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Counterterrorism and Human Rights

MIGS' Executive Director Kyle Matthews and Senior Fellow David Donat Cattin participated in this high-level event in New York City. Organized by NYU Center for Global Affairs on May 30, 2024, and co-sponsored by the NYC Bar Association International Human Rights Committee and United Nations Committee as well as the NYCBA Independence of Lawyers and Judges Task Force and the Student Association in Global Affairs (SAGA-NYU.



On May 30, 2024, NYU’s Center for Global Affairs (CGA) hosted a Panel Discussion on “Counterterrorism, Human Rights and the Independence of Judges” that brought to light the criminal proceedings against 84 academics, lawyers, human rights defenders and activists in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) who are accused of terrorism offenses because they demanded their government to embark in a reform process during the so-called Arab Spring.

The starting point of the Panel was a communication to the UAE and the Human Rights Council signed by an impressive number of UN Special Rapporteurs on human rights in January 2024, who denounced – inter alia – that these criminal proceedings were violating the fundamental rights of individuals including, but not limited to: the right not to be subjected to arbitrary detention and torture, the right not to be retried for the same facts or conduct, the right to know the definition of the offenses for which one is charged, the right to a fair and impartial trial before independent judges who are not acting upon instruction of the Executive branch of Government. If found guilty, the UAE 84 may be subject to harsh and irremediable punishment, including the death penalty or life imprisonment.

The UAE case is emblematic of a broader practice that authoritarian States have embraced taking advantage of the global consensus against terrorism, which however does not allow States to violate the basic human rights enshrined in relevant treaties and customary international law.

The Panel was co-sponsored by the NYC Bar Association Committees on International Human Rights and the United Nations, and by the NYCBA Task Force on the Independence of Lawyers and Judges, and supported by the Student Association in Global Affairs (SAGA).

The moderator of the Panel, Dr. David Donat Cattin, Adjunct Professor of International Law at NYU’s CGA and Advisory Councilor at MIGS, stressed that the goal of this public event was to ensure that the continued indifference of global public opinion to the dramatic situation of dissidents in the UAE may come to an end.

Federal Judge Delissa A. (Lisa) Ridgway, Board Member of the Rule of Law Institute (ROLI) at American Bar Association (ABA), delivered a powerful statement in which she highlighted the lack of independence of the judiciary and the practice of use of foreign Judges, which is common in the UAE also in national security cases and has been labeled as a “rented judges’ system”. Judges may be dismissed and returned to their countries, and this undermines their independence. She stressed that legislation may be questioned, but in many countries, these laws are weaponized to silence dissent, in the UAE and in several other countries, including democratic ones. She described that these prosecutorial and judicial practice are creating a chilling effect on lawyers, who have growing reluctance to defend these cases. This is what the regimes want. In the UAE there is a very long list of fair trial issues, including long solitary confinement of detainees, as well as the absence of media scrutiny: Journalists committed to the truth-finding have been stamped out with counterterrorism too, and inside and outside the UAE this trial is not getting any publicity because of the restrictions on the media. Judge Ridgway raised the high profile and visibility of the UAE in global affairs, including global sports, which should offer openings and opportunities to raise the issue of human rights violations against the 84 defendants. She ended her statement with a call for action to the UN Special Rapporteurs to keep this case prominent, to students, lawyers and judges, who should unite their voices in terms of targets and message, as well as to the US State Department and its country report on human rights, which should focus on the UAE situation. 

Michael Page, Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa of Human Rights Watch, described the shocking conditions of detention of the UAE 84, and the secrecy of the proceedings aimed at keeping them outside the spotlight of public attention. Most of the previous convictions of the same individuals now at trial had been extorted through the use of torture to obtain false confessions. The UAE is a tourism and business destination, and the gross violations of human rights that are being committed against its citizens should be much more exposed in the public domain to augment the cost of their continuation and repetition and induce authorities to change course of action. The position of HRW is that the definition of terrorist offenses is a flagrant violation of the principle of legality and all the 84 UAE defendants should be promptly released from charges: “Terrorism has become an excuse to prosecute opponents to the regime in the UAE”.

Kyle Matthews, Executive Director of the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies (MIGS) at Concordia University, presented the overall framework of the global movement against terrorism and violent extremism, underscoring that counterterrorism should be based on strict definitions of terrorist offenses as violent crimes, including identity-based violence when extremist ideologies are underpinning them.

Dr. Olajumoke (Jumo) Ayandele, Visiting Assistant Professor of Practice at NYU-CGA and Member of the UN Counter-Terrorism Executive Directorate (CTED) Global Research Network, shared her experience in working with Nigerian security forces that were trained in civil-military cooperation and community dialogue, which advanced anti-terrorism while respecting human rights of the populations concerned: Their training brought about better result in the fight against violent extremist groups, whose attacks’ rate sharply decreased in the regions in which counterterrorism was accompanied by measures to safeguard human rights.

Rodney Dixon, KC, Barrister, Temple Garden Chambers (London and The Hague), illustrated his experience as legal practitioner who assisted in the recent past groups of victims of repressive State policies in the name of counterterrorism in the UAE and other States. He stressed that every case is characterized by a lack of any evidence to support any criminal conduct from the UAE 84: That’s why many of them have been subjected to solitary confinement and torture to extract false confessions as a justification for their sham trial. Arrest warrants are often advertised through INTERPOL Red Notices, which means that the UAE should be confronted by other States in pursuing UAE dissidents who have managed to leave the country being confronted with the frivolous charges brought against them.

Mr. Dixon therefore underscored how important it is to use all the mechanisms outside the UAE to increase the risk of reputational damage for the UAE authorities, given the status quo of the judiciary: From the UN Special Rapporteurs to NGOs and States’ reports to academic and public discussions as the one that is taking place at NYU. He concluded his presentation by describing the extremely short reply provided by the UAE to the Special Rapporteur’s communication, making use as main argument of rebuttal that the Special Rapporteurs’ criticisms were formulated prematurely given that the Judgement is not yet out.

Panelists agreed that the arguments of the UAE’s response to the UN Special Rapporteurs provides lawyers, academics, NGOs, UN Member States and the public opinion at-large with ways and means to challenge the UAE Government and be consistent with its reasoning before the UN Human Rights Council: If the UAE wants to avoid massive criticisms and consequences for unlawful convictions of independent intellectuals under general Human Rights Law, there is no doubt that these individuals must be acquitted from the politically motivated charges that they have been subjected to in the name of a false concept of counterterrorism.

The Panel was opened by the Dean of the NYU CGA, Prof. Caroline Kissane, and it benefitted from the opening remarks of three prominent lawyers, namely, Christopher Pioch, Esq., Chairperson, NYC Bar Association Independence of Lawyers and Judges Task Force, Ramya Jawahar Kudekallu, Esq., Co-Chairperson, NYCBA International Human Rights Committee (Telford Taylor Teaching Fellow at Cardozo Law School) and Prof. Sophia Murashkovsky Romma, Esq., Co-Chair, NYCBA United Nations Committee (Touro University Law). Participants online and in presence included approximately 50 students, lawyers, researchers and practitioners who are alumni of the NYU CGA, as well as NGOs/IGOs and States’ representatives. The Panel also served to discuss whether the International; Community should move out of the global consensus in the fight against international terrorism, which dates back to the post 9/11, 2001, but the overall answer from experts was to focus on ensuring compliance by counterterrorism laws and policies with international human rights law.



VIDEO MESSAGE of Prof. Meg Satterthwaite, UN Special Rapporteur for the Independence of Judges and Lawyers



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