Thursday, August 13, 2020

Wanted: Non-partisan Election Observers to Protect Our Democracy

Worried about the integrity of the United States' November presidential election?  So are our peer countries the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).  In June of this year, at the invitation of the State Department, the OSCE sent a preliminary team to determine whether monitoring was warranted. Their conclusion?  They recommended sending up to 500 short-term and long-term observers. Recruitment of those observers, who must come from outside the U.S., was completed earlier this month.  

The OSCE preliminary report also expressed concern that the U.S. had done little to respond to the group's prior recommendations on election integrity. Notably, non-partisan observers are not allowed for federal elections in a number of states. The OSCE preliminary report expressed particular concern regarding voter intimidation. This November, for the first time in decades, Republican poll-watchers will be allowed on the premises, with the explicit mission of challenging hapless individuals attempting to cast their ballots; the 30-year consent decree that barred this activity because of a record of Republican voter intimidation expired in 2018. 

Non -partisan election observers can provide an important check on efforts to undermine democratic elections. But with the complexity of the U.S. system, and the partisan onslaught on voting during a pandemic -- beginning with undercutting the mails themselves -- will the situation prove to be too much for observers to handle? In the end, we must save our own democracy, but human rights activists in the U.S. should do what we can to ensure that the OSCE's election observers are heard as part of that process.  

August 13, 2020 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Biden-Harris and BLM and Saving Democracy

Much excitement has greeted Mr. Biden's announcement that his vice-presidential running mate is Senator Kamala Harris.

The selection of a Black, female running mate is a consequence of and a response to the Black Lives Matter movement.  Harris is not without her controversy, particularly on issues of mass incarceration and prosecutorial rigidity.  During her prosecutorial and Attorney General days  she opposed release of incarcerated people proved innocent.  Then after their release she opposed awarding the compensation to the exonerees.   Law and order was one of her signature policies.  Both Biden and Harris will have difficulty distancing themselves from the players who maintained (and in Biden's case built) the carceral state.

That said, Senator Harris brings high energy to the campaign and she brings self-confidence and a commitment to helping the most desperate during the current health crisis.  She knows how Congress works and is a good match for the bad boys of Congress. Her inquiries at the Kavanaugh hearings revealed her understanding of issues that impact women.  And her parental heritage ensures her understanding of multiple cultures.

How exciting it would be if our first female president is a woman of color.  The vice-presidency could set her up well for a  presidential run.

No candidate will meet all needs.  But as the authors of How Democracies Die reminds us, in order to defeat an autocrat it is only necessary that opposition groups unite behind the alternative candidate. Whatever disagreements anti-autocrats may have with the alternate candidate are unimportant.  Unification to defeat the autocrat is imperative to the survival of a democratic state. Everything else can be dealt with later.  The 2020 election is our turning point.  Post-election we either struggle on as a democracy or we bid farewell to the Republic and acknowledge the solidification of the US as an authoritarian state.

August 12, 2020 in Margaret Drew, Voting | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Water Rights Litigation Update

In a groundbreaking case, the ACLU of Michigan, the NAACP LDF, and others, in July filed a class action lawsuit seeking to permanently end Detroit's practice of shutting off water to households regardless of need. While shutoffs are suspended to the end of the year by virtue of the Governor's emergency order, they are slated to resume eventually. In addition to injunctive relief, plaintiffs seek compensatory and punitive damages for the injuries that they suffered as a result of past household water shutoffs, some of which extended for years.

Importantly, this suit raises the novel claim that water access is a substantive due process right, particularly during a pandemic when public health is jeopardized by lack of household water. In addition, the suit presents compelling data to establish that discriminatory, racially-based shutoffs violated civil rights laws.  

Speaking to the press, the defendants have asserted that the complaint is rendered moot by the temporary restoration of water services during COVID-19.  A formal response to the complaint is expected in the coming weeks.

August 11, 2020 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, August 10, 2020

DeFund the VAWA Police

The Violence Against Women's Act was pursued by well-intentioned advocates.   Much good has come from the funding that accompanied the act's passage.  Funded domestic violence shelters and other services for those experiencing intimate partner abuse has provided options to survivors and their children.  From the beginning, however, there were serious flaws in the act.  But those were not significant enough for advocates to abandon their advocacy.  

Women of color were mostly excluded from the VAWA drafting process.  If they had been, they would have raised objections to the stream of funding being primarily to and through the police.  Advocates quickly assessed the error of the overwhelming role that law enforcement was assigned under VAWA.  The act presumes that the criminal system - law enforcement and prosecutors - is entitled to lead anti intimate partner abuse efforts.  How wrong that presumption is. 

Had women of color, particularly Native and African American women,  been guiding  VAWA's development, they would have cautioned about the risks of criminal law involvement.  Certainly there are times when victims are safe only when the abusive partner is confined. But many downsides can result from survivors' participation in the criminal system.   Survivors complain of not having control over the criminal process.  When survivors do not wish to pursue charges, they can be subpoenaed or held in contempt.  In one case, the survivor was arrested for contempt for failing to appear at a scheduled hearing. Ultimately the prosecution decided that even with the survivor's testimony they did not have sufficient evidence to prosecute.  The survivor ended up with an arrest record for a case the prosecution never pursued.  

Further detrimental consequences from the criminal system abound.  Cooperation with police can be dangerous to survivors who fear and suffer worse abuse because of their cooperation.    Survivors suffering from PTSD or other mental health disorders may not have capacity to testify without suffering further health consequences.  Mothers, particularly women of color, may lose custody of their children to the state or to the abuser for "failing to protect" them from an abuser over whom the mother has no control.  The arrested abusive partner may not be able to find work, even after an acquittal.  With a conviction, employment may be even more difficult to obtain, leaving the the survivor and children financially desperate.

Drastically reducing funding to the criminal system and shifting those funds to civil services can provide what victims decide they need.  This could include permanent, safe housing and financial support until survivors can be self-sufficient; mental health resources for survivors and their children.  With a shift in funding, survivors could design their own restorative plans for them, their children and even their abusers if they desire.  

For critical thinking on the criminal legal system and it's sideways direction in domestic violence cases, I suggest reading Leigh Goodmark's book "decriminalizing Domestic Violence".




August 10, 2020 in Criminal Justice, Gender Violence, Margaret Drew | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, August 9, 2020

UN Guiding Principles and Black Lives Matter

A few weeks ago, many businesses were composing statements of support for the Black Lives Matter protests and issuing calls to combat systemic racism.  The Shift project, a non-profit that works with businesses to address human rights, points out that these responses have almost always been framed as voluntary commitments of socially conscious companies. Shift says, "that needs to change."

In fact, argues Shift, "all businesses have an ironclad responsibility to address their connections to these underlying inequalities, as set out in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights."  Shift has published a useful briefing note explaining some of the implications of this responsibility.  Among other things, Shift asserts that under the Guiding Principles, businesses must be ready to support protesters, and should examine their own products and practices for connections to discrimination.

August 9, 2020 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, August 6, 2020

Crimes Against Female Gymnasts: An International Matter

In the U.S. we are familiar with the decades of abuse by Dr. Larry Nassar  of young female gymnast, other countries are reporting similar abuses of their girls.  Professor Dunlap followed Nassar in earlier posts.  

Now other countries are recognizing abuses against their young athletes. 

"Complaints by at least 20 former Australian gymnasts about physical and mental abuse during their careers has prompted Gymnastics Australia to ask a human rights group to investigate.  The gymnasts, including Olympic and Commonwealth Games gold medalists, have recently spoken of a toxic culture within the sport. They also used social media platforms to detail fat-shaming and other forms of abuse." While the identity of the gymnasts was not disclosed,  public fat shaming of male athletes has not been observed by this writer.  The Australian Human Rights Commission will investigate.

Meanwhile Dutch authorities are investigating similar abuses and in the meantime has suspended the women's training program.  British Gymnastics is conducting an investigation into the abuse of their female gymnasts. And Flemish Gymnastics Federation is conducting its own investigation.

The brave women who accused Larry Nassar empowered women and girls around the world to report abuse.  Another thank you to those brave women who came forward in Michigan. 


August 6, 2020 in Gender Oppression, Gender Violence, Margaret Drew | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

A Decade of the Right to Water

The year 2020 marks the 10th anniversary of the UN General Assembly's formal recognition of the Human Right to Water.  Notably, the U.S. was one of a number of countries that abstained from that vote.

Now, with frequent handwashing as the first line of defense against COVID-19, the absence of a right to water in the U.S. is manifest in rising human costs. In Indian Country, the regions of the U.S. most likely to lack water infrastructure, COVID-19 is rampant. In urban areas, where overdue water payments have been stayed during COVID emergencies, the bills continue to accumulate and will soon be leading to evictions and foreclosures as emergencies are lifted. 

Human rights norms make clear that water shut-offs violate human rights when individuals do not have the ability to pay, yet shut-offs are routinely utilized in many communities around the U.S.

Is there anything to celebrate at this anniversary year?  Several bills current pending in Congress take this issue seriously; they propose assistance for local water authorities to enable them to avoid shut-offs, and create new safeguards to ensure that water and sanitation are available to all. Some local governments like Portland, Seattle, and Philadelphia have adopted innovative approaches, from providing water bill assistance to renters to adjusting payments to conform to individual ability to pay. 

While positive, these are small steps. Human Rights Watch has produced a video that shows the magnitude of the challenge. 



August 5, 2020 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

A Rare Move by the IACHR

In a rare move, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights granted precautionary measures in favor of migrants detained in the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington.  The migrants had challenged the conditions of their detention particularly in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. The petition was filed by the Seattle University Law School Human Rights Clinic, La Resistencia NW, and Global Rights Advocacy.

The IACHR concluded that:  "Having analyzed the submissions of fact and law, the Commission considers that the information shows, prima facie, that the rights to life, personal integrity and health of the migrants being detained at the NWDC face a serious and urgent situation of irreparable harm."  Steps mandated include creating effective mechanisms for challenging the detention, particular for those facing medical issues; safety protocols appropriate to the pandemic such as cleaning and social distancing; and reducing the number of detainees at the facility.  The UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants had previously called for similar measures in the Tacoma facility.

In recent years, advocates feared that the IACHR's financial concerns had muted its review of US human rights violations.  The U.S. is the largest contributor to the Organization of American States, of which the IACHR is a part, and US budget cuts to the IACHR have been on the table in recent years. This determination helps assuage the fears that financial threats might influence human rights enforcement.

According to Professor Thomas Antkowiak of Seattle, going forward, the IACHR "will regularly monitor the situation at the detention center, and check in with the U.S. Government, to see whether ICE is implementing the recommendations.  This will involve regular meetings with high-level officials and us."

August 4, 2020 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, August 3, 2020

Through Others' Eyes

In late July, the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights published a comprehensive report and evaluation of member state responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. Among other things, the report discusses the few member states that initially postponed elections and notes:

"Other elections, such as presidential elections in Belarus, Iceland and the United States, parliamentary elections in Mongolia and local elections in
Bosnia and Herzegovina are maintained on schedule."

[Eds.: With relief, we note that there is currently general agreement on that among both parties in the U.S. as well.]

Regarding the U.S., the report observes that the pandemic has had particularly devastating effects on black and brown people, and also on women, who have disproportionately lost employment during the pandemic. The report also describes anti-Asian discrimination and statements, including from high U.S. government officials, and chronicles widespread harassment of Asians.

The purpose of the report, however, is not to grade governments, but to identify concerns, make recommendations, encourage State members to face up to problems and exert peer pressure to do better. As for the U.S., good practices identified include the support for undocumented immigrants in California and Chicago, and reinstatement of email FOIA requests to the FBI. 

The report concludes with an offer that may unfortunately have little meaning in the U.S. as the nation withdraws from its international commitments:

"[I[t is expected that all participating States will fully account for how they have responded to the Covid-19 crisis while living up to their human dimension commitments in the course of the regular human dimension mechanisms designed for mutual accountability within the OSCE. It is also anticipated that they will duly report on how human rights and fundamental freedoms were upheld in the various treaty-based frameworks and
mechanisms, such as within the Council of Europe and the United Nations. For instance, states should include an analysis of the impact of pandemic response into state reports to ICCPR, IESCR, CEDAW, the CRC and others of which participating States may be signatories, and they should consult with relevant civil society and affected groups and communities in preparation of these reports. ODIHR remains at the disposal of participating States to assist them in this endeavour."

However, even if the government doesn't use the information in this report, U.S.-based advocates may find it valuable. 

August 3, 2020 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, August 2, 2020

The Reviews are In: Comments on the CUR Report

Departing from its sluggish information-sharing up to now, the State Department's Commission on Unalienable Rights has already posted the comments that it received through July 31, 2020 on its draft report.  Below is a sample comment (edited to blog length), authored by JoAnn Kamuf Ward of the Columbia Human Rights Institute, and joined by the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice, the Leadership Conference Education Fund, Northeastern Law School Program on Human Rights and the Global Economy, and the US Human Rights Network.  The submission begins by endorsing a coalition letter spearheaded by Human Rights First, then continues:

“The Commission’s report presents an incomplete accounting of the history of rights protections in the United States and offers a fragmented reading of international human rights principles. The circumscribed vision of rights presented in the report is a vision that will perpetuate longstanding inequality and leave many behind.  

Well-established international human rights norms, including treaty law, require government action to change attitudes, policies, laws and structures that reflect and perpetuate bias and discrimination. Internationally recognized human rights standards further underscore that economic and social protections are fundamental. When law and policy fail to guarantee these protections, true equality remains elusive and the realization of human rights remains out of reach for all but a few.  

The Report Ignores Significant & Persistent Challenges to Equality in the U.S.

The Commission’s draft report describes domestic laws enacted to address discrimination in terms so rosy as to be misleading, while promoting the United States as a model to other governments. As one example, the discussion of the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Act fails to acknowledge the significant barriers to passing and enforcing these protections, historically and at present.

The report also repeatedly references the importance of “individual freedom and human equality.” Ignoring the vast and growing wealth gap in the country, as well as disparities across a wide range of social and economic indicators, the report uncritically asserts the United States is on a trajectory of forward progress . . .

There is some acknowledgment in the Commission’s report that “much must still be accomplished” but the main thrust is that “America’s distinctive rights tradition” is sufficient to achieve equality. Yet the reality is that dignity, opportunity, and equality have long been denied to Black Americans, Native Americans, and many others, as a result of laws and institutions that reflect discriminatory attitudes and ideas, and are tainted by systemic racism and bias. 

The failure of the report to acknowledge the limits of past and current U.S. law in advancing equality is a glaring omission. The United States Constitution, and most federal laws that codify anti-discrimination protections in some areas of life and work, require a high burden of proof to prove discrimination. Yet, even the limited discrimination protections that do exist are currently being dismantled. Under the current Administration, federal agencies have sought to rollback disparate impact protections, particularly in the context of housing. Very few laws aim to achieve equality in fact.

The Report Incorrectly Conflates Non-Discrimination and Equality

The Commission report further attempts to conflate non-discrimination and equality. Yet well-established human rights norms include both – the right to be free from discrimination in all its forms, and measures that foster equality. The U.S. has ratified two of the international human rights treaties that aim to ensure equal enjoyment of rights regardless of identity – the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and the International Convention of the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD). Policies and practices that evince a clear discriminatory intent, as well as those with a disproportionately negative impact on a group based on identity, contravene both ICERD and the ICCPR. Indeed, human rights laws require governments to identify and address discrimination in all its forms. This includes eliminating policies that have a disparate impact or those which unintentionally perpetuate discrimination. In order to foster equality, the international human rights framework calls for government policies calibrated to promote equal outcomes for all, regardless of economic, racial, or gender status; national or ethnic origins; gender identity; sexual orientation; age; disability; or other status.

The Report Ignores that Economic and Social Rights are Vital to True Equality

ICERD specifically calls on governments to guarantee equality in the enjoyment of basic services, including unemployment protection, housing, medical care, social security, and social services. This builds on the foundational principles articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – a foundation that the Commission’s Report purports to embrace. Indeed, under a human rights framework, governments must take steps to promote and protect economic and social rights, such as adequate housing, progressively over time and in light of available resources, and avoid rollbacks in services.   

The legal basis for economic and social rights has long been contentious in the United States. Globally, this has manifested in a failure to ratify the foundational treaty that protects these rights, the ICESCR, and ambivalence towards efforts to define governmental obligations to promote and protect these rights, despite the reality that they are deeply entwined with efforts to address discrimination. Domestically, the failure to recognize economic and social rights as standalone rights, with corollary obligations, impacts millions of people daily – particularly those who do not make a liveable wage, those who lack access to housing and shelter, and those who do not qualify for the limited statutory social benefits that do exist. 

The Government’s often inhumane positions and practices regarding economic social rights do not negate the fact that healthcare, housing, food, water, and sanitation are essential for individuals and communities to thrive, and constitute human rights. Likewise, the Commission’s report cannot unilaterally eviscerate internationally agreed upon norms and standards. However, the draft report should nevertheless be rejected.  The report contains erroneous statements of domestic and international law, omits essential facts, and presents views that justify actions counter to the letter and spirit of bedrock international human rights principles, and which undermine racial justice and true equality for all.”  

August 2, 2020 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Redeeming the Soul of Our Nation

Image1Congressman John Lewis' funeral was held on July 30th. The Congressman left a powerful letter to the nation to be published by the New York Times. While many eulogized Mr. Lewis at his funeral, Mr. Lewis himself remains the most eloquent about his life and his goals.

Mr. Lewis was an extraordinary man by all measure.  And in his letter he left us instructions for carrying on.  In part, Mr. Lewis' instructs us:  "Though I am gone, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart, and stand up for what you truly believe."  We urge you to read the entire letter.

Though I am gone, I urge you to
answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe.

Though I am gone, I urge you to
answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe.

July 30, 2020 in Civil Rights, Race | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Commission on Unalienable Rights -- What you need to know

Comments to the draft report of the State Department's controversial Commission on Unalienable Rights (CUR) are due on July 31.  According to the Commission:  "The Commission welcomes all submissions.  Please route them to and/or Designated Federal Officer Duncan Walker, who may be reached at"

Still honing your thoughts on the report?  On July 30,  Harvard's Carr Center on Human Rights Policy will host an expert discussion on the CUR draft. More information about how to participate is here

Meanwhile, several human rights organizations are pursing a challenge to the Commission's procedures  -- including bias and lack of transparency -- in a federal lawsuit pending in the Southern District of New York.  Issues include failure to timely post meeting minutes, lack of remote access to the CUR's final meeting held in Philadelphia, and inadequate time for comments. Given CUR's track record, it's an open question whether the Commission will even consider and respond to comments at all, particularly given evidence that Pompeo has already illicitly directed the State Department to begin conforming its activities to the contents of the draft report. In fact, no further meetings of the CUR are scheduled post-comment period.

The CUR's report asserts that there's a hierarchy of human rights in the U.S., with civil and political rights at the top, yet the Commission's failure to follow basic rules of government transparency suggests that the CUR is prepared to disregard even those rights when it's convenient. Still, it's important for concerned groups and individuals to create a record, so don't forget to submit comments.


July 29, 2020 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

No Surprise: US - Not the Best Place to Raise a Family - By Far

In a recent ranking the United States came in 34th as the country best for raising a family.  Iceland ranked first, having received A+ rankings for safety, cost, and health.  Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Luxembourg received A+ rankings.  

The United States was ranked 34 out of 3v5 counties.  Not surprisingly, the US received an "F" in safety. Other categories in which the US received failing grades were cost and time.  No grade was higher than a C+ and those were received in the happiness and education categories. A D- in health rounds out the scoring.

If you are not one of the 1% category, you already know why the ranking is low - and appropriate.  Millions in the country have inadequate or no health insurance.  Most public schools are under-resourced, particularly those in communities of color.  The cost of living is excessive with those in minimum wage positions unable to escape the consequences of poverty.  The divide between the wealthy and those barely able to sustain themselves has not been this wide since the so-called "Golden Age". Not only is safety not secure in the US, those sworn to serve and protect can be causing the most harm depending upon your skin color.  The C+ the US received in "happiness" was generous grading indeed.



July 28, 2020 in Margaret Drew | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, July 27, 2020

The Arc Is Bending

By Co-Editor Prof. Justine Dunlap, UMass Law School

Image1Do you hear it? Strain, pause, listen, and rejoice. It’s obscured by much noise and tumult but the arc of the moral universe bent a little more towards justice last week. The U.S. Senate voted 86 to 14 on July 23rd to change the names of U.S. military bases that were named after confederate officers. The House of Representatives had already and predictably passed its equivalent, although the Senate bill gives the military three years to do this, juxtaposed to the House’s one year. The details will be worked out, but it’s a veto-proof vote.

This vote comes shortly after the Secretary of Defense banned the display of the confederate flag on military bases, albeit in a round-about manner. And on June 30th, the Republican Governor of Mississippi decommissioned its state flag, which incorporated the Confederate Flag within its design. Citizens of the state will vote on a new flag design in November.

Yes, it’s telling, demoralizing, and unjust that it has taken so long. And the arc’s movement is the result of those who are and have been drum majors for justice; those who have persevered and remained steadfast and optimistic (thank you Congressman John Lewis). And yet it remains a surprising delight that 86 members of today’s polarized Senate voted in favor. A miracle, perhaps. Or just the arc bending a little bit towards justice.

July 27, 2020 in Justine Dunlap, Military, Race | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Do [Human] Rights Matter Here?

During the impeachment of President Trump, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman famously reassured his father that he would not suffer negative repercussions for testifying under subpoena.  "Here, right matters," Vindman explained. It was just a few short weeks later when Vindman was unceremoniously relieved of his White House position. A Trump administration effort to deny him a recommended promotion soon followed.  Ultimately, Vindman resigned from the Army this past June. "Here, right matters" has become a rallying cry for those concerned about government corruption and abuse.  Yet we can't help but wonder whether right really does matter, at least in Washington, D.C. -- and whether there's anyone in the administration who is prepared to stand up for what's right.

The multiple signs are that human rights don't matter anymore either. 

On Friday, the UN Human Rights Office decried the violations of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights taking place in Portland, Oregon, at the hands of federal security officers.  Said the UN spokesperson, "Peaceful demonstrations that have been taking place in cities in the US, such as Portland, really must be able to continue without those participating in them - and also, the people reporting on them, the journalists - risking arbitrary arrest or detention, being subject to unnecessary, disproportionate or discriminatory use of force, or suffering other violations of their rights.”

Spurred by these events in the US and elsewhere in the world, the UN Human Rights Committee will issue a general comment, or guidance, on 29 July, covering issues that include both physical and online protests, public order, and the work of the media.

There are some places in the world where leaders will take this guidance to heart. But in recent years, the U.S. has withdrawn from the UN Human Rights Council, has withdrawn from the Paris Climate Accord, has cancelled its membership in the World Health Organization, has refused to allow official visits by UN Special Rapporteurs, has failed to submit monitoring reports to the CERD Committee . . .

Here, do human rights matter?

July 26, 2020 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, July 23, 2020

The Report of the CUR (Commission on Unalienable Rights)

by Deena Hurwitz, Human Rights Attorney and Educator; Founding Director, International Human Rights Clinic, Univ. of Virginia Law School

In July 2019, hundreds of U.S. experts on foreign policy, human rights, civil liberties, and social justice, sent a letter expressing deep concern with the State Department’s Commission on Unalienable Rights. It conveyed serious objection to the Commission’s stated purpose, which the signatories find harmful to the global effort to protect the rights of all people and a waste of resources; the Commission’s make-up, which lacks ideological diversity; and the process by which the Commission came into being and is being administered, which has sidelined human rights experts in the State Department’s own Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. 

In March 2020, Democracy Forward filed a lawsuit against the State Department in the Southern District of New York on behalf of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights, the Center for Health and Gender Equity, the Council for Global Equality and the Global Justice Center. The lawsuit argues that the creation of the Commission on Unalienable Rights violates federal law requiring a balance of views in an advisory committee’s membership and transparency in its work – neither of which is evident with the commission.

Social scientists label the process of deciding what evidence to accept based on the conclusion one prefers motivated reasoning. It functions to avoid cognitive dissonance rather than re-examine it.  The draft Report of the Commission on “Unalienable” Rights (“CUR”), released July 16, is a case in point. 

Secretary of State Michael Pompeo sought “an informed review of the role of human rights in a foreign policy that serves American interests, reflects American ideals, and meets the international obligations that the U.S. has assumed.” To that end, the CUR’s universe of information is the Constitution and the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights -- convenient since (a) the U.S. was central in drafting the UDHR, and (b) it is non-binding.  This suits a solipsistic objective, and avoids international developments over three quarters of a century that contradict Pompeo’s version of American interests.

The disconnect between the Commission’s work product and the nation in this historic moment is striking.  The Report does mention the “social convulsions” that “testify[…] to the nation’s unfinished work in overcoming the evil effects of its long history of racial injustice” and it concedes U.S. credibility abroad depends on “assuring that all its citizens enjoy fundamental human rights.” But apart from identifying racial injustice as an historical blight, the Report underscores the fundamental delusion – that the U.S. is “an example of a rights-respecting society where citizens live together under law amid the nation’s great religious, ethnic, and cultural heterogeneity.”  

The Commission avoids the present, preferring to give a history lesson that reads like a chapter from a mid-century social studies textbook.  (The back cover looks like an early ‘60s stock photo from Life Magazine.)  It begs the question: who is the Report’s audience?  

For all its homage to the nation’s founding evils of slavery and “forcible displacement” of Native Americans (no reference to genocide), there is no mention of the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on communities of color and other vulnerable populations. Social determinants of health -- race, income level, gender identity, physical environments -- expose structural racism.  And, structural racism exposes just how deeply unfinished is the work towards equal enjoyment of fundamental human rights in this country. As of July 22, 25% of COVID deaths were black, although blacks are only 13% of the population.  Native Americans are also disproportionately affected by pre-existing conditions that pose additional risk factors for COVID, including economic inequality and health problems. As of May 27, the Navajo Nation had the highest infection rate per capita in the U.S.

Without naming George Floyd (or any others), the Report pays brief lip service to the law enforcement crisis in black and brown communities.  It then sanctimoniously notes that appreciating the work that remains “is itself a crucial element of America’s distinctive rights tradition”.

The problem with human rights, according to the CUR, is that there are too many; and numerous “new rights” are not part of the American founding fathers’ ideals, interests or assumed obligations.  Rather than examining why that might be, the CUR invokes three “traditions” that shaped the American “spirit”:  Protestant Christianity; the “civil republican ideal”; and classical liberalism (legitimate government derives from the consent of the governed). These traditions underlie the “core conviction that government’s primary responsibility was to secure unalienable rights – that is, rights inherent in all persons by virtue of being human.” Unalienable rights, explains the CUR, are “pre-political” – not created by persons or society.  

According to the CUR, “foremost among the unalienable rights that government is established to secure … are property rights and religious liberty.”  The Report states that abolitionists thought owning property was a necessary element of emancipation: “only by becoming property owning citizens could former slaves exercise economic independence and so fully enjoy their unalienable rights.” Invoking John Locke, the CUR states that “the protection of property rights benefits all by increasing the incentive for producing goods and delivering services desired by others.”

The notion that property rights are inherent to our humanity is preposterous, if not a cruel joke. There is currently a 30-percentage-point gap between black and white home ownership --  larger today than before the Fair Housing Act (1968), when housing discrimination was legal. Legacies of redlining and community segregation, disproportionate eviction rates, victimization by predatory lenders, foreclosures – these examples of structural racism deny people of color their “unalienable right” to property.  New data suggests COVID-19 is only widening the housing disparities by race and income. 

A fundamental aspect of human rights is that accountability for violations lies with the state. The CUR affirms that as government systematically denies “the very idea of unalienable rights,” citizens are “justified in establishing a new form of government to secure their rights.” Certainly not a new form of rights to secure their government.

July 23, 2020 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Is Systemic Racism Entirely Systemic?

It would be difficult  indeed to deny systemic racism in our public institutions, particularly our legal ones.  This realization for some seems overwhelming, making it difficult for them  know where to begin.

Envisioning our legal systems as huge and unmovable machines incapable of stopping reinforces helplessness. What is denied in that assessment is that our legal system is populated by individuals and supported by individual citizens who passively accept the policies of racism embedded in our culture.  

Local elections of district attorneys and in many jurisdictions, judges, are under the control of  individual citizens.  We determine leadership of the courts and in prosecutions.  In deciding through elections who that leadership will be, we decide what the policies and institutional culture will be.  Philadelphia's citizens took control and elected District Attorney Larry Krasner. Mr. Krasner examined racist policies and took measures toward eliminating systemic bias. This included holding biased and violent police officers accountable.  Mr. Krasner announced today that he intends to arrest any federal agents sent to Philadelphia by the President who behave as they did in Portland- kidnapping protesters.

For those who do not have direct experience with our legal systems, apathy might be the response to local elections of judges, court clerks and prosecuting attorneys.  As we have heard as part of BLM, silence is violence.  Scrutiny of candidates' policy agenda is critical.  No election is too local to fail to scrutinize the bias of candidates and their willingness to "go along" with the status quo.  Voting apathy is not acceptable.   We must be mindful that each elected official reflects our individual and community values.  Bias in all forms can be addressed.   




July 22, 2020 in Books and articles, Margaret Drew, Race | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Opportunities with the Fulbright Program -- Deadlines Approaching!

It's hard to get your mind around international travel at the moment, but applications for a Fulbright in 2021-2022 are due soon, so imagine a post-pandemic future and consider applying!  Here are some of the possibilities:

Experienced Scholars

The Fulbright program has over 450 awards available across the globe open to either specific, multiple or all disciplines. The complete list of opportunities is located in the Catalog of Awards, but please note these awards are open to U.S. citizens only. Opportunities range from 2 to 12 months in length and some awards include flexible options for multiple short visits. The application deadline is September 15, 2020. Interested applicants can join My Fulbright and check out webinars for insight on the application process. 

Senior Leadership

The Fulbright International Education Administrator (IEA) Seminars provide funding both for U.S. senior higher education officials and international education professionals to create empowering connections with the societal, cultural and higher education systems of other countries.

If you fall into this category, think about applying!  The U.S.-France IEA in particular is looking for senior leaders such as deans, directors, vice presidents, provosts and presidents.  Grants generally include economy round-trip airfare, travel within the host country, lodging, and a lump sum supplement for incidentals.  For more information, please visit the Fulbright website or email

Ph.D. Students and Postdocs

Fulbright provides funding opportunities for Ph.D. students and postdocs. Students in all disciplines can apply for open study/research awards through the Fulbright U.S. Student Program. Graduating Ph.D. students and early career scholars are suitable to apply for awards through the Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program. The complete list of opportunities, is available in the Fulbright Catalog of Awards.

July 21, 2020 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, July 20, 2020

U.S. Backslides in Human Rights with Federal Death Penalty

As the U.S. Department of Justice begins to carry out federal death penalties after a 17-year hiatus, the European Union has stepped up its condemnation of the practice and its efforts to end U.S. executions though diplomatic pressure.  In July 2020, the E.U. condemned  he resumption of federal executions  and urged against the reversal of a trend toward abolishing the death penalty, both in the U.S. and universally.

Just a month earlier, the European Union issued its annual report on human rights and democracy worldwide, which includes an update of developments in the U.S.  In that report, covering the year 2019, the E.U. stated that "the United States served as a good example of the continuous progress towards abolition:

• New Hampshire became the 21st abolitionist state in law in the US;
• Governor Newsom declared a moratorium on executions in California, the state with the most death row inmates in the US;
• Indiana reached 10 years without executions, bringing the number of US states without executions for ten or more years to
32 out of a total of 50. 

The European Union 's report also found positive news in the failed attempt to re-start federal executions in 2019 -- a fleeting reprieve that has now been superseded, with three executions in four days last week.

July 20, 2020 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Confluence on Defunding the Police

Editors’ Note: The following is a statement from a NYC collaboration working to end violence, This collaborative statement was brought to our attention by Prof. Julie Goldsheid.

Confluence, a group of anti-violence advocates, lawyers, survivors, and scholars, supports 
the proposal to truly defund the NYPD budget by $1 billion and invest those funds in
community initiatives that give survivors and their communities much needed resources and
We avow and affirm unequivocally that Black Lives Matter. As anti-violence advocates who
work to uplift and center the experiences and leadership of traditionally marginalized
communities who have survived intimate partner and all forms of gender-based violence, we
stand in solidarity and grieve with the families of Ahmaud Aubery, Rayshard Brooks, George
Floyd, Sandra Bland, Tony McDade, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, Elijah McClain, Sean Bell,
Amadou Diallo, Atatiana Jefferson, Rekia Boyd, and every victim of anti-Black violence. We
know that just like these Black lives lost to racist policing, many more Black, indigenous,
immigrant, undocumented, LGBTQ and people of color who are survivors of gender-based
violence have also lost their lives or been subjected to state violence.
We call for a re-imagination of gender-based violence response, grounded in the work of
Black survivors and survivors from other marginalized communities who have been leading
this call and proposing non-carceral alternatives for decades. In the face of responses that
disparage, isolate, and erase the leadership of these survivors and advocates, we stand in
solidarity with Mariame Kaba , current and former City workers, survivor and allies , Survived
and Punished , and the Women & Justice Project and many others who have and continue to
lead this charge and demand change. We call for responses that, by design, do not rely on
oppressive systems and institutions rooted in white supremacy. Policing in our city is
unquestionably intertwined with the racist past of the “War on drugs”, “Broken Windows”, the
Zone Assessment/Demographics Unit, and other policies and initiatives that over time have
directly contributed to the criminalization of Black and brown survivors. For these and other
reasons, many survivors do not feel safe engaging with systems, and will not seek them out
regardless of reforms.
As New York City responds to the COVID-19 pandemic and its multiple ramifications, we call
on the City to prioritize the needs of survivors, particularly Black survivors and survivors from
other marginalized communities. Our work has been used as justification for the
criminalization of Black and brown communities, when the safety of survivors is at even
greater risk due to racist policing.
We recognize that gender-based violence has its roots in the racist history of our society and
that current legal responses do not always work to truly advance safety or to meet survivors’
needs. Often, survivors have had their acts of survival used as cause for criminalization,
punishment, additional trauma, and dehumanization by a racist system that only compounds
the harms they have already experienced at the hands of a partner, acquaintance, or family
member. We recognize the survivors of violence who will not turn to law enforcement for
safety due to fear that doing so will lead to devastating immigration consequences for them or
their family members. We recognize the survivors of violence who will not turn to law
enforcement for safety due to harmful past interactions with the system. We recognize the
survivors of violence who will not call law enforcement for fear that they will be separated from
their children. We recognize the survivors of violence who will not turn to law enforcement
because they are the spouses, partners or acquaintances of the same. We call on the City to
invest in comprehensive, responsive resources and community-based services for survivors
who refuse, are unable, or choose not to engage in legal services and prosecution avenues.
We call on the City to invest in comprehensive, responsive resources and community-based
services for survivors who choose to stay with abusive partners.
We call on the City to prioritize investment in local, community-driven and culturally-responsive
resources that will truly advance safety for survivors and empower their communities.
Survivors need options for plans and strategies that respond to their unique needs as these
survivors manage their responses to violence. Some seek shelter services. Some seek legal
remedies, whether in the form of an order of protection, or even criminal charges. For
countless others, though, safety from gender-based violence requires access to economic
security, sustainable housing, education, meaningful jobs and investment in leadership
development, childcare, and health care. A meaningful path to safety and autonomy requires
that all of these options are equally accessible to survivors. Counseling and social services
from community-based organizations, peer support from other survivors, and connections with
advocates working for systemic change to underlying conditions of inequity offer far more
promise to advance safety than do incarceration and punishment. The City should invest in
community-based and led violence prevention, reduction and intervention programs outside of
the carceral system, and programs that seek to restore or heal instead of exact retribution.
Alternative solutions have been fiscally starved for decades, as public policy has prioritized
policing over people, community-based supports, and services. As COVID-19 increases the
incidence of intimate partner and gender-based violence, as well as the complexity of serving
survivors, it is all the more critical to fund the services survivors need. This moment presents an
opportunity to shift priorities to building an infrastructure that re-imagines safety and centers the
lives of Black, indigenous, LGBTQ, immigrant, youth, and other survivors of color as we respond
to gender-based violence.





July 19, 2020 | Permalink | Comments (0)