Cuba Pays $60 Million of Indebtedness to Major Creditor Nations     

The week of October 15 Cuba paid $60 million of indebtiness to 14 wealthy creditor nations. Last year Cuba paid $40 million to the same group. The total debt is $2.6 billion after the creditors in 2015 forgave $8.5 billion of $11.1 billion upon which Cuba had defaulted through 1986 plus charges.[1]

These creditor nations known as the Club of Paris are the following: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.

Under the 2015 agreement, Cuba agreed for the first time to grant the creditors equity in development projects, in areas like manufacturing and agriculture, in exchange for a portion of their debt holdings. Many of these restructuring agreements include the establishment of so-called counter-value funds, under which a percentage of debt is discounted in exchange for the potential profits stemming from participation by a creditor country’s firms in Cuba joint-development projects.

The counter-value funds have an estimated combined value of around $750 million of the $2.6 billion owed. Japan, Spain, France and Italy – Cuba’s largest Paris Club creditors – are furthest along in negotiating swaps.

  • For example, a $46 million French project to develop cattle ranching and dairy products in central Camaguey province is ready to sign, according to France’s ambassador to Cuba, Jean-Marie Bruno.
  • Another example is Spain which has a project ready to manufacture cardboard and another aluminium structures for construction capable of resisting earthquakes and hurricanes, both involving Spanish companies.

This access to Cuban development projects gives the European countries and companies an advantage over U.S. companies who are banned by various U.S. laws from such projects.

This payment happened during dire economic times for Cuba due to the political and economic crisis in its ally Venezuela, declines in Cuban exports and tourism due, in part, to the damages caused by Hurricane Irma.

Cuba’s payment in these circumstances showed the importance Cuba attaches to the 2015 agreement with this group of major creditor nations.

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[1] Reuters, Cash-Strapped Cuba Makes Debt Payment to Major Creditors-Diplomats, N.Y. Times (Oct. 18, 2017); Chow, Cuba Reaches Deal to Pay $2.6 Billion in Arrears to Paris Club, W.S.J. (Dec. 12, 2015); Paris Club, Agreement on the Debt Between Cuba and the Group of Creditors of Cuba (Dec. 12, 2015).

President Trump Condemns Cuba at the United Nations

On September 19, U.S. President Donald Trump addressed the United Nations General Assembly.[1]  Most media attention has focused on his bellicose remarks about North Korea and Iran. But he also condemned Cuba and Venezuela. Here the focus is on the general theses he advanced, his comments about Cuba and reactions to the speech.

Trump’s Speech

His fundamental thesis was the U.S.’ “renewing this fundamental principle of sovereignty” and “our success depends on a coalition of strong, independent nations that embrace their sovereignty, to promote security, prosperity and peace for themselves and for the world.” (Emphasis added.)

In short, the world needed strong, effective sovereign nations. As he stated, the U.S. does “not expect diverse countries to share the same cultures, traditions, or even systems of government. But we do expect all nations to uphold these two core sovereign duties:  to respect the interests of their own people and the rights of every other sovereign nation. This is the beautiful vision of this institution, and this is the foundation for cooperation and success.” (Emphasis added.)

Strong, sovereign nations let diverse countries with different values, different cultures, and different dreams not just coexist, but work side by side on the basis of mutual respect. Strong, sovereign nations let their people take ownership of the future and control their own destiny.  And strong, sovereign nations allow individuals to flourish in the fullness of the life intended by God. (Emphasis added.)

President Trump’s subsidiary premise was the assertion that “in fulfilling our obligations to our own nations, we also realize that it’s in everyone’s interest to seek a future where all nations can be sovereign, prosperous, and secure.”

On the other hand, this was not a universal action item for every sovereign nation. As he stated, “we believe that no nation should have to bear a disproportionate share of the burden, militarily or financially.  Nations of the world must take a greater role in promoting secure and prosperous societies in their own regions.” (Emphasis added.)

“That is why in the Western Hemisphere, the United States has stood against the corrupt and destabilizing regime in Cuba and embraced the enduring dream of the Cuban people to live in freedom.  My administration recently announced that we will not lift sanctions on the Cuban government until it makes fundamental reforms.” (Emphasis added.)

President Trump then went on at length about Venezuela’s problems, at least some of which he also sees in Cuba. In his words, “The problem in Venezuela is not that socialism has been poorly implemented, but that socialism has been faithfully implemented. From the Soviet Union to Cuba to Venezuela, wherever true socialism or communism has been adopted, it has delivered anguish and devastation and failure.  Those who preach the tenets of these discredited ideologies only contribute to the continued suffering of the people who live under these cruel systems.” (Emphasis added.)

Reactions to the Speech[2]

Trump’s comments on sovereignty were criticized by the Foreign Minister of Sweden, Margot Wallstrom: “This was a bombastic, nationalist speech. . . .  This was a speech at the wrong time to the wrong audience.”

Vali R. Nasr, the Dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies., said, “It looks like we will respect the sovereignty of countries we like, whether they are dictatorships or democracies, but we will not respect the sovereignty of countries we don’t like.” Nasr added, “His definition of sovereignty comes from a very narrow domestic prism.”

This speech generally did not get good reviews. For example, the editorial from the Guardian in London concluded that Trump “brought little clarity as to the wider strategy he contemplates. Threats and grandstanding are just bluster, not policy. Crises require a deftness the Trump administration has failed to demonstrate. He wants allies to back him, but seems oblivious that his lack of personal credibility is an obstacle to international cooperation. An “America First” approach runs counter to the UN’s multilateralism. His credo could be summed up by his claim that nations acting in their own self-interest create a more stable world. The question is what rules would states operate under? Not the UN’s, Trump’s response appeared to suggest. The president may want to speak of “principled realism”, but he is a reckless and dangerous leader, sitting, alas, in a most powerful position.”

These thoughts were echoed by a Guardian reporter, Julian Borger, who said the speech was full of “fulminations” of fear, especially his threat to “completely destroy North Korea,” which came just minutes after the U.N. Secretary General had told those at the Assembly and implicitly Trump himself, “Fiery talk can lead to fatal misunderstandings.” More generally, “Trump punched yawning holes in his own would-be doctrine, singling out enemies, expressing horror at their treatment of their people and threatening interference to the point of annihilation. What was left . . . was a sense of incoherence and a capricious menace hanging in the air.”

The New York Times’ editorial said, “In all this fury, before a world body whose main purpose is the peaceful resolution of disputes, there was hardly a hint of compromise or interest in negotiations.” “Mr. Trump’s dark tone and focus seemed a significant deviation [from previous U.S. presidents], not least his relentlessly bellicose approach to North Korea.” On the other hand, “Mr. Trump’s largely benign comments about the United Nations were encouraging.”

The Washington Post editorial also criticized “Mr. Trump’s schoolboy taunts of ‘Rocket Man,’ his sobriquet for North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, and his threats, if the United States is ‘forced to defend itself or its allies . . . to totally destroy North Korea.’ The leader of a powerful nation makes himself sound simultaneously weak and bellicose with such bluster.” This editorial also said “there was something discordant in using the United Nations podium to proclaim the virtue, essentially, of national selfishness over international cooperation and multilateral organization. No doubt Presidents Xi Jinping of China and Vladimir Putin of Russia will welcome this aspect of Mr. Trump’s address. They, too, have insisted on the unassailable ‘sovereignty’ of their formidable states and demanded that others not lecture them about values such as democracy and human rights, which they fear and abhor.” The editorial concluded, “Mr. Trump seemed to repudiate his own advocacy for human dignity and freedom when he said that “we do not expect diverse countries to share the same cultures, traditions or even systems of government” — as if democracy should be optional under the U.N. Charter.”

Surprisingly the Post’s respected foreign affairs columnist, David Ignatius, had a generally favorable reaction to the speech. He said, “the most surprising thing about President Trump’s address to the [U.N.] . . .  was how conventional it was. He supported human rights and democracy; he opposed rogue regimes; he espoused a global community of strong, sovereign nations.”

The editorial by the Wall Street Journal generally approved of the speech, but thought that Trump gave too narrow a definition to “national interest” by failure to include respect for the rights of the nation’s own people. Trump’s concept of sovereignty “also leaves authoritarians too much room to claim dominant [regional] spheres of influence,” such as Chinese and Russian leaders in the South China Sea and Ukraine. In short, Trump needs to learn “there is no substitute for U.S. leadership on behalf of American values and interests if he wants to build a more peaceful world.”

The speech’s negative comments about Cuba were rejected by that country’s Foreign Minister, Bruno Rodriguez, who  said that Trump “lacks the moral authority to criticize Cuba, a small and solidary country with extensive international cooperation.” Rodriguez also said in an interview with Telesur that the speech “was an unusual, aggressive, dominating, blatantly imperialist speech. Sovereignty [for Trump] means sovereignty for the United States, enslavement for all others; [it] completely ignores the concept of sovereign equality that inspires the [U.N.].” These comments were echoed by Cuba’s delegation to a Bilateral Commission meeting with the U.S.; the delegation said it protested “the disrespectful, unacceptable and meddling statements” by Trump at the U.N. Rodriguez also condemned the President’s aggressive comments against Venezuela and expressed Cuba’s solidarity with that country and its leaders. Granma, however, did publish the full text of the Trump speech.

Conclusion

There is much to criticize in the President’s speech. Foremost was his threat that the U.S. might have ”no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.” (Emphasis added)

His perceived need for “strong sovereign nations” totally ignores all the destruction and pain inflicted on the world by such nations throughout history. This emphasis also ignores the multilateral efforts, especially after World War II, to develop multilateral, international treaties and institutions, including the United Nations, to protect the world against the excesses of strong sovereign nations. Yes, like all human institutions, the U.N. is not perfect and can and should be improved. Although Trump had some kind words for the U.N. and the Marshall Plan after World War II, he said the U.S. could no longer enter into “one-sided alliances or agreements.”

The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Theresa May, in her September 20 speech to the General Assembly implicitly gave the proper retort to the main thesis of Trump’s speech, that strong sovereign states were the appropriate building blocks for the contemporary world.[3] She said the following:

  • “The only way for us to respond to this vast array of challenges is to come together and defend the international order that we have worked so hard to create and the values by which we stand. For it is the fundamental values that we share, values of fairness, justice and human rights, that have created the common cause between nations to act together in our shared interest and form the multilateral system. And it is this rules-based system which we have developed, including the institutions, the international frameworks of free and fair trade, agreements such as the Paris Climate Accord and laws and conventions like the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which enables the global cooperation through which we can protect those values”
  • “If this system we have created is found no longer to be capable of meeting the challenges of our time then there will be a crisis of faith in multilateralism and global cooperation that will damage the interests of all our peoples. So those of us who hold true to our shared values, who hold true to that desire to defend the rules and high standards that have shaped and protected the world we live in, need to strive harder than ever to show that institutions like this United Nations can work for the countries that form them and for the people who we represent.”
  • “This means reforming our United Nations and the wider international system so it can prove its worth in helping us to meet the challenges of the 21st Century. And it means ensuring that those who flout the rules and spirit of our international system are held to account, that nations honor their responsibilities and play their part in upholding and renewing a rules-based international order that can deliver prosperity and security for us all.”

Trump’s comments on Cuba were a reprise of his June 2017 speech in Miami, Florida with severe criticism of Cuba that was enthusiastically received by the many older Cuban-Americans in the audience.[4] Both speeches, however, lacked nuance and failed to acknowledge the accomplishments of the Cuban Revolution, especially in health and education. It also is difficult to understand the basis for Trump’s assertion that the Cuban government was “destabilizing” or that it was “thoroughly corrupt.”

Both speeches also ignored the fact that Trump in June was only proposing to change two aspects of President Obama’s normalization policies: (a) banning U.S. persons from doing business with Cuban entities owned or controlled by the Cuban military or secret services and (b) banning U.S. citizens from going to Cuba on individual person-to-person travel, the latter of which has been subjected to criticism in this blog.[5]

The U.N. speech also failed to acknowledge that simultaneously and incongruously in Washington, D.C. the U.S. and Cuba were holding the sixth session of their Bilateral Commission that was established in the Obama Administration as a means to discuss the many unresolved issues that had accumulated in the nearly 60 years of strained relations; this session will be discussed in a subsequent post.

President Trump’s U.N. speech boasted about the U.S. announcing “that we will not lift sanctions on the Cuban government until it makes fundamental reforms.” This presumably refers to the U.S. embargo (blockade) of Cuba, which no longer serves any legitimate purpose for the U.S. and which, therefore, should be unilaterally terminated by the U.S. Moreover, the embargo soon will be the subject of a General Assembly resolution that again will condemn that U.S. policy and again undoubtedly will be overwhelming adopted.[6]

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[1] White House, Remarks by President Trump to the 72nd Session of the United Nations General Assembly (Sept. 19, 2017); Landler, Trump Offers a Selective View of Sovereignty in U.N. Speech, N.Y. Times (Sept. 19, 2017); Jaffe & DeYoung, In Trump’s U.N. speech, emphasis on sovereignty echoes his domestic agenda, Wash. Post (Sept. 19, 2017).

[2] Assoc. Press, Reaction to Trump’s UN General Assembly Speech, N.Y. Times (Sept. 19, 2017); Editorial, The Guardian view on Trump at the UN: bluster and belligerence, Guardian (Sept. 19, 2017); Borger, A blunt, fearful rant: Trump’s UN speech left presidential norms in the dust, Guardian (Sept. 19, 2017); Editorial, Warmongers and Peacemakers at the U.N., N.Y. Times (Sept. 19, 2017); Editorial, Trump undermines his own advocacy for human dignity, Wash. Post (Sept. 19, 2017); Ignatius, The most surprising thing about Trump’s U.N. speech, Wash. Post (Sept. 19, 2017); Editorial, Trump Shock at Turtle Bay, W.S.J. (Sept. 20, 2017); Cuban Foreign Minister Condemns Trump’s Aggressive Address at UN, CubaDebate (Sept. 19, 2017); Cuban Foreign Minister in Telesur interview condemns Trump’s aggressive speech at UN, CubaDebate (Sept. 19, 2017); Reuters, Cuba Calls Trump’s U.N. Address ‘Unacceptable and Meddling,’ N.Y. Times (Sept. 19, 2017); Statement by President Trump to the seventy-second session of the United Nations General Assembly, Granma (Sept. 20, 2017).

[3] Theresa May’s speech to the UN General Assembly 2017 (Sept, 20, 2017).

[4] President Trump Announces Reversal of Some U.S.-Cuba Normalization Policies, dwkcommentaries.com (June 19, 2017).

[5] Posts to dwkcommentaries,com: President Trump Announces Reversal of Some Cuba Normalization Policies (June 19, 2017); U.S. Reactions to Trump Reversal of Some U.S.-Cuba Normalization Policies (June 21, 2017); Cuban Reactions to Trump Reversal of Some U.S.-Cuba Normalization Policies  (June 22, 2017); This Blogger’s Reactions to Trump Reversal of Some U.S.-Cuba Normalization Policies (June 23, 2017). Other posts have criticised the proposed ban on individual person-to-person travel to Cuba, E.g., Cuban Entrepreneurs Issue Policy Recommendations to Trump Administration (July 19, 2017).

[6] Last year’s U.N. General Assembly resolution against the embargo is discussed in an earlier post. Other posts about the embargo are listed in the “U.S. Embargo of Cuba” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA .

U.N. Security Council Orders More Negotiations About the Western Sahara Conflict

Disputes over the Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony, have followed its 1975 annexation by Morocco in opposition to competing claims by the Polisario Front. In 1991 the U.N. brokered a cease-fire and established a peacekeeping monitoring mission and to help prepare a referendum on the territory’s future that has never taken place. So far the parties have been unable to agree upon how to decide on self-determination. Morocco wants an autonomy plan under Moroccan sovereignty while Polisario wants a U.N.-backed referendum including on the question of independence. Below is a map of the Western Sahara.

Western_sahara_map_showing_morocco_and_polisaro.gif

On April 28, 2017, the U.N. Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2351 extending the mandate of the U.N. Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) until 30 April 2018 and calling on the parties to that conflict to resume negotiations under the auspices of the Secretary-General without preconditions and in good faith, in order to facilitate a just, lasting and mutually acceptable political solution.[1]

Other provisions of the resolution called on the parties to cooperate fully with the operations of MINURSO, to take the necessary steps to ensure unhindered movement for U.N. and associated personnel in carrying out their mandate, to demonstrate the political will to work in an atmosphere propitious for dialogue in order to resume negotiations, to implement the relevant Security Council resolutions, to resume cooperation with the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, to ensure that the humanitarian needs of refugees were adequately addressed.  It also supported an increase in the ratio of medical personnel within the current uniformed authorization, as requested in the Secretary-General’s most recent report to address MINURSO’s severely overstretched medical capacity. Yet another part of the resolution noted that both sides had withdrawn troops from the Guerguerat area of the territory, a vast swath of desert bordering the Atlantic Ocean that has been contested since 1975.

In support of the resolution, U.S. Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Ambassador Michele Sisson, emphasized hat peacekeeping missions should support political solutions, said that postponing the [referendum] had been the key to allowing MINURSO to close out the 2016 chapter in the territory.  The U.S. was pleased with the mandate renewal, which helped in returning the Council’s attention where it belonged — supporting a political process to resolve the situation on the ground.  Emphasizing that the situation must change, she said the Council must look at the “big picture” in Western Sahara, including the absence of any political process for many years, she said.  The resolution demonstrated the importance of the parties working with the U.N. to return to the table.  The Mission must be able to hire the right staff in order to be as effective as possible, and to adjust components that were not working, as well as they should.  The U.S. would watch closely to see what happened on the ground, she said.

Also speaking in support of the resolution were the other Security Council members: Uruguay, Sweden, Senegal, Ethiopia, China, France, United Kingdom, Italy, Bolivia, Japan, Ukraine and the Russian Federation.

Although the resolution was passed unanimously, France, a permanent Council member, backs Morocco, its former colony, while Polisario has been supported by some non-permanent council members and by South Africa.

Afterwards Morocco’s foreign ministry said the kingdom was satisfied with the resolution and hoped for a “real process” toward a solution, which it said should be on its autonomy initiative. Morocco also called for neighboring Mauritania and Algeria, the latter of which backs Polisario and maintains tense relations with Morocco, to be involved in negotiations. Algeria, on the other hand, called the resolution a victory for the Sahrawi cause that put the process “back on track.”

Morocco recently has made at least two diplomatic moves that may be related to enhancing its position in such negotiations.

First, on January 31, 2017, the African Union (AU) at its Summit, 39 to 9, approved Morocco’s request for readmission after having left the AU in 1984 in response to a majority of its members recognizing the disputed territory in the Western Sahara.

Morocco’s King Mohammed VI in his speech at this year’s AU Summit emphasized “how indispensable Africa is to Morocco and how indispensable Morocco is to Africa.” As evidence he mentioned that “since 2000, Morocco has [signed] nearly a thousand agreements with African countries, in various fields of cooperation,” including providing scholarships for Africans to attend Moroccan universities, launching the African Atlantic Gas Pipeline, creating a regional electricity market, constructing fertilizer production plants, creating the Adaptation of African Agriculture program to respond to climate change. These actions, he asserted, demonstrated Morocco’s “commitment to the development and prosperity of African citizens, [who] have the means and the genius; [so that] together, we can fulfill the aspirations of our peoples.”

This readmission, say analysts, also enhances Morocco’s status in upcoming negotiations over the Western Sahara although the King did not mention this in his speech. Instead, he made a modest allusion to this conflict when he said, “We know that we do not have unanimous backing from this prestigious assembly. Far be it from us to spark off a sterile debate! We have absolutely no intention of causing division, as some would like to insinuate!”[2]

The other diplomatic move that can be seen as an attempt to soften resistance towards Morocco’s position in negotiations over the Western Sahara was its re-establishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba, as discussed in a prior post.

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[1] U.N. Security Council, Press Release: Security Council Extends Mandate of United Nations Mission (April 28, 2017); U.S. Mission to the U.N., Ambassador Sisson Remarks at the Adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 2351 on the [U.N.] Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) (April 28, 2017); U.N. Security Council, Press Release: Secretary-General Welcomes Withdrawal of Moroccan, Frente Polisario Elements from Western Sahara’s Guerguerat Area, Urging Adherence to Cease Fire (Apr. 28, 2017); Reuters, U.N. Security Council Backs New Western Sahara Talks Push, N.Y. Times (Apr. 29, 2017); Assoc. Press, UN Council Backs New Effort to End Western Sahara Conflict, N.Y. Times (Apr. 28, 2017).

[2] Quinn, Morocco rejoins African Union after more than 30 years, Guardian (Jan. 31, 2017); Morocco Ministry of Foreign Affairs, His Majesty the King delivers a speech at the 28th Summit of the African Union (AU) in Addis Ababa (Jan. 31, 2017); Abubeker, Why Has Morocco Rejoined the African Union After 33 Years, Newsweek Feb. 2, 2017).

Bryan Stevenson’s Amazing Advocacy for Justice      

 

Bryan Stevenson
Bryan Stevenson

Now based in Montgomery, Alabama, Bryan Stevenson is conducting amazing advocacy for racial justice in many different ways: as an attorney for individuals who have been victimized by the U.S. criminal justice system; as the founder of a non-profit human rights organization (the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI)) devoted to those causes; as an author and speaker; and as the creator of various ways to honor his predecessors who strove for justice and the victims of injustice. Let us review these ways in which Stevenson demonstrates his advocacy after looking at his biography.

Stevenson’s Biography

 He was born in 1959 in Milton, Delaware and grew up in a poor rural community. Attending a “colored school” for his early years, he graduated from a racially integrated public high school and then Eastern College (now Eastern University), a Philadelphia “Christian university dedicated to the preparation of . . . students for thoughtful and productive lives of Christian faith, leadership and service.” He then attended and obtained a J.D. degree from the Harvard Law School; and a Masters in Public Policy degree from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Stevenson is an attorney and the Founder and Executive Director of EJI, which specializes in advocacy for children in adult prisons, death-row inmates, prison and sentencing reform and combating race and poverty (. He also is a Professor of Clinical Law at NYU School of Law.

In 1995 he received a “genius” grant from the MacArthur Foundation, which said that in his “drive to expose biases under which capital punishment is imposed, Stevenson has articulated how its use is linked to race and class discrimination and to systemic defects in criminal procedures.”

In 2000 Stevenson was awarded Sweden’s Olof Palme Prize. The award stated he is “a courageous representative of all the individuals, women and men from the entire world, who have maintained tirelessly that the right to life cannot be controverted, that the death penalty is an ultimate form of torture, and that the state does not have the right to kill its citizens.”

Stevenson, the Attorney

In 2015 EJI attorneys won the release of innocent people on death row or in prison for life. They also were successful in obtaining new trials for people illegally convicted and relief for those unfairly sentenced. They have documented and challenged abusive conditions of confinement in state jails and prisons. They have continued to fight against prosecution of children in adult courts and to obtain new sentences for individuals who have been sentenced to life in prison for crimes committed when they were children.

EJI’s work does not end when a client is released from prison. It provides them with re-entry assistance, including housing, employment, training and support. Its Post-Release Education and Preparation Program has been recognized as a model for such programs by various state officials.

Stevenson The Author

 Stevenson’s 2014 best-selling book, “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption,” provides interesting accounts of some of the significant cases in which he and EJI have been involved to provide context for a general discussion of particular problems in the American criminal justice system.

For example, Chapter Sixteen, “The Stonecatchers’ Song of Sorrow,” opens with brief discussions of Stevenson’s 2010 victory in the U.S. Supreme Court, when it decided that it was unconstitutional to impose life sentences without parole on children convicted of non-homicide crimes, and in 2012 when the Court held the same was the case when the crime was homicide. The chapter’s footnotes provide citations to these Supreme Court decisions and other mentioned cases.

Chapter Twelve, “Mother, Mother,” is another example. It recounts the trial and unjust conviction of a mother for murdering her stillborn child and sentenced to life without parole. Stevenson and EJI then entered her case and eventually obtained her release from prison. This case is then used as a platform to discuss the many problems created by incarcerating women with more details in footnotes.

The book also tells of instances in which Stevenson is touched, emotionally and spiritually, by clients who are in prison.

In the Introduction, for instance, Stevenson as a 23-year old law student was panicked and nervous when he visited a Georgia death-row inmate, who was immediately happy to learn that he would not have an execution date the next year and then gently led Stevenson into a three-hour general conversation. When the inmate was being returned to his cell, he started singing a black spiritual hymn: “I’m pressing on, the upward way. New heights I’m gaining, every day. Still praying as, I’m upward bound. Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.” Stevenson confesses that this hymn was “a precious gift” and that the prisoner gave him “an astonishing measure of his humanity” and an altered “understanding of human potential, redemption, and hopefulness.”

This and other experiences with death-row prisoners that summer constituted “proximity to the condemned and incarcerated [that] made the question of each person’s humanity more urgent and meaningful” and led to Stevenson’s being “committed to helping the death row prisoners.”

In addition, the book concludes with the “Author’s Note,” in which Stevenson seeks to recruit others to the cause of racial justice, He says, “there are endless opportunities for you to do something about criminal justice policy or help the incarcerated or formerly incarcerated.” An invitation then is extended for the reader to contact EJI for more information.

This book has received great reviews, has been a New York Times Bestseller and has won the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence, an NAACP Image Award and the Dayton Literary Prize for Nonfiction.

Stevenson The Speaker

A prior post mentioned Stevenson’s then forthcoming presentation at Minneapolis’ Westminster Town Hall Forum. I attended this event even though I had never heard of him and thought his presentation would be a legal analysis of the changes needed in the American criminal justice system. Instead it was an emotional, passionate call for such reform and more of a sermon than a legal discussion. At the halfway point, the moderator, Rev. Timothy Hart-Andersen, said that in his many years as the moderator of the Forum he had never heard such a moving presentation.

Nine months later I watched his televised conversation with Charlie Rose. “An Hour with Bryan Stevenson,” Charlie Rose Show (Aug. 19, 2015), when he was just as impressive. Here are some of his pithy, insightful comments:

  • “Everyone is more than the worst thing he or she has ever done.”
  • “No matter what you’ve done, your life matters or has value.”
  • “All lives matter.”
  • “All lives have equal value.”

Another example of Stevenson as a speaker is his TED Talk of March 2012,“We need to talk about an injustice.”

EJI’s Other Racial Justice Efforts

Over the last four years EJI has published major reports about the domestic slave trade, Slavery in America; and racial lynchings, Lynching in America; its third report was released in late 2015:The Anti-Civil Rights Movement. Excerpts from all of these reports are provided in EJI’s educational 2016 Calendar. For example, the month of October focuses on “Racial Terror Lynchings” with a large photograph of a crowd watching an 1893 Texas lynching and with this comment on October 5th: “1920: A mob lynches four black men in Macclenny, Florida, seizing three from the county jail and shooting the fourth dead in the woods.” EJI also has produced a film, From Slavery to Mass Incarceration.[1]

In addition, EJI has erected historic markers about the domestic slave trade in its home base in Montgomery, Alabama and is working on a national memorial in the city about American racial inequality and lynchings. Its first historical marker about Lynching in America recently was erected in Brighton, Alabama pursuant to a plan to place such markers at every lynching site in the country.

EJI’s office building in Montgomery is the site of a former slave prison and close to the city’s slave market. In late 2016 it plans to convert part of its building to a museum about the history of racial inequality in America and the connections between slavery and mass incarceration. EJI also uses its building to host programs and presentations about its work and the need for reforming the criminal justice system while similar presentations are made by its staff at colleges, universities, churches, community groups, high schools and conferences.

An insight to such programs has been provided by Jim Wallis, the leader of Sojourners, a Christian social justice organization, who along with 50 other faith leaders attended a two-day program at EJI in December 2015. Stevenson emphasized to this group these preconditions for reforming the American criminal justice system: (1) proximity to those most impacted by the system; (2) changing the narrative; (3) replacing hopelessness with hope; and (4) committing ourselves to uncomfortable things.[2]

These messages were made flesh by the Wallis group’s making pilgrimages to two sites where black men had been lynched, digging up dirt from those sites and placing the dirt in glass jars marked with the individuals’ names, birth and death years and the names of the lynching sites (part of EJI’s Soil Collection Project) and then holding prayer services in memory of the individuals. Another moving experience for the Sojourners group was spending time with Mr. Anthony Ray Hinton, who had spent 30 years in solitary confinement on death row in Alabama for a crime he did not commit. Stevenson’s concluding message for the group: “I have always had to believe in things I haven’t seen.”

Conclusion

What an amazing human being! What amazing efforts for social justice! I give thanks to God for this amazing servant!

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[1] EJI, Annual Report 2015.

[2] Wallis, It’s Never Too Late to Do Justice, Sojourners (Dec. 17, 2015) EGI, EGI Hosts Sojourners Faith Table Retreat (Dec. 16, 2015). Willis was a speaker at the Westminster Town Hall Forum in 2010 and will be returning on February 4, 2016 to discuss “America’s Original Sin: Racism and White Privilege,” the title of his book being published today. In a Foreward to the book, Stevenson says , “the mainstream church has been largely silent or worse“ to “our nation’s historical failure to address the legacy of racial inequality, the presumption of guilt and the racial narrative that created it.” Moreover, the church has been complicit in the refusal “to commit ourselves to a process of truth and reconciliation” and the emergence of “new forms of racial subordination.” Indeed, according to Stevenson, “Christianity is directly implicated when we Christians fail to speak more honestly about the legacy of racial inequality.”

 

 

 

 

Swedish Court Denies Julian Assange’s Appeal To Quash Detention Order

Assange @ Ecuadorian Embassy
Assange @ Ecuadorian Embassy

On November 20, 2014, a Swedish appellate court denied Julian Assange’s application to quash the lower court’s four-year-old order for his detention for questioning about allegations of sexual misconduct with two women in Sweden in 2010.[1]

Assange had argued that the order could not be enforced because he has been and still is in Ecuador’s embassy in London, U.K. under a grant of diplomatic asylum and that the order was restricting his civil rights.

The Swedish court, however, was not persuaded. It said, “In making this assessment, account must be taken of the fact that Julian Assange is suspected of crimes of a relatively serious nature.” Moreover, “there is a great risk that he will flee and thereby evade legal proceedings if the detention order is set aside. In the view of the court of appeal, these circumstances mean that the reasons for detention still outweigh the intrusion or other detriment entailed by the detention order.” In short, the court could not “set aside the detention solely because Julian Assange is in an embassy and the detention order cannot be enforced at present for that reason.”

On the other hand, the court noted that Sweden’s investigation into Assange had come to a halt and that the prosecutors’ failure to examine alternative avenues of investigation “is not in line with their obligation – in the interests of everyone concerned – to move the preliminary investigation forward.”

An alternative avenue of investigation previously had been proposed by Assange: interview him at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. Last month in the House of Commons the U.K. Foreign Minister, Hugo Swire, said, “These are matters for the [Swedish] prosecutor to decide on, but if she wished to travel here to question Mr Assange in the embassy in London, we would do absolutely everything to facilitate that. Indeed, we would actively welcome it.”

Assange’s attorney said the decision would be appealed to Sweden’s Supreme Court. A more likely outcome, in this blogger’s opinion, would be the Swedish prosecutor’s interrogating Assange at the Embassy in London and then determining whether criminal charges would be brought against him.

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[1] This post is based upon Crouch, Julian Assange: Swedish court rejects appeal to lift arrest warrant, Guardian (Nov. 20. 20, 2014); Dickson, Swedish appeal court upholds Assange detention order, Reuters (Nov. 20, 2014); Cowell, Swedish Court Rejects Appeal by Julian Assange, N. Y. Times (Nov. 20, 2014), ; This blog has a number of posts about Assange’s grant of diplomatic asylum by Ecuador and the legal skirmishes over whether, when and where he would be interrogated by the Swedish prosecutor.

 

 

U.S. State Department’s Report on International Religious Freedom in 2013

USDeptStateseal

On July 28, 2014, the U.S. State Department released its annual report on religious freedom around the world.[1]

 Secretary of State Kerry’s Comments

Announcing the release of the report, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said although the U.S. was “obviously far from perfect,” it was important for the U.S. to treasure freedom of religion as “a universal value. . . . The freedom to profess and practice one’s faith is the birthright of every human being . . . [and] are properly recognized under international law. The promotion of international religious freedom is a priority for President Obama and it is a priority for me as Secretary of State.” In short, “religious freedom remains an integral part of our global diplomatic engagement.”

Executive Summary of the Report

The world had the largest displacement of religious communities in recent memory. In almost every corner of the globe, millions of Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and others representing a range of faiths were forced from their homes on account of their religious beliefs. Out of fear or by force, entire neighborhoods are emptying of residents. Communities are disappearing from their traditional and historic homes and dispersing across the geographic map.” In conflict zones (Syria, Central African Republic and Burma), this mass displacement has become a pernicious norm.

All around the world, individuals were subjected to discrimination, violence and abuse, perpetrated and sanctioned violence for simply exercising their faith, identifying with a certain religion, or choosing not to believe in a higher deity at all. Countries where this was a significant problem were Pakistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Eritrea. Throughout Europe, the historical stain of anti-Semitism continued to be a fact of life.

Governments repressed religious freedom. Governments from all regions subjected members of religious groups to repressive policies, discriminatory laws, disenfranchisement, and discriminatory application of laws. These governmental actions not only infringed on freedom of religion themselves, but they also often created a permissive environment for broader human rights abuses. Restrictive policies included laws criminalizing religious activities and expression, prohibitions on conversion or proselytizing, blasphemy laws, and stringent registration requirements or discriminatory application of registration requirements for religious organizations. This was especially true in North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Sudan, China, Cuba, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Burma, Russia and Bahrain.

Governments engaged in discrimination, impunity and displacement of religious minorities. When governments choose not to combat discrimination on the basis of religion and intolerance, it breeds an environment in which intolerant and violent groups are emboldened, even to the point of physically attacking individuals on the basis of their religious beliefs. Governments in these countries failed to protect vulnerable communities and many religious minority communities were disproportionately affected, resulting in a large number of refugees and internally displaced persons. This was especially true in Syria, Sri Lanka, Egypt, Iraq, Bangladesh, Indonesia, India and Nigeria. Rising anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment in the following countries of Europe demonstrated that intolerance is not limited to countries in active conflict:Belgium, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Sweden and United Kingdom.

Religious minority communities were disproportionately affected by violence, discrimination and harassment. In many regions of the world, religious intolerance was linked to civil and economic strife and resulted in mass migration of members of religious minority communities throughout the year. In some of these areas, the outward migration of certain communities has the potential to permanently change the demographics of entire regions.

“Countries of Particular Concern”

Pursuant to the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, the Secretary of State designated the following countries as “Countries of Particular Concern” (CPC): Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Such countries “engage in or tolerate particularly severe violations of religious freedom” or “systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom, including torture, cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, prolonged detention without charges, abduction or clandestine detention of persons, or other flagrant denial of the right to life, liberty, or the security of persons based on religion.”

Turkmenistan, which is new to this State Department list, is the only one of eight countries recommended for such designation by the latest report from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. The others so recommended by the Commission are Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria, Tajikistan and Vietnam.

Ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom

Simultaneously with this report’s release, the Obama administration announced the nomination of Rabbi David Saperstein as the next ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. Rabbi Saperstein, a reform rabbi and lawyer known for his work in Washington to advance religious freedom, would be the first non-Christian to lead the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom, if confirmed by the Senate.

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[1] This post is based upon the International Religious Freedom Report for 2013 (July 28, 2014); Secretary Kerry, Remarks at Rollout of the 2013 Report on International Religious Freedom (July 28, 2014); Assistant Secretary Malinowski, Remarks on the Release of the 2013 Report on International Religious Freedom (July 28, 2014); Department of State, Fact Sheet: 2013 Report on International Religious Freedom (July 28, 2014). Earlier posts covered the international law regarding religious freedom and the State Department’s reports on the subject for 2011 and 2012.

George Edwin Brown and Jennie Olivia Johnson Brown

My maternal grandfather, George Edwin Brown, was born on May 30, 1876, in Lime Springs, Iowa. He was the son of my maternal first great-grandparents, James DeGrush Brown and Ella Francelia Dye Brown.[1]

George was employed by the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad in Ottumwa, Iowa.

Jennie & George Brown, cir. 1903
Jennie & George Brown, cir. 1903

On March 4, 1903, he married Jennie Olivia Johnson (my maternal grandmother), who was born in Ottumwa on February 28, 1881. Her parents were Sven Peter Johnson and Johanna Christina Magnusson from Sweden.

GeorgeBrownfamilyGeorge and Jennie had four children: Lloyd William Brown (my uncle) (1904-1973); Marian Frances Brown Krohnke (my mother) (1906-1992); Charles Edwin Brown (my uncle) (1913-1970); and Dorothy Mae Brown Williamson (my aunt) (1916-1996). (Photo–left to right: Lloyd, Marian, Jennie, Dorothy, George and Charles.)

George died in Ottumwa on September 29, 1931, before I was born. Jennie died in Ottumwa on December 9, 1945, when I was six years old. I have vague memories of visiting her in her home and of her warm, loving hugs.


[1] The source is Carol Willits Brown, William Brown–English Immigrant of Hatfield and Leicester, Massachusetts, and His Descendants c. 1669-1994 (Gateway Press; Baltimore, MD 1994).