Developments Regarding Morocco’s Human Rights

Morocco’s human rights and other issues have been explored in previous posts. Here then is an update on recent updates on the country’s human rights.

An article in the Washington Post reports, “Last month , the Moroccan Parliament once again debated legislation long sought by women’s rights activists here that would make it a crime to harass a woman in public, whether physically or verbally. Under the latest proposal, a conviction could draw a month to two years in prison. But the bill remains mired in political wrangling between reformers and members of the conservative parties.”[1]

The reason for the troubled status of this bill, according to this article, is “Morocco is a deeply conservative, patriarchal society with a ruling Islamic party that won handily in a parliamentary election last year.” Khadija Ryadi, former president of the Moroccan Association of Human Rights, said, “Everything that concerns women’s rights is connected to religion.” Another Moroccan, Amal Idrissi, a law professor at Moulay Ismail University in the city of Meknes, disagrees. He says the reason for the country’s failure to adopt laws protecting women’s rights is not religion. It’s patriarchy.”

More broadly, this September, according to the article, “Morocco rejected 44 of 244 recommendations made by the U.N. Human Rights Council following its latest UPR [Universal Periodic Review] . . .  of the country’s rights record. All 44 pertained to either women’s rights or individual rights, including laws that prevent women and men from inheriting equally and that deny rights to children born out of wedlock.” In so doing, “Morocco said its constitution must adhere to Islamic law — a striking illustration of the traditional and religious thinking hampering the country’s efforts to appear as a beacon of moderation in the region.”

Actually the 244 recommendations were made by various states or Morocco and “should not be construed as endorsed by the [Council’s] Working Group as a whole.”

U.N. Human Rights Council’s Latest UPR of Morocco

In September 2017, the Human Rights Council adopted a report by the Working Group on Morocco, but research to date has not located the Council’s official record of that action.[2]

However, Alkarama, a Geneva [Switzerland]-based non-governmental human rights organization established . . .to assist all those in the Arab world” who are at risk of human rights violations, published a press release about the outcome of this UPR. It stated that Morocco had accepted the majority of the recommendations (191 out of 244) while 44 were fully or partially rejected.

Human Rights Organization’s Reactions to Morocco’s UPR[3]

  1. Alkarama

Alkarama applauded Morocco’s acceptance of the majority of the recommendations, but expressed the following concerns:

  • Morocco’s rejection of recommendations by Sweden and the U.S. “for an end to “the prosecution of journalists” and “the detention of some individuals for solely exercising their freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly and association.” Therefore, Alkarma called for calls for “the implementation of [these] recommendations and the immediate release of any person detained for exercising his or her right to freedom of expression.”
  • The need for Morocco to honor the promise by its Minister of State for Human Rights “to cooperate with the UN human rights mechanisms, . . . to implement the accepted recommendations starting . . . next year . . . . [and] to implement the Opinions of the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention . . . calling for the immediate release of victims of arbitrary detention.”
  • The need for Morocco “to ensure the independence of [the National Human Rights Council with promised expansion of powers, including the National Prevention Mechanism under [the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture] as well as transparency in the selection process of its members in accordance with the Paris Principles.”
  • Morocco’s promised judicial reform “to strengthen the rule of law and the respect for fundamental rights” needs to “result in effective changes on the ground, guaranteeing everyone’s right to an effective remedy before an impartial and independent judicial body.”
  • “Moroccan authorities [need] to investigate all allegations of torture and to ensure that perpetrators are prosecuted and punished appropriately.”
  • “Moroccan authorities should re-examine and provide acceptable compensation to all victims of unfair trials following the Casablanca attacks, during which convictions were made on the basis of confessions under torture.”
  1. Amnesty International

Amnesty International’s report of that action by the Human Rights Council welcomed “Morocco’s acceptance of recommendations to criminalize marital rape, and ensure protection against domestic violence. However, Morocco’s “Draft Law 103.13 on combating violence against women does not comply with international standards in its definition of rape, and other barriers remain, such as the ban on abortion and sexual relations outside marriage.”

In addition and more broadly, Amnesty welcomed “Morocco’s commitment to remove obstacles in the registration of civil society organizations; to review the Penal Code in line with Article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; and to develop measures to ensure full respect of freedom of expression, association and assembly in Western Sahara.” However, Amnesty “regrets Morocco’s rejection of recommendations to end the persecution of journalists and to release those detained solely for exercising their rights to freedom of expression.” Amnesty then went on to urge Morocco “to amend the Code of Criminal Procedure, in order to ensure the right to a fair trial, such as access to a lawyer during interrogation for all suspects.”

On another issue, Amnesty was “pleased to note Morocco’s commitment to speed up the review of the legal framework on migration and asylum to align it with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.” However, “Morocco has yet to adopt legislation to protect asylum-seekers and refugees.”

Finally Amnesty noted that Morocco has not carried out any executions since 1993, but was concerned that “death sentences continue to be handed down and proposed changes to the Penal Code would expand the scope of the death penalty” and regretted “Morocco’s rejection of a number of recommendations to establish a formal moratorium on the death penalty, with a view to its abolition.”

  1. Human Rights Watch

HRW first noted positive human rights developments in the country and “acknowledged Morocco’s efforts to accede to international treaties, in particular its ratification of the International Convention for Enforced Disappearance and the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture . . . . [and positive] developments in advancing rights of domestic workers, victims of human trafficking, and persons with disabilities.”

On the other hand, HRW expressed concern and regret over the following:

  • The “government rejected key recommendations on important human rights concerns, [including]  “withdrawing all reservations to the Convention on Discrimination against Women; decriminalizing same-sex consensual relations; amending Penal Code provisions used to imprison journalists and others for nonviolent speech; and eliminating Family Code provisions that discriminate against children born outside of wedlock.”
  • The failure of the government to “comply with [previous UPR] recommendations it has accepted.”
  • “Morocco’s human rights record remains tainted by allegations of unjustified use of force by police against ‘Hirak’ protesters in the Rif, the systematic suppression of pro-independence demonstrations by Sahrawis in Western Sahara, and the failure of courts trying politically charged cases to scrutinize the veracity of contested ‘confessions’ to the police, contributing to trials that are unfair.”

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[1] Spinner, Morocco debates a law to protect women in public spaces. Passing it is another matter, Wash. Post (Nov. 5, 2017). See also Lahsini, Morocco Rejects Multiple UN Recommendations on Women Rights as ‘Unconstitutional,’ Morocco World News (Sept. 21, 2017).

[2] U.N. Human Rights Council, Report of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review—Morocco (July 13, 2017); U.N. Human Rights Council, The Kingdom of Morocco’s position on the Recommendations issues after review of its National Report under the third cycle of the universal Periodic Review (UPR), (Aug. 2017); U.N. Human Rights Council, 27th UPR adoptions to take place in September (Aug. 15, 2017); Alkarama, Morocco: UPR outcome adopted at UN Human Rights Council (Sept. 27, 2017).

[3] Alkarama, ibid.; Amnesty Int’l, Morocco: Human Rights Council Adopts Universal Periodic Review Outcome on Morocco (Sept. 21, 2017); Human Rights Watch, Morocco should implement past UPR recommendations (Sept. 21, 2017).

 

 

 

 

 

U.N. Human Rights Committee’s Evaluation of Morocco’s Human Rights Record

As noted in a prior post, Morocco is a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the most comprehensive multilateral human rights treaty, and as such is required to submit periodical reports on its implementation of that treaty for evaluation by the U.N. Human Rights Committee. The most recent such evaluation was on December 1, 2016, and the Committee’s comments on religious freedom in that country were covered in that prior post.[1]

Positive Evaluations

The Committee first complimented Morocco on the following positive developments:

“3. The Committee welcomes the legislative and institutional measures taken by the State party, notably:

(a) Adoption of a new Constitution in 2011, which strengthens democratic institutions and the status of human rights in the domestic legal system;

(b) Process of reform of the judiciary begun in 2011;

(c) Adoption of Act No. 108-13 in 2014 limiting the jurisdiction of military courts to military offences and offences committed in time of war;

(d) Adoption in June 2016 of the law on domestic workers, which prohibits domestic work for persons under 16 years of age;

(e) Adoption of framework law No. 97.13 on the protection and promotion of the rights of persons with disabilities in May 2016;

(f) Amendment of the Nationality Code in 2007, which now allows Moroccan women in most cases to transmit their nationality to their children regardless of the nationality of the father;

(g) New migration policy, adopted in September 2013, and one-off regularization process for migrants in an irregular situation that followed and the efforts made to improve their living conditions and facilitate their integration.”

“4. The Committee welcomes the State party’s ratification of or accession to the following international human rights instruments:

(a) International Convention for the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearance, in 2013;

(b) Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and its Optional Protocol, in 2009;

(c) Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture, in 2014.”

Negative Evaluations

The Committee then stated the following principal areas of concern (or negative evaluations):[2]

Constitutional and legislative framework

“5. The Committee welcomes the commitment of Morocco to harmonize its national legislation with ratified international treaties and to accede to the first Optional Protocol to the Covenant. It notes that the provisions of the Covenant can be invoked before the courts and regrets that they have only rarely been invoked or applied by the courts (art. 2).” (Emphasis added.)

State of emergency

“7. The Committee welcomes the inclusion in article 59 of the Constitution of the principle of non-derogation of basic rights and freedoms in a state of emergency. However, it notes with concern that this provision does not establish specific substantive and procedural guarantees as set out in article 4 (1 and 3) of the Covenant and does not guarantee a clear prohibition against the suspension during this time of all the rights set out in article 4 (2).” (Emphasis added.)

Right to self-determination

“9. The Committee takes note of the Moroccan initiative for engaging in negotiations on autonomy for the Western Sahara region and the additional information provided by the State party but remains concerned about: (a) the limited progress made in dealing with the issue of the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara; (b) reports that the State party is not taking all necessary measures to consult the people of Western Sahara about the development of the natural resources of the Western Sahara; and (c) the presence of the sand wall, also known as the ‘berm,’ which limits the freedom of movement of the people of Western Sahara given the very few crossing points that are open to civilians and the presence of landmines and other explosive remnants of war along the berm that endanger the lives and safety of the communities located in the vicinity (arts. 1, 6 and 12).” (Emphasis added.)

Discrimination and violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity

“11.The Committee is concerned at the criminalization of homosexuality, the fact that it is punishable by a term of imprisonment of up to 3 years and the arrests that have been made on that basis. It is also concerned by reports of the advocacy of hatred, discrimination and violence against people because of their sexual orientation or gender identity (arts. 2, 9 and 26).” (Emphasis added.)

Equality between men and women and practices that are harmful to women

“13. The Committee welcomes the recognition of the principle of equality in the Constitution of 2011 but is still concerned, however, about: (a) the continued existence of legislative provisions that discriminate against women, particularly as regards a matrimonial regime that continues to permit polygamy, divorce, child custody, legal guardianship of children, inheritance and the transmission of nationality to a foreign spouse; (b) the high number of polygamous marriages; and (c) the increase in early marriages (arts. 2, 3, 23, 24 and 26).” (Emphasis added.)

Violence against women

15. The Committee welcomes the fact that, in 2014, the State party abrogated article 475 (2) of the Criminal Code, which had allowed rape charges to be dropped when the victim was a minor if the perpetrator married the victim. It remains concerned, however, about: (a) the prevalence of violence against women; (b) the fact that violent attacks often go unreported and the perpetrators of violence often are not prosecuted owing, inter alia, to the absence of protection measures and support facilities and to the fact that victims of rape who report the crime may themselves be prosecuted because of the criminalization of sexual relations outside marriage between consenting adults; (c) the limited scope of the law under which sexual harassment is a criminal offence; and (d) the fact that the legislative reforms now under way leave a number of discriminatory provisions in place, such as the one that sets out mitigating circumstances for “honour crimes” (arts. 3, 6, 7 and 17).” (Emphasis added.)

 “Counter-terrorism

“17. The Committee remains concerned about the broad and unclear wording of the provisions in the Criminal Code that define what acts constitute acts of terrorism and the introduction of new, vaguely defined offences in 2015. It is also concerned by reports that charges have been brought under these provisions without proper cause against journalists who were fulfilling their duty to inform the public and that the fact that these provisions are so vaguely worded discourages the exercise of other Covenant rights, including the right to freedom of expression. The Committee is also disturbed by the excessive length of time that persons may be held in police custody in connection with terrorism-related offences (12 days) and by the fact that such persons are allowed to consult a lawyer only after 6 days have elapsed (arts. 9, 14 and 19).” (Emphasis added.)

Death penalty

“19.The Committee welcomes the de facto moratorium on executions since 1993, the reduction in 2014 in the number of offences punishable by the death penalty under the Code of Military Justice and the reduction envisaged under the draft Criminal Code. However, it regrets that three new categories of crimes punishable by death are contained in the draft Criminal Code (art. 6).” (Emphasis added.)

Voluntary termination of pregnancy

“21.The Committee notes that a disturbingly high number of clandestine abortions are performed in the State party which endanger the lives and health of the women concerned. It remains concerned about the extremely restrictive nature of the conditions under which a woman may legally have her pregnancy terminated in the State party and about the heavy penalties that are imposed in cases of clandestine abortions. The Committee notes that the draft revised Criminal Code provides for more exceptions to the general prohibition of abortion, but it is concerned about the introduction of excessive requirements such as the obligation to submit proof that legal proceedings have been opened in cases of rape or incest (arts. 3, 6, 7 and 17).” (Emphases added.)

Prohibition of torture and ill-treatment

“23. The Committee welcomes the authorities’ efforts to combat torture and ill-treatment and notes that there has been a marked reduction in such practices since the time that its last concluding observations (CCPR/CO/82/MAR) were issued. It is nonetheless concerned by continued reports of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment being perpetrated by agents of the State in Morocco and Western Sahara, particularly in the case of persons suspected of terrorism or of endangering State security or posing a threat to the territorial integrity of the State. The Committee notes with particular concern that: (a) confessions obtained under duress are reportedly sometimes admitted as evidence in court even though, by law, they are inadmissible; (b) in cases of alleged torture or of the extraction of confessions under duress, judges and prosecutors do not always order that medical examinations be performed or that investigations be undertaken; (c) persons who report cases of torture are sometimes the object of intimidation, threats and/or legal proceedings; and (d) the number of cases in which charges have been brought and the number of convictions that have been handed down seem quite low given the number of complaints filed and the extent to which torture and ill-treatment have occurred in the past (arts. 2, 7 and 14).” (Emphasis added.)

Police custody and access to a lawyer

“25. The Committee is concerned about the unduly prolonged periods of police custody and that access to a lawyer is permitted only in cases in which the period of police custody is prolonged and for a maximum of 30 minutes (arts. 9 and 14).” (Emphasis added.)

Enforced disappearances

“27. While recognizing the work carried out in cases of enforced disappearance by the Equity and Reconciliation Commission and the National Human Rights Council to gather information and to provide reparation, the Committee remains concerned by the fact that cases of enforced disappearance have still not been solved in Morocco and Western Sahara. The Committee is also concerned about the fact that the persons responsible for those disappearances have still not been identified, judged or punished (arts. 2, 6, 7, 9 and 16).” (Emphasis added.)

Prison conditions

“29. The Committee is concerned about the inadequate conditions of detention in the prisons of Morocco and Western Sahara, particularly in respect of prison overcrowding. The Committee is also concerned that almost half of the inmates are awaiting trial (arts. 9 and 10).” (Emphasis added.)

Imprisonment for non-performance of a contractual obligation

“31.The Committee is concerned about the fact that the circular of 21 October 2015 issued by the Ministry of Justice and Freedoms provides for enforcement by committal of debtors who do not fulfil their contractual obligations if they have not provided a certificate of indigence or a document that certifies that they are not liable to pay taxes (art. 11).” (Emphasis added.)

Right to a fair trial and the independence of the judiciary

“33.The Committee is concerned about cases in which irregularities appear to have occurred in court proceedings, including the admission of confessions obtained under duress and refusals to hear witnesses or to consider evidence. It is also concerned about cases in which lawyers and judges have been the target of threats and intimidation and of interference in their work and about the imposition of arbitrary or disproportionate disciplinary measures.” (Emphasis added.)

Asylum seekers and refugees

“35.The Committee welcomes the State party’s efforts to develop a legal framework on migration, asylum and human trafficking. It finds it regrettable that the regularization process pursued in 2014 did not result in the regularization of many refugees, particularly in the case of refugees from the Syrian Arab Republic. The Committee takes note with concern of the continued occurrence of arbitrary arrests of migrants and of allegations concerning the excessive use of force against migrants and the participation of Moroccan security forces in collective expulsions, particularly in the vicinity of the autonomous Spanish cities of Ceuta and Melilla. It also takes note of concerns regarding the detention and treatment of child migrants and regarding the legal barriers to the registration of newborns, the recognition of marriages of asylum seekers and refugees and the transmission of nationality, which may cause children born on Moroccan territory to be stateless (arts. 6, 7, 12, 23 and 24).” (Emphasis added.)

Right to privacy and the interception of private communications

“37.The Committee is concerned by reports of illegal infringements of the right to privacy in the course of surveillance operations conducted by law enforcement and intelligence agencies targeting journalists, human rights defenders and perceived opponents of the Government, particularly those located in Western Sahara. The Committee is also concerned by the lack of clarity with regard to the legal provisions which authorize and govern surveillance activities and the lack of oversight of those activities by an independent authority (art. 17).” (Emphasis added.)

Freedom of association and the activities of human rights defenders

“41. The Committee welcomes the fact that the procedures for filing a declaration of association have been streamlined but is nonetheless concerned about the fact that many associations are refused the right to register. The Committee is also concerned by reports that the activities of human rights defenders are subject to disproportionate, unjustified restrictions and that human rights defenders’ freedom of movement is limited, particularly in Western Sahara (arts. 12, 21 and 22).” (Emphasis added.)

Freedom of opinion and expression

“43. The Committee welcomes the adoption of the new Press Code in 2016, under which press-related offences are no longer subject to custodial penalties. It is concerned, however, about the concurrent introduction of new provisions in the Criminal Code that establish terms of imprisonment as penalties for acts perceived as being offensive to Islam or the monarchy or as posing a threat to the country’s territorial integrity. The Committee is deeply concerned by reports that journalists and human rights defenders have been prosecuted on those charges or have been threatened with prosecution (arts. 9, 14 and 19).” (Emphasis added.)

Right of peaceful assembly

“45.The Committee notes with concern that, under Moroccan law, prior authorization must be obtained for gatherings that are to be held in public places and that the issuance of such authorizations is sometimes hindered unjustifiably. It is also concerned about the excessive and disproportionate use of force to disperse unauthorized peaceful gatherings despite the issuance of a circular by the Ministry of Justice and Freedoms in October 2015 which states that police intervention is justified only in the presence of an armed mob and/or when a crowd has gathered that is likely to disturb the peace (arts. 7, 9, 19 and 21).” (Emphasis added.)

Child labour

“47.The Committee remains concerned about the continued economic exploitation of children, particularly as domestic and farm workers (arts. 8 and 24).” (Emphasis added.)

“The Amazigh

“49.The Committee welcomes the fact that the Amazigh language has been recognized as an official language of the country in the Constitution but finds it regrettable that the draft organic law concerning the measures to be taken to give effect to that recognition has not yet been adopted. It remains concerned about the difficulties encountered by Amazighs seeking to be taught in their language, to use their language in judicial and administrative proceedings and to register the Amazigh first names of their children (arts. 2, 26 and 27).” (Emphasis added.)

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[1] U.N. Human Rights Comm., Concluding Observations on the sixth periodic report by Morocco (Dec. 1, 2016).

[2] The Committee’s Concluding Observations also included separately recommendations on each of the principal areas of concern.

 

U.S. State Department’s Report on Moroccan Religious Freedom 

On August 10, 2016, the U.S. Department of State released its latest annual report on religious freedom in every country in the world for 2015. Here are the key points of what it said about Morocco.[1]

The Report on Morocco

Morocco with its population of 33.3 million people (July 2015), estimates that 99% are Sunni Muslim and 1%, Shia Muslims, Christians, Jews and Bahais.

“The constitution declares the country to be a sovereign Muslim state and Islam to be the religion of the state. The constitution guarantees freedom of thought, expression, and assembly, and says the state guarantees the free exercise of beliefs to everyone.”

“The law grants recognition to Sunni Maliki-Ashari Muslims and Jews as native populations free to practice their religion without any specific requirements to register with the government. The law requires [all other] religious groups not recognized as native, which includes non-Maliki-Ashari Muslims (i.e., Shia) and Christians, among others, to register before they are able to undertake financial transactions or conduct other business as private associations and legal entities.”

“Registered churches and associations include the Roman Catholic, Russian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, French Protestant, and Anglican Churches, whose existence as foreign resident Churches predates the country’s independence in 1956 and which operate within the officially registered Council of Christian Churches of Morocco (CECM).”

“The constitution states the king is the protector of Islam and the guarantor of freedom of worship. It prohibits political parties, parliamentarians, and constitutional amendments from infringing upon Islam. The criminal code prohibits the use of ‘enticements’ by non-Muslims to try to convert Muslims to another religion. The minister of justice reaffirmed the freedom to change religions as long as no coercion was involved, but said Christian evangelism remained prohibited because missionaries had offered material inducements to the poor to convert them.”

“The government reportedly detained and questioned Moroccan Christians about their beliefs and contacts with other Moroccan Christians, including incidents in Rabat and Fes. The government also continued to deny registration to local Christian, Shia, and Bahai groups. Representatives of minority religious groups said fears of government surveillance led adherents of the Christian, Bahai, and Shia faiths to refrain from public worship and instead to meet discreetly in members’ homes. The government allowed foreign Christian communities to attend worship services in approved locations. The Ministry of Endowments and Islamic Affairs (MEIA) continued to control the content of sermons in mosques, Islamic religious education, and the dissemination of Islamic religious material by the broadcast media. The government continued to restrict the distribution of non-Islamic religious materials, as well as Islamic materials it deemed inconsistent with the Maliki-Ashari school of Sunni Islam. The government arrested several individuals for eating in public during Ramadan.”

“Although Jews said they continued to live and worship in safety, participants in a pro-Palestinian rally in Casablanca in October staged a mock execution of individuals dressed as Hasidic Jews. Christians reported pressure to convert from non-Christian family and friends. Two Muslim actors received death threats for appearing in a U.S.-made movie about the life of Jesus. Members of the Shia community said in some areas they were able to practice their faith openly, but most members of the community practiced discreetly. Bahais reportedly practiced their faith discreetly and avoided disclosing their religious affiliation.”

“The U.S. government promoted religious tolerance in its bilateral strategic dialogue [with the Moroccan government]. The Ambassador, embassy and consulate general officers, and visiting U.S. government officials met with senior government officials, including the minister of endowments and Islamic affairs, to discuss tolerance of minority religions. The Ambassador and embassy officers also met with Muslim religious scholars, leaders of the Jewish community, prominent Christian visitors, Christian foreign residents, leaders of registered and unregistered Christian groups, and other local religious groups to promote religious dialogue.”

Conclusion

With Sunni Muslim as the state religion under Morocco’s constitution and 99% of the population’s being Sunni Muslims, it would appear to this non-Moroccan Christian outsider that it would be easy and non-threatening for the Moroccan government to allow virtually unfettered religious freedom to all others (Shia Muslims, Christians, Jews and Bahias). However, Morocco does not do so. Therefore, I believe the U.S. government, while observing all diplomatic niceties, should endeavor to persuade the Moroccan government to provide more religious freedom to the other religious groups.

Any U.S. efforts at attempting to persuade Morocco should refer to Morocco’s ratification or accession in 1979 to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which provides the following in Article 18: “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.”

  1. “No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice.”
  2. “Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.”
  3. “The States Parties to the present Covenant undertake to have respect for the liberty of parents and, when applicable, legal guardians to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.”[2]

That U.S. effort should also mention that under the ICCPR, Morocco as a state party has submitted periodical reports regarding its implementation of the treaty to the U.N. Human Rights Committee, which after review and consultation with the party issues its Concluding Observations on that implementation. The last such Concluding Observations by this Committee, which were issued on December 1, 2016, said the following about freedom of religion in Morocco:

  • “39. The Committee is concerned by reports that restrictions are placed on the practice of religions other than the official religion. It is also concerned about provisions in the Criminal Code that criminalize actions contrary to the Muslim religion and the introduction of new offences to the draft Criminal Code that further extend the limits imposed on freedom of religion and expression (arts. 18 and 19).”
  • “40. The State party should eliminate any legislative provision or discriminatory practice that is in violation of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion and ensure that the draft revised Criminal Code now under discussion is fully in accordance with article 18 of the Covenant.”

Finally this outsider also suggests that discussions with the Moroccan government on this subject should refer to the January 2016 Declaration of Marrakesh about religious minorities in Muslim majority countries that was discussed in a prior post.

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[1] U.S. State Dep’t, International Religious Freedom Report for 2015: Morocco (Aug. 2016). The annual reports on the same subject by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom do not comment on every country in the world and Morocco is one such country that is not covered. (U.S. Com’n Int’l Religious Freedom, Annual Report (April 2017) (Morocco is not on list of countries covered by report, pp. iii-iv).

[2] The ICCPR and other international instruments regarding religious freedom were briefly reviewed in International Law Regarding Freedom of Religion, dwkcommentaries.com (Jan. 1, 2012).

U.S. Restrictions on Felon Voting Do Not Comply with International Law

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International law regarding voting is found in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR or Covenant) that was approved and adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 16, 1966. The drafting of the treaty was the work of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, in which the U.S. participated.[1]

The Covenant’s Terms and Parties

This Covenant establishes an international minimum standard of governmental conduct for rights of self-determination; legal redress; equality; life; liberty; freedom of movement; fair, public and speedy trial of criminal charges; privacy; freedom of expression, thought, conscience and religion; peaceful assembly; freedom of association; family; and participation in public life. The Covenant forbids “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment;” slavery; arbitrary arrest; double jeopardy; and imprisonment for debt.

Article 25 (b) of this treaty states, “Every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity, without any of the distinctions mentioned in article 2 [race, colour [sic], sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status] and without unreasonable restrictions: To vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors.” (Emphasis added.)

On June 8, 1992, the U.S. finally became a party to the treaty, nearly 26 years after the Covenant had been approved by the U.N. The U.S. accession to the treaty was subject to five reservations, five understandings, four declarations and one proviso. Potentially relevant to the issue of voting rights for felons are the U.S. understandings that (1) distinctions based on . . . other status [felon?] are permissible if rationally related to a legitimate governmental objective; . . . (3) certain practices concerning accused and convicted individuals were preserved; . . . and (5) the obligation of the U.S. federal government to enforce the Covenant in the federal system were limited.”[2]

Earlier (on March 23, 1976), the Covenant had gone into force, in accordance with its Article 49(1), after 35 states had ratified or acceded to the treaty. Now there are 168 states parties to the Covenant.

The Covenant’s Human Rights Committee

UN Human Rts

Article 28 of this treaty establishes a Human Rights Committee that is empowered under Article 40 to receive, analyze and comment on periodic reports from parties to the treaty regarding their compliance with its provisions, and the Committee may also issue authoritative “general comments” about the treaty.

The Committee’s General Comment No. 25 Regarding Voting Rights

On August 27, 1996, the Committee issued its General Comment No. 25: “The right to participate in public affairs, voting rights and the right of equal access to public service.”

It stated, in part, “The right to vote at elections and referenda must be established by law and may be subject only to reasonable restrictions, such as setting a minimum age limit for the right to vote. It is unreasonable to restrict the right to vote on the ground of physical disability or to impose literacy, educational or property requirements. Party membership should not be a condition of eligibility to vote, nor a ground of disqualification.” (Para. 10) (Emphasis added.)

The Comment added, “In their reports, States parties should indicate and explain the legislative provisions which would deprive citizens of their right to vote. The grounds for such deprivation should be objective and reasonable. If conviction for an offence [sic] is a basis for suspending the right to vote, the period of such suspension should be proportionate to the offence [sic] and the sentence. Persons who are deprived of liberty but who have not been convicted should not be excluded from exercising the right to vote.” (Para. 14)

Proceedings Regarding the Most Recent U.S. Report to the Committee [3]

  1. The U.S. Report to the Committee.

The U.S. has submitted four periodic reports to the Committee, most recently on December 30, 2011, which stated the following with respect to voting rights:

  • “Criminal conviction and mental incompetence. The Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution explicitly recognizes the right of states to bar an individual from voting ‘for participation in rebellion, or other crime.’ Accordingly, most states deny voting rights to persons who have been convicted of certain serious crimes. The standards and procedures for criminal disenfranchisement vary from state to state. In most states, this inability to vote is terminated by the end of a term of incarceration or by the granting of pardon or restoration of rights.” (Para. 457) (Emphasis added.)
  • Felony disenfranchisement is a matter of continuing debate in the states of the United States. It has been criticized as weakening our democracy by depriving citizens of the vote, and also for its disproportionate affects on racial minorities. As noted in the Second and Third Periodic Report, in August 2001 the National Commission on Federal Election Reform, chaired by former Presidents Carter and Ford, recommended that all states restore voting rights to citizens who have fully served their sentences. At the time of the previous report, a number of states had moved to reduce the scope of felony disenfranchisement or otherwise to facilitate the recovery of voting rights for those who can regain them.” (Para. 458) (Emphasis added.)
  • “Since the submission of the Second and Third Periodic Report in 2005, modification of state laws and procedures has continued. For example, in 2005, the Governor of Iowa issued an executive order eliminating lifetime disenfranchisement for persons convicted of an “infamous crime” and making restoration of voting rights automatic for persons completing their sentences. This order, however, was revoked by a successor Governor in 2011. Also in 2005, the legislature in Nebraska repealed its lifetime ban on voting for all felons and replaced it with a 2-year post-sentence ban. In 2006, Rhode Island voters approved a referendum to amend the state’s constitution to restore voting rights to persons currently serving a sentence of probation or parole. In 2006, the Tennessee legislature amended its complex restoration system to provide a more straightforward procedure under which all persons convicted of felonies (except electoral or serious violence offenses) are now eligible to apply for a ‘certificate of restoration’ upon completion of their sentences. In 2007, the Maryland legislature repealed all provisions of the state’s lifetime voting ban and instituted an automatic restoration policy for all persons upon completion of a sentence.” (Para. 459)
  • “In 2009, the Washington state legislature enacted the Washington Voting Rights Registration Act, which eliminates the requirement that persons who have completed their felony sentences pay all fees, fines and restitution before being allowed to vote. Florida, however, toughened its laws in March 2011, banning automatic restoration of voting rights for all convicted felons. Currently 48 states restrict voting by persons convicted of felonies in some manner; further information on felony disenfranchisement can be found in the Common Core Document.” (Para. 459)
  • “In July 2009, a bill entitled the Democracy Restoration Act of 2009 was introduced in both the Senate (S. 1516) and the House of Representatives (H.R. 3335). This bill would establish uniform standards restoring voting rights in elections for federal office to Americans who are no longer incarcerated but continue to be denied their ability to participate in such elections. A hearing on H.R. 3335 was held in the House of Representatives on March 16, 2010, but the bills did not proceed further. This legislation has been reintroduced in the House in the 112th Congress (H.R. 2212).” (Para. 460)[4]
  1. The Committee’s List of Issues for the U.S.

On April 29, 2013, the Committee issued its “List of issues” for response by the U.S. Its paragraph 26(a) stated, “Please provide information on: (a) The rationale for prohibiting persons with felony convictions from voting in federal elections once they have completed their sentence. Please provide information on steps taken to ensure that states restore voting rights to citizens who have fully served their sentences and those who have been released on parole. Please also provide information on the extent that the regulations relating to deprivation of votes for felony conviction impact on the rights of minority groups.” (Emphasis added.)

  1. U.S. Replies to the Committee’s List of Issues

On July 5, 2013, the U.S. submitted its replies to the Committee’s list of issues. In paragraph 128, the U.S. stated, “The U.S. Constitution generally provides that governments of the individual states, not the U.S. Congress, determine who is eligible to vote in their state. Congress has the power to regulate elections for federal offices and has constitutional authority to eradicate discrimination in voting through the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. According to the Brennan Center of NYU Law School, 48 states restrict voting by persons convicted of felony offenses in some manner, although the majority of these states provide for restoration of voting rights to felons who have been released from prison and/or are no longer on parole or probation. A few states prohibit felons from voting for life. Legal challenges alleging that state felon disenfranchisement laws violate either the U.S. Constitution’s non-discrimination principle or other federal voting rights statutes have generally not succeeded absent proof of racially discriminatory purpose.” (Emphasis added.)

  1. U.S. Attorney General’s Statement About Felony Disenfranchisement
Attorney General                    Eric Holder
Attorney General       Eric Holder

Outside the context of the Committee’s review of the U.S. report, on February 11, 2014, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder made extensive and powerful comments regarding felony disenfranchisement in his speech, “Criminal Justice Reform,” at Georgetown University Law Center. He said the following:

  • “[W]e’ve seen that maintaining family connections, developing job skills, and fostering community engagement can reduce the likelihood of re-arrest. And we know that restoring basic rights – and encouraging inclusion in all aspects of society – increases the likelihood of successful reintegration.  We’ve taken significant steps forward in improving reentry policies and addressing the unintended collateral consequences of certain convictions.”
  • “Yet formerly incarcerated people continue to face significant obstacles.  They are frequently deprived of opportunities they need to rebuild their lives. And in far too many places, their rights – including the single most basic right of American citizenship – the right to vote – are either abridged or denied.”
  • “As the Leadership Conference Education Fund articulated very clearly in . . . [its] recent report, ‘there is no rational reason to take away someone’s voting rights for life just because they’ve committed a crime, especially after they’ve completed their sentence and made amends.’  On the contrary: there is evidence to suggest that former prisoners whose voting rights are restored are significantly less likely to return to the criminal justice system.  As . . . [this] report further notes, a study recently conducted by a parole commission in Florida found that, while the overall three-year recidivism rate stood at roughly 33 percent, the rate among those who were re-enfranchised after they’d served their time was just a third of that.”
  • “Unfortunately, the [Florida] re-enfranchisement policy that contributed to this stunning result has been inexplicably and unwisely rolled back since that study was completed.  And, in other states, officials have raised hurdles to be faced by those with past convictions seeking to regain their access to the ballot box.  And that’s why I believe that . . . [it] is time to fundamentally reconsider laws that permanently disenfranchise people who are no longer under federal or state supervision.”
  • “These restrictions are not only unnecessary and unjust, they are also counterproductive.  By perpetuating the stigma and isolation imposed on formerly incarcerated individuals, these laws increase the likelihood they will commit future crimes.  They undermine the reentry process and defy the principles – of accountability and rehabilitation – that guide our criminal justice policies. . . . At worst, these laws, with their disparate impact on minority communities, echo policies enacted during a deeply troubled period in America’s past – a time of post-Civil War repression. And they have their roots in centuries-old conceptions of justice that were too often based on exclusion, animus, and fear.”
  • “The history of felony disenfranchisement dates to a time when these policies were employed not to improve public safety, but purely as punitive measures – intended to stigmatize, shame, and shut out a person who had been found guilty of a crime.  Over the course of many decades – court by court, state by state – Americans broadly rejected the colonial-era notion that the commission of a crime should result in lifelong exclusion from society.”
  • “After Reconstruction, many Southern states enacted disenfranchisement schemes to specifically target African Americans and diminish the electoral strength of newly-freed populations.  The resulting system of unequal enforcement – and discriminatory application of the law – led to a situation, in 1890, where ninety percent of the Southern prison population was black.  And those swept up in this system too often had their rights rescinded, their dignity diminished, and the full measure of their citizenship revoked for the rest of their lives.  They could not vote.”
  • “Yet – despite this remarkable, once-unimaginable [civil rights] progress – the vestiges, and the direct effects, of outdated practices remain all too real. In many states, felony disenfranchisement laws are still on the books.  And the current scope of these policies is not only too significant to ignore – it is also too unjust to tolerate.”
  • “Across this country today, an estimated 5.8 million Americans – 5.8 million of our fellow citizens – are prohibited from voting because of current or previous felony convictions.  That’s more than the individual populations of 31 U.S. states.  And although well over a century has passed since post-Reconstruction states used these measures to strip African Americans of their most fundamental rights, the impact of felony disenfranchisement on modern communities of color remains both disproportionate and unacceptable.”
  • “Throughout America, 2.2 million black citizens – or nearly one in 13 African-American adults – are banned from voting because of these laws.  In three states – Florida, Kentucky, and Virginia – that ratio climbs to one in five. These individuals and many others – of all races, backgrounds, and walks of life – are routinely denied the chance to participate in the most fundamental and important act of self-governance.  They are prevented from exercising an essential right.  And they are locked out from achieving complete rehabilitation and reentry – even after they’ve served the time, and paid the fines, that they owe.”
  • “Fortunately . . . in recent years we have begun to see a trend in the right direction.  Since 1997, a total of 23 states – including Nebraska, Nevada, Texas, and Washington State – have enacted meaningful reforms.  In Virginia, just last year, former Governor McDonnell adopted a policy that began to automatically restore the voting rights of former prisoners with non-violent felony convictions.”
  • “These are positive developments.  But many of these changes are incremental in nature.  They stop well short of confronting this problem head-on.  And although we can be encouraged by the promising indications we’ve seen, a great deal of work remains to be done.  Given what is at stake, the time for incrementalism is clearly over.”
  • “Eleven states continue to restrict voting rights, to varying degrees, even after a person has served his or her prison sentence and is no longer on probation or parole – including the State of Florida, where approximately 10 percent of the entire population is disenfranchised as a result.  In Mississippi, roughly 8 percent of the population cannot vote because of past involvement with the criminal justice system. In Iowa, action by the governor in 2011 caused the state to move from automatic restoration of rights – following the completion of a criminal sentence – to an arduous process that requires direct intervention by the governor himself in every individual case.  It’s no surprise that, two years after this change – of the 8,000 people who had completed their sentences during that governor’s tenure – voting rights had been restored to fewer than 12.”
  • “That’s moving backwards – not forward. It is unwise, it is unjust, and it is not in keeping with our democratic values.  These laws deserve to be not only reconsidered, but repealed.  And so today, I call upon state leaders and other elected officials across the country to pass clear and consistent reforms to restore the voting rights of all who have served their terms in prison or jail, completed their parole or probation, and paid their fines.”
  • “And I call upon the American people – who overwhelmingly oppose felony disenfranchisement – to join us in bringing about the end of misguided policies that unjustly restrict what’s been called the ‘most basic right’ of American citizenship.”
  • The “inconsistent patchwork of laws affecting felony disenfranchisement varies so widely between states – and, in some places, between cities and counties – that even those who administer the laws are sometimes unfamiliar with how to apply them. The New York Times noted in 2012 that this kind of confusion means that many who are legally allowed to vote erroneously believe that their rights are restricted.  And too often, those who do understand their rights are wrongfully turned away.”
  • “[P]ermanent exclusion from the civic community does not advance any objective of our criminal justice system.  It has never been shown to prevent new crimes or deter future misconduct.   And there’s no indication that those who have completed their sentences are more likely to commit electoral crimes of any type – or even to vote against pro-law enforcement candidates.
  • “What is clear – and abundantly so – is that these laws sever a formerly incarcerated person’s most direct link to civic participation.  They cause further alienation and disillusionment between these individuals and the communities . . . . And particularly at a time when our prisons are overflowing – and many who are serving sentences for nonviolent drug crimes find themselves trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty and incarceration – it is counterproductive to exclude these individuals from the voting franchise once their involvement with the corrections system is at an end.  It is contrary to the goals that bring us together today.”
  • “Whenever we tell citizens who have paid their debts and rejoined their communities that they are not entitled to take part in the democratic process, we fall short of the bedrock promise – of equal opportunity and equal justice – that has always served as the foundation of our legal system.  So it’s time to renew our commitment – here and now – to the notion that the free exercise of our fundamental rights should never be subject to politics, or geography, or the lingering effects of flawed and unjust policies.”
  1. Committee’s Hearings

At a Committee hearing on March 14, 2014, an U.S. representative (Roy Austin, Jr., Deputy Assistant Attorney General, Civil Rights Division, Department of Justice) said, “Persons convicted of crimes were not necessarily informed before sentencing that they would lose their right to vote.“

Austin also stated later at that hearing, “There was no national guarantee ensuring that defendants and prisoners were made aware of the loss of the right to vote. However, in practice, whenever defendants took a plea or were sentenced, they were informed of the fact that they would lose certain constitutional rights. Furthermore, the American Bar Association had launched a website entitled the National Inventory on the Collateral Consequences of Conviction as part of an effort to help defence [sic] lawyers fully inform their clients of, inter alia, any rights they would lose as the result of a conviction for a crime.”

  1. Committee’s Concluding Observations

After reviewing all of the records regarding the U.S. report,[5] the Committee on March 26, 2014, adopted its Concluding Observations. Here is what it said in paragraph 24 about U.S. voting rights.

“While noting with satisfaction the statement by the Attorney General on 11 February 2014, calling for a reform of state laws on felony disenfranchisement, the Committee reiterates its concern about the persistence of state-level felon disenfranchisement laws, its disproportionate impact on minorities and the lengthy and cumbersome voting restoration procedures in states. The Committee is further concerned that voter identification and other recently introduced eligibility requirements may impose excessive burdens on voters and result in de facto disenfranchisement of large numbers of voters, including members of minority groups. Finally, the Committee reiterates its concern that residents of the District of Columbia (D.C.) are denied the right to vote for and elect voting representatives to the United States Senate and House of Representatives (arts. 2, 10, 25 and 26)”

“The State party 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; remove or streamline lengthy and cumbersome voting restoration procedures; as well as review automatic denial of the vote to any imprisoned felon, regardless of the nature of the offence. The State party should also take all necessary measures to ensure that voter identification requirements and the new eligibility requirements do not impose excessive burdens on voters and result in de facto disenfranchisement. The State party should also provide for the full voting rights of residents of Washington, D.C.” (Emphasis in original.)

This very polite language is the way the Committee was saying the U.S. was not complying with the Convention’s provisions regarding voting.[6]

Conclusion

The U.S. problem of felon disenfranchisement still persists. The previously mentioned proposed federal Democracy Restoration Act has not been adopted. Only two states (Maine and Vermont) do not have any restrictions on voting by citizens convicted of a felony. Thirteen states and the District of Columbia restore voting after completion of the term of incarceration; four states, after incarceration and parole; 20 states, after incarceration and parole and probation. The other 11 states permanently ban voting by felons under certain conditions. In addition 10 states restrict some people convicted of misdemeanors from voting.

Therefore, the  U.S. is not complying with the Convention’s provisions regarding voting.

===========================================================

[1] Weissbrodt, Ni Aoláin, Fitzpatrick & Newman, International Human Rights: Law, Policy, and Process at 141-43 (4th ed. LEXIS-NEXIS 2009). The Covenant is baed upon the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, which states in Article 21(3), “The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government, this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage . . . .”

[2] The long, convoluted history of the U.S. accession to the Covenant is discussed in a prior blog post.

[3] The most recent Committee’s consideration of the U.S. human rights record has been discussed in prior posts about the Committee’s hearings, its concluding observations and felon voting. The actual U.S. report, the list of issues, the U.S. replies to that list of issues, a summary of the hearings, the submissions from Civil Society Organizations and the concluding observations are available on the Committee’s website.

[4] The Democracy Restoration Act also was introduced in the Senate (S. 2017) in the 112th Congress, but it died in committees in both chambers.

[5] The record included several hundred submissions from Civil Society Organizations. Felony disenfranchisement was addressed by at least one such submission: the one from the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Florida, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights under Law, the Leadership Conference, the NAACP, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the Sentencing Project. It argued that U.S. felony disenfranchisement laws had a disproportionate impact on minorities, and it reviewed the history and rationale of such laws, the increasing international isolation of the U.S. on such laws, the terms of such laws and the legal challenges to such laws. This submission also criticized the U.S. reply to this issue on the Committee’s list of issues and suggested recommendations for the Committee to make to the U.S.

[6] Another treaty to which the U.S. is not a party–the Protocol 1 to the European Convention on the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms–has been interpreted to ban national laws that “applied automatically to convicted prisoners in detention, irrespective of the length of their sentence and irrespective of the nature or gravity of their offence [sic] and their individual circumstances.” This was the decision in 2005 by the European Court of Human Rights, which said “the severe measure of disenfranchisement was not to be resorted to lightly and the principle of proportionality required a discernible and sufficient link between the sanction and the conduct and circumstances of the individual concerned. “ (Hirst v. United Kingdom, 2005-IX Reports of Judgments & Decisions 195 (Eur. Ct. Hum. Rts. 2005),}

 

 

U.S. Citizens Convicted of Felonies Should Be Allowed To Vote

As mentioned in a prior post, the U.N. Human Rights Committee recently raised the issue of whether convicted felons should be entitled to vote in U.S. elections. As a result, the Committee recommended certain changes in those laws that will be discussed below.

First though we will look at U.S. laws on the subject before examining the U.N. Committee’s recommendations and ongoing efforts in the U.S. to reform these laws.

U.S. Laws on Voting by Felons

With certain exceptions, the determination of eligibility to vote in federal, state and local elections in the U.S. is left to the laws of the states.[1] Here is a summary of those laws:[2]

Number of States   Names of States and District of Colombia Felon Voting Status
2 Maine & Vermont Eligible to vote in or out of prison
14 District Columbia, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island & Utah Eligible to vote after term of incarceration
4 California, Colorado, Connecticut & New York Eligible to vote after term of incarceration + parole
20 Alaska, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Washington, West Virginia & Wisconsin Eligible to vote after term of incarceration + parole + probation
11 Alabama, Arizona, Delaware, Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nevada, Tennessee, Virginia & Wyoming Not eligible unless various conditions are met

Since 1996 many states have passed laws to expand felon voting rights and to simplify the process for restoration of such rights. There, however, are a few outliers that have imposed greater restrictions; they include the following:

  • In 2011 the Florida Board of Executive Clemency adopted a new policy requiring all ex-felons to wait five and seven years before applying to regain voting rights.
  • In 2011 the Iowa governor revoked an automatic restoration of voting rights for all ex-felons and instead imposed a requirement for ex-felons to apply to regain such rights.
  • In 2012, South Carolina mandated that felons on probation could not have such restoration.

The bipartisan National Association of State Legislatures (NASL) points out several problems administering these laws that make it more difficult for former felons to vote:

  • “Even in states where ex-offenders automatically regain the right to vote upon completion of their sentence, the process of re-registering to vote often is difficult. One reason is the complexity of the laws and processes surrounding disenfranchisement. In some cases, it is difficult to determine whose rights can be restored. This can vary in some states according to the date of the crime, the conviction, or the release from prison, or the nature of the crime. The complex restoration process also can be daunting. It often involves lengthy paperwork, burdensome documentation, and the involvement and coordination of several state agencies.”
  • NASL adds that a “second barrier to restoration of voting rights for ex-offenders is the often inconsistent communication among agencies. The methods of communicating the loss and restoration of voting rights among courts, corrections and elections officials are not always reliable, timely or consistent. This inconsistency can result in uneven application of the law, even when the laws are clear.”
  • Another barrier, according to NASL, “is lack of information. Ex-offenders sometimes are not aware that they regain their voting rights automatically upon completion of their sentence. They go through life believing they cannot vote when, in fact, they can. In other cases, they are not informed of the process for regaining their rights or offered assistance in doing so. As long as they remain ignorant of the necessary steps, ex-offenders cannot begin the process of regaining voting rights.”
  • The “final obstacle” to former felons voting, says NASL, “is under-funding of parole boards in some states where offenders must apply to have their rights restored. A massive backlog of applications can exist because the agencies do not have adequate staff or resources to process them in a timely manner.”

As a result of these laws and their administration, an estimated 5,800,000 U.S. citizens were ineligible to vote in the 2008 elections. This included 1,400,000 African-American men, more than 676,000 women and 2,100,000 ex-felons who had completed their sentences. Another way of looking at this disenfranchisement, 7.7% of all African-American citizens were ineligible to vote in 2008.

All of this is happening with 2.2 million U.S. citizens in prison or jail in 2012, a larger share of the total population than in any other country and about five times greater than the average for other industrialized nations.

The U.N. Committee’s Recommendations

Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) provides, in part, that “Every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity, without any of the distinctions mentioned in article 2 [race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status]and without unreasonable restrictions: . . . (b) To vote . . . at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors. . . .”

As previously mentioned, this treaty created the U.N. Human Rights Committee and empowered it to conduct periodic reviews of compliance with that treaty by its States Parties, one of which is the United States.

Therefore, U.S. compliance with Article 25 regarding voting was one of the topics covered by the recent Committee’s report of its review of U.S. compliance with the ICCPR.

The Committee first reiterated “its concern about the persistence of state-level felon disenfranchisement laws, its disproportionate impact on minorities and the lengthy and cumbersome voting restoration procedures in states.”

The Committee then recommended that 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.”

U.S. Advocates for Expansion of Felon Voting Rights

A number of U.S. NGOs are advocates for expanding voting rights for felons. They include (a) the American Civil Liberties Union; (b) the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of over 200 national organizations promoting and protecting U.S. civil and human rights toward the goal of a more open and just society;[3] (c) the Sentencing Project, which works for a fair and effective U.S. criminal justice system by promoting reforms in sentencing policy, addressing unjust racial disparities and practices, and advocating for alternatives to incarceration; (d) the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law;[4] and (e) the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

In addition, several prominent public officials have supported such reforms.

Earlier this year in a speech about criminal justice reform at Georgetown University, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder made extensive remarks about the need for reforming our laws regarding felon voting.[5]

The Attorney General emphasized the need to do all we can to encourage the need for successful reintegration of individuals who had been convicted of felonies, including the restoration of the “single most basic right of American citizenship—the right to vote.” Otherwise such disenfranchisement perpetuates “the stigma and isolation” of former felons and increases “the likelihood they will commit future crimes.”

Moreover, said Holder, such disenfranchisement has a “disparate impact on minority communities.” Today roughly 2,200,000 black citizens (or 1 in 13) are excluding from voting for this reason; in Florida, Kentucky and Virginia that ratio is 1 in 5. For Florida that represents 10% of the state’s potential electorate; in Mississippi, 8%.

Holder added that Iowa recently abolished automatic restoration of voting rights after completion of a criminal sentence in favor of an innocuous-sounding requirement to apply to the governor for such relief. However, according to Holder, after two years of the new policy, fewer than 12 such applications had been approved out of 8,000.

Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky repeatedly has called for expansion of felon voting rights. In February 2014 he testified before a Kentucky Senate committee in support of restoring the right to vote for many non-violent felons in his state. Paul said that restoring voting rights for those who have repaid their debt to society was simply the right thing to do. In other words, “One mistake in life shouldn’t permanently block a citizen’s access to the ballot box [because the] right to vote is among the most important rights we have. It is something for which people in other countries have lost their lives.”

Following Senator Paul’s testimony, the committee and then the full Senate passed a proposed constitutional amendment that would restore the right to vote in Kentucky for many non-violent felons who have completed their sentences. If the Kentucky House approves the same measure and the two houses agree on a compromise bill, it will be on the ballot for voters to approve in November.[6]

In Virginia, former Governor Robert F. McDonnell (Republican) enacted a policy in 2012 that allowed those with non-violent felony convictions to have their voting rights automatically restored. In addition, McDonnell and his Democratic successor, Terry McAuliffe, have supported a state constitutional amendment that would restore voting rights to ex-felons automatically upon the completion of their sentences.

Conclusion

This problem of obstacles to felons’ voting was brought home to me when I went door-knocking for the re-election of President Obama in 2012 and encountered several people who said they were not eligible to vote. They did not say why, but I surmised that they had been convicted of felonies and had not yet completed their parole or probation. I felt then (and now) that they were entitled as U.S. citizens to have their voices heard in the election.

Given the high levels of incarceration in the U.S. and the deplorable conditions in most of our prisons, these potential voters should provide a way to increase the importance of this public policy issue and to be a force for improving those conditions.

Another benefit of such reforms should be the elimination of the supposed “need” to have restrictive state voter “ID” laws to eliminate or reduce purported voter fraud. A Wisconsin voter “ID” law on April 29th was stricken down as unconstitutional by a federal district court.

I hope that all U.S. citizens become concerned about the disenfranchisement of our fellow citizens who have been convicted of felonies and become advocates for changing the state laws that cause this deprivation.

—————————————————————–

[1] The U.S Constitution provides that “Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations [set by the States for the Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives] except [not] as to the Places of chusing Senators” (Art. I, sec. 4). The Fourteenth Amendment says,”All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.  No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” (14th Amendment.) (The 14th Amendment also implicitly endorses a state’s denial or abridgment of a U.S. citizen’s right to vote because of participation in “rebellion, or other crime” in connection with allocation of seats in the House of Representatives.) The Constitution further provides, “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 [slavery]” (15th Amendment) or “sex” (19th Amendment) or “age [18 years of age or older]” (26th Amendment). In addition, the federal Voting Rights Acts of 1965 and of 2006 imposed certain measures to implement the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, and last year the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated an important part of the latter statute.

[2] Greater details on these laws are available on a ProCon website, on the Brennan Center website and on a map prepared by the American Civil Liberties Union.

[3] The Leadership Conference submitted its report on felon voting to the U.N. Human Rights Committee in connection with the latter’s review of U.S. human rights.

[4] The Brennan Center along with ACLU is supporting the proposed federal Democracy Restoration Act that would restore voting rights to ex-felons who had completed their incarceration. It was introduced in 2014 by Representative John Conyers, Jr. (H.R. 4459) and Senator Ben Cardin (S.2235).

[5] The U.N. Human Rights Committee’s concluding observations noted its “satisfaction” with Attorney General Holder’s speech, which also was applauded  by a New York Times editorial.

[6] On March 5th the Kentucky House rejected the Senate bill because it did not go far enough in expanding the voting rights, and by the end of March, legislators did not think a compromise was likely this session of the legislature. On April 16th, however, the House passed a bill that will prompt a conference committee to try to work out a compromise that both houses could accept.