The horrible death of George Floyd raises important questions of criminal liability. The police officer who was directly responsible for the death of Floyd has been arrested and will face prosecution for committing murder and manslaughter. The other three police officers who were present at the moment of Floyd’s death have also been arrested and are likely to be prosecuted for aiding and abetting murder and manslaughter. This blogpost will focus on that last category, that of police bystanders in situations of police brutality.

Many NGOs are actively fighting human rights abuses around the world. One of their strategies is to create transparency around the impact of the behaviour of States and non-State actors on the enjoyment of human rights. In this context, businesses have been under increasing scrutiny. Although the availability of information on the negative impact of corporate activities now seems tremendous, the instances of businesses being held liable for human rights abuses, especially when taking place abroad, are rare.The situation of Friends of the Earth and ING provides an interesting case study of how civil society could play a role in establishing liability through increase of transparency.

From 1989 until 2019, the Sudanese government engaged in a number of violent campaigns against civilian populations. The government’s armed conflict with rebel groups resulted in widespread human rights abuses, and was characterized by unjustified attacks against civilians that bore the markings of ethnic cleansing. Despite the Sudan’s dismal human rights track record, in 2002 the French bank BNP Paribas began doing business with the Sudanese government. BNP Paribas’s banking activities in the Sudan are now at the center of a criminal complaint filed in French courts, which argues BNP Paribas was complicit in violations committed by the Sudanese government.

The proposed article 134b of the Dutch Criminal Code (DCC) would criminalize intentionally being physically present in a designated terrorist-controlled area without prior permission from the Minister of Justice and Security. This Dutch legislative initiative, its other forms of penalizing terrorism, and its recent case law on terrorism are not unique. Throughout the world there has been a wave of penalizing terrorism in a great variety of forms. The central line in all these developments is the increasing criminalization of various forms of assisting -in a broad sense - terrorism, such as financing terrorism, apologie du terrorisme, presence in terrorist areas, cooking for IS fighters, etc. We offer a few critical reflections.

On 25 March 2020, the UK Supreme Court delivered its judgment in the case of Elgizouli v Secretary of State for the Home Department. The case concerns the appeal brought by the mother of one of the members of an IS terror cell dubbed ‘The Beatles’ against the Home Secretary’s decision to provide mutual legal assistance to the US that could facilitate a trial resulting in the death penalty. Reversing the judgment of the Divisional Court, the Supreme Court unanimously found that the UK’s decision to share the evidence with the US was unlawful.

The US Alien Tort Statute (ATS) was considered one of the foremost judicial avenues for vindicating human rights violations until two Supreme Court cases limited its scope, leading practitioners and scholars to pronounce its death as a tool for human rights litigation. Although it no longer allows for cases against foreign companies for harms occurring on foreign soil, this blog argues that it is not dead.

Dutch development bank FMO was involved in financing the Agua Zarca project on the Gualcarque river in Honduras. The river and the surrounding land are sacred to the indigenous Lenca people, and the project has been met by continued protests. The situation gained increased international attention after local activist Berta Cáceres was murdered in her home on the night of 2-3 March 2016. In May 2018, members of her family and NGO announced they would pursue a case against FMO for its role in the human rights violations against the community.

In cross-border tort cases for human rights violations, there is the strict rule that the law of the State where the harm occurred applies to the determination of civil (tort) liability. The nature and scope of foreign tort law generally develops into a battle of so-called experts. There is a significant risk that courts will commit errors in the interpretation and application of foreign law and that the fundamental principle of iura novit curia (‘the court knows the law’) can hardly be observed if foreign law needs to be applied. The question arises whether the rule of lex loci damni is in need of modernization.

Since holding robots liable for their unconscious yet wrongful behavior is not an option under existing law, accountability must devolve on to another legal entity or persons in order to avoid a situation of impunity. As the prior post highlighted, the lack of intentional or willful behavior by the primary wrongdoer—a robot—means that criminal liability is difficult if not impossible to establish. However, other areas of law, namely tort law, strict liability mechanisms, or the law of State responsibility, do not require the same standard of mens rea and thus might open up avenues for assigning accountability. 

On 20 June 2019, the London Court of Appeal delivered its judgment in the appeal of the Campaign Against Arms Trade against the Divisional Court’s judgment of July 2017 on the continued export of arms to Saudi Arabia for use in the ongoing conflict in Yemen. Unlike the Divisional Court, the Court of Appeal found it was irrational and therefore unlawful for the Secretary of State for International Trade to proceed as he did, namely to not take Saudi Arabia’s past and present record of respect for international humanitarian law into consideration.

The development of weapons and warfare technology inevitably raises new moral and legal questions, and the advent of the use of autonomous weapon systems is no exception. Salient concerns arise when weapons are designed to be increasingly autonomous, especially with regard to liability in the event of international humanitarian law violations. 

The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has dealt with the operation of CIA ‘black sites’ in certain European countries and the subsequent renditions of terrorist suspects from these countries to other places controlled by the CIA in a series of lengthy judgments.

It exceeds the scope of this blog to deal with all aspects of this interesting ECtHR case law. Instead, we will focus on three aspects which are of interest when analysing these cases from a secondary liability perspective.

This week, the UK Supreme Court is set to issue its highly anticipated judgement in Vedanta and another v. Lungowe and others, and the business and human rights community is paying close attention. The case is expected to define the scope of parent company liability for harms caused by acts of their subsidiaries abroad, and will have wide-ranging consequences on human rights litigation in the UK, including whether victims of human rights violations and grave environmental harms caused by subsidiaries of UK-based companies can avail themselves to UK courts.

Two cases related to war crimes have received quite some attention in the Netherlands over the past few years. These are the cases of Mr. Kouwenhoven and Mr. Poch. They provide an excellent opportunity to offer some thoughts on the fine line between guilt and innocence in the determination of criminal liability for those who have not committed the crimes themselves, but have in some way assisted in their commission.

According to a confidential EU report, three of Damen’s Stan Patrol 1605s, including the Talil 267, are used by the Libyan coastguard. Footage and photos show that machine guns are attached to the vessels’ mountings. The Dutch government permitted these vessels to be transported without a licence, classifying them as non-strategic and not subject to authorisation. Remarkably, Damen was eager to arm the vessels in 2014. In accordance with the arms embargos of the UN and the EU, the government denied permission. Now it appears the Dutch vessels are indeed armed and have been used in violent, high-risk operations against vulnerable people at sea.