-The Genocide Series- ‘The Killing Fields’: Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge Genocide

The Cambodian genocide, which occurred under the Khmer Rouge, the official regime of Pol Pot from 1975 – 1979, is a striking example of a genocide from recent memory, It is inexorably tied to the geopolitical and ideological conflicts of the Indochinese Peninsula in the Cold War era.


In March 1965, United States Marines entered South Vietnam in an escalation of their efforts against Communist North Vietnam. Against the background of the Cold War between the US and the USSR, the spread of communism in Southeast Asia to countries like Cambodia was a deep-seated American fear, recalling the famous ‘domino theory’ articulated by President Eisenhower. In this context, Prince Norodom Sihanouk ruled as prince and prime minister from 1955, initially proclaiming Cambodia’s neutrality in the Cold War. However, this neutral position was eroded in the 1960s as both North and South Vietnamese insurgents were operating from sanctuaries just inside Cambodia. Sihanouk finally broke off diplomatic relations with the US upon the escalation of the Vietnam War and allied himself with North Vietnam. His position and influence was to become increasingly precarious. In March 1969, President Nixon secretly ordered the US Air Force to conduct extensive bombing campaigns in eastern Cambodia. This was followed by ground troops entering the east to seize Vietnamese communist sanctuaries in April 1970. In total, American warplanes dropped over 2.7 million tons of bombs on 113,000 sites in Cambodia; as a result of which over 2 million people fled their homes to escape the bombing and ground fighting.

Against this background, the Khmer Rouge originated as an offshoot of the Communist Party of Kampuchea in the 1960s. While they initially relied on North Vietnamese fighters to capture large swathes of the Cambodian countryside through the late 1960s, the Khmer Rouge gradually increased in number and battle prowess themselves. Simultaneously, Sihanouk was overthrown by pro-American general Lon Nol in March 1970, and allied with the Khmer Rouge to urge Cambodians to retake control of the country. 

Today, many historians believe that American military action in Cambodia helped strengthen the Khmer Rouge and led to their victory. It is argued that the bombing campaigns not only deepened Communist Vietnamese involvement in Cambodia (therefore providing aid to the Khmer Rouge), but also sparked anger among civilians and helped them recruit supporters. Ultimately, the Khmer Rouge amassed enough strength and support to enter Phnom Penh and conquer Cambodia on April 17, 1975.

The Khmer Rouge Revolution and Day One

The Khmer ideology had been influenced by Pol Pot’s time spent among hill tribes in the north-east, who lived a self-sufficient, communal lifestyle without need of money. As such, the Khmer Rouge hoped to reset Cambodia to “Year Zero”, building an agrarian, intensely nationalist utopia and regaining the glory of the Khmer Empire. Practically speaking, this would result in a one-party state in rejection of urban, ‘Western’ ideals, alongside an economy entirely reliant upon collective farming.

Upon entering the capital, the Khmer Rouge immediately began to implement this plan to ruralise Cambodia. By the afternoon of April 17, soldiers were herding the 2 million residents of Phnom Penh into the countryside, emptying houses, schools, and hospitals at gunpoint and killing thousands in the process. Foreign citizens were directed to the French embassy compound and later expelled from Cambodia, thus losing the only outside witnesses to the beginning of the genocide.

A hallmark of the Cambodian genocide was the Khmer Rouge’s attempts to completely dismantle any ‘modern’, urban or cultural elements of Cambodian society. To enforce a new, classless society, the government targeted the middle class and the educated, to the extent that people were often killed or tortured merely for wearing glasses or knowing a foreign language. Ethnic or national minorities, such as Vietnamese or Cham Muslims were also targeted. The government also denounced cultural traditions and heritage as a hindrance, seizing Buddhist temples, labeling Buddhist monks as parasites, and destroying works of art.

Additionally, the Khmer Rouge aimed to abolish the traditional family, forcibly separating children from their parents and putting them into labor brigades, and encouraging people to turn on each other and inform the authorities. Individuality of any kind was forbidden, as men and women alike wore a shapeless, black peasant garb as the national uniform.

Collectivisation and forced labor

In 1976, the Khmer Rouge issued a “Four Year Plan”, which aimed to achieve a yield of 3 tons of rice per hectare each year – much more than had ever been produced before. In the process, thousands of people were sent to work in the fields, and given primitive tools to dig canals and erect dams. Exhaustion, disease, and hunger abounded. Denise Affonco, a survivor of the genocide, stated in the Khmer Rouge tribunal regarding the conditions: “Every day, people died in the village. Every morning, they were hauling away a corpse.”

The economic self-reliance stressed by the Khmer Rouge, alongside the slaughter of most of the country’s doctors, also created extreme shortages of food, drugs, and medical care. Countless deaths occurred due to easily-preventable diseases as a result. The food shortages produced a man-made famine, as an estimated 500,000 to 1.5 million deaths occurred solely due to this.

‘Cleansing’ the country of internal enemies

A striking aspect of the genocide was the brutal persecution of anyone considered disloyal to Angkar (“the organisation”), either through killings or mass torture in prison centres. Thousands of people involved in the previous government – soldiers, civil servants, low-level leaders – were detained and murdered. 

The most infamous of these prisons was the S-21 Tuol Sleng prison, run by Kaing Guek Eav (known as Duch), which detained between 14,000 – 17,000 prisoners, of which only 12 are believed to have survived. Electric shocks, beatings, and waterboarding were liberally used to extract forced confessions around being involved with the CIA or the Vietnamese. Bodies were dumped into mass graves in farms, known as the ‘killing fields’; and over 388 sites, containing 19,733 mass graves have been identified.

By the end of the genocide, an estimated 2 million people (around a third of the population) died from execution, starvation, disease, and overwork. The Khmer Rouge regime ended on January 7, 1979, after Vietnam launched a full invasion; but for Cambodians, the ordeal was not yet over. The process of rebuilding the country and ensuring accountability had just begun.


Although the Vietnamese established a new government upon defeating the Khmer Rouge, the ousted Khmer Rouge continued to wage guerrilla attacks upon them. Meanwhile, international allies of the new government (including the USSR) were attempting to provide it a seat at the United Nations; but the US alongside China and several countries voted to keep the Khmer Rouge as Cambodia’s UN representatives in a widely condemned vote; continuing to boycott the new government as an attempt to curb Soviet influence. Sihanouk became the head of a coalition of non-Communist groups and the Khmer Rouge in an attempt to expel Vietnam from Cambodia; and while the US sent aid to non-Communist groups, China sent arms to the Khmer Rouge. 

The renewed war further disenfranchised hundreds of thousands of refugees in Thailand and civilians who had lived through the genocide. A peace agreement was only officially reached in 1991, while lasting peace was only reached in 1999 after the death of Pol Pot and the surrender of the remaining Khmer Rouge soldiers.

Accountability: The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC)

After a failed series of early attempts to ensure justice for the atrocities of the genocide, a criminal investigation began in July 2006 under the ECCC, which was carried out by both foreigners and Cambodians. Four major cases emerged concerning international crimes: including crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide. Notably, Duch was sentenced to 35 years’ imprisonment in July 2010, which was later increased to life imprisonment. As of December 2018 however, only 3 defendants were actually convicted. Former mid-level and low-level members of the Khmer Rouge still live in communities across the country, and some hold high positions in today’s government, sparking the debate over whether due justice was truly achieved.

Overall, the court proceedings are mainly considered a success, since senior Khmer Rouge figures such as Duch were prosecuted, and the proceedings occurred inside Cambodia and allowed for Cambodians to witness and participate in the ECCC firsthand. The work of the ECCC, alongside contemporary and modern coverage of the regime (such as the 1984 film The Killing Fields) has successfully produced a thorough historical record of the mass atrocities that occurred between 1975-79, preserving it in cultural memory.


Khmer Rouge: Cambodia’s years of brutality: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-10684399

Life term for Cambodia Khmer Rouge jailer Duch: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-16865834

Cambodia, 1975-79: https://www.ushmm.org/genocide-prevention/countries/cambodia/case-study/background/an-ancient-kingdom 

The BLM Movement: seven months later

Seven months ago, George Floyd was killed during an arrest, after officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. Floyd’s death not only sparked worldwide protests against excessive police violence and racial profiling but significantly transformed American public attitude concerning systemic discrimination and racial injustice. 

Floyd’s death reintroduced a number of similar incidents into media coverage, such as the shooting of Breonna Taylor at her home under a no-knock warrant on 13 March, and of Rayshard Brooks while running away from a police officer. Their deaths were spotlighted by protestors in June, who demanded that appropriate punitive measures should be taken upon the police officers responsible for the killings.

Chauvin currently faces charges of second-degree unintentional murder and manslaughter, while the three other officers involved in Floyd’s killing are charged with aiding and abetting his death. He was originally charged with third-degree murder, but this was elevated to more serious charges in June; making him the first white officer to be charged for a black civilian’s death in Minnesota. In October, he was released from prison on a $1 million bond, and his trial is due to take place in March 2021 along with the other three officers. Minnesota prosecutors are looking to introduce evidence of a 2017 arrest, stating that Chauvin similarly knelt on the back of a 14-year-old boy who was slow to comply with instructions, and ignored his pleas that he couldn’t breathe. Assistant attorney general Matthew Frank wrote in a court memorandum: “As was true with the conduct with George Floyd, Chauvin rapidly escalated his use of force for a relatively minor offense. Just like with Floyd, Chauvin used an unreasonable amount of force without regard for the need for that level of force or the victim’s well-being.”

Another spotlight during the protests was the death of Breonna Taylor, as her family and activists called for all three officers involved to be charged with murder or manslaughter. Unfortunately, the process of ensuring accountability for her death has not been very successful. One police officer was charged with three counts of “wanton endangerment” in September for firing into a neighbor’s apartment, while the two other officers were not charged. This news further fuelled civil unrest and demonstrations in Louisville and a number of other US cities.

Immediately after Floyd’s death, several state and local governments reevaluated their police department’s policies – several, for instance, banned the use of chokeholds without exception. Most notably, the Minneapolis city council promised to dismantle the Minneapolis PD to replace it with a new system of public safety; but there appears to be a gap between what was pledged and their subsequent actions. In June, the city council proposed a measure for the November ballot, to replace the police department with a Department of Community Safety and Violence Prevention; but this proposal was scrapped in November by the Minneapolis Charter Commission. Instead, the city council voted to divert 4.5% from the police budget towards funding for mental health crisis response teams and violence prevention programs. The council also voted against a measure to reduce the size of the police force from 888 to 750 authorized officers. The Minneapolis PD remains widely distrusted: a new survey conducted by the Leadership Conference Education Fund found that 75% of black respondents did not believe that MPD officers were held accountable for police misconduct; and the survey concluded that the MPD’s historic use of excessive force, racially-biased activity and discrimination has rendered them largely ineffective. Nevertheless, several activist movements in Minnesota are optimistic about the progress made in public safety measures through the diversion of funding and express a hope that continued public pressure will result in tangible reform.

On a national level, there is a renewed focus upon the historic oppression of the black community, which has sparked notable shifts in the practices of various institutions. This occurred on both a symbolic level – such as Nancy Pelosi’s order that the portraits of four House speakers who served in the Confederacy should be removed from the US Capital – and a legislative level, such as President Trump’s signing of an Executive Order on Police Reform to call for training on de-escalation techniques and use of force. In June, the House of Representatives passed a sweeping police reform bill, termed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020 which proposes an expansive series of measures, the most notable of which include curbing “qualified immunity” (a legal provision allowing police officers immunity from civil suits unless proven to violate statutory or constitutional laws) and banning chokeholds on a federal level. This measure has stalled in the Senate, with both Democrats and Republicans introducing their own bill respectively. This echoes previous stalemates over other policies, such as efforts at introducing gun reform bills, and it remains uncertain whether such talks will yield tangible results. With Joe Biden’s presidential victory, however, if the Democrats are able to retake the Senate in the upcoming elections, the possibility of enacting a more expansive, far-reaching set of reforms will increase.


What happened to promises to disband the Minneapolis Police?: https://www.rollingstone.com/politics/politics-news/what-happened-disband-minneapolis-police-1102763/

George Floyd trial: prosecutors seek to show video of Derek Chauvin kneeling on teen: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/nov/18/george-floyd-trial-derek-chauvin-kneeled-on-teen-2017-video

The House just passed a sweeping police reform bill: https://www.vox.com/2020/6/25/21303005/police-reform-bill-house-democrats-senate-republicans

How George Floyd’s death has impacted American life: https://www.voanews.com/usa/race-america/how-george-floyds-death-has-impacted-american-life

*This blog post discusses sensitive information that may be triggering for some individuals. EIJI is an impartial organization that seeks to inform people about contemporary issues of international justice. Views, information, and opinions expressed in this post do not necessarily reflect EIJI, its team or Edinburgh University. If you are interested in hearing more about our content approach please read our previous post on EIJI content philosophy.*

Author: Nikita Nandanwad

Editor: Kelsey Greeff

Editor in Chief: Zora Stanik

Syrian Civil War: international concern and displacement of thousands

The Syrian war is an ongoing civil war which began in March 2011. The conflict initiallystarted with pro-democracy demonstrations in the city Deraa, inspired by the Arab Spring revolutions; the underlying cause of the demonstrations was discontentment with President Bashar al-Assad due to high unemployment, corruption, and lack of political freedoms. After the government used deadly force to crush the dissenters, nationwide protests erupted, demanding the president’s resignation. The violence quickly escalated as opposition supporters took up arms, and the country descended into civil war.

Today, the war has evolved into a much more complex situation,with an increasing number of groups and countries becoming involved. Key supporters of the Syrian government have been Russia and Iran, while the rebel factions were backed by Turkey, Western powers (most prominently the United States), and several Gulf states who wish to counter Iranian influence in Syria.

This situation has led to several tensions: such as hatred between religious groups, primarily the Sunni Muslim majority against the president’s Shia Alawite government; the rise of jihadist groups in the opposition such as Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda; and the Syrian Kurds, who want independence. These tensions have led to numerous war atrocities and made peace negotiations difficult to implement.

The human impact of the Syrian war has been staggering and led to one of the largest refugee crises in modern history. While exact death toll figures vary depending on the source, over 500,000 people have been killed or presumed dead. The Violations Documentation Center has documented 191,219 battle-related deaths (including 123,279 civilians) as of December 2018. Overall, more than half of the population has been displaced; of which 6.2 million were internally displaced and 5.7 million fled abroad. The impact on heritage and civilian infrastructure was also serious: all six of the country’s Unesco World Heritage sites suffered significant damage, while in one district in Eastern Ghouta, 93% of buildings were damaged or destroyed by December 2017.

Human rights activists and UN inquiries throughout the war have documented war crimes being committed by all sides of the conflict. By February 2019, an estimated 13 million people were in need of humanitarian assistance; of which some 5.2 million were in acute need. Warring parties have made such issues worse by often refusing humanitarian organisations access to those in need; while physicians for Human Rights documented 550 attacks carried out on medical facilities by December 2018, which resulted in the deaths of 892 medical personnel. This has led to limited access to medical aid and healthcare for many civilians.

As of 2019, the Syrian government now controls large parts of Syria, including the major cities; however, the war and its impact on civilians shows no signs of ceasing. The situation remains highly unstable, as offshoot terrorist groups from IS and al-Qaeda remain active. In one of the latest developments, a UN-led independent commission of inquiry found grave war crimes committed by pro-government forces, the foreign powers backing them, and jihadist opponents in a battle over the Idlib province – the last significant rebel stronghold. The inquiry catalogued 52 “emblematic attacks” between November 2019 and June 2020, which led to civilian casualties and damaged infrastructure. The Syrian military and its allied Russian air force were accused of destroying hospitals, schools, markets and homes through their air strikes; though both governments have denied committing war crimes. 

Areas controlled by jihadist militants (which dominate the opposition stronghold) are characterised by rampant abuse of human rights and negligible access to humanitarian assistance. The most prominent UN-designated terrorist group, the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), has been accused of detaining, torturing and executing any civilians attempting to dissent, including journalists. Investigators found that HTS pillaged the homes of displaced civilians, and shelled civilian-populated areas held by the government “with no apparent legitimate military objective.” Furthermore, the battle over Idlib led to the largest wave of displacement in the war, with almost a million civilians forced to flee in harsh winter conditions.

In October 2019, Turkish military forces and a coalition of Turkey-backed armed groups began an offensive into northeast Syria, precipitated by the withdrawal of US troops from the border. Turkey stated that its aim was to push the US-allied Kurdish militias out of the buffer zone along the border, and that 18 Turkish civilians died as a result of Syrian Kurdish mortar attacks. 

This situation has been described as a combination of worst-case scenarios by local and international aid workers. Firstly, the 100,000 civilians displaced have limited access to food, clean water and medical supplies; and many are forced to sleep out in the open. In addition, aid agencies fear that their ability to carry out cross-border operations to deliver humanitarian aid is limited in such a situation. Finally, Amnesty International has also documented serious violations and war crimes carried out by Turkish forces, such as unlawful attacks and summary killings upon these displaced civilians. For instance, an anonymous Kurdish Red Crescent worker described the result of a Turkish air strike on 12 October in Salhiye, in an area where displaced civilians were seeking shelter: “Everything happened so fast. In total, there were six injured and four killed, including two children. I couldn’t tell if they were boys or girls because their corpses were black. They looked like charcoal. The other two people killed were older men, they looked older than 50.” Other foreign powers who support the opposition are actively carrying out arms transfers to Turkey and other parties accused of violating international law – the US is the largest exporter of weapons, while other suppliers include Italy, Germany, Brazil and India. 

However, Turkey and Russia are not the only foreign powers whose actions have directly impacted Syrian civilians. In 2014, the US launched Operation Inherent Resolve (an anti-IS campaign), which led to over 30,000 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria. While most strikes were carried out by US warplanes, other countries participated in the coalition, including Britain, France, Australia, Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, Canada, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Jordan, and Bahrain. Since 2014, an estimated 11,800 civilians, including 2300 children and 1130 women were killed in these strikes. Dr Ali al-Bayati, spokesman for the IHCHR, stated that these reported deaths were much higher than the official numbers published by the coalition; accusing them of undercounting and failing to adequately investigate incidents of civilian harm. Additionally, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has reported scores of civilians killed even after Mr Trump declared victory over the IS in December.

Efforts to end the war have been futile despite 9 rounds of UN-mediated peace talks since 2014. Russia, Iran and Turkey have also set up parallel political talks – the Astana process- but these are also struggling to make progress. This can be largely attributed to a stalemate: President Assad is unwilling to negotiate with the opposition, while opposition groups insist that he must step down in any potential peace deal.


Why is there a war in Syria?: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-35806229

Syria wants refugees back, but do they want to return?: https://sofrep.com/news/syria-wants-refugees-back-but-do-they-want-to-return/

Syria conflict: ‘Flagrant’ war crimes committed in Idlib battle: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-53322857

Damning evidence of war crimes and other violations by Turkish forces and their allies: https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2019/10/syria-damning-evidence-of-war-crimes-and-other-violations-by-turkish-forces-and-their-allies/

War crimes committed by almost all sides in Syria: https://apnews.com/article/0946284d5fe839d66d7549fc910ae7a1

Fresh evidence of war crimes committed by all sides in Syrian conflict: https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/07/1067761

11,800 civilians killed in US-led air strikes: https://www.syriahr.com/en/118649/

*This blog post discusses sensitive information that may be triggering for some individuals. EIJI is an impartial organization that seeks to inform people about contemporary issues of international justice. Views, information, and opinions expressed in this post do not necessarily reflect EIJI, its team or Edinburgh University. If you are interested in hearing more about our content approach please read our previous post on EIJI content philosophy.*

Author: Nikita Nandanwad

Editor: Kelsey Greeff
Editor in Chief: Zora Stanik

Genocide Series: Holocaust Precursor guest piece



“I once spoke to someone who had survived the genocide in Rwanda, and she said to me that there was now nobody left on the face of the earth, either friend or relative, who knew who she was…. Genocide means not just mass killing, to the level of extermination, but mass obliteration to the verge of extinction. You wish to have one more reflection on what it is to have been made the object of a clean sweep?”

– Christopher Hitchens

The United Nations Genocide Convention defines genocide as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, as such including the killing of its members, causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group, deliberately imposing living conditions that seek to bring about its physical destruction in whole or forcibly transferring children out of the group to another group while human liberty is the state of being free; enjoying various social, political, or economic rights and privileges.”


The Armenian genocide is acknowledged as one of the first modern genocides. It involved the systemic mass murder and expulsion of 1.5 million ethnic Armenians in Turkey and the adjoining region by the Ottoman government between 1914 and 1923. It was carried out during and after World War I and implemented in two phases – the wholesome killing of the able-bodied male population through massacre and subjection of army conscription and forced labour; followed by mass deportation of women, children, the elderly, and the infirm on death marches leading to the Syrian desert.

The Holocaust, also known as the Shoch, was the World War II genocide of European Jews carried out between 1941 and 1945. Nazi Germany and its collaborators murdered about six million Jews – around two-third of the European Jewish population. The murders were carried out through pogrom; by a policy of extermination through forced labour in concentration camps and the use of gas chambers and gas vans.

The Rwandan genocide was a mass slaughter of the Tutsi, Twa, and moderate Hutu ethnic groups in Rwanda. It took place between 7th April and 15th July during the Rwandan civil war, claiming the lives of an estimated 500,000 to 1,000,000 Rwandans.


Human understanding of genocide and liberty has continued to progress from a crude to a more refined state. Terms used to quantify such occurrences ranged from massacre, extermination, to crimes against humanity; in 1941, Winston Churchill described the German invasion of the Soviet Union as “a crime without a name”. The term ‘genocide’ was coined by Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin, after fleeing his native Poland during World War II: a succinct articulation of mass crimes against humanity.

From the case studies examined, it is evident that there was a reduction in the level of casualties as time progressed. This can be connected with the awareness campaigns and mechanisms put in place by the United Nations. During the Armenian genocide, for instance, the level of impact would have been minimal if anti-genocide policies and social structures were in place. Comparing the casualty figures from the Holocaust and the Armenian genocide to that of Rwanda shows a decline in the number of people who died during the latter.

The time frame of the genocide is also a pointer to the progress made. 9 years, 4 years, and 3 months were the time spans for the Armenian genocide, the Holocaust, and the Rwandan genocide respectively. Increased scrutiny and accountability mechanisms put in place by the international community correlate to a reduction in the time spans for each of the genocides. The Nuremberg Trials mark a turning point in international law accountability mechanisms; in particular the trials of 22 major Nazi criminals before the International Military Tribunal; who were charged for crimes against peace, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. Not only did the Nuremberg trials mention ‘genocide’ for the first time in international law, but the court proceedings and categorisation of the crimes allowed for the development of international jurisprudence concerning war crimes resulting in the creation of the International Criminal Court.


Today, many nations have enacted anti-genocide bills into their constitutions. Senator Greig from the Australian parliament presented a bill for an act to give effect to the convention on prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide, and for related purposes.

In the international sphere, the ICC is the first and only permanent international court with jurisdiction to prosecute individuals for the international crime of genocide. To consider a modern example, the Security Council on the 8th of November 1994 set up the Tribunal for Rwanda to prosecute those responsible for the genocide and other serious violations of international humanitarian law committed in Rwanda and neighbouring states. Additionally, the Rwandan government implemented a participatory justice system (Gacacas) in 2001, in order to handle the enormous backlog of cases. These courts gave lower sentences if the person showed repentance and sought reconciliation with the local community. Furthermore, as men were the primary victims during the genocide a new law giving women inheritance rights was put into place. This social structure gives males and females the equal right to inherit properties.

The formation of organizations like the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education centers empower individuals and communities to take action to prevent and end genocides. Contributions from the public in the form of essays, poems, and slogans are a clear reflection of the changes wrought regarding human understanding of genocide and individual liberty – for instance, international justice initiatives further help increase coverage of contemporary genocides.

Although awareness and accountability have increased over time, modern structures certainly haven’t prevented any instances of genocides; for instance, some activists and human rights experts have termed the Chinese government’s policy towards Uyghur Muslims as an ongoing genocide of a minority group through means such as suppression of religious practice, forced sterilisation, and contraception. The government’s policy of media censorship has made the above-mentioned structures difficult to enforce, as evidence of ongoing human rights violations is scarce. Uyghur Muslims in China is just one instance of a modern 21st-century genocide with others including human rights violations of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, Christians and Muslims in the Central African Republic, and many more.


The understanding of genocide and human liberty correlates with the passage of time. Tremendous progress has been made with the increase in knowledge, technology, and social structures; but the above instances of modern genocides serve as a sobering reminder of the progress that has yet to be made, and authoritative powers (such as censorship) that may hinder such progress. As the world becomes more complex, modern policies and social structures must be updated to meet the needs of a changing society. 


  • Legal definition of genocide, United Nations: 


  • Raphel Lemkin: The maa who coined the word ‘genocide’:


  • Australia: Anti-genocide bill gets the go-ahead:


  • The ICTR in brief: 


  • Activist urge Canada to recognise Ughur abuses as genocide:


Author & Essay Contest Winner: Ekoja Okewu
Editor: Nikita Nandanwad
Editor in Chief: Zora Stanik

Philippine Drug War: extrajudicial killings and police impunity

The Philippine drug war is an infamous anti-narcotics policy and crack down on suspected drug dealers and users under President Rodrigo Duterte, who took office in June 2016. Notably, before being elected as President, Mr Duterte was the mayor of Davao City for over two decades – under his governance, the so-called “Davao Death Squad” killed hundreds of drug users, street children, and petty criminals; and he was known for endorsing their killings as an effective way of combating crime. After his election, Mr Duterte launched a campaign against “illegal drug personalities”, claiming that the Philippines had become a “narco-state” and promising that he would personally ensure that millions of drug users would be killed. The anti-drug campaign, dubbed as “Operation Double Barrel”, has targeted those suspected of using or distributing drugs, ostensibly for arrest. However, it has become evident that, in practice, the police and vigilante groups are carrying out systemic extrajudicial killings of suspects without proof of drug use, and often falsifying evidence to justify the unlawful killings.

In an investigation of 24 incidents that occurred between October 2016 and January 2017, which resulted in 32 deaths, Human Rights Watch found a discrepancy between official police reports and eyewitness accounts. While police reports asserted (and continue to assert) self-defence to justify the killings, eyewitness accounts overwhelmingly state that unarmed, defenceless suspects were killed in custody. The report also found evidence that the police routinely planted guns, spent ammunition, and drug packets next to the victims’ bodies to back up their claims.

Over the course of the campaign, the majority of victims were from impoverished urban areas, either unemployed or working menial jobs; and many were suspected drug users and not dealers. In addition, local human rights groups have identified an official modus operandi: an individual would first receive a visit from a neighbourhood official, informing them that they were on a watch list. These visits have been proved as being a method of confirming a target’s identity and location, rather than being official warnings – as shortly after the visit, armed assailants would barge into homes and shoot targets. Eyewitnesses told Human Rights Watch that the assailants failed to identify themselves or provide official warrants, usually wearing civilian clothes and shielding their faces with masks, caps, or helmets. In September 2016, for instance, 32-year-old Rogie Sebastian was handcuffed and shot in his home by three armed, marked men. A neighbour testified: “I heard the gunshots. There were also uniformed cops outside, they did not go inside the house. But the three killers in civilian clothes came and went on a motorcycle without any interference from the uniformed cops.”

The death toll over the course of the campaign is greatly debated, with contradicting claims made by police officials, the Philippines government, and human rights groups. To date, Human Rights Watch has estimated the deaths of over 12,000 Filipinos, at least 2500 of which were attributed to the Philippines National Police. But in December 2018, the Philippines’ Commission on Human Rights suggested that the number of drug-war killings might be as high as 27,000; while recent government data states that 5,600 suspected drug dealers and users were killed in operations since July 2016. Overall, the campaign appears to have intensified this year, with a recorded 50% increase in drug-war deaths during the lockdown from April to July.

In addition, the extrajudicial killings have been aided by the failure to arrest and consequently prosecute responsible police officers. A UN report, released in July 2020, states that the Philippines police regularly raid homes and private property without legitimate warrants, forcing suspects to make self-incriminating statements or risk lethal force. Yet since 2016, there has only been 1 conviction for the killing of a suspect during police operations, while the government maintains that all deaths have occurred legitimately. 

The recent UN report cites three key concerns regarding the government’s hardline policy towards suspected drug users – firstly, that harsh drug enforcement could lead to users “going underground”, away from critical health services. This could fuel the transmission of HIV and Hepatitis C among users and certainly discourage people with addiction from seeking effective treatment. Secondly, the UN report states that extrajudicial killings committed on baseless grounds are accompanied by “near-impunity” for such violations, which would embolden police to behave as if they have permission to kill. Finally, the report raises concern over the government’s vilification of open criticism against the anti-drug policy, stating that attacks against critics of the anti-narcotics campaign are being “increasingly institutionalised and normalised in ways that will be very difficult to reverse.” For instance, the government has used their Covid-19 special powers laws to file criminal charges against people criticising them online; and between 2015-2019, at least 248 human rights defenders, legal professionals, journalists, and trade unionists were killed in relation to their work. 

The government appears to be maintaining and perhaps even intensifying its hardline stance against narcotics – in June, President Duterte renewed his threat to kill drug dealers upon the seizure of 756kg of crystal methamphetamine, just a day after the UN report claimed near impunity on the part of the police in the drug war. Mr Duterte said that these drugs were proof that the Philippines was a transshipment point for illegal drugs and stated, in a recorded address: “If you destroy my country distributing 5.1 billion pesos worth of shabu…I will kill you.” 

There are growing calls among human rights groups and other parties for the UN Human Rights Council to order a further independent inquiry concerning human rights abuses in the Philippines.  “Like the UN, we are deeply concerned by the total impunity enjoyed by those who have perpetrated these crimes,” said Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty’s Asia-Pacific regional director.


Philippines’ War on Drugs: https://www.hrw.org/tag/philippines-war-drugs

“License to Kill”: https://www.hrw.org/report/2017/03/02/license-kill/philippine-police-killings-dutertes-war-drugs

Philippines’ war on drugs may have killed tens of thousands: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jun/04/philippines-police-may-have-killed-tens-of-thousands-with-near-impunity-in-drug-war-un

Philippines drug war: Do we know how many have died?: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-50236481

“I will kill you”: Philippines’ Duterte renews drug war threat: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/06/05/i-will-kill-you-philippines-duterte-renews-drug-war-threat/

UN Report: Situation of human rights in the Philippines: https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Countries/PH/Philippines-HRC44-AEV.pdf 

*This blog post discusses sensitive information that may be triggering for some individuals. EIJI is an impartial organization that seeks to inform people about contemporary issues of international justice. Views, information, and opinions expressed in this post do not necessarily reflect EIJI, its team or Edinburgh University. If you are interested in hearing more about our content approach please read our previous post on EIJI content philosophy.*

Author: Nikita Nandanwad

Editor: Kelsey Greeff

Editor in Chief: Zora Stanik

Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict: Fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh and the civilian impact

Since 27 September, Armenia and Azerbaijan have been embroiled in an armed conflict in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. This conflict originated in the 1980s, as the USSR saw tensions arising in its constituent republics, and Nagorno-Karabakh (inhabited mostly by ethnic Armenians) voted to become part of Armenia in 1991. This further aggravated the war which then continued until 1994 and saw about 30,000 deaths, the displacement of around one million people, and significant reports of ethnic cleansing carried out by both sides. Armenia argues that the province is a historic part of their homeland and cites the 1991 referendum to justify their claim; while Azerbaijan says that the province is internationally recognised as part of their territory. Since then, the dispute has remained unresolved, with Nagorno-Karabakh remaining part of Azerbaijan, but controlled by separatist ethnic Armenians. 

Tensions were high for several months prior to September, and it remains unclear which side started the conflict. Since the fighting began, an estimated 532 military members have died and officials say that roads, electricity, gas and communication networks have taken significant damage across the region.

The impact on civilians has been severe – Azerbaijani authorities reported that 42 of their non-militants were killed over 2 weeks, and Nagorno-Karabakh human rights ombudsman, Artak Beglaryan, said that at least 31 civilian deaths have occurred in the region, with hundreds more wounded and tens of thousands displaced. However, it’s difficult to independently verify these reports – while Armenia releases its military toll, Azerbaijan does not, and the overall number of casualties is likely much higher than reported. Both sides also deny ever targeting civilians or their infrastructures, while simultaneously accusing the other of doing so.

Efforts to broker a ceasefire have been difficult, despite many attempts from the international community to negotiate a peace deal. An agreement mediated by Russia was reached on October 10, but it was breached shortly after – with each side accusing the other of breaking the pact and targeting civilians. Another understanding was reached for a mutual withdrawal from midnight, 17 October – but early on the 18th, both sides again accused each other of violating it. The peace announcement came mere hours after Azerbaijan said that Armenia carried out a missile attack on Ganja, leaving 13 civilians dead, which Armenia has denied. Conversely, Armenia reported rocket attacks carried out by Azerbaijan, wounding at least 3 civilians. The Azeri Embassy in Washington, D.C. accused Armenia of committing “war crimes against civilians in order to distract from its battlefield losses and the illegal occupation of Azerbaijan,” but the Armenian government countered that they aimed for “legitimate military targets”, such as an air force base and a military industrial complex. 

In the international context, the key countries involved are Russia and Turkey. While Turkey supports Azerbaijan, Russia is allied with Armenia but has good relations with Azerbaijan, and has made repeated calls for a peace agreement. Both sides also insist that the other brought in foreign military forces on the ground – the Russian government complained to Turkey about militants allegedly being transferred from the Middle East to Nagorno-Karabakh, while Armenia (backed by French President Emmanuel Macron) accused Azerbaijan of recruiting foreign fighters from Syria. 

Furthermore, international consensus overwhelmingly calls for a ceasefire between the two sides, owing to the ‘human cost’ of civilian casualties as a result of the fighting. The EU recently denounced the attacks on Ganja and said that the original peace deal “must be fully respected without delay.” UN Secretary Antonio Guterres condemned the “indiscriminate attacks on populated areas” that have occurred, including in Stepanakert and other localities around the Nagorno-Karabakh zone of conflict, and urges both sides to resume negotiations.

As of today (October 28th), the fighting has intensified after the collapse of a third attempt at a ceasefire (brokered by the US), and both Azerbaijan and Armenia have reported civilian casualties in urban areas. Recent days have seen clashes on multiple fronts, with Azerbaijani forces capturing territory in the southern area, along its border with Iran. Although information about civilian victims is yet to be clarified, Azerbaijan claims that 21 civilians were killed and 70 injured in the city of Barda (outside the Nagorno-Karabakh region), a claim which Armenia denies. The conflict is ongoing and shows no signs of stopping as of yet.


What’s behind the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict? https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-54324772 

Both sides obliged to ‘spare and protect civilians over Nagorno-Karabakh fighting’: https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/10/1075672

Armenia, Azerbaijan accuse each other of violating truce: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/10/17/new-armenia-azerbaijan-truce-comes-into-force-in-nagorno-karabakh

Russia seeks Nagorno-Karabakh truce return as deaths rise: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/10/12/nagorno-karabakh-live-news

‘600 killed’ in fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/armenia-azerbaijan-conflict-death-toll-nagorno-karabakh-latest-b1031273.html

Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict: Why are they fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh: https://www.wsj.com/articles/armenia-azerbaijan-conflict-11601325097?tesla=y

Ceasefire fails to hold as Armenia, Azerbaijan accuse each other of targeting civilians: https://www.rferl.org/a/armenia-azerbaijan-urged-to-seek-lasting-cease-fire-as-diplomatic-efforts-continue/30916763.html 

*This blog post discusses sensitive information that may be triggering for some individuals. EIJI is an impartial organization that seeks to inform people about contemporary issues of international justice. Views, information, and opinions expressed in this post do not necessarily reflect EIJI, its team or Edinburgh University. If you are interested in hearing more about our content approach please read our previous post on EIJI content philosophy.*

Author: Nikita Nandanwad
Editor: Kelsey Greeff
Editor in Chief: Zora Stanik

US Wildfires and the Environmental Ramifications

Since July, the West Coast of the United States has been experiencing an unprecedented series of wildfires, which have been recognised as the worst wildfires in the past 18 years. Currently, firefighters are battling 106 wildfires across the western coast, the majority of which are concentrated in California and Oregon. The formation of wildfires is usually caused by dry seasonal winds along the west coast but this summer, these winds were aided by a heatwave. 

The resulting impact has been especially devastating in California, which has seen 7,606 blazes this year, compared with 4,972 in 2019. These wildfires have burned through 4 million acres of California – double the previous annual record. Earlier this month, the August complex fire expanded beyond 1 million acres and is now larger than the state of Rhode Island. Thus, elevating its classification from a ‘megafire’ to a ‘gigafire’ – the first to ever occur in modern history. 

The wildfires have had a catastrophic impact on the west coast, with their economic cost exceeding an estimated $20 billion (£15.5 billion). More than 30 people have been killed, thousands of houses destroyed, tens of thousands of people either evacuated or left homeless, and dozens remain missing. Additionally, the clouds of smoke emitted from the fires are so large that they have crossed the US and the Atlantic Ocean and reached Northern Europe, according to scientists from the European Commission’s Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service – and are expected to do so again in the coming weeks. Plumes of smoke have blanketed the west coast, at times obscuring the sun.

Smoke emitted by the fires has also resulted in a higher amount of carbon emissions. Douglas Morton, chief of the biospheric sciences laboratory at NASA Goddard, stated that 2020 was the highest year of carbon emissions for California since records began in 1997. Furthermore, the 2020 fire emissions have significantly outpaced the annual totals for other years, despite this season not yet ending.

A further consequence of the wildfires is the huge amount of air pollution that they have produced. Pollution from wildfires contains noxious chemicals and soot, which is highly dangerous to human health. Air quality in Oregon, Washington, and California is said to be some of the unhealthiest on the planet. Specifically, in some parts of Oregon, air quality is so hazardous that it went beyond the scale of Oregon’s Air Quality Index. In these areas, pollution has reached historic levels particularly in 5 of its cities: Portland, Eugene, Bend, Medford, and Klamath Falls.

Dishearteningly, although California’s peak fire season usually runs until October, it shows no signs of receding as yet. Some light to moderate rains are predicted in the north this week, but they are unlikely to end the fire season.

NASA has cited a combination of factors as responsible for the intensity and scale of the fires. The heatwave, alongside unusually dry air, fierce winds and drought in some parts, has exacerbated the fires. However, climate change is a major factor for their record-breaking intensity, with rising temperatures and prolonged drought causing vegetation and soils to lose moisture. According to an analysis by Climate Central, big wildfires are now 3 times more common on the west coast than in the 1970s, and the fire season is 3 months longer. Experts predict that the 2020 fire season is only the beginning of increased fires over the 21st century, as temperatures will continue to climb due to the release of greenhouse gases from human activity. 

The US Government faces widespread criticisms of inaction on the back of this fire season – while President Trump was quick to dispatch federal police to crush the Portland protests, he failed to send any help to extinguish the wildfires occurring in the same city. Mr Trump also blamed poor forest management for the scale of the blazes, despite overwhelming consensus by scientists that climate change is responsible for their growing prevalence and intensity.

This blatant denial of scientific evidence persists on a broader scale, where the administration has been criticised by climate activists for halting and actively discouraging efforts to combat climate change and climate activism generally. There is evidence that the government has impeded research efforts around human-caused climate change. This evidence highlights the disruption of research projects and the significantly diminishing role of science in US federal policymaking.

Additionally, a 2018 report by the Washington Post states, that the Trump administration already predicted a 7-degree rise in global temperatures by 2100 as a result of human activity. Despite these predictions clearly acknowledging the effects of climate change, there remains evidence that the administration has taken steps to actively encourage the fossil fuel industry. Regulators at the Securities and Exchange Commission have been reported to help corporations block shareholders from voting on climate-related corporate resolutions; while last year, the White House barred California from setting its own auto emissions standards.

David Sirota at The Guardian argues that these climate-denying assertions on a national level actively influence decision-making processes, which would not just sabotage the climate movement but carry a significant, long-term, human cost. As evidenced from the wildfires, the climate crisis will only prolong and intensify natural disasters in the coming decades – and in order to reduce the human impact, political leaders will need to take decisive steps to reduce emissions and pass reforms that actively encourage the climate movement.


California wildfires spawn first modern ‘gigafire’ in history: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/oct/06/california-wildfires-gigafire-first

California and Oregon 2020 wildfires in maps, graphics and images: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-54180049

Historic fires devastate the US Pacific Coast: https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/147277/historic-fires-devastate-the-us-pacific-coast

America is at war with deadly wildfires: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/sep/19/america-deadly-wildfires-trump-inferno

Trump administration sees a 7-degree rise in global temperatures by 2100: https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/trump-administration-sees-a-7-degree-rise-in-global-temperatures-by-2100/2018/09/27/b9c6fada-bb45-11e8-bdc0-90f81cc58c5d_story.html

How Trump is sidelining researchers and their work: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/28/climate/trump-administration-war-on-science.html?auth=login-email&login=email

*This blog post discusses sensitive information that may be triggering for some individuals. EIJI is an impartial organization that seeks to inform people about contemporary issues of international justice. Views, information, and opinions expressed in this post do not necessarily reflect EIJI, its team or Edinburgh University. If you are interested in hearing more about our content approach please read our previous post on EIJI content philosophy.*

Author: Nikita Nandanwad

Editor: Kelsey Greeff

Editor in Chief: Zora Stanik

Human rights violations in Cameroon’s Anglophone Crisis

Four years ago, a violent conflict began in the Southern regions of Cameroon, termed as the Anglophone Crisis, or the Ambazonia War. It began with protests by lawyers and teachers in Buea and Bamenda concerning the domination of the French language in these Anglophone regions. They saw this as an escalation of the already prominent marginalisation of Anglophones in Cameroon. The protests were an immensely popular movement; and on November 21, the so-called ‘coffin revolution’ occurred in Bamenda, demanding economic and political reforms. On October 1, 2017, military secessionist groups proclaimed the independence of a new nation, including these two regions, called Ambazonia. The conflict and political protests have further escalated following the Cameroon parliamentary election earlier this year, with both separatists and the government deploying additional and often excessive forces. Over the course of the conflict, an estimated 5000 people have been killed, and 680,000 displaced.

Numerous human rights violations have been carried out by both the Cameroon military forces and separatist fighters throughout the conflict. For instance, both factions allegedly targeted and carried out attacks on hospital and medical staff. On July 6, separatists killed a Doctors Without Borders health worker in the southwest region, while on June 30, security forces damaged a health facility in the northwest region. There have also been numerous accusations of killings, assaults and kidnappings of people with disabilities on both sides.

Furthermore, armed separatists have allegedly killed, assaulted and tortured several civilians from various groups, including students, teachers, clergy, women and children. On one occasion a group of separatists kidnapped around 40 people, beat and robbed them in Bafut, in the northwest region. Throughout the clash, separatists have used schools as their base, by enforcing boycotts of education, holding people hostage in them and deploying fighters and weapons from them. On February 16, separatists abducted a teacher, two guards and 170 students under the age of 18 from a boarding school in Kumbo in the northwest region, only releasing them  the following  day. 

Security forces have since cracked down on all instances of political opposition, whether evident or suspected. However, they have done so by killing civilians, torching villages, and using torture and incommunicado detentions. It thus comes as no surprise that this year has seen a widespread of reports of killings, property destruction and use of torture by authorities. One example of this being a brutal attack on the village of Meluf in the Northwest region where Cameroonian soldiers, gendarmes and soldiers belonging to BIR (Rapid Intervention Battalion) forcefully entered 80 homes and burned down 7. The government has also responded with violence towards those suspected of having ties to separatist groups. Reports have emerged of severe beatings and near-drownings committed against suspects at the State Defence Secretariat prison in the capital, Yaounde. 

President Paul Biya faces increasing backlash and unrest in response to the bloodshed in Anglophone regions since the beginning of the crisis. Civilians and political parties, spearheaded by Maurice  Kamto ( who leads the Cameroon Renaissance Movement party), have been publicly calling for president Biya’s ouster, citing his 38-year tenure as head of state and lack of sufficient response to the crisis. On September 22, hundreds of people gathered in protests in Douala and Yaounde, calling for electoral reform and an end to the conflict, shouting slogans like ‘Paul Biya must go.’ Authorities responded with similar violence, breaking up peaceful protests, and arresting opposition party leaders and supporters.Tear gas and water cannons were also used to break up the protests, while hundreds of people, including 8 journalists, were unnecessarily arrested and detained. Authorities have since vowed to prosecute those arrested in the protests, and pursue those fleeing, while Mr Kamto remains under house arrest. The Human Rights Defenders Network in Central Africa has described this clampdown as “serious violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

Dishearteningly, the government appears to have failed to take accountability by preventing efforts to document human rights violations in the Anglophone regions.  In April, a Human Rights Watch researcher was denied access to the country with no reason being provided for this decision. Following this, an investigation was due to be carried out into the alleged burning of 70 homes by security forces in Mankon, Bamenda – the corresponding report was expected by May 24 but has still yet to be seen.

Although France and member states of the African Union have either sided with the government or taken a neutral stance, the overall international response has been a mounting increase of pressure on Cameroon to call a ceasefire. In February, the United States announced that it was reducing its security assistance to Cameroon after allegations of human rights violations committed by the Cameroonian military emerged. In March, the UK called on Cameroon to engage with the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, after expressing concern about the situation and lack of accountability in the Anglophone regions. Germany similarly announced an end of its military cooperation with Cameroon in July. Additionally, peace talks have taken place between the government and jailed leaders of the Ambazonia Interim Government (IG) in an attempt to find some common ground and progress towards a solution, however, despite this, the violence continues. Since January, at least 285 civilians have been killed in the northwest and southwest regions, while tens of thousands of people found themselves displaced over the past two months. The UN High Commissioner has expressed concerns over the allegations of human rights violations and the Cameroonian government’s efforts to prevent their coverage. Their most recent response has been to urge the government to carry out transparent investigations, going forward.


Human Rights Watch World Report 2020 (Cameroon): https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/world_report_download/hrw_world_report_2020_0.pdf

Cameroon’s escalating Anglophone crisis shows little sign of abating: https://www.dw.com/en/cameroons-escalating-anglophone-crisis-shows-little-sign-of-abating/a-53906409

Civilians Killed in Anglophone Regions: https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/07/27/cameroon-civilians-killed-anglophone-regions

Protestors call for end to bloodshed from Anglophone crisis: https://www.africanews.com/2020/09/23/cameroon-protesters-call-for-end-to-bloodshed-from-anglophone-crisis/

Cameroon’s “president for life” is facing protests as the Anglophone crisis rumbles on: https://qz.com/africa/1910195/cameroon-s-biya-faces-protests-as-anglophone-carries-on/

*This blog post discusses sensitive information that may be triggering for some individuals. EIJI is an impartial organization that seeks to inform people about contemporary issues of international justice. Views, information, and opinions expressed in this post do not necessarily reflect EIJI, its team or Edinburgh University. If you are interested in hearing more about our content approach please read our previous post on EIJI content philosophy.*

Author: Nikita Nandanwad

Editor: Kelsey Greeff

Editor in Chief: Zora Stanik

Belarus protests and excessive force wielded by authorities

For more than a month now, Belarus has been gripped by mass demonstrations that center around the contested 2020 presidential election, during which President Alexander Lukashenko sought his sixth term in office. The protests are on an unprecedented scale, being the largest series of anti-government demonstrations since Mr. Lukashenko took office in 1994. From the night of the election onwards, it has become evident that police forces utilized indiscriminate violence against largely peaceful demonstrators, and reports have also emerged of excessive ill-treatment of protestors who were detained and arrested.

Ahead of the election this year, there was a government crackdown on opposition candidates, with two jailed and another forced to flee the country. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya – currently the main opposition candidate – registered in place of her husband, Sergei Tikhavosky, who was considered among the top candidates before he was jailed. Brewing discontent with Mr. Lukashenko’s government was already apparent, with over 10,000 people rallying in support of Ms. Tikhanovskaya before the election.

Indicators of possible election fraud were apparent on August 9, voting day, with no independent observers invited to the election, and the commencing of an internet blackout lasting several days. Exit polls were released that evening, suggesting that Mr. Lukashenko won a landslide victory of 80% of the vote and that Ms. Tikhanovskaya only gained about 10%. However, she insisted that she polled 60-70% if the votes were counted fairly. The next day, Ms. Tikhanovskaya tried to complain about the falsified results to election authorities, but was detained and forced to leave for Lithuania.

Protestors quickly took to the streets – the night after the election, there were 3000 arrests in Minsk and other cities, with further nights seeing violent clashes and mass arrests throughout the country. During these post-election clashes, there have been widespread reports of alleged police violence against protestors. Video footage displays black-clad riot police firing tear gas, rubber bullets, stun grenades, and water cannons to disperse largely peaceful crowds, killing at least one person. In Brest, police fired live rounds at protestors, injuring one. Last week, hundreds of women were detained during the ‘Sparkly March’ – the most recent in a series of all-women protests – and ambulances were called after several reportedly became unwell during their detentions.

By 19 August, at least 2000 of 7000 people who were detained by riot police were freed, and reports quickly emerged of ongoing ill-treatment of protestors in the detention facilities, such as repeated beatings, rape threats, and forcing protestors to endure overcrowded cells. 

Student Sasha Vilks showed a reporter his back and legs, badly bruised from truncheon blows.  “They called us terrorists and beat us severely on our legs and our backs,” he told reporters. “They would beat us first and then ask questions.”

Instances of violence and attempts to suppress journalists have also been recorded. At least 50 journalists, most of them citizens, were detained and many were deported. Yegor Martinovich, journalist, and editor of the independent online newspaper Nasha Niva, was detained in the crackdown and said that he and several others were beaten and refused food for half a day. Mr. Martinovich said that he, alongside 27 others, was put in a cell intended for only 12 people, and after his release, 10 more people were put in.

Later, the national police chief apologized to people “targeted indiscriminately” by the police, while the Interior Ministry opened a hotline for relatives trying to locate their loved ones. Yet the police force has failed to take accountability for excessive and indiscriminate conduct wielded against protestors. Amnesty International stated that no criminal cases were filed against police who injured and tortured hundreds of peaceful protestors, while dozens of cases were launched against protestors, with many lacking credible evidence of wrongdoing. In a statement, Amnesty International’s Director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, Marie Struthers, said, “The Belarusian authorities have to date refused to engage in a dialogue with the protesters, nor, apparently, have they taken steps to investigate the massive human rights violations committed by the police during the first few days of the post-election protests.” 

Meanwhile, the opposition’s efforts continue despite Ms. Tikhanovskaya’s exile. She launched a Coordination Council, constituting civil society activists and lawyers to negotiate a transfer of power, and has made several appeals to the international community for support to establish democracy in Belarus. 

Mr. Lukashenko has reacted with continuing hostility and refused negotiations with the council, and many senior members of the council were arrested on criminal charges. Later, he blamed the protestors and claimed that they assaulted the police, who were justified in their actions. On Wednesday, he took his oath of office in an unannounced inauguration ceremony in Minsk, taking local journalists and opposition by surprise. The ceremony has been described as a “thieves’ meeting” and a “farce” by leading opposition figures.

The accounts of violence and apparent impunity on the part of the police, as well as Mr. Lukashenko’s inauguration, has fuelled further outrage and large-scale demonstrations. On Sunday, at least 100,000 people gathered in Minsk to demand Mr. Lukashenko’s resignation and investigation into these human rights violations, in one of the largest gatherings in the country’s modern history. Tensions continue to rise in the capital since the inauguration, with protestors attempting to block roads and police vehicles – and video footage displays masked riot police using water cannons and batons against crowds as a response, resulting in bloody injuries to their heads.

International efforts to support Belarus are ongoing, with most of the world, including the UN, condemning the violence. 40 Belarusian officials face asset freezes and travel bans due to their role in the crackdown; and the European Union is preparing sanctions against Belarus – though foreign ministers currently face a deadlock over sanctions after a veto by Cyprus. Although Russia, traditionally Belarus’ closest ally, has endorsed the election results, many high-profile Russian politicians allied with the Kremlin called the election falsified and urged the president to step down. Police violence and failure to take accountability has also been denounced by UN High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet as a “clear violation of international human rights standards.”


What’s Happening in Belarus?: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-53799065; https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/13/world/europe/belarus-protests-guide.html 

Belarus: Police must be held accountable for violence: https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2020/08/belarus-police-must-be-held-accountable-for-violence/

‘Beating me without mercy’: Protestors freed from Belarus jails recount extreme police brutality: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/belarus-election-protest-police-brutality-alexander-lukashenko-a9672206.html

Lukashenko’s surprise inauguration: https://edition.cnn.com/2020/09/23/europe/alexander-lukashenko-inaugurated-belarus-intl/index.html

Hundreds of women detained during Belarus protest march: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/sep/19/hundreds-of-women-detained-during-belarus-protest-march-alexander-lukashenko

Belarus: Mass protests after Lukashenko secretly sworn in: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-54262953 

*This blog post discusses sensitive information that may be triggering for some individuals. EIJI is an impartial organization that seeks to inform people about contemporary issues of international justice. Views, information, and opinions expressed in this post do not necessarily reflect EIJI, its team or Edinburgh University. If you are interested in hearing more about our content approach please read our previous post on EIJI content philosophy.*

Author: Nikita Nandanwad

Editor: Zora Stanik

Editor in Chief: Zora Stanik

Digital Evidence Verification Interview with Dr Irving

The increasing presence of digital technologies in the 21st century has been recognised as a new accountability mechanism within the international law community. International bodies are increasingly incorporating this type of evidence into fact-finding and prosecutions for crimes committed in conflict zones – for instance, in August 2017, the ICC issued an arrest warrant for Libyan military commander Mahmoud al-Werfalli, based on social media videos depicting him allegedly committing war crimes such as the murder of non-combatants.

In light of our Digital Evidence Verification project this summer, we conducted an interview with Dr Emma Irving, Assistant Professor of Public International Law at Grotius Centre for International Legal Studies at Leiden University. Dr Irving has been closely collaborating with EIJI on the project, and her current research is based around the scope of digital evidence in fact-finding and legal accountability. The interview provides an overview of digital evidence as an upcoming tool to prosecute, as well as some of the inherent problems or misconceptions surrounding this type of evidence.

Introduction and scope of digitally-derived evidence:

1. Would you categorise digital verification as an up-and-coming tool in the international law community, and briefly outline how you, personally, have found this tool to be useful in practice?

I would definitely describe digital verification – and online investigations more broadly – as up and coming tools in the international law community. A number of different international law actors are using these approaches now. For example, as far as States are concerned, The Gambia used screenshots from Facebook when putting forward arguments in favour of the granting of provisional measures against Myanmar in the ICJ case involving those two countries. Where UN human rights fact-finding bodies are concerned, the Fact Finding Mission on Myanmar and the Commission of Inquiry on the protests in the Occupied Palestinian Territory both employed online investigation techniques and digital verification tools when compiling their findings. And then, of course, there are criminal courts. The ICC has used these tools for some time in collecting and assessing evidence, most notably in the Al-Werfalli and Al-Mahdi cases. Domestic courts prosecuting international crimes under universal jurisdiction have turned to online sources and digital verification to build cases against individuals accused of committing war crimes – particularly in Syria. Whenever we see digital content of this type being used, we can reasonably expect that digital verification processes have taken place prior to that content being presented.

In terms of my personal experience, I have found these tools to be useful in supporting the work of advocacy groups. Whether these groups are seeking to build cases against certain individuals for potential prosecution in a criminal court, or whether they are using the tools for a broader advocacy strategy.

2. How can international lawyers use digital evidence collected by those outside of the legal community (e.g videos filmed by NGOs, social media uploads by civilians, etc.) to hold individuals, organisations or authorities accountable?

Digital material – whether open source or closed source** – can be helpful for organisations seeking to build a fuller picture of events in a given location or at a given time. Verified digital material, including videos, photos, satellite images, etc. can help to corroborate witness testimonies and generally bolster existing evidence. The material is particularly helpful for building a picture of what’s happening in places that are inaccessible to outsiders and where it is hard to document using more traditional documentation methods.

** Open source evidence concerns publicly accessible platforms, such as videos uploaded to social media, whereas closed source evidence is usually unavailable to the public.

Adapting to digital verification in the international law community:

3. In your opinion, what steps can be taken at an educational level and in the practising workplace to improve the handling of digital evidence in international law? How long would you expect before there is a noticeable difference in the handling/use of digital technology in the legal community? 

To improve the handling of digital evidence in international law fora, consensus needs to emerge on what the best practices are. This is a process that is currently ongoing, as different organisations work to develop guidelines and protocols on the collection, preservation, and presentation of digital content as evidence. As with innovations of the past, some trial and error will likely be needed before the international community settles on an agreed set of best practices. It is difficult to anticipate all potential challenges and problems ahead of time, and patience will be needed as these things are figured out.

Digital evidence as an accountability mechanism:

4. In June 2019, the Sudanese government cut off internet access in an attempt to end mass protests. In the event of such censorship and exertion of executive power by authorities, how could the international community continue to ensure accountability when digital evidence is seemingly unavailable?

When governments cut internet access this is regrettable, as it limits what the international community can see. That being said, just because the internet is cut off does not mean that individuals on the ground do not continue to record what they see and make important content. The key is to create pathways for this content to be received by the appropriate actors – both within a country and outside it – when connectivity is restored.

Complications of using digital evidence as a tool to prosecute:

5. Could you elaborate on some of the possible dangers such as misuse or manipulation of digital evidence in international law? What legal requirements can be put in place to mitigate this weaponization of digital evidence?

There are too many potential problems to cover, so I will limit myself to just two. First, there is a danger that digital content will be given too much importance, at the expense of other kinds of evidence. Digital evidence, as with all types of evidence, should only ever be one part of a bigger evidentiary puzzle that is completed using a range of evidence. It should not eclipse evidence of other types, such as interviews and forensic work. Digital evidence will not be the solution to all the problems facing international accountability, but instead is a tool that has been added to the armoury of investigators. 

Second, it is important to bear in mind that not all kinds of international crimes and human rights violations are visible through digital investigation methods. For example, while we may have a large number of execution videos being posted online, digital material depicting conflict-related sexual violence is much less common. When approaching digital evidence, therefore, it is important to keep an open mind as to whether the full range of unlawful behaviour is being addressed.

EIJI would like to extend a huge thank you to Dr Irving for not only her help on the Digital Evidence Verification Project but also for conducting this interview. We look forward to continuing our work with her throughout the rest of the academic year.

Guest Expert: Dr. Emma Irving

Author: Nikita Nandanwad

Editor: Kelsey Greeff

Editor in Chief: Zora Stanik