Sunday, October 23, 2016

D.C. Youth Document the Human Rights City

In summer 2016, the Washington, D.C. Youth Ambassadors Summer Program, in partnership with the American Friends Service Committee and the DC Humanities Council, created a remarkable series of videos and photo-essays investigating the status of human rights in the nation's first human rights city, Washington, D.C.  These vivid videos are valuable in their own right, are models for similar projects elsewhere, and may be useful jumping off points for class discussions.  They deserve a wider viewership.  Here are links to several of the videos:  An Introduction to the HR Project; Human Rights in a Human Rights City: Tell us our Rights; and Human Rights in an Unrecognizable Human Rights City.  More are posted on Youtube.

October 23, 2016 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, October 20, 2016

An Opening to Create Allies

Many thanks to the Republican leaders who unequivocally withdrew all support for Donald Trump following the release of the Billy Bush video.  They are to be admired. While Paul Ryan who, early in the election process, refused to give an unqualified endorsement to the Trump candidacy, has said that he would not defend the Republican nominee, he was a reluctant supporter and lukewarm campaigner from the beginning.  It was interesting to watch him struggle with his instincts to stay away from Mr. Trump, but find the balance of being the party leader.  

Mr. Ryan was clear in his unwillingness to risk the Republic by campaigning for a man who from the outset promoted disrespect for many of those living in America as well as disregard for democratic principles.  Congressman Ryan’s recent response to Mr. Trump’s misogyny has been, in part, due to his being personally offended and not simply a response calculated to counter the loss of women’s support for the Republican Party.  

One lesson from this interesting debacle, has been that the party elders, such as Mitt Romney, immediately disavowed the Trump candidacy.  Mr. Ryan, coming from the circle of the far right experienced his first major test of leadership for all. Do what is right and the party will benefit.  Hopefully, Mr. Ryan has learned that the elders have wisdom.  That the "old-fashion" politics of compromise works and bipartisanship can work.  There is hope for  Mr. Ryan, even if it took the Mr. Trump's outrageously offensive acts to move him. Mr. Ryan is on the verge of becoming a solid party leader who follows his moral and political instincts to serve the country.  He will determine his own fate in 2017.

Mr. Ryan and his colleagues must continue to show support for women by setting aside what, during the present administration, appears to be opposition for opposition’s sake.  Mr. Ryan has an opportunity to lead us into an era where the best interest of the country is the paramount consideration.   Our political representatives may not like each other  and they may disagree on strategies that will keep our country strong: economically, politically and morally.   But they need to respect each other and be willing to reach compromise.  They must also be unwilling to concede to those who act solely to promote their own self-interest or personal bias.  

The determinative test of Mr. Ryan leadership is here.  He must decide whether  to work professionally with our first female president.  The continuous irrational refusal of Congress to work with each other as well as with the executive branch contributed to creating the vacuum that permitted Mr. Trump to claim the Republican nomination.  Paul Ryan was part of that  vacuum building. A courageous Mr. Ryan can reverse the atmosphere of distrust and non-cooperation, even in the face of criticism from his party colleagues.  Women will be grateful for a return to professional, issue-based discussion.   Setting aside tactics of hostility and anger, both rooted in the masculine, will help bring gender balance to political leadership and permit the country to recover some of the core values that seem to have been lost.

May Mr. Ryan find his way to seeing the election of our first woman president as an opportunity to infuse the feminine principles of respect and civility into his party’s leadership. 

October 20, 2016 in Margaret Drew | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Human Right to Social Security

"The right to social security is the right to access and maintain benefits, whether in cash or in kind, without discrimination in order to secure protection, inter alia, from (a) lack of work-related income caused by sickness, disability, maternity, employment injury, unemployment, old age, or death of a family member; (b) unaffordable access to health care; (c) insufficient family support, particularly for children and adult dependents." – Committee on the Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, General Comment 19

The human right to social security is overlooked in US debate.  The topic was absent from the national debate this election season until the final debate. Issues were largely ignored because personality and character flaws have dominated election discussion.  More recently funding mechanisms, raising the age of eligibility and privatization have been points of discussion.  Continuation of benefits is never assured by either party. 

None of the changes that politicians debate secure human rights for those most in need.  A good example is the debate about raising the age of eligibility.  For those at or near retirement age now, eligibility for full benefits begins at age 66.  Some advocate raising that age to 68.  That age may work for those of us privileged to work in academia and other non-physical positions.  But for the mechanic on his feet all day, 66 is often a hardship.  Those whose ailments develop earlier because of sustained physical work, placing social security benefits further out of reach is a denial of dignity.

Any measure that removes responsibility for government supported financial security risks the financial survival of millions.

There is no shortage of funding for Social Security.  If the funds collected through payroll were invested for the sole use of payment of benefits, each recipient could collect thousands more a month than is paid now.  But the collected funds are used toward the general budget, which presently includes substantial funding for the forever war.  That was not the intention when the payroll tax was developed. 

 The solution to providing for those who are disabled or elderly is simple.  The next time a politician or others talk about the "drain" that social security is taking on our domestic budget, we might suggest that segregating the social security payroll tax with the dedicated use being to support those in financial need.   Dignity of those in need of financial security is not optional.  We have the method and funding.  The government needs to make reparations to the depleted fund and prioritize the survival and dignity of those most in need.



October 19, 2016 in Economic Justice, Margaret Drew | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Resources for Teaching US Human Rights

Putting together a course on US human rights?  You're not alone!  There are a number of exemplary courses available on the internet.  A course on US human rights currently being offered by the University of Pennsylvania Africana Studies department is described here.  Columbia Law School offered a law course on US human rights advocacy in 2015, described here.  Information on a University of Connecticut sociology course focused on US human rights is available here.  Northeastern Law School will also offer a course on US human rights advocacy in 2016-2017.  It's worth noting that such courses are of particular interest to LLM students anxious to learn about the US approach to human rights.  Responding to this interest, the University of Connecticut recently launched a new L.L.M. in Human Rights and Social Justice, which links study of human rights with the US civil rights movement. 

Want more information?  As part of its "Teaching Human Rights" project, the University of Connecticut maintains a website with a wide range of human rights course syllabi.   The website is up to date, with a number of 2015 and even 2016 course syllabi posted to give instructors inspiration and ideas.  If you have another syllabus that you think should be included, contact the U Conn folks at



October 18, 2016 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, October 17, 2016

International Standards on Business and Human Rights: Is Drafting a New Treaty Worth It?

Professor Connie de la Vega, an occasional guest author on this blog, has posted a fascinating new paper that moves the ball forward on the debate over  the impact of a new business and human rights treaty.  Here's the abstract:


In 2014, the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted a resolution to establish a Working Group to draft a treaty on business and human rights. In the aftermath of this resolution, much is being written on what such a treaty would cover. And in light of the very close vote approving the resolution — and the likelihood that few developed countries would ratify the treaty — question may arise as to whether the effort to draft the treaty would be worth it. To answer this question, paper examines the International Convention for the Protection of All Rights of Migrant Workers and Their Families — which has only been ratified by a small number of states (and primarily by sending countries).

This paper first summarizes the history of the efforts to address corporate accountability, and examines the current voluntary and mandatory international standards relevant to the human rights obligations of businesses.

The paper then reviews the Convention on Migrant Workers and the Committee on Migrant Workers (CMW) Concluding Observations on reports of the States Parties. These reports indicate that states have adopted legislation to both educate their own citizens who might emigrate to other countries as well as to provide some benefits to migrant workers in their own countries. Despite the small number of States Parties to the Convention, this legislation demonstrates what can be done to protect the rights of migrant workers both in sending and receiving countries, and it helps develop best practices to promote their rights. And while the CMW has raised concerns regarding the adequacy of this legislation, the laws have helped to develop the legal standards regarding the definition of migrant workers, and regarding rights of those in irregular situations. The paper asserts that these benefits will clearly have an effect on the evolution of the law protecting migrant workers and their families. The Convention on Migrant Workers thus provides a good model for the possible benefits of a treaty on human rights, even if such a treaty is not widely ratified. First, the drafting of a binding document has helped develop the law on migrant workers. Second, the treaty has helped to promote and protect the rights of workers from sending states as well as migrants who live in the States Parties. 

The paper concludes that the drafting of a treaty on business and human rights could have a similar effect. Such a treaty could promote the development of international standards to address the topic at the international level, as well as the development of procedures at the national level. It could also provide a forum for addressing redress at the international level when the domestic procedures are not sufficient.


October 17, 2016 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Hope for the Planet- Enhancing the Montreal Protocol

The 28th Meeting of the Parties (MOP 28) to the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer met in Rwanda last week.  Among the discussion was the use and misuse Image1 of hydrofluorocarbons (HFC).    The related working group met immediately prior to the general meeting in order to write draft policy on HFC.  The use of HFC has environmental benefits.  Hydrofluorocarbons can substitute for chemicals that deplete the ozone layer.  Uncontrolled use of HFC leads to climate warming.  The meeting focused on ways to manage the use of HFC, which would prevent a rise in world temperature by more than half a degree Celsius by the end of the century.

On Saturday, 170 nations signed an agreement limiting the use of HFC in air conditioners and refrigerators. The agreement amends the Montreal Protocol, a pact agreed to so that unified actions could take steps to close the hole in the ozone layer.  At that time countries agreed to ban the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFC). 

The agreement exemplifies the UN's best. Nations working together to create solutions. The agreement acknowledges that poorer nations will take longer to implement HFC reduction. And scientists say slow implementation is insufficient to avert some warming. None of that takes away from the fact that 170 countries acknowledged the seriousness of the warming crisis and acted together to help save our planet.

October 16, 2016 in Environment, Margaret Drew | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, October 13, 2016

October Surprise

No, it's not another blog about the endless US election .  .  . the real surprise this October is that Bob Dylan is a Nobel prizewinner!  The crazy kids at the Swedish Academy found a way to cut through the mishigas and remind us that words, and music, matter and can raise us up.  That got us thinking about human rights and music and, no surprise here, there are many, many blogs devoted to this topic.  And most of them feature one or two Dylan songs.  Here are a few to check out:

Development Education offers a site that links World Music with human rights, featuring Blowin' in the Wind, among others. 

Amnesty International-Australia posts Ten Songs for Social Change, including Billie Holiday's Strange Fruit and Joan Baez with We Shall Overcome.

The government of Manitoba posts Human Rights Songs to augment the K-12 curriculum -- Dylan's The Times They are a Changing is one of the listings.

There are even course curricula on music and human rights, like this syllabus from Florida State University, which starts with a Charter of Musical Human Rights.

What are your top 10 human rights songs?  Use our blog's comment tab to share a Youtube link and spread the inspiration!

Whatever the election outcome, at least we can all look forward to the Nobel Prize ceremony in December.


October 13, 2016 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

UN Human Rights Chief Weighs in on US Election

In an unusual move, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Raad al-Hussein spoke out against a Trump presidency during a news conference in Geneva on October 12.  Speaking a few days after the 2d presidential debate where Trump threatened Clinton with jail time should he win the presidency, Mr. Hussein instead recalled candidate Trump's statements about torture and immigration.  As Mr. Hussein explained, when an election could result in an increase in the use of torture "or the focus on vulnerable communities in a way that suggests that they may well be deprived of their human rights, then I think it is incumbent to say so."  An audio version of the remarks is available here.  As noted on this site a few weeks ago, neither Trump nor Clinton has yet responded to Human Rights Watch's candidate questionnaire concerning their positions on human rights issues.     


October 12, 2016 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Misogyny Nation

I am neither surprised nor outraged at the latest disclosed remarks on Trumps physical assaults on women.  I never expected anything other than Mr. Trump's hatred for and abuse of women.  I am sad that as a nation America disrespects women.  

The signs were all there.  A history of calling women pigs, dogs and slobs; two lawsuits against him that allege either rape or attempted rape; assigning wives to traditional roles; disparaging one reporter's disability and another's menstruation, and more.  Combine that with other behavior and comments offending almost every group that is not white, rich and Christian and we Image1have all the indicia of misogyny and racism.  

Why wasn't the previously exposed behavior sufficient to cause the outrage we are now observing?  Because Americans minimize the impact of disrespectful behavior.  I thank the Washington Post for the latest disclosures.  Apparently hateful behavior will be challenged only if extreme.  If Trump is elected president, we could be a long way toward fascism before the populace even considers taking action.   To say nothing of women being exponentially more unsafe from physical assault than they are today. (For a humorous response to this failure to respond  to Trumps earlier disrespectful comments see John Oliver's comments.)

Image1This climate of tolerance and refusal to demand consequences for disrespectful behavior is fertile ground for the elimination of access to basic human rights.  We have traveled a good way down the disrespect road already.   I am not convinced that we will avoid human rights horrors in our future.

The responses of to the latest revelations have been universally condemming. This may give us a reprieve from total devolution, but until the country is willing to protect each of us from the indignities of misogyny and dismissiveness, I fear that our travel toward the hateful nation may have slowed, but not stopped.  




October 11, 2016 in Gender Oppression, Gender Violence, Margaret Drew | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, October 10, 2016

Donald's Smart Ways

contract images - Google Search

By Jeremiah Ho
In teaching American contract and remedies law in the years after the Great Recession, I have often encountered several examples from the U.S. mortgage crisis that seemed to broaden the scope of traditional contract doctrines, particularly in the realm of excuse doctrines.  What does this have to do with human rights?  Well, as I see it, it would not be far-fetched to suppose that we can derive endless lessons—individually and societally—from examining the mortgage crisis of the last decade.  From deceptive lending practices to the use of robo-signers, there are many instances that show us how we humans can be our own worst enemy and how we make choices that eventually prompt catastrophes of global impact.  We do not need natural disasters to impede us; our legacy sometimes says it all.  Generally-speaking, in contract law, that old classic adage, pacta sunt servanda, stands as the way in which contract law embodies a type of absolute liability—basically: if you break the contract, you pay for it.  But in the Great Recession, it seemed as if pacta sunt servanda was stretched—at least in commercial mortgages to further perhaps a “less absolute” system of contractual enforcement.  And the example started and ended with none other than, an example from Donald Trump.


The recent release of 3 pages of presidential candidate Donald Trump’s 1995 tax returns, showing—as he would claim it—how “smart” he was in averting taxes by claiming a $916 million dollar loss reminds me of how he dodged his mortgage default suit with Deutsche Bank during the Great Recession: by attempting to excuse himself against his creditors on a $640 million construction loan obligation for a Chicago high-rise through a commercial impracticability argument likened the Great Recession to a force majeur—essentially to an act of God.  Thus, in his argument, it would not be commercially practicable for him to complete his mortgage obligations because he could not have anticipated that such a world-wide economic downtown would have impaired his ability to honor those obligations to pay back the loans.  In contract law, breaching parties on a contract, who usually try to excuse themselves based on a reasoning that bad economic market conditions are like acts of God, get laughed out of court.  Even during bad market conditions, if you break it, you still have to pay for it.       

But the court here bought his argument.  Trump was excused.  What about all of the defaulting homeowners who would not and could not have been allowed to use the same impracticability excuse and same argument of the Great Recession to get themselves out of terrible mortgage obligations that they took on in homeownership?  Or even the individual consumers who bought real estate from Trump during that time and could not repay?  Likely they would not have been able to take advantage of Trump’s reasoning and excuse themselves from defaulting because their individual mortgage agreements for condos or apartments were not near the gargantuan worth of $640 million.  Trump got away with it because of the commercial aspects of his agreement and because of the money involved.  But why should the size of someone’s purse-strings shut them out from possibly a just recourse?  It’s interesting that in the eyes of contract law, often there is so little room for economic and human dignity.

In a “change election,” in which both presidential candidates have talked about economic disparity, my hope is our candidates do mean to both act with economic integrity and not with the leveraging power of their bank accounts.  That is not always the “smart” way in the long run.  

October 10, 2016 in Business, Jeremiah Ho | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, October 9, 2016

The Holiday formerly known as Columbus Day

In Genoa, Italy, Christopher Columbus is still touted as a most famous favorite son.  There, alongside boat models and other items, the Museum of the Sea displays a handwritten document from 1479 in which Columbus declares that he is a Genoese citizen going to Portugal to seek financial backing as he sets off on his voyage.

But here in the United States, more and more towns, cities, and states are shifting focus away from Columbus to the indigenous peoples who were already in America long before Columbus arrived.  In August of this year, Boulder, Colorado joined more than a dozen other cities and states across the country that have transformed Columbus Day, still a federal holiday, to Indigenous People's Day.  "I'm sorry it took so long," said Boulder's Mayor, Suzanne Jones.  Even more recently,  Denver, Phoenix, Yakima and Santa Fe have all approved similar resolutions.

Still, the pull of the Christopher Columbus story remains strong in some sectors.  In Cincinnati, on October 5, the city council rejected a proposal to adopt an Indigenous People's Day in lieu of Columbus Day.  Of 9 council members, 4 abstained, 1 opposed the proposals, and 4 supported it, leaving the measure one vote short of the majority needed to pass.  According to press reports, some council members were concerned about eclipsing Columbus Day, and suggested that the Indigenous People's Day should be set on a different date.  The bill sponsor said, however, that the point of the new designation was to "tell the full story of the history of this country," so that the Columbus story was not seen in isolation from the events that his voyage triggered.

Does designating a day really matter?  One disappointed activist in Cincinnati noted that an Indigenous People's Day would "not only include Native Americans in this very diverse city, but is also means that what my family endured will not be forgotten."  And the fact is, the old-style celebrations of Columbus Day are on the wane.  Even Columbus, Ohio, stopped its parades in the 1990s.  As many cities and states have found, a new designation for the holiday actually re-invigorates the day  in a way that celebrates contemporary America. 

In other words, let Genoa continue to maintain Christopher Columbus' legacy in its excellent museum.  Here in the US, we have a more complete and inclusive story to tell.    



October 9, 2016 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Atonement and Action for the Final 100 Days

Jonathan Todres

Image1Next week is Yom Kippur (Sundown, October 11 to Sundown, October 12), the Day of Atonement on the Jewish calendar. As tradition has it, atoning on Yom Kippur will address only sins against God. For transgressions against other individuals, Jews are obligated to seek forgiveness from and reconciliation with those people first. Yom Kippur also marks the end of the High Holidays, and thus offers the prospects of a fresh start and an opportunity to do better than we did the year before.

While I’m well aware that President Obama is not Jewish (or Muslim—are people still really talking about that?), I’d like to invite him to participate, at least in spirit.  And I think the timing is appropriate, because Yom Kippur falls approximately 100 days from the end of the Obama Presidency—leaving one final window of opportunity for the president while still in the Oval Office.

On his inauguration in 2009, newly-elected President Obama boldly proclaimed that “[a]s for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.” Human rights advocates hailed his election and speech as the dawn of a new, promising era of progress on human rights. The past eight years haven’t necessarily lived up to expectations.

So, with little more than 100 days left in the Obama Presidency, I have two hopes. First is that he is reflecting on shortcomings (e.g., no human rights treaty was ratified while he was in office; even President George W. Bush managed to achieve ratification of two human rights treaties). Second is that he will use these final 100 days to do better.  Yes, I know he faces significant opposition in the Senate (the Senate’s failure to approve the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was deeply disappointing). But at the risk of sounding naïve, if you aren’t willing to try to advance the ball on human rights when holding arguably the most powerful position in the world, when is the right time? 

The “To Do List” for human rights is lengthy. But here are three options for President Obama that can be done within 100 days:

  1. End the federal government practice of confining migrant children in detention centers. No six-year-old who has fled violence in search of safety should be “welcomed” by being incarcerated. A recent essay by Wendy Cervantes at First Focus sheds light on this practice.
  1. Ban child labor in tobacco production. The adverse health consequences of tobacco use are well known. Less well-known is the harm inflicted on those who work in tobacco fields, particularly children. In August 2016, 110 organizations called on President Obama to protect children from “acute nicotine poisoning and other health and safety hazards faced by children working in US tobacco fields.” (click here for the letter to President Obama from the Child Labor Coalition and other organizations).
  1. 3. Send the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) to the Senate. The U.S. is now the only country in the world that has not ratified the CRC. This is the closest any human rights treaty has come to universal acceptance. Since the U.S. signed the treaty in 1995, no President has taken further action. No one can prevent President Obama from forwarding the treaty to the Senate for its advice and consent. Are there sufficient votes in the Senate now for ratification? Probably not. Might some Senators object? Probably.  But it’s President Obama’s decision, and sending the treaty to the Senate would be a step forward.

These three opportunities all have two important things in common: First, President Obama has the power to act on all of these. Second, all three steps would help move the United States in direction of ensuring the rights and well-being of children. It’s time for action.

October 6, 2016 in Children, Convention of the Rights of Children, Jonathan Todres | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

The Consequences of Clean Water Deprivation

Flint Michigan is undergoing an outbreak of infectious disease.  Shigellosis is a contagious disease that causes fever, stomach pain and diarrhea.   Since the city of Flint and the state of Michigan began sending lead contaminated brown water through the city water pipes, the residents have taken measures to avoid using local water. 

Image1Clean water has been distributed at various points for city residents.  Along with the water, residents were given "baby wipes".  While the wipes have the ability to remove dirt, chlorinated water used with traditional soaps are more effective in eliminating harmful bacteria.  The inability of residents to access clean municipal water that is seen as the source of the infectious illness.  But Flint residents, understandably, do not trust the water being provided by the city.  While many residents have filters on their faucets and showers, hot water reduces the life of the filters.  The residents' ability to afford frequent filter replacement is limited.

This is the second outbreak of infectious disease experienced in Flint.  Two years ago, the residents saw an outbreak of Legionnaires' disease.

The human right to clean water, the most essential ingredient in human survival, remains a low priority in many US cities, with Flint evidencing the consequences.



October 5, 2016 in Health, Margaret Drew, Water | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Justice(s) in Alabama

Image1We reported in August, 2015, about the resistance of some Alabama judges to implementing Obergefell.  Behind the resistance was Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, Roy Moore. Last week Justice Moore was suspended from office by the Alabama Court of the Judiciary for refusing to implement same sex marriage and instructing others not to issue marriage licenses.  Justice Moore was suspended without pay and he will remain unpaid for the next six years.  At the end of the term,  he will be too old to run for chief judge.  

Moore used a tired rationalization to disguise his prejudice toward those who are not heterosexual.  He argued that the federal government lacked authority to direct the states.  In suspending the judge, the judiciary noted that Moore was not the only one on the Supreme Court who disagreed personally with the Obergefell ruling.  But, the Court noted, "This Court simply does not have the authority to reexamine those issues."

This is the second time Moore has been relieved of his duties as a Supreme Court Justice.  In 2003 he was  removed from office for refusing to remove a replica of the ten commandments from display in the State Judiciary building.  Again he claimed that he was not bound by federal authority.

In a culture where judges and others refuse to accept federal authority, we can only imagine the depth of difficulties encountered for advocates advancing global human rights principles.

October 4, 2016 in Equality, Margaret Drew, Marriage Equality | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, October 3, 2016

Playing The Woman Card

In the past few days, the US presidential campaign sank to new depths, with Democratic and Republican candidates debating Trump's misogynist treatment of a former Miss Universe.  As if this was not enough, Rudolph Giuliani, a surrogate for the GOP candidate, made a straight up appeal to voters based on the candidates' chromosomal make-up, in combination with their ability to manipulate the tax code:  "Don’t you think a man who has this kind of economic genius is a lot better for the United States than a woman . . ."  Young female citizens who might have been thinking that they could be president one day have gotten their comeuppance.   

Looking for a place to process all of this?  In a timely event, the Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta will host a discussion on Women and Politics on October 27, 6 - 8:30 p.m.  More information is available here.  The discussion is billed as "a candid conversation on gender bias in the United States political system," addressing "whether it is important to elect a female president."  Those who are able to attend will have much to discuss.




October 3, 2016 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, October 2, 2016

The Age of the Child

The Age of the Child

Tamar Birckhead

(Yale Law School)




Image1Recently I had the opportunity to spend time with a group of wonderful clinical law professors who were visiting New Haven, Connecticut from Israel.  I took several of them to the local juvenile delinquency court for the morning session, and they had the opportunity to observe a few hearings, talk with two of the court’s judges, and ask lots of questions (in addition to seeing how quickly the landscape changes just half a mile from Yale’s campus). 

Having moved here for the academic year from North Carolina, I consider Connecticut’s juvenile court system to be extremely enlightened in comparison.  In North Carolina the upper age cutoff for original juvenile court jurisdiction is 16, while in Connecticut it is 18, with Governor Dannel Malloy advocating for including 19 and 20 year-olds.  In North Carolina the decision to transfer a child from juvenile to adult criminal court for prosecution hinges primarily on the protection of the public, while in Connecticut the judge must consider the best interests of the child as well as the public.  In North Carolina placement in detention is a regular occurrence, while the presumption in Connecticut is to keep adolescents at home or in the community and to provide comprehensive support and services.   Likewise, in North Carolina youths receive no credit for pretrial detention when subsequently placed on probation, but in Connecticut they earn a reduction of the probation period equal to the number of days spent in detention or lockup. 

Yet, whether it is North Carolina, Connecticut, or any other jurisdiction in the United States, none can compare to Israel’s enlightened approach to juvenile justice.  There, only children who are at least 12 years-old can be found to be criminally responsible and, thus, prosecuted in the juvenile court system, while in North Carolina it is as young as 6, and in Connecticut it is 7.  In the United States, youths may be committed to juvenile detention or long-term incarceration facilities as preadolescents (in North Carolina as young as 10, and in Connecticut at 7), while in Israel, children must be at least 15 before they can be imprisoned.  Furthermore, Israeli juveniles cannot be transferred to the adult court under any circumstances.

Needless to say, the visiting Israeli clinical law professors were shocked to learn about the comparatively harsh procedures and practices of the U.S. juvenile justice system, yet they also pointed out a striking similarity.  Just as there is a disproportionate number of low-income children of color in American juvenile courts, in Israel there is a disproportionate number of children who are Arabs or immigrants from Ethiopia or Russia.   Likewise, in both countries a significant proportion of children in juvenile court is low-income, struggles academically, and has experienced trauma.  In other words, just as the U.S. system serves as a method of social control over youths living on the socioeconomic and racial/ethnic margins, the same trend exists in a comparatively enlightened system on the other side of the globe.  And so it goes….

October 2, 2016 in Juveniles, Tamar Birckhead | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Humanity at Sea

New this month from Cambridge University Press is the book Humanity at Sea: Maritime Migration and the Foundations of International Law, by Itamar Mann, University of Haifa.  According to the publisher's blurb:

This interdisciplinary study engages law, history, and political theory in a first attempt to crystallize the lessons the global 'refugee crisis' can teach us about the nature of international law. It connects the dots between the actions of Jewish migrants to Palestine after WWII, Vietnamese 'boatpeople', Haitian refugees seeking to reach Florida, Middle Eastern migrants and refugees bound to Australia, and Syrian refugees currently crossing the Mediterranean, and then legal responses by states and international organizations to these movements. Through its account of maritime migration, the book proposes a theory of human rights modelled around an encounter between individuals in which one of the parties is at great risk. It weaves together primary sources, insights from the work of twentieth-century thinkers such as Hannah Arendt and Emmanuel Levinas, and other legal materials to form a rich account of an issue of increasing global concern. 

September 29, 2016 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

UN Recommends Reparations for US Racial Discrimination

The Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent was established in 2002 by the Commission on Human Rights. Image1 Among the Group's 2008 charges were to study the problems of racial discrimination faced by people of African descent living in the diaspora and, to that end, gather all relevant information from Governments, non-governmental organizations and other relevant sources.   The means of gathering relevant information include holding  public meetings.  The Group is instructed to  propose measures to ensure full and effective access to the justice system by people of African descent.  

The findngs document a US history of racial terrorism.  Among the working group's findings are: "In particular, the legacy of colonial history, enslavement, racial subordination and segregation, racial terrorism and racial inequality in the United States remains a serious challenge, as there has been no real commitment to reparations and to truth and reconciliation for people of African descent," the report stated. "Contemporary police killings and the trauma that they create are reminiscent of the past racial terror of lynching."

Recognizing police killing of unarmed black men as having created a crisis, the Working Group reports that there is a sense of urgency to resolve this human rights crisis. 

The Working Group made many suggestions that would go a long way in remedying institutional racism.  Among the recommendations are:

                    Immediately abolish police in schools.

                    Police misconduct investigations to be conducted by independent investigators.

                    Misdemeanor laws that result in the over-charging and over-incarceration of people of color be abolished.  One example given is South Carolina's law making a school disturbance a misdemeanor.

                    That younger prisoners be separated from adults and male prisoners from female ones.

The Group addressed reparations as one remedy.  From apology and debt cancellation to educational and healthcare opportunities, the Group addressed steps that are critical to addressing the consequences of societal and institutional racism.  

The problem with reparations is that in order to arrive at a place where Americans endorse them, the place where the culture is ready to recognize the harm must first be reached.  We are a long way from there.  Achieving recognition of the state's contributions to extreme suffering forced upon African Americans is not hopeless thanks to the new wave of activism, including Black Lives Matter.  However, President Obama' election unleased racism across the country.  Undermining the power of the first black president became the goal of those in the political and social systems.  The fact that any new social legislation passed over the past eight years is nothing short of a miracle.  The racism obvious in the current presidential election politics provides a vehicle for individuals to act on their persistent white supremacy beliefs.  We will find out soon if political racism can be defeated in our upcoming elections. 

But as the working group found, racial terrorism has created a crisis in America.  Perhaps this crisis will collide with new wave activism and create a real opportunity for the country to admit the heinousness of the aftermath of slavery.    One day it may be that a series of crisis or one horrendous crisis will result in a serious discussion on how to repair the damage we have done.  

The findings are worth a read in their entirety.  The Group brings to its report the clarity that often comes from outsiders looking in.  The diagnoses of the problems is accurate and the suggested remedies thoughtful. 



September 28, 2016 in Marriage Equality, Race, United Nations | Permalink | Comments (0)

Prison Labor Conditions: A Human Rights Issue?

This month, about 24, 000 prison laborers from 29 prisons in 12 states went on strike.  Tired of working for pennies an hour -- or in some states, no pay at all -- under conditions that many compare to slavery, these prisoners nonviolently refused to report to their work assignments.  In some facilities, prison guards staged sympathetic strikes to support the prisoners.  

The 13th Amendment to the US Constitution abolished slavery, but explicitly exempted prison labor, effectively permitting prisons to perpetuate slave-like conditions for convicted prison workers.  While much of the labor is for public services, some is for corporations like Walmart, AT&T and Whole Foods that gain a financial benefit from exploiting this cheap labor pool.  

According to one news report, the idea for the strike originated with Melvin Ray, an Alabama prisoner serving a life sentence for murder.  Ray describes this, and a range of related issues concerning prison conditions, as human rights issues.  Says Ray, who is currently in solitary confinement because of his organizing activities, "If you’re compassionate about human rights, support what we’re doing."

To learn more about this issue, check out the report in the Atlantic and detailed coverage by the Marshall Project.

September 28, 2016 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Both Clinton and Trump Fail to Respond to Human Rights Questions

As this election season continues to careen toward November 8, the focus on temperament and tweets has supplanted any serious discussion of human rights issues.  The Presidential debate included no mention of Guantanamo, for instance, and the candidates are seldom, if ever, called on to address US ratification of CEDAW or other human rights instruments.  Human Rights Watch circulated a questionnaire to the candidates, with a September 9 deadline.  As of September 26, Jill Stein was the only candidate to submit her answers.  Shouldn't the candidates of the two major parties feel at least a little heat for their failure to respond to HRW?  Kudos to the Green Party for taking human rights seriously as a campaign concern.  For the others -- it's not too late to send in your answers to HRW's questions!

September 27, 2016 | Permalink | Comments (0)