This summer, I was overjoyed to be taken on as an intern by the International Bridges to Justice (IBJ) main office in Geneva, Switzerland. IBJ is a multinational organization which has as its primary goal the protection of individuals’ basic legal rights in developing countries. To that end, IBJ spends the vast majority of its efforts working with both legal authorities and defenders to guarantee the right to competent legal representation, the right to be protected from cruel and unusual punishment, and the right to a fair trial. As a student who has focused mainly on international law since starting at William & Mary Law School, this seemed an ideal fit. Nevertheless, when the COVID-19 pandemic finally arrived in force in the United States in March of this year, I naturally expected it to play a part in whether I would be able to undertake my internship in the Geneva office as anticipated and, indeed, plans to do an in-person internship were soon dropped in favor of a remote one. I felt certain that I could hunker down and look forward to writing education materials for defenders, grant applications, and the like as I had heard many IBJ interns did. What I could not anticipate, however, was the sizable impact the COVID-19 pandemic would have on the work itself.
From day one of my internship, my work has revolved completely around the pandemic, starting with an email I got on my first day marked ‘urgent request.’ Part of IBJ’s work has always been to ensure that arrests are carried out legally and detainees are treated with proper respect for their rights and needs. With COVID-19 spreading into prisons that were already overcrowded, making sure prisoners and detainees were not condemned to an effective death sentence became priority one. Prison systems around the world were grappling with what to do about their inmate populations. Guidelines issued by international bodies such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture (SPT) suggested paroling inmates with lesser sentences and separating out those belonging to more vulnerable groups like the elderly, but common sense measures like these faced opposition abroad and in the US. The concern among opponents was that they did not want to live among convicted felons, or that they felt that cutting short sentences would deny justice, but these beliefs disregard both respect for the humanity of those detained and their basic rights as citizens. No one condemned to spend a year-or two, or five-should be condemned to practically inevitable infection in an overcrowded prison with inadequate medical resources.
My first assignment, then, was to work with a fellow intern (Wesley Clayton, also from William & Mary) to assemble an at-a-glance guide, or checklist, of internationally recognized defendant and detainee rights and state obligations for the COVID-19 age. Not only did this entail research into the various international treaties, conventions, and covenants which govern the exercise of law enforcement and the respect for civil rights, but it also meant cross-referencing those provisions with guidelines that were coming out of the WHO and SPT. Nearly every basic prison regulation addressed by the Mandela Rules had some suggested modification to address the pandemic. Moreover, given the nature of how states were responding to the pandemic, another dimension had to be addressed: which rights protected by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) could be derogated from in the event of a national emergency? In the end, the final document consisted of an organized and bulleted list of rights and obligations, which instruments they are based on, any WHO or SPT-suggested modifications, and an indication of whether the right could be limited under the ICCPR. Following, we chose to include an appendix containing the statutes and provisions themselves, so that any defender or advocate using the document would have them on hand. The final checklist was welcomed by our managers, which was not only gratifying, but practically useful, as we now had a modular blueprint for our next task: making similar checklists for every nation (except Switzerland) in which IBJ has offices: Rwanda, Burundi, Zimbabwe, Myanmar, China, Sri Lanka, India, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Syria. That, however, is a story for another blog post.