Five Yazidi women held as slaves by an Islamic State fighter are appealing to the UN to intervene in their case for compensation in a move lawyers hope will help fix a “lawless” global system that is failing torture survivors.
The women, captured in Iraq in 2014, were taken to Syria as slaves by IS fighters, including the Australian citizen Khaled Sharrouf, who was pictured standing next to his young son holding a severed human head.
The women, in a case due to be filed next week, want the UN’s Committee Against Torture to remind Australia of its obligation to provide survivors of violence with redress under the UN’s torture convention, which the country has ratified. The Australian authorities have so far denied all requests for compensation.
Lawyers had argued that the women were entitled to compensation under New South Wales law because Sharrouf was born in Sydney and NSW was his last known place of residence. The NSW Victims Rights and Supports Act entitles survivors to $10,000 and other means of support. However, the Australian courts, including the high court, ruled against the women.
Philippe Sands KC, one of the lawyers leading the case, said the purpose of taking the complaint to the UN committee is to end the impunity of western governments who have pledged to support Yazidis in their quest for justice.
“You’ve got a situation of utter lawlessness in which western governments who have committed to rooting it out seem unwilling to take responsibility to provide the institutional and financial mechanisms to deliver on that commitment. If there’s a gap, and unless that gap is filled, you have impunity and more lawlessness,” said Sands.
“The legal framework as it stands seems incapable of delivering, so this application is intended to fill that gap and seek to recognise the responsibility of a state like Australia to ensure that justice is done for the victims.”
In their complaint to the UN, the women argue that Sharrouf’s crimes were of universal jurisdiction, and Australia’s obligation to act under the torture convention is not limited by territory. They also state that Australia had failed to prevent Sharrouf from leaving the country, despite previous arrests for terror offences.
Yasmin Waljee, the international pro bono partner at the law firm Hogan Lovells, which is representing the women, said the women cannot be compensated by IS or the perpetrator, as Sharrouf is presumed to have been killed in a 2017 US airstrike. Waljee said the case highlighted how difficult it is for survivors to access compensation, even when their abuse had been widely condemned.
“We’ve got women who experienced sexual violence and violence generally as part of this horrific movement which the world condemned, and yet they’ve left the victims on their own without any remedy,” said Waljee. “It’s shocking – you’re dealing with post-traumatic stress, suicides, all sorts of horrendous long-term impacts.”
Waljee said survivors have short and long-term needs – like healthcare, mental health support and accommodation – that require money. While a positive ruling from the UN committee cannot compel Australia to provide compensation, she said, a finding that the government had breached the convention against torture would be “a move forward” in international law.
“It is important that the experience of these courageous women is widely recognised, documented and remembered. If we don’t draw these issues into the light, there’s no hope that improvements will ever be made,” said Waljee. “The world condemned this movement [IS] and continues to condemn it, but then doesn’t try to support the victims in any way.”
Lawyers believe the outcome of this case can have implications for survivors of violence in other conflicts, especially those by non-state militias.
Erin Rosenberg, senior legal adviser to the DRC-based Mukwege Foundation, said: “Right now in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for example, one of the most vicious and brutal is a non-state actor, M23. It’s crucial that victims could be provided with redress even when the perpetrator is a terrorist or militia.”
Rosenberg, who previously worked at the international criminal court, said that international justice is too focused on prosecuting individuals for crimes against humanity and does not offer enough support for victims. The need for compensation is recognised by most countries but, in reality, few are willing to pay.
“We see a lot of rhetoric from a lot of states about the idea of a victim-centred approach, ensuring victims are provided with redress and able to rebuild their lives, but these talking points are often deprioritised when it comes down to the nuts and bolts of paying,” she said.
Uganda condemned for ‘shameful’ decision to close UN human rights office | Global development
Rights activists and campaigners have condemned the Ugandan government’s decision to shut down the country’s UN human rights office, describing it as “shameful”.
In a letter to the Office of the UN high commissioner for human rights (OHCHR) in Uganda dated 3 February, the foreign affairs ministry said it will not renew the host country agreement it signed with the OHCHR, which established its initial mandate in the country in 2005. The current mandate, signed on 9 February 2020, expires in August.
“The government of Uganda will now continue its cooperation with the OHCHR Headquarters either directly or through its Permanent Mission in Geneva,” reads the letter.
The development comes less than three months after the UN’s committee against torture adopted the concluding observations on Uganda, which raised concerns that torture and ill-treatment continued to be frequently practised, and called for investigation and prosecution of security officials accused of excessive use of force, violence and arbitrary detention.
“The closure of the @UNHumanRightsUG office proves that [the] government has lost all sense of shame. It no longer wants any close international scrutiny of its human rights record,” tweeted Adrian Jjuuko, executive director of the Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum.
“If the protectors are sent away, what then happens to those they were protecting? We are headed for tough times,” he added.
Bobi Wine, the reggae singer turned Ugandan opposition leader, whose supporters remain in unauthorised places of detention or “safe houses”, said it was no surprise that Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, who has been in power since 1986, has closed the OHCHR. He tweeted: “In the face of growing international condemnation and isolation, tyrant Museveni has responded by shutting down NGOs, Facebook, DGF [Democratic Governance Facility] & declaring several internationals Persona Non-Grata or deporting them! Now he shuts down @UNHumanRightsUG.”
Wine added: “You’ll recall in the aftermath of the 2021 election and the hundreds killed or abducted by the Museveni regime, we petitioned the UN Human Rights Office & the military brutalised journalists right there. This UN Office condemned these actions. Not surprising it’s being closed.”
Human right activists and advocacy groups have called the decision a “mockery” and accused the government of running from international scrutiny on abuse and protection of human rights.
“This is unbelievable, and the reasons given by the government are a mockery of the real state of human rights in the country,” said Jjuuko. “To claim that Uganda no longer needs the office [OHCHR] because of its strong stand for human rights is ironic to say the least.
“A strong stand for human rights would imply opening up to the UN and other actors.”
David Livingstone Sewanyana, founder of the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative in the capital, Kampala, told the Guardian, “The decision not to renew the mandate deprives Uganda of a critical player in the field of human rights promotion and protection.”
At least 38 local and international staff at the head office in Kampala and two field offices in Gulu and Moroto stand to lose their jobs.
Jjuuko said: “Following closely on the closure of the DGF, this is a scary move which indicates that the government is no longer willing to have its human rights record scrutinised by international actors.
“This leaves local organisations at much more risk of being further silenced and their work curtailed without the government fearing close international security. It is a sad day indeed for the human rights movement in Uganda.”
2023 State of the Union address, live | Biden will call for collaboration with Republicans | USA
On the List: Biden’s guests at the State of the Union address
In the highly theatrical ritual of the State of the Union address, delivered each year by the President of the United States to a joint audience of congressmen and senators on Capitol Hill, the most eagerly awaited list in the hours leading up to the address is that of those invited by the President himself to attend his speech on the floor of the House of Representatives. They are carefully chosen to underscore with their presence the points the president wants to emphasize. This year they range from rock stars (Bono) to anonymous citizens unwittingly placed at the center of a whirlwind of tragedy and media attention, such as the parents of Memphis teen Tyre Nichols, the latest name to enter the history of police brutality infamy in the country.
What follows is a list of some of those illustrious guests at tonight’s speech in Washington:
Bono. Singer of the Irish band U2 and activist for the most varied causes, for whose fight he deploys his worldwide fame.
Oksana Markarova, the Ukrainian ambassador to the United States. She was already invited last year, when Biden’s first speech came six days after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Nearly a year later, the end of the war seems far off, but the U.S. commitment to Kiev’s cause remains unwavering.
Row Vaughn and Rodney Wells, mother and stepfather of Tyre Nichols. Five police officers beat him to death last month in Memphis. His case, and the poise of his parents, have reopened the debate about police brutality in the United States, an issue that seemed on the mend after the chokehold death of African-American George Floyd at the hands of a white Minneapolis police officer on May 25, 2020.
Brandon Tsay, another anonymous man at the center of American political power. Tsay disarmed the killer of 11 people in one of the latest mass shootings to horrify the country. It happened in Monterey Park, California, and the tragedy ripped the Asian American community in half.
Deanna Branch. Lead was found in her son’s blood because of water coming out of the home’s plumbing. The Biden Administration has set a goal of replacing all lead pipes in the country within the next decade.
Mitzi Colin Lopez. Immigrant rights activist, specializing in advocacy for dreamers.
Doug Griffin of Newton, New Hampshire. Lost a daughter to a fentanyl overdose. Biden plans to stress the importance of the fight against opioids. The drugs have taken the lives of 100,000 Americans by 2022.
Amanda Zurawski, Texas neighbor. She almost died because of restrictive anti-abortion laws that came out of the Supreme Court ruling that eliminated a woman’s federal right to choose.
High-profile lawsuit against Meta can be heard in Kenya, Nairobi court rules | Global development
A Kenyan court has ruled that a case brought against Facebook by a former content moderator can go ahead.
Daniel Motaung, who was hired as a Facebook content moderator by the tech firm’s subcontractor Sama in 2019, filed a suit against the two companies last year, alleging that he had been exposed to graphic and traumatic content at work, without adequate prior knowledge or proper psychosocial support – which he says left him with post-traumatic stress disorder.
He also claimed he was unfairly dismissed after trying to unionise his co-workers to fight for better conditions.
Facebook’s parent company, Meta, contested its involvement in the case, saying that Sama was Motaung’s employer, and Meta could not be subjected to a hearing in Kenyan courts because it was not registered, and did not operate, in the country.
However, on Monday the judge found that the tech giant was a “proper party” to the case.
The Kenya employment and labour relations court is yet to release its full ruling on Motaung’s case, but the decision – the first of its kind in Africa – is already being hailed as a win for the accountability of big tech on the continent, and in the global south.
“If the attempt by [Meta] to avoid Kenyan justice had succeeded, it would have undermined the fundamental tenets of access to justice and equality under the law in favour of foreign privilege,” said Irũngũ Houghton, executive director of Amnesty International Kenya.
“We finally have an avenue for accountability,” said Odanga Madung, senior researcher for platform integrity at Mozilla. “It calls for tech giants to make serious changes within their companies that take into consideration their workers and users outside the US and Europe.”
Cori Crider, director of Foxglove, a UK tech justice non-profit, which supported the Motaung case, said social media platforms should not outsource critical online safety functions like content moderation. “It is the core function of the business. Without the work of these moderators, social media is unusable. When they are not able to do their jobs safely or well, social media’s safety brutally falters.”
Meta is facing a second court case in Kenya, which was due to be heard this week but has been postponed. It was filed by two Ethiopian petitioners and a Kenyan rights advocacy group, Katiba Institute, who claim that the company failed to take online safety measures to manage hate speech on the platform during northern Ethiopia’s civil war – which they say fanned the conflict, with serious offline consequences.
The father of one of the petitioners was killed after a violent Facebook post that was reported, but not acted on in time. The petitioners claim that Facebook also failed to recruit enough moderation staff to its regional hub in Nairobi.
“There are problems with Facebook’s woeful failure to value or to staff content moderation outside of the English-speaking United States,” said Crider, adding that Monday’s ruling could have global and regional implications on how tech firms think about and manage content moderation.
Leah Kimathi, a convenor for the Council for Responsible Social Media, agrees. “Big tech should not just look at Kenyans as a market, but should be accountable and alive to the nuances, needs and peculiarities of Kenya, especially when it comes to content moderation.”
A nationwide poll conducted in 2022 by the Council for Responsible Social Media showed that 68% of Kenyans who have internet access get their news from social media, and that a majority of these feel that social media platforms could do more to remove harmful content.
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