Human Rights Commentaries by Mary Ann Glendon, Chair of the Commission on Unalienable Rights

A prior post reviewed the limited public record (to date) of the first meeting on October 23 of the Commission on Unalienable Rights.

To gain a better understanding of what to expect from the Commission, this blog will examine two recent commentaries on human rights by, and an interview of, the Commission’s Chair, Mary Ann Glendon, the Learned Hand Professor of Law at the Harvard Law School, the author of a major book about the development of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) [1] and a prominent Roman Catholic who was U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican in the George W. Bush Administration. The Conclusion will evaluate her comments and those made by others at the first meeting.

Reclaim Human Rights (August 2016) [2]

Glendon began this article by acknowledging that she had been a participant in the Ramsey Colloquium’s 1998 affirmation of the UDHR as “the most available discourse for cross-cultural deliberation about the dignity of the human person” and as making “possible a truly universal dialogue about our common human future.” [3] She also affirmed she was “a longtime supporter of the cautious use of rights language, and a frequent critic of its misuses.”

Nevertheless, Glendon said that a 2016 criticism of human rights by R.R. Reno, the editor of First Things, [4] caused her to “ponder whether the noble post-World War II universal human rights idea has finally been so manipulated and politicized as to justify its abandonment by men and women of good will.”

According to Glendon, by “1998, governments and human-rights organizations alike were ignoring the fact that the UDHR was constructed as an integrated document whose core fundamental rights were meant to be ‘interdependent and indivisible.’ [However, by 1998, the] sense of the interdependence among rights and the connections between rights and responsibilities was fading.” Moreover, “a host of special-interest groups [were inspired] to capture the moral force and prestige of the human-rights project for their own purposes. . . .[The] core of basic human rights that might be said to be universal was being undermined by ‘multiplying the number of interests, goods, and desires that are elevated to the status of rights.”

As a result, by 2016, she argues, “the post-World War II dream of universal human rights risks dissolving into scattered rights of personal autonomy.”

Reno’s criticism of human rights, Glendon continues, emphasizes “the way that human rights as an ideology detracts from the difficult and demanding work of politics.” This is especially true in the U.S., she says, as “judicially-created rights have displaced political judgements that could and should have been left to the ordinary processes of bargaining, education, persuasion, and voting.” This has damaged “the American democratic experiment” by making it more difficult to correct an unwise judicial decision, intensifying “the politicization of the judicial selection process,” depriving “the country of the benefits of experimentation with different solutions to difficult problems” and accelerating “the flight from politics.”

Glendon concludes by urging “church leaders and people of good will to make every effort to connect the human-rights project to an affirmation of the essential interplay between individual rights and democratic values. We should insist on the connection between rights and responsibilities. And we should foster an appreciation of the ultimate dependence of rights upon the creation of rights-respecting cultures.”

 “Renewing Human Rights” (February 2019) [5]

“When Eleanor Roosevelt and a small group of people gathered at the behest of the U.N. in early 1947 to draft the world’s first ‘international bill of rights’” (the subsequent UDHR), the “idea that some rights could be universal—applicable across all the world’s different societies—was controversial.”

“Yet in the decades that followed, the UDHR . . . successfully challenged the view that sovereignty provided an iron shield behind which states could mistreat their people without outside scrutiny.”

“But now . . . the international human rights idea is in crisis, losing support both at home and abroad. Good intentions, honest mistakes, power politics, and plain old opportunism have all played a role in a growing skepticism, and even a backlash.”

As Glendon sees it, “there were three stages” to this change: [1] a pick-and-choose attitude toward rights initiated by the two superpowers in the Cold War era [U.S. and U.S.S.R.]; [2] an over-extension of the concept once the human rights idea showed its moral force; and [3] a forgetfulness of the hard-won wisdom of the men and women who had lived through two world wars.”

“The end of the Cold War increased the influence of human rights. American predominance, Western ideological ascendancy, a series of atrocities and conflicts, and a growing role for the United Nations and other international actors spurred the rapid growth of human rights activism in the 1990s. By the 2000s, there were many human rights organizations, including specialists, activists, agencies for monitoring and enforcement, and academic journals.”

These changes brought about “an interventionist approach, backed by Western—especially American—power. . . .  The establishment of state-like institutions such as the International Criminal Court (which the United States ultimately did not endorse), and doctrines such as the ‘Responsibility to Protect,’ reflected this shift. They increased the human rights field’s ability to frame the international agenda and set global standards. . . .  This encouraged an expansion in the number of basic rights.”

“Given that individual rights were gaining ascendancy, the role of social institutions and non-­individualistic values were deemphasized. A one-size-fits-all approach triumphed over the idea of a common standard that could be brought to life in a variety of legitimate ways. The indivisibility and inter­dependence of fundamental rights were ­forgotten.”

Some states now object to “uniform methods of interpreting and implementing” human rights treaties and to “supra­national institutions. They are remote from the people whose lives they affect. They lack public scrutiny and accountability, are susceptible to lobbying and political influence, and have no internal checks and balances.”

According to Glendon, the following “four major principles that the UDHR’s framers followed [in 1947-48] can reinvigorate the human rights idea in our own time:”

  • Modesty concerning universality. “The framers wisely confined themselves to a small set of principles so basic that no country or group would openly reject them. This was essential not only in order to gain broad political support within the U.N., but also to ensure that the Declaration would have deep and long-lasting support across vastly different cultures, belief systems, and political ideologies.”
  • Flexible universalism.” The UDHR framers “understood that there would always be different ways of applying human rights to different social and political contexts, and that each country’s circumstances would affect how it would fulfill its requirements.” For example, . . . [UDHR’s] Article 22 provides: ‘Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international cooperation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.’ (Emphasis added.) Another example is Article 14, which states, ‘Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution,’ but is silent on how that right should be protected.
  • Interdependence of basic rights.” The UDHR makes it clear “that everyone’s rights depend on respect for the rights of others, on the rule of law, and on a healthy civil society. . . . The framers of the [UDHR] did not expect uniform management of tensions or conflicts between rights. . . . [and instead] assumed that communities must balance the weight of claims of one right versus another before determining the best course of action.” Only a few rights do not allow such variation: “protections for freedom of religion and conscience” as well as “prohibitions of torture, enslavement, degrading punishment, . . .retroactive penal measures, and other grave violations of human dignity.”
  • “Subsidiarity.” Emphasis on “the primacy of the lowest level of implementation that can do the job, reserving national or international actors for situations where smaller entitles are incapable.” This principle, as stated in the UDHR’s Proclamation, also calls on “every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms.”

Glendon concludes by arguing for a new human rights goal: “the systematic elimination of a narrow set of evils for which a broad consensus exists across all societies. This would at least include “protections against genocide; slavery; torture; cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment; retroactive penal measures; deportation or forcible transfer of population; discrimination based on race, color, sex, language, religion, nationality, or social origin; and protection for freedom of conscience and religion.”

Glendon Interview [6]

On August 3, 2019, Glendon was interviewed by Jack Goldsmith, another Harvard Law School professor of international law. Here are her comments that were not already expressed in the above articles.

She said there was confusion and crisis in human rights with roughly half of the world’s population without any rights and exasperated by disappointing performance of international human rights institutions.

Socrates said that definition of terms was the beginning of wisdom, and this is especially important since human rights are now important parts of U.S. foreign policy.

The concept of “unalienable rights,” which the printer of the original Declaration of Independence substituted for Thomas Jefferson’s draft’s use of “inalienable,” has evolved with the U.S. Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments to the Constitution) and the words of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr.

While the U.S. Declaration of Independence talked about “laws of nature” or pre-political rights, the UDHR is grounded in the world’s religious and philosophical traditions.

Glendon emphasized the civil and political rights in the UDHR were interdependent with economic and social rights and pointed to the New Deal and the preambles of many U.S. statutes on economic and social issues as expressing this interdependence. This also is stated in Article 22 of the UDHR: ‘Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.’” (Emphasis added.) This provision rejected the Soviet Union’s position that the state was solely responsible for such rights with Eleanor Roosevelt saying during the deliberations over the UDHR that no one had figured out how to do that without loss of freedom.

Another emphasis of Glendon was on the UDHR Proclamation’s words: ‘every individual and every organ of society, Keeping the [UDHR] constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of [U.N.] Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction.” Or as Judge Learned Hand said, ‘The spirit of liberty will die if not in the hearts of the people.’

Reactions

 Glendon’s primary focus in these two articles and interview is the UDHR, which is mentioned as one of two  guiding authorities for the Commission on Unalienable Rights, but Glendon has less to say about the U.S. Declaration of Independence, which is the other guiding authority for this Commission.

We all should seek to follow her emphasizing the UDHR’s interdependency of civil and political rights with economic and social rights and the importance of every individual and every organ of society striving by teaching and education to promote respect for human rights and freedoms.

The UDHR indeed is an important international human rights instrument. But it is a declaration adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 1948. It does not by itself establish legal obligations on any nation state or other person.

In any event, Glendon says nothing about another provision of the UDHR’s Proclamation: “every individual and every organ of society , keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive . . . by progressive measures, national and international, to secure [these rights and freedoms] universal and effective recognition and observance.” (Emphasis added.) In other words, the UDHR itself contemplated that there should be additional measures, including national legislation and international treaties, to secure the rights and freedoms articulated in the UDHR and, by implication, that these other measures will include “rights” language. Moreover, under the principle of “flexible universalism,” a developed and wealthy country like the U.S. could well find ways to secure the rights mentioned in the UDHR that are more complex than those in other countries.

A similar principle for the Commission exists in the U.S. Declaration of Independence.  It says, as the Commission emphasizes, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these, are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” But the very next sentence of the U.S. Declaration says, but the Glendon and the Commission ignore, “That, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” (Emphasis added.) In other words, the U.S. Declaration contemplates that the not yet established U.S. government subsequently will enact statutes that protect the unalienable rights, only three of which are specifically mentioned in the Declaration.[7] These are not “ad hoc” rights as Secretary Pompeo likes to say.

As a result, after the 1948 adoption of the UDHR, various U.N. organizations have drafted and adopted many international human rights treaties,[8] and the U.S. federal and state governments have adopted many human rights statutes and regulations.

This obvious point is surprisingly overlooked by Glendon when she lauds UDHR’s Article 14 on the right to asylum as an example of flexible universalism because it does not say how that right should be protected. But the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees that entered into force on April 22, 1954, defines”refugee” and specifies many conditions for that protection while limiting reservations under Article 42. Presumably she is not arguing that this treaty was a mistake.

Indeed, we should all celebrate, not complain as Secretary Pompeo likes to do, that there has been such proliferation or in Glendon’s words, “too much contemporary emphasis on ‘rights’ language. These arguments by Pompeo and Glendon can be seen as underhanded ways to cut back or eliminate rights that they do not like, which I assume would include abortion and LGBQ rights. Such rights constantly are criticized by her church (Roman Catholic) and by the Commission’s creator, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, and others in the State Department.[9]

Criticism of Glendon’s apparent adherence to traditional Roman Catholic teachings on some of these issues comes from her successor as U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican in the Obama Administration, Miguel Diaz, along with 128 Catholic activists and leaders, in a letter opposing the Commission. [10] They said, “Our faith and our commitment to the principles of democracy require us to view every person on earth as a full human being. We staunchly support the fundamental human rights of all people and proudly carry on the long tradition in our country of advocating for expanding human rights around the world. Our concern is that this Commission will undermine these goals by promoting a vision of humanity that is conditional, limiting, and based on a very narrow religious perspective that is inconsistent with the beliefs and practices of billions in this country and around the world. Our faith and our commitment to the principles of democracy require us to view every person on earth as a full human being. We staunchly support the fundamental human rights of all people and proudly carry on the long tradition in our country of advocating for expanding human rights around the world,” they write. “Our concern is that this Commission will undermine these goals by promoting a vision of humanity that is conditional, limiting, and based on a very narrow religious perspective that is inconsistent with the beliefs and practices of billions in this country and around the world. Of most urgent concern is that the composition of the Commission indicates that it will lead our State Department to adopt policies that will harm people who are already vulnerable, especially poor women, children, LGBTI people, immigrants, refugees, and those in need of reproductive health services. This is being done “in the name of a very partial version of Christianity that is being promoted by the current Administration.” “All human beings,” however, “have been created in God’s image and all have been endowed by their Creator with the fundamental right to Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. No person speaking in the name of government or in the name of God can do so to undermine or to deny this right.”

Nor does Glendon discuss how to resolve conflicts among rights. For example, the U.S. Declaration’s mention of “life” as one of the “unalienable rights” is taken by some, and probably Glendon, as a basis for arguing there should be no right to an abortion. But an abortion may be necessary to protect an expectant woman’s right to “life” or her “pursuit of happiness.”  How are those conflicts resolved? That is why we have federal and state and international courts and agencies to resolve these conflicts or disputes.

The previously cited “four major principles” of the UDHR are worthy of remembering and guiding future human rights, internationally and domestically.

Glendon, however, fails to acknowledge the continued use of the “flexible universalism” principle in human rights treaties that allow for their ratification by nation states with reservations for at least some of the treaty’s provisions. And, of course, a state may chose not to ratify a treaty and thereby not be bound by any of its provisions. [11] Moreover, there are mechanisms for other states and international agencies to address these reservations and non-ratifications. For example, in the U.H. Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review process, the Council and other states may, and do, make recommendations for states to withdraw reservations or ratify certain treaties. The same was done by the Council’s predecessor, the U.N. Human Rights Committee.[12]

The words of Professor Michael McConnell from the Commission’s first meeting should also be remembered in this evaluation of its ongoing work. He warned that the term “‘unalienable rights,’ which comes to us from our country’s protestant reform traditions, has never had a common or precise definition. The phrase identifies a philosophical concept, rather than a concrete set of rights.  And while the concept often prioritizes freedom of religion, McConnell cautioned that our founders were ultimately more concerned with freedom of conscience, which includes but is not limited to a narrow understanding of religious freedom.”

“McConnell also recognized the implicit failures of this philosophical approach.  While the term ‘unalienable rights’ makes for inspirational prose, the philosophical concept behind it embraced our country’s original sin of slavery and denied women full standing in society. Concepts of equal protection could not, and did not, exist at this time, under this philosophical tradition.”

Andrea Schmitt of the Center for American Progress who attended  the Commission’s first meeting also had words of wisdom for the Commission. She said, “It is simply wrong-headed and ultimately self-defeating to create an artificial human rights hierarchy — one that strips away the universality of human rights and puts a limited number of political and religious rights above all others.  Indeed, this enterprise stands to harm religious freedom itself, as it gives philosophical justification to theocratic governments and religious majority populations who are, by far, the leading persecutors of religious minorities around the world.”

We all should thank Professor Glendon for her expertise and willingness to serve as Chair of the Commission. Those of us interested in international human rights need to carefully follow the Commission’s deliberations and eventual reports and express our agreements and disagreements with respect and reasoned arguments.

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[1] Glendon, A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Random House 2001); The Importance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, dwkcommentaries.com (July 11, 2019).

[2] Glendon, Reclaim Human Rights, First Things (Aug. 2016).

[3] The Ramsey Colloquium apparently published reflections about early Christianity’s treatment of homosexuality. (Graeser, The Ramsey Colloquium and Other First Things Resources, Mars Hill Audio (June 29, 2001).

[4] Reno, Against Human Rights, First Things (May 2016). Reno is a former professor of theology and ethics at Creighton University, a Jesuit institution until 2010 when he became the editor of First Things. In 2004 at age 45 he left the Episcopal Church to join the Roman Catholic Church and  describes himself as a theological and political conservative. First Things, which describes itself as“America’s most influential journal of religion and public life,” is published by the Institute on Religion and Public Life, an interreligious, nonpartisan research and educational 501(c)(3) organization. The Institute was founded in 1989 by Richard John Neuhaus and his colleagues to confront the ideology of secularism, which insists that the public square must be ‘naked,’ and that faith has no place in shaping the public conversation or in shaping public policy.” The Institute’s mission is to articulate a governing consensus that supports: a religiously pluralistic society that defends human dignity from conception to natural death; a democratic, constitutionally ordered form of government supported by a religiously and morally serious culture; a vision of freedom that encourages a culture of personal and communal responsibility; and loyalty to the Western tradition that provides a basis for responsible global citizenship.”

[5]  Glendon & Kaplan, Renewing Human Rights, First Things (Feb. 2019) The co-author, Seth D. Kaplan, is a professorial lecturer at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at John Hopkins University. He is a consultant to organizations such as the World Bank, USAID, State Department, United Nations and African Development Bank.

[6] Howell, The Lawfare Podcast: Mary Ann Glendon on Unalienable Rights, Lawfare (Aug. 3, 2019).

[7] See The U.S. Declaration of Independence’s Relationship to the U.S. Constitution and Statutes, dwkcommentaries.com (July 5, 2019).

[8] As of 2009, there were at least the following significant multilateral human rights treaties: (1) U.N. Charter; (2) International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; (3) First Optional Covenant to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; (4) Covenant on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide; (5) Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees; (6) Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees; (7) International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination; (8) Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women; (9) Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment; (10) Convention on the Rights of the Child; (11) Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, aiming at the elimination of the death penalty; (12) International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families; (13) Statute of the International Court; and (14) International Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights and Dignity of Persons with Disabilities. (Weissbrodt, Ni Aoláin, Fitzpatrick & Newman, International Human Rights: Law, Policy, and Process at 33-35 (Lexis/Nexis 4th edition 2009).)

[9] See, e.g.,  U.S. Opposition to “Abortion” and “Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights” at U.N. High-Level Meeting, dwkcommentaries.com (Sept. 25, 2019).

[10] White, Former U.S. envoy to Vatican opposes new commission headed by predecessor, Crux (Jul. 23, 2019).

[11] Under international law, “A State may, when signing, ratifying, accepting, approving, or acceding to a treaty, formulate a reservation unless (a) the reservation is prohibited by a treaty; (b) the treaty provides that only specified reservations, which do not include the reservation  in question, may be made; or (c) in cases not falling under sub-paragraphs (a) or (b), the reservation is incompatible with the object and purpose of the treaty.” (Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, arts. 19 (1980); id. Arts. 2(1) (d),20, 21, 22 )  See also,e.g., these posts to dwkcommentaries.com: Multilateral Treaties Signed, But Not Ratified, by the U.S., dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 12, 2013); Multilateral Human Rights Treaties That Have Not Been Signed and Ratified by the U.S., dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 16, 2013).

[12] See, e.g., these posts to dwkcommentaries.com: U.H. Human Rights Committee’s Review of U.S. Human Rights (April 19, 2014); U.N. Human Rights Committee’s Hearings About U.S. Human Rights (April 21, 2014); U.N. Human Rights Committee‘s Concluding Observations on U.S. Human Rights (April 24, 2014); Cameroon’s Human Rights Record Being Subjected to Universal Periodic Review by U.N. Human Rights Council: Background (June 12, 2018); Cameroon’s Human Rights Record Being Subjected to Universal Periodic Review by U.N. Human Rights Council: The Pre-Hearing Papers (June 12, 2018); Cameroon’s Human Rights Record Being Subjected to Universal Periodic Review by U.N. Human Rights Council: The UPR Hearing (June 16, 2018); U.N. Human Rights Council’s Final Consideration of Cameroon’s Universal Periodic Review (Sept. 20, 2018).

 

 

 

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.

 

The Mission of Morocco’s Ministry of Endowments and Islamic Affairs

The mission of Morocco’s Ministry of Endowments and Islamic Affairs was explicated in a September 2014 speech by its Minister, Ahmed Toufiq, to an Open Briefing by the U.N. Security Council’s Counter-Terrorism Committee.[1] To the right is his photograph.

Two other representatives of the Moroccan government made more general statements at the briefing: H.E. Mr. Nasser Bourita, Secretary-General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of Morocco; and Mr. Yassine Mansouri, Director General of the Directorate General of Studies and Documentation of the Kingdom of Morocco.[2]

This briefing was opened by the Committee’s Chair, Ambassador Raimonda Murmokaitë, the Permanent Representative of Lithuania to the U.N., who stated that the theme of this open briefing– countering incitement to commit terrorist acts motivated by extremism and intolerance–was prompted by the Committee’s 2013 visit to Morocco and identifying its national strategy to promote dialogue among civilizations as a good practice to be shared among other States. The Chair noted, “Whether in developing or developed States, religious leaders can play a pivotal role in creating an environment of peaceful coexistence. By promoting intra-religious and interreligious reflection and dialogue, governments can help build trust within societies and within public institutions.”

Minister Ahmed Toufiq’s Statement[3]

Minister Toufiq started with the assertion that many Islamic terrorist groups seek to take advantage of the following religious beliefs of most observant Muslims: (1) “religion gives meaning to life;” (2) “some events that have taken place in recent history are ambiguous and tend to disturb the conscience that believes in the ideal values of religion;” (3) “justice at all levels is a central value in religion;” and (4) “religion encompasses all the bases of life and . . . regulates [life] for both individuals and community.”

At the same time, he said, observant Muslims can be vulnerable to some Islamic terrorists’ messages due to (a) “a belief that “political legitimacy [is based upon a] commitment to the fundamentals of religion;” (2) Islamic terrorists’ “interpretation of [Islamic religious] texts in the absence of a respectable qualified [Islamic] religious authority;” and (3) the “absence of or shortcomings in [Islamic] religious leadership and supervision or religious services.”

In these historical circumstances, Morocco’s King Mohammed VI as the country’s Commander of the Faithful has pursued policies to prevent terrorism: adopting reforms and actions in accordance with religious fundamentals (defending religion, protecting life, guarding against harmful ideologies, preserving property and defending honor and dignity); and implementing reforms to enhance security, justice and living conditions and thereby consolidate solidarity and combat social marginalization and exclusion. These measures include the following:

  • Adherence to the Ash’ari doctrine that does not excommunicate people or impose death sentences for transgressing Devine Decrees;[4]
  • Adherence to the Maliki school of jurisprudence that encompasses a “rich variety of methods to derive rulings from their sources;” that has “flexibility in integrating local cultural practices within the sphere of Islamic Law;” that recognizes the “importance [of] . . . public interest [including] . . . a fatwa (ruling) . . . that the laws that are promulgated in Morocco all have religious legitimacy.”[5]
  • “Preservation of the spiritual dimension of Islam known for its mysticism (Sufism). . . [that calls] the soul to account as a means to reach ethical perfection . . . . [that raises] the awareness of the sanctity of the Other, [that] curbs unhealthy enthusiasm for racial and tribal belonging and [that] sets up institutions that provide assistance, protection, education and development.”[6]

The Commander of the Faithful also has established the High Council for Religious Affairs as a modernization of Morocco’s long-standing Order of religious scholars to “implement the fundamentals of religion, especially in mosques, the intellectual enhancement of the caretakers of religion and of the general public, which would definitely curb negative phenomena such as terrorism.” They do so “in conformity with the great principle known in Islam as ‘enjoining good and forbidding evil.’”

The High Council, therefore, takes “charge of issuing fatwas pertaining to political life and social activity, while people’s statements on religion remain mere opinions whose free expression is guaranteed so long as [they] do not violate the law.” The Council thereby has “demonstrated through legal proof . . . that there is no cogent proof for terrorism in religion.”

The Commander of the Faithful also has substantially increased the budget allocated to religious services, including “holding in-service training of imams under the supervision of the legal scholars; training young imams from among university graduates; [and] training spiritual guides from among female university graduates . . . to provide guidance to women and men in mosques, . . . schools, hospitals and prisons.”[7]

Conclusion

The above comments about Islam in Morocco were placed in broader context by the following statement in the remarkable website “Morocco on the Move” maintained by the Moroccan American Center, a group of three U.S. NGOs:

  • “Morocco has a long history of religious diversity and tolerance. Freedom of worship is guaranteed by Morocco’s Constitution, and in contrast to other parts of North Africa or even Europe, Morocco is internationally recognized for peaceful coexistence among the country’s Muslims, Jews, and Christians.”
  • “Morocco protected its Jewish citizens from anti-Semitic laws during World War II, and in 2009, King Mohammed [VI] became the first Arab leader to denounce the Holocaust, calling it ‘one of the most tragic chapters of modern history.’ Morocco has a vibrant Jewish community, with thriving synagogues and schools. Members of the Jewish community have played and continue to play key roles in Moroccan political life, such as serving as a senior royal advisor, an ambassador-at-large, and parliamentary candidates.”

Although, as noted in a prior post, the U.N. Human Rights Committee has pointed out weaknesses in Morocco’s freedom of religion, as a non-Moroccan and a non-Muslim, I am impressed by Morocco’s intelligent analysis of the threat posed by terrorists, especially from ISIS and Al Qaeda, Morocco’s crafting of responses to emphasize the true peacefulness of Islam and the leadership of King Mohammed VI. I also especially solicit corrections and elaborations of the above account.

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[1] Morocco’s involvement with the U.N. Security Council’s Counter-Terrorism Committee and other multilateral and bilateral efforts to combat terrorism was discussed in a prior post. Another such multilateral effort was its July 2015 hosting of the inaugural conference of the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Centre (UNCCT) – Global Counterterrorism Forum (GCTF) Border Security Initiative (BSI). (U.N. Counter-Terrorism Centre, Inaugural Conference of the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Centre-Global Counterterrorism Forum Border Security Initiative (July 2015).

[2] Talking Points of Ambassador Nasser Bourita (Sept. 30, 2014); Director General Mansouri, Speech to U.N. Security Council Counter Terrorism Committee (Sept. 30, 2014).

[3] Toufiq, Speech at U.N. Security Council’s Counter-Terrorism Committee (Sept. 20, 2014).

[4] According to Wikipedia, Ash’ari theology is an early theological and orthodox school of Sunni Islam that holds that interpreting the Quran and the Hadith should keep developing with the aid of older interpretations. While it depends on rationalism, it also holds that the unique nature and attributes of Allah cannot be fully understood by human reasoning and the senses.

[5] According to Wikipedia, Maliki is one of four major schools of religious law within Sunni Islam. Its sources for Islamic law (Sharia) are hierarchically prioritized as follows: Quran and then trustworthy Hadiths (sayings, customs and actions of Muhammad); if these sources were ambiguous on an issue, then `Amal (customs and practices of the people of Medina), followed by consensus of the Sahabah (the companions of Muhammad), then individual’s opinion from the Sahabah, Qiyas (analogy), Istislah (interest and welfare of Islam and Muslims), and finally Urf (custom of people throughout the Muslim world if it did not contradict the hierarchically higher sources of Sharia).

[6] According to Wikipedia, Sufism believes that it is possible to draw closer to God and to more fully embrace the divine presence in this life. The chief aim of all Sufis is to seek the pleasing of God by working to restore within themselves the primordial state of human nature (fitra) as described in the Quran. In this state nothing one does defies Allah, and all is undertaken with the single motivation of love (ishq).

[7] In May 2014, King Mohammed VI launched the Mohammed VI Institute for the Training of Imams, Morchidines, and Morchidates in Rabat, which will welcome students from Morocco, Africa, and the Middle East to promote religious moderation and tolerance in the region.

 

 

 

U.S. State Department’s Report on Moroccan Religious Freedom in 2016

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.

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[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.

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[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.