Legal News Roundup: August 2021
August 2021 has experienced significant developments in legal news, from the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan to legal suits against the United Kingdom's hotel quarantine system. Here are the top headlines from this month.
COVID-19 Vaccine Passports and their Political, Social and Economic Ramifications
As more populations are immunised against COVID-19, the prospect of COVID “Vaccine Passports” or a digital/paper document that shows you have been vaccinated against COVID-19 has become a reality. Such documentation will allow holders to avoid quarantine when traveling and grant them entry into a range of different venues.
Currently, many countries have opted to create some form of COVID vaccine passport such as the United Kingdom’s National Health Service COVID pass, the European Union’s Digital COVID Certificate (EUDCC), Israel’s green pass system and state-wide vaccination apps in California, New York, Hawaii and Louisiana. Some countries, such as France, have their own digital certificates which regulate entry into clubs, bars, cafes and restaurants.
Usage varies from country to country with some nations, such as the UK, planning to make proof of full vaccination a condition of entry to nightclubs and other such venues in which large crowds gather. This is due to be implemented by the end of next month.
Monitoring of health conditions on such a global scale as this has not been seen in history before and as such there are many implications – legal and otherwise, for vaccine passports. Many critics find the move a fundamental violation of human rights but is this true?
In terms of litigation, in the UK, the passports must comply with the Human Rights Act of 1988; Article 8 of which stipulates the right to a “private and family life”. This could extend to include medical status. However, this Article could be suspended on the grounds of “national security, public safety or the economic wellbeing of the country”. Whether the implementation of vaccine passports infringes on this Article is dubious, considering it is only being used for specific venues and travel and does not prevent social interactions broadly.
However, though legally sound, vaccine passports have come under fire due to their cross-border incompatibility. The EUDCC was recently criticised for not recognising the Indian Covishield vaccine which has been primarily used in low and middle-income countries. Claims of discrimination on the basis of race have subsequently been made. Similarly, there are further issues of recognition pertaining to the use of UK COVID vaccine passports in some European countries. This is due to a delay in syncing the NHS’ electronic COVID pass with the EU-wide IT system which tracks vaccination certificates. As such, this system is problematic in terms of its accessibility to all.
There are also security concerns with the vaccine passport system in terms of the data upon which passports are based. Medical data is personal in nature and, as such, if third-party apps are used as part of accessing vaccine passes, it could give leeway to bugs or outside attackers getting hold of personal information. The question of how long venues such as nightclubs can store customers’ vaccine information has also been posed. Therefore, considerable attention must also be paid to ensure sensitive information is not mishandled with the use of vaccine passes.
The outcome of these passports is uncertain and only time will tell the extent of their ramifications. What is known for certain is that they will most certainly place a degree of strain on industries that use them. Travel, hospitality and leisure sectors will be responsible for validating passports and also handling situations in which customers refuse to provide them on grounds of discrimination. This will no doubt be a considerable amount of added pressure for sectors already heavily affected by the last year and a half of the pandemic.
Afghanistan under the Taliban: What is Sharia Law and what are its Implications for Women?
As the world reels from the sudden Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, concerns have been made over how Sharia law will impact Afghan women. Recently, the Taliban have stated that women’s rights in Afghanistan will be respected “within the framework of Islamic law”, but what does this mean?
Sharia law is the legal system derived from the Quran and other holy Islamic texts. It provides a code of conduct for Muslim life, including rules on how to pray, undertake charitable acts and fast. These Islamic laws are interpreted differently depending on the country; Saudi Arabia and Iran impose their own versions of Sharia law which include dress codes for women and gender segregation in certain public places.
When the Taliban controlled Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001, they introduced a strict interpretation of Sharia law which required women to wear an all-covering burqa, discouraged girls aged 10 and over from going to school and prevented women from going to work and accessing healthcare administered by men. They were also required to be accompanied by a male guardian if they left the house.
Since taking control, the Taliban have been attempting to project a considerably moderate image of themselves than previously. In a press conference, the groups’ spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid stated that they “are going to allow women to work and study within our frameworks” and that “women are going to be very active within [their] society”. However, he did not expand on what dress codes would be imposed nor what roles women would be able to hold in the workforce.
There have been mixed reactions from Afghans with one female Kabul resident telling the BBC she does not “believe what they’re saying – it’s a ruse and we’re being lured outside to be punished. I refused to study or work under their laws”. Indeed, many are critical of the Taliban’s claims, as earlier this month the group escorted nine female bank employees in the city of Kandahar home and told their male relatives to replace them. For now, it is hard to tell what the future will look like for Afghanistan’s female population. However, there is widespread fear that the group will inevitably revert to its old stance on women’s rights, irreparably undoing any progress made in the last 20 years.
UK Imposes Tighter Sanctions on Belarus due to Human Rights Violations
Further sanctions have been placed on Belarus by the UK in response to the human rights violations and disregard to democratic ideals made by Alexander Lukashenko’s regime. These trade, financial and aviation sanctions are in addition to the designations imposed in June 2021 by the UK, the US, Canada and EU against 7 officials from Belarus following the detention of journalists Roman Protasevich and Sofia Sapega after the hijacking of Ryanair flight FR4978.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has stated that “these sanctions demonstrate that the UK will not accept Lukashenko’s actions since the fraudulent election” and that “products of Lukashenko’s state-owned industries will not be sold in the UK”. These measures are part of a wider attempt to increase pressure on Lukashenko’s autocratic regime. The sanctions will include aviation measures that will ban Belarusian airlines from flying over or landing in the UK and no assistance will be permitted to any private jets owned by Lukashenko. They will also include trade embargos on Belarus’ potash and petroleum sectors and affect the country’s state-owned banks as the British government has forbidden the purchase of any shares or treasury bills issued by them.
Lukashenko responded to the new sanctions by saying Britain can “choke on them.” However, he also told Western leaders to negotiate rather than increase sanctions and denied allegations that he is an autocrat. Nevertheless, the regime has been violently cracking down on protesters and many have fled the country for fear of arrest. Most recently, Belarusian sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya was forced to fly back home for speaking out about her coach at the Tokyo Olympics; the athlete has since been offered refuge in Poland after seeking protection from Japanese authorities at Haneda airport.
Quarantine Hotel Rules due to Face Legal Stipulations
A law firm has challenged the UK’s quarantine hotel policy on behalf of travelers. The current regulations require passengers to spend 11 nights in hotels when returning from red list countries. This is regardless of complete vaccination status and testing negative for COVID-19. London-based law firm PGMBM has argued that such a requirement is equal to “false imprisonment” and an “unlawful deprivation of liberty”.
The cost of quarantine hotels has risen this month from GBP 1,750 to GBP 2,285 and, alongside recent complaints of harassment of female guests by male security guards and poor quality of food and hygiene, many travelers are speaking out against the government policy.
The legal team is seeking compensation for their clients – mainly individuals who have traveled to red list countries for urgent reasons or to visit family – as well as those who have been double-jabbed and stayed in quarantine hotels. Tom Goodhead, Managing Partner of PGMBM, stated that other European countries, such as Ireland and Norway have amended their mandatory quarantine schemes to exempt the fully vaccinated and that the UK “must follow suit immediately”. Currently, there are 60 countries on the red list, including Mexico, Pakistan, Turkey and most of South America and Africa.
Poland Passes Controversial Bill which will Affect Holocaust Survivors and their Families
Poland’s President Andrzej Duda has recently approved a bill that will limit the opportunity for Jewish people to recover property seized by Nazi German occupiers and later retained by post-war Communist rulers. The signing of this Amendment has sparked a diplomatic crisis with Israel’s ambassador to Poland claiming the law is “anti-Semitic”.
Prior to World War II, Poland was home to one of the largest Jewish communities – a demographic almost entirely wiped out by the Nazis. Until now Jewish expatriates or their descendants have been able to make a claim to illegally seized property yet Polish officials have argued this caused uncertainty over property ownership.
As such the bill sets a 30-year limit for restitution claims made by both Jewish and non-Jewish claimants. However, critics have stated the Jewish owners have often been late in lodging claims following the war and will be disproportionately affected.
The law has been condemned by Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett who stated it was “a shameful decision and a disgraceful contempt for the memory of the Holocaust”. Israel’s Ambassador to Poland was also called home immediately in response.
Climate Consciousness: UK Law Firms Rated Worst for Transactions which Accelerate Climate Change
The 2021 Law Firm Climate Change Scorecard, compiled by United States-based Law Students for Climate Accountability (LSCA), has named Allen & Overy and Clifford Chance as the worst law firms for accelerating climate change by undertaking transactional work for the fossil fuel industry. It is estimated that between 2016-2020, Allen & Overy and Clifford Chance completed transactions valued at US$ 125 billion and US$ 124 billion, respectively. Linklaters and Norton Rose Fulbright were also ranked sixth and ninth-worst.
The LSCA has claimed that top law firms have facilitated US$ 1.36 trillion in fossil fuel transactions – a US$ 50bn increase from last year’s report. The group stated that law firms can no longer maintain socially responsible reputations when supporting fossil fuel-related clients.
A spokeswoman for Allen & Overy stated that the firm does “more renewables work than any other law firm” and that they “have recently further increased [their] capacity in this area with the acquisition of a market-leading renewable energy practice in the US to help clients navigate the global energy transition”. Nevertheless, the LSCA reported the UK firm was the legal adviser to more transaction work for the fossil fuel industry than 75 top 100 firms combined.
With Extinction Rebellion protests beginning again this week in London, law firms will certainly be facing scrutiny in the approaching days.