposes. To date 159 states have signed and ratified the CTBT, including the three nuclear weapon states, France, the United Kingdom and Russia. Another 24 states have signed but not ratified it, including the United States.

The CTBT treaty shall enter into force 180 days after the 44 states listed in Annex 2 of the treaty have ratified it. These “Annex 2 states” are states that participated in the CTBT’s negotiations between 1994 and 1996 and possessed nuclear power reactors or research reactors at that time. As of March 2013, eight Annex 2 states have not ratified the treaty. China, Egypt, Iran, Israel and the United States have signed but not ratified the treaty; and India, North Korea and Pakistan have not signed it. In 1998 India said it would only sign the treaty if the United States presented a schedule for eliminating its nuclear stockpile, a condition the United States rejected.

Threats to Non-Proliferation

In the last few years, uranium enrichment, plutonium separation, and other possible nuclear weapons-related activities have been discovered in Iraq, North Korea, and Iran. Moreover, it appears that North Korea and Iran both obtained enrichment technology from Pakistan, which suggests dangers to the NPT regime from nonparties that are not bound by the treaty’s prohibition against assisting non-nuclear-weapon states in acquiring nuclear weapons.

At the same time, the United States has not complied with some of its own NPT-created obligations. The United States Senate has consistently rejected ratification of the CTBT, which reflects its tendency to downgrade treaties and regimes and to upgrade unilateral efforts, such as the pre-emptive use of force against Iraq, to enforce compliance with nonproliferation. Furthermore, the US has undertaken efforts to create new types of nuclear weapons that might well require new testing. Thus, while pushing other countries to reject the acquisition of nuclear weapons for their defense, the United States seems to be relying ever more heavily on nuclear weapons for its own defense.

North Korea

In the last few weeks, Security Council resolutions have condemned North Korea’s December rocket launch and have tightened the existing punitive sanctions against that country.  North Korea’s first nuclear test took place in October 2006 and a second test took place in May 2009. North Korea has threatened nuclear strikes on the US, formally declared war on the South, and pledged to reopen a nuclear reactor in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions. The latest warning from North Korea was directed to foreign embassies in Pyongyang stating that it cannot guarantee their safety from the threat of conflict after 10 April, and has advised them to consider pulling their staff out of the capital.

Most experts opine that North Korea does not have the capability to launch a nuclear attack. Officials in Washington have dismissed North Korea’s most serious threat of a nuclear strike against the US, as bluster by its leader, Kim Jong-un. The Pentagon assessment is that North Korea has not yet mastered the technology needed to accurately fire a nuclear-armed missile. However, even if the actual risk of a nuclear attack from North Korea is inexistent, the situation at hand poses certain important questions regarding nuclear proliferation:

-Is the US justified in expecting Pakistan, North Korea and India to abide by the Non Proliferation regime while ignoring Israel and China’s continued nuclear capabilities?

-Given that the United States has conducted 1,030 nuclear tests — more than all other nations combined — and continues refusing to destroy its nuclear stockpile,  is it fair to prohibit testing in other countries? Does this double standard perceived by other nations constitute a threat to the NPT regime?

-Is it fair to permit many of North Korea’s neighbors and the United States to test and possess missiles and develop other advanced military hardware but to prohibit North Korea from doing the same?

-Is the international community effective in preventing nuclear proliferation?


The Syrian Conflict and the International Community: To Do Something or to Do Nothing, that is the Question

Violence in Syria has escalated into what has been labeled a civil war. According to the UN more than 60,000 people, mostly civilians, have died since the uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime began in March 2011. The government of Bashar al-Assad, which is increasingly losing territory to rebel fighters, blames “terrorists” and “armed gangs” for the unrest, while the opposition and other nations have accused Assad’s forces of crimes against humanity.

To provide some background on the conflict it is important to know that Syria is a country of 21 million people with a Sunni Muslim majority (74%) and significant minorities of Alawites – the Shia heterodox sect to which Mr Assad belongs – and Christians. Mr. Assad has concentrated power in the hands of his family and other Alawites. The family of President Assad has been in power since his father, Hafez, took over in a coup in 1970.  Under Mr. Assad’s rule, critics have been imprisoned, domestic media has been tightly controlled, and economic policies have often benefited the elite. The country’s human rights record is among the worst in the world.

Pro-democracy protests erupted in March 2011 after the arrest and torture of a group of teenagers who had painted revolutionary slogans on their school’s walls in the southern city of Deraa. Security forces opened fire during a march against the arrests, killing four. The next day, the authorities shot at mourners at the victims’ funerals, killing another person. People thereafter began publicly demanding the overthrow of Mr. Assad in a way that had not previously occurred.

The Assad regime first reacted with a combination of minor concessions. It ended the 48-year-long state of emergency and introduced a new constitution. However, the authorities continued to use violence, besieging opposition strongholds. The UN became involved and instituted a ceasefire, which soon was violated by both sides. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Arab League envoy, Kofi Annan, have demanded an end to violence and have called for stronger international action, but China and Russia oppose sanctions and military intervention.

Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N. -Arab League special envoy for Syria, told the Security Council this week that Syria had plunged into “unprecedented levels of horror.” He told the UN Security Council it had to act now to halt the carnage epitomized by the killing of at least 78 young men, who were found shot with a single bullet and dumped in a river in the battlefront city of Aleppo. Syria “is breaking up before everyone’s eyes,” Brahimi told the council’s 15 ambassadors. “Only the international community can help, and first and foremost the Security Council.”

The United States and European council members blame Russia, a staunch ally and key arms supplier for Assad’s government, and China for the Council’s inaction on the conflict. Moscow and Beijing have vetoed three resolutions condemning Assad and reject the idea of sanctioning his government. Iran’s support to the Assad regime has mapped Syria even further into the international context. The question of international engagement must be considered.

The international community, via the UN Security Council could pass a resolution to set up a transitional government to attempt an end to the bloodshed. International Syria mediator Lakhdar Brahimi said last week he could not move forward with a peace plan unless it was backed by a U.N. Security Council resolution and he warned that a ceasefire would only hold if it was overseen by a peacekeeping mission.

While Russia, China, and the rest of the world make up their mind about what to do about the Syrian conflict, Assad’s regime continues to commit crimes against humanity. On the other hand, given the experience in Egypt some say that perhaps it is better to let the Syrians to figure out their fate without arming the insurgents.

I suggest the following questions for reflection; do we do nothing when we know innocent people continue to die? Can the world afford another unstable “democracy” in the Middle East? Is this a precursor of a new cold war with Russia and China on one side and western allies on the other?


The Death Penalty: Does the Punishment Ever Fit the Crime?

“Capital punishment is the most premeditated of murders, to which no criminal’s deed, however calculated can be compared. For there to be an equivalency, the death penalty would have to punish a criminal who had warned his victim of the date at which he would inflict a horrible death on him and who, from that moment onward, had confined him at his mercy for months. Such a monster is not encountered in private life.”

Albert Camus—”Reflections on the Guillotine, Resistance, Rebellion & Death” (1956).

Lindsay June Sandifor, a 56-year-old British woman caught smuggling blocks of cocaine in her suitcase has been sentenced to death in Indonesia. Even though prosecutors in Bali had asked for a 15-year sentence, the panel of judges handed down the death penalty. Ms. Sandifor was arrested last May after she was found to have blocks of cocaine weighing 4.7 kilograms (10.4 pounds) in her suitcase when she arrived on the island of Bali.

At the trial, the grandmother from Gloucestershire, England, said she was smuggling the drugs to protect her son. She said one of her co-accused had threatened to kill him if she did not comply. However Indonesian police said she was at the centre of a drugs importing ring involving three other Britons and an Indian who have also been arrested.

Southeast Asian governments impose the toughest drug sanctions on the planet and many impose the death penalty for individuals convicted of drug trafficking. The death penalty for drug cases has received a great deal of criticism from people who think that the penalty does not fit the crime and amounts to a disproportionate sanction.

Meanwhile, in India, the clamor for death sentences for the culprits of the brutal Delhi gang rape, which resulted in the death of a 23-year-old victim and the severe beating of her male companion, grows stronger. The head of India’s rights panel this past Tuesday said death penalty in any case is against the universal declaration of human rights. “[The] death penalty in any case is against universal declaration of human rights,” National Human Rights Commission chairman KG Balakrishnan said. However, it seems by most accounts that a vast majority of the Indian people want the death penalty imposed on the assailants.

According to Amnesty International, the trend internationally is unmistakably moving toward abolition. Use of the death penalty worldwide has continued to shrink, and use of the death penalty has also been increasingly curtailed in international law. Since 1990, an average of three countries each year have abolished the death penalty, and today over two-thirds of the world’s nations have ended capital punishment in law or practice.

Clearly, there is ever more recognition that the death penalty does not act as a deterrent to crime, and that the imposition of such a penalty is very costly to democratic governments that must provide for procedural due process protections in its imposition.  But, are there crimes that deserve the death penalty? Can we as a society agree as to what crimes deserve the penalty of death? If governments cannot reach a consensus on what crimes deserve the death penalty, should the death penalty be abolished?