Latest Blog Entries

The IHR Clinic blog is written and edited by students and recent alums of the University of Chicago Law School. Featured on the Huffington Post, the IHR Clinic blog examines contemporary issues in human rights, as well as social, political and cultural events viewed through the lens of human rights. 

Sarin’s Grim Return to the Syrian Civil War

Joseph Nunn, Class of 2019
as featured on The Huffington Post
August 3, 2017

At the end of June, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) – the international community’s chemical weapons watchdog – confirmed that the nerve agent sarin was used against Syrian civilians earlier this year. According to the OPCW report, early in the morning on April 4, military jets dropped sarin on the rebel-held town of Khan Shaykuhn. The gas killed around 100 civilians, many of whom were children or first-responders. At the time of the attack, there were no rebel forces in the town.

This is the first confirmed use of sarin in the Syrian Civil War since the Syrian government agreed to destroy its chemical weapons stockpile in the fall of 2013.

Use of any chemical weapon is of grave concern from a human rights perspective. From the gas-filled artillery shells of World War I, to the defoliants sprayed from aircraft during the Vietnam War, chemical weapons are by their nature indiscriminate. Once released, they go wherever the wind blows them. They are weapons of mass destruction, as likely to kill civilians and the attacker’s own troops as they are to kill the targeted enemy.

Sarin, a nerve agent, is particularly deadly. Colorless and odorless, it attacks the body’s nervous system and usually kills within minutes.

The OPCW, the organization behind the report on the Khan Shaykuhn attack, is the international watchdog group created to implement the Chemical Weapons Convention, an arms control treaty that entered into force in 1997. Countries that are party to the Convention “have condemned any use of toxic chemicals as a weapon by anyone anywhere in any circumstances as a violation of international law, and have expressed their conviction that those responsible should be held accountable.”[1] Only Egypt, North Korea, and South Sudan have neither signed nor acceded to the Convention; Israel has signed, but not ratified it.

All of the countries involved in the Syrian Civil War are legally obligated to uphold the Chemical Weapons Convention, no matter what side they are on. But the use of chemical weapons implicates more than arms control: it also violates core principles of international human rights law. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, states that “Everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of person,” and that “No one shall be subjected to… cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.” The whole framework of international human rights law is founded on these principles. The international community has a duty to uphold them, and a responsibility to protect all people from those who would violate them.

While the OPCW report states that the attack on Khan Shaykuhn was carried out by military jets, it does not address who is responsible. That determination is outside of the organization’s mandate. However, a joint investigation by the OPCW and the United Nations will seek to identify the perpetrator.

In the interim, the countries involved in the Syrian Civil War have responded by blaming each other. The United States and its allies have accused the Syrian government of carrying out the attack. Russia, Syria’s ally, has argued that the incident was caused by a conventional weapons strike accidentally hitting a stockpile of chemical weapons. This explanation is unlikely, because sarin has a short shelf life, and its components are normally stored separately. The Syrian government, for its part, has claimed that the United States fabricated the story of the attack in order to justify its April 7 missile strike on a Syrian air base.

While the attack on Khan Shaykuhn is the first confirmed use of sarin in Syria since 2013, chlorine and mustard gas attacks have been documented numerous times in the past four years. Many of these attacks have been linked to the Syrian government, but others have not, and it is possible that they were carried out by other actors.

Once the perpetrator of the Khan Shaykuhn attack has been identified, action by the international community will be essential. Tit-for-tat military retaliation is unlikely to be productive, but a combination of sanctions and robust diplomacy could provide a solution. Sanctions have a checkered history in the enforcement of international law, because a single powerful country offering a lifeline to the sanctioned country can render them ineffective. If the Chemical Weapons Convention and international human rights law are to have any meaning, then a country that uses chemical weapons must quickly find itself isolated and friendless.

If the Syrian government is responsible for the Khan Shaykuhn attack, then its Russian and Iranian allies must withdraw their support for the regime, or face sanctions themselves. Convincing Russia and Iran to abandon the Syrian government will require a degree of diplomatic finesse that is probably beyond the capabilities of the current administration in Washington. But another party, particularly one such as Germany whose stature on the world stage is growing and has a close economic relationship with Russia, could find success. Moreover, if Russia and Iran genuinely wish to stabilize Syria and the region, then they should see that weapons as indiscriminately destructive as sarin are themselves destabilizing. Far from hastening the war’s end, they will simply escalate its brutality.

If the international community fails to act, then sarin attacks may become the new normal, and more towns like Khan Shaykuhn will wake up to find themselves overrun by an indiscriminate killer they can neither see nor smell.


#Bringbackourgirls: Where Are They Now?

Brittany McKinley, Class of 2019
as featured on The Huffington Post
uly 5, 2017

In April of 2014, the militant Islamic extremist group, Boko Haram, abducted 276 girls, ranging from 12 to 17 years old, from their government secondary boarding school in Chibok, Nigeria. The abduction of the Chibok schoolgirls devastated the world and sparked the global #Bringbackourgirls campaign which was supported by many celebrities including former First Lady, Michelle Obama. After a series of government negotiations and the promise that 83 more girls would be released soon, the world rejoiced as 21 Chibok girls were freed on October 13th, 2016. Seven months later, the remaining 83 girls were released after negotiations mediated by the Swiss government and the International Committee of the Red Cross. Today, the remaining 113 Chibok girls are unaccounted for. Meanwhile, contrary to President Buhari’s previous statements, Boko Haram remains at large carrying out attacks in Northern Nigeria and neighboring countries with more than 20,000 killed and millions displaced.

While in captivity, the Chibok girls were sexually abused, enslaved, married off to militants, impregnated, and some were even forced to become suicide bombers. Once released, these women and girls have faced an unwelcoming stigma and a long journey to reintegration when they return. According to a 2016 report by Charity International Alert and UNICEF, many Nigerians fear women abducted by Boko Haram have been radicalized and their children tainted by the “bad blood” of the militants who raped them. Zara, one of the victims of Boko Haram, shared her experience with stigmatization in an interview on BBC, describing how she was shunned and called a Boko Haram bride due to her pregnancy. Of the 21 girls who were released last October, none have been able to move back home and are still being held in a military re-integration program. The Neem Foundation, an anti-extremism group in charge of running the state-backed De-Radicalization Program, states that “[r]ehabilitation, reintegration is a long process [that is] complicated by the fact there [there is] an active, ongoing insurgency.” Akilu, head of the Neem Foundation, in regards to a victim who is thought to have returned to the militant group, explains that “[w]hen you have fathers, husbands, sons and brothers who are still in the movement, [the women] want to be reunite[d]… to go back to a place where they feel they belong.”

Boko Haram remains a major issue in the region and though 104 girls have been released, the issues they face coming home are directly tied to the pervasiveness of Boko Haram and the resentment that villages harbor towards them. This resentment leads to the stigmatization that makes it hard for girls like Zara to return home. On their joint mission to Nigeria in 2016, UN Rapporteurs on sale of children, slavery, and right to health examined measures the Nigerian Government could take to help address these issues. Many of the recommendations focus on solving the root conditions that can lead to violent extremism such as poverty, discrimination, exclusion and gender inequality, and lack of security and deprivation. The report suggests that addressing these immediate needs of the victim’s communities as well as these root conditions can help in the victim’s long journey towards rehabilitation and reintegration. Furthermore, a more gender sensitive approach to the fight against terrorism, including better gender-sensitive training for law enforcement and increased awareness of the remedies and protections available to victims, would also help and has been implemented through workshops held by the UN. Thus, though the fight against Boko Haram is a long and treacherous one, addressing these root issues are not only doable but ought be the duty and focus of every government.

The Day the United States was a No-Show at a Human Rights Hearing

Shelbi Smith, Class of 2018
as featured in The Huffington Post
May 1, 2017

On March 21, I traveled with a fellow student and faculty of the International Human Rights Clinic at the University of Chicago to Washington D.C. to attend the hearings of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to hear the Trump Administration defend the human rights implications of the then-recent Executive Orders on migrants and immigration. As it turned out, the defense would be quick – in fact, there wouldn’t be one at all.

That morning, however, the other student, my professor and I entered the hearing room in anticipation of exciting and important debates. The day’s schedule listing was heavily focused on the U.S.:

8:30AM: Case 12:545 – Isamu Carlos Shibayama and Others, United States (Merits).

10:15AM: Impact of Executive Orders “Border Security and Immigration Enforcements Improvements;” “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist entry into the United States;” “Expediting Environmental Reviews an Approval for High Priority Infrastructure Projects” on Human Rights in the United States (Ex-officio).

11:30AM: Policies that Prevents Access to Asylum in the United States.

As we sat down, however, we quickly joined others in the room in staring with disbelief at the striking row of empty chairs directly across from the panel of lawyers and advocates who had worked tirelessly to prepare their arguments in defense of immigrants and asylum seekers. The United States – for the first time in the history of the Inter-American Commission – had simply failed to attend any of the three hearings in which its actions were at issue.

As I sat throughout the morning listening to advocates and stared at the U.S. representatives’ empty chairs, I thought about the videos I had seen of jeering crowds of anti-immigrant protestors in Murrieta, California, chanting, “Go home!” and “We don’t want you!” in the summer of 2014. The protestors succeeded in turning back DHS buses transporting undocumented women and children from Central America from overcrowded facilities along the Texas-Mexico border. I remembered the deep sense of shame I had felt as I watched the protestors waive American flags. That day at the Commission, I felt far greater shame knowing that the same hate I had seen in Murrieta was now literally written into Executive Orders issued by the President of the United States. A president who hadn’t seen fit to show up to defend his actions to his neighboring countries.

Jamil Dakwar, Director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Human Rights Program, said it best following his testimony at the hearing—this was a new low.

Does it Really Matter if the U.S. Fails to Attend Human Rights Hearings?

You may be thinking this really shouldn’t matter. You might even be asking yourself whether this is really a surprise given the current political climate. After all, Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, did not even attend the NATO summit in April (the last time a Secretary of State skipped a NATO foreign ministerial meeting was in 2003). However, it should be surprising; it should be concerning; it should be worrisome. The Organization of American States (OAS) was created by the States of the Americas, including the United States, to protect regional peace and solidarity. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights is the principal organ of the OAS that protects human rights in the Americas and the only regional human rights mechanism with jurisdiction over the U.S.

Such behavior by the U.S. State Department must not be normalized when the human rights of vulnerable people in this country are at stake. We must not tolerate our government simply opting out of international meetings, disregarding its treaty obligations and diminishing the importance of international organizations established to maintain peace, human rights and global cooperation. As a member of the OAS, the United States should have been present to hear the Commission’s concerns, explain its actions and potentially work with the Commission to ensure its policies respect the human rights of those impacted.

Instead, before the row of empty chairs, advocates listed their concerns about the consequences of the expansion of the geographic scope of expedited removal; the increase in discretion available to immigration officers without review; the granting of authority to local and state police to enforce federal immigration laws; and the hiring of additional ICE and CBP agents. The list of concerns was vast. The potential for human rights abuses was immense.

Where do we go from here? 

Most media attention since January has been on the so-called Muslim Ban. However, President Trump has issued multiple Executive Orders that pose a tremendous threat to the lives and the well-being of immigrants and asylum seekers, particularly those from Central and South America. We must remain as vigilant of the rights of those seeking refuge at our southern border as we are to those being targeted by Trump’s discriminatory Muslim ban.

It is exactly for this reason that the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights exists. Like other international and regional human rights mechanisms, the Commission is meant to hold member States accountable for compliance with human rights treaties and declarations.

It is only a matter of time until the Commission issues its statement following the hearing. In all likelihood, the Commission will condemn the aspects of the Orders that have violated the rights of undocumented immigrants and U.S. citizens alike. Advocates have and will continue to demand the U.S. abide by its commitments and respect the human rights of anyone within its borders.

In the meantime, the truth is that it is up to all of us to fight these Orders at the federal, state and local level.

Educate yourself by reading the Executive Orders, make phone calls to your Senators and Representatives, contact local and national NGOs, like the National Immigrant Justice Center, and ask how you can help. Most importantly, strive every day to educate yourself and others and to combat the ignorance and hate that has brought us to these dire circumstances in the first place.