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?


By: Ivan E. Mercado (guest writer to the blog)

Since August 21 2013, when chemical weapons were purportedly used in Syria on the civilian population in the rebel-controlled Ghouta area on the outskirts of Damascus, the world has been witness to an international joust between old Cold War enemies. Alost immediately after the first reports of the use of chemical weapons, President Barack Obama called it a “big event of grave concern” that would significantly alter the US calculation with regards to the conflict. By August 24, President Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron jointly stated that the attack, which they were placing at the feet of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, merited a “serious response.” And the drum beat for military action continued to grow with each passing day.

On August 29, Mr. Cameron took his case for military intervention in Syria to the British Parliament and in a stunning reversal his motion for authorization to use force was defeated. Mr. Obama, however, seemed unfazed and thereafter turned to another Cold War ally, France. President Françoise Holland manifested France’s willingness to take affirmative action to make sure such attacks did not occur again.

The White House made public a U.S. Government Assessment on the use of chemical weapons in Syria which stated that it had “high confidence” that the Syrian government was responsible for the use of chemical weapons. Secretary of State John Kerry, in an address that coincided with the release of the report, also said that the Syrian regime had used chemical weapons “multiple times” during the course of the past year. Kerry went on to repeat that planning for military action was underway.

However, on August 31, 2013, President Obama told the American people in a televised address that he would seek Congressional approval for a limited but significant military strike against the Syria government. Obama said that the attacks would be limited to deterring additional chemical weapons strikes and that ground forces would not be used. Obama would ultimately agree not to seek a vote in Congress, apparently fearing a defeat similarly to David Cameron’s in Great Britain.

Sensing an opportunity to help its ally Syria in the shifting sands of public and international opinion, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov announced a Russian proposition whereby Syria would agree to place its chemical weapons under international control and dismantle them, and the United States would agree not to conduct a military strike on the country. Prior to the Russian announcement, Secretary of State Kerry, speaking in the United Kingdom, suggested that if the Assad regime turned over all of its chemical weapons to the international community “without delay,” a military strike could be averted. Speaking to media outlets after Secretary Kerry, President Barack Obama said that the United States would consider the plan.

September 10, 2013: Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said that the Assad regime welcomed discussion on Russia’s plan to give up Syria’s chemical weapons and join the Chemical Weapons Convention. President Barack Obama, French President François Hollande, and British Prime Minister David Cameron discussed how to implement the plan through the UN Security Council, with France beginning to draft a resolution based on the Russian proposal, but with stipulations that force be authorized under Chapter VII  of the UN Charter if Assad fails to implement the provisions of the resolution.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov appeared to reach an agreement on a comprehensive plan for the accounting, inspection, control, and elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons. The plan requires Syria to provide a full declaration of its stockpile “within a week” and provide the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and the UN access to all chemical weapons sites in Syria. The plan calls for the OPCW inspectors to complete their initial inspections by November and calls for the destruction of the stockpile of chemical weapons and chemical agents by the first half of 2014.

As of today, the main sticking point is the instance by the US and France to add language that the UN Security Council should impose measures under Chapter VII of the UN Charter for noncompliance with the agreement by Syria. The concern specifically relates to Article 42 which allows for “tak[ing] such action by air, sea, or land forces as may be necessary to maintain or restore international peace and security.” This Russians and the Syrians see it as an end-run toward UN authorization for military action, which presumably could not be obtained in the Security Council given the current situation. And here we sit, waiting to see how events continue to develop.

One question now is who has won this game of Cold War brinksmanship? Syria, Russia, the US, France, the Insurgents? In looking at this one must consider what prompted this month long saga—a heinous attack using the most barbaric of weapons nerve gas, Sarin Nerve Gas. As with the Cold War itself we may not know the losers and winners for many years to come and the people of Syria will likely not get justice for the war crimes committed in Ghouta and elsewhere by both sides. In any event, it does not seem like Assad’s political position has worsen after the attack.

Next, should the US and its allies have invoked Chapter VII without a UN resolution and simply attacked Syria immediately after 21 August 2013? I ask this in the context of how the world should respond in reaction to the most atrocious international crimes, e.g. genocide, mass killings, forced internments, etc. Are the negotiations a sign that the international community is headed in the right direction?  or are there any parallels to the appeasement of the Nazis or the inaction in Rwanda?


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.


Shin Dong-kyuk is the only man known to have been born and to escape from a North Korean prison known as Camp 14. A memoir detailing Shin Dong-hyuk’s life, “Escape from Camp 14” was published in English last year and recently hit the bookshelves in South Korea this month.

The unflinching account from a defector revealed how he picked corn kernels out of cow manure to eat as he competed with his family for food at one of North Korea’s notorious prison camps. He was also forced to watch his mother’s hanging and his brother’s execution.

He was born in a “total control zone” where prison authorities wield complete power and where guards beat children to death with no hesitation. His account put a human face on the abuses in North Korean prison camps, a brutal system which has survived twice as long as Stalin’s Soviet gulags and much longer than the Nazi concentration camps.

In March 2013, the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva agreed to examine what it called “grave, widespread and systematic” violations of human rights in North Korea, including the use of prison camps.

South Korea, for its part does not avoid its share of international condemnation. Margaret Sekaggya, the U.N. special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, concluded a 10-day visit to South Korea on Friday by offering some harsh criticism for the country’s treatment of activists, who she said are subjected to harassment, physical violence, intimidation and unlawful surveillance due to their criticism of government policies. Ms. Sekaggya said that South Korea does not meet international standards in several areas, including the freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly and association and labor rights, even though the country’s constitution guarantees them.

North and South Korean officials meet in Seoul on Wednesday and Thursday for their first high-level dialogue in six years. The meeting will be the first dialogue at a senior level since Kim Jong Un took power after the death of his father, Kim Jong-il in 2011.

The two Koreas agreed that in the talks in Seoul they would discuss reopening their joint industrial complex, as well as resuming cross-border tours and the Red Cross programs of reunions for families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War. The industrial complex in the North Korean border town of Kaesong and cross-border tours to the Diamond Mountain resort in southeastern North Korea had been two of the best-known symbols of South Korea’s past efforts to use economic cooperation to encourage the North to open up.

Prominently absent in the agenda for the Korean talks was any direct mention of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, or any discussion on the known human right abuses taking place in North and South Korea. Under Mr. Kim, North Korea has declared that it is no longer interested in talks on ending its nuclear weapons program, and its ruling Workers’ Party adopted a national strategy of reviving the country’s moribund economy while continuing to expand its nuclear arsenal. Regarding human rights abuses, officials from both countries deny any wrongdoing.

Dialogue at any level marks a positive sign in the countries’ recent history, which has seen North Korean nuclear tests and long-range rocket launches and “military exercises” by the South. However, given the importance of subjects such as the danger of nuclear weapons and the infringement on human rights by both countries, it is hoped that these talks are only the beginning of further discussions between the neighboring countries, which would ultimately include input from other interested parties and nongovernmental agencies.


A Woman’s Brave Journey to Change Abortion Law in El Salvador

Beatriz (the name is an alias to protect her identity) is a 22-year-old pregnant woman from the rural interior of El Salvador who suffers from a series of medical conditions that will likely kill her if she carries her pregnancy to term. Tests have shown that Beatriz’ baby suffers a condition that has kept its brain and skull from developing and is not expected to live long after birth.

El Salvador is one of five countries in Latin America – including Chile, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, and Nicaragua – to have a complete ban on all forms of abortion. That includes what doctors consider life-saving medical interventions known as “therapeutic abortions” to save a women’s life from a high-risk pregnancy, or one resulting from rape or incest.

State doctors from El Salvador’s National Maternity Hospital asked the government for special permission to lift the abortion ban for Beatriz, arguing that the law was obstructing their patient’s right to health and life given the strong probability of maternal death. On Wednesday, after two months of deliberations, the Supreme Court rejected the petition and ordered the doctors to continue monitoring Beatriz’s health to provide her with “proper medical treatment” according to “medical science.”

Though it might be the first time some of us hear about the criminal prohibition on therapeutic abortions in El Salvador, it has been on the books since 1998.  However, Beatriz’s story has forced the issue into the realm of public debate and during the past few weeks, women’s groups, medical associations, and international rights groups have argued in favor of therapeutic abortion. Amnesty International has received nearly 155,000 letters of support from around the world.

The debate has divided even the government, with the ministry of health taking a stance in favor of lifting the ban to save Beatriz and the state-run Institute of Legal Medicine (ILM) arguing it should be upheld. What is clear is that the more Salvadorans debate the dilemma, the more they are beginning to realize how invisible the victims of the ban have been over the years. Public opinion in El Salvador is in Beatriz’s favor and a nationwide poll conducted last November suggested that 57 percent of the population is in favor of a therapeutic abortion to save a mother’s life.

International offers to help Beatriz have come in from clinics in the US, Mexico, and Spain. In fact, for some time, Beatriz has had a passport and a letter requesting a humanitarian visa to travel to the US or Mexico, but this 22-year-old woman has decided to stay in El Salvador.  Some say that Beatriz decided to stay home even at a risk to her life to bring attention to the issue of reproductive rights in El Salvador.

On Thursday, in a last minute move, just a day after the Supreme Court ruled that she could not have an abortion despite her lawyers’ appeal that the pregnancy was life threatening, the health minister of El Salvador approved the C-section for Beatriz. The Government appears to finally have given in to international pressure. What is not clear yet is whether this battle will end with a win for reproductive rights in El Salvador or with just a Pyrrhic victory for Beatriz.

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?


Europe Gets Serious on Data Protection

Companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter collect data from their users without their permission and this personalized data can be used, in large measure, to produce targeted advertisement. Advertising networks collect information across a wide span of sites, using cookies that are placed on a user’s computer when loading a page containing an ad, and then they use the Web surfing history to deliver other ads. Every time a user clicks on a “like” on Facebook or plus in Google that information is collected use by these companies and their clients. Internet users’ movements on the web are also being tracked for further use by countless other entities—both public and private.

Europe has been signaling an overhaul of its data protection laws that date from 1995. Last week, one legislator, Jan Philipp Albrecht, a member of the Green Party from Hamburg, introduced a bill that would create a new agency to enforce a series of measures giving Internet users greater control of their online information.

If approved, the proposal would replace an advisory panel to the European Commission with a privacy regulator with the power to make decisions for the 27 members of the European Union and levy fines of up to 2 per cent of a company’s revenue that violates Europe’s data protection laws.

The new measures would prohibit the use of a range of standard Web tracking and profiling practices that companies use to produce targeted advertising unless consumers give their explicit prior consent.

The bill would also grant European consumers a fundamental new right: data portability, or the right to easily transfer one’s personal posts, photos and video from one online service site to another.

A coalition of US, Asian and European businesses and advertisers have criticized the proposed plan, which would give Europeans much stronger legal protections to control their online identities than people elsewhere. However, the enactment of these laws is very good news for consumers concerned about the lack of regulation regarding data collection and user’s tracking on the interned and on social networks.

The European Parliament will vote on the proposal in April, and a final agreement with the upper house is expected later this year.

Tragedy in a Bus: Let’s Work for a New Year of Greater Human Rights’ Protection for Women Around the World

It is sad that this first post of the year is about the brutal killing of a young woman in New Delhi. However, a saying attributed to Buddha states that: “[t]here are only two mistakes one can make along the road to truth; not going all the way, and not starting.” We better start recognizing fairly quickly the obvious truth that we, as a society are failing women, and that we have a moral and legal obligation to do better.

As the world knows, on Dec. 16, a 23-year-old woman and her male friend were returning home after watching a movie at a mall in southwest Delhi. After they boarded what seemed to be a passenger bus, the six men inside gang-raped and tortured the woman so brutally that her intestines were destroyed. The attackers also severely beat up the woman’s friend and threw them both from the vehicle, leaving her near death, and her friend with severe injuries. On Saturday morning, 13 days after she was brutalized, she died of multiple organ failure.

Shortly after the attack, tens of thousands of people took to the streets and faced down police officers, tear gas and water cannons to express their outrage. It was the most vocal protest against sexual assault and rape in India to date, and it set off nationwide demonstrations. The protesters took to the streets outraged about the lack of legal protection for women’s rights in the largest democracy in the world.

Although India has laws against rape; seats reserved for women in buses, female officers; and special police help lines, these measures have proven ineffective in the face of a patriarchal and misogynistic culture. It is a culture that believes that the worst aspect of rape is the defilement of the victim, who will no longer be able to find a man to marry her, and where the solution is often for the victim to marry the rapist. The rapists are obviously at fault in these cases, but those who blame women who are victims of rape, or do nothing to protect them, are accomplices in the victimization.

In 2012, of the more than 600 rape cases reported in Delhi, only one led to a conviction. Police officers, politicians, diplomats, heads of States, and regular people in the street who turn the other way are contributing to the problem.  Victims often believe they will not receive justice, and that they will be shunned if they report the rape; and the lack of convictions for rape support their belief. Rapists do not fear the consequences of their actions, because often their actions carry no consequences.

The volume of protests in public and in the media has made clear that the attack was a turning point and hopefully this horrendous tragedy will lead to more stringent laws that protect women. In Geneva, Navi Pillay, the U.N. Commissioner on Human Rights, called Monday for fundamental change in India: “Let us hope that 2013 will be the year the tide is turned on violence against women in India and all women can walk free without fear. … The public is demanding a transformation in systems that discriminate against women to a culture that respects the dignity of women in law and practice,” said Pillay.

I call for fundamental change not just in India but also everywhere in the world in the protection and respect for the victims of rape and other gender violence. I hope that this tragedy will be a catalyst for change in women rights around that world and that what the victim of this horrible crime had to endure serves to prevent further suffering for other women.



The Convention on the Rights of the Child came into force on September 2, 1990, and today it is the most widely ratified international human rights law treaty in existence. The Convention on the Rights of the Child has been ratified by 193 nations.

And yet:

-20 children killed at the elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut (2012).

-32 children killed in artillery barrage in Syria (2012).

-92 children killed on Island of Utoya, Norway (2011).

-1,629 children killed in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in Gaza (2000-present).

-29,000 children dead from starvation in Somalia (2011).

-864,000 children dead from Malaria in Africa (2011).

We can do better for our children.

We should do better for our children.

We must do better for our children.

Stiffer gun control laws? Greater mental health awareness and support for children and their families? International pressure to achieve peace in war ridden countries? New policies on drug distribution for developing countries? Food equity and greater sharing of resources?

Let’s start thinking, discussing and doing what we can to create a better world for our children.