In Human Rights News: March 8 – 14, 2014
In this week’s human rights news we find issues related to international human rights treaties, LGBTQI rights, torture and prisoners’ rights, the criminal justice system, immigration, homelessness, and environmental justice.
ICCPR REVIEW. The UN Human Rights Committee (HRC) conducted its review this week of the United States’ compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The U.S. came under sharp criticism for a long list of human rights abuses highlighted by a delegation of NGOs coordinated by the US Human Rights Network. In the days leading up to the review session, the delegation briefed the HRC on various abuses that would have gone underreported or unreported by the government. The Committee condemned the government’s global counter-terrorism tactics, including the use of drones to kill al-Qaida suspects and its rendition practices. The Obama administration also came under fire for its failure to prosecute officials responsible for allowing waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation” techniques under the Bush administration. The Committee also emphasized numerous domestic abuses including the proliferation of stand-your-ground laws, continuing racial disparities in the criminal justice system, mistreatment of mentally-ill and juvenile prisoners, segregation in schools, the criminalization of homelessness, and racial profiling by police departments. When delegates from the U.S. government had their turn to respond, their responses were “heavy on lip-service to the committee’s thorough questioning but light on substance,” reports the Guardian. Read more here at the Guardian and here at the Huffington Post. More information about the ICCPR and the NGO delegation can be found here at the US Human Rights Network.
US ENDS AID PROGRAM TO UGANDA OVER ANTI-GAY LAW. The Washington Blade confirmed this week that the United States has not renewed its aid program with the Uganda Ministry of Health that helps fund the country’s response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The program expired just four days after Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni signed a bill into law that would sentence a person to life in prison if found guilty of repeated same-sex sexual acts. The Obama administration then announced it would reevaluate its relationship with the Ugandan government over the issue. “It complicates our relationship with Uganda,” said Uzra Zeya, acting assistant secretary of the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor at the State Department. “We have deep concerns about the law posing a threat to the safety and security of the LGBT community, but also the safety and protection of all Ugandan citizens.” However, the withdrawal of support potentially threatens the well-being of the very same community that is being persecuted under the new law. “The community is very scared, very worried,” said Dickson Mujuni of the RPL AIDS Foundation in a telephone interview with the Blade last month. His organization has been forced to abandon plans to build a new hospital due to the anti-gay law. Mujuni also said that gay and lesbian Ugandans have gone “underground.” Read more at the Washington Blade.
LEGAL ACTION AGAINST FORCE-FEEDING AT GUANTANAMO BAY. On Tuesday, a Yemeni inmate at Guantanamo Bay, Emad Abdullah Hassan, launched the first court bid to make the military respond to accusations of inhumane force-feeding of prisoners participating in hunger strikes. “This is the first time that any court will compare what the prisoners are saying about the torturous methods with what the military is saying,” said Clive Stafford Smith, Director of the London-based human rights group Reprieve and Mr. Hassan’s legal counsel. Stafford Smith said that he met with Hassan at Guantanamo Bay earlier this month. Hassan described how prison staff strapped him to what he called a “torture chair” and force-fed him through large tubes, thrust into and pulled out of his nostrils for the feedings. Hassan told Stafford Smith that the chair was frequently still covered in blood and feces from previous prisoners who suffered from hemorrhoids and diarrhea. Al Jazeera, which covered the story, described various other human rights violations that occur during and as a result of the force feedings. Stafford Smith’s motion for a preliminary injunction reads, “This motion invokes this court’s habeas jurisdiction to do something about the festering wound in human rights violations that the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay has become.” His filing to challenge the force-feeding practices at Guantanamo Bay was launched with President Obama as the chief defendant. Hassan, a 34-year-old Yemeni national who was originally surrendered to the United States by Pakistani authorities under suspicions of conspiracy with armed groups, was cleared for release in 2009. Read more at Al Jazeera.
CRIMINAL JUSTICE NEWS. A new study by a doctoral candidate in African American Studies at U.C. Berkeley found that young people of color are overrepresented in private prisons to a greater degree than in public prisons. By analyzing the public records in nine states, Christopher Petrella found that private prisons have a higher proportion of racial minorities because they obtain contractual exemptions from giving certain health services, leading them to select younger prisoners who are more likely to be healthy. Younger inmates, who have come into the prison system since the onset of the war on drugs, are disproportionately people of color, whereas older inmates skew more white. Read more at NPR and click here for the study. Lawmakers in Wisconsin have proposed legislation to address Wisconsin’s ranking as the state with the highest rate of black male incarceration. Senator Nikiya Harris (D) and Representative Sandy Pasch (D) have co-sponsored the Minority Impact Statement bill, which would require a legislative committee to provide a minority impact statement before designating a new crime or changing the criminal penalty for an existing crime. Lawmakers in Florida and Mississippi are deliberating on similar bills. Read more at the Sentencing Project. Six retired judges in North Carolina have filed a brief urging the state’s Supreme Court to uphold Racial Justice Act rulings that changed three prisoners’ death sentences to life without parole. In December 2012, Judge Gregory Weeks ruled that race played a significant role in the death penalty sentences of three North Carolina inmates. The state chapter of the NAACP has also filed a brief encouraging the state to uphold the ruling. Read more at the Sentencing Project.
STRATEGY CHANGE FOR IMMIGRANT RIGHTS ADVOCATES. A different tactic in the struggle for immigrant rights was discussed by In These Times this week: rather than continuing to call on Congress for immigration reform, advocates and immigrant workers are staging waves of protests. Over the last five months, community and labor activists have blocked buses carrying people to detention centers for deportation by sitting in front of them. Last week, unions and community organizations shut down an intersection in front of a supermarket chain in Silicon Valley where hundreds of workers were fired after an I-9 audit (where ICE examines company personnel records in order to identify undocumented workers for termination.) David Bacon of In These Times writes that these and many other protests are a direct reaction to the Obama administration’s immigration enforcement policies. Thousands of workers have been fired over the last five years through immigration audits and the use of the E-Verify database. In the nation’s capital, some organizations continue to pressure Congress to vote on the Comprehensive Immigration Reform legislation, but the actions taking place throughout the rest of the country hardly mention the bills. In fact, many advocacy groups and unions outside of Washington, D.C. have mostly abandoned the idea that Congress can or will curtail mass deportations and protect the jobs and labor rights of undocumented workers. Instead, these grassroots protesters are calling on the Obama administration to use its executive authority to end deportations and firings immediately. Read more at In These Times.
THE HOMELESS SHELTER CHALLENGE. Last month, Representative Jackie Speier (D-CA) spent a night at a homeless shelter in her Bay Area congressional district with the goal of better understanding the cruelty of poverty and homelessness by directly talking to people affected by it. Think Progress reported this week that the experience had such a profound impact on the congresswoman that she is now setting a larger goal: to convince fellow members of Congress to spend a night at a homeless shelter as well. On Thursday, Speier started circulating a letter among those in Congress, urging them to take the Homeless Shelter Challenge. “Spend the night, break bread, listen, learn, and move toward providing some hope to those who need it the most,” she asked her colleagues. In her letter, Speier described some of the encounters she had during her night among the homeless. “One couple I spoke with both work full-time, one at Safeway and the other at Office Max,” she wrote. “Two people with two full-time jobs and they’re homeless? It’s not right.” Speier’s office told Think Progress that numerous congressional offices have expressed interest in participating in the Homeless Shelter Challenge. Her staff said the congresswoman will continue to circulate the letter every week or two and promote the challenge directly to her fellow lawmakers on the House floor. Read more at Think Progress.
ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE LAWSUIT IN NORTH CAROLINA. According to the Institute for Southern Studies, environmental groups are planning to sue the owners of a North Carolina industrial hog farm over unlawful discharges of waste into groundwater, wetlands, and streams. The effort, led by North Carolina’s Neuse Riverkeeper Foundation and the national Waterkeeper Alliance, targets the Stantonsburg Farm in Greene County, a major hog production center. The farm raises hogs for Murphy-Brown, a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods, which was recently purchased by the Hong Kong-based Shuanghui International Holdings Ltd. The facility currently holds about 5,000 hogs and stores the roughly 12 million gallons of their waste generated each year in an open-air lagoon. The waste is then sprayed onto 85 acres of adjacent fields. “The smell, the flies and the pollution from this facility has destroyed our quality of life and causes constant stress,” said Don Webb, who lives next to the Stantonsburg Farm. “How would you feel if you couldn’t drink the water from your own well? Living next to a creek that often fills with raw swine excrement makes me wonder if it’s safe for my neighbors to be around here.” The announcement about the lawsuit was made just weeks after Waterkeeper organizations called on Governor Pat McCrory (R) to declare a state of emergency over a viral outbreak that is killing hogs en masse, causing disposal concerns. Dead hogs are normally buried in mass graves, which creates a risk of infecting shallow groundwater and nearby streams. However, Agriculture Commissioner Troxler said last week that the state would not seek a declaration of emergency. Read more at the Institute for Southern Studies.