Illegal Migration Bill: Essex Law School experts on the international system of protection against arbitrary detention express concerns in their written evidence to the JCHR

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On 5 April 2023, Dr. Sabina Garahan (Lecturer, Essex Law School) and Dr. Matthew Gillett (Senior Lecturer, Essex Law School submitted evidence to the Joint Committee on Human Rights (the “JCHR”) as part of its legislative scrutiny of the Illegal Migration Bill. Their submission focused on detention-related questions posed by the JCHR.

Dr. Garahan recently completed her AHRC-funded research on the right to liberty under European human rights law. Dr. Gillett is the Vice-Chair of the UN Human Rights Council’s Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (the “Working Group”). The submission expresses shared concerns that the proposed legislation conflicts with fundamental protections against arbitrary detention set out in the European Convention on Human Rights (the “ECHR”) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (the “ICCPR”).

The authors’ submission identifies several areas in which the Bill conflicts with the right to liberty as enshrined in Article 5 of the ECHR. Importantly, it raises the possibility that the UK Government may be the first Council of Europe Contracting State in history to be found in breach of Article 17, which prohibits the destruction and excessive limitation of ECHR rights.

Dr. Garahan’s and Dr. Gillett’s written evidence equally highlights the potential breach of Article 18 in conjunction with Article 5, on account of the likelihood that the legislation was introduced in bad faith under the ECHR – namely, on the basis of aims not listed under Article 5. Immigration detention that is predominantly imposed on grounds other than those permitted by Article 5 will be found to violate Article 18. The Government’s documented anti-migrant rhetoric, which has sparked significant concerns among international expert bodies, and the expedited passage of the Bill through Parliament strongly indicate the existence of bad faith.

Finally, the submission addresses likely violations of Article 9 of the ICCPR, which protects against arbitrary detention in a range of contexts including immigration-related processes, as held by the Working Group. In introducing discretionary powers to detain anyone suspected of entering the UK unlawfully, for such period as is “in the opinion of the Secretary of State” reasonably necessary (namely, without any time limit), the Bill undermines the exceptionality and necessity limitations of immigration detention.

Dr. Garahan and Dr. Gillett are members of Essex Law School/Human Rights Centre and the Essex Constitutional and Administrative Justice Institute. Their full submission can be accessed on the JCHR website here and a copy can be downloaded from our ELR Blog below.

Legal Analysis of the Illegal Migration Bill 262 2022-23 – Clauses 21-28 (Modern Slavery)

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By Marija Jovanovic, Essex Law School

On 7 March 2023, the UK Government introduced the Illegal Migration Bill with the stated purpose to “prevent and deter unlawful migration, and in particular migration by unsafe and illegal routes.” The Bill introduces provisions that would amend immigration, asylum, and modern slavery legislation.

Dr Marija Jovanovic conducted a legal analysis of the modern slavery clauses in the Illegal Migration Bill. The analysis has been commissioned by the Modern Slavery and Human Rights Policy and Evidence Centre (Modern Slavery PEC), which in turn is funded and supported by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).

Dr Marija Jovanovic is the author of State Responsibility for ‘Modern Slavery’ in Human Rights Law (Oxford University Press, 2023).

The Explainer and the legal analysis can be read in full here.

OPINION: Why the European Convention on Human Rights matters to LGBTQ+ people

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By Lee Marsons, Essex Law School

The ECHR has been instrumental over the past few decades in terms of moving the dial forward for LGBTQ+ rights in the UK

Rishi Sunak, the British Prime Minister, is said to be actively considering withdrawing the UK from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

This would be a very bad decision. The ECHR is an international treaty that most European countries signed after the tragedies of the second world war, committing them to protect fundamental human rights. It is separate from the European Union.

The UK’s membership of the ECHR has played an important role in increasing the protection afforded to LGBTQ+ people over many years. There are three legal cases in particular that demonstrate how the ECHR has prompted Parliament and the government to respect the rights of LGBTQ+ people. LGBTQ+ people should reject calls to withdraw from the ECHR and raise awareness of the good that this treaty has done.

Homosexuality and the army: Until 2000, the UK Ministry of Defence had a blanket ban on gay men and lesbian women serving in the army. This was based on the prejudice that homosexuality was “incompatible with service in the Armed Forces”.

When the case was heard by an English court in Smith v Ministry of Defence, the judges concluded that the ban was lawful. By contrast, when the case was heard in the Strasbourg Court – the international court that interprets the ECHR – the judges concluded that the ban was a violation of the UK’s obligation to respect the private life of gay men and lesbian women and found it unlawful.

Though controversial at the time, the Strasbourg Court’s opinion is now wholly mainstream, with the Ministry of Defence issuing an apology in 2007, and the current government establishing an “LGBT Veterans Independent Review” in 2022 to explore the effects of the ban on LGBTQ+ veterans.

Transgender recognition: Until 2004, UK law did not allow trans people – including those who had had surgery – to live as their true gender for legal purposes. A trans woman could not, for example, marry as a woman and would be registered as a man for all legal purposes, such as employment and social security.

In 2002, in Goodwin v United Kingdom, the Strasbourg Court concluded that this was a disproportionate interference with trans people’s right to respect for their private life. This case did not consider exactly when legal recognition should be possible – such as through self-identification – but it did decide that the failure to provide any legal recognition, including for post-operative trans people, was unlawful.

This case was a major factor in the trend towards legal recognition of trans people.

In 2003, the British courts in Bellinger v Bellinger concluded that UK law should be brought into line with the Strasbourg Court’s decision and, through the Gender Recognition Act 2004, it eventually was.

Decriminalising gay sex: While homosexual sex was decriminalised in England, Wales, and Scotland in 1967, consensual homosexual sex remained a criminal offence for which men could be imprisoned in Northern Ireland until 1982.

This was reversed only after a Strasbourg Court case called Dudgeon v United Kingdom, which found that the criminalisation of consensual homosexual sex was a disproportionate interference with the private lives of gay men. After this case, ministers changed the law of Northern Ireland so that gay men could have sex without being imprisoned.

LGBTQ+ History Month is a good time to reflect on how we have succeeded in moving closer to equality for everyone in the UK over many years. Naturally, there are no simple answers.

The effective promotion of LGBT rights has involved a network of political, social, legislative, judicial, domestic, and international action.

The ECHR will never be the only answer, but it has been and remains part of the answer and the government is wrong to contemplate withdrawal. LGBTQ+ people in the UK should reject calls to withdraw from this important treaty.

This piece was first published on Openly and is reproduced on the ELR Blog with permission and thanks.

The piece was also cited on the floor of the House of Commons by Alison Thewliss MP here.

Essex Law School Professor Accorded the Title of Sérgio Vieira de Mello Chair

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Upon the nomination of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Professor Geoff Gilbert has been accorded the title of Sérgio Vieira de Mello Professor of International Human Rights & Humanitarian Law in the Essex Law School & Human Rights Centre at the University of Essex!

Sérgio Vieira de Mello worked most of his life for the UNHCR, retired and was then asked to serve as Special Representative of the Secretary-General to Iraq. He was killed in the Baghdad bombing of 2003. He was Brazilian and the government immediately created Sérgio Vieira de Mello Chairs that were meant to be available across the whole of South and Central America to promote education on and for, research regarding, and solidarity with forcibly displaced persons.

The expansion beyond Brazil did not happen until Goeff took on the role of inaugural Chair of the Secretariat of the Global Academic Interdisciplinary Network and there are now SVdM Chairs in Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, Mexico, and Ethiopia, with plans for Mozambique and Thailand. Geoff’s initial plan was for the chairs to be established in low- and middle-income countries that host the vast majority of the 103 million people within UNHCR’s mandate, but UNHCR wants to expand these globally akin to United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Chairs. 

Geoff is the first Sérgio Vieira de Mello Professor in the global North, reflecting his education, research and solidarity regarding forcibly displaced persons for the past thirty (30) years.

Congratulations to Professor Gilbert!

Adjudicating the Right to Liberty: The Use and Appropriateness of Discretion at the European Court of Human Rights

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By Dr Sabina Garahan, Essex Law School

Dr Sabina Garahan, Lecturer at Essex Law School, has completed her AHRC-funded doctoral research on “Adjudicating the Right to Liberty: The Use and Appropriateness of Discretion at the European Court of Human Rights”. The thesis critically assesses the level of protection offered by European human rights law against arbitrary detention. Dr Garahan argues that the appropriateness of discretion granted to Contracting States in this sphere requires the Court to recognise the need for a progressive interpretation of the right to liberty (as enshrined in Article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights). The thesis develops a new framework for determining the appropriateness of discretion by linking the Court’s use of its methods of interpretation to their underlying approaches. Dr Garahan’s development and application of this framework in the Article 5 context is rooted in thorough doctrinal and theoretical analysis as well as empirical findings on the practice of the European Court of Human Rights as gathered through interviews with serving judges. 

On this basis, the thesis finds that the Court neglects an evolutive reading of Article 5, thereby stifling the progressive development of the provision. It is argued that, at the same time, an increased turn to subsidiarity has undermined the Court’s oversight role. A new framework for allocating discretion that takes consensus as a starting point in the Court’s review is suggested to address these challenges. It is argued that centring the role of consensus as part of an evolutive approach to Article 5 will not only achieve the progressive interpretation mandated by the Convention, but will also create a more consistent and thus legitimate body of Article 5 jurisprudence. 

Dr Garahan makes the argument that an inappropriate level of discretion is accorded to States in determining whether the aims of detention, in particular in the fields of pre-trial detention, the detention of minors and immigration detention, have been met. The lack of progressive advancement of the right to liberty in the Convention system also results in the right being disproportionately ceded to both individual and public interests in proportionality testing. Dr Garahan therefore ultimately concludes that continued neglect of a progressive interpretation of Article 5 risks undermining not only the further realisation of the right to liberty, but indeed its continued maintenance as a vital tool of human rights protection.

Teaching the Right to Information without Chairs: Human Rights Education on a Kathmandu Dance Floor

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By Professor Lars Waldorf, Essex Law School

Once again, I was called on to be living proof that anyone can dance. I showed off my worst moves. I told how my wife recently abandoned me on the dance floor. The facilitator confirmed that I was the tensest person he had ever encountered in his inclusive (mixed-abled) dance workshops. Once again, we put my own embodied embarrassment to some use: to begin the process of breaking down barriers, reassuring workshop participants, encouraging inclusive dance aesthetics, and thereby co-creating a safe space for bringing dance, disability, and rights together. 

What was different this time is we were training Nepali dancers, lawyers, and, most importantly, war-disabled activists in a pioneering method of transformative human rights education developed by VisAbility in Sri Lanka (with support from the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), British Council, Goethe Institute, and Schmitz Stiftungen). What was also different is we were focusing specifically on the Right to Information (RTI) as a way for war-disabled people to demand more transparency and fairness in the provision of social protection and reparations. 

This South-South training and knowledge exchange was led by Mahesh Umagiliya, a Sri Lankan choreographer/dancer and a co-founder of VisAbility, alongside Vinothine Balasubramaniam, a Sri Lankan RTI activist. The Nepali participants came from the National Network of Disabled Conflict Victims (NNDCV), the human rights NGO Advocacy Forum, and the music school NAAD Sangeet Pathshala. I was there not only as an ice-breaker, but also to provide some (much less fun) training on project evaluation, ethics, and data management in my role as Principal Investigator on our Performing/Informing Rights project.


Civil war inevitably maims and mutilates. After war, people with conflict-related, physical impairments are likely to experience extreme poverty, social exclusion, and illegal discrimination – notwithstanding the promise of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development to “leave no one behind” and notwithstanding 184 states ratifying the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. This is certainly the case in post-war Sri Lanka and Nepal where disabled people frequently lack the knowledge, confidence, resources, and access to claim their rights, benefits, and reparations. 

Our earlier AHRC-funded Performing Empowerment project (2016-18) brought together transformative human rights education, legal empowerment, and inclusive dance to enable war-disabled people in northern and eastern Sri Lanka to claim their rights and benefits. However, a few disabled participants became understandably frustrated and discouraged by a lack of government response to their applications for disability benefits. As a result, we saw a need to empower disabled people to chase up their claims-making to government officials using Sri Lanka’s strong RTI law. Hence, this new AHRC-funded Performing/Informing Rights project (2021-23) that not only adds RTI to VisAbility’s trainings in Sri Lanka but also tests whether VisAbility’s methods can be adapted and applied to Nepal’s post-war context.

Both projects develop a novel form of transformative human rights education for disabled and non-disabled people using dance. According to a 2011 UN Declaration, human rights education is all about “empowering persons to enjoy and exercise their rights and to respect and uphold the rights of others.” Transformative human rights education takes this further through experiential learning focused on how rights can address everyday forms of political, economic, and social exclusion. It also emphasizes playful, participatory, and embodied learning. Indeed, dance has been used to teach, perform, and campaign for human rights, perhaps most famously with the One Billion Rising Campaign.

Both of our projects also pioneer a more holistic form of legal empowerment. Legal empowerment is a form of rights-based development by which the poor are enabled to use law to make rights claims and improve their livelihoods. Despite the UN Sustainable Development Goals’ call to empower disabled persons and provide “equal access to justice for all,” there has been surprisingly little attention to how legal empowerment might help war-disabled people. VisAbility has started filling that gap while also using inclusive dance to combine somatic and psycho-social empowerment with legal empowerment.  

Mixing Rights and Dance 

It’s not easy to combine rights and dance. For one thing, law privileges words, whereas dance relies on embodied expression. For another, there is a risk of instrumentalizing dance and thus losing some of its creative potential. Furthermore, the most visible examples tend to be professional performances, such as William Forsythe’s “Human Writes” and Pichet Klunchun’s “7 Decades of Human Rights,” rather than grassroots, education projects.

VisAbility is still experimenting with how best to mix dance and rights – something that Mahesh has likened to “putting sweet buns with chilli sambal”. Initially, its workshops had separate sessions on each. With the Performing Empowerment project, VisAbility started explicating dance movements through rights language and teaching rights using those movements (partly as mnemonic devices or body memories). 

With this new project, VisAbility is aiming for a more ambitious synthesis of dance and rights. That first meant Vinothine training Mahesh on RTI and him leading an RTI training himself. It also meant Mahesh training Vinothine on dance and VisAbility’s methods. They then worked closely with Helena-Ulrike Marambio, the project’s Post-Doctoral Research Associate, to develop a draft training resource. However, Sri Lanka’s economic and political crisis meant Mahesh and Vinothine had to do this all online in the face of electricity outages. It wasn’t until they got to their Kathmandu guesthouse that they could actually start working through the resource together in the same physical space. 

For Mahesh, one of the biggest challenges is that RTI training involves “a lot of information you have to deliver” which is “really hard to put into a dance task” because it needs to be learned “as information, not as something else, not as something realized in a symbolic way.” Another challenge was to “create a methodology that was not only suitable for Sri Lanka but can be used in another country also.” 

Training and Knowledge Exchange

Even though the Nepali participants knew they would be learning dance and RTI, they were wrong-footed from the get-go. As Amisha Adhikari, one of Advocacy Forum’s lawyers, told us afterwards: “When they first entered the workshop venue, they were stunned because they did not see any chairs, any writing materials, projector, all that stuff. So, they kept coming to me asking … How are you going to talk about RTI [without that]?” What Mahesh and Vinothine quickly demonstrated is that moving bodies are a whole lot more fun than PowerPoints. As Vinothine put it, “without boring [them], we can deliver our knowledge and participants are engaged with the dance.”

Mahesh and Vinothine didn’t hesitate to deviate from the training resource as they read both the mood and bodies in the room. Still, some of the RTI exercises proved too complicated, which prompted me to suggest we “simplify and exaggerate” – simplify the RTI content and exaggerate the movements to make things more memorable. So, we focused on five key stages of the RTI process rather than trying to teach all 13 stages. Participants proposed movements to represent each RTI stage and we voted as a group for the ones we liked the best. Mahesh then helped us simplify and exaggerate the five chosen movements and had us rehearse the sequence over and over, so the RTI process became muscle memory. As Amisha later said: “The law is very complicated, right … but once they perform it by themselves through movements, through gestures, they will be able to remember those gestures and movements even if they don’t remember the legal provisions.” Earlier, though, she had had some doubts: “As a law student and as a lawyer, I always felt like law requires seriousness. … Dance is more like entertainment. So, I was confused how the two of them will work [together].”

Mandira Sharma, a prominent human rights lawyer and founder of Advocacy Forum, told me that she too had initially been “very puzzled” and “a little bit sceptical” about how dance and rights could be combined. But she explained that the training had “really opened our minds” as they saw how dance made it “easier for a non-legal person to really understand what the RTI process is about.” She added that dance is “really an empowering tool – even for us [as human rights activists].”

Moving from Dance Performances towards Street Theatre

On the last afternoon of the workshop, Mahesh choreographed a short work of “street theatre” (often a mix of theatre, dance, and music performed outdoors) that depicted a war-disabled woman using the RTI process to gain the government-issued disability card that entitles her to interim reparations. After just three, rather free-wheeling rehearsals, we performed for staff of the Taragaon Museum that had so generously hosted us. Afterwards, one audience member encouraged us to perform in more venues, including hospitals and rehabilitation centres.

VisAbility usually caps its workshops with dance performances at parks, outdoor markets, and street junctions. The performances serve three important purposes. First, they build cohesion and solidarity among the workshop participants. Second, they help empower participants: once they have danced in public spaces, they are less shy about performing their rights to government officials. Finally, they challenge the stigmatizing, shaming, and invisibilizing of disabled people in everyday life. As Gerda König, the German choreographer and VisAbility co-founder, has said: “Yeah, [people] are staring at them, or they look away, or they don’t even see them, but [for the workshop participants] to be as a crowd there [gives] so much power.”  

Until now, VisAbility’s dance performances have been mostly abstract or non-representational. There was some resistance to using dance didactically to tell stories about challenging discrimination and claiming rights. But with this new project, VisAbility is moving towards more representational movements (partly due to more co-creation with workshop participants) and then integrating that with verbal storytelling about RTI. This may prove more resonant for participants and audiences. After all, there is a rich tradition of using street theatre to challenge injustices in Nepal and Sri Lanka. And street theatre has been used to promote RTI awareness in places like BangladeshIndia, and Sri Lanka

While all of us were energized by our three days together, the real test comes when our Nepali colleagues start conducting their own dance and RTI workshops, as well as performances, with war-disabled and non-disabled people at the grassroots level. 

This article was first published on the project website  

A Right Not to Be Trafficked

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What is ‘modern slavery’ and who is responsible for it?

What is the relevance of human rights law, which primarily regulates state conduct, for practices predominantly committed by private actors?

Where can victims seek justice and redress when national authorities fail to protect them?

In her new book State Responsibility for Modern Slavery in Human Rights Law: A Right Not to Be Trafficked, Dr. Marija Jovanovic analyses the role and responsibility of states for addressing ‘modern slavery’ – a diverse set of practices usually perpetrated by non-state actors – against the backdrop of international human rights law. Her work explores the dynamic between criminal law and human rights law and reveals the different ways these legal domains work to secure justice for victims.

In particular, the book considers the ‘absolute’ nature of the prohibition of modern slavery in human rights law, the range of practices covered by this umbrella term and their mutual relationships, the positive obligations of states established by international human rights tribunals owed to individuals subject to modern slavery, and the standards for assessing state responsibility in these situations.

By engaging with the concept of exploitation in human rights law, Dr. Jovanovic glues together diverse practices of modern slavery, including servitude, forced labour, and human trafficking, into a coherent concept.

State Responsibility for Modern Slavery in Human Rights Law: A Right Not to Be Trafficked elucidates the theoretical foundations of this fundamental human right and explains why human trafficking has an independent place within it.

In addition to providing a comprehensive critique of the existing human rights jurisprudence, the book offers a roadmap for the future development of law on this subject, emphasising the limits of human rights law as a tool for addressing modern slavery.

Dr. Jovanovic’s book will be published by Oxford University Press in January 2023.

The Legalisation of Assisted Dying: The Experts’ View

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By Louise Millescamps, Essex Law School

La légalisation de la mort assistée, un sujet sociétal au cœur des débats

Ces podcasts correspondent à la deuxième partie d’un projet de recherche sur la légalisation de la mort assistée en France et en Angleterre. Après avoir publié un article décrivant les lois actuelles dans les deux pays et les raisons de chacun de refuser la légalisation de la mort assistée, j’ai eu l’opportunité d’interviewer deux expertes sur ce sujet et d’engager la discussion quant à l’état de la législation actuelle et ses possibles évolutions. Nous avons également abordé d’autres questions comme la responsabilité de l’équipe médicale dans le cadre de la mort assistée.

Aujourd’hui, ces discussions sont d’autant plus importantes qu’en France, le débat sur la législation de la mort assistée est d’actualité. Le 13 septembre 2022, Jean-Luc Godard, cinéaste franco-suisse, a délibérément mis fin à ses jours grâce au suicide assisté, une pratique légale en Suisse. Le même jour, le Comité Consultatif National d’Ethique a rendu un avis sur la fin de vie ouvrant la voie à une «aide active à mourir». Une convention citoyenne sur la fin de vie va également être prochainement organisée. Alors que les discussions sur la fin de vie prennent de plus en plus d’importance, il paraît crucial d’en apprendre davantage sur la législation en vigueur et ses possibles évolutions.

Le premier podcast est une interview de Sabine Michalowski, Professeure de Droit à l’Université d’Essex, co-directrice du projet: Essex Transitional Justice Network. Elle est aussi membre du Human Rights Centre et du Essex Autonomy Project.

Le deuxième podcast contient une discussion avec Aurore Catherine, maître de conférences en droit public à l’Université de Caen Normandie, membre de l’Institut Caennais de Recherche Juridique et présidente du groupe de Réflexion Ethique du Centre de Lutte contre le cancer François Baclesse.

Ces deux podcasts, bien qu’ils traitent des mêmes sujets, présentent deux points de vue différents.

Dans son interview, Madame Catherine commente la loi en vigueur en France. Elle rappelle que le but de cette loi est de soulager les souffrances. Selon elle, il faudrait d’abord s’assurer que cette loi est bien appliquée avant de se pencher sur la légalisation de la mort assistée:

«En 2015, une critique a été soulevée: notre législation était philosophiquement, éthiquement bien fondée, simplement on n’arrivait pas à l’appliquer parce qu’elle était insuffisamment connue des soignants, insuffisamment connue du grand public».

Concernant Professeure Michalowski, il lui semble important de se focaliser non pas sur l’application de la législation actuelle mais sur la nécessité de légaliser la mort assistée. Selon elle, il serait préférable d’adopter une nouvelle loi plutôt que de se reposer par exemple sur l’«état de nécessité», un moyen de défense utilisé lors de certains procès mais qui se révèle «totalement imprévisible». Pour Professeure Michalowski, il est important de laisser le choix aux individus et de leur permettre ainsi de décider de leur vie comme de leur mort. Elle affirme à cet égard que: «Pour certaines personnes, une meilleure fin de vie serait d’avoir accès à la mort assistée».  

Interview with Dr. Catherine
Interview with Prof. Michalowski

The Legalisation of Assisted Dying

These podcasts are the second part of a research project on the legalisation of assisted dying in England and France.

In the first interview, I had the honour of talking to Sabine Michalowski, Professor of Law at the University of Essex, co-director of the Essex Transitional Justice Network and a member of the Human Rights Centre and the Essex Autonomy Project. 

In the second interview, I had the opportunity to interview Aurore Catherine, Lecturer in Public Law at the University of Caen Normandie, member of the Institut Caennais de Recherche Juridique and President of the Ethical Debate Group at the François Baclesse cancer centre.

In both podcasts, we are going through different themes on the topic of assisted dying. Similar questions are asked to both interviewees in order to grasp the differences between both jurisdictions.

From the definition of dignity at end of life, to the powers of the courts and the physicians’ responsibilities, we discuss the challenges associated with the legalisation of assisted dying. 

Although dealing with the same topic, the two podcasts present two different points of view.

In her interview, Dr. Catherine focuses on the current legislation in France. She recalls that the purpose of the law is to relieve suffering. According to Dr. Catherine, it would first be necessary to apply this law properly before debating on legalising assisted dying:

“In 2015, a criticism was raised: our legislation was philosophically, ethically well-founded, however, we could not apply it because it was insufficiently known to caregivers, insufficiently known to the general public”.

For Prof. Michalowski, the importance of the debate lies in the legalisation of assisted dying. According to Prof. Michalowski, adopting a new law would be a better option than relying for instance on the defence of necessity, a means of defence used in some trials but which turns out to be “totally unpredictable”. She focuses on the idea that it is important to ​​leave everyone to choose and decide about their own life and death. In this regard, she says that “for some people, a better end of life would be to have access to assisted dying”.

Interview with Dr. Catherine
Interview with Prof. Michalowski

Who Owns Justice? When States Refuse to Provide Justice, Let the People Make Their Own Justice

By Professor Carla Ferstman, Essex Law School

Image credit: Aban Tribunal website

I have recently had the honour to be part of the panel of judges of the Aban Tribunal – a People’s Tribunal established by civil society to review evidence of atrocities allegedly perpetrated by the Islamic Republic of Iran as part of its crackdown on the mass protests that had engulfed Iran in November 2019, sparked by massive rises in fuel prices but fundamentally were about social and economic rights and governance in the country. Our judgment, in which we found that acts of extrajudicial killings, torture, sexual violence, arbitrary detentions, enforced disappearances and persecution amounted to crimes against humanity, was released on 1 November 2022.

This was my first foray into the world of People’s Tribunals, a concept which originated with the Russell Tribunal, named after Bertand Russell. That was a process he initiated together with Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and other luminaries of the day to consider the American role in Vietnam. Since then, the People’s Tribunal concept has developed and evolved and many other tribunals have been established to consider a wide array of issues ranging from the coalition-led invasion into Iraq, the situation in Palestine, the situation in Kashmir, Japanese wartime practices related to sexual slavery, the treatment of refugees and migrants, the treatment of Uyghurs, climate change and the murder of journalists. And the list goes on.

People’s Tribunals tend to come into play when more traditional justice avenues are completely blocked or when the official narrative about what happened denies the space for other voices or perspectives. Either a regime has no interest in any kind of justice and will not be cajoled into a justice process. Or, there is a particular issue that is completely taboo in a country or which cannot be solved by bringing a case to court.

In the case of the Aban Tribunal, the Islamic Republic had authorised the violent crackdowns on protesters and in the aftermath of those events, had instituted a devastating campaign of intimidation against family members who had sought out information about how their loved ones had died or were calling out for justice. Authorities had also interrupted families’ burial rituals in order to deflect attention away from the many killings, preventing families from grieving their loved ones. Thus, there was no realistic prospect of domestic investigations or prosecutions of those responsible or any likelihood of an official acknowledgment of the wrongs done and the harms caused. Victims and witnesses, who faced significant risks of reprisals for their participation, testified, often by video link – with faces covered and voices distorted, from inside Iran. The opportunity to tell their stories to the world was one they could not pass up lightly.  

People’s Tribunals are about drawing attention to problems that are not being solved by traditional courts, governments or others. These tribunals are intended to bring public attention to issues not sufficiently in the public domain; to build solidarity with victims; to provide some kind of ritualised forum in which evidence is evaluated and the moral weight of a conclusion is given; to serve as a catalyst either for later formal justice processes or for changing public opinion or inspiring political debate.

In the case of the Aban Tribunal, the goal was to do all these things. And, to draw attention to the patterns of repression; impunity breeds recurrence and we are seeing this every day with the Iran Government’s brutal repression of the ongoing protests into the killing of Mahsa Amini. These tribunals can also serve as an end in and of themselves, by serving the goal of acknowledgement of wrongs and doing justice that otherwise would never had been done.

Who gets to decide what justice looks like?

What makes “justice” justice? This is perhaps a philosophical or sociological question, it can also be considered anthropologically – what do we turn to a justice system to do for us? And when do we see that it has the power to deliver?

Do we do a disservice to victims if justice is not sanctioned by a government; if the results of this “contrived” justice process cannot result in “real” sanctions?

In some cases, a People’s Tribunal might make it more difficult to have a formal justice process afterwards (but sometimes the opposite with be the case). But often “real justice” is symbolic – victims will take cases to human rights courts that they know will not get enforced; but often the reason why victims bring cases to court is for an official body to acknowledge that they were wronged and that they suffered. It is important that there is official recognition that what was done to them was wrong and that they – the victims, are not to blame.  

As such, it becomes a question of whether the People’s Tribunal is imbued through the rituals it cloaks itself with, with enough internal legitimacy that victims and communities see it as having the power to do justice in the form of acknowledgement.

In some cases, it will be important for the judges of People’s Tribunals to don robes, to use gavels, and to seem otherworldly, and to speak the language of the courtroom for the victims to believe that the justice ritual they are part of is “real” and “meaningful”. This was the case with the Aban Tribunal – it was our determined belief, based on our understanding of the situation and speaking with civil society that there was this overwhelming sense of impunity – the total and absolute absence of justice. Donning the rituals of the courtroom was therefore an important part of our process.

In other cases, it is the formal justice system that is alienating and has failed victims in the past; the People’s Tribunal will be embraced and seen as legitimate only if it gets stuck in with the community in a more visceral way.  

Can justice exist without a government legitimising it?

In most societies, justice is like a social contract – the justice process helps reinforce the rules by which the society lives by. Justice that is fair makes communities feel comfortable to abide by the rules. Everyone knows their place. In this sense, justice is something a  government uses to reinforce the rule of law within the society. When state actors commit crimes, subjecting them to the same scrutiny, to the same justice, reinforces the sense that everyone plays by the same rules. When the state exempts itself from the rules, this undermines the rule of law in society.

Before embarking on this People’s Tribunal journey, I was convinced that for justice to be meaningful it had to be done by the decision-makers. As someone who has worked a lot on the issue of reparations or remedies to victims, – reparations were always something the government or the direct perpetrators should provide – indeed, this was part of their social contract, their role in reinforcing the rule of law. When civil society groups or development agencies started getting involved in reparations, my sense was always that they were just muddying the waters; reparations means something specific; it is special – it is about the wrongdoers acknowledging the wrongs and harms that they caused. So similarly, a justice process needed to be set up by governments because of the role governments play, or should play, in society, in reinforcing the rule of law.

But with People’s Tribunals, I realised, the idea that victims and civil society create their own framework of justice when justice is not otherwise going to happen, recognises that a government does not have the power to deny justice – this itself is really powerful. When the government does nothing, the victims, the civil society, the international community say no – that is not alright; we deserve justice; if you won’t provide it, we will not allow you to block it for us; we will take matters into our own hands and create our own justice.

It recognises that justice as acknowledgement is a ritualised project, and it is not owned by governments.  

The result can be very creative; participatory; and if done well, a really positive experience for victims that they wouldn’t get in a traditional courtroom.

How to avoid the accusation of Kangaroo Justice?

There will always be arguments that Peoples’ Tribunals are one-sided; that they are just a politically motivated tirade against a government. For any People’s Tribunal to have a positive effect, it must guard against this. It is the judges of the People’s Tribunal who need to control the process. They must give space for nuance, hear all possible arguments even if not all sides are participating, recognise that there are defence rights even if there are no accused. This is difficult, and not always as obvious as it should be.

The truth is never simple, the organisers of tribunals are advocates, with advocacy positions – it is important for judges/deciders of fact to be independent of that, to be as neutral as possible.  

Another line of argument is that a Peoples’ Tribunal should not seek to resemble a court – the more they don the rituals of a court, but do not have the necessary checks and balances of a court, the more they veer towards kangaroo justice. However, one needs to consider the purpose of the People’s Tribunal – in some cases, it is set up precisely because the community has a real need for justice – and there is no accountability in the society – so becoming as “court-like” as possible is really important, for the victims and the ritual of the process.

For the Aban Tribunal, it was really important that we were a court – we wore robes, the witnesses were sworn in, the judges spoke in legalese and the judgment is a judicial ruling – but this obviously raises other challenges – we had to take special care about process, about fairness, about our own accountability.


People’s Tribunals play a really interesting part of the mix of justice processes. They are particularly important to adjudicate situations or issues which would not otherwise have benefited from adjudication. They also play an important role in expressing solidarity with victims and affected communities who often feel isolated in authoritative regimes.  

The idea that justice comes only in one shape, or size, is evolving. This evolution is necessary in light of the many instances of absolute impunity around the world. But also, it can be very empowering and freeing to develop conceptions of justice that are centred on the needs of victims and communities.

International Guidelines Help Promote and Protect Human Rights in Phillippines

The United Nations (UN) has recommended international guidelines developed through a partnership between Julie Hannah, at Essex Law School, and the United Nations Development Programme should be used in the Philippines to improve and protect human rights.

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has recommended the International Guidelines on Human Rights and Drug Policy form part of the UN joint action plan to improve the human rights situation in the Philippines.

Julie Hannah, who is the Director of the International Centre on Human Rights and Drug Policy based at the Human Rights Centre, said:

“We are delighted to see the Guidelines form one of the United Nation’s key recommendations to the government of the Phillippines to advance more humane and just responses to drugs in the country. Vigilance and accountability will continue to be critical to ensure the Guidelines are utilised in a comprehensive system of reforms necessary to support justice and healing for the communities so deeply affected by the punitive and violent drug control efforts of recent years. It is an honour to play a very minor role in supporting the tremendous advocates at the Commission on Human Rights as well as civil society colleagues and friends in the country.”

Improving human rights in the Philippines

This recent UN report examines progress made on the implementation of the United Nations Joint Programme on Human Rights (UNJP), agreed by the Government of the Philippines and the UN on 22 July 2021.

This three-year UN joint programme was developed to implement Human Rights Council Resolution 45/33 which outlined specific areas, including drug control, for capacity-building and technical cooperation for the promotion and protection of human rights in the Philippines.

The OHCHR’s recommendation that the new Philippines administration ‘revise legislation and policies in line with a human rights-based approach and the International Guidelines on Human Rights and Drug Policy’ followed a national consultation convened in 2021.

This consultation involved the Philippines Commission on Human Rights, the OHCHR and national stakeholders to review the current efforts on drug policy reform in the Philippines in light of the International Guidelines on Human Rights and Drug Policy. This was subsequently followed by meetings organised by the UNJP in April this year with government, health officials and academia to propose a draft roadmap to transition the national drug policy framework towards a public health and human-rights centred system to enable voluntary community-based treatment and rehabilitation for drugs.

More about the International Guidelines on Human Rights and Drug Policy

The International Guidelines on Human Rights and Drug Policy are the result of a multi-year collaborative effort between academics, UN entities and civil society addressing Health, Development and Criminal Justice.

They were developed by the International Centre on Human Rights and Drug Policy and the United Nations Development Programme in collaboration with the GPDPD, GIZ on behalf of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development and the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs.

This piece was first published on the University’s news web pages and is reproduced on the ELR Blog with permission and thanks.