May 2021 has been a turbulent month in legal news on various fronts. Most importantly, the conflict between Israel and Palestine has erupted into violence in the Gaza Strip with stark implications for international law. In the United Kingdom, a new parliamentary session opened with the Queen’s Speech, announcing 31 new pieces of legislation that the UK intends to put forward this session. Across the pond, President Joe Biden reversed policy enacted under the Trump administration which rolled back healthcare protections for LGBTQ+ individuals. Here are some legal highlights from last month.
Ceasefire Signed to Temporarily Calm Israeli-Palestinian Tensions
Conflict in the region escalated quickly early in the month after Israeli troops stormed the Al Aqsa mosque and fired tear gas upon Muslim worshippers celebrating the final days of the Holy Month of Ramadan. The subsequent Palestinian response included increased protests and attempted rocket strikes by militant group Hamas which was met by Israel's strategic bombardment of Gaza. The recent spike in violence highlighted tensions between the two states which has been escalating recently due to Israel's attempts to colonise the West Bank and other Palestinian lands.
The conflict in East Jerusalem led to the most severe violence the conflict has seen in decades. Reports indicate at least 243 Palestinians have been casualties of the violence, with an additional 1620 people reported wounded. Israeli medical services have reported 12 killed as a result of the violence.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) announced on 18 May that the Israel-Palestine conflict has resulted in over 58,000 Palestinians being displaced from their homes in Gaza. As the violence continues to intensify, the International Criminal Court is monitoring the conflict for war crimes from both sides. Protests in solidarity with both Palestinians and Israelis have broken out around the globe.
In an emergency meeting on 16 May, United Nations Secretary-General began with an appeal for a ceasefire, stating that the
“senseless cycle of bloodshed, terror and destruction must stop immediately. All parties must respect international humanitarian law and international human rights law”.
On 20 May, a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, a Palestinian militant group, was declared, with both sides claiming victory in the conflict. The ceasefire, which was mediated in Egypt and received wide support by Western nations, is viewed to be a temporary fix to deep-rooted, century-old issues.
However, talks have restarted late this month to find a more permanent solution to calm tensions within Gaza. Topics to be discussed include allowing for the easier transport of necessary goods into the region, special protections to religious sites and practices, as well as financial aid required to rebuild parts of Gaza destroyed by Israeli strikes.
Ryanair Flight's Forced Diversion Raises Eastern European Tensions
The flight, which was scheduled between Greece and Lithuania, was intercepted by Belarusian fighter jets and forced to land under the guise of a false bomb threat. Once on the ground in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, outspoken journalist Roman Protasevich was taken into custody, likely due to the blogger's public criticisms of Belarus's authoritarian leader Aleksandr Lukashenko. International probes into the incident and its legal implications have been opened but progress has slowed due to a lack of intergovernmental cooperation and restricted access to flight data recorders.
Ryan O'Leary, Chief Executive Officer of Ryanair, called the act an example of modern-day "state-sponsored piracy" and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen tweeted that the "outrageous and illegal behaviors of the regime in Belarus will have consequences". This is because the act was directly opposing the International Civil Aviation Organisation which has support from every country on earth and directly orders that "every State must refrain from resorting to the use of military force against passenger flights".
Such consequences have materialised into American sanctions against the country's petrochemical industry and treasury, as well as the threat of similar policies being imposed by the European Union. However, sanctions have mixed success against the Eastern European state due to strong regional connections, notably with Russia.
United States Restricts Fish Imports from China to Protect Workers’ Rights
High-grade tuna shipments from Dalian Ocean Fishing, which operates multiple vessels throughout the Pacific Ocean, will be turned away by Customs and Borders Protection (CBP). This decision was made after investigations into the potential forced labour and human rights-violating practices seen on the boats. Workers are expected to work 18-22 hours daily in abysmal conditions which strictly opposes the CBP's stance on foreign workers’ treatment. Head of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas said "we will not tolerate any amount derived from forced labor" not only due to ethical reasons but also fair market practices and protecting American producers.
The move against Chinese Fishing Vessels also comes as the country's fleet is increasingly viewed as a threat to American national security. Chinese fishing vessels have been consistently used as positioning pawns in the South China Sea to both gain more regional influence and to questionably expand fishing production. Recently, government-subsidised ships have also been found loitering ever closer to Hawaii, catching the attention of the US Military and strengthening America's resolve against illegal fishing in the region.
American Bar Association Study Finds Lack of Diversity Among Big Law Partnerships
A year on from George Floyd's murder and the subsequent long-overdue emphasis on Diversity and Inclusion across the corporate world has failed to substantially impact the makeup of top 200 grossing law firms' partnerships. The ABA reports that only 2.2 percent, up from 2.1 percent in 2019, of partners are Black and that 16 of the top 200 firms report no Black representation among their most senior ranks. Particularly concerning are logistics which have hidden this inequity. American Lawyers 2021 Survey, which rates firms based on their diversity, ranked an immigration law firm with no Black partners as "number one" for Diversity and Inclusion. Similarly, the publication highly ranked many firms for diversity despite their respective lack of representation.
Brussels and Pfizer Agree to Provide Additional 1.8 Million COVID-19 Vaccine Doses
On 20 May, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced a new deal between Brussels and Pfizer/BioNTech, providing the European Union with an additional 1.8 billion doses of the COVID-19 vaccine by 2023. The contract stipulates that the doses must be manufactured within the EU and that the essential components must also be sourced from these countries. Moreover, the contract allows the 27-country bloc to purchase an additional 900 million doses.
“With our signature, the new contract is now in force, which is good news for our long-term fights to protect European citizens against the virus and its variants,” von der Leyen said in a statement.
The European Union Commission has further stated that the new contract may encourage countries to donate vaccines abroad, facilitating the global vaccination process. The contract reinforces the “possibility for member states to resell or donate doses to countries in need outside the EU or through the COVAX Facility”.
New Session in UK Parliament Opens with Queen’s Speech
In a ten-minute speech in the House of Lords, the Queen officially reopened the UK parliament on 11 May, outlining 31 new pieces of legislation that ministers intend to pass in the coming year.
A few bills have been particularly controversial in the legal sector. For example, the Judicial Review Bill, which will set out the government’s plans to change how decisions can be challenged in the courts, aims to “strengthen and renew democracy and the constitution” by restoring the “balance of power between the executive, legislature and the courts”.
Also of note is the new plan for immigration legislation which will deny indefinite leave to remain to people who enter the UK through non-legitimate routes. After entering the UK, those who claim asylum will be granted “temporary protection status”, subject to regular reassessment.
The Police, Crime, Sentencing, and Courts Bill, which originated in the previous parliamentary session, will also be taken forward “to increase the safety and security” of UK citizens, implementing procedures for the “timely administration of justice” and increasing sentences “for the most serious and violent offenders”.
Other areas discussed in the Queen’s Speech include infrastructure, housing, education, and constitutional reform, all while emphasising that the government’s priority is “to deliver a national recovery from the pandemic that makes the United Kingdom stronger, healthier and more prosperous than before”.
LGBTQ Healthcare Protections Reinstated by Biden Administration
On 10 May, the United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Xavier Becerra announced on Monday that healthcare providers are prohibited from discriminating against gay and transgender individuals. This reversed a controversial policy implemented under former President Donald Trump.
The Affordable Care Act (2010), often known as Obamacare, was designed to extend health coverage to millions of uninsured Americans. In June 2020, the HHS under the Trump administration proposed a rule consisting of a rewrite of section 1557 which would strike down protections for LGBTQ+ patients. The new position of HHS under the Biden administration has seen a reversal of Trump’s policies, allowing the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) to extend the interpretation of the Affordable Care Act and Title IX’s prohibitions on discrimination based on sex to include discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. This interpretation enables the Office for Civil Rights to exert the enforcement mechanisms available under Title IX in healthcare discrimination cases.
Becerra stated, “The Supreme Court has made clear that people have a right not to be discriminated against on the basis of sex and receive equal treatment under the law, no matter how their gender identity or sexual orientation. That’s why today HHS announced it will act on related reports of discrimination”.