U.N. Human Rights Council Is Warned About Human Rights Violations

The U.N. Human Rights Council, which is responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe, addressing situations of human rights violations and making recommendations on the subject, [1] is in the midst of its 28th regular session at its headquarters in Geneva Switzerland with the session ending on March 27th. [2]

Zeid Ra-al Al Hussein
Zeid Ra-ad Al Hussein

At the opening of the session on March 2 the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, [3] set forth his concerns on human rights. Three days later, on March 5th, he commented on his annual report on human rights. This post will examine both of these speeches.

From March 2 through 5, the Council conducted what it called its High Level Segment, in which national leaders addressed the Council on the overall subject of human rights. Two of those national leaders were U.S. Secretary of State john Kerry and Cuban Foreign Minister, Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla. Their remarks will be covered in subsequent posts while another post will analyze those remarks and the speeches of the High Commissioner.

High Commissioner’s Speech, March 2nd [4]

The “cruelty and moral bankruptcy of violent extremists . . . continue daily, and we condemn their merciless conduct daily.”

“And yet, if we are not careful, if we are not completely principled and cunning in our collective attempt to defang them, we will, unwittingly and inexcusably, be advancing their interests. How we define the opening chapters of this already agitated century depends heavily on us not becoming like them.  For us, international humanitarian law and international human rights law cannot be trifled with or circumvented, but must be fully observed.”

“It has been 70 years since the great Charter of the [U.N.] was drawn up, and since then States have also written and agreed to a range of strong international treaties, to establish in binding law the legal principles of human rights. They are a distillation of all human experience, all the warnings and screams of our combined human history.” By “ratifying the U.N. Charter, [states] have made a clear commitment [in the words of its Preamble] to ‘reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights; in the dignity and worth of the human person; in the equal rights of men and women, and of nations large and small; and to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties, and other sources of international law, can be maintained; and to promote social progress, and better standards of life in larger freedom.’”

“And yet, with alarming regularity, human rights are disregarded, and violated, sometimes to a shocking degree.”

“States claim exceptional circumstances. They pick and choose between rights. One Government will thoroughly support women’s human rights and those of the LGBT communities, but will balk at any suggestion that those rights be extended to migrants of irregular status. [U.S.?] Another State may observe scrupulously the right to education, but will brutally stamp out opposing political views. [Cuba?] A third State comprehensively violates the political, civil, economic, social and cultural rights of its people, while vigorously defending the ideals of human rights before its peers.”

“In recent months I have been disturbed deeply by the contempt and disregard displayed by several States towards the women and men appointed by [the Council] as [its] independent experts – and also by the reprisals and smear campaigns that are all too frequently exercised against representatives of civil society, including those who engage with the Council and its bodies.  I appeal to all of you, once again, to focus on the substance of the complaint, rather than lash out at the critic – whether that person is mandated by States, is a member of my Office, or is a human rights defender.”

“The overwhelming majority of victims of human rights abuses around the world share two characteristics: Deprivation, and discrimination – whether it is based on race or ethnicity, gender, beliefs, sexual orientation, caste or class. From hunger to massacres, sexual violence and slavery, human rights violations are rooted in these hidden, and sometimes not so hidden, factors.”

“They are not spontaneously generated. Most violations of human rights result from policy choices, which limit freedom and participation, and create obstacles to the fair sharing of resources and opportunities.”

“The most powerful instrument in the arsenal we have against poverty and conflict is the weapon of massive instruction. Respect for the human rights of all, justice, education, equality – these are the strongly interlocking elements that will build fair, confident and resilient societies; true development; and a permanent peace.”

“Everybody knows when police use torture, and when tweets are brutally suppressed.  Everybody knows when discrimination means poverty, while corrupt elites gorge on public goods, supported by a corrupt judiciary.  Everybody knows when women are treated like property, and children go hungry, and unschooled, in squalid neighborhoods.”

“Some of the evidence may be hidden. But the reality, in far too many countries, of massacres and sexual violence; crushing poverty; the exclusive bestowal of health-care and other vital resources to the wealthy and well-connected; the torture of powerless detainees [U.S.?]; the denial of human dignity – these things are known. . . . [T]hey are what truly make up a State’s reputation; together with the real steps – if any – taken by the State to prevent abuses and address social inequalities, and whether it honors the dignity of its people.”

“The only real measure of a Government’s worth is . . . the extent to which it is sensitive to the needs – and protects the rights – of its nationals and other people who fall under its jurisdiction, or over whom it has physical control.”

“Some policy-makers persuade themselves that their circumstances are exceptional, creating a wholly new reality unforeseen by the law. This logic is abundant around the world today:  ‘I arrest arbitrarily and torture because a new type of war justifies it. I spy on my citizens because the fight against terrorism requires it. I don’t want new immigrants, or I discriminate against minorities, because our communal identity is being threatened now as never before. I kill without any form of due process, because if I do not, others will kill me.’ “

“I must remind you of the enduring and universal validity of the international human rights treaties that your States wrote and ratified. In reality, neither terrorism, nor globalization, nor migration are qualitatively new threats that can justify overturning the legal foundations of life on Earth.  They are not new.”

“At a time of intensifying global anxiety, I believe the people of the world are crying out for profound and inspiring leadership equal to the challenges we face.  We must therefore renew, by the strongest action, our dedication to the reality of inalienable and universal human rights, to end discrimination, deprivation, and the seemingly inexhaustible litany of conflicts and crises that generate such terrible, and needless, suffering.”

“What will become of us, of our world, if we ignore our treaties and principles? Can we be so stupid as to repeat scenes from the twentieth century, punctured as it was by such awful inhumanity?  You must not make it so.  This is principally your burden, and ours.  Together, if we succeed in turning the corner, in improving our global condition, we can then say the screams of history and of the millions upon millions of victims, have been heard, finally.  Let us make it so.”

High Commissioner’s Speech, March 5th [5]

The High Commissioner was “appalled by the massive suffering ISIL provokes [in Syria, Iraq and Libya]: from the murders, torture, rape and sale of children . . . ; to mass beheadings; burning people alive in cages; seemingly genocidal attacks on ethnic and religious groups; the obliteration of due process; torture; deprivation of income and every kind of service and resource; recruitment of children; the destruction of elements of the cultural heritage of humanity; and, not least, particularly vicious and comprehensive attacks on the rights of women and girls.” [Similar horrible actshe said, were perpetrated in Nigeria by Boko Haram and in Yemen and Somalia by other groups.]

“My Office strongly supports efforts by States around the world to prevent and combat terrorism, and to ensure that the perpetrators of terrorism, as well as their financiers and suppliers of arms, are brought to justice.”

“Terrorist attacks [,however,] cannot destroy the values on which our societies are grounded – but laws and policies can. Measures that build what has been termed the ‘national security state’ – such as arbitrary or prolonged detention; torture and ill-treatment; massive surveillance that contravenes the right to privacy; unfair trials; discriminatory policing; and the abusive use of legislation to curb legitimate rights to peaceful protest and to freedom of expression – are human rights violations. They generate legitimate resentment, harm social cohesion, and undermine the essential values of the international community.”

“There is real danger that in their reaction to extremist violence, opinion-leaders and decision-makers will lose their grasp of the deeper principles that underpin the system for global security which States built 70 years ago to ward off the horror of war. The fight against terror is a struggle to uphold the values of democracy and human rights – not undermine them. . . [C]ounter-terrorist operations that are non-specific, disproportionate, brutal and inadequately supervised violate the very norms that we seek to defend. They also risk handing the terrorists a propaganda tool – thus making our societies neither free nor safe. The use of torture, neglect of due process and collective punishment do not make the world any safer.”

“To be truly effective, any response to extremist violence must be targeted, proportionate, and legal. Military campaigns, financial sanctions and attempts to staunch the inflow of weapons – such as the United Nations Arms Trade Treaty – may be part of the solution.”

“But other actions are needed to stem the root causes that feed into these conflicts. We must acknowledge that large numbers of people do not join such extremist movements en masse because they have been suddenly and inexplicably hypnotized. Extremism – however repugnant – is nurtured by ideology, and by alienation fed by years of tyranny, corruption, repression, discrimination, deprivation and neglect of the legitimate rights of communities.”

He especially was “disturbed by a continuing trend of harsh restrictions on public freedoms by States across all regions. I refer to military crackdowns on demonstrations; harsh sentencing of human rights defenders, journalists and dissidents in politically motivated trials; brutal punishments for simple tweets; censorship; oppressive and illegitimate regulations of civil society movements; the use of new technologies to stifle human rights in the virtual space; and new security laws that are unjustly broad, endangering civil liberties and human rights.”

“And yet the great pillar of every resilient and participative society is freedom of expression. Freedom to formulate the ideas of equality led to the overthrow of colonialism, and has powered every movement against discrimination and injustice. To immunize against dictatorship or totalitarianism, to undo discrimination, to drive justice and accountability, we need freedom of expression – full and free and far-reaching. There is no good governance without free speech.”

The High Commissioner’s speech included specific criticisms of many countries. About the U.S., he said: “In the United States, the Senate report on torture in the context of counter-terrorism operations is courageous and commendable, but profoundly disturbing. For a country that believes so strongly in human rights to have swiftly abandoned their fundamentals at a time of crisis is as astonishing as it is deplorable. And yet few other countries have had the courage to likewise publicly investigate and publicly admit to rights abuses resulting from counter-terror operations – and many should.”

“Under international law, the [Senate] report’s recommendations must be followed through with real accountability. There is no prescription for torture, and torture cannot be amnestied. It should also lead to examination of the institutional and political causes that led the US to violate the absolute prohibition on torture, and measures to ensure this can never recur.”

“As the Senate report clearly demonstrates, the neglect of due process, use of torture and collective punishments that were permitted by US officials in the post-9/11 context did not make the world – or the US – any safer. On the contrary, they increased the threat of terrorism, by feeding into the grievances on which it thrives. The orange jumpsuits of Guantanamo are a recruitment tool for ISIL and other groups. As former President George W. Bush has conceded, Guantanamo became, I quote, ‘a propaganda tool for our enemies.’”

The High Commissioner also expressed regret at the renewed use of the death penalty in a number of countries – Jordan, Pakistan, and Indonesia – and “the continuing extensive use” of the death penalty in China, Iraq, Iran and the U.S.

In conclusion, he said, “It is the people who sustain government, create prosperity, heal and educate others and pay for governmental and other services with their labour. It is their struggles that have created and sustain States. Governments exist to serve the people – not the other way round.”

“Governments that protect human rights, combat discrimination and deprivation, and which are accountable to their people are more prosperous and more secure than those which stifle rights, hamper opportunities, and repress freedoms. When people’s rights are respected – when they are accorded dignity, have opportunities to express their skills and are given a fair share of resources – they form resilient societies. When they are wronged, their rights betrayed, there is a constant threat of turmoil. Respect for the human rights of the people is not destabilizing; but driving legitimate opposition underground is.”

 Conclusion

Speeches about human rights in international fora often are replete with platitudes. These speeches by the High Commissioner are not. While he condemns the horrible actions of ISIL and Boko Haram, these groups are not represented at the Council. Instead the countries that are represented are often the victims of their evil deeds. Therefore, the High Commissioner spent most of his time chastising the latter countries for failing to live up to the human rights commitments they have made as they are combatting terrorism. Moreover, these speeches address some countries by name and point our their failings.

In a later post we will look again at these speeches in the context of the issues of human rights in the process of U.S.-Cuba reconciliation.

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[1] The Human Rights Council has 47 member states elected by the U.N. General Assembly. Currently both the U.S. and Cuba are such members.

[2] Materials about the Council’s 28th session are available on its website.

[3] The High Commissioner for Human Rights is the principal human rights official of the U.N. and the head of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, which “spearheads the [U.N.’s] human rights efforts . . . by strengthening international human rights mechanisms; enhancing equality and countering discrimination; combating impunity and strengthening accountability and the rule of law; integrating human rights in development and in the economic sphere; widening the democratic space; and early warning and protection of human rights in situations of conflict, violence and insecurity.”

Prince Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein of Jordan was unanimously elected the High Commissioner by the U.N. General Assembly in June 2014. His many years of diplomatic service include being Jordan’s Ambassador to the U.S., his country’s Permanent Representative to the U.N. and his serving as an officer of the International Criminal Court. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from The Johns Hopkins University and a Doctorate in Philosophy from Cambridge University.

[4] Al Hussein, Opening Speech to the High Level Segment of the Human Rights Council, U.N. (Mar. 2, 2015); UN Human rights Council, Human Rights council opens twenty-eighth session (Mar. 2, 2015); Schlein, UN Council: Rights Being Violated to ‘Shocking Degree,’ VOA (Mar. 2, 2015).

[5] Al Hussein, Opening Statement, Item 2, High Commissioner’s Annual Report, U.N. (Mar. 5, 2015); Member States must enforce human rights amid rising tide of extremism—UN rights chief , UN News (Mar. 5, 2015); Human rights principles in struggle against extremism—Zaid, U.N. (Mar. 5, 2015).

 

 

 

 

New York Times Criticizes USAID’s Efforts To Promote Regime Change in Cuba

On November 10, 2014, the New York Times published its latest editorial in its series “Cuba: A New Start.”[1] Under the title, “In Cuba, Misadventures in Regime Change,” this editorial focuses on criticizing the efforts by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to promote regime change in Cuba and recommending “stronger [U.S.] diplomatic relations” with Cuba as a more productive way to try “to positively influence Cuba’s evolution toward a more open society.”

The editorial also recommends that the U.S. “should find ways to empower ordinary Cubans by expanding study-abroad programs, professional exchanges and investment in the new small businesses cropping up around the island. [The U.S.] should continue to promote Internet connectivity, but realize that accomplishing that goal on a large scale will require coordination with the Cuban government.”

The editorial’s foundation is the following set of documented factual assertions:

  • In 1996, the U.S. enacted the Helms-Burton Act that spelled out “a strategy to overthrow the government in Havana and ‘assist the Cuban people in regaining their freedom.’”This statute “has served as the foundation for the $264 million the United States has spent in the last 18 years trying to instigate democratic reforms on the island.”
  • “During the final years of the Clinton administration, the [U.S.] spent relatively little on programs in Cuba under . . . [this statute].”
  • That changed when George W. Bush came to power in 2001 with an ambitious aim to bring freedom to oppressed people around the world.” USAID, “better known for its humanitarian work than cloak-and-dagger missions, became the primary vehicle for pro-democracy work in Cuba, where it is illegal.”
  • “In the early years of the [George W.] Bush administration, spending on initiatives to oust the [Cuban]government surged from a few million a year to more than $20 million in 2004. Most contracts were awarded, without much oversight, to newly formed Cuban-American groups. One used funds on a legally questionable global lobbying effort to persuade foreign governments to support America’s unpopular embargo. Other grantees sent loads of comic books to the American diplomatic mission in Havana, bewildering officials there. The money was also used to buy food and clothes, but there was no way to track how much reached relatives of political prisoners, the intended recipients.”
  • “According to a November 2006 report by the Government Accountability Office, one contractor used the pro-democracy money to buy ‘a gas chain saw, computer gaming equipment and software (including Nintendo Game Boys and Sony PlayStations), a mountain bike, leather coats, cashmere sweaters, crab meat and Godiva chocolates,’ purchases . . . [the contractor] was unable to justify to auditors.”
  • “The G.A.O. probe led . . . [USAID] to start awarding more funds to established development organizations, including some that pitched bold initiatives. In 2008, Congress appropriated $45 million for the programs, a record amount.”
  • In December 2009 Alan Gross, a U.S. citizen, went on his fifth trip to the island posing as a tourist but acting on behalf of an USAID contractor to smuggle communications equipment to Jewish groups in Cuba. Gross was arrested, charged and convicted by a Cuban court for violating Cuban law and sentenced to 15 years of imprisonment.[2]
  • “At the time [of Gross’ arrest], many senior State Department officials were not fully aware of the scope and nature of the covert programs, . . . and some argued that the covert programs were counterproductive and should be stopped. But Cuban-American lawmakers fought vigorously to keep them alive.”
  • “After Mr. Gross’s arrest, [USAID] . . . stopped sending American [citizens] into Cuba, but it allowed its contractors to recruit Latin Americans for secret missions that were sometimes detected by the Cuban intelligence services.”
  • “An investigation by The Associated Press published in April [2014] revealed . . . [that between] 2009 and 2012, Creative Associates International, a Washington firm, built a rudimentary text messaging system similar to Twitter, known as ZunZuneo, Cuban slang for a hummingbird’s tweet. It was supposed to provide Cubans with a platform to share messages with a mass audience, and ultimately be used to assemble ‘smart mobs.’” Although the contractor paid “text-messaging fees to the Cuban telecommunications company, [the contractor] never found a way to make the platform self-sustaining.”[3]
  • A second A.P. report revealed in August [2014] that U.S.A.I.D. had been sending young Latin Americans to Cuba to identify ‘potential social change actors,’ under the pretext of organizing gatherings like an H.I.V. prevention workshop. The contractors, also hired by Creative Associates, received quick pointers on how to evade Cuban intelligence and were paid as little as $5.41 an hour for work that could have easily landed them in prison.”[4]
  • Although the “American money has provided food and comfort to some relatives of political prisoners, and been used to build limited access to satellite-based Internet connections, . . . it has done more to stigmatize than to help dissidents.”
  • “Far from accomplishing . . . the goal [of instigating democratic reforms on the island], the initiatives have been largely counterproductive. The funds have been a magnet for charlatans, swindlers and good intentions gone awry. The stealthy programs have increased hostility between the two nations, provided Cuba with a trove of propaganda fodder and stymied opportunities to cooperate in areas of mutual interest.”

As previous posts to this blog have discussed, I concur in this editorial’s criticisms of the USAID covert efforts to promote regime change in Cuba and the editorial’s recommendations for changes in U.S. policies regarding the island nation.

I take exception, however, to the editorial’s unexamined assertion that Cuba has “one of the most repressive governments in the world.” Although I am confident that Cuba ideally should have a more open society and hope that it continues to move in that direction, all of us in the U.S. should try to put ourselves in the shoes of the Cubans.

For decades the immensely more powerful U.S. has openly engaged in hostile policies and actions against the small, poor and militarily weak island. This includes the U.S.-supported and unsuccessful 1961 “Bay of Pigs” invasion of Cuba; the threatened U.S. bombing and invasion of Cuba in the 1962 Cuban missile crisis; the recently revealed 1976 military plans to “clobber” Cuba that were being prepared by U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger; the half-century U.S. embargo of Cuba; and the very USAID covert efforts to promote regime change in Cuba that are discussed in this editorial. If we in the U.S. were in this situation, we too would, I am confident, impose restrictions on an open society. Have we not done this very thing in our response to the 9/11 attacks and the threats of international terrorism?

As I said in an earlier post about U.S. policies regarding Cuba, all of us should remember that when the scribes and Pharisees confronted Jesus with a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery and asked Jesus what he had to say when the law of Moses said stone her, Jesus responded, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” (John 8:3-7)

Likewise, the President and all of us should also remember these other words of Jesus (Matthew 7:1-5):

  • “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?  Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.”

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[1] Prior posts have discussed the recent Times’ editorials urging U.S.-Cuba reconciliation, commending Cuba’s efforts to combat Ebola in West Africa, recognizing changes in U.S. public opinion about Cuba and recommending an U.S.-Cuba prisoner exchange.

[2] An earlier Times editorial urged the U.S. and Cuba negotiate an exchange of Mr. Gross for three Cubans in U.S. prisons.

[3] Prior posts to this blog on April 4,  9 and 9, 2014, discussed the AP investigation of the USAID social media program.

[4] Prior posts (August 12, 13 and 14, 2014) examined the AP investigation of the USAID “use” of Latin Americans to open HIV-AIDS clinics in Cuba.

U.N. Human Rights Committee’s Concluding Observations on U.S. Human Rights

As discussed in a prior post, in March 2014, the United Nations’ Human Rights Committee (the Committee) issued a negative evaluation of how the United States of America (U.S.) was implementing and complying with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR or Covenant), which is regarded as an important part of the International Bill of Rights. That prior post reviewed the background of the ICCPR and the events leading up to the Committee’s evaluation. Another post looked at the Committee’s recent hearings regarding U.S. human rights.

Now we examine the Committee’s report of concluding observations that resulted from the hearings and all the evidence on that subject.

The Committee’s Concluding Observations[1]

After considering the written materials and the testimony and remarks at the hearing, on March 26, 2014, the Committee adopted its 11-page report (Concluding observations on the fourth report of the United States of America). Given the hostile nature of the Committee members’ comments during the hearing, it is not surprising that the report was very critical of the U.S.[2]

With respect to various topics, the Committee expressed its regrets or concerns about the U.S. record and then made the recommendations outlined below.

Applicability of the Covenant at national level.[3] The U.S. should: “(a) Interpret the Covenant in good faith, in accordance with the ordinary meaning to be given to its terms in their context, including subsequent practice, and in the light of its object and purpose and review its legal position so as to acknowledge the extraterritorial application of the Covenant under certain circumstances . . . .(b) [I]dentify ways to give greater effect to the Covenant at federal, state and local levels, taking into account that the obligations under the Covenant are binding on the State party as a whole. . . . (c) [E]nsure that effective remedies are available for violations of the Covenant, including . . . proposing to the Congress implementing legislation to fill any legislative gaps. . . . [and considering] acceding to the Optional Protocol to the Covenant providing for an individual communication procedure. [4] (d) Strengthen and expand existing mechanisms mandated to monitor the implementation of human rights at federal, state, local and tribal levels . . . . (e) Reconsider its position regarding its reservations and declarations to the Covenant with a view to withdrawing them.”[5]

Accountability for past human rights violations. The U.S. should: “[E]nsure that all cases of unlawful killing, torture or other ill-treatment, unlawful detention, or enforced disappearance are effectively, independently and impartially investigated, that perpetrators, including, in particular, persons in command positions, [6] are prosecuted and sanctioned, and that victims are provided with effective remedies. The responsibility of those who provided legal pretexts for manifestly illegal behavior should also be established. [7] The State party should also consider the full incorporation of the doctrine of ‘command responsibility’ in its criminal law and declassify and make public the report of the Senate Special Committee on Intelligence into the CIA secret detention programme.”

Racial disparities in the criminal justice system and Racial profiling. The U.S. should: “[R]obustly address racial disparities in the criminal justice system . . . [and] effectively combat and eliminate racial profiling by federal, state and local law enforcement officials . . . .”[8]

Death penalty. The U.S. should: “(a) take measures to effectively ensure that the death penalty is not imposed as a result of racial bias; (b) strengthen safeguards against wrongful sentencing to death and subsequent wrongful execution by ensuring inter alia effective legal representation for defendants in death penalty cases, including at the post-conviction stage; (c) ensure that retentionist states [those that maintain the death penalty] provide adequate compensation for the wrongfully convicted; (d) ensure that lethal drugs for executions originate from legal, regulated sources, and are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and that information on the origin and composition of such drugs is made available to individuals scheduled for execution; [9] (e) consider establishing a moratorium on the death penalty at the federal level and engage with retentionist states with a view to achieving a nationwide moratorium;” [f] Consider acceding to on the Second Optional Protocol to the Covenant aiming at the abolition of the death penalty on or before July 11, 2116, the 25th anniversary of its entry into force.

Targeted killing using unmanned aerial vehicles (drones). The U.S. should: “revisit its position regarding legal justifications for the use of deadly force through drone attacks [and] . . . (a) ensure that any use of armed drones complies fully with its obligations under article 6 of the Covenant, including in particular with respect to the principles of precaution, distinction and proportionality in the context of an armed conflict; (b) subject to operational security, disclose the criteria for drone strikes, including the legal basis for specific attacks, the process of target identification and the circumstances in which drones are used; (c) provide for independent supervision and oversight over the specific implementation of regulations governing the use of drone strikes; (d) in armed conflict situations, take all feasible measures to ensure the protection of civilians in specific drone attacks and to track and assess civilian casualties, as well as all necessary precautionary measures in order to avoid such casualties; (e) conduct independent, impartial, prompt and effective investigations of allegations of violations of the right to life and bring to justice those responsible; (f) provide victims or their families with an effective remedy where there has been a violation, including adequate compensation, and establish accountability mechanisms for victims of allegedly unlawful drone attacks who are not compensated by their home governments.”

Gun violence. The U.S. should: “[T]ake all necessary measures to abide by its obligation to effectively protect the right to life. . . . [including] (a) continue its efforts to effectively curb gun violence, including through the continued pursuit of legislation requiring background checks for all private firearm transfers in order to prevent possession of arms by persons recognized as prohibited individuals under federal law . . . ; and (b) review Stand Your Ground Laws to remove far-reaching immunity and ensure strict adherence to the principles of necessity and proportionality when using deadly force in self-defence.”

Excessive use of force by law enforcement officials. The U.S. should: “(a) step up its efforts to prevent the excessive use of force by law enforcement officers by ensuring compliance with the 1990 UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officers; (b) ensure that the new CBP [U.S. Customs and Border Protection] directive on use of deadly force is applied and enforced in practice; and (c) improve reporting of excessive use of force violations and ensure that reported cases of excessive use of force are effectively investigated, alleged perpetrators are prosecuted and, if convicted, punished with appropriate sanctions, that investigations are re-opened when new evidence becomes available, and that victims or their families are provided with adequate compensation.”

Legislation prohibiting torture. The U.S. should: “[E]nact legislation to explicitly prohibit torture, including mental torture, wherever committed and ensure that the law provides for penalties commensurate with the gravity of such acts, whether committed by public officials or other persons acting on behalf of the State, or by private persons. . . . [and] ensure the availability of compensation to victims of torture.”[10]

Non-refoulment [ban on returning persecuted to persecutor]. The U.S. should: “[S]trictly apply the absolute prohibition against refoulement under articles 6 and 7 of the Covenant, [11] continue exercising the utmost care in evaluating diplomatic assurances, and refrain from relying on such assurances where it is not in a position to effectively monitor the treatment of such persons after their . . . return to other countries and take appropriate remedial action when assurances are not fulfilled.”

Trafficking and forced labour. The U.S. should: “[C]ontinue its efforts to combat trafficking in persons, inter alia by strengthening its preventive measures, increasing victim identification and systematically and vigorously investigating allegations of trafficking in persons, prosecuting and punishing those responsible and providing effective remedies to victims, including protection, rehabilitation and compensation. [T]ake all appropriate measures to prevent the criminalization of victims of sex trafficking, including child victims, to the extent that they have been compelled to engage in unlawful activities. [R]eview its laws and regulations to ensure full protection against forced labour for all categories of workers and ensure effective oversight of labour conditions in any temporary visa program. [R]einforce its training activities and provide training to law enforcement and border and immigration officials, . . . [and] other relevant agencies. . . .”

Immigrants. The U.S. should: “review its policies of mandatory detention and deportation of certain categories of immigrants in order to allow for individualized decisions, to take measures ensuring that affected persons have access to legal representation, and to identify ways to facilitate access of undocumented immigrants and immigrants residing lawfully in the U.S. for less than five years and their families to adequate health care, including reproductive health care services.”

Domestic violence. The U.S. should: “[S]trengthen measures to prevent and combat domestic violence, as well as to ensure that law enforcement personnel appropriately respond to acts of domestic violence. [E]nsure that cases of domestic violence are effectively investigated and that perpetrators are prosecuted and sanctioned. [E]nsure remedies for all victims of domestic violence, and take steps to improve the provision of emergency shelter, housing, child care, rehabilitative services and legal representation for women victims of domestic violence. [T]ake measures to assist tribal authorities in their efforts to address domestic violence against Native American women.”

Corporal punishment. The U.S. should: “Take practical steps, including through legislative measures where appropriate, to put an end to corporal punishment in all settings. [E]ncourage non-violent forms of discipline as alternatives to corporal punishment and . . . conduct public information campaigns to raise awareness about its harmful effects. [P]romote the use of alternatives to the application of criminal law to address disciplinary issues in schools.”

Non-consensual psychiatric treatment. The U.S. should: “[E]nsure that non-consensual use of psychiatric medication, electroshock and other restrictive and coercive practices in mental health services is generally prohibited. Non-consensual psychiatric treatment may only be applied, if at all, in exceptional cases as a measure of last resort where absolutely necessary for the benefit of the person concerned provided that he or she is unable to give consent, for the shortest possible time, without any long-term impact, and under independent review. . . . [P]romote psychiatric care aimed at preserving the dignity of patients, both adults and minors.”

Criminalization of homelessness. The U.S. should: “[E]ngage with state and local authorities to: (a) abolish criminalization of homelessness laws and policies at state and local levels; (b) ensure close cooperation between all relevant stakeholders . . . to intensify efforts to find solutions for the homeless in accordance with human rights standards; and (c) offer incentives for decriminalization and implementation of such solutions, including by providing continued financial support to local authorities implementing alternatives to criminalization and withdrawing funding for local authorities criminalizing the homeless.”

Conditions of detention and use of solitary confinement. The U.S. should: “[M]onitor conditions of detention in prisons, including private detention facilities, with a view to ensuring that persons deprived of their liberty be treated in accordance with the requirements of articles 7 and 10 of the Covenant [12] and the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. . . . [I]mpose strict limits on the use of solitary confinement, both pretrial and following conviction, in the federal system, as well as nationwide, and abolish the practice in respect of anyone under the age of 18 and prisoners with serious mental illness. . . . [B]ring detention conditions of prisoners on death row in line with international standards.”

Detainees at Guantanamo Bay. The U.S. should: “[E]xpedite the transfer of detainees designated for transfer, including to Yemen, as well as the process of periodic review for Guantánamo detainees, and ensure either their trial or immediate release, and the closure of the Guantánamo facility. [E]nd the system of administrative detention without charge or trial and ensure that any criminal cases against detainees held in Guantánamo and military facilities in Afghanistan are dealt with within the criminal justice system rather than military commissions and that those detainees are afforded the fair trial guarantees enshrined in article 14 of the Covenant.” [13]

NSA surveillance. The U.S. should: “(a) take all necessary measures to ensure that its surveillance activities, both within and outside the [U.S.], conform to its obligations under the Covenant, including article 17; [14] in particular, measures should be taken to ensure that any interference with the right to privacy complies with the principles of legality, proportionality and necessity regardless of the nationality or location of individuals whose communications are under direct surveillance; (b) ensure that any interference with the right to privacy, family, home or correspondence be authorized by laws that (i) are publicly accessible; (ii) contain provisions that ensure that collection of, access to and use of communications data are tailored to specific legitimate aims; (iii) are sufficiently precise specifying in detail the precise circumstances in which any such interference may be permitted; the procedures for authorizing; the categories of persons who may be placed under surveillance; limits on the duration of surveillance; procedures for the use and storage of the data collected; and (iv) provide for effective safeguards against abuse; (c) reform the current system of oversight over surveillance activities to ensure its effectiveness, including by providing for judicial involvement in authorization or monitoring of surveillance measures, and considering to establish strong and independent oversight mandates with a view to prevent abuses; (d) refrain from imposing mandatory retention of data by third parties;(e) ensure that affected persons have access to effective remedies in cases of abuse.”

Juvenile justice and life without parole sentences. The U.S. should: “prohibit and abolish all juvenile life without parole sentences irrespective of the crime committed, as well as all mandatory and non-homicide related sentences of life without parole. . . . [15] ensure that all juveniles are separated from adults during pretrial detention and after sentencing and that juveniles are not transferred to adult courts. . . . [encourage] states that automatically exclude 16 and 17 year olds from juvenile court jurisdictions . . . to change their laws.”

Voting rights. The U.S. should: “ensure that all states reinstate voting rights to felons who have fully served their sentences, provide inmates with information about their voting restoration options and remove or streamline lengthy and cumbersome state voting restoration procedures, as well as review automatic denial of the vote to any imprisoned felon, regardless of the nature of the offence. [T]ake all necessary measures to ensure that voter identification requirements and the new eligibility requirements do not impose excessive burdens on voters resulting in de facto disenfranchisement. [P]rovide . . . full voting rights of residents of Washington, D.C.”

Rights of indigenous people. The U.S. should: “adopt measures to effectively protect sacred areas of indigenous peoples against desecration, contamination and destruction and ensure that consultations are held with the communities that might be adversely affected by State party’s development projects and exploitation of natural resources with a view to obtaining their free, prior and informed consent for the potential project activities.”

Other. The U.S. should: “widely disseminate the Covenant, the text of the . . . [recent U.S. report to the Committee], the written responses that . . . [the U.S.] has provided in response to the list of issues drawn up by the Committee and the present concluding observations so as to increase awareness among the judicial, legislative and administrative authorities, civil society and non-governmental organizations . . . [in the U.S.] as well as the general public.” “[For] its fifth periodic report, . . . continue its practice of broadly consulting with civil society and non-governmental organizations. [P]rovide, within one year, relevant information on its implementation of the Committee’s recommendations regarding accountability for [past human rights violations, gun violence, detainees at Guantanamo Bay and NSA surveillance]. [Submit] its next periodic report . . . [on March 28, 2019 with] specific, up-to-date information on all . . . [the Committee’s] recommendations and on the Covenant as a whole.”

Conclusion

One of the overriding issues in the Committee’s review was the geographical coverage of the entire treaty, whether it applies to U.S. conduct outside the U.S. territory, but where it has jurisdiction. The proper conclusion to this issue, in this blogger’s opinion, is that it does so apply or does have extraterritorial application. This conclusion was succinctly stated by the Committee’s Chairperson, Sir Nigel Rodley, during the hearing as noted in a prior post.

Essentially the same conclusion was reached in an October 2010 memo by Harold Koh, then the U.S. State Department’s Principal Legal Adviser.[16] After what he described as an “exhaustive review,” he stated, “an interpretation of Article 2(1) [of the ICCPR] that is truer to the Covenant’s language, context, object and purpose, negotiating history, and subsequent understandings of other States Parties, as well as the interpretations of other international bodies, would provide that in fact, . . . [a] state incurs obligations to respect Covenant rights — is itself obligated not to violate those rights through its own actions or the actions of its agents– in those circumstances where a state exercises authority or effective control over the person or context at issue.”[17]

Civil society organizations in the U.S. lauded the Committee’s “scathing report” and characterized the review as an opportunity for the Obama Administration to meaningfully improve its human rights legacy. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, among other groups, welcomed the Committee’s explicit recognition of the extraterritorial nature of the State’s obligations and its specific recommendations regarding surveillance, and urged immediate implementation by the United States.

The U.S. press coverage of this important international critique of U.S. human rights was pathetic. I did not find any such coverage in the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, two respected national newspapers.

The New York Times, on the other hand, had limited coverage. Before the hearings, the Times published one article on the then likely U.S. rejection of the treaty’s having extraterritorial effect along with the actual text of the contrary opinion on that issue by Harold Koh. Later the Times had an article about the first day of the Committee’s hearings that was primarily about the U.S.’ actual rejection of the treaty’s extraterritoriality with two short paragraphs about other issues. Finally the Times had an exceedingly short article about the Committee’s report that touched only on a few of its issues (drone strikes; the virtual lack of any U.S. investigation and prosecutions for alleged unlawful killings; use of torture and authors of legal memoranda purportedly justifying torture in the so called “war on terror;” and the call for publication of the U.S. Senate’s investigation of the CIA’s secret rendition program (turning over suspects to other countries)).

Finally, the Committee’s critique can be taken as an agenda for change by U.S. human rights advocates. Such change will not happen quickly given the dysfunctionality of the U.S. political system and culture. As President Obama frequently says, change does not come easily.                                                                 —————————————————————–

[1] This summary of the Committee’s concluding observations is based upon the observations themselves plus extensive articles about them in the Guardian, Reuters, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the American Civil Liberties Union and a very short New York Times article.

[2] Before making its criticisms, the Committee noted its “appreciation [for] the many [U.S.] efforts undertaken, and the progress made in protecting civil and political rights.” The Committee then welcomed the U.S. Supreme Court’s abolition of the death penalty for offenders who were under the age of 18 when the crimes were committed (Roper v. Simmons (2005)); the U.S. Supreme Court’s recognition of extraterritorial habeas corpus for aliens detained at Guantanamo Bay (Boumediene v. Bush (2008)); the expansion of rights for such detainees (Presidential Executive Orders 13491 and 13493); and the U.S. President’s support of the U.N. Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

[3] This issue concerned Article 2(1) of the ICCPR, which states, “Each State Party . . . undertakes to respect and to ensure to all individuals within its territory and subject to its jurisdiction the rights recognized in the present Covenant, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.” (Emphasis added.)

[4] The Optional Protocol to the ICCPR allows alleged victims of an alleged violation by a State Party of any of the rights set forth in the Covenant to submit a communication of complaint to the Committee, and after it has received a response from that State Party, the Committee shall submit ”its views” [akin to an advisory opinion] on the matter to the alleged victim and State Party.

[5] The U.S. reservations and understandings to its ratification of the treaty were covered in a prior post.

[6] “Persons in command positions” presumably include former President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

[7] “Those who provided legal pretexts” presumably include John Yoo, Alberto Gonzalez and four other lawyers who in the George W. Bush Administration were authors of legal memoranda justifying the so-called “enhanced interrogation” techniques. At least some of these memoranda are available online. The issue of their legal responsibility for such memoranda has been raised in at least three proceedings. First, under Spain’s previous version of its universal jurisdiction statute, a Spanish court opened a criminal investigation regarding these six lawyers, but later the case was stayed when the Spanish court asked the U.S. for information about any U.S. investigation of such allegations. Second, Mr. Yoo was sued in U.S. federal court for money damages and declaratory relief by an individual who had been arrested and detained for interrogation in a military brig in the U.S. for three and a half years, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in May 2012 held that Mr. Yoo was entitled to immunity and thus reversed the district court’s denial of Yoo’s dismissal motion. Third, in January 2010, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Professional Responsibility concluded that Yoo and another lawyer had used flawed legal reasoning in these memoranda, but that this had not constituted professional misconduct This issue also has been raised in other contexts. In the midst of all this, Yoo continues vigorously to assert the validity of the memoranda and thus his innocence.

[8] One of the Committee’s concerns that prompted this recommendation was, in the Committee’s words, “surveillance of Muslims undertaken by . . . the New York Police Department (NYPD) in the absence of any suspicion of wrongdoing.” On April 15th (or nearly three weeks after the issuance of the Committee’s report), the NYPD announced that it was terminating this program. This decision was welcomed by Muslim Advocates and the Center for Constitutional Rights of New York City while lamenting that the NYPD did not say it was ending its broad surveillance practices.

[9] There is litigation in U.S. courts over lethal drugs used in executions under death penalty laws. In Oklahoma, for example, a state trial court on March 26, 2014, decided that a state law mandating secrecy for the identity of suppliers of such drugs was unconstitutional. On April 21st the Oklahoma Supreme Court stayed two executions so that the court could resolve “grave constitutional claims.” Since then there has been an unseemly intra-state squabble over whether that court had the power to stay the executions with the Oklahoma Governor vowing to conduct the executions as previously scheduled, a state legislator introducing a resolution to impeach the court’s judges who voted for the stay and the Supreme Court itself on April 23rd vacating the stay.

[10] The U.S. has a criminal torture statute, 18 U.S.C. sec. 2340A. It states, “Whoever outside the United States commits or attempts to commit torture shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 20 years, or both, and if death results to any person from conduct prohibited by this subsection, shall be punished by death or imprisoned for any term of years or for life.” (Emphasis added.) Thus, this criminal statute does not apply if the torture occurs in the U.S. In addition, the U.S. has the Torture Victims Protection Act (TVPA) that provides for a civil action for money damages by an “individual” who has been subjected to “torture” against an “individual, who, under actual or apparent authority, or color of law, of any foreign nation” committed the torture. (Emphasis added.) Thus, this statute does not apply if the torture is committed by someone acting under U.S. law.

[11] The ICCPR’s Article 6 bans arbitrary deprivation of life and any derogation from the genocide treaty while its Article 7 bans torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

[12] The ICCPR’s Article 7 bans “torture . . . [and] cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment while its Article 10 requires all inmates to be “treated with humanity and respect for the dignity of the human person,” separation of accused persons from convicts and juveniles from adults and in facilities whose aims shall be “reformation and social rehabilitation” of inmates.

[13] Article 14 of the ICCPR contains detailed provisions that in the U.S. would be regarded as constitutional criminal due process rights.

[14] Article 17 of the ICCPR says “[e]veryone has the right to the protection of law against . . . arbitrary or unlawful interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, . . . [and] unlawful attacks on his honour and reputation.”

[15] The Committee’s report recognized with satisfaction that the U.S. Supreme Court had decided under the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment’s ban on “cruel and unusual punishment” that (a) sentences of life without parole for juveniles for non-homicide crimes were not permitted (Graham v. Florida (2010)); and (b) mandatory sentences of life without parole for juveniles for homicide were not permitted (Miller v. Alabama (2012)).

[16] Koh is one of the U.S.’ preeminent international lawyers. He has taught at the Yale Law School since 1985 except for his years as the State Department’s Legal Adviser (2009-2013) and as U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (1998-2001). He served as the Dean of the Yale Law School (2004-2009) and returned to Yale in 2013 as the Sterling Professor of International Law. He has received many awards and holds degrees from Harvard University (B.A. and J.D.) and the University of Oxford (B.A. and M.A.)

[17] The Koh memorandum also stated that the contrary 1995 opinion by the Department’s Legal Adviser was “not compelled by either the language or the negotiating history of the Covenant . . . [and] that the 1995 Interpretation is in fact in significant tension with the treaty’s language, context, and object and purpose, as well as with interpretations of importantU.S. allies, the Human Rights Committee and the ICJ [International Court of Justice], and developments in related bodies of law [and, therefore,] was no longer tenable.” Nevertheless, the U.S. continues to rely on the 1995 opinion for its resistance to extraterritorial application of the ICCPR. The Koh memorandum was published by the New York Times along with a discussion of the document a week prior to the Committee’s hearings, and it is safe to assume that copies of same were provided to all the Committee members before the hearings.

Judging on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, the second most important court in the U.S., is once again back in the news.

"Sri" Srinivasan
“Sri” Srinivasan

The immediate issue is the need for the U.S. Senate to confirm President Obama’s appointment of Srikanth “Sri” Srinivasan to one of the four vacancies on this Court.[1]

Srinivasan has a blue-chip resume. Currently he is the Principal Deputy Solicitor General of the U.S. and has argued 20 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. He previously clerked for the Reagan-appointed Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. He also served with distinction in the Justice Department for both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama and with the Washington, D.C. office of the eminent law firm of O’Melveny & Myers. A native of India, Srinivasan grew up in Kansas and earned a bachelor’s degree in 1989 from Stanford University and a J.D./M.B.A. degree in 1995 from its Law School and Graduate School of Business.

On April 10th Srinivasan had an uneventful 90-minute hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee. His nomination is strongly supported by the Obama Administration and by noted conservative and liberal lawyers and academics.

The next step is for the Committee to vote on whether to send this nomination to the Senate floor for a vote. At least one of the eight Republican members of the Committee, Orrin Hatch, said he was impressed and would support such a motion. Assuming all 10 Democratic Committee members support such a motion, then it should be approved by a vote of at least 11 to 7. Then the whole Senate would vote on the nomination unless there was a filibuster of same.[2]

Perhaps the partisan wrangling over appointments to this Court is overwrought.

Senior Judge David B. Sentelle
Senior Judge David B. Sentelle

Evidence for a less partisan view of this Court is found in its April 5th Presentation Ceremony of the Portrait of D.C. Circuit Senior Judge David B. Sentelle, who was appointed to the Court in 1987 by Republican President Ronald Reagan. For remarks of appreciation from his own Court, Judge Sentelle chose Circuit Judge David S. Tatel, who was appointed by Democratic President Bill Clinton in 1994.[3]

Judge David S. Tatel
Judge David S. Tatel

Judge Tatel commented on the apparent oddity of his speaking for Judge Sentelle.  Tatel said, “those who believe that judges’ decisions are driven by ideology may wonder why Dave [Sentelle] asked me to speak. After all, you would be hard pressed to find two judges with more different backgrounds, different worldviews, different beliefs, and, indeed, different shoes than we two Davids. But those who focus on these differences do not understand what it means to be a federal judge, do not understand this Court’s long tradition of collegiality, and surely do not understand Dave Sentelle.”  Tatel continued, “when Judge Sentelle and I sit together, we very rarely disagree.” In “the nineteen years we’ve served together, we have disagreed less than 3% of the time.”

The answer to why there had been so little disagreement, according to Judge Tatel, was “Judge Sentelle’s decisions are driven not by personal preferences, but by a conscientious application of the principles and texts that bind us. Uncommonly peppered with the hallmarks of restrained decision-making, his opinions are full of phrases like, ‘If the intent of Congress is clear, that is the end of the matter’; ‘Courts must accord substantial deference to Congress’s findings’; ‘We are bound by the decisions of the Supreme Court’; ‘One three judge panel has no authority to overrule another’; ‘We owe agency fact-finding great deference’; ‘Issues not raised on appeal are deemed waived’; and ‘Absent jurisdiction we are powerless to act.’ For Judge Sentelle, “the tenets of judicial restraint are not mere slogans to be invoked when convenient; they are the building blocks of all that we do here.”

Judge Tatel also complimented Judge Sentelle’s judicial opinions. According to Tatel, Judge Sentelle “crafts opinions that treat every one of his colleagues, as well as every citizen who appears before us, with respect and a true generosity of spirit. Flipping through his opinions, including his dissents, you’ll find no sarcasm, no belittling remarks, no callous dismissals. This is, after all, a United States Court, and Judge Sentelle’s opinions are a credit to the dignity of this institution. In his five years as our Chief Judge, Dave has protected our proudly nurtured tradition of collegiality.”

In conclusion, Judge Tatel said, Judge Sentelle is “a man who has the greatest respect for the office he holds and an abiding dedication to a life of service and the rule of law.”


[1] President Obama’s only other eminently qualified nominee to the court, Caitlin J. Halligan, was named in 2010 to fill the vacancy created by the elevation of John G. Roberts Jr. to the Supreme Court. In March of this year Republicans for a second time mounted a filibuster that prevented the Senate from voting on Ms. Halligan, and President Obama granted her request to withdraw her nomination saying, “This unjustified filibuster obstructed the majority of Senators from expressing their support. I am confident that with Caitlin’s impressive qualifications and reputation, she would have served with distinction.” Her nomination was supported by the New York Times and Washington Post .

[2] If the Srinivasan nomination is filibustered , then Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has threatened to modify the Senate Rules to bar such filibusters on at least judicial nominees. I frequently have voiced my strong disapproval of the filibuster rule and practice.

[3] Judge Tatel is a University of Chicago Law School classmate and friend of mine, and I have written a post about his opinion for the D.C. Circuit in the Voting Rights Act case now pending in the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Voting Rights Act of 2006

On February 27, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case challenging the constitutionality of an important provision of the Voting Rights Act of 2006. [1] This provision extended for 25 years a requirement in section 5 for certain states to obtain pre-clearance from a special federal court or the U.S. Department of Justice for any changes in their election laws.[2]

Before we discuss that argument, we will look at the Voting Rights Act of 2006.[3]

Its stated Purpose in Section 2(a) was “to ensure that the right of all citizens to vote, including the right to register to vote and cast meaningful votes, is preserved and protected as guaranteed by the Constitution.” The last reference, of course, included the Constitution’s Fifteenth Amendment: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

The 2006 statute did that by reauthorizing and extending for 25 years (until 2032) the following essential provisions of the original Voting Rights Act of 1965:

  • Section 2 forbids any “standard, practice, or procedure” that “results in a denial or abridgment of the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color.” Applicable nationwide, section 2 enables individuals to bring suit against any state or jurisdiction to challenge voting practices that have a discriminatory purpose or result.
  • Section 5 (the focus of the current case before the Supreme Court) only applies to certain “covered jurisdictions” and “prescribes remedies . . . which go into effect without any need for prior adjudication.”  Section 5 suspends “all changes in state election procedure until they [are] submitted to and approved by a three-judge Federal District Court in Washington, D.C., or the [U.S.] Attorney General.”
  • Such approval or preclearance may be granted only if the jurisdiction demonstrates that the proposed change to its voting law neither “has the purpose nor . . . the effect of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race or color.”
  • The “covered jurisdictions” subject to section 5 were identified in section 4(b), as subsequently modified, as any state or political subdivision of a state that “maintained a voting test or device as of November 1, 1972, and had less than 50% voter registration or turnout in the 1972 presidential election.”
  • Upon satisfying certain criteria a state or other jurisdiction could obtain “bailout” from section 5 or be subject to “bail-in” to such coverage.

The Voting Rights Act of 2006 was overwhelmingly adopted by the Congress: 98 to 0 in the Senate and 390 to 33 (with 9 not voting) in the House. In doing so, the Congress acted on the basis of a legislative record over 15,000 pages in length, including statistics, findings by courts and the Justice Department, and first-hand accounts of discrimination.[4]

Given this extensive record before Congress, Section 2(b) of the Voting Rights Act of 2006 contains the following extensive congressional Findings:

  • “(1) Significant progress has been made in eliminating first generation barriers experienced by minority voters, including increased numbers of registered minority voters, minority voter turnout, and minority representation in Congress, State legislatures, and local elected offices. This progress is the direct result of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
  • “(2) However, vestiges of discrimination in voting continue to exist as demonstrated by second generation barriers constructed to prevent minority voters from fully participating in the electoral process.
  • “(3) The continued evidence of racially polarized voting in each of the jurisdictions covered by the expiring provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 demonstrates that racial and language minorities remain politically vulnerable, warranting the continued protection of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
  • “(4) Evidence of continued discrimination includes—
  • “(A) the hundreds of objections interposed, requests for more information submitted followed by voting changes withdrawn from consideration by jurisdictions covered by the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and section 5 enforcement actions undertaken by the Department of Justice in covered jurisdictions since 1982 that prevented election practices,such as annexation, at-large voting, and the use of multimember districts, from being enacted to dilute minority voting strength;
  • “ (B) the number of requests for declaratory judgments denied by the United States District Court for the District of Columbia;
  • “(C) the continued filing of section 2 cases that originated in covered jurisdictions; and
  • “(D) the litigation pursued by the Department of Justice since 1982 to enforce sections 4(e), 4(f)(4), and 203 of such Act to ensure that all language minority citizens have full access to the political process.
  • “(5) The evidence clearly shows the continued need for Federal oversight in jurisdictions covered by the Voting Rights Act of 1965 since 1982, as demonstrated in the counties certified by the Attorney General for Federal examiner and observer coverage and the tens of thousands of Federal observers that have been dispatched to observe elections in covered jurisdictions.
  • “(6) The effectiveness of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 has been significantly weakened by the United States Supreme Court decisions in Reno v. Bossier Parish II and Georgia v. Ashcroft, which have misconstrued Congress’ original intent in enacting the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and narrowed the protections afforded by section 5 of such Act.
  • “(7) Despite the progress made by minorities under the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the evidence before Congress reveals that 40 years has not been a sufficient amount of time to eliminate the vestiges of discrimination following nearly 100 years of disregard for the dictates of the 15th amendment and to ensure that the right of all citizens to vote is protected as guaranteed by the Constitution.
  • “(8) Present day discrimination experienced by racial and language minority voters is contained in evidence, including the objections interposed by the Department of Justice in covered jurisdictions; the section 2 litigation filed to prevent dilutive techniques from adversely affecting minority voters; the enforcement actions filed to protect language minorities; and the tens of thousands of Federal observers dispatched to monitor polls in jurisdictions covered by the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
  • “(9) The record compiled by Congress demonstrates that, without the continuation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 protections, racial and language minority citizens will be deprived of the opportunity to exercise their right to vote, or will have their votes diluted, undermining the significant gains made by minorities in the last 40 years.”

PresBush signign VRAOn July 27, 2006, President George W. Bush signed this statute in a ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House (as shown in the photo to the left). Attending the event were Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez and other members of the Cabinet, the leaders of the United States Senate and House of Representatives, representatives of the Fannie Lou Hamer family,  representatives of the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute, members of the Martin Luther King, Jr. family and  civil rights leaders, including Dr. Dorothy Height, Julian Bond (the Chairman of the NAACP), Bruce Gordon, Reverend Lowery, Marc Morial, Juanita Abernathy, Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and Dr. Benjamin and Frances Hooks.

On that occasion President Bush said, “By reauthorizing this act, Congress has reaffirmed its belief that all men are created equal; its belief that the new founding started by the signing of the [Voting Rights Act of 1965] . . .  by President Johnson is worthy of our great nation to continue.”

That original statute, President Bush continued, “rose from the courage shown on a Selma bridge one Sunday afternoon in March of 1965 . . . [when] African Americans . . .  marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in a protest intended to highlight the unfair practices that kept them off the voter rolls.The brutal response [to the marchers that day] . . . stung the conscience of a slumbering America. . . . One week after Selma, President Lyndon Johnson took to the airwaves to announce that he planned to submit legislation that would bring African Americans into the civic life of our nation. Five months after Selma, he signed the Voting Rights Act [of 1965] into law in the Rotunda of our nation’s capitol.”

President Bush recognized that in the “four decades since the Voting Rights Act was first passed, we’ve made progress toward equality, yet the work for a more perfect union is never ending.” By signing the Voting rights Act of 2006, President Bush concluded, we “renew a bill that helped bring a community on the margins into the life of American democracy. My administration will vigorously enforce the provisions of this law, and we will defend it in court.”

———————–

[1] The 2006 statute’s correct title is the Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, Coretta Scott King Voting Rights Act Reauthorization and Amendments Act of 2006, Pub. L. 109-246, 120 Stat. 577 (2006).

[2] The states now subject to section 5 are Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia.

[3]  A prior post discussed the original Voting Rights Act of 1965. Other posts will discuss two other predicates for the recent Supreme Court argument: the previous Supreme Court case regarding the 2006 statute (Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. One v. Holder) and the 2012 decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit that is the subject of the that argument (Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder).

[4]  The 2006 Act also overruled two Supreme Court decisions interpreting the statute.

 

 

GOP Senators Continue To Flirt with Filibusters

This past January U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid refused to press for adoption on a simple majority vote (at least 51 of the 100 Senators) of significant, but still flawed, reforms of the body’s filibuster rule. Instead Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell agreed to much weaker changes to the rule. Past posts have expressed my dissatisfaction with this rule and the recent change.

As a result, the Senate and the U.S. are still facing threatened filibusters by Senate Republicans over confirmation of presidential nominations.

Chuck Hagel
Chuck Hagel

The most recent example is the nomination of Chuck Hagel to be Secretary of Defense.

Yes, on February 26th the U.S. Senate did vote, 71 to 27, to invoke cloture and end debate on voting on confirmation of this nomination. The 71 votes came from 53 Democratic, 2 Independent and 18 Republican Senators, including Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham, who continued to be severe critics of Hagel. (Two Democratic Senators did not vote: Mark Udall and Frank Lautenberg.)

Later that same day the Senate voted, 58 to 41, to confirm Hagel for this position. For this vote, only four Republican Senators were in the majority: Senators Thad Cochran, Mike Johanns, Richard Shelby and Rand Paul. (Senator Lautenberg did not vote.)

While I am pleased that there was no prolonged filibuster of this nomination and that the  Senate did vote on confirmation, getting there, in my opinion, was needlessly prolonged and again demonstrated the dysfunctionality of the Senate. Here are some of the reasons for that opinion:

  • In early February Democratic Senator Carl Levin, the Chairman of the Armed Services Committee, delayed a committee vote on the nomination in an attempt to garner support for same from some of the Republican committee members.
  • On February 14th, the Senate failed by one vote to invoke cloture, 59 to 40 (Majority Leader Harry Reid later switched his “Yes” vote to “No” so he could later move to reconsider cloture).
  • Republican Senators Lindsay Graham and James Inhofe had put “holds”on the nomination and thereby prevented a vote on confirmation; Graham wanted more information from the Administration about the Benghazi attack (in which Hagel had no involvement) while Inhofe fomented that Hagel was anti-Israel.
  • Chris Cillizza, a Washington Post columnist, reported that Republicans were voting against cloture because there were no political risks from doing so; they said they had legitimate doubts about Hagel’s ability to lead the Pentagon; and resistance was a Republican rallying cry.
  • Another Washington Post columnist, Jonathan Bernstein, stated that Republican Senators are insisting on a 60 vote requirement for virtually everything because many of them see no difference on cloture and substantive voting and do not require extraordinary reasons to vote against cloture.
  • Senator McCain said that one of the reasons for Republican opposition to Hagel, their former Republican Senate colleague, was his very vocal criticism of President George W. Bush over the Iraq war.
  • Some Republican Senators were opposed to Hagel for allegedly receiving money from a group called “Friends of Hamas” — a rumor that started with a joke about a nonexistent group.
  • On February 15th 15 Republican Senators wrote a joint letter to President Obama asking him to withdraw the Hagel nomination.
John Brennan
John Brennan

This dysunctionality is not over with the confirmation of Hagel. Senator McCain has threatened a similar GOP strategy with respect to confirmation of John Brennan as Director of the CIA.

Jacob J. Lew
Jacob J. Lew

On the other hand, the Senate on February 27th confirmed, 71 (including 20 Republicans) to 26, the nomination of Jacob J. Lew for Secretary of the Treasury.

And on February 25, 2013, the Senate confirmed, 93-0, Robert Bacharach to be a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. He, however,  had been appointed to that position in January 2012, and in the last Congress, in July 2012, clouture was defeated, 56-34.

All of this silliness over Chuck Hagel and potentially over John Brennan would have been prevented if the Senate this past January had adopted more significant reform of its rules regarding filibuster.