Friday, December 21, 2012

Human Rights in the Shadows of “Too Big To Fail”

by Gabe Lezra

Dani hasn’t had many early mornings recently. More and more, he has found himself with nowhere to be during the day; he graduated high school more than ten years ago, and began working with his father in construction. He goes weeks without work now, trying his best to find odd jobs, local contracting work, and fly-by-night dishwashing. But the phone hasn’t been ringing: he is thirty-two years old, a high-school graduate, and a member of Spain’s new lost generation.

Dani’s is a common story in Southern Spain. Hundreds of thousands of people lost their jobs during the financial crisis, as Spain, with its nascent manufacturing and construction industries, was particularly hard-hit by the credit crunch. Without banks to lend capital to companies to invest in new buildings, this generation was quite suddenly out of a job.

Most of them still are. Youth unemployment in Spain as a whole is over 50%; it’s even higher in the South where Daniel lives. The national unemployment rate hovers around 25%, the highest in the European Union; in 2005, the unemployment rate in Spain was 9.2%, only incrementally more than the EU average of 9.0%. Average income has dropped 4% while the cost of living has increased; seeing people in aging designer clothes foraging in the trash outside of grocery stores is commonplace. All of this, concludes a recent Cáritas report, has caused a “notable drop in well-being.”

The narrative in the United States has been one of recovery since the height of the crisis; in Spain, it has been one of cuts. Austerity measures imposed by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy in conjunction with European Union officials and the European Central Bank have seen the ranks of Spain’s unemployed swell to 5.78 million people in October, up from 5.69 million in September, and 2.6 million four years ago.

If we have learned anything from the crisis in the United States it is that a financial regulatory system should not be based on outdated political policies like “too big to fail”—that regulatory regimes must be regulatory. In Spain, we can see the human cost of these failings; in Spain, we can see with particular clarity that the real effects of a financial crisis are on the day-to-day lives of the working class.

It is time for a new perspective on economic crises driven by this understanding. It is time to engage thoughtfully with the human costs of crises—of austerity measures imposed by governments that disproportionately harm the poor, of cuts to vital social services that leave young people like Dani with nowhere to turn. It is time to view the effects of financial crises through a human rights lens.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Forgotten and the Shunned: Street Children in Egypt

by Mai El-Sadany
Twitter: @MaiE_89
Courtesy of
"You can never do justice in portraying the injustice of life and humans towards these children." Such are the words of Nelly Ali, anthropologist and PhD student who has been working with, conducting research, and actively blogging on the issue of street children in Egypt.  
Street children, also known as awlad al-shaware’ in Egyptian Arabic, are generally defined as young boys and girls who live on the streets and have minimal to no contact with their parents or guardians; they depend on the street for their shelter, income, and sustenance.
Since the revolution and with the majority of attention focused on Egypt’s political dynamics, there has been almost no attentiveness towards this marginalized community. As Egypt prepares to adapt a new constitution (the status of which will be determined after a second round of voting on December 22) there remains an alarming absence of necessary discussion on issues of human rights, more specifically the rights of the child, the working rights of minors, and various protections for trafficking. As such the issue of awlad al-shaware’ becomes one that must promptly be revisited.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Italy Attempts to “Push-back” its International Human Rights Duties

by Lauren Esterle

“No contracting state shall expel or return (refouler) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”  -  Art. 33 of the UN Refugee Convention

Enshrined in the 1951 Refugee Convention and considered a rule of customary international law, the principle of non-refoulement is an essential component of asylum and international refugee protection that safeguards migrants, whatever their status, from forcible return to countries where they may be exposed to persecution. In recent years, however, the principle has faced barriers as States have attempted to deal with increasing migration flows by intercepting vessels on the high seas and preventing them from reaching their destinations.  This process, sometimes aided by bilateral agreements between individual countries, places the principle of non-refoulement at risk if migrants onboard are not first individually screened for refugee status. Furthermore, the location of these interceptions, on the high seas or territorial waters, has influenced States’ opinions of how, if and when they should be held accountable for violations of their obligations under international law.

The European Court of Human Rights highlighted this problem in its 2012 decision Hirsi v. Italy, which examined a 2009 incident where the Italian coastguard intercepted approximately 200 migrants thirty-five nautical miles south of Lampedusa, Italy (on the high seas) and returned them to Tripoli without ever informing the migrants of their final destination or screening the group for possible asylum seekers. The Court noted that the Italian Minister of the Interior had stated that the operation was an effective push-back policy resulting from 2009 bilateral “friendship” agreements concluded with Libya. Although the case only dealt with an operation led by Italy, the agreements referenced by the Minister also alluded to organized joint patrolling operations by mixed crews of Libyans and Italians, on ships supplied by Italy in both international and Libyan territorial waters.  

Monday, December 10, 2012

Human Rights and Debt Relief in the Age of Vultures

The Argentine Libertad, held in Ghana
due to a sovereign debt dispute.
by Blake Hulnick
Twitter: @bhulnick

When Argentina officially took its place on the UN Security Council on October 22nd, the celebrations were brief, and Argentina’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Hector Marcos Timerman, had an urgent piece of business to raise with Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.  The Fragata Libertad, an Argentine naval frigate, had been detained in Temma, Ghana for weeks, and the government continued to demand its unconditional return.

The Libertad finds itself in this unusual predicament because a U.S.-based investment firm petitioned courts in Ghana for its seizure in their quest to be made whole on a long-unpaid $1.6 billion judgment stemming from Argentina’s 2001 default. The unfolding situation provides a rare public glimpse into a novel field in international law beginning to reverberate throughout the human rights community.

The Argentine government called the attachment of their ship a violation of the Vienna Convention’s diplomatic immunity rules and even outright extortion, but the issue may be more complicated. For years, so-called “vulture funds” have built a business model acquiring distressed sovereign debt,  often at deep discounts on the secondary market from frustrated creditors. The funds then pursue collection in every corner of the world, often at many times the original amount. Where they succeed, the result can be a substantial profit. The funds’ harshest critics say they frustrate third world debt relief efforts, hamper hard-won economic reforms, and raid the treasuries of poor countries struggling to provide basic social services and ensure the human rights of their citizens.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Litigation and Health Reform in Brazil: Balancing Access to Health with the Creation of a Durable and Equitable Health System

By John Thorpe

Good health is a precondition for the enjoyment of most of the rights we cherish.  A young woman crippled by opportunistic HIV/AIDS infections faces significant challenges to vote, let alone to contest barriers to vote.  Good health ensures that we can work and work productively.  It also promotes early childhood education and gives children an opportunity to perform at their highest potential.  As The Global Network has noted, the broad negative social impact that neglected tropical diseases have on education, economic development, and women’s empowerment is illustrative of the fundamental nature of good health. 

Recognizing that the right to health is a pillar of individual and collective dignity, the international community enshrined it in article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights.  Yet historically, the right has lacked broad institutional support and reliable mechanisms for enforcement.  Recent codifications of the right to health into national constitutions are changing this by, among other things, opening up the possibility of litigation for individuals seeking access to care and medication.  Brazil serves as a good example.  Since codifying the right to health in its constitution, Brazil has witnessed a veritable explosion in health related litigation (in Brazil’s Rio Grande do Sul state, health related lawsuits filed against the state have increased over 1000% from 2002-2009).  Although this trend in litigation is raising a number of questions regarding sustainability and equity, one thing is clear: litigation is moving the public discourse from debate over the right to health’s epistemological validity in the rights framework to inquiries into pragmatic methods and optimal institutional structures to ensure its enjoyment in practice.  Litigation, while not a permanent answer to health inequity and in need of reform, is providing poor Brazilians with access to necessary medication and with an effective tool to claim their right to health where current distributional structures are failing. 

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Protecting Human Rights Defenders

by Annie Ben-Ami
Shirin Ebadi
Courtesy of BBC

Many of us immersed in the human rights world consider ourselves human rights advocates— promoters of fair treatment for all, supporters of the rights of the oppressed, activists committed to human rights standards.  Whether it is on a personal, local, national, or global level, human rights defenders are those individuals who fight day after day to promote human rights who ensure that no person or group is denied the basic, fundamental rights that everyone deserves.  

But what happens when it is these very fighters who are deprived of their rights?  Sadly, more and more of these critical human rights defenders’ own rights are being threatened and taken away.  Defenders are the targets of violence, intimidation, and repression which aim to stop them from doing their critical work, and often carried out by their very own governments.  What can be done to protect these important individuals in the face of repression?  How do they still fight to be effective advocates despite the many obstacles placed in their path?

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Demand for Quality Education in Florida Public Schools

By Michelle Nguyen
Florida, a state with one of the lowest graduation rates in the nation, is also a state with one of the strongest constitutional provisions for protecting the right to education.

In 1998, voters demonstrated their commitment to Florida public schools by approving an amendment to the state’s constitution that established a uniquely high standard for public education in Florida. The amendment to Article IX Section 1 holds that the state has a “paramount duty” to adequately provide a “uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools."

While this amendment may stand in stark contrast to the realities of public education in Florida, it has created a potential avenue for citizens to hold their state accountable in honoring the human right to education.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Forced Begging in Senegal

By Nicole Vander Meulen

WikiMediaCommons, Barry Pousman
As soon as the taxi stopped, I noticed a few young boys dart out into the street.  They were each holding a rusty tin can, which they shoved into open car windows, waiting for a generous individual to drop a few coins in.  At that time I assumed (along with most visitors to Dakar, Senegal) that these children were simply begging on the street so that they could feed themselves.  The reality was, in fact, worse.

Instead, many of these children were actually being forced to beg for the economic benefit of corrupt religious teachers.  Traditionally, young children in Senegal were sent to learn the Koran at religious schools (daaras) where the religious leader (marabout) was either an extended family member or a man from their village.  In exchange for religious instruction, the children would help the marabout cultivate his land and would go to the homes of community members to collect food donations.  Any begging that did occur was used to teach the children humility, not as a means of economic gain.  Currently, some corrupt urban marabouts force a number of their 40-100 students to beg on the streets.  With the children separated from their communities and often unable to contact their parents, they are now left very vulnerable to this sort of exploitation.  Some of these corrupt teachers don’t even know the Koran.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Looking to Poland for Accountability for CIA Torture

By Joanna Wasik, Georgetown Law '12, Guest Blogger 

This past summer, the Obama administration foreclosed the possibility that any charges would be brought against U.S. government officials for torture of terrorist suspects committed by the CIA during the Bush administration. This decision signaled an end to the prospect that a four-year-long probe into the deaths of two detainees in 2002 and 2003 would result in accountability through criminal prosecution. Earlier this year, however, an investigation in Poland and a case in the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) regarding a former CIA “black site” prison emerged into public view and began to gain steam.  

As reported by the New York Times, Attorney General Holder explained that the decision not to bring criminal charges was guided by the conclusion that there was not enough available admissible evidence of torture to establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, and that this assessment does not mean that the actions taken by CIA officials were lawful. Holder stated that the investigation “was not intended to, and does not resolve, broader questions regarding the propriety of the examined conduct.” The decision was disappointing for many in the human rights community, such as Human Rights First, who have advocated that bringing to justice those responsible for torture is necessary to ensure that torture does not recur.

However, at the same time as the U.S. is closing the door on the possibility of trial for torture, prosecutors in another country, Poland, may be opening it. A staunch ally of the U.S. in the War on Terror under the Bush Administration, Poland hosted a CIA black site used to interrogate and allegedly torture Al-Qaeda suspects in Stare Kiejkuty, a town 100 miles north of Warsaw. According to the Council of Europe, the site opened in 2002 and housed “high-value” detainees, possibly including Khalid Sheikh Mohammad. Documents reveal that Mohammad was waterboarded 183 times in 2003, which may have occurred while he was at Stare Kiejkuty.
The Polish investigation first garnered public attention in March 2012, when it became known that the Prosecutor General’s office had charged Poland’s former Intelligence Chief with unlawful detention and corporal punishment. There have also been rumors that Leszek Miller, Poland’s Prime Minister at the time of the alleged black site’s operation, may be charged.

While President Obama’s statements in 2009 that he wanted to “look forward as opposed to backwards” foreshadowed his reluctance to prosecute Bush-era human rights violations, current Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk’s attitude is starkly different. In 2012, he stated: “Poland is a democracy where national and international law must be observed […] [t]his issue must be explained. Let there be no doubt about it either in Poland or on the other side of the ocean.”
In addition to the Polish investigation, accountability for CIA torture may emerge from a closely related case in the ECHR. The Open Society Institute is representing Al-Nashiri, the terrorist suspect allegedly responsible for the USS Cole bombing currently facing trial by military commission at Guantanamo Bay, in his claim against Poland before the ECHR. In an important development in the case in July 2012, the ECHR ordered the Polish government to turn over all documents relevant to a possible CIA secret prison in Poland. In particular, it asked Poland to confirm whether or not al-Nashiri had been held at Stare Kiejkuty from 2002-2003. In September 2012, the government of Poland responded by requesting that public access to the documents be limited. To date, it remains to be seen how the Court will rule regarding disclosure of the documents to the public.

The Polish investigation, if it does result in prosecution, may bring a glimmer of the accountability hoped for by the human rights community. Although the investigation is proceeding very slowly and the U.S. government is refusing all requests of assistance, it could eventually bring to light many of the details of the treatment of detainees such as Al-Nashiri. Although the Polish investigation targets Polish government officials who illegally allowed Stare Kiejkuty to be used as a site for extraordinary rendition and torture, and the actual perpetrators-- U.S. government officials working for the CIA -- will not face trial, the investigation may still be an important step, and Poland should be applauded for being the only country currently pursuing such an investigation. Other countries which hosted black sites should be encouraged to follow Poland’s lead. In addition, Al-Nashiri’s case at the ECHR may finally bring about official acknowledgment of facts that, for the time being, have not been confirmed by the U.S. government. Because accountability for Bush-era torture will not happen at home, the U.S. human rights community should turn abroad to these cases to carefully monitor, publicize, and support them. 

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Victory in the ICC, But Without More Signatories, How Much Can the Rome Statute Do?

Louis Michel, via WikiMediaCommo
By Andrew G. Mosher

Ten years after it was established, the International Criminal Court has announced its first verdict.

A three-judge panel unanimously convicted Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, 51, a Congolese militia leader, of conscripting soldiers under the age of 15 and using them in an armed conflict in the Ituri region of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in 2002 and 2003.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

What #Kony2012 Should Have Asked For

Pierre Holtz, via Wikimedia Commons
by Kayleen Hartman

By now the story of #Kony2012 is growing old. The viral video on Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) has received almost 80 million hits, and is famous in some circles more for the backlash against it than for its advocacy ask: to stop the LRA’s deplorable use of child soldiers, tell the Obama administration to continue to provide the support it’s already providing to the Ugandan military’s mission against the LRA.

There’s been loads of commentary about the concerns with a video like this, whether or not or it’s useful, and its questionable accuracy. There is also the fact that there are other organizations in Uganda, founded by former child soldiers and for child soldiers, that might be a great place to put your money if you’re feeling moved. But we've missed the fact that not only is simple maintenance of the status quo a wasted use of the advocacy power of millions, there is another, much more necessary, powerful, and on-point demand that those affected by the video could ask of their president.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Fight for Human Rights in Alabama Recalls Civil Rights Movement 50 Years Ago

WikiMediaCommons, Abernathy Family Photos
by S. Amanda Shelton

     On New Year's Eve, 2011, I walked around downtown Montgomery, Alabama. The tranquil streets in this city of over 200,000 were so quiet that I saw more police officers than residents, a somewhat disquieting fact given the subject of my visit—the state’s often troubled history of public oppression of minorities.
     This history of struggle with racism and acceptance has come back into sharp focus in the last year; in June, Governor Robert Bentley signed into law HB 56, the Beason-Hammon Alabama Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act, which the ACLU called the “harshest immigration law in the country.”

Monday, February 6, 2012

Japan’s Human Rights Challenge: International Parental Child Abduction

Wikimedia Commons, US Department of State
by Asafu Suzuki

     In 2009, Christopher Savoie made international headlines when he flew to Japan to forcibly take back his children, who had been “abducted” by his Japanese ex-wife in defiance of an American court order. While the incident ultimately prompted review of Japan’s child custody laws, it shed light on a serious problem that affects many international families upon the parents’ divorce.

     As international marriages become increasingly common in today’s globalized environment, so have international divorces. International divorces generally present various challenges, and custodial issues in international divorces can be particularly problematic. Difficulty arises when one parent illegally removes his or her children from their habitual residence. This phenomenon, commonly known as international parental child abduction, involves actual and potential human rights violations of all parties involved.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Can Governments Protect Sex Work to Prevent Human Trafficking?

flikr/The Intrepid Traveler
by Marie Greenman

More than a decade after the Dutch government lifted its ban on brothels, thereby decriminalizing sex work in the Netherlands, the international human rights community remains divided on whether or not the decriminalization of voluntary sex work is an effective anti-human trafficking tool.
Why is Dutch decriminalization of the regulated sex industry so controversial? There are two sets of intensely held beliefs, which center around the nature of commercial sex itself. Some see the regulation as creating a support and safety network for registered sex workers and allowing them to reclaim a sense of control over the use of their bodies. Others argue that it endorses the commodification of the human body and allows for the exploitation of disempowered and socioeconomically pressed workers.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Revolutionary Rights and the Arab Christian ‘Plight’

Carlos Latuff, WikimediaCommons
by Alex Schank
Violent acts against Christians in the Middle East have spurred a series of calls both regionally and internationally for the protection of a vulnerable religious minority in a Muslim-dominated part of the world. Salafist attacks on churches in Egypt, the bloody Maspero clashes between the army and Coptic demonstrators, and an apparently increasingly sectarian popular uprising in Syria have raised alarm bells in international and regional Christian networks and foreign policy circuits about the plight of Middle Eastern Christians.

The notion that Christians are threatened by a changing, revolutionary Middle East is not necessarily unfounded. The blood spilled in Cairo in recent months and the armed conflict in Syria raise real concerns about the safety of all citizens, particularly ethnic and religious minorities, and all those demonstrating for their rights. Indeed, the specters of sectarian civil war and Christian persecution from the recent historical experiences of Lebanon and Iraq, respectively, seem to loom over the region.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

President Obama and The Rights of the Child

ARC 530623, WikiCommons
by S. Amanda Shelton

In the wake of the passage of the National Defense Authorization Act, a bill which human rights groups criticized for its broad curtailment of basic civil rights, many were left with questions about the contrast between President Obama’s human rights stance as President and his stance as a candidate and Senator. While national security, torture, and indefinite detention have been at the center of this debate, his administration’s policies on child soldiers are also fertile ground for this discussion.

On September 19, 2007, then-Senator and presidential hopeful Barack Obama co-sponsored  the Child Soldier Prevention Act of 2007. The act aimed to prevent taxpayer subsidization of the use of child soldiers by withholding U.S. military assistance to states with child soldiers in their militaries or in government-supported armed forces. The use of child soldiers is a practice that draws an estimated 250,000 children into direct armed conflict and indirect conflict support – including sexual exploitation – across the globe.