Posts Tagged ‘ABA Abroad’

TrialWatch finds its feet in 2019

February 15, 2020

TrialWatch logo

Photo courtesy of the Clooney Foundation for Justice.

A year ago this January, I flew out of Sarajevo to join the ABA Center for Human Rights (CHR), ready to start work on CHR’s new program, TrialWatch. ….Since the TrialWatch program was new, I did not know what to expect. In Bosnia, I had dedicated the past several years to advocating for wartime victims seeking justice. Many of these men and women had spent decades pounding on the doors of institutions that had long consigned them to oblivion. As I entered the ABA lobby on my first day, I wondered what it would be like to instead focus on defendants vulnerable to abuse of their rights. What I found was that the experience and ethos of TrialWatch were uncannily similar to those of my work in Bosnia. We aim to ensure that people are not forgotten.

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Criminal prosecutions are one weapon in the ever-expanding arsenal of those who seek to derail human rights. Through TrialWatch, CHR sends monitors to proceedings at which they are often the only independent observers. These are remote, dilapidated courtrooms outside the capitals, places where no one would expect a monitor to show up. Our presence can make a significant difference.

In Algeria, for example, CHR sent a monitor to observe the trial of Ahmed Manseri, a human rights defender prosecuted for defamation for claiming that he had been tortured by the authorities. The monitor traveled through multiple checkpoints to reach the city of Tiaret in northern Algeria, some 300 kilometers from the capital of Algiers. The judge, aware of CHR’s interest in the case, treated Manseri differently from all others in court that day, giving Manseri’s lawyers adequate time to conduct questioning, providing Manseri himself with an opportunity to speak, spending several hours on the hearing (as opposed to the five to 15 minutes afforded other defendants), and ultimately acquitting Manseri. When we spoke to Manseri and his lawyer after the trial, they relayed that Manseri may not have gone home that day if the monitor had not been in court. This is CHR’s work: ensuring that people facing the greatest risks are not forgotten, that their voices are heard, and that relevant institutions take their experiences and claims seriously. In some cases, as in Algeria, making an appearance is just as important as the final report.

Prisoners
More than 100 defendants were convicted as part of a mass trial with respect to an alleged coup plot in Equatorial Guinea. Photo provided by the ABA Center for Human Rights.

In other cases, documentation is critical. If we do not record the abuses that occur in the courtroom, they will be lost in a labyrinthine system with no recourse for defendants. In Equatorial Guinea, CHR monitored the trial of over a hundred individuals prosecuted in connection with an alleged coup attempt. In court, our monitors observed egregious fair trial violations, such as the repeated use of confessions induced by torture, the intervention of military officials in the judicial process, and the imposition of time limits on defense questioning. The defendants were ultimately convicted—some to what were functionally life sentences.

As Equatorial Guinea is a relatively closed country—its doors wide open to oil behemoths but shut to most others—CHR was the only outside entity to send observers to the trial. The information we acquired proved helpful for embassies and other organizations tracking the proceedings. Human Rights Watch, for example, employed CHR’s report to produce a video on the trial that was widely disseminated in Equatorial Guinea via WhatsApp. Meanwhile, CHR’s report was raised before the United Nations Human Rights Committee, after which the committee condemned military interference in civilian trials. Correspondingly, defense lawyers have used the report’s conclusions in advocating for their imprisoned clients. Without the valuable data gained from simply sitting in the courtroom, these various opportunities for impact would have been lost and—again—the defendants forgotten.

 


TrialWatch followed a case in Guatemala of a human rights defender named Abelino Chub, shown here with an unidentified woman. Chub was held in pretrial detention for two years. Chub was being prosecuted on allegations he had burned down trees and fields on a plantation operated by Cobra Investments, a banana and palm company. He was ultimately acquitted. Photo provided by the ABA Center for Human Rights

The overarching goal of ensuring that defendants receive the necessary support motivates the TrialWatch team to grapple with these challenges, as do the inspiring monitors with whom we work. One of TrialWatch’s objectives is to democratize trial monitoring—to place the tools to observe trials in the hands of affected communities. Dedication and a willingness to learn are the only requirements. In a recent case, two different entities within the prosecution appeared to be at odds. One entity had withdrawn the charges, and the other seemed to still be pursuing the case. CHR’s enterprising trial monitor brought a copy of the withdrawal document across town to the latter entity’s office. The office claimed to have never seen this document—or at least to have never been directly confronted with it—and stated that it would cease work on the case. At the moment, the office no longer appears to be pursuing the charges.

In another example, a CHR monitor who is not a lawyer but passionate about press freedom issues agreed to travel to a remote province in Cambodia—a nine-hour bus ride—on Christmas day to observe the start of a trial in which two journalists were being prosecuted for incitement. Though the trial did not in fact proceed that day, the monitor was able to document valuable information, such as the judge ordering defense counsel not to contact the U.S. embassy: a troubling and noteworthy development. That my job entails working closely with these monitors—such a perseverant, diverse group of individuals—makes it all the more worthwhile.

Lastly, one of the most ironic features of trial monitoring is that there is frequently no trial to monitor. In many countries, authorities use criminal charges and detention as a punishment in itself: the trial in such cases is not of consequence. By imprisoning defendants pending trial, deferring substantive proceedings in the vein of Godot, states can avoid scrutiny while still harassing defendants and stifling their work. Through TrialWatch, we have been able to document and respond to this phenomenon.

In India, for example, CHR monitored habeas corpus proceedings brought by journalist Kishorechandra Wangkhem, who had been arrested on sedition charges for posting Facebook videos in which he criticized the ruling party. When the judge presiding over the case released Wangkhem on bail, the authorities rearrested and imprisoned him on national security grounds. CHR subsequently issued a preliminary report concluding that Wangkhem’s detention was inconsistent with international law. Soon thereafter, he was released, having spent 132 days behind bars.

Similarly, in Nigeria, CHR monitored proceedings against Omoyele Sowore, a journalist who had been charged with treason. Awaiting trial, Sowore remained imprisoned by the state security services despite the presiding court’s order to release him. Amal Clooney, the co-founder of TrialWatch, made a public statement calling for Sowore’s release, bolstering the international uproar and placing pressure on the state. Approximately a month later, Sowore was released.

Defendants languishing in detention, sometimes for years on end, are the most at risk of being forgotten. Seeing these individuals go free in part because of our work is one of the most rewarding aspects of TrialWatch. I am proud to lead the program at the ABA Center for Human Rights and look forward to my second year.

If you are interested in signing up to be a TrialWatch monitor, please fill out this form.

 

http://www.abajournal.com/news/article/volunteer-trial-monitors-are-helping-secure-human-rights-around-the-globe

How social media companies can identify and respond to threats against human rights defenders

October 15, 2019

global computer threats

Image from Shutterstock.

Ginna Anderson writes in the ABA Abroad of 3

..Unfortunately, social media platforms are now a primary tool for coordinated, state-aligned actors to harass, threaten and undermine advocates. Although public shaming, death threats, defamation and disinformation are not unique to the online sphere, the nature of the internet has given them unprecedented potency. Bad actors are able to rapidly deploy their poisoned content on a vast scale. Social media companies have only just begun to recognize, let alone respond, to the problem. Meanwhile, individuals targeted through such coordinated campaigns must painstakingly flag individual pieces of content, navigate opaque corporate structures and attempt to survive the fallout. To address this crisis, companies such as Facebook, Twitter and Youtube must dramatically increase their capacity and will to engage in transparent, context-driven content moderation.

For human rights defenders, the need is urgent. .. Since 2011, the ABA Center for Human Rights (CHR) has ..noted with concern the coordination of “traditional” judicial harassment of defenders by governments, such as frivolous criminal charges or arbitrary detention, with online campaigns of intimidation. State-aligned online disinformation campaigns against individual defenders often precede or coincide with official investigations and criminal charges.

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While social media companies generally prohibit incitement of violence and hate speech on their platforms, CHR has had to engage in additional advocacy with social media companies requesting the removal of specific pieces of content or accounts that target defenders. This extra advocacy has been required even where the content clearly violates a social media company’s terms of service and despite initial flagging by a defender. The situation is even more difficult where the threatening content is only recognizable with sufficient local and political context. The various platforms all rely on artificial intelligence, to varying degrees, to identify speech that violates their respective community standards. Yet current iterations of artificial intelligence are often unable to adequately evaluate context and intent.

Online intimidation and smear campaigns against defenders often rely on existing societal fault lines to demean and discredit advocates. In Guatemala, CHR recently documented a coordinated social media campaign to defame, harass, intimidate and incite violence against human rights defenders. Several were linked with so-called “net centers,” where users were reportedly paid to amplify hateful content across platforms. Often, the campaigns relied on “coded” language that hark back to Guatemala’s civil war and the genocide of Mayan communities by calling indigenous leaders communists, terrorists and guerrillas.

These terms appear to have largely escaped social media company scrutiny, perhaps because none is a racist slur per se. And yet, the proliferation of these online attacks, as well as the status of those putting out the content, is contributing to a worsening climate of violence and impunity for violence against defenders by specifically alluding to terms used to justify violence against indigenous communities. In 2018 alone, NPR reports that 26 indigenous defenders were murdered in Guatemala. In such a climate, the fear and intimidation felt by those targeted in such campaigns is not hyperbolic but based on their understanding of how violence can be sparked in Guatemala.

In order to address such attacks, social media companies must adopt policies that allow them to designate defenders as temporarily protected groups in countries that are characterized by state-coordinated or state-condoned persecution of activists. This is in line with international law that prohibits states from targeting individuals for serious harm based on their political opinion. To increase their ability to recognize and respond to persecution and online violence against human rights defenders, companies must continue to invest in their context-driven content moderation capacity, including complementing algorithmic monitoring with human content moderators well-versed in local dialects and historical and political context.

Context-driven content moderation should also take into account factors that increase the risk that online behavior will contribute to offline violence by identifying high-risk countries. These factors include a history of intergroup conflict and an overall increase in the number of instances of intergroup violence in the past 12 months; a major national political election in the next 12 months; and significant polarization of political parties along religious, ethnic or racial lines. Countries where these and other risk factors are present call for proactive approaches to identify problematic accounts and coded threats against defenders and marginalized communities, such as those shown in Equality Labs’ “Facebook India” report.

Companies should identify, monitor and be prepared to deplatform key accounts that are consistently putting out denigrating language and targeting human rights defenders. This must go hand in hand with the greater efforts that companies are finally beginning to take to identify coordinated, state-aligned misinformation campaigns. Focusing on the networks of users who abuse the platform, instead of looking solely at how the online abuse affects defenders’ rights online, will also enable companies to more quickly evaluate whether the status of the speaker increases the likelihood that others will take up any implicit call to violence or will be unduly influenced by disinformation.

This abuser-focused approach will also help to decrease the burden on defenders to find and flag individual pieces of content and accounts as problematic. Many of the human rights defenders with whom CHR works are giving up on flagging, a phenomenon we refer to as flagging fatigue. Many have become fatalistic about the level of online harassment they face. This is particularly alarming as advocates targeted online may develop skins so thick that they are no longer able to assess when their actual risk of physical violence has increased.

Finally, it is vital that social media companies pursue, and civil society demand, transparency in content moderation policy and decision-making, in line with the Santa Clara Principles. Put forward in 2018 by a group of academic experts, organizations and advocates committed to freedom of expression online, the principles are meant to guide companies engaged in content moderation and ensure that the enforcement of their policies is “fair, unbiased, proportional and respectful of users’ rights.” In particular, the principles call upon companies to publicly report on the number of posts and accounts taken down or suspended on a regular basis, as well as to provide adequate notice and meaningful appeal to affected users.

CHR routinely supports human rights defenders facing frivolous criminal charges related to their human rights advocacy online or whose accounts and documentation have been taken down absent any clear justification. This contributes to a growing distrust of the companies among the human rights community as apparently arbitrary decisions about content moderation are leaving advocates both over- and under-protected online.

As the U.N. special rapporteur on freedom of expression explained in his 2018 report, content moderation processes must include the ability to appeal the removal, or refusal to remove, content or accounts. Lack of transparency heightens the risk that calls to address the persecution of human rights defenders online will be subverted into justifications for censorship and restrictions on speech that is protected under international human rights law.

A common response when discussing the feasibility of context-driven content moderation is to compare it to reviewing all the grains of sand on a beach. But human rights defenders are not asking for the impossible. We are merely pointing out that some of that sand is radioactive—it glows in the dark, it is lethal, and there is a moral and legal obligation upon those that profit from the beach to deal with it.

Ginna Anderson, senior counsel, joined ABA CHR in 2012. She is responsible for supporting the center’s work to advance the rights of human rights defenders and marginalized dommunities, including lawyers and journalists at risk. She is an expert in health and human rights, media freedom, freedom of expression and fair trial rights. As deputy director of the Justice Defenders Program since 2013, she has managed strategic litigation, fact-finding missions and advocacy campaigns on behalf of human rights defenders facing retaliation for their work in every region of the world

http://www.abajournal.com/news/article/how-can-social-media-companies-identify-and-respond-to-threats-against-human-rights-defenders