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Statement by George and Amal Clooney at the Launch of TrialWatch in New York, 25 April 2019

Making Justice More Just

The world is becoming increasingly authoritarian, and authoritarian leaders are increasingly using courts to consolidate their power. Although the judiciary is often the best protection against abuses of power, compliant or corrupt judges can also be a tool to stifle dissent and oppress minorities. Yet little is known about the human rights abuses unravelling in courts. While most trials are open, many proceedings are long, complex and involve a foreign language. Which means the abuses take place in the dark.

In some countries you can be imprisoned, or killed, because of who you love. Over 70 countries still criminalise same-sex relations. And in 14 countries you can get executed for it. This includes Brunei, which introduced a law earlier this month that allows a gay person who has same-sex relations to be stoned to death. In Iran, a 31-year old man was recently convicted of sodomy and publicly hanged. And mass arrests of gay men in Egypt have led to 6-year sentences for men who were simply waving a rainbow flag at a concert.

In other countries, you can be persecuted through the courts because of what you believe. Insulting religion can lead to imprisonment in more than 40 countries, and blasphemy can get you executed in at least 6 of them. In Pakistan, a Christian woman named Asia Bibi was sentenced to death by hanging and spent 8 years on death row after an unfair trial convicted her of insulting the prophet during a discussion with neighbours she was picking berries with. And although her conviction has now been reversed she still cannot leave the country.

In every region there is also a growing risk for human rights defenders – the lawyers, judges, politicians and activists who are trying to protect those at risk and so often end up paying the same price as those they are trying to defend. This includes women who were arrested after they sought to report sexual abuse in the ‘metoo’ movement in Indonesia and women who advocated for the right to drive in Saudi Arabia.

Without the fair administration of justice, it is not possible to hold the powerful to account. There can be no democracy; no freedom of speech; no safety for minorities. And yet, we measure corruption by governments, but not by courts. We monitor the fairness of elections, but not trials. And leaders accused of holding political prisoners can deflect criticism all too easily with bare denials or stock-phrases about the separation of powers. We need extensive monitoring, hard data, and committed advocacy for this to change.

Our monitors do not need to be lawyers, as long as they have completed the training program that we have developed with the United Nations, based on international human rights standards. And in court they will use a custom app developed with Microsoft to enable them to capture all relevant data – including photographs, audio clips, notes and official documents – in one place. Once we have gathered this data, a legal expert will grade the trial, and whenever possible the report will be shared with legislators, diplomats, journalists and NGOs.

Ranking states’ performance on an index can help incentivise those with a low ranking to change their behaviour, and it can put pressure on governments to stop supporting those who are falling short. Grading trials and indexing the results can also help to expose the corrupt individuals who should be subjected to human-rights-sanctions under ‘Magnitsky laws’ or similar regimes. The EU has, in the past, imposed sanctions on judges and prosecutors who have presided over unfair trials in places like Belarus and Iran, and the US recently sanctioned senior Turkish officials for the unfair detention of an American. But this should be happening in many more places.

A global justice index can also force businesses to consider whether they should risk being complicit in the abuses that we will document. A technology company, for instance, may face pressure not to sell surveillance equipment to a government that falls below a certain number in the rankings, given the heightened risk that such technology could be used to target minorities and dissidents. And reduced foreign investment can eventually convince autocrats to change course.

We are just getting started, but the early results are encouraging. In our pilot phase we have observed trials all over the world, including in places like Algeria that had not seen an international trial monitor for many years. And in the last three months alone, we’ve received over 1000 submissions from around the world about upcoming trials of concern.

As a US Supreme Court justice once said, sunlight is the best disinfectant. We believe that by shining a light on what is happening in courtrooms, we can start to change it. One case at a time.