Blog: Anna Crowe
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April 27, 2016
Since the 2013 Snowden revelations, media and civil society groups have closely scrutinized U.S. surveillance and intelligence sector law and policy, generating wide-ranging domestic and international debates on privacy, security, and the limits of state power. Less scrutinized, however, are the surveillance and intelligence sector policies and practices of countries that wield little international influence, but whose governments exercise significant control over citizens’ ability to communicate privately and speak freely.
Two such countries, Venezuela and Zimbabwe, are the subject of reports the International Human Rights Clinic and its partners recently submitted to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). The joint reports document serious challenges to the right to privacy in both countries, including inadequate legal and policy frameworks on surveillance and intelligence gathering that are compounded by the absence of a strong and independent judiciary. These reports will ultimately help the United Nations Human Rights Council evaluate the human rights situation in both countries through the Universal Periodic Review (UPR).
The Clinic report on Venezuela, co-authored with Privacy International and Venezuelan non-profit Acceso Libre, notes a number of concerning developments since the country’s human rights situation was last assessed through the UPR in 2011: for example, the government has encouraged the emergence of “patriotas cooperantes” (cooperating patriots), anonymous informers who feed information to government officials about the activities of perceived government opponents. In a striking example of this practice, in February 2016 Reuters reported on the case of Rodolfo Gonzalez, who was arrested in April 2014 by intelligence agents and accused of masterminding protests against Venezuela’s President. The arrest was allegedly based on an audio recording provided by a cooperating patriot, in which Gonzalez discussed “destabilising actions” against the government. For nearly a year, Gonzalez was held in a facility operated by Venezuela’s major civilian intelligence agency while he waited for trial; he hanged himself in March 2015.
Similarly, in Zimbabwe, although the country’s new constitution (enacted in 2013) explicitly protects the right to privacy, the Clinic report, co-authored with Privacy International, the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum, and the Digital Society of Zimbabwe, finds this promise has not translated into protection for privacy in law or practice since Zimbabwe’s last review through the UPR in 2011. Zimbabwe’s President, Robert Mugabe, presides over a notoriously partisan and secretive intelligence sector that is virtually unconstrained by law. Government officials have, in fact, boasted about the intelligence sector’s vast and unchecked surveillance capabilities: in 2014, a senior government Minister stated that the government “sees everything . . . No-one can hide from us in this country,” adding, “we will visit your bedrooms and expose what you will be doing.” Leaked documents released by Al Jazeera last year showed that Zimbabwe’s most significant intelligence agency, the Central Intelligence Organisation, developed a “joint action plan” in 2011 with a South African intelligence agency that included as one of its objectives “to monitor activities aimed at subverting [the] constitutional order,” a task that involved the “identification, profiling, and assessment of NGOs engaged in subversive activities.”
The Clinic reports also find that the laws governing communications surveillance in Venezuela and Zimbabwe fall short of international human rights standards articulated in the International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance, principles developed primarily by a coalition of civil society organizations, including Privacy International, in 2013. Additionally, the reports note the establishment of extensive databases containing personal information and a variety of other data collection activities that threaten the right to privacy in both countries. For example, both countries require cellphone companies to collect an array of personal information about their customers and the communications flowing through their networks, measures that are becoming commonplace across the globe, but which facilitate surveillance and undermine individuals’ ability to communicate anonymously.
In their reports, the Clinic and its partners offer a variety of recommendations, including, in both countries, to strengthen the independence of the judiciary and reform the legal frameworks governing surveillance and the intelligence sector. Venezuela and Zimbabwe will be reviewed through the UPR in Fall 2016.
An unofficial translation of the Venezuela report is here in Spanish.
Note: Fabiana Pardi Otamendi, LL.M ’16, Josiah Kollmeyer, JD ’17, Amanda MacFarlane, JD ’17, and MacKennan Graziano, JD ’17, worked on the reports in the Clinic in Fall 2015.
June 19, 2015
Civilian Harm from Explosive Weapons
Agreement Needed to Curb Use in Towns, Cities
(Geneva, June 19, 2015) – Extensive civilian casualties caused by the use of explosive weapons in towns and cities around the globe show the urgent need for countries to agree to curb the use of these weapons in populated areas, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.
Air-dropped bombs, artillery projectiles, mortars, rockets, and other explosive weapons kill or injure tens of thousands of civilians every year. In the first half of 2015, Human Rights Watch documented incidents involving the use of explosive weapons that claimed civilian lives and destroyed vital infrastructure in populated areas of Iraq, Libya, Syria, Sudan, Ukraine, Yemen, and elsewhere.
The 35-page report, “Making a Commitment: Paths to Curbing the Use of Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas,” published jointly with Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic, says that countries should develop and implement a new non-binding agreement to reduce the harm from explosive weapons and offers options for developing such an agreement.
“The high levels of civilian death and destruction from explosive weapons are avoidable,” said Bonnie Docherty, senior arms researcher at Human Rights Watch and co-author of the report. “Nations should agree to curtail the use of explosive weapons in populated areas and stop using those with wide-area effects entirely.”
Explosive weapons that produce wide-area effects are particularly dangerous. They encompass weapons that produce a large blast and/or spread fragments over a wide radius, such as aircraft bombs; weapons that deliver multiple munitions that saturate a large area, such as Grad rockets and others from multi-barrel rocket launchers; and weapons that are so inaccurate that they cannot be effectively targeted, such as barrel bombs.
Momentum for international action is growing as recognition of the harm caused by explosive weapons in populated areas increases. In September, Austria will host a meeting to consider how to improve protection of civilians from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.
The new report seeks to inform these discussions by providing options for a non-binding instrument – a political commitment – in which countries would agree to restrict the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. The report examines about 30 relevant commitments that could serve as models for the shape of an explosive weapons commitment and the process to achieve it.
A new political commitment could take a variety of forms including a declaration, compilation of regulations, set of guidelines, manual, or combination of these types. The process of developing a commitment could be led by countries, emerge from the United Nations system, or be a mix of those two options.
Developers of the commitment would also have to decide on a mechanism for countries to endorse the final document.
Whatever process is followed, nongovernmental organizations should be actively involved because they would bring extensive expertise as well as humanitarian concerns to the process, Human Rights Watch and the Harvard clinic said.
Over the past few years, the UN secretary-general, several UN agencies – notably the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) – and the International Committee of the Red Cross have all acknowledged the need to address the civilian harm caused by the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas.
Many countries have echoed their concerns, and the September meeting in Austria follows a 2014 meeting about the subject in Norway. The Austria meeting provides an opportunity for countries to take the next step to initiating a process to develop a new commitment on explosive weapons.
“Extensive precedent shows that the timely development of an explosive weapons commitment is feasible,” said Docherty, who is also a lecturer on law at the Harvard clinic. “Countries need only recognize the urgency of the problem and bring political will to deal with it.”
This report was written by Docherty and Anna Crowe, clinical advocacy fellow, with significant research and writing contributions from Ben Bastomski, JD ’15, Kate Boulton, JD, ’15, and Ishita Kala, JD ’16.
For more information on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, please visit:
For more information, please contact:
In Boston, Bonnie Docherty (English): +1-617-669-1636 (mobile); or firstname.lastname@example.org
June 17, 2015
Posted by Anna Crowe
The International Human Rights Clinic and Privacy International released a publication today that examines the vital role that encryption and anonymity tools and services play in safeguarding human rights. The 30-page publication, “Securing Safe Spaces Online: encryption, online anonymity, and human rights,” complements a landmark report by the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye.
Kaye’s report, which he will present to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva today, calls on states to ensure security and privacy online by providing “comprehensive protection” through encryption and anonymity tools.
The clinic’s joint publication explores measures that restrict online encryption and anonymity in four particular countries – Morocco, Pakistan, South Korea, and the United Kingdom. In all four countries, these restrictions impede private and secure online communication and inhibit free expression. The publication also points to opportunities for governments, the corporate sector, and civil society to eliminate or minimize obstacles to use of encryption and online anonymity.
The Clinic’s collaboration with Privacy International dates back to last fall, when we supported a coalition of NGOs calling for the creation of a new Special Rapporteur on the Right to Privacy. In March 2015, the Human Rights Council established this new Special Rapporteur.
The Clinic began work on the encryption and anonymity publication this past spring. Clinical students Sarah Lee, JD ’16, and Mark Verstraete, JD ’16, worked on the publication throughout the semester and participated in a meeting of Privacy International’s global partners in April.
May 17, 2012
Posted by Cara Solomon
Note: This story was originally published on the Harvard Law School homepage, where there is also a slideshow of the team’s trip.
There she stood, in northern Libya, a spread of explosive weapons before her: mortars and rockets and surface-to-air missiles almost 20 feet long. For all her work in post-conflict zones, senior clinical instructor Bonnie Docherty ’01 had never seen anything like it. The weapons stretched on for miles.
It was March, five months after the revolution had ended, and Docherty was supervising a team from the International Human Rights Clinic on a trip to assess the humanitarian risks of abandoned weapons. As the team traveled from city to city, the scale of the problem was startling.
“We saw huge quantities of weapons—particularly in bombed-out bunkers—many of which were inadequately secured,” said Docherty, a lecturer on law, as well as a senior researcher with the Arms Division of Human Rights Watch. “In our view, these weapons represent a real threat to the safety and stability of Libyans.”
Over the course of eight days, the team traveled to Misrata, the focus of Col. Gaddafi’s bombing campaign; Sirte, where rebels finally defeated the dictator; and Zintan, where NATO bombing had destroyed a complex of more than 70 bunkers full of weapons. Their research will feed into a larger body of work on Libya by the nongovernmental organization CIVIC and the Center for American Progress.
The students prepared for weeks for the trip, researching the scattering of Gaddafi’s abandoned stockpiles, the efforts underway to deal with the weapons, and the relevant legal frameworks. Still, being there, post-revolution, was something else entirely.
“It felt momentous,” said Nicolette Boehland ’13, who is returning to Libya this summer with CIVIC, which promotes assistance for civilians victims of armed conflict. “It definitely felt like a place that was changing by the day.”
In their conversations with locals, the students said they sensed tremendous pride and enthusiasm for what had been accomplished in the revolution; the energy was palpable in the streets. But from the team’s perspective, there were also serious risks for civilians.
December 8, 2011
Reflections on a Major Weapons Victory: Overcoming Powerful Opposition, Ban on Cluster Munitions Strengthened
Posted by Anna Crowe, LLM '12, Nicolette Boehland, JD '13, and Robert Yoskowitz, JD '13
“We are the voices of victims, not just diplomats. . . . If we have to pay a political price, if we can just save one single life, it is worth it. And I think we are not alone.”
– Representative of Costa Rica, the Fourth Review Conference of the Convention on Conventional Weapons
At precisely 7:05pm on Friday, November 25, the chair of the Fourth Review Conference for the Convention on Conventional Weapons concluded that there was no consensus in the room on the adoption of a proposed protocol regulating cluster munitions. This seemingly banal statement marked the end of a decade of deliberations and political machinations, and hundreds of days of diplomatic meetings. More important, it marked a victory for the supporters of the Convention on Cluster Munitions and its goal of eliminating these weapons and the harm they cause.
As the Clinic had argued in a joint paper with Human Rights Watch—and in other documents distributed at the Conference—adding a new treaty to the 1980 Convention on Conventional Weapons would have constituted an unprecedented step backwards for the laws of war. The proposed weak treaty would have legitimized rather than stigmatized future use of cluster munitions, and we are thrilled that it was rejected. The outcome was in no way certain.
The Clinic has been working for years first to help create and then to promote the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions, which prohibits not just the use of these weapons, but also their production, stockpiling, and transfer. Currently, 108 states have signed on to the ban, which took legal effect last year, and 66 are full states parties.
The United States, however, wanted to produce a separate treaty that would have allowed cluster munition use under the Convention on Conventional Weapons framework. Continue Reading…
November 7, 2011
Posted by Sarah Fenstemaker, JD '12
In preparation for this week’s United Nations Security Council debate on the protection of civilians in armed conflict, the International Human Rights Clinic and Human Rights Watch have released a briefing paper on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.
The paper examines the concept of “explosive weapons in populated areas,” an emerging term in the field of international humanitarian law. Although the term is new, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has for decades documented and sought to minimize the significant effects on civilians of the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. Explosive weapons, which cause injury through blast and fragmentation, range from hand grenades to air-dropped bombs. Earlier this year, HRW helped found the International Network on Explosive Weapons, which seeks to raise awareness of the concept and reduce the human suffering explosive weapons cause.
This paper released on Friday illuminates the humanitarian problems associated with the use of explosive weapons in populated areas through three recent case studies—Sri Lanka, Somalia, and Libya. For each, the paper provides information, drawn from past HRW research, about users and types of explosive weapons, patterns of use in populated areas, and civilian harm.
The case studies exemplify the ongoing nature of the problem as well as the range of responsible actors, categories of munitions, and location of attacks. The case studies also shed light on the shared characteristics of the harm to civilians, which include death and bodily injury, destruction of infrastructure, and long-term effects on individual lives and livelihoods. Commonalities in the use of these weapons and the harms they produce underline the need for the international community to focus on and address the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.
The Clinic’s Explosive Weapons team—Ian Boyle Harper, LLM ’12, Anna Crowe, LLM ’12, and Sarah Fenstemaker, JD ’12—researched and drafted the paper under the supervision of Senior Clinical Instructor Bonnie Docherty. Their work is part of an ongoing partnership between the Clinic and HRW.
Sarah Fenstemaker, JD’12, is a member of the Clinic and a student in Bonnie’s seminar The Promises and Challenges of Disarmament.
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