Johan Heymans, Managing Partner, Venote Criminal Law and Human Rights | Belgium

Johan Heymans is the Managing Partner of Venote Criminal Law and Human Rights. He obtained his Bachelor’s Degree in Law from Namur University in 2010 and his master’s degree from Leuven and Tilburg in 2012. He then took a master of laws (LL.M.) in international and US criminal law at New York University. Mr. Heymans later worked in Phnom Penh for the prosecutor’s office at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal and was also a guest lecturer in international criminal law at the Royal University of Law and Economics in Cambodia. He has been a teaching assistant in criminal procedure at the Law Faculty of the Antwerp University since 2015. He also gives guest lectures at Ghent University and at the Belgian Institute for Judicial Training. Johan Heymans is also active as a human rights expert at the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe (CCBE) and at Fair Trials.


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Event Title: SDGs Conference 2023 Date: Sept 20, 2023


Strengthening the rule of law to combat the rise of authoritarianism: Intergovernmental Responses

As a group of human rights lawyers, we work on different human rights problems in the world. Sadly enough, we have worked a lot in Turkey in the last seven years. It is in light of these experiences that I want to make some reflections, particularly in regard to Goal 16. There is a need for more peace, justice, and stronger institutions because as we see in today’s world, the rule of law is under threat and pressure. There is one specific tendency that I want to highlight that is really close to my heart and it is a tendency that concerns abductions that have been the rapporteur to the Turkey Tribunal Opinions Tribunal.

It is a tendency that we see increasing in the world today. On the one hand, we have domestic abductions, which have existed for a really long time but are really increasing in frequency. However, these techniques are used to eliminate political opponents in most cases, or any event, critical voices towards the regime. There is also some other tendency that is, in a way, newer but is increasing very rapidly, that concerns international abductions where countries do not limit themselves to their boundaries. They go abroad to eliminate the people who were thinking that was safe, who were thinking that they could construct a new life and suddenly they are captured and illegally brought back to their home countries where they were tortured.

If I take the example of Turkey, in the last seven years, it has abducted individuals from 23 other countries, critical voices, and people whom they consider to be opponents of the regime. So, if you think about it, 1 in 9 countries have been working together with Turkey to eliminate critical voices that have nothing to do with but concern a purely Turkish affair. The second worrying aspect of that tendency is that countries like Turkey are not limited by the fact that these people enjoy the protection of the United Nations. They are not limited by the fact that these people have double nationalities. They are not even limited by the fact that these people have not lived in their respective countries for many years and are doing something completely different in another country.

Abductions are very worrying because it is normalizing an act that is an international crime. Countries are working together; they are sharing the same practices, finding strength with each other to normalize crimes that should not be normal. It forces different countries to work and collaborate on these practices towards a more authoritarian regime, a more authoritarian way of working and thinking. How we can solve that issue is through the intervention of different actors. One of these actors is, of course, civil society. I have seen it in the past; if they are quick to react and intervene immediately after someone has been adopted, they mobilize the international community. Sometimes you can stop the abduction and people are released again.

You also have human rights defenders, who start litigating, when people disappear, either in the host state or in the country where the person has been abducted to challenge the judges to release the person and to help them to find the person. We have also seen that happen in different countries, notably in countries that were working together with Turkey but then if a person disappears, that means that they end up in these secret detention facilities where they are tortured and abused. It is also important to take action and human rights defenders do that by filing complaints to the United Nations Human Rights Committee, which then renders provisional measures and imposes pressure on the different countries to release the people or at least make them resurface in the normal, official, and the judiciary system.

Then eventually, if the people resurface, most often that happens after a few weeks but usually it is a few months, a few years, and sometimes they never resurface again. It is important to get these people released as quickly as possible because they are pressured into not talking about what they suffered, and about not sharing the torture experiences that they have gone through. So, it is only when they are out that they can fully speak up and let us know what happened to them but these categories of people will be more familiar.

There is one category of people that we tend to forget and they are really important, which are judges; they have a huge responsibility in stopping these international crimes because in case there is a shift towards an authoritarian regime in a democratic state, a strong institutional and judicial framework can stop this deterioration.

We often see that when there is this strong judicial backbone democracy, even if it is harmed, it manages to survive for a number of years. However, it is at the moment when even the judicial backbone gives up that democracy and it has disappeared at lightning speed. It is really important to also focus on the judges.

If I take the example of Turkey again, over the last few years, thousands of people have been convicted of long sentences. We have been speaking about it for eight years as prolonged sentences are given on empty case files. If you open it, there is nothing in there; but even when there is something in the case files, it is evidence that a first-year law student would see that is not credible at all. Still, these judges convict the people and put them in prison.

I do not want to completely destroy the very honorable profession of being a judge because it is a very important profession. I know it is not easy what they have to do but because I have also seen lots of cases where judges were arrested in their courtrooms. I have one case that comes to my mind where a judge made a decision that was not in favor of the government policy. He was arrested in his courtroom and replaced by another who did the same thing because of the fact there was nothing in the case file. So, they said this person should be released. He was also arrested and then the third one came in and he saw his two colleagues being escorted to jail and he came to a different conclusion. However, I know that it is not easy but if you take on that responsibility, you have to make a choice. Either you do it properly or you do not do it at all.

It is really important, on the one hand, to support the judges who try to do a wonderful job in very hard circumstances. However, on the other hand, we should send out a wake-up call to show them that there are consequences for covering up these international crimes. For instance, the Turkey Tribunal is an opinions tribunal with no legally binding powers but we brought together judges from all over the world, all continents, and people with lots of experience. We presented them with five topics of serious human rights violations in Turkey. They looked at it independently and they came to a conclusion that crimes against humanity are being committed in Turkey.

Notably, they dedicated a lot of attention to the judges who are assisting, covering up these crimes, or not investigating the crimes that are being committed, for instance Turkey. Consequently, we also filed a complaint at the International Criminal Court, in this context, because it was remarkable. The Turkey Tribunal was followed by 2 million people and the most feedback that we got, reactions from the audience, came from judges who were asking, will there be consequences for me? Will I be held accountable because I am functioning in this defunct system? So for us, it showed that the work had an impact and that it could lead a change. That was also the reason why we filed the complaint before the International Criminal Court, not only against the politicians, the secret services, and the police officers who are participating in these crimes but also against the judges covering up everything that the other actors in this context have been doing.

We are also working around universal jurisdiction. It is a little bit comparable to sanctions in other countries like Russia. It all sounds or feels for them like there will be no consequences but then if they want to travel abroad for a holiday or their children study in some place and they want to go to visit them, the risk that they might be arrested for the crimes, the complicity in the crimes that they have been helping to commit. That sometimes helps to change the mindset of the people. It is not that I have the pretension to say that certainly will change the entire system and the rule of law in Turkey but also in other countries.

Still, I think it is important to know that every single one of us has skills and is good at something and that everybody if we unite and we keep on fighting for these things, that with these very small efforts combined and consistently done, can make great social impact and change. I think that it is important to remember for all of us that we should try to think about what we keep and what we can do. How can we help to make a difference? Often when you look at these big questions, you have the feeling that it is overwhelming and too complicated for an individual to do something. However, every single one of us can do something to change these situations.

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