March International Law Update

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Flags flying in the north end of the United Nations Headquarters in New York. Courtesy Flickr/UN Photo/Mark Garten.

Myanmar’s Operations Against the Rohingya

On March 8, International Women’s Day, the High Commissioner for Human Rights delivered his annual report to the Human Rights Council. This report gave an overview, highlighting trends in various countries around the world, as well as the progress and setbacks they have been dealing with. Although the High Commissioner touched on a variety of topics across several countries, the treatment of the Rohingya people by the Myanmar security forces is of great concern. Beginning in October, Myanmar forces have undertaken to expel the Rohingya people from the country altogether, resulting in the displacement of 73,000 refugees who have sought safe haven in Bangladesh. The High Commissioner’s Office found “material evidence and corroborated eyewitness accounts of mass killings, including babies, children and elderly people unable to flee, and the burning of entire villages; shooting; massive detention; systematic rape and sexual violence; and deliberate destruction of food and sources of food.” The situation is particularly extreme. In effect, the High Commissioner stated that the allegations of violence against the Rohingya people may amount to “crimes against humanity, which warrants the attention of the International Criminal Court.” He requested that the Council open a Commission of Inquiry into Myanmar’s operations against the Rohingya people. For further reading, see the International Law Prof Blog.

It is worth noting that the United States is also featured in the High Commissioner’s report. The Report was critical of many of the Trump administration’s policies, with particular emphasis on detention and the expedited deportation of children.

Hungary Container Camps

Hungary recently adopted a new law that will transfer all current and future asylum seekers to a “transit zone,” border camps composed of shipping containers. Future asylum seekers will have to stay in these containers while their applications for asylum are processed. This measure includes children, a direct violation of international and European law according to Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for Europe. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán was quoted as saying that immigration is “the Trojan horse of terrorism” and that Hungary was “under siege” by migrants who “do not want to live according to our ways and culture, but according to their own—only with a European quality of life.” Orbán also stated that Muslim migrants represented a threat to Europe’s “Christian culture and identity.” John Dalhuisen of Amnesty International reacted by stressing that “rather than being shamed by the exposure of Hungary’s flagrant breaches of international law, prime minister Orbán proudly extols them as an example for other countries to follow. Allowing this to go unchallenged will result in further misery for vulnerable people fleeing conflict.”

Israel’s Anti-BDS Travel Ban

Hungary is not the only country enacting controversial border laws. Israel’s Parliament recently passed a law that bars ‘Boycott Divestment and Sanction’ (“BDS”) activists from entering the country. Palestinians and their allies have compared BDS to the South Africa opposition movement opposed to apartheid. According to the New York Times, “The new law says it applies to any foreigner ‘who knowingly issues a public call for boycotting Israel’ and is aware that this ‘has a reasonable possibility of leading to the imposition of a boycott.’” Both supporters of BDS, but also individuals and groups which hold otherwise sympathetic views towards Israel, have criticized this law, highlighting that it will likely further isolate Israel on the world stage; a move not in the country’s best interest. However, supporters of the law, like Naftali Bennett, “the leader of the right-wing Jewish Home party and Israel’s education minister, said the new law was ‘logical and expected’ and will allow Israel to defend itself against those ‘who wish it harm.’” According to Israeli lawyer and international human rights law activist Michael Sfard, the legislation is a violation of international law. Sfard was quoted as saying that “International Human Rights Law prohibits discrimination on the basis of a person’s opinion and provides freedom of conscious and thought. The law is definitely a violation of both.” He also explained that it was unclear how the law would be enforced, given how difficult it might be to compile a list of all of the boycotters and connect the names to passport numbers. He expects that the law will only be applied to “famous boycotters” for the time being.

North Korea Temporarily Bans Malaysians from Leaving

North Korea recently instituted a temporary ban on Malaysians from leaving the country until “‘the incident that happened in Malaysia is properly solved,’ state-run Korea Central News Agency said.” By incident, North Korea was referring to the murder of Kim Jong Nam—Kim Jong Un’s half-brother and a vocal critic of his family’s rule of North Korea—at Kuala Lampur International Airport on February 13. North Korea has denied that Kim Jong Nam was the victim. According to Reuters, the Malaysian police have identified eight North Koreans wanted in connection with the murder. Two of these individuals are currently hiding in the North Korean embassy. Two women, one Vietnamese and one Indonesian, have been charged with smearing Kim Jong Nam’s face with VX—a chemical designated by the United Nations as a weapon of mass destruction. Following North Korea’s decision to prohibit Malaysians from leaving the country, Prime Minister Najib of Malaysia instructed the police to institute a similar ban on North Koreans in Malaysia, estimated to number in the hundreds. The UN has “called for calm between Malaysia and North Korea and urged them to settle their differences through ‘established diplomatic practice.’”


Mika Madgavkar is a second-year J.D. candidate at Columbia Law School. Mika holds a B.S. in Industrial and Labor Relations from Cornell University, where she graduated from in 2014.