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Legal news from Friday, October 23, 2009




Israel high court rules against segregation of West Bank road
Sarah Miley on October 23, 2009 1:36 PM ET

[JURIST] The Supreme Court of Israel [official website, in Hebrew] on Thursday ruled against [judgement, PDF, in Hebrew] a military order prohibiting Palestinians from traveling on a central West Bank road. Finding in favor of a petition [press release] submitted by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) [advocacy website], the court held that impeding the rights of several thousand Palestinians barred from the road was not justified by the benefits it gave to less than 200 Israelis who live near the road. Despite the ruling, ACRI lawyer Limor Yehuda [official profile] said the group was still concerned over other travel limitations on West Bank Palestinians:


It's important to analyze this ruling in its broader context, namely the institutionalization of segregation between Israelis and Palestinians in occupied territory. Israel has prohibited Palestinians from traveling on other roads in the West Bank and employs segregation there in other domains such as the justice system... As such, it is alarming that Supreme Court President Dorit Beinish refers to the notion of proportionality in the present ruling and avoids confronting the principle at stake: the legality of Israel's policy of segregation and discrimination in the West Bank.

The road at issue is one of several disputed roads that run between Israel and the West Bank [BBC backgrounder]. ACRI's 2007 petition for the desegregation of another such road [press release], Route 443, led to an interim decision allowing segregation until May 2010.

The Israeli Supreme Court has recently dealt with other issues concerning travel and Palestinian civil rights. Last year the court ruled [JURIST report] that the government must change the proposed route for its West Bank security barrier [official website; JURIST news archive], finding that the current plan encroaches too much on Palestinian territory. The court found the government in contempt [Jerusalem Post report] for failing to follow its previous instructions [JURIST report] to infringe on as little Palestinian land as possible. The barrier has been denounced by Palestinians as a land grab that has broken up communities and families, but Israeli officials insist it is necessary to prevent terrorist attacks. In 2004, the International Court of Justice [official website] issued a non-binding advisory opinion [text; JURIST report] that parts of the wall should be torn down.





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House committee approves consumer financial protection agency legislation
Patrice Collins on October 23, 2009 1:32 PM ET

[JURIST] The US House Financial Services Committee [official website] voted 39-29 Thursday to approve [press release] a bill [HR 3126 materials] that would create a Consumer Financial Protection Agency. The agency would regulate mortgages, credit cards, and other consumer credit instruments. Businesses that offer financial services such as car and home mortgage loans would be monitored by agency authorities. Although the agency would have examiners with vested authority to enter financial institutions, the bill states that all but the largest banks would be spared from such close scrutiny, including retailers, car dealers, accountants, and lawyers. Unlike existing regulatory agencies that have authority only over particular types of institutions, the Consumer Financial Protection Agency would have greater breadth in its institutional oversight. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner [official profile] hailed the bill [press release] as:

an important milestone in our efforts to reform the financial system.

This bill will create one agency focused on one simple mission - protecting consumers. While there is more work ahead, today we are much closer to putting in place strict new rules of the road for the financial industry.

The controversial agency has been rigorously opposed by the banking industry. Geithner appealed to Congress not to weaken the bill in the face of attacks from the American Bankers Association and the Chamber of Commerce [organization websites], which led a $2 million advertising campaign opposing the legislation.

The Financial Services Committee passed the legislation after originally delaying [JURIST report] it at the behest of financial industry leaders in July. The creation of the agency is a key step in the Obama administration's plans to tighten financial industry regulations. The administration originally proposed a broad series of financial regulatory reforms [press release] in June, calling [JURIST report] for the creation of a Consumer Financial Protection Agency, among other reforms.





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Czech president says EU proposal satisfies demands for Lisbon Treaty opt-out clause
Sarah Paulsworth on October 23, 2009 1:13 PM ET

[JURIST] The office of Czech Republic President Vaclav Klaus [official website, in Czech] issued a brief statement [text, in Czech] Friday indicating that a proposal from the Swedish presidency of the EU [official website] satisfies demands Klaus has made for an opt-out on the bloc's Treaty of Lisbon [EU materials; JURIST news archive]. Klaus is seeking an opt-out clause that would shield his country from property claims by ethnic Germans who were expelled from Czechoslovakia after World War II. The two-sentence statement provides no details about what the EU has proposed. President of the European Council, Swedish Prime Minster Fredrik Reinfeldt [official website] indicated details of the opt-out clause will be finalized during an EU summit next week in Brussels, saying [statement], "I welcome the statement by President Klaus. The Presidency will continue to work with this in view of next week's European [Summit].”

The Czech Republic has remained the lone holdout in the Lisbon Treaty ratification process, since Ireland’s ratification [JURIST report] last week. All 27 EU members must ratify by the treaty before it goes into effect. Poland and Britain already have opt-out clauses. The Czech Republic's Constitutional Court [official website; Czech] is scheduled to conduct a public hearing [JURIST report] on October 27 on challenges to the country's signing of the treaty. EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso [official website] urged [press release] the Czech Republic to sign the treaty and not raise artificial objections, saying it would be "completely absurd" to reopen the ratification process in the other member states.






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ASEAN leaders establish human rights commission for region
Zach Zagger on October 23, 2009 10:40 AM ET

[JURIST] The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) [official website] announced Friday the establishment [press release, PDF] of a new commission on human rights for the region. The body will be known as the Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) and was introduced [opening remarks] by Thailand Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva [BBC profile] at the annual ASEAN three-day summit in Cha-am, Thailand. The AICHR will be supported by financial contributions from the ASEAN member states, and ASEAN members have already pledged to provide $200,000 for the commission's first year. ASEAN leaders said the purpose of the body was to promote and protect of human rights in Southeast Asia:

The body was mandated to promote and protect human rights by promoting public awareness and education, providing advice services and capacity building to government agencies and ASEAN bodies, developing regional norms, obtaining information from Member States, engaging with stakeholders and other institutions, conducting studies on thematic issues as well as preparing reports to the ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting, in accordance with its Terms of Reference (TOR) prepared by the High Level Panel and approved by ASEAN Foreign Ministers in July.
Despite its mission, some human rights activists have criticized [Irrawaddy report] the new body, saying that it may not be independent enough to be effective.

In February, ASEAN leaders met to discuss [JURIST report] the creation of a human rights commission, which was called for by the November 2007 ASEAN Charter [text, PDF; JURIST report]. Article 14 of the charter provides for the establishment of an ASEAN human rights body in order to promote and protect human rights and other fundamental freedoms in member states. In July 2007, ASEAN members agreed in principle [JURIST report] to the creation of the human rights body, though Myanmar [JURIST report], Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam [JURIST news archives] have objected to its creation.





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UN investigator condemns North Korea human rights violations
Andrea Bottorff on October 23, 2009 10:19 AM ET

[JURIST] UN Special Rapporteur for North Korea Vitit Muntarbhorn [official profile] on Thursday criticized [UN News Centre report; press conference video] the country's "abysmal" and ongoing human rights violations in an independent report submitted to the UN General Assembly. Muntarbhorn said that the authoritarian government was responsible for various abuses, including torture, public executions, extensive surveillance, media censorship, women's rights violations, and widespread hunger. The report claims that nearly 9 million people in North Korea suffer from food shortages, despite government revenues generated by several billion dollars in export trade. Citing World Food Program (WFP) [official website] numbers, Muntarbhorn said that less than a fourth of those affected by shortages receive international food aid, which has decreased recently in a backlash against the government's nuclear weapons testing [JURIST report]. Muntarbhorn urged North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il [BBC profile] to cease human rights abuses and work closely with international aid organizations. North Korea's Deputy UN Ambassador Pak Tok-Hun condemned the report [NYT report] and denied the allegations.

Muntarbhorn, a Thai law professor who was appointed as a UN human rights expert in 2004, has not been allowed to enter North Korea to investigate. He based his report on testimonies of experts in the country and of North Korean emigrants. In March, Muntarbhorn told the UN Human Rights Council [official website] that he found egregious human rights violations [JURIST report] in North Korea. In October 2008, Muntarbhorn urged [JURIST report] North Korea to improve their treatment of prisoners and unsuccessful defectors, as well as to cooperate in locating kidnapped foreign citizens. In January 2008, Muntarbhorn made similar comments during his visit with a special UN envoy to Japan [press release; JURIST report] to assess the impact of the North Korean rights situation on that country. North Korea has frequently been accused of human trafficking, press repression, and "actively committing crimes against humanity" [JURIST reports].






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France constitutional court approves Internet piracy law
Brian Jackson on October 23, 2009 9:12 AM ET

[JURIST] The French Constitutional Council [official website, in French] on Thursday approved [judgment, in French] a controversial Internet piracy law [JURIST news archive] that would restrict access to individuals who use the Internet to violate intellectual property laws. The bill was approved by the French Parliament [JURIST report] in September. Under the so-called "three strikes" law, the French government could send notices to Internet service providers to terminate an individual's Internet access for up to one year after a third violation of intellectual property laws for downloading or sharing movies and music. One of the key reasons this version of the law was upheld by the court, after it struck down an earlier version [JURIST report], is the requirement of judicial review prior to denial of Internet service. With court approval, the French government will move swiftly to enact the law. It is believed that the first notifications to violators could be sent at the beginning of 2010 [EU Observer report].

In contrast to the efforts of the French government, the Finnish government last week announced that Internet access is a legal right [JURIST report] becoming, the first country to make such a statement. In August, the British Department for Business Innovation and Skills [official website] proposed stricter sanctions [JURIST reports] against illegal file-sharing that would include restricting and suspending user Internet access.






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US Treasury issues rulings restricting executive compensation
Brian Jackson on October 23, 2009 8:20 AM ET

[JURIST] The US Treasury Department [official website] on Thursday released a series of rulings that would restrict executive compensation [press release] at institutions that received special assistance from the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) [text]. Among the changes are a cash cap on compensation of $500,000 per year for most relevant employees, immediate vesting of stock options for those paid in that manner, and a limit on stock provided as incentive compensation, including ties to corporate performance and repayment of TARP funds. The restrictions would apply to the five most senior executives and the other 20 highest paid employees at American International Group (AIG), Citigroup, Bank of America, Chrysler, General Motors (GM), GMAC, and Chrysler Financial [corporate websites]. Also on Thursday, the Federal Reserve issued its own plan [press release, PDF] to monitor and reform compensation strategies at 28 large banking corporations, citing a need to, "Provide employees incentives that do not encourage excessive risk-taking beyond the organization’s ability to effectively identify and manage risk." As expected for an issue as contentious as executive compensation, responses to these restrictions were mixed. New York Governor David Paterson applauded the accountability [pres release] that such measures would provide, but lamented the loss of state tax revenue. Robert Reich, the secretary of labor under Bill Clinton, and a member of President Barack Obama's economic advisory team, expressed similar mixed feelings [Huffington Post op-ed], focusing instead on the lack of true regulatory reform to prevent a similar economic collapse in the future.

In late July, the US House of Representatives passed HR 3269 [JURIST report], which would regulate executive compensation. The bill is currently in the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs. Capping executive compensation is just one way the federal government has identified to protect consumers from future economic turmoil. In September, Obama renewed a call for a Consumer Financial Protection Agency and greater financial regulations [JURIST report]. In March, the House passed a bill that would impose a punitive tax [JURIST report] on bonuses received by executives at institutions that received TARP funds, however that bill remains in the Senate, with no significant action taken as of yet.






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Senate approves bill extending hate crimes protection
Ximena Marinero on October 23, 2009 7:28 AM ET

[JURIST] The US Senate [official website] on Thursday voted 68-29 [roll call] to approve a bill that extends the definition of federal hate crimes to include crimes motivated by gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability. The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act [S 909 text] is part of a $681 billion military appropriations conference report for fiscal year 2010, and enables the Department of Justice to investigate or prosecute hate crimes that result in death or serious injury by assisting state and local authorities or by assuming a principal role if those authorities are unwilling or unable to act. The bill also creates a grant program to assist state and local authorities in combating juvenile hate crimes. Organizations like the Mathew Shepard Foundation and the Human Rights Campaign [advocacy websites] and Democratic Senators like Patrick Leahy (VT) and Dianne Feinstein (CA) [press releases] hailed the favorable vote on the act, which must now be signed into law by President Barack Obama. Republican Senator Lamar Alexander (TN) deplored [press release] the vote as a "a shame that this piece of legislation was added to a bill that's supposed to be about supporting our troops," while Senator Mike Johanns (R-NE) characterized the bill as unacceptable [press release] because it "says certain victims of crime are more worthy of protection than others."

The bill was approved [JURIST report] by the House of Representatives earlier this month, also facing Republican opposition. The House approved similar bills in April 2009 and May 2007 [JURIST reports]. The Senate also passed [JURIST report] similar legislation in the form of an amendment to the 2008 Senate Defense Reauthorization Bill [HR 1585 materials]. However, the broadened language was ultimately removed [JURIST report] during House and Senate negotiations.






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US urges Sri Lanka to investigate and prosecute armed conflict rights violations
Ximena Marinero on October 23, 2009 6:27 AM ET

[JURIST] Sri Lanka must investigate reports of human rights violations and war crimes during the last months of the internal armed civil conflict [JURIST report] by both government and rebel forces and prosecute those responsible, the US Department of State (DOS) [official website] urged [transcript] Thursday. The statement from DOS spokesperson Ian Kelly came the same day the DOS released a report [text, PDF] on incidents that took place during those final months. The report, mandated by the Congressional Committees on Appropriations, documents more than 160 credible reports of incidents between January and May 2009, addressing subjects including children in armed conflict, enforced disappearances, harm to civilians by both the government and Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) [JURIST archive] forces, and the critical humanitarian conditions in Internal Displaced Persons and No Fire Zone Camps. The report abstains from legal conclusions or determinations of accuracy. The government of Sri Lanka rejected [statement] the findings of the report, characterizing it as "unsubstantiated and devoid of corroborative evidence," and an effort "to bring the Government of Sri Lanka into disrepute, through fabricated allegations and concocted stories." Also on Thursday, the European Parliament adopted a resolution [text; press release] calling for Sri Lanka to improve the conditions [Al Jazeera report] of more than 250,000 Tamil civilians held in camps, "asking that their return be organized and that humanitarian organisations be given free access to the camps."

Last month, UN Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs B. Lynn Pascoe [official profile] urged [JURIST report] the Sri Lankan government to conduct an independent inquiry into allegations of war crimes during the civil war against the rebel LTTE forces, and to make quicker progress in shutting down camps and achieving political reconciliation among the country's warring ethnic factions. The Sri Lankan government finished its internal investigation of human rights violations in June while refusing to permit [JURIST reports] an external probe to conduct a full investigation. Concern in the international community continues over potential human rights violations in the trial of LTTE members and for Tamil civilians in camps. In May, as the country's decades-long civil war was coming to an end, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa denied [JURIST report] humanitarian groups full access to refugee camps, saying the camps still needed to be screened for rebel fighters.






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