United Nations

Whither Colombia’s fragile struggle

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6 mins read

Each year, in the last weeks of September, the world’s leaders gather in New York City to speak at the podium of the United Nations General Assembly. The speeches can usually be forecasted well in advance, either tired articulations of values that do not get acted upon or belligerent voices that threaten war in an institution built to prevent war.

However, every once in a while, a speech shines through, a voice emanates from the chamber and echoes around the world for its clarity and sincerity. This year, that voice belongs to Colombia’s recently inaugurated president, Gustavo Petro, whose brief remarks distilled with poetic precision the problems in our world and the cascading crises of social distress, the addiction to money and power, the climate catastrophe and environmental destruction. ‘It is time for peace’, President Petro said. ‘We are also at war with the planet. Without peace with the planet, there will be no peace among nations. Without social justice, there is no social peace’.

Colombia has been gripped by violence since it won its independence from Spain in 1810. This violence emanated from Colombia’s elites, whose insatiable desire for wealth has meant the absolute impoverishment of the people and the failure of the country to develop anything that resembles liberalism. Decades of political action to build the confidence of the masses in Colombia culminated in a cycle of protests beginning in 2019 that led to Petro’s electoral victory. The new centre-left government has pledged to build social democratic institutions in Colombia and to banish the country’s culture of violence. Though the Colombian army, like armed forces around the world, prepares for war, President Petro told them in August 2022 that they must now ‘prepare for peace’ and must become ‘an army of peace’.

When thinking about violence in a country like Colombia, there is a temptation to focus on drugs, cocaine in particular. The violence, it is often suggested, is an outgrowth of the illicit cocaine trade. But this is an ahistorical assessment. Colombia experienced terrible bloodshed long before highly processed cocaine became increasingly popular from the 1960s onwards. The country’s elite has used murderous force to prevent any dilution of its power, including the 1948 assassination of Jorge Gaitán, the former mayor of Colombia’s capital of Bogotá, that led to a period known as La Violencia (‘The Violence’). Liberal politicians and communist militants faced the steel of the Colombian army and police on behalf of this granite block of power backed by the United States, which has used Colombia to extend its power into South America. Fig leaves of various types were used to cover over the ambitions of the Colombian elite and their benefactors in Washington. In the 1990s, one such cover was the War on Drugs.

By all accounts – whether of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime or the US government’s Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) – the largest consumers of illegal narcotics (cannabis, opioids, and cocaine) are in North America and Western Europe. A recent UN study shows that ‘cocaine use in the United States has been fluctuating and increasing after 2013 with a more stable trend observed in 2019’. The War on Drugs strategy, initiated by the United States and Western countries, has had a two-pronged approach to the drug crisis: first, to criminalise retailers in Western countries and, second, to go to war against the peasants who produce the raw material in these drugs in countries such as Colombia.

In the United States, for instance, almost two million people – disproportionately Black and Latino – are caught in the prison industrial complex, with 400,000 of them imprisoned or on probation for nonviolent drug offences (mostly as petty dealers in a vastly profitable drug empire). The collapse of employment opportunities for young people in working-class areas and the allure of wages from the drug economy continue to attract low-level employees of the global drug commodity chain, despite the dangers of this profession. The War on Drugs has made a negligible impact on this pipeline, which is why many countries have now begun to decriminalise drug possession and drug use (particularly cannabis).

The obduracy of the Colombian elite – backed by the US government – to allow any democratic space to open in the country led the left to take up armed struggle in 1964 and then return to the gun when the elite shut down the promise of the democratic path in the 1990s. In the name of the war against the armed left as well as the War on Drugs, the Colombian military and police have crushed any dissent in the country. Despite evidence of the financial and political ties between the Colombian elite, narco-paramilitaries, and drug cartels, the United States government initiated Plan Colombia in 1999 to funnel $12 billion to the Colombian military to deepen this war (in 2006, when he was a senator, Petro revealed the nexus between these diabolical forces, for which his family was threatened with violence).

As part of this war, the Colombian armed forces dropped the terrible chemical weapon glyphosate on the peasantry (in 2015, the World Health Organisation said that this chemical is ‘probably carcinogenic to humans’ and, in 2017, the Colombian Constitutional Court ruled that its use must be restricted). In 2020, the following assessment was offered in the Harvard International Review: ‘Instead of reducing cocaine production, Plan Colombia has actually caused cocaine production and transport to shift into other areas. Additionally, militarisation in the war on drugs has caused violence in the country to increase’. This is precisely what President Petro told the world at the United Nations.

The most recent DEA report notes that cocaine use in the United States remains steady and that ‘deaths from drug poisoning involving cocaine have increased every year since 2013’. US drug policy is focused on law enforcement, aiming merely to reduce the domestic availability of cocaine. Washington will spend 45% of its drug budget on law enforcement, 49% on treatment for drug addicts, and a mere 6% on prevention. The lack of emphasis on prevention is revealing. Rather than tackle the drug crisis as a demand-side problem, the US and other Western governments pretend that it is a supply-side problem that can be dealt with by using military force against petty drug dealers and peasants who grow the coca plant. Petro’s cry from the heart at the United Nations attempted to call attention to the root causes of the drug crisis:

According to the irrational power of the world, the market that razes existence is not to blame; it is the jungle and those who live in it that are to blame. Bank accounts have become unlimited; the money saved by the most powerful people on Earth could not even be spent over the course of centuries. The empty existence produced by the artificiality of competition is filled with noise and drugs. The addiction to money and to possessions has another face: the drug addiction of people who lose the competition in the artificial race that humanity has become. The sickness of loneliness is not cured by [dousing] the forests with glyphosate; the forest is not to blame. To blame is your society educated by endless consumption, by the stupid confusion between consumption and happiness that allows the pockets of the powerful to fill with money.

The War on Drugs, Petro said, is a war on the Colombian peasantry and a war on the precarious poor in Western countries. We do not need this war, he said; instead, we need to struggle to build a peaceful society that does not sap meaning from the hearts of people who are treated as a surplus to society’s logic.

As a young man, Petro was part of the M-19 guerrilla movement, one of the organisations that attempted to break the chokehold that Colombia’s elites held over the country’s democracy. One of his comrades was the poet María Mercedes Carranza (1945–2003), who wrote searingly about the violence thrust upon her country in her book Hola, Soledad (‘Hello, Solitude’) (1987), capturing the desolation in her poem ‘La Patria’ (‘The Homeland’):

In this house, everything is in ruins,

in ruins are hugs and music,

each morning, destiny, laughter are in ruins,

tears, silence, dreams.

The windows show destroyed landscapes,

flesh and ash on people’s faces,

words combine with fear in their mouths.

In this house, we are all buried alive.

Carranza took her life when the fires of hell swept through Colombia.

A peace agreement in 2016, a cycle of protests from 2019, and now the election of Petro and Francia Márquez in 2022 have wiped the ash off the faces of the Colombian people and provided them with an opportunity to try and rebuild their house. The end of the War on Drugs, that is, the war on the Colombian peasantry, will only advance Colombia’s fragile struggle towards peace and democracy.

Source: Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. Click here to read the original

India: Reviving Congress

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3 mins read

What a week where the Congress party has all but made a laughing stock of itself. Ashok Gehlot has landed himself in serious trouble. He is 71. A comeback is unlikely.

He has been an active, reliable, astute leader, with a mass following. I have known him for over 40 years and have great affection and regard for him. In these four decades he did not put a foot wrong. The “neutral” Sonia Gandhi obviously knows Dante well, who wrote, nine hundred years ago, “The hottest place in Hell are reserved for those who in time of great moral crises maintain their neutrality”. She shed her neutrality in no time. So long as she lives, she will have deity status. She is an expert at back seat driving. Can she revive the Congress? No.

Of the two contenders for president of the Congress party, Mallikarjun Kharge and Shri Shashi Tharoor, I have never met the former. He is 80 years of age. The younger voters will certainly not opt for him. Shashi Tharoor, I have known him for several years. He is a fine orator and an outstanding author. He deserves to win. But he will not. He does not have the blessings of Mother Superior. Besides, unlike Kharge he is not rooted in the Congress. Oddly, none of the G-23 are supporting him.

Digvijaya Singh has been deprived of the Presidentship by Shri Kharge, who did not play fair with the former CM of Madhya Pradesh. He would have, as President put some life in Congress. Surprisingly he made one serious mistake. As far as I know, he did not meet Shrimati Sonia Gandhi. He paid the price.
The Lok Sabha elections are to be held in 2024. At present the Congress party had fifty-two members in the Lok Sabha. That number is not likely to go up as of now. Not with Kharge at the helm.

PM Narendra Modi will remain Prime Minister till 2029. His international standing is high. Within India he faces no challenge.


Shri Mohan Bhagwat, the head of RSS, made headlines when he met Imam Umer Ahmed Illyas a few days back. It was a courageous and wise move. It would have given millions of Muslims much comfort. How many non-RSS non-BJP Indians recall the fact that during the rule of the Bhartiya Janata Party, since 2014, not a single communal riot has occurred? This is amazing achievement.


The External Affairs Minister, S. Jaishankar has done India proud at the United Nations and during his visit to Washington. He did not mince words, without flouting diplomacy. I would give him high marks for his stellar performance. One caveat. He is over optimistic about the United States genuinely asserting itself to make India a permanent veto-wielding member of the United Nations Security Council. The brutal reality is that the People’s Republic of China will always exercise its veto to keep India out. If I am not mistaken, President Joe Biden in one of his speeches said that India and Brazil should be Permanent Members of the Security Council.

The reality is somewhat what more complicated. Any expansion of the Council must include a country from Sub-Saharan Africa and the Muslim world. Who from Africa—Nigeria, Ethiopia or South Africa? From the Muslim World the contenders will be Indonesia, Pakistan, Egypt.


The most alarming problem the world is facing is climate change. One has only to look at the havoc rain and hurricanes are playing in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. In Switzerland, glaciers are melting, in Italy, rivers are drying up. For nature’s fury no easy answers are in sight.

The recent floods in Pakistan have been a calamity. As often happens, the poor have been worst hit. Pakistan was a near bankrupt country. Only the rich Islamic countries can provide funds to rebuild the infrastructure, colleges, schools, hospitals, industries. It’s a long haul.


India, in a few years, will become the most populous country in the world. Yet, no one is seriously talking about it. No talks of birth control, none of population control. Yes, poverty has been vastly eradicated but the quality of life has not improved. Educational standards are low. The legal system needs to be made more efficient. Civil cases go on for decades. We have some of the best doctors in the world but the hospitals are in need of drastic upgradation.

The great Jawaharlal Nehru is to some extent responsible for India becoming an over populated country. Soon after taking over, he made the astounding pronouncement that India was an under populated country. By the time of his death it was on the road leading to over population.

Sri Lanka: Zero draft remains Zero to victims

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8 mins read

The United Nations definition of ‘victims’ is as follows: “Victims” means persons who, individually or collectively, have suffered harm, including physical or mental injury, emotional suffering, economic loss or substantial impairment of their fundamental rights, through acts or omissions that are in violation of criminal laws operative within Member States, including those laws proscribing criminal abuse of power…..”  

If this is the case, then who is not a victim in Sri Lanka? From top to bottom, I mean from so-called executive presidents to normal citizens everyone remains a victim. Here, I can quote several examples but to be brief – the President, the Chief Justice, members of civil society (human rights defenders, journalists, parliamentarians, lawyers, religious leaders, academics and others) are/were victimised in Sri Lanka.  

A Tamil proverb says:  “One will know the effect of a fever and headache only when he/she gets it”In Sri Lanka, we have experienced the fact that victims have become horrendous violators of human rights and then again become victims.   

In an earlier session of the UN Human Rights Council – UNHRC, I have listened to a representative of Sri Lanka as he related in meetings how at one time he had been in hiding in Sri Lanka because the security forces were looking for him. Unfortunately, later he was defending the state violations to the maximum in the same forum – the UNHRC.  

This is to say that Sri Lanka should learn to take the grievances of victims seriously and with sincerity. Victims vary from the youth uprising to capture the whole of Sri Lanka, to the failure of thirty years of non-violent struggle to achieve political aspiration that consequently turned into an armed struggle. Today, where is Sri Lanka? It has become an international arena for super-powers, the regional super-power and peace-loving states and groups.   

Socrates said, “Mankind is made of two kinds of people: wise people who know they’re fools and fools who think they are wise”. The stubborn, ego-centred attitude of politicians, under the pretext of patriotism, led Sri Lanka to today’s situation.  

Impending resolution 

Now let me discuss the impending resolution in the 51st session of the UNHRC in Geneva. The damning comprehensive report of the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights – UNHCHR was published. As part of the follow-up procedure, the member countries of the UNHRC are now working on a resolution on Sri Lanka. The first draft dated 12 September 2022 known as ‘zero’ draft, is in circulation. Well and good. This present draft is not very different to the last resolution (46/1).  

For the victims who have waited since the independence of Sri Lanka or since the end of Mullivaigzhal in May 2009, this zero draft does not give any encouraging messages. For those who organised demonstrations against the government in various venues including in Galle Face Green and brought a change of government in Sri Lanka – this draft is not giving any good message either. Some of the demonstrators travelled to Geneva to find justice for their call and cause.  

The zero draft has 23 preamble paragraphs (PPs) and 18 operational paragraphs (OPs). The Core group on Sri Lanka – (UK, USA, Canada, Germany, North Macedonia, Montenegro and Malawi) who drafted it, find it very difficult to accommodate every request by the government of Sri Lanka, their pied pipers and the victims. When drafting a resolution, countries have to consider many factors; otherwise it may end up in a disaster.  

I still remember why neither the European Union countries nor Canada tabled a resolution on Sri Lanka, until the United States became a member of the UN HRC in 2012. I don’t want to elaborate more on this matter.  

‘Informal consultation meetings’ on the zero draft, organised by the Core group, have taken place in the UN building on 16th Friday. These have been well attended by the concerned country Sri Lanka, several other countries and various members of civil society. Here I should say that not all members of civil society are working genuinely to strengthen this zero draft. We are finding it difficult to understand what they say and what is in their mind. The reason is that they have a deep link to any government in power in Sri Lanka. Therefore, their presence in the UN HRC is to observe what is happening there. In the UN, this style of work goes on, not only with Sri Lanka, but with many other countries. They are known as Government NGOs – or Gongos.  

Leaving this never-ending Gongos business to one side, the world should know what has happened in the last two informal consultations. On the morning of Friday 16th, the first informal consultation regarding the zero draft took place. It focused mainly on the ‘Preamble paragraphs – PP1 to PP23’ and general comments. The UK representative, Mr. Bob Last, presided over the meeting on behalf of the Core Group and read out the zero draft. He said that it is based on the last resolution on Sri Lanka. Also, he made a note of the crisis in the country, demonstrations and change of government. The Sri Lankan representative then expressed the opinion of the concerned country.  

So, the Sri Lankan representative read a statement which presumably was received from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Colombo. The statement said that Sri Lanka rejected the zero draft and Sri Lankan will not accept any resolution other than a resolution passed by consensus. This surprised everyone because even the resolutions passed in 2015, 2017 and 2019 by consensus in the UN HRC were not implemented.   

The statement also said that the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ report goes beyond her mandate and that in the past two High Commissioners have visited Sri Lanka. Yes that’s true, but what happened to the reports that they published after their visit to Sri Lanka? The SL representative also said that the UNHRC is always moving the goalposts and requested the member countries to reject this resolution. This raises the serious question as to whether there is any ground in Sri Lanka to find justice – I mean are there any visible goalposts? However, the speech of the Sri Lankan representative is as usual like that of any other concerned country when facing a resolution addressing their human rights violations. 

Attending UN H/R Forums for 32 years 

Following this, many countries spoke generally about the zero draft. Some were supportive of the resolution and some were not. There were a few countries against the resolution, out of which only China, Cuba, Pakistan, Russia, Venezuela are current members of the UN HRC. At the same time, countries supportive of the resolution were mostly members of the council. This gives a clue to the eventual outcome of this resolution.  

Before the closure of the morning session, some members of civil society had an opportunity to make their remarks. These people were mostly those who had come directly from Sri Lanka. They were – Mr Ameer Faaize, Attorney at Law; M. A Sumanthiran M.P. and Attorney at Law; Santhiya Elaniyagoda, spouse of missing journalist (2009) Prageeth Elaniyagoda  and Bhavani Fonseka, researcher and Attorney at Law. Faaize touched on the issue of Muslim burials and displacement of Muslims.   

M.A. Sumanthiran went into the history of the resolution on Sri Lanka in the UNHRC. He recalled how the present President then Prime Minister co-sponsored the resolution in 2015 and then Sri Lanka’s co-sponsorship was withdrawn in 2019. Sumanthiran reminded in the meeting that then Minister of Justice is the present Minister of Justice – so there shouldn’t be any problem in accepting this resolution. Sumanthiran also talked about the failure in implementing their own recommendations of the LLRC. He spoke further about the PTA, impunity and requested that this resolution be made stronger than it is at present.  

Santhiya Eelaniyagoda’s speech was translated from Sinhala to English. She said that she has attended the UNHRC for the last ten years and she asked how many more years does she have to attend the UNHRC to find justice for her disappeared husband. Also she said that an international mechanism is the right solution for the situation in Sri Lanka.   

In fact, when Santhiya was speaking about her ten years in the UNHRC, I was thinking about my thirty-two (32) years attending all UN Human Rights Forums – from UNHR Commission, Sub-Commission, Treaty bodies, Working Groups, UPR, all UN human rights conferences, seminars etc and I am still here without finding any justice for the victims. In fact, on many occasions I have become a victim myself, because of my active commitment to the promotion and protection of human rights in Sri Lanka.  

When Bhavani Fonseka spoke, she reminded those present that even after thirteen years since of the end of the war, there is no credible justice, no political solution, no abolishment of the executive Presidency, impunity prevails and there are economic crises. With their interventions, the morning session on general comments and discussion on preamble paragraphs was brought to an end.  

Hypocrisy about the PTA 

In the afternoon, the informal discussion started on ‘Operative Paragraphs’ OPs from 1 to 18. As usual, the Sri Lankan representative who rejected the resolution started to make comments on every paragraph. The main countries supporting Sri Lanka: China, Pakistan, Russia and Venezuela also gave their input on every paragraph. If we put all their interventions together, the message is to delete the whole resolution. One by one Sri Lanka, China, Pakistan, Russia and Venezuela wanted different operative paragraphs to be deleted.  

The usual pattern in the UN is that even though the concerned countries do not agree with the resolution, they prefer to contribute to the discussion.  

What was surprising was Russia said in this meeting that “this is interfering in the affairs of other counties”. I think Russia has forgotten what they are doing in Ukraine. Also, China seems to have forgotten that they are part of the present problem in Sri Lanka, when the representative said: “not to interfere in any internal affairs”.   

During the first week of the 51st session, a meeting took place outside the UN. It was about the PTA. In this meeting, two speakers who justified the PTA when they were the Minister of Justice and a Sri Lankan representative to the UN in Geneva, now spoke about the difficulties and dangers of the PTA. This is called hypocrisy. Shame on them.  

If Sri Lanka ruled the country according to the constitution, there would be no need for any resolution by the UNHRC. Sri Lanka complains that the UNHRC resolutions are against their constitution. Many issues/affairs in the constitution for decades have never been implemented by Sri Lanka. 

When they talk about external involvement being against the constitution, how about the appointment of the International Independent Group of Eminent Persons (IIGEP) by President Mahinda Rajapaksa and led by former Indian Chief Justice P.N. Bhagawati? Also regarding foreign judges, what about the Commission of Inquiry appointed by Sirimavo Bandaranaike in 1963 to inquire into the political aspects of the Bandaranaike assassination? Two out of the three judges were foreign. They were Justice Abdel Younis from Egypt and Justice G.C. Mills-Odich from Ghana.  

In the same case, the first and the second accused: Buddharakitha Thero and H.P. Jayawardene, were represented in the Supreme Court by Phineas Quass, QC from the United Kingdom. Was this against Sri Lanka’s constitution? Come on… Please look at the grievances of the victims in a polite, decent and cultured way rather than all the time rejecting them blindly.  

In conclusion, victims seriously wonder why Sri Lanka should be given two (2) year period as an extension by the Core group, knowing very well that for the last many years – Sri Lanka has not implemented and is not going to implement the resolution. The operating paragraph (PP18) reads as follows:  

“Requests the Office of the High Commissioner to enhance its monitoring and reporting on the situation of human rights in Sri Lanka, including on progress in reconciliation and accountability, and on the human rights impact of the economic crisis and corruption, and to present oral updates to the Human Rights Council at its fifty-third session (June 2023) and fifty-fifths sessions (March 2024), and a written update at its fifty-fourth session (September 2023)  and a comprehensive report that includes further options for advancing accountability at its fifty-seventh session (March 2025), both to be discussed in the context of an interactive dialogue. (46/1 OP16)”.  

Those who understand the rulers in Sri Lanka well, will understand that Sri Lanka will do wonders in the North and East for the demography of those regions. Do wake up! 

Once the Core group finalises the draft, they will table it by the third week of the session (26-28 September). During the fourth week of the session (4-6 October) voting on the resolution will take place. (End) 

Views expressed are personal

UN Calls for a Global Ban on Mercury Trade

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1 min read

A UN expert today urged States to address human rights violations related to the use of mercury in small-scale gold mining and protect the environment by prohibiting its trade and use in such mining.

“In most parts of the world where mercury is used in small-scale gold mining, the human rights of miners, their families and communities, often living in abject poverty, are increasingly threatened by mercury contamination,” said Marcos Orellana, UN Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights in a report presented to the Human Rights Council.

The expert said indigenous peoples are particularly affected by the destruction and pollution of their territories, deforestation, loss of biodiversity and contamination of their food sources. Children are also disproportionately impacted by the dangerous work in the mines, sexual exploitation, and slavery-like conditions.

Mercury is a highly toxic liquid metal that accumulates to dangerous levels in the food chain. Consumption of contaminated fish can cause neurological and behavioural disorders. Mercury can also pass through the placenta, increasing fetal risk of malformation and IQ loss. Mercury is persistent, generating contaminated sites for decades and centuries and affecting future generations.

“The use of mercury for small-scale gold mining is the main source of mercury pollution globally. The mercury trade is driven by the insatiable demand for gold in the financial and jewellery markets. Refineries purchase gold without adequate due diligence mechanisms to address human rights abuses,” Orellana said.

The Minamata Convention on Mercury is a robust agreement which aims to protect human health and the environment from emissions and releases of mercury.

Orellana said that despite its strengths, the Convention had shortcomings that limit its effectiveness in reducing and eliminating mercury use in small-scale gold mining. Thus, mercury releases and emissions from the small-scale gold mining sector have continued to increase, affecting the rights of vulnerable individuals, groups and peoples.

“In order to more effectively combat human rights violations related to the use of mercury in small-scale gold mining and protect the environment, States and the Convention should prohibit the use and trade of mercury in such mining. This will be an essential step towards strengthening other elements of the Convention and making them more effective,” the expert said.

Threats to privacy growing – UN

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4 mins read

People’s right to privacy is coming under ever greater pressure from the use of modern networked digital technologies whose features make them formidable tools for surveillance, control and oppression, a new UN report has warned. This makes it all the more essential that these technologies are reined in by effective regulation based on international human rights law and standards.

The report – the latest on privacy in the digital age by the UN HumPeople’s right to privacy is coming under ever greater pressure from the use of modern networked digital technologies whose features make them formidable tools for surveillance, control and oppression, a new UN report has warned. This makes it all the more essential that these technologies are reined in by effective regulation based on international human rights law and standards.

The report – the latest on privacy in the digital age by the UN Human Rights Office – looks at three key areas: the abuse of intrusive hacking tools (“spyware”) by State  authorities; the key role of robust encryption methods in protecting human rights online; and the impacts of widespread digital monitoring of public spaces, both offline and online. 

The report details how surveillance tools such as the “Pegasus” software can turn most smartphones into “24-hour surveillance devices”, allowing the “intruder” access not only to everything on our mobiles but also weaponizing them to spy on our lives.

“While purportedly being deployed for combating terrorism and crime, such spyware tools have often been used for illegitimate reasons, including to clamp down on critical or dissenting views and on those who express them, including journalists, opposition political figures and human rights defenders,” the report states.

Urgent steps are needed to address the spread of spyware, the report flags, reiterating the call for a moratorium on the use and sale of hacking tools until adequate safeguards to protect human rights are in place. Authorities should only electronically intrude on a personal device as a last resort “to prevent or investigate a specific act amounting to a serious threat to national security or a specific serious crime,” it says.

Encryption is a key enabler of privacy and human rights in the digital space, yet it is being undermined. The report calls on States to avoid taking steps that could weaken encryption, including mandating so-called backdoors that give access to people’s encrypted data or employing systematic screening of people’s devices, known as client-side scanning.

The report also raises the alarm about the growing surveillance of public spaces. Previous practical limitations on the scope of surveillance have been swept away by large-scale automated collection and analysis of data, as well as new digitized identity systems and extensive biometric databases that greatly facilitate the breadth of such surveillance measures.

New technologies have also enabled the systematic monitoring of what people are saying online, including through collecting and analysing social media posts.

Governments often fail to adequately inform the public about their surveillance activities, and even where surveillance tools are initially rolled out for legitimate goals, they can easily be repurposed, often serving ends for which they were not originally intended. 

The report emphasises that States should limit public surveillance measures to those “strictly necessary and proportionate”, focused on specific locations and time. The duration of data storage should similarly be limited. There is also an immediate need to restrict the use of biometric recognition systems in public spaces.

All States should also act immediately to put in place robust export control regimes for surveillance technologies that pose serious risks to human rights. They should also ensure human rights impact assessments are carried out that take into account what the technologies in question are capable of, as well as the situation in the recipient country.

“Digital technologies bring enormous benefits to societies. But pervasive surveillance comes at a high cost, undermining rights and choking the development of vibrant, pluralistic democracies,” said Acting High Commissioner for Human Rights Nada Al-Nashif.

“In short, the right to privacy is more at risk than ever before,” she stressed. “This is why action is needed and needed now.” an Rights Office* – looks at three key areas: the abuse of intrusive hacking tools (“spyware”) by State  authorities; the key role of robust encryption methods in protecting human rights online; and the impacts of widespread digital monitoring of public spaces, both offline and online. 

The report details how surveillance tools such as the “Pegasus” software can turn most smartphones into “24-hour surveillance devices”, allowing the “intruder” access not only to everything on our mobiles but also weaponizing them to spy on our lives.

“While purportedly being deployed for combating terrorism and crime, such spyware tools have often been used for illegitimate reasons, including to clamp down on critical or dissenting views and on those who express them, including journalists, opposition political figures and human rights defenders,” the report states.

Urgent steps are needed to address the spread of spyware, the report flags, reiterating the call for a moratorium on the use and sale of hacking tools until adequate safeguards to protect human rights are in place. Authorities should only electronically intrude on a personal device as a last resort “to prevent or investigate a specific act amounting to a serious threat to national security or a specific serious crime,” it says.

Encryption is a key enabler of privacy and human rights in the digital space, yet it is being undermined. The report calls on States to avoid taking steps that could weaken encryption, including mandating so-called backdoors that give access to people’s encrypted data or employing systematic screening of people’s devices, known as client-side scanning.

The report also raises the alarm about the growing surveillance of public spaces. Previous practical limitations on the scope of surveillance have been swept away by large-scale automated collection and analysis of data, as well as new digitized identity systems and extensive biometric databases that greatly facilitate the breadth of such surveillance measures.

New technologies have also enabled the systematic monitoring of what people are saying online, including through collecting and analysing social media posts.

Governments often fail to adequately inform the public about their surveillance activities, and even where surveillance tools are initially rolled out for legitimate goals, they can easily be repurposed, often serving ends for which they were not originally intended. 

The report emphasises that States should limit public surveillance measures to those “strictly necessary and proportionate”, focused on specific locations and time. The duration of data storage should similarly be limited. There is also an immediate need to restrict the use of biometric recognition systems in public spaces.

All States should also act immediately to put in place robust export control regimes for surveillance technologies that pose serious risks to human rights. They should also ensure human rights impact assessments are carried out that take into account what the technologies in question are capable of, as well as the situation in the recipient country.

“Digital technologies bring enormous benefits to societies. But pervasive surveillance comes at a high cost, undermining rights and choking the development of vibrant, pluralistic democracies,” said Acting High Commissioner for Human Rights Nada Al-Nashif.

“In short, the right to privacy is more at risk than ever before,” she stressed. “This is why action is needed and needed now.”

Source: UN News

Proliferation of Secondary Sanctions

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1 min read

A proliferation of secondary sanctions has resulted in a growing fear of sanctions and over-compliance with unilateral sanction regimes, leading to serious adverse effects on the human rights of millions of people around the world, a UN expert said today.

Secondary sanctions are intended to prevent third parties – States, commercial entities and individuals from trading with countries that are subject to sanctions issued by another country.

“Today the world faces a proliferation of secondary sanctions, applied extraterritorially to states, entities or individuals for their presumed cooperation or association with sanctioned parties,” said Alena Douhan, UN Special Rapporteur on the negative impact of unilateral coercive measures on human rights.

Presenting her thematic report to the 51st session of the Human Rights Council today, Douhan said secondary sanctions, and the threat of such measures were being used to enforce unilateral sanctions against States and key economic sectors. The expert said the impact was exacerbated by over-compliance by different actors, such as States, businesses, financial institutions, civil society organisations and humanitarian actors, who choose to cut ties with sanctioned countries out of fear of repercussions, even for authorised activities.

“Over-compliance has become a widespread practice on a global scale, and needs to be recognised as a significant new threat to international law and human rights,” Douhan said. “It has indiscriminate reach and impacts the human rights of all, not only those living in sanctioned countries, but also nationals of those countries living abroad, and may at times exceed the impact of primary sanctions,” she said.

The Special Rapporteur highlighted the impact of secondary sanctions and over-compliance on the delivery of humanitarian aid and operations of humanitarian actors. “They force humanitarian actors to seek less formal methods of financial transfers and procurement, resulting in higher costs, significant operational impediments, higher risks and less transparency,” Douhan said.

She was also concerned about the international legal implications of unilateral sanctions and over-compliance on international responsibility, international criminal law, trade, environmental law and diplomatic convention and immunities. “Secondary sanctions and their ensuing civil and criminal penalties are illegal,” Douhan said.

The expert urged States to eliminate or minimise over-compliance with unilateral sanctions through legislation, regulation, and financial or other incentives. “States must remove or offset risks that lead to such conduct, which leads to human rights violations,” she said.

Douhan urged businesses and financial institutions to adopt a rights-based approach in their application of due diligence procedures and establish mechanisms to monitor the impact of compliance and over-compliance with unilateral sanctions regimes on human rights. She also called on international organisations, including the UN and civil society actors to integrate the assessment of human rights impact of unilateral coercive measures and over-compliance with sanctions in their work.

Sri Lanka: UN Resolution Violates Our Sovereignty

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The following article is based on excerpts adapted from the statement by the author as the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Sri Lanka at the 51st Regular Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva on 12 September 2022 – Edts

We remain cognizant of and acutely sensitive to the events that have taken place in the recent past. The severe economic crisis emanating from factors both internal and external offer many lessons for all of us. We recall in this context the indivisibility of human rights, as enshrined in the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action. The Government is extremely sensitive to the socio-economic hardships faced by our people, and has initiated immediate multi-pronged measures to address the challenges and to ensure their wellbeing through the provision of supplies essential to the life of the community. A staff level agreement has been reached with the International Monetary Fund, and discussions on debt restructuring are in progress. The Government is in dialogue with UN agencies as well as bilateral partners to protect the most vulnerable from the adverse impacts of the crisis. In spite of multiple challenges, Sri Lanka would endeavour to remain on course in meeting the goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

The recent changes that have taken place bear testimony to our continued commitment to upholding our longstanding democratic principles and norms. The constitutional rights to peaceful assembly and expression guaranteed the democratic space for our people to exercise their rights. In this regard, transgressions of the law resulting in criminal and unlawful activity were addressed in accord with the law and the Constitution, in circumstances where such freedoms were abused by elements with vested interests to achieve undemocratic political ends.

Notwithstanding the severe constraints and challenges, Sri Lanka remains firmly committed to pursuing tangible progress in the protection of human rights and reconcilation through independent domestic institutions.

Categorical Rejection

Sri Lanka along with several Members of this Council have opposed resolution 46/1, fundamentally disagreeing with its legitimacy and objectives. We have consistently highlighted that the content of the resolution, its operative paragraph 06 in particular, violates the sovereignty of the people of Sri Lanka and the principles of the UN Charter. Once again, we are compelled to categorically reject any follow-up measures to the resolution, as well as the related recommendations and conclusions by the High Commissioner.

It is observed that the High Commissioner’s report makes extensive reference to “economic crimes”. Apart from the ambiguity of the term, it is a matter of concern that such reference exceeds the mandate of the OHCHR. In this context, we recall the paramount importance of adhering to UNGA resolutions 60/251, 48/141 and the IB package.

Notwithstanding, Sri Lanka has continued to brief the Council on the comprehensive legal framework that is being established to further strengthen governance and combat corruption. The proposed 22nd Amendment to the Constitution introduces several salient changes which would strengthen democratic governance and independent oversight of key institutions, as well as public scrutiny, participation in governance, and combating corruption including the constitutional recognition of the United Nations Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC). This will include, inter alia, the composition of the Constitutional Council, and the reintroduction of the National Procurement Commission and the Audit Service Commission. The proposed legal framework will also strengthen the asset declaration system, protect the rights of whistle blowers, and increase the independence of the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption.  A proposal to establish a system similar to an Inspector General tasked with overseeing government expenses by detecting and preventing fraud, waste and abuse in public institutions, is under consideration.

Our Own Way Against Corruption

Measures aimed at promoting domestic reconciliation and human rights, if they are to be meaningful and sustainable, must be based on cooperation with the country concerned, be compatible with the aspirations of its people, and be consonant with its basic legal framework. The international community is aware that unconstitutional and intrusive external initiatives have repeatedly failed to yield meaningful results on the ground, and are in effect an unproductive drain on member state resources.

The Government would endeavour to establish a credible truth-seeking mechanism within the framework of the Constitution. The contours of such a model that would suit the particular conditions of Sri Lanka are under discussion.

The recommendations of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry on “Appraisal of the Findings of Previous Commissions and Committees and the Way Forward” have, inter alia, resulted in the establishment of an Advisory Board under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), progressive amendments to the PTA, and the release of detainees. Further recommendations are awaited.

As we delivered on the onerous task of review and reform of the PTA this year, to further enhance human rights, we will replace the PTA with a more comprehensive national security legislation in accordance with international best practices.

Repealing PTA

The recent delisting of groups and individuals will provide further impetus for constructive dialogue.

The independent statutory bodies established to advance the rights of victims and their families, and to provide reparations, continue to vigourously execute their respective mandates.

The Office on Missing Persons (OMP) has commenced the process of inquiry and verification, set up separate units on Tracing and Victim and Family Support, and acts as an Observer on relevant judicial proceedings.

Despite economic constraints, the Office for Reparations (OR) continues to deliver on its mandate, and the recently adopted National Reparations Policy and Guidelines have expanded the work of the Office beyond monetary compensation, to other forms of support.

The necessary support and resources to strengthen the functioning of the Office for National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR) and the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL), continue to be provided.

The outreach to overseas Sri Lankans encompassing all communities and generations will be expanded through the establishment of an Office for Overseas Sri Lankans, thus facilitating more vigourous engagement.

As recognized in the Universal Declaration, human rights are interdependent, interrelated and indivisible. In upholding human rights, we have benefitted from the considerable expertise available with other countries as well as the United Nations. We will seek further advice and support on best practices as we proceed, and as deemed necessary.

Real Challenges

We will continue our cooperation with the Human Rights Council and its mechanisms. Sri Lanka is party to the 9 core Human Rights Conventions and has maintained regular and constructive engagement with the UN Treaty Bodies. We have extended a standing invitation to all UN thematic Special Procedures mandate holders to visit Sri Lanka, and facilitated a high number of visits in the recent past. We look forward to constructive engagement with the Council through the Universal Periodic Review process. We have delivered on our commitments at the UPR, and will proactively engage in the upcoming UPR fourth cycle.

 We have facilitated two visits by the Office of the High Commissioner to Sri Lanka in May and August this year, and provided unimpeded access. The visits provided the officials of the OHCHR with the opportunity to engage with a range of stakeholders, and witness progress.

It is 13 years since the end of the conflict in Sri Lanka, and since then a new generation has emerged with their own aspirations. While issues of reconciliation and accountability are being comprehensively addressed through a domestic process, it is time to reflect realistically on the trajectory of this resolution which has continued on the agenda of the Council for over a decade, and undertake a realistic assessment on whether it has benefited the people of Sri Lanka. There is a need to acknowledge actual progress on the ground and support Sri Lanka.

 The current challenges, though formidable, have provided us with a unique opportunity to work towards institutional change for the betterment of our people. Sri Lanka appreciates the solidarity and support extended by our friends and partners during this challenging time. In a message of unity and reconciliation, President Ranil Wickremesinghe in his inaugural address to Parliament said “if we come together, we will be able to invigorate the nation”.

Sri Lanka: UN Gives Tough Recommendations to Address the Crisis

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Following excerpts adapted from the Annual report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and reports of the Office of the High Commissioner and the Secretary-General on the Situation of human rights in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is facing a devastating economic crisis, which has been severely impacting the lives of the people and underscored the indivisibility of human rights. The High Commissioner urges the international community to support Sri Lanka in its recovery. For sustainable improvement, however, it is vital to recognize and assist Sri Lanka to address the underlying factors, which have contributed to this crisis, including embedded impunity for past and present human rights abuses, economic crimes and corruption. Support from international community will have meaningful and sustainable impact if Sri Lanka undertakes deeper structural, constitutional and political reforms to strengthen democratic checks and balances and restore the independence of institutions.

The broad-based demands by Sri Lankans from all communities for accountability and democratic reforms present an important starting point for a new and common vision for the future. The High Commissioner believes there is the opportunity for a new meaningful national dialogue on how Sri Lanka can be transformed into an inclusive, pluralist and fully democratic State based on accountability, the rule of law, non-discrimination and respect for human rights. Ensuring an environment for freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and democratic participation will be essential. The High Commissioner encourages the Government to positively engage with the protest movements in a broad- based and participatory process to address the broader political and systemic root causes that have long perpetuated discrimination and undermined human rights.

Impunity remains a central obstacle to the rule of law, reconciliation and Sri Lanka’s sustainable peace and development, and remains the core risk factor for recurrence of further violations. Thirteen years since the end of the war, victims of past human rights violations continue to await truth and justice. The Sri Lankan State, including through successive governments, has consistently failed to pursue an effective transitional justice process to hold perpetrators of gross human rights violations and abuses accountable and uphold victims’ rights to truth, justice and reparations. Rather, they have created political obstacles to accountability, actively promoted and incorporated some military officials credibly implicated in alleged war crimes into the highest levels of government. This impunity emboldened those committing human rights violations and created a fertile ground for corruption and the abuse of power. Without an effective vetting process and comprehensive reforms in the security sector, serious human rights violations and atrocity and economic crimes risk being repeated as the State apparatus and some of its members credibly implicated in alleged grave crimes and human rights violations remain in place.

Fundamental changes will therefore be required to address the current challenges and to avoid the repetition of the human rights violations of the past. In this context, the new Government should immediately reverse the drift towards militarization, end the reliance on draconian security laws and crackdowns on peaceful protest, and show renewed commitment to security sector reform and ending impunity. It should recommit to a genuine, comprehensive and transformative transitional justice process, with benchmarks and timelines for implementation, and in consultation with the victims and civil society and with support from international partners. Further, it should pursue a more fundamental constitutional reform through broad- based and consultative processes representative of all Sri Lankans to strengthen democratic check and balances and devolution of political authority, which is integral to reconciliation and the full enjoyment of human rights by all members of its population.

The Human Rights Council should continue to monitor developments closely, and in the absence of tangible results at the national level that ensure justice for Sri Lankan people, Member States should continue to pursue complementary international strategies for justice and accountability for human rights violations, corruption and abuse of power. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights will continue to accompany the people of Sri Lanka in this vital journey.

The High Commissioner reiterates the recommendations made in her previous reports and by United Nations human rights mechanisms. OHCHR remains ready to provide technical assistance to the implementation of these recommendations, as required, including through the strengthening of its country presence to support the Government and people of Sri Lanka at this critical time.

OHCHR recommends that the Sri Lankan authorities:

(a) Take all necessary measures to guarantee people’s economic and social rights during the economic crisis; ensure immediate relief for the most marginalized and vulnerable individuals and groups based on non-discrimination and protection of human rights, and strengthen social protection by increasing financing and extending it to cover emerging needs;
(b) Reduce considerably military spending, decisively tackle corruption and increase investments in health, social security and education through international co-operation; assess any potential human rights impact of international financial assistance programmes and take preventive measures to reduce it to the bare minimum;
(c) Undertake a broad -based consultative process representative of all Sri Lankans to advance constitutional reforms that guarantee the independence of key institutions, including the judiciary and the Human Rights Commission, and advance the devolution of political authority, which is integral to reconciliation;
(d) Prepare a comprehensive strategy on transitional justice and accountability, with a time bound plan to implement outstanding commitments, including taking steps in relation to the establishment of a credible truth-seeking mechanism and an ad hoc special court, as well as security sector reform and vetting; also re-energise the Office of Missing Persons and Office for Reparations to ensure they can discharge their full mandate independently and effectively;
(e) Pursue investigation and prosecutions in emblematic cases of human rights violations; release the complete findings of previous inquiries into the Easter Sunday bombings and establish a follow-up independent and transparent investigation with international assistance and the full participation of victims and their representatives;
(f) Take steps to end the influence of the military on civilian spheres and reduce military presence in the Northern and Eastern provinces;
(g) Return all private land held by the military and impartially adjudicate land disputes, including through interfaith dialogue about the erection of religious sites;
(h) Ensure the new legislation to the Prevention of Terrorism Act and proposed laws on digital security fully complies with Sri Lanka’s international law obligations; Observe a strict moratorium on the use of PTA and expedite the release of detainees and long-term prisoners under the PTA;
(i) Review the necessity and proportionality of Emergency Regulations and ensure proposed regulation of social media protect freedom of peaceful assembly, association and expression;
(j) Invite OHCHR to strengthen its country presence and provide technical assistance to authorities and civil society in Sri Lanka;
The High Commissioner reiterates the recommendations she made in paragraph 61 of her report to the Human Rights Council and Member States in 2021 and further recommends that they:
(a) Request OHCHR to continue its enhanced monitoring and report regularly to the Council on the human rights situation in Sri Lanka, including progress towards accountability and reconciliation and steps to address economic crimes that have impacted on human rights;
(b) Encourage relevant thematic special procedures to examine and make recommendations on human rights dimensions of the economic crisis;
(c) Reinforce the capacity provided in resolution 46/1 for OHCHR to work on accountability for human rights violations and related crimes;
(d) Cooperate in investigating and prosecuting perpetrators of international crimes committed by all parties in Sri Lanka through judicial proceedings in national jurisdictions, including under accepted principles of extraterritorial or universal jurisdiction, through relevant international networks and in cooperation with victims and their representatives;
(e) Explore further targeted sanctions such as asset freezes and travel bans against those credibly alleged to have perpetrated gross international human rights violations or serious humanitarian law violations;
(f) Support Sri Lanka in the investigation of economic crimes that impact on human rights and the tracing and recovery of stolen assets.

Achieving full gender equality is still centuries away – UN

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At the current rate of progress, it may take close to 300 years to achieve full gender equality, the Progress on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG): The Gender Snapshot 2022 shows. Global challenges, such as the COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath, violent conflict, climate change, and the backlash against women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights are further exacerbating gender disparities. The new report, launched today by UN Women and the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA), highlights that, at the current pace of progress, SDG 5 – achieving gender equality – will not be met by 2030.

Sima Bahous, UN Women Executive Director, said: “This is a tipping point for women’s rights and gender equality as we approach the half-way mark to 2030. It is critical that we rally now to invest in women and girls to reclaim and accelerate progress. The data show undeniable regressions in their lives made worse by the global crises – in incomes, safety, education and health. The longer we take to reverse this trend, the more it will cost us all”.

“Cascading global crises are putting the achievement of the SDGs in jeopardy, with the world’s most vulnerable population groups disproportionately impacted, in particular women and girls. Gender equality is a foundation for achieving all SDGs and it should be at the heart of building back better,” said Maria-Francesca Spatolisano, Assistant Secretary-General for Policy Coordination and Inter-Agency Affairs of UN DESA.

Without swift action, legal systems that do not ban violence against women, do not protect women’s rights in marriage and family, for instance denying women their right to pass on their nationality to their children, or to inherit, do not provide them with equal pay and benefits at work, do not guarantee their equal rights to own and control land, may continue to exist for generations to come.

At the current rate of progress, the report estimates that it will take up to 286 years to close gaps in legal protection and remove discriminatory laws, 140 years for women to be represented equally in positions of power and leadership in the workplace, and at least 40 years to achieve equal representation in national parliaments. To eradicate child marriage by 2030, progress must be 17 times faster than progress of the last decade, with girls from the poorest rural households and in conflict-affected areas expected to suffer the most.

The report also points to a worrisome reversal on the reduction of poverty, and rising prices are likely to exacerbate this trend. By the end of 2022, around 383 million women and girls will live in extreme poverty (on less than 1.90 a day) compared to 368 million men and boys. Many more will have insufficient income to meet basic needs such as food, clothing and adequate shelter in most parts of the world. If current trends continue, in sub-Saharan Africa, more women and girls will live in extreme poverty by 2030 than today.

The invasion of Ukraine and the ongoing war there is further worsening food insecurity and hunger, especially among women and children, limiting supplies of wheat, fertilizer and fuel, and propelling inflation. In 2021, about 38 per cent of female-headed households in war-affected areas experienced moderate or severe food insecurity, compared to 20 per cent of male-headed households.

Further facts and figures highlighted in the report include:

In 2020, school and preschool closures required 672 billion hours of additional unpaid childcare globally. Assuming the gender divide in care work remained the same as before the pandemic, women would have shouldered 512 billion of those hours.

Globally, women lost an estimated USD 800 billion in income in 2020 due to the pandemic, and despite a rebound, their participation in labour markets is projected to be lower in 2022 than it was pre-pandemic (50.8 per cent, compared to 51.8 per cent in 2019).

There are now more women and girls who are forcibly displaced than ever before: some 44 million women and girls by the end of 2021.

Today, over 1.2 billion women and girls of reproductive age (15-49) live in countries and areas with some restriction on access to safe abortion.

Ahead of the Transforming Education Summit taking place on the margins of the UN General Assembly, the report points out that achieving universal girls’ education, while not enough by itself, would improve such an outlook significantly. Each additional year of schooling can boost a girl’s earnings as an adult by up to 20 per cent with further impacts on poverty reduction, better maternal health, lower child mortality, greater HIV prevention and reduced violence against women.

The report showcases that cooperation, partnerships and investments in the gender equality agenda, including through increased global and national funding are essential to correct the course and place gender equality back on track.

Sanctions are bringing suffering and death – UN Special Rapporteur

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The use of economic sanctions has throughout history been an integral component of the foreign policy of most nation-states. As a blunt tool of diplomacy, the concept of sanctions has been around at least from the time of the ancient Greeks, when Athens imposed a trade embargo on its neighbour Megara in 432 B.C. Since then, there has been a long history of countries blockading their enemies to compel a change in behaviour.

In the late nineteenth century, economic sanctions were generally used during times of war and took the form of Export controls on strategic supplies and blockades against targeted countries. But how did this tactic morph into today’s “targeted” or “smart” sanctions — measures such as arms embargoes, asset freezes, and travel bans on key individuals and organizations? They may be more humane and high-tech than a flotilla at sea, but are sanctions any more effective today than they were 2,400 years ago? History tells us, how sanctions failed.

The guest of this episode is Alena Douhan. Alena Douhan is a professor in the Department of International Private and European Law, Belarusian State University. Her research is focused on the law of international security, the application of sanctions by states and international organizations, the status of individuals in International law, Human Rights in the Cyber-Age, and the law of international treaties. She was appointed by the Human Rights Council, as the Special Rapporteur on the negative impact of unilateral coercive measures on the enjoyment of human rights. She took her office on 25 March 2020.

She talked to Nilantha Ilangamuwa, former editor of Sri Lanka Guardian from her residence in Minsk, Belarus. Click here to listen to the episode