Thursday, May 30, 2019

Massachusetts Town is First in Nation to Provide Free Menstrual Products in Public Restrooms

Can it really be true, that Brookline, MA is the first municipality in the US to provide free menstrual products in public restrooms?   The historic vote took place at a Town Meeting earlier this week.  Notably, because not everyone who uses menstrual products identifies as female, the products will be available in all public restrooms, regardless of gender.   

Eva Stanley, a local high school student supporting the measure, noted that this "would allow everyone who menstruates the dignity of being able to cope with their period when and where they need to.  It's that simple."  Added Carter Much, another local high school student speaking on behalf of the initiative, "[m]aking menstrual hygiene products free in all of Brookline's public bathrooms treats this totally normal and natural bodily function the way we treat all others.  This is what equity is all about."

Readers, let us know -- is Brookline, MA really the first municipality in the country to take this very basic step that recognizes the human rights of about half of the population? 

The town of  Brookline, population 60,000 estimates that this initiative will cost about $7300 in the first year, with most of that cost being the initial investment in dispensary machines.  Is this cost really prohibitive for other municipalities? 

May 30, 2019 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

The Supreme Court Can’t Avoid Sex-Selective, Race-Selective, and Disability-selective Abortion Bans Forever

By Sital Kalantry

Image1After considering the case in fifteen consecutive conferences, the Court in Box v. Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky gave us a rare window into its politics. In a carefully negotiated compromise, the Court denied certification on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit’s finding that laws that banned sex-selective, race-selective, and disability-selective abortion are unconstitutional. In addition, the Court summarily (without further briefing or oral argument) reversed the Seventh Circuit’s finding that Indiana’s law that fetal remains must be disposed of like human remains is unconstitutional.

On the question of disposal of fetal remains, Justice Ginsburg points out that the litigants used the weaker “rational basis” test rather than the “undue burden” standard articulated in Planned Parenthood v. Casey for “strategic” reasons. It is also for strategic reasons that pro-choice advocates have tried to keep what pro-life advocates call “anti-discrimination” provisions as far away from the Court as possible. While there were numerous amicus briefs from pro-life groups urging the Court to take certification in the case, no pro-choice group wrote an amicus brief.  Sex-selective abortion bans were adopted by Pennsylvania along with a host of other abortion restrictions in 1989. Planned Parenthood challenged a number of restrictions but didn’t challenge the one on sex-selection. 

In the last decade, states started to ban sex-selective abortion on the false empirical premise that women, particularly Asian American women, abort fetuses when they learn of its sex. Proponents of those bans make reference to laws and practices in other countries to justify bans in the United States. Similarly, Justice Thomas also refers to countries where sex-selective abortions are widespread in his opinion. For example, he cites to an article I wrote about sex-selective abortion in India. Vice President Pence who signed the Indiana laws when he was governor of Indiana released a statement urging the United States to follow the lead of other countries around the world and ban sex-selective abortion.

Pointing to the disproportionate abortion rate among African-American and Hispanic women, Justice Thomas suggests that race-selective abortion bans are necessary to prevent eugenics. Race-selective abortion bans prevent a woman from aborting her own fetus on the basis of its race. The text of the race-selective abortion ban was crafted to mirror the language of sex-selective abortion ban. However, the analogy becomes absurd when the actors with the purported racist and sexist intent are brought into the picture. It makes little sense to say that minority women obtain abortions because they object to the race of their own fetuses. The concept of “race” itself is socially constructed so it is not even possible to know the “race” of a fetus before it is born.

The reality is that among the so-called “anti-discrimination” bans, the only type of abortions that are known to occur in the United States are disability-selective abortions. Some women who may not want to raise a child with a severe disability might choose to abort a fetus in that situation. This issue deeply divides liberal communities with some advocates arguing that aborting fetuses with disabilities such as down syndrome devalues people with down syndrome.

For the moment, Justice Thomas agreed with his liberal colleagues to punt this complicated question to a different day, but he is right to say that the Court can’t avoid it forever. Rarely does the Supreme Court explain why it refuses to hear cases on appeal, but in Box v. Indiana, they stated that they refused to hear a challenge to the Indiana bans because the Seventh Circuit was the only appeals court that had ruled on the issue. Recently, a Federal judge granted a temporary injunction against Kentucky’s bans. That case will likely be appealed to the Federal Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit and their opinion might diverge from the judgment of the Federal Court for the Seventh Circuit. If that happens, it would create the circuit-split that would make granting certification more compelling. Bans on specific reasons for abortion could appeal to members of the Court that do not want to drive a truck through Roe v. Wade, but are willing to kill it with a thousand cuts. 


May 29, 2019 in Reproductive Rights, Sital Kalantry | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Burying Reproductive Rights - Box v Planned Parenthood

By Margaret Drew

The Supreme Court upheld the lower court's a portion of the lower courts decision that an Indiana law that requires doctors who perform abortions to see that fetal remains are either buried or cremated.   The Indiana provision requires those who perform abortions to either bury the fetal remains or cremate them.  According to the court, when Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky brought this case to challenge the disposal requirement, they did not argue that the requirement placed an undue burden on women seeking abortions. That left the court to decide the constitutionality of the law using a lower, rational basis standard.

But the regulations do burden women albeit indirectly. Every time a new condition is imposed upon doctors who perform abortions their costs are increased and they are under additional scrutiny.  Higher costs, increasing professional and personal pressures will likely push an increasing number of doctors to abandon the practice.

So this is how reproductive rights will be de facto abolished.  Burden the doctors to such an extent that the real costs of providing abortions become untenable.  As the majority of the Roberts court may seek to undo abortion rights incrementally, a successful legal challenge to the burdening laws will likely be cumulative.  Eventually, details on the increased costs will be available, along with evidence of the cumulative personal costs to the doctors.  At some point, the case might be made as to undue burdens, but in the meantime, the weightiest burden lies on those women in need of abortions.




May 28, 2019 in Margaret Drew, Reproductive Rights | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, May 27, 2019

Second Circuit Reinstates Genocide Suit Against BNP, Recognizes Jus Cogens Norms

On May 22, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals revived a civil lawsuit against BNP Paribas SA, brought by alleged victims of a genocidal regime in Sudan who seek to hold the French bank liable for aiding in the government’s atrocities.  The twenty-one plaintiffs are Sudanese refugees who now reside in the United States.  The plaintiffs’ complaint alleges that BNP processed thousands of illegal transactions through its New York offices, which financed weapons purchases and funded a militia in a “well-documented genocidal campaign.”

The lower court had dismissed the lawsuit in 2018 based on the erroneous conclusion that it was barred by the act of state doctrine, i.e., the doctrine that bars a court from declaring a foreign nation's laws to be ultra vires.  But as the Court of Appeals explained in its 3-0 opinion, "[c]onsidering the lack of evidence introduced by BNPP that genocide is the official policy of Sudan, and the countervailing evidence that genocide blatantly violates Sudan’s own laws, we conclude that there is simply no ‘official act’ that a court would be required to ‘declare invalid’ in order to adjudicate plaintiffs’ claims.” 

In an addition, in a portion of the ruling that holds potential significance for other cases, the Second Circuit held that “even for purposes of act-of-state deference,” the court cannot deem “genocide, mass rape, and ethnic cleansing” as valid state actions because such acts “violate jus cogens norms.”

The full Second Circuit opinion is available here.

May 27, 2019 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Films Tell the Story

The 2019 Human Rights Watch Film Festival will be screening films at Lincoln Center in New York City from June 13 through June 20.  According to Human Rights Watch, the film festival serves to "bear witness to human rights violations and create a forum for courageous individuals on both sides of the lens to empower audiences with the knowledge that personal commitment can make a difference. The film festival brings to life human rights abuses through storytelling in a way that challenges each individual to empathize and demand justice for all people."

Two of this year's films are focused on human rights in the U.S.:  Accept the Call, and When We Walk.

Through the intimate story of a Somali immigrant in Minnesota and his son, Accept the Call explores racism and prejudice against immigrants, the rise of targeted recruitment by radicalized groups, and the struggles of Muslim youth growing up in the US today. 

In When We Walk, a father with rapidly advancing multiple sclerosis soon learns that the harsh restrictions of the US Medicaid system prevent him from accessing the services he needs to live life as fully as possible, and from being the dad he wants to be for his young son.

Of course, the HRW Film Festival is not the only human rights film festival in the U.S.  Another one to watch is the ACT Human Rights Film Festival at Colorado State University.  Next year's ACT Human Rights Film Festival will be held April 3-11, 2020.

May 26, 2019 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Abortion, Alabama and The Suppression of Women's Autonomy

Ultimately women's health decisions, including reproductive rights, are about women's autonomy.  The abortion "debate"  is about some men's efforts to limit women's control over their bodies and their futures.  Some men make decisions whose consequences fall only on women.  Whether or not to reproduce is a decision that should be private and without state interference.  But male supremacists cannot permit women to have a voice in choices that will impact them for the rest of their lives.   Reproductive rights are perhaps the last arena for men to control women.  The laws, at least in theory, have assured that women have equal access to employment and education.   While in practice women often struggle to achieve equity and respect, under the law equal treatment has been supported through state and federal statutes and supporting case law.

But legislation on reproductive rights is not an area where equality and autonomy are respected.  Legislation to limit women's autonomy on reproductive health is perhaps the last aspect of women's autonomy that can be effectively curbed by the (primarily) white, male legislators.  Force a woman to have children and you succeed in assuring that obtaining education and professional status for women is less likely.  Conflating religious beliefs with legislative goals is improper under the separation of church and state.  The pretext of religious and moral commitment easily reveals itself to be a sham.  "Pro-life" legislation such as that in Alabama actually extends to unborn fetuses only. Birthed children lose protection as soon as they leave the womb.

The exceptions in the Alabama legislation that permit abortion in the face of serious health threats to the mother are shams within a sham.  The only straightforward exception is where there is a medical emergency where continuation of the pregnancy would result in the death of the mother or impairment such that the mother would result in loss of a serious bodily function.  This is by far a minority of reasons why abortion is elected. The act carefully delineates that second exception, serious medical risk, but serious medical risk does not include mental or emotional distress. For an abortion to be approved under those conditions the treating physician's opinion is insufficient.  In addition, a psychiatrist must examine the patient and find that the woman's condition would result in her death or the death of the child, if born.  And should the woman meet these prerequisites, despite a shortage of psychiatrists in rural Alabama, the abortion must be performed by a physician licensed by Alabama and in an Alabama Hospital in which the physician has privileges.  Guess how many Alabama Hospitals permit abortions to performed on premises?  Denying privileges to doctors who perform abortions is an impossibly slow process by design. Then there are consequences for the mother who has a termination under these conditions.  Will the state be prepared to take any child the woman might give birth to later?  Will the state determine that danger to the child will not be problematic because they will take the child at its birth?  

Oh- and that exception for the health of the mother?  Well - post-abortion and within 180 days of the procedure, a second physician must certify in writing that the abortion was medically necessary.  That physician shall not be subject to liability for the certification.  If the performing physician is unable to find a certifying physician, prosecution will result.  If one is found, the certification will be "prima facie evidence for a permitted abortion",  The language of prosecution.

But returning to the premise that Alabama is not pro-life:

Alabama provides limited education for children K-12.  The state ranks 49th in children who graduate high school and are prepared for college.  Alabama refuses to expand Medicaid, which would vastly enhance the ability of mothers and children to receive proper medical care.  Child abuse rates reduce when women have access to abortion.  Abortion rates reduce when women have access to contraceptives.  The United States leads the developed countries in maternal death rates.  Hardly  pro-life or pro-children!  Childcare largely remains the burden of mothers, with little in the way of government subsidies.  Alabama executes the convicted at high rates, even when there are solid legal doubts as to whether the individual received a fair trial. 

 Alabama legislators and those of other states that have enacted severe anti-abortion laws are not pro-life.  They are anti-women.  


May 23, 2019 in Margaret Drew, Reproductive Rights | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Weaponizing Science in the Service of Human Rights

Science Magazine and the American Association for the Advancement of Science will host a special webinar on June 6, titled Weaponizing Science for the Greater Good. 

According to the announcement:

"The scientific method has been successfully applied to advance human health and well-being. The process of experimentation, ethical oversight, and critical review of empirical data enables verifiable truths to be uncovered and knowledge to be advanced. Can the same scientific method also be applied to issues of social justice and human rights? Can we use science to improve the well-being of abused children, to fight racism and hatred, and to stop the spread of fear and ignorance? This webinar examines the practice of applying scientific standards of data collection, analysis, and presentation to further social justice and serve core human rights."

For more information and to register, click here.


May 22, 2019 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

European Union Criticizes Human Rights and Democracy in the U.S.

On May 17, the European Union issued its annual report on human rights and democracy worldwide, including a section surveying developments in the U.S. from the E.U. perspective.  While there are a few bright spots -- for example,Washington State's abolition of the death penalty -- most of the news is alarming.  The report notes the Trump Administration's disengagement from human rights institutions and the difficulty that the EU has had in initiating a consistent dialogue with the administration around these issues.  The EU report identifies the administration's family separation policy and the further limitation of refugee admissions as additional human rights low-points.  Further, the E.U. notes, the Administration has backed away from plans to close Guantanamo.

The report chronicles in some detail the E.U.'s active efforts to curtail the death penalty in the U.S., including a number of state-level interventions.  In at least one case in which the E.U. weighed in, a Governor commuted a sentence to life imprisonment.

The E.U. report includes some important lessons for U.S. human rights activists.  A significant aspect of human rights is its universality.  The engagement of the E.U. in chronicling U.S. back-sliding brings home the power that U.S. activists can gain from framing domestic issues in human rights terms.  In addition, the E.U. critique demonstrates that the current Administration can run, but it can't hide.  While it may resign from UN bodies and refuse to cooperate with UN Human Rights monitors, many of the human rights issues facing the U.S. are in plain sight, and the U.S. will continue to be criticized for them until it begins to take human rights seriously.

May 21, 2019 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, May 20, 2019

What's Up With WhatsApp and Spying On Human Rights Advocates

Last week WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, reported a security breach.  Reuters reported that the company indicated that the spyware had signs of coming from a government who was using spyware coming from a private company.  WhatsApp is encrypted end to end preventing third-party access.  Disturbingly What's App reported that select human rights groups were the likely targets of the breach.  

What's App informed users that it believed the spyware was probably developed by an Israeli company.  The US Department of Justice was informed of the breach so they could assist the investigation.  

As it turns out a London-based human rights lawyer is suing to stop the use of the very software that was used to hack him.  The spyware permitted access to his phone, including photos, messages, and the operating system.  ABC News reported that the unnamed lawyer had noticed suspicious activity on his phone. The lawyer is suing regarding the use of the software  Pegasus developed by NSO Group, the Israeli company.  Reportedly the software is being sold to regimes who use it to spy on dissidents, human rights activists as well as journalists.

The lawyer whose phone was hacked is a member of the legal team representing  "Omar Abdulaziz against NSO, and that hack [of his WhatsApp messages] was linked to the Khashoggi case. This same technology was used to spy on the communication between Omar Abdulaziz and Jamal Khashoggi, the lawyer said."

While European regulators investigate the breach, the use of the spyware is a message to all engaged in human rights work.  Governments on every continent are wary of, if not hostile to human rights advocates.  If you or your organization notice unusual activity on your phone or other devices, it might be worth a call to theUniversity of  Toronto based "Citizens Lab" that has made prior investigations into the use of Pegasus software.  In the meantime, WhatsApp cautions that users should download the latest version of WhatsApp to maximize protection from hackers.



May 20, 2019 in Margaret Drew | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Revisiting Life without Parole in Alabama One Prisoner at a Time

By Guest Blogger Prof. Courtney Cross

Image1In 2018, the Alabama legislature reduced the maximum sentence for drug trafficking from life without parole to life with the possibility of parole. While this amendment represents a welcome shift away from imposing life without parole sentences on non-violent defendants, it falls short of enacting large-scale reform for several reasons. First, the new law is not retroactive and there are more than 20 individuals serving life without parole sentences in Alabama for manufacturing or trafficking illegal drugs. Second, defendants may still be sentenced to life without parole if their criminal histories trigger harsher sentencing under the state’s mandatory habitual felony offender sentencing enhancement. Several of the above individuals are serving life without parole because their criminal records mandated this sentence. Lee Carroll Booker, for example, is a 76-year-old army veteran serving life without parole for growing marijuana plants in his backyard: his over 30-year-old robbery convictions mandated this outcome despite recognition from then-Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore that the sentence was excessive. Mr. Booker and others with similar sentences will end up dying in prison for non-violent drug crimes.

Geneva Cooley faced a similar fate after being arrested in 2002 with a gym sock containing heroin and hydromorphone pills. 72-year-old now, she was 55 at the time of her arrest. After a brief trial, she was found guilty of trafficking the heroin and the pills. She was also found guilty of two counts of failing to obtain a tax stamp for the drugs. She was sentenced to life without parole on the heroin charge which, at the time of her sentencing in 2006, was a mandatory sentence. Pursuant to the habitual offender law and the trial court’s finding that Ms. Cooley had two prior felony convictions, her other trafficking charge and the tax stamp charges resulted in concurrent life sentences. Ms. Cooley’s direct appeals and post-conviction petitions had all been denied until 2019 when she and her team of attorneys from the clinical program at the Culverhouse School of Law at the University of Alabama decided to file another post-conviction petition.

This time, the attorneys alleged that Ms. Cooley’s sentence violated the 8th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and pointed to the recent removal of life without parole from the drug trafficking scheme as well as efforts in other states and at the federal level to limit the use of life without parole for non-violent crimes. Ms. Cooley sought to be resentenced to life with the possibility of parole—the sentence she would receive if convicted today. The newly-elected district attorney in Jefferson County did not oppose the resentencing and filed a response that echoed Ms. Cooley’s arguments. After an evidentiary hearing in which both Ms. Cooley and the executive director of Alabama’s Sentencing Commission testified, Judge Stephen Wallace—who did not preside over Ms. Cooley’s original trial—ordered that she be resentenced to life with the possibility of parole pursuant to his own analysis of the 8th Amendment.

Ms. Cooley, who is currently awaiting her parole hearing, was fortunate in obtaining this outcome: not only had a reform-minded district attorney recently been elected, her sentencing judge had been replaced by a former criminal and civil rights attorney. Moreover, her life without parole sentence had stemmed from the outdated drug trafficking sentencing scheme and not from the habitual offender statute, which has proven nearly impossible to challenge.

While Ms. Cooley’s resentencing will have no direct impact on other prisoners’ sentences, it is another example of the admittedly slow shift away from inflicting the harshest of punishments on nonviolent drug offenders. While the case sets no legal precedents, DA Carr has stated that he hopes other prosecutors and judges will be exercise similar discretion and compassion. Until they do—or the

legislature takes action—nonviolent drug offenders sentenced to life without parole will continue to live out their days and take their last breaths in Alabama’s unforgiving prisons.

May 19, 2019 in Criminal Justice, justice systems, Prisons | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Remembering An Extraordinary Civil Rights Hero - Unita Blackwell

Image1Unita Blackwell passed on Monday at the age of 86.  Born in the Mississippi Delta during the depression of sharecropper parents.  She was forced to leave school at age 12 to work as a farm laborer.  She moved to Arkansas at a young age because there blacks were permitted to attend school. She returned to Mississippi when the civil rights movement began to make inroads. Eventually, Ms. Blackwell became the first black woman elected as mayor in Mississippi, but her activism and public service started much earlier.  

In 1986 Ms. Backwell was interviewed for "Eyes on the Prize."  She discussed the struggle to secure voting rights for African Americans.  In 1964 she attempted to register Delta African Americans to vote.  She was prevented from voting because of the "test" that was designed to exclude African Americans from voting.  African Americans failed the test. Whites did not.  At the time that Ms. Blackwell organized African Americans to vote, she was a field secretary of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.  

At the same time, Ms. Blackwell was a member of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.  The party challenged the seating of Mississippi's all-white delegation at the 1964 Democratic convention.  In 1965 Ms. Blackwell sued the county in which she resided for suspending 300 students who wore pins supporting civil rights.  In 1967 she testified at senatorial hearings held in Jackson on the extreme poverty experienced by rural blacks.  She testified that there were "children in the county who had never had a glass of milk."  

Armed with a GED, Ms. Blackwell was accepted into a program a regional planning program at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst from which she earned her master's degree in 1983.

During her tenure as mayor of Mayersville, from 1976-2001, she developed water and sewerage services,  saw that roads were paved and worked to improve housing.  From 1990-1992 she was president of the National Conference of Black Mayors.     Mayor Blackwell received a MacArthur genius grant for her work on water services and housing, and from 1991-1992 she was a fellow at the Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.  She became an advisor to several US presidents.

“I was put into the position of learning to survive, someway and somehow, by being black and in this country, Blackwell said in a 1977 oral history interview with the University of Southern Mississippi obtained by Mississippi Today. But also being black and in this country, you learn a great lesson, and this is how to overcome. … It’s that power to move in the midst of opposition.”



May 16, 2019 in Race | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Environmental Human Rights Claims: Two Updates

Earlier this month, a group of indigenous Australians filed a legal complaint against the Australian government for violating their human rights by contributing to climate change.  The complaint, filed by indigenous people from the low-lying Torres Strait Islands to the United Nations Human Rights Committee, alleges that the Australian government’s inadequate response to the climate crisis is a violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Australia is a party.  The complaint represents the first climate change case in Australia based on human rights claims and it is believed to be the first in the world brought by residents of low-lying islands against a national government.   More information on the proceeding is available here.

Meanwhile, the U.S. courts continue to consider the claims in Juliana v. United States, a case filed by a group of young people under the public trust doctrine challenging the U.S. for its actions contributing to climate change.   The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has scheduled a hearing in the case, in Portland, Oregon, on June 4th, 2019.  At issue is whether the case will be allowed to proceed to trial and whether the government will be enjoined from issuing leases for fossil fuel extraction on public lands.

Supporters of the Juliana plaintiffs are urged to gather on June 4 at Director Park downtown at 10:30 a.m., just a few blocks from the courthouse to make clear to the federal government that the American people support these young plaintiffs and the constitutional rights they seek to protect.   

The rally organizers add:  "If you can't be in Portland to rally on June 4, visit for information on how you can show solidarity from wherever you are. Help us make history by having this be the most watched Ninth Circuit oral argument ever."

May 15, 2019 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Refugee Realities

In his 2018 memoir Call Me American, Somali refugee Abdi Nor Iftin describes the life that he fled during Somalia's civil war and his long journey to America.  Talented at languages and lucky enough to win the visa lottery, Iftin is now an improbable student at the University of Southern Maine.  

Call Me American was named by Oxfam as one of "19 books to help you better understand poverty."  Others include Born a Crime, by Trevor Noah, and Evicted, by Matthew Desmond. 

Iftin's story is particularly pertinent as the United States "slow-walks" refugee applications, admitting far fewer refugees in 2018 (about 22,000) than in prior years (an average of 79,000), despite a worldwide refugee crisis of enormous proportions.  Iftin's tale has a happy ending, but his story makes clear the human stakes for individuals whose efforts to escape violence and attain some sort of refugee or immigrant status are less successful.  As Iftin told the New York Times, "Against all the narratives coming from the White House and the president, this book shows the determination and risks I undertook as a refugee to come here to live in peace, work hard and, most importantly, become an American."

In the excerpt here, Iftin recalls the day when American troops arrived in Somalia to provide humanitarian aid.

May 14, 2019 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, May 13, 2019

Rejecting The Wisdom Of The Rome Statute: US Life Sentences Without Parole for First Time Non-Violent Offenders

The ACLU recently published a powerful report on individuals incarcerated for life for non-violent crimes.  The investigators uncovered 3,248 individuals who are incarcerated for life for minor offenses.  The report, A Living Death: Life Without Parole For Non-Violent Offenses, documents cases where minor crimes were committed by those who were mentally ill, addicted or financially desperate at the time of the offense.  The offenses were petty.  One stole a $159.00 jacket.  Another participated in a $10.00 drug deal.  More than half of the offenders are black.  Even in the era of mass incarceration, these sentences are extreme.  Many of those sentenced to life without parole for non-violent offenses were first-time offenders caught up in drug deals.  

The women, many of whom were involved in crime because of their partner's drug operations, received life sentences but had no prior convictions. Many were sentenced under mandatory sentencing.  Some judges commented on the unfairness of the sentences.  One man was sentenced to life without parole when he was a juvenile.  One woman was sentenced under conspiracy laws for drug conspiracy when she never saw nor touched drugs.  

The report makes several recommendations, primarily legislative, that would eliminate life without parole for non-violent offenses and to make the change retroactive.

The report contains a section on comparative law citing that the "US is virtually alone in its willingness to sentence people to die behind bars for non-violent crimes." The report notes that the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court requires a review of all life sentences after 25 years.  Yet the US has not mandatory review.  Indeed, the per capita rate of US offenders serving sentences of life without parole is 51 times greater than Australia and 173 times greater than the United Kingdom.  By its terms, life without parole prohibits review in the US.  



May 13, 2019 in Incarcerated, Margaret Drew | Permalink | Comments (2)

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Flushed and Forgotten: New Report on Sanitation and Wastewater in Rural Communities in the U.S.

A new report that documents the scope of the problem of lack of access to sanitation in rural US communities, frames the issue in human rights terms, and provides recommendations for federal, state, tribal, and local governments to strengthen responses to the sanitation crisis.  The report, Flushed and Forgotten:  Sanitation and Wastewater in Rural Communities in the United States was written by the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise, the Columbia Law School Human Rights Clinic, and the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University.

A two pager on the report can be found here 

A brief summary of the report is below.  

Report Summary:

In the context of federal discussions on infrastructure spending, the report urges policymakers to focus on wastewater infrastructure needs. A recent study found that an estimated 1.5 million people live in homes without complete plumbing. Yet many existing sanitation systems are failing. In 2017, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the United States a D+ grade for wastewater infrastructure.

The report zeroes in on the experience of rural communities in Alabama, Alaska, Appalachia, California, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, the Navajo Nation, North Carolina, Ohio, Puerto Rico, and Texas. 

 In highlights that in rural U.S. communities where poverty is prevalent, functioning and affordable sanitation systems can be out of reach. On-site wastewater systems are common, and law and policy place the burden of costly sanitation and wastewater solutions on those most in need--who are often least able to afford them. Failing and inadequate infrastructure reflect the fact that all too often these communities are forgotten, if not deliberately excluded from decision-making.

The report finds that  neglect and disregard for basic sanitation is a nation-wide problem that places an undue burden on individuals living in poverty, and disproportionately harms Black, Latinx, and indigenous communities.  It concludes that all levels of government share responsibility for monitoring and implementing human rights, and provides recommendations for federal, state, tribal, and local governments to foster equal access to affordable sanitation that is consistent with globally recognized human rights standards.

Flushed and Forgotten also details policy recommendations, and calls for increased resources, coordination, and monitoring, as well as an end to the criminalization and penalization of poverty. 



May 12, 2019 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Prison Abolition, Human Rights, and Penal Reform: From Local to Global

The Bernard and Audre Rapoport Center for Human Rights and Justice at The University of Texas at Austin, School of Law invites submissions for an interdisciplinary conference on the theme of "Prison Abolition, Human Rights, and Penal Reform: From the Local to the Global," to be held September 26-28, 2019. 

Submit abstracts of proposed papers, panels, or projects in under 500 words to Sarah Eliason by July 15, 2019.

The conference organizers write:  "Mass incarceration and overcriminalization in the United States are subject to critique by some on both the right and the left today. Many critics increasingly talk of prison abolition. At the same time, the international human rights movement continues to rely upon criminal punishment as its primary enforcement tool for many violations, even as it criticizes harsh prison conditions, the use of the death penalty, and lack of due process in criminal proceedings. What would it mean for the human rights movement to take seriously calls for prison abolitionism and the economic and racial inequalities that overcriminalization reproduces and exacerbates? And what might critics of the carceral regime in the United States have to learn from work done by international human rights advocates in a variety of countries?"

More information on the themes of the conference,speakers, and other particulars is available here.

May 11, 2019 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Human Rights Blackout

In case you missed it:  the Guardian reports on the Trump Administration's continued refusal to respond to UN investigators.  On April 25, Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wrote to the Secretary of State seeking clarification about this Administration's apparent policy of non-cooperation.  As the Guardian reports, "Over the past 12 months some 24 official complaints have been lodged by UN monitors without a single reply" from the U.S. Government. 

Senator Menendez's letter follows on an earlier letter from prominent human rights NGOs urging the US government to cooperate with UN Special Rapporteurs.  That letter, from January 2019, noted that"Halting U.S. engagement with UN special rapporteurs would set a dangerous precedent that repressive regimes are likely to copy and exploit. The eventual result could be a breakdown of the international human rights architecture that the United States helped to create as a means of strengthening American security, promoting American values, and ensuring a freer, more stable, and more prosperous world."

Some speculate that the U.S. ceased its cooperation with UN Special Rapporteurs precisely because they are so effective.  Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty, conducted a well-publicized visit to the United States in 2017, where he was particularly critical of the nation's widening economic inequality, using data, photos, videos, testimony and other techniques to drive home the point.  The Administration vehemently attacked the Special Rapporteur's report.  It was the last time a Special Rapporteur made an official visit to the U.S.

May 9, 2019 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Human Rights Film Festival

The Human Rights Watch Film Festival will take place in San Diego on May 22nd, Los Angeles on June 2nd, in New Yok between June 13-20th. 

Among the films is "On the President's Orders" which documents Philipino President Dutertes "War On Drugs" which resulted in the killing of thousands of suspected drug users and dealers.  The filmakers had access to police and to members of the harmed families and were able to document the "trajectory of power to abuse". 

Among other movies is "Accept the Call" which addresses the targeting of Muslim youth by radical groups and the struggles of Muslim immigrants in the United States.   


May 8, 2019 in Margaret Drew | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

When Is A Woman Not A Woman? When She Succeeds

Castor Semenya is a South African running star.  She has won two Olympic medals and continues to win races.  After all of this success, the Court of Arbitration for Sport has ruled that because Ms. Semenya has a higher than usual level of testosterone, she could not compete as a woman against women unless she agrees to take testosterone suppressants. 

By contrast, Michael Phelps, multi- gold medal winner was at one time described as a biomechanical freak of nature.  Among his many natural advantages were double-jointed ankles, an abnormally wide wingspan, an ability to hyperextend his joints, larger than average hands, a torso disproportionately large to his height, and most importantly a body that produces less than half the usual amount of lactic acid which results in his ability to recover from intense exercise within a few minutes.   Phelps was considered lucky to have all of these natural advantages.

Which brings us back to sex.  The hearing panel was challenged with deciding if Ms. Semnya would be permitted to continue to race despite her natural advantage.  Discrimination is recognized to be at the core of the decision, a fact acknowledged by the ruling body.  However, as the panel found, the discrimination was necessary to preserve "the integrity of female athletics".  

As reported in the Washington Post, "The controversial case had cast a spotlight on issues of women’s rights, fairness in sport and human rights, dividing many in the track and field world. At stake was whether the rule was fair to Semenya, one of the world’s most dominant middle-distance runners and whether allowing Semenya to race with a demonstrative biological advantage was fair to her competitors."  Unsaid, of course, is that Ms. Semenya does not conform to what the panel looks for in a woman.  





May 7, 2019 in Margaret Drew | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, May 6, 2019

A Human Rights Hero

With others in the U.S. human rights community, we mourn the loss of Lenora Lapidus, longtime director of the ACLU Women's Rights Project, who passed on Sunday after a long and courageous struggle against breast cancer.  Lenora was an indefatigable advocate who championed "human rights at home" early on -- she served as counsel to Jessica Gonzales Lenahan in her efforts to ensure that women's freedom from violence, she worked to ensure women's fair treatment in low wage work, she was a key part of an effort (still in progress) to move New York to follow San Francisco's lead and adopt a human rights frame for city governance, and she supported and inspired countless others to aim high in their advocacy for women's rights. 

Lapidus followed in the footsteps of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who founded the ACLU's Women's Rights Project.  The project flourished under Lapidus' leadership -- and her work will continue to have an impact far into the future, even as we miss Lenora's unmatched creativity, wit, intelligence, and lively presence in the public interest law trenches.

May 6, 2019 | Permalink | Comments (0)