January Human Rights News Roundup

human rights news united statesUnited States Edition

Amnesty International’s purview has always been international human rights, and although our work in that area is very important, this month’s human rights news roundup focuses on events happening in the United States. It’s a new year, with a new Congress and a new opportunity to make changes domestically. Here’s the latest going on within our borders:

Advances in Reproductive Health Since Roe v. Wade – Boston Globe – Although Amnesty International doesn’t focus on reproductive rights, it’s an important component of women’s rights both at home and abroad. Even with the great strides we made over the past 40 years, we’ve also taken many steps backward, such as the fact that there’s no federal funding for abortion policies. This article focuses specifically on abortion policy in Massachusetts, showcasing that there’s still a lot of resistance toward abortion.

Senators Push Immigration Plan – Reuters – Immigration reform is badly needed in this country, and it looks like there’s finally movement in this area. The plan, put forward by a bipartisan group of senators, will allow illegal immigrants to register with the government and be able to work here after paying a small fine. This plan doesn’t really provide any permanent legal status, and doesn’t address border enforcement. President Obama also planned to make immigration reform a priority this term, especially since it didn’t get addressed over the last four years.

Dear Congress: Let’s Get Moving Together! Reauthorize VAWA Now – Amnesty International Blog – Great news! The Senate and the House of Representatives have jointly announced the reintroduction of the reauthorization the Violence Against Women Act. We really hope this goes through, and has the additional provisions to protect immigrant women, LGBT individuals, and Native American and Alaskan women. Now’s a good time to take action and to encourage Congress to reauthorize VAWA.

Apple Pledges to Eradicate Child Labor from Technology Supply Industry – The Guardian – A plus one for corporate accountability and responsibility! Apple recently cut off ties with its manufacturer after finding over 70 cases of underage workers and falsified documents. The company is also making every effort to boost transparency in its supply chain and to make sure its manufacturers are providing good working conditions and not using child labor. It’s companies as big and powerful as Apple that can really make a difference on these issues.

Dear Obama: Pivoting to Asia Doesn’t Mean Abandoning Human Rights – The Atlantic – This article particularly addresses issues in Myanmar, which has been a focus of our chapter for years and years. Even though the country has made significant improvements, there are still a war insurgents in the Kachin state, and its unclear whether those soldiers are acting independently or on behalf of the government. Not to mention, there are still human rights violations in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand. We hope President Obama makes a clear stance on these issues, and ensure addresses these issues as the US builds relationships with the continent.

4 Recent Human Rights Issues in Asia

human rights issues asia

Recent events in Asia have caused new awareness of some of the biggest human rights issues currently impacting people throughout the continent.

4) Gender-based Discrimination

Recently highlighted throughout the world by the gang-rape and subsequent death of a New Delhi medical student, views on gender and associated discrimination continue to be a problem not just in India, but throughout the Asian region. Part of the problem is local attitudes and beliefs, such as those who believe that rapes are the fault of the victims for being “provocative” or “encouraging”. This form of thinking requires a deliberate avoidance of the fact that rape, by definition, cannot be performed on someone who is encouraging it to happen. However, while sexual assaults are currently at the forefront of many discussions, they are not the only element of gender-based discrimination.

Some countries, such as Bangladesh, have recently been noted as having laws that are exceptionally biased when it comes to issues such as marriage and divorce; women are often left with nothing after a divorce, nor do they have any say in how or when such a thing occurs, which has given rise to situations where men may marry and divorce several women in succession in order to legally acquire their property and savings. In some cases, it may even be possible to effectively make a living and avoid working, which provides further incentives for complete abuse of the legal systems of these countries. Protection and enforcement of current laws for these situations tends to be sporadic at best.

3) Human Trafficking

Women and children are the majority of victims in human trafficking throughout Asia, but not the only ones. Alongside the many cases of sexual exploitation that plague the entire trade, many victims are not only tricked into signing up for something, but prevented from leaving an area filled with unsafe (and often lethal) working conditions. Some victims may be forced into military service with terrorist groups or even local governments, particularly in areas closer to the Middle East where rulers may be more concerned about the stability of their own rules than in watching to be sure of human rights.

2) Refugees and Asylum-seekers

On Jan. 1st, a group of probable refugees from Burma were intercepted by officials working for the Thai government as they tried to sail away from a conflict-plagued region (see below). While the Thai Navy has been noted as providing food and water to refugees, this is typically with the condition that the refugees continue sailing to a location such as Malaysia. Unfortunately, in this case, the boat was found to be unsafe and was brought ashore, where the government’s policy of deporting refugees who touch land back to Burma was enforced. Some smugglers are willing to bring those who can pay to Malaysia, but those who cannot afford the prices (typically very high) are often forced into human trafficking and all the associated troubles.

1) Laws of War

Alongside the potential for soldiers to be forced to fight against their will, some governments have taken actions that are explicitly in violation of international agreements on appropriate behavior in peacetime. Highlighting these problems is the Burmese army, which recently launched indiscriminate attacks into a civilian area as opposed to specifically targeting a military objective. The conflict in question was renewed in 2011 after a calm period of roughly 17 years. Unfortunately for civilians in the region, the target of the Burmese Government (known as the Kachin Independence Army) has been known to use child soldiers, while the Burmese Army does not appear to be listening to the government. This has created a situation in which multiple sides in a conflict are violating human rights with terrible consequences for those trapped in the middle; children can very well be ripped from their homes, then eliminated by their own government, and the conflict does not appear to be approaching a conclusion in the near future.

One of the many problems with human rights violations is the way that one violation can soon lead to another; a refugee could very well end up being trafficked back into the country they’re trying to escape, then sold to a rebellious army group and used as a human shield until they are killed by a government that makes no distinction among its targets. Solving these problems often requires more effort than trying to tackle one at a time, and a better understanding of current issues within each country can make a significant difference in helping to restore human rights as quickly as possible.

First Letter Writing Meeting of the New Year

letter writing meeting

Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day!

If you want to start the year right with your human rights activism, then the best way to do that is to attend the first letter writing meeting of the new year! We will have some special cases on China as a follow-up to Bob’s wonderful presentation at our business meeting, plus other cases on all sorts of issues if China isn’t of interest to you.

As usual, the meeting starts at 7 p.m. at Hartford Coffee Company. Please join us if you can, even if it’s just to write one letter. Attendance has been down the past few months because of the holidays, and we hope people decide to make 2013 the year to make a difference and to get involved.

Tip: It helps if you bring address labels to the meeting, as you will be writing several letters, not just one. It’s not only easier, but some of these foreign addresses are lengthy, and writing out your own address on the front can make the envelope look a little crowded. Just a suggestion.

Why Amnesty International Supports the Reggie Clemons Case

Reggie ClemonsAmnesty International opposes the death penalty in all cases without exception regardless of the nature of the crime, the characteristics of the offender, or the method used by the state to kill the prisoner. The organization considers the death penalty “the ultimate, irreversible denial of human rights.” Even with its clear opposition to capital punishment, some have questioned why Amnesty International has chosen Reginald Clemons as its number one death penalty case to work on. The primary reason is that Clemons’ case has several legal and judicial improprieties associated with the case, some of which bear resemblance to the Troy Davis case (who was executed in September 2011).

No Physical Evidence

There was no physical evidence introduced against Clemons linking him to the crime, no undisputed confession on his part, and no eyewitness testimony from anyone who was neither a co-defendant nor a former suspect.

Troy Davis’ case also had no physical evidence. The murder weapon was never found, and no evidence was presented that proved Davis has a connection with the victim in any way.

Convicted Based on Witness Testimony

Not only was Clemons convicted on the basis of witness testimony, but all the witnesses who testified were either former suspects or co-defendants.

Troy Davis was also convicted based on witness testimony, and all but two of those witnesses ended up contradicting or recanting their testimony, citing police coercion.

Witness Had Been a Former Suspect

Thomas Cummins, who testified at Clemons’ trial, was formally arrested after his interrogation on 5 April 1991 and was held in custody to face charges of first-degree murder. However, he was released two or three days later, after Marlin Gray, Reginald Clemons, Antonio Richardson and Daniel Winfrey were arrested. Under further interrogation after his arrest, Cummins implicated himself in the deaths of his cousins, apparently stating that he had tried to have sex with Julie Kerry, which had led to an argument during which he had pushed her off the bridge. He then apparently told the police that he thought Robin Kerry had either jumped off the bridge to try to save her sister or that he himself had pushed her off.

One of the two witnesses who has not recanted his testimony in the Troy Davis case is Sylvester “Red” Coles — the principle alternative suspect, according to the defense, against whom there is new evidence implicating him as the gunman. Nine individuals signed affidavits implicating Sylvester Coles.

Alleged Police Coercion

Clemons alleges that he confessed under the pressure of police brutality to raping one of the victims. Witnesses attest to Clemons’ face being swollen after his interrogation and his arraigning judge sent him to the emergency room. He subsequently retracted his confession. Two other suspects independently alleged mistreatment by the police. Thomas Cummins, a cousin of the victims who testified against Clemons at trial, had at one point also confessed under police pressure. Cummins filed a police brutality lawsuit, resulting in a settlement from the city. Clemons’ lawyers tried to get his confession thrown out on the basis of the police brutality, but the judge presiding ruled that there was an absence of credible evidence “to show how he got those injuries”.

Inadequate Legal Representation

Clemons’ lawyer was later suspended from practicing law following numerous complaints. His co-counsel had a full-time job in another state when she represented Clemons. Another lawyer hired by Clemons’ mother to assist in the case said that as the trial loomed, it was clear the two trial lawyers had not done the necessary preparation. Upon Clemons’ arrest, his mother was told that her son did not need a lawyer and Clemons was denied access to a lawyer while being interrogated.

Is Clemons Innocent?

Innocence isn’t clear in this case, but Amnesty International does not declare Clemons innocent or guilty, even if some of our partner organizations may do so. However, it is because the Clemons case has many of the same legal improprieties that were prominent in Troy Davis’ case that Amnesty International is putting this case front and center for its death penalty efforts. We don’t need another Troy Davis, and whether or not someone is guilty or innocent shouldn’t make a difference in whether or not the death penalty is just or unjust. We shouldn’t execute someone who did not receive a fair trial, whether or not the person did it. We also shouldn’t let an execution force us to find the truth, or wait for one to learn the truth.

If interested in helping the St. Louis chapter support Reggie Clemons, then we will be marching in the Martin Luther King Jr. March this Monday. Dr. King was a staunch opponent of the death penalty, and we should continue his legacy by continuing to advocate for Clemons. We will be meeting at 10 a.m. at the Old Courthouse in downtown St. Louis. Look for the Reggie Clemons campaign banner and please wear a green shirt or Justice for Reggie shirt, if you have one.

What’s the Veolia Contract Got to Do with Human Rights?

Dump VeoliaAs you may or may not be aware, there’s been a lot of hullabaloo lately about a possible contract between the St. Louis Water Division and French utility service company Veolia. The St. Louis Palestine Solidarity Committee started the buzz almost a month ago, and only in the past week as the issue gained local prominence and media attention.

We don’t typically cover local issues at Amnesty International, even though Reggie Clemons is a clear exception. However, the buzz behind this issue, and its importance to some members of our chapter, has prompted this quick analysis of the human rights aspect of government contract on water service consultancy. For additional background on the issue, the Riverfront Times has been doing a great job following the story from the beginning.

What’s the Problem?

The issue with Veolia, according to the PSC, is that Veolia has a horrible record when it comes to labor practices, public resource management, environmental standards, and profiting from Israel’s occupation. It doesn’t sound great, but it also doesn’t

The Human Rights Involved

These human rights come from Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the document used as the international standard on human rights. The rights involved in this issue include:

Article 23.1 – Everyone has a right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favorable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.

Article 25.1 – Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and their right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

To translate into simpler terms, the Veolia contract poses a threat to human rights in St. Louis when you consider Veolia’s record of labor practices, which means that this contract doesn’t necessarily guarantee favorable conditions of work and protection against unemployment (despite Mayor Francis Slay’s reassurances of zero layoffs). The Veolia contract poses a threat in that our quality of water would suffer, which would violate the right to a standard of living adequate for health and well-being. Although the violations aren’t guaranteed, we shouldn’t wait until they happen (or any human rights violation happens) before we take action to prevent them from happening. This article from the Missouri Coalition for the Environment does a great job outline the environmental and labor problems associated with the company.

Veolia in Israel

In Israel/Palestine, Veolia is involved in a light rail linking illegal Israeli settlements with cities in Israel; operates bus lines through the occupied West Bank on roads that are off-limits to the Palestinians; operates a landfill that dumps Israeli waste on Palestinian land; and operates a waste-water treatment plant in an illegal settlement. All this is in clear violation of international law. Global Exchange has further, and more specific, information regarding Veolia’s involvement in the Israel/Palestine conflict.

What to Do

There’s been lots of recent activity on this because today, the contract was supposed to be on the agenda, but it was removed yesterday afternoon. However, Mayor Slay can put it on the agenda at the last minute (which he did in the December meeting that originally confirmed the contract), where the city will likely vote on the contract if it is put back on the agenda. To protect human rights in the City of St. Louis, please attend today’s meeting! Here are the details:

Meet in the City Hall Rotunda at 1 p.m. for orientation and preparation. If you get there late, you can enter the meeting in Room 200 of City Hall (1200 Market Street) at 2 p.m.

For the latest information, please stay up-to-date by following the St. Louis Dump Veolia Facebook page.

Sample Immigrant Rights Letter

immigrant rights

Immigrant rights are an issue around the world, not just in the US.

Continuing our previous work with sample urgent action letters, this time we have one regarding immigrant and migrant rights, specifically in Mexico. This particular case involves folks at a migrant shelter who have been subject to threats and to information theft. We are writing a letter to urge the government to grant the shelter protection as well as to investigate the threats and the theft cases. Please send a letter to the address below, using the sample letter as an example of what you should write to the governor:

Governor of Coahuila State
Rubén Moreira Valdez
Palacio de Gobierno Piso 1, Zona Centro, Saltillo, Coahuila C.P. 25000

Dear Governor,

I am writing in concern for the BELEN MIGRANTS SHELTER, which has been subjected to threats and to information theft over the past few months. I demand that you and the authorities provide effective protection to members of the shelter in accordance to their wishes.

I also call on authorities to carry out a full, prompt and impartial investigation regarding the information theft events and telephone threat received by members of BELEN  MIGRANTS SHELTER, and to carry out an effective protection program as stipulated in the precautionary measures granted by the Inter American Commission of Human Rights.


Your Name

For additional sample letters, check out our examples on the death penalty and for a prisoner of conscience, as well as our write-a-thon letter examples:

And Our Next Book Club Reading Is…

Half the SkyHalf the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide

Our next book club reading for the Amnesty chapter is a book that has inspired many across the country, and continues to inspire (the book now has an accompanying documentary, a Facebook game, and a whole movement dedicated to making a difference on the issue of women’s rights). One of the co-authors, Sheryl WuDunn, recently spoke at Saint Louis University on this issue, giving the book a local tie. Women’s rights also remains a pressing issue, despite how far we’ve come in our country and around the world.

We don’t have any specific dates yet, but start reading today, because you’ll have wished that you started reading this book sooner. We also plan to watch the documentary that accompanies, but we don’t have a date for that either. But, start reading! The book is about 300 pages, and we did have issue with our last book club reading that some were not able to finish the book in time. So, please don’t wait until we announce dates for the discussion and the documentary to start reading. And no, you can’t exactly watch the movie instead of reading the book. Although they cover similar topics, the stories featured in the movie aren’t featured in the book.

Human Rights 101: What You Need to Know

human rights 101Amnesty International is a human rights organization, fighting injustice and promoting human rights all around the world. But, what exactly are human rights? What is Amnesty International and its members specifically advocating for when they are promoting awareness, writing letters, and collecting signatures for petitions? We’re going to answer those questions, illustrating what human rights are and what everybody ought to know about them.

Human Rights Definition

Human rights are defined as, “the rights that one has simply because one is a human being, are held equally and inalienably by all human beings. They are social and political guarantees necessary to protect individuals from the standard threats to human dignity posed by the modern state and modern markets.”

Source: Donnelly, Jack. International Human Rights. 3rd ed. N.p.: Westview, 2007. Print. Dilemmas in World Politics.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Adopted by the United Nations in 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was, and still is, the most authoritative international document on human rights norms and standards. Comprised of a preamble and 30 articles, it outlines over 40 specific human rights that are entitled to every person on this planet. It actually wasn’t until the aftermath of World War II and the creation of the UN in 1945 that human rights became part of the international relations discourse and the concept of universal human rights really solidified. Prior to this, such a concept did not exist, and the closest concept came from the idea of natural rights, proposed by philosophers such as John Locke, Francis Hutcheson, and Jean-Jacques Burlamaqui during the Enlightenment period.

What are Today’s Biggest Human Rights Issues?

There are many answers to this question, as it would all depend on what’s considered big and which issues are thought to require attention or the most attention. In a sense, all human rights issues are big and require attention, since violations are happening everywhere and all the time. For the purposes of this article, we have a list of the biggest human rights issues that Amnesty International USA is targeting. Amnesty International is one of the few global all-encompassing human rights organizations out there. Although they are working on many things, and the issues of each country will differ, here is what our national group or organization is emphasizing (which is by no means an exhaustive list of human rights):

  • Prisoners of Conscience (anyone imprisoned for peacefully exercising his/her human rights)
  • Death Penalty
  • Torture
  • Corporate Accountability
  • Women’s Rights
  • Refugee and Migrant Rights

What Can I Do about Human Rights?

Human rights encompass a lot of issues, so it is very easy for someone to feel as if he/she can’t do anything about it. For human rights as a whole, which would include all of the topics above, and then some, and all sorts of people around the world, one person probably can’t do a lot. However, there are ways one person can make a difference on human rights, and here are just a few ideas (ideas that our chapter does as well as other Amnesty International members)

  • First, narrow your work – You can’t do everything, so pick a few issues. It’s what Amnesty does and it’s what our chapter does. It’s what you need to do as well.
  • Lobby Your Representatives – If there’s legislation coming up regarding your issue, make sure that you talk to your Congressional representatives about it. If there should be legislation or action on an issue that hasn’t come up yet, make sure that your Congressional representatives know that their constituents care about that issue.
  • Build Awareness – Educate people about the issue, whether that’s through blogging, letters to the Editor, events, speaking engagements etc. When the public isn’t aware about the issue and its importance, then it’s very hard to give it traction and credibility. Besides, you never know who might attend your event or read your blog and decide to do something more.

First Meeting of the Year Tomorrow

amnesty general meetingWe hope everyone had a wonderful holiday season and is ready to get back into human rights activism because we will be having our first business meeting of the year tomorrow. The meeting will take place at 7 p.m. at Hartford Coffee Company, as usual. If you missed us in 2012, then you should make it a 2013 resolution to join us and to take part in some of the work we will be doing this year.

At this meeting, we will make plans for what we want to do for the year, as well as coordinate travel plans for the upcoming Annual General Meeting (March 22-24 in Washington, DC). We will also have a presentation from Bob, one of our members, about human rights in China. It’ll be a great way to start the year, and you wouldn’t want to miss it. Hope to see you there!

4 Human Rights Issues that Need Attention in 2013

human rights issuesAnother year of activism has begun! We previously discussed some of our upcoming events for the first few months of the year, but what human rights issues will we specifically tackle? Last year, we did a lot of work on the death penalty, immigration reform, and our prisoners of conscience of Burma. Although we will be continuing similar work on similar issues, some new issues might make into the fray. Here are the four human rights issues that will require our attention this year:

Women’s Rights

With VAWA nonexistent for the first time in over a decade, women’s rights in the United States is under threat, especially the rights of Native women and illegal immigrants, who have little to no protection under the current system. With this recent development, we will probably have to do something regarding women’s rights this year, such as working to get VAWA back on the table or encouraging legislation introduced that is meant to cover the gaps left with VAWA’s departure.

The Death Penalty

We should be hearing the results of the Reggie Clemons special hearing any day now. When we do, we will be prepared to act accordingly. If the hearing is in our favor, such as a new trial for Clemons, or clemency for his death penalty sentence, then we will continue to work to abolish the death penalty in Missouri and in the country. If the hearing is less favorable, then we will continue on the case. Other than waiting on the results of the special hearing, we don’t have any other plans of action.

National Defense Authorization Act

The goal regarding the NDAA is to encourage President Obama to veto the bill. Even though the bill was passed without several harmful provisions, such as Senator Ayotte’s (R-NH) attempt to make the ban on funds for transfer of Guantanamo detainees to the U.S. mainland, even for trial, permanent, as well as her attempt to require construction of a “new Guantanamo,” there were still other provisions that made it into the bill. The specific provisions of the 2013 NDAA (H.R. 4310) we are most concerned about are:

Section 1027 continues a ban on the use of funds to transfer Guantanamo detainees to the U.S. mainland, even for a fair and secure trial in federal court.
Section 1028 continues onerous conditions on the transfer of cleared Guantanamo detainees to other countries.
In addition, sections 1021 and 1022 of the 2012 NDAA remain on the books. They further entrench indefinite military detention, reaffirm the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), and appear to expand the vague definition of people to whom the AUMF applies.
Whether or not Obama veto the bill, we will still have to work on this issue to ensure that Guantanamo closes and that those currently detained there receive a trial. If there is a veto, then we would have to pressure Congress to not override the veto. If there isn’t a veto, then we to come up with a plan to have this law overturned.

Prisoners of Conscience

Of course, we will still be continuing writing on the behalf of prisoners of conscience around the world. Although we do not yet have a chapter case, we still have a our monthly letter writing meetings (of which the first one of the year is Tuesday, Jan 22 at 7 p.m.) where we will write our letters for current cases.

So, what do you think? This certainly isn’t an exhaustive or a definitive list, as things will come up throughout the year that will require our action and attention right away. Hopefully, you’re excited to get involved with us and Amnesty International to make a difference on these issues!