‘We Need to Talk About an Injustice’: Bryan Stevenson delivers Ruth Adler Lecture at University of Edinburgh

Law PhD Candidate, Vivek Bhatt

In this guest post, Law PhD Candidate, Vivek Bhatt, reflects on Bryan Stevenson’s visit to Edinburgh Law School to give the 2019 Ruth Adler Memorial Lecture, and to receive an honorary doctorate as part of the School’s summer graduation ceremony.

Bryan Stevenson (c) Nick Frontiero Photography 2019

 

 

 

On 8 July 2019, the Global Justice Academy hosted a lecture by Bryan Stevenson, recipient of an honorary doctorate at the Edinburgh Law School.  Stevenson is founder of the Equal Justice Institute (EJI) in Montgomery, Alabama, and a clinical professor at the NYU School of Law. Stevenson works as a legal representative for disadvantaged and marginalised individuals, particularly young and poor people who are on death row or serving life sentences. He and his colleagues at the EJI have achieved the exoneration or release of over 125 individuals on death row. Stevenson is also the author of Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption,[1]  which was a New York Times bestseller and won the Carnegie Medal for the best nonfiction book of 2014.

Stevenson’s lecture circulated around a question that is as succinct as it is complex: how do we, as human rights advocates, address injustice? Firstly, he said, we must create justice by becoming proximate to those suffering inequality and injustice. Recounting his relationship with his grandmother, who wished that Stevenson would always be able to feel her embracing him, the skilful orator argued that we must know and seek to understand those who suffer injustice in order to affirm their humanity and dignity. Thus, human rights practice is not about the deployment of legal arguments from afar, but rather about stepping away from one’s legal expertise and embracing those who suffer violations of dignity.

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Off the Record: 9/11 Military Commission in its 7th Year

This is the third post in a blog series by Dr Kasey McCall-Smith which examines some of the contentious legal issues raised in the US v. Khalid Shaikh Mohammad, et. al. military commission proceedings against the five men charged with various war crimes and terrorism in relation to the 11 September 2001 attacks on the US. The series is a continuation of her project ‘Torture on Trial’ which was funded by a grant from the Royal Society of Edinburgh and is supported by the Edinburgh Law School.

Whatever Happened to the Alleged 9/11 Terror Plotters? 9/11 Military Commission in its 7th Year

The largest criminal justice trial in US history is currently taking place on Naval Station Guantánamo Bay. For the most part, the general public has no idea. Apart from consistent media coverage by a small handful of journalists, including Carol Rosenberg (formally of The Miami Herald and now with the New York Times) and John Ryan of Lawdragon, the US public and the formerly vocal academy have forgotten that five men, Khalid Shaikh Mohammad, Khallad bin Attash, Ammar al-Baluchi, Ramzi Bin Al-Shibh and Mustafa al-Hawsawi, are charged with conspiracy to commit various war crimes and terrorism in relation to the September 11th attacks under the Military Commissions Act 2009 (MCA) in United States v. Khalid Shaikh Mohammad, et al. (9/11 case). In previous blogs I have explained the choice of venue for the detention facility, law of war detention, details on some of the detainees, and addressed issues relating to torture. This series looks in more detail at specific issues in the trial and why controversial legal stand-offs may not go away.

The first incarnation of the military commissions were replaced by the MCA following the US Supreme Court decisions in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld and Boumediene v. Bush. The MCA applies to alien terrorist suspects and members of al Qaida, defined as alien ‘unprivileged enemy belligerents’, rounded up from 2002-2008, though recently there has been talk of the potential use of the statute to detained ISIS fighters.

 

The MCA sets out its applicability to offences before, on and after 11 September 2001 and raises questions about the long-standing principle of no ex post facto laws and the creative addition of ‘conspiracy’ to accepted war crimes definitions. The statute combines different and overlapping issues of military law, constitutional law and international law. Observing the 9/11 hearings, the failure to thoroughly evaluate the relationship between these different legal systems is proving problematic in every aspect of the trial’s slow progress. The only clarity lies in the fact that legislative responses to 9/11 were walled off from the realities of the outrageous conduct of the CIA during its Rendition, Detention and Interrogation programme.

According to the Senate Intelligence Committee Study on CIA Detention and Interrogation Program (SSCI Report), it is well documented that Khalid Shaikh Mohammad was subjected to combinations of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’, so-called EITs, equating to torture designed to exercise total control over the victim. Notably, he suffered periods of sleep deprivation lasting up to 180 hours and was ultimately waterboarded 183 times. The other four defendants were similarly treated. Bin Al-Shibh was subjected to EITs for approximately 34 days and kept in social isolation for almost 2.5 years. Bin Attash and al-Baluchi were subjected to EITs over a period of months. The CIA waterboarded al-Hawsawi and further subjected him to such brutal bodily treatment that he suffers irreparable physical damage. In short, US agents subjected each of them to a sustained and systematic programme of torture in direct violation of US and international law.

The illegal actions by the US were defended by the then Bush Administration as necessary to national security. When rumours and then evidence of ill-treatment began to leak out of US military bases abroad, international civil society and US civil rights groups called for the US, as well States working in concert with the US, to maintain detention and treatment standards demanded by the law. In particular, the customary Law of War and standards outlined in the Geneva Conventions as well as the Convention Against Torture were frequently invoked. Yet as the first detainees arrived in Guantánamo on 11 January 2002 these well-established rules appeared to be the furthest thing from the US government’s mind. For anyone watching as the first goggled and shackled jumpsuit-clad men dropped to their knees in the Cuban heat it was clear that this would be a long game. Of the approximately 780 men that were detained in Guantánamo since it opened the doors to the now defunct Camp X-Ray (pictured below), only 40 remain. One man (Balhul) is serving his sentence following conviction by military commission, 26 are known as ‘forever prisoners’ and eight are currently under charge, including the 9/11 defendants. The 9/11 charge sheet alleges that the defendants committed conspiracy, attacked civilians, and committed murder in violation of the Law of War, intentionally caused serious bodily harm, hijacked an aircraft, and committed acts of terrorism resulting in the deaths of 2.976 along with countless injuries. Following their arraignment on 5 May 2012, intentionally causing serious bodily injury was struck from the charges in the early months of the case. From the outset, issues regarding public access to the trial were raised. Limited public access to close circuit broadcast sites was offered to families soon after the litigation commenced. Though now only a trickle of viewers attend the 40 second delayed live-streams at Fort Meade, Fort Devens and Fort Hamilton. The roster of media and civil society observers at Camp Justice, too, can only be described as small when compared to the original outpouring of attention on the detention activities in Guantánamo.

In its 7th year of pre-trial proceedings, the 9/11 case is bogged down in a range of issues (see subsequent posts) that challenge the rule of law to its very core. How to reconcile the defendants’ status as both alleged terrorist war criminals and torture victims? Does US ‘reinterpretation’ of war crimes definitions square with the law of war? Can an appropriate balance between the alleged crimes and victimhood be achieved? Will the victims of 9/11 ever get the justice they deserve and, if so, at what cost? Seventeen years after the horrendous acts that markedly shifted western governments into a new era of aggressive national security pursuits, it seems that only time will tell. At the conclusion of the 35th round of hearings, we are left only with questions. 

Why torture? Exploring our Perceptions of Torture, and What Causes It

In this post, our Communications Intern, Jee-Young Song, reports from the second day of the recent GJA-sponsored GREYZONE summer school.

26 June 2018 was the second day of the GREYZONE Summer School, and starting the day’s session was Danielle Celemajer, Professor of Sociology and Social Anthropology at the University of Sydney. Titled ‘The worlds that produce torture’, the main question put to us was:

“What causes torture?”

The straightforward answer to this would of course be obvious: doesn’t torture occur because a malignant perpetrator decided to inflict such an act on the victim?

However, this is an over-simplistic approach, as Professor Celemajer professed her view that there is in fact a complex map of causality for torture, with many contributory factors which extend beyond the scope of the individual perpetrator.

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Complicity, Elitism and Storytelling: Exploring Moral Ambiguity in Times of Injustice

In her second post for this blog, GJA Communications Intern, Jee-Young Song, reflects on the recent GJA GREYZONE Summer School keynote session on ‘Conceptual Perspectives’.

The Summer School kick-started on Monday the 25 June, the theme this year being ‘Navigating the Grey Zone: Complicity, Resistance and Solidarity’.The following is from the ‘Conceptual Perspectives’ talks, where expert speakers from the fields of human rights, philosophy, and political theory (Ruth Kelly, Charlotte Knowles and Lukas Slothuus, pictured above) each gave their unique insight on the key issues.

Storytelling as a way to reinforce human rights

First to speak was Ruth Kelly, who focused on the potential for narrative to help communities articulate approaches to the development of human rights. To give an example of such artistic intervention, she showed footage taken at a poetry workshop in Uganda, where a woman recites a poem about struggling to choose between action and complicity, entitled ‘Should I stay? Should I go?’.

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Incarceration in Scotland: a system with positive evolutions in need of a generalisation of its good practices

In this guest post, Coline Constantin reflects on the recent seminar that tackled issues around incarceration in Scotland. Coline is reading for an LLM in Human Rights at Edinburgh Law School, and applied for funding for this event from the Global Justice and Global Development Academies’ Innovative Initiative Fund.

Scotland has the second highest imprisonment rate in Europe. Although English headlines for issues of overcrowding, under staffing, rising rates of self-harming cases do not find an echo north of the border, the statistic still makes it worth taking a closer look at its system. On Thursday 26 April, an engaged audience gathered at the University of Edinburgh to hear more about the positive developments and challenges of the Scottish system of detention.

Three panellists from different fields of expertise and different view angles on the Scottish situation were invited to cover topics from policy-making, to the implementation and analysis of these policies. Professor Richard Sparks, Convenor of Howard League Scotland and criminologist specialised on the different systems of detention in the UK, took us through his analysis of the particularities of the Scottish case within the UK and European context. Tom Halpin, Chief Executive of Sacro and prominent figure in the reduction of inequalities in the Scottish criminal justice system, gave us a sense of the work that is being done with communities and specific groups of people with convictions to go towards better mentoring and guidance throughout the process. Pete White, Chief Executive of Positive Prisons? Positive Future and fascinating storyteller, treated the audience with a story of his personal experience from his time inside and the aftermath of this life-changing event.

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Rethinking the International Criminal Justice Project in the Global South

This guest post is by Michelle Burgis-Kasthala, who is currently a Research Fellow at the Centre for International Governance and Justice, RegNet, ANU. Michelle will be returning to Edinburgh Law School in 2017-18. This post is re-blogged from ‘Regarding Rights: Academic and Activist Perspectives on Human Rights’ and is based on an article published recently in the Journal of International Criminal Justice: ‘Scholarship as Dialogue? TWAIL and the Politics of Methodology’.

ICC in Ivory Coast in 2013. Image: BBC News

ICC in Ivory Coast in 2013. Image: BBC News

Concerns about the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) continuing relevance in Africa following exit announcements by Burundi, South Africa, and Gambia are widespread. But the picture across the continent is more complex. While some African states have clearly rejected the Court, the majority remain members. How can we explain the fracturing of the Court’s support in Africa? More fundamentally – what is the best way of studying international criminal justice and its effects in the Global South – whether in Africa or elsewhere?

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The Apportionment of Shame: Rodrigo Duterte and the Cosmopolitan Discourse of International Criminal Law

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GJA Student Ambassador, Vivek Bhatt

The Global Justice Academy is delighted to launch the second year of its Student Ambassador programme with a guest post by Vivek Bhatt. Vivek is an incoming student reading for a PhD in Law. He recently completed the MSc in Political Theory at the London School of Economics, and holds a Bachelor of Arts (Advanced) (Honours) and Master of International Law from the University of Sydney. His primary interest is in international laws relating to counterterrorism, conflict, and human rights.  

Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs in the Philippines has recently been deemed an international crime. This post reflects upon issues arising from the condemnation of Duterte, asking whether international criminal law can enable the realisation of cosmopolitan ideals. 

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Rodrigo Duterte, President of the Philippines

When elected President of the Philippines on 9 May 2016, Rodrigo Duterte vowed to reduce rates of drug-related crime within the state. Duterte has since waged a violent anti-drug campaign, authorising the extra-judicial execution of individuals thought to use, possess, or traffic illegal substances.  The President’s “death squad” comprises select members of the police force and civilian volunteers. Most of these individuals were lured into their roles as amateur mercenaries through payment, and promises of impunity for their actions. Others were coerced into joining Duterte’s campaign; men and women were guaranteed immunity from punishment for their own drug-related offences in exchange for their services as assassins.[1] The OHCHR suggests that over 850 people have been killed since Duterte’s election, but reports that take into account unexplained deaths during that period suggest the number is closer to 3,000.[2]
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