Rights Wire

The Human Rights Blog of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice

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Human rights and U.S. foreign policy: history, funding, data and action

By Shruti Banerjee

In recent years, we have seen an increase in authoritarian regimes rejecting democratic values and committing human rights violations. This crackdown on civil society poses an enormous threat to economic and political stability, making it a central issue to consider in U.S. foreign policy. To respond to these crises, the U.S. has allocated foreign policy funds with the intention of promoting democratic governments, creating allies, ensuring peace and security, stabilizing economies and trade, regulating immigration and preventing human rights violations. Unfortunately, the foreign affairs budget, which provides an invaluable set of tools for advancing U.S. foreign policy interests, represents less than 1 percent of the annual U.S. budget, and is subject to more cuts, if both Houses reject the President’s recent request for more funding.

By analyzing the political history of integrating human rights into U.S. foreign policy, the issues with funding, the lack of data and U.S. credibility, it becomes clear that effective human rights advocacy requires multiple factors to function in harmony with each other, including: political discourse, laws protecting human rights, foreign funding that has a non-negotiable component requiring compliance with human rights policies, U.S. compliance with international laws and accurate data to help properly document and fully gauge the threat posed by human rights violations. This means competing political or economic interests cannot completely overshadow the value of rights-respecting institutions and policies.


Despite the U.S.’ rise to superpower status after World War II, human rights did not become a central concern of the U.S. foreign policy agenda until the late 1970s. Congress was urged to push a human rights agenda by the public, which included human rights advocates, lawyers, scientists, labor unions and church groups, who all agreed that the U.S. had created a negative global presence by the late 1970s. As awareness grew around incidents like Watergate, the Vietnam War, carpet bombing in Cambodia and the U.S. support of police states in South and Central America, Congress was finally compelled to include human rights as a central topic in foreign policy and legislation. In 1974, a subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee issued the report, “Human Rights in the World Community: A Call for US Leadership.” It recommended that the Department of State makes human rights a priority in foreign policy, arguing that the current policy had led the US “into embracing governments which practice torture and unabashedly violate almost every human rights guarantee pronounced by the world community.” Congress proceeded to pass legislation that required reports on human rights violations for every country receiving aid from the U.S. and prohibited economic and military assistance to governments repeatedly violating human rights unless national security or humanitarian aid concerns justified the assistance.

While Congress was pushed by their constituents to make fundamental changes in their approach to human rights, other powerful government officials disagreed. In his book, Partners in Power: Nixon and Kissinger, Robert Dallek documented the influences and policies of Kissinger and Nixon that led to high tensions between the Executive Branch and Congress during the Nixon Administration. When Henry Kissinger was confirmed as Secretary of State in 1973 he argued that it would be dangerous for the U.S. to make “the domestic policy of countries around the world a direct objective of US foreign policy.” The policy of realpolitik embraced by Kissinger, and subsequently the Ford administration, excluded human rights calculations. Kissinger believed human rights considerations would damage bilateral relations with U.S. allies and thwart efforts to contain the spread of communism. Under his leadership, Congress and the Executive Branch engaged in a struggle over the prominence and relevance of human rights to the U.S.’ foreign policy agenda.

It was not until 1977, with the election of President Jimmy Carter, that human rights became integrated with U.S. foreign policy. Carter argued that advancing freedom internationally would protect our national security, promote economic interests and help the U.S. regain its lost moral credibility. More specifically, Carter maintained that U.S. national security would be enhanced by the expansion of human rights and democracy around the world and that the US was obligated under international law to promote human rights abroad. Carter and subsequent administrations utilized numerous tools to promote human rights internationally, including powerful political rhetoric, sanctions, symbolic gestures of support and peace and economic and military aid. While Carter was accused of failing to thwart the threat of communism because of these policies, he promoted more awareness and governmental action on human rights issues than any administration prior.

It is important to note that attention to human rights issues do not fall squarely within political lines. Democratic and republican administrations both succeed and failed at acknowledging and preventing human rights violations. For example, President Clinton has said that his administration’s failure to respond to the Rwandan genocide was his greatest regret during his presidency and his senior aides regularly apologize for this. On the other side, the Reagan Administration provided both Liberia and Somalia with arms in the 1980s, building up the oppressive regimes of Samuel Doe and Siad Barre. While the U.S. successfully prevented Soviet influence in those countries, the lack of consideration for democracy and human rights led both Liberia and Somalia to become failed states, rampant with human rights violations. Our political rhetoric towards human rights abuses may have changed since the Carter era, but our policies and funding have not caught up.


The U.S. foreign affairs budget represents a mere 1 percent of the annual budget and recent changes in the U.S. political climate have made it significantly harder for the Obama Administration to push for more foreign aid and human rights funding. The tensions in passing budgetary laws can be seen in the current Fiscal Year 2016 (FY16) budget battle. Despite Obama Administration’s request for $47.8 billion in base funding for FY16, the House Appropriations Committee has only approved a $40.5 billion base budget, and the Senate Appropriations Committee has only approved a budget of $39.0 billion in base funding. (Base funding represents the U.S.’ continuing commitment to foreign policy missions and national security; the International Affairs budget also comprises of an Overseas Contingency Operations budget to be used in temporary emergencies.) Furthermore, the International Affairs budget has seen a general decrease in funding over the past few years, with overall FY15 funding ($50.9 billion) being 16 percent below FY10 ($56.6 billion), and base funding ($41.6 billion) reduced by nearly 20 percent from FY10 ($51.5 billion). This decrease during a time of increasing human rights and humanitarian crises is unacceptable. Moreover, accepting either the House or Senate budgets, both of which decreases International Affairs funding dramatically from the Administration’s original request and from FY10, would have detrimental effects on the ability of the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development to continue promoting democratic governments, creating allies, ensuring peace and security, stabilizing economies and trade, regulating immigration and preventing human rights violations.

Aside from the fact that both proposed budgets drastically cuts an already miniscule budget, another major issue is that U.S. aid often goes to countries with poor human rights records. While our leaders have denounced continuing human rights violations in strong political rhetoric, our funding, policies and legislation have not yet matched this discourse. A stark example of this is the U.S.’s continued aid to Egypt after the government committed serious human rights violations, which were internationally documented by various human rights groups, journalists and social media platforms. Instead of instating a non-negotiable human rights compliance clause for foreign aid, the U.S. waived conditionality requirements on aid to Egypt.

It is also highly debated which countries should receive funding and which abuses require more attention and aid. These problems can be somewhat alleviated by increased transparency and disclosure of governmental reports on human rights conditions in various countries, pursuant to the Foreign Assistance Act. Extensive data collection on human rights violations occurring in countries that are not currently receiving U.S. aid is another important solution. According to Foreign Affairs, these efforts are particularly crucial in countries such as Russia, Ethiopia and Kenya, where governments are actively passing laws restricting the work of NGOs and human rights groups. This includes making it difficult to register with the government, organize public events and collect data on human rights abuses. These same regimes are also passing laws making it more difficult for their citizens to be politically critical, organize demonstrations or voice opposing opinions on the internet. Accurate data is an integral part of effective advocacy and legislating and more transparency and data collection on human rights abuses is vital for documenting, analyzing and preventing these atrocities from continuously occurring.


What would a compelling, rights-based foreign policy look like? According to a statement by the Brookings Institute, the first criteria for effective human rights promotion is credibility. Put simply, a government cannot promote human rights abroad if it is not observing them domestically and internationally. As discussed in previous articles, the U.S. violates human rights policies on its own soil by failing to prevent hate crimes and domestic violence. Furthermore, the U.S. is struggling with rampant police brutality, structural racism and inhumane prison conditions at home, as well as torture abroad. Our lack of credibility in human rights prevention and promotion has made it difficult for other countries to take us seriously and respect international human rights law. Moreover, human rights cannot be used as a pretext for pushing other foreign policy goals, such as engaging in a foreign conflict or accomplishing a domestic political goal.

In order to effectively promote human rights abroad, the U.S. needs to start by complying with human rights laws while actively promoting their implementation abroad. This requires making human rights a fundamental part of our foreign policy through rhetoric, political pressure and funding. More specifically, we must view human rights not solely as a moral or religious obligation, but as a fundamental tool to increase peace, security and economic prosperity around the world. In their book The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson found that more equal societies with less violence have a greater overall quality of life, not just for poor people, but for all income classes. Wilkinson and Pickett’s analysis can be extended to the international community: We can achieve greater economic and social prosperity in our own country by abiding by human rights laws and promoting equality abroad.

Shruti Banerjee is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

Photo credit: Stephen Melkisethian/Creative Commons


The nuclear obsession and human rights: how human rights abuses are swept under the rug during peace talks with Iran

By Zahava Moerdler

Iran. Nuclear weapons. Diplomacy. Sanctions. Peace. These words have been in the news almost every day for the past two months. With a potential nuclear accord is on the table and President Obama working on finding a consensus with Congress, the lifting of sanctions and a “sort-of” peace with Iran is finally within reach. Yet as these words circle in the air and press, it seems that policymakers and diplomats are consistently sweeping Iranian human rights infringements under the rug, with negotiations failing to factor in human rights at all.

Iran executed 544 people in 2012, second only to China, according to Amnesty International. At least 63 of the executions were carried out in public. Most of the individuals were executed for drug-related crimes following “flawed trials in revolutionary courts,” Human Rights Watch (HRW) said. Additionally, Iran executes children for various criminal offenses, allowing capital punishment for those who have reached puberty, meaning age nine for girls and age fifteen for boys. Many believed that under President Hassan Rouhani, who assumed office in August 2013, the executions would relax, but the contrary has proved true. 773 individuals were executed during Rouhani’s first year in office, which was a marked increase from President Ahmadinejad’s administration, according to statistics from the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center. In 2013, Iran had the highest execution rate per capita. While Iranian media sources report 200 executions in 2014, opposition leaders claim the number is closer to 400 people, HRW said. These numbers alone are staggering. When placed in context, they are even more disturbing. For example, sixteen people were executed in 2013 for crimes of “enmity against God” because of connections to opposition groups. In 2014, at least nine people were executed for this crime. How can the contrasting images of Iranian Ministers shaking hands with Western Diplomats in Geneva and bodies hanging in public squares in Tehran be reconciled? With a nuclear deal on the horizon, the world cannot continue to keep silent about Iranian human rights abuses.

Another major human rights issue is gender discrimination in Iran. According to a report published by Amnesty International, women in Iran face increased restrictions on their use of contraceptives and exclusions from the labor force unless they have a child, if two proposed laws will be passed. The bill also reinforces discriminatory stereotypes about women. Other bills that will be discussed in Parliament in the coming months could further isolate and discriminate against women in Iran, the report said. For example, the Bill to Increase Fertility Rates and Prevent Population Decline (Bill 446) outlaws voluntary sterilization and the Comprehensive Population and Exaltation of Family Bill (Bill 315), discriminates against women who choose not to marry or are unable to have children.

Though some human rights organizations have launched campaigns to stop or counter these bills, these groups face incredible pushback from the Iranian government. Amnesty International has a global campaign, My Body My Rights, that aims to stop governmental “control and criminalization of sexuality and reproduction rights.” Additionally, grassroots organizations like the One Million Signatures Campaign, which seeks to work within the law to collect signatures to support the repeal of laws that discriminate against women, are targeted by security officials in Iran and individuals from these groups are detained on “national security” grounds. Anyone who does not heed these warnings faces severe reprisals.

Critics of the Iran deal also accuse President Obama of turning a “blind eye” to Iran’s proxy wars in the Middle East and its motives for providing funds and arms for these wars. These critics believe that President Obama is too focused on a “legacy-enhancing push” that could “lift his presidency’s historic potential” after years of tension between Washington and Tehran. Unfortunately, regional conflicts and tensions have created an environment that promotes radical groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) who threaten both American and Iranian interests. Yet, Iran continues to foster breeding grounds for these radical groups. In Syria, Iran continues to support President Assad, even when the U.S. has supported the opposition. In Iraq, Iran’s support of Shiite proxy groups continues to stir up trouble for the U.S., even while both countries fight the Sunni ISIS. Iran also has connections to Hezbollah in Lebanon and rebels in Yemen and Bahrain. Although these examples do not point to direct Iranian human right infringements, Iran’s continued support of rebel groups, militias and terrorist organizations in the Middle East is destabilizing the region and fostering human rights abuses. Thus, Iran’s abuses extend beyond homegrown discrimination, persecution and rampant executions and into regional abuses by proxy.

By contrast, many Iranian dissidents fear that a breakdown in the nuclear talks could bring about a wave of repression. So although human rights might be a rallying point for why the Iranian nuclear discussions are problematic, the deal could potentially promote increased human rights within the country. Some believe that the lifting of sanctions would combat economic suffering and thus take away one of the major arguments hardliners in Iran use when infringing on the population’s basic rights. Thus, a nuclear deal could lead to more opportunities for activists in Iran to push for increased human rights, while those who oppose such rights will no longer be able to respond with cries against the evils of the West.

The important nuance is that while there is a clear need to promote an end to sanctions and democracy, and all that it entails, there is also a need to address the clear human rights violations in Iran. According to Akbar Ganji, Iran’s most prominent dissident, imposing sanctions and threats of war rarely promote more human rights in developing countries for a number of reasons. First, dictators often use the threat of war as a way to delegitimize their opponent’s arguments and ideals, Ganji argues. Second, sanctions hurt the entire country, including the rising middle class and thus affect all socioeconomic strata. And third, he pointed out that American wars often threaten human rights on their own. These points clearly articulate the need for peace, for on its heels trail the seeds of democracy and human rights.

Today, however, at a governmental level, there is no accountability for human rights abuses. Despite a number of organizations working to promote human rights in Iran, the nuclear peace talks have not had a rights-based approach. The American government should encourage reform in Iran as an important component of the agreement. At the very least, a conversation about ongoing abuses must occur. If local human rights groups in Iran see global support for their movements, it could help promote their work and push for more discourse between the organizations and the government. Furthermore, with human rights on the agenda, the American government will be more conscious of how a breakdown in negotiations and continuing sanctions will directly impact the Iranian people. Human rights are not an excuse for bullying; they are important and fundamental to human freedom, liberty and happiness. With a heightened focus on human rights, perhaps real change can finally come in Iran.

Zahava Moerdler is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

Photo credit: U.S. Department of State/Creative Commons

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The human rights implications of gun regulation in the United States

By Shruti Banerjee

The United States has more firearm ownership and gun-related deaths than any other developed country in the world, according to a recent study conducted by cardiologists Sripal Bangalore of NYU Langone Medical Center and Franz Messerli of St. Luke’s Medical Center. Compared to developing countries, the U.S. has more gun-related homicides than Pakistan, and the gun-related death rates in major U.S. cities are on par with some of the most dangerous places in the world. For example, Atlanta had the same gun related homicide rate as South Africa and Phoenix’s rate was equal to Mexico’s, according to the Atlantic.

Despite of tragic events like Sandy Hook and the 346,681 gun-related deaths recorded by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) from 2003 to 2013, the majority of our elected officials voted against legislation that would require background checks prior to purchasing a firearm, despite a 90 percent public approval rating for such measures. On the federal level, refusal by U.S. politicians to pass more restrictive gun regulations has allowed numerous human rights violations, including violations of the right to life and the security of person, to continue unabated. By looking at the prevalence of gun ownership and gun-related deaths, as well as the implications of our legal response to tragedies such as Newton, it becomes clear the United States’ lack of gun regulation poses a serious threat to safety and public health.


With 88 firearms per 100 people and 10 gun-related deaths per 100,000 people, the U.S. has the highest rate of gun ownership and firearm-related deaths compared to 27 other developed countries, according to Bangalore and Messerli’s study. Conversely, Japan had the lowest rate of guns per capita and fewest gun-related deaths with only .6 firearms per 100 persons and .06 gun-related deaths per 100,000 persons.

Gun related deaths can occur in many ways, including gang violence, accidental death (i.e. thinking the gun is unloaded or a toy), suicide and domestic violence. The two most prevalent sources of gun fatalities in the United States are from gang violence and suicides often correlated with mental illness. A study by Columbia University also found that African-Americans are disproportionately affected by gun deaths. On top of the death toll caused by guns, there are also serious non-fatal crimes perpetuated by the use of firearms, such as rape and aggravated assault, which accounted for 799,760 crimes between 2003 and 2013, according to the CDC. Academics have found that these numbers are lower than the actual rate of guns and gun deaths per capita because compiling accurate data is difficult due to the prevalence of illegal and unregistered firearms as well as the severe underreporting of gun related deaths and shootings by police officers. Legal regulations that make it impossible for the government to track and punish unregistered or missing guns in certain states also attribute to this data collection problem.

Tragic incidents like the Sandy Hook and Aurora shootings, as well as the high level of gun-related suicides linked to mental illnesses, prove that gun related deaths are a prevalent issue in the U.S. that requires multifaceted regulation to properly address the social costs of our gun policies.


While we see little action on the federal level, states have passed at least 114 bills related to gun regulation and deregulation since the Newton tragedy, according to Mother Jones and the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Not surprisingly, the gun bills passed in most states fall squarely within political lines, where blue states have passed more restrictive gun laws and red states have passed more laws to deregulate gun ownership. Certain states, including Colorado, Connecticut, Maryland, New York and the District of Columbia, have passed laws to strengthen gun regulation in four major areas: restricting conceal and carry permits; making it harder to own guns by utilizing background checks; enhancing the government’s ability to track guns and punish the tampering of the manufacturers’ identification marks on firearm; and mental health regulations, according to Mother Jones. One hundred and eighty-nine million people are affected by the 41 new laws in 21 states strengthening the regulation of guns and the 15 new laws in 15 states establishing mental health reporting/limits, Mother Jones reported.

Conversely, 29 states have passed 75 laws that make it easier to own guns, conceal and/or carry firearms in public places, including in churches, bars and schools, and making it harder for the government to track and punish stolen or unregistered guns, according to Mother Jones. It is troubling that the same study found nearly twice as many laws deregulating gun ownership passed—impacting over 185 million people—when these states are the most likely to be affected by gun violence and gun-related deaths. For example, Texas, which had the highest number of gun related child deaths in 2013, enacted 12 laws deregulating gun ownership after Newton. (It is important to note there is some overlap in these numbers since certain states passed laws in both directions.)

The discrepancies in state-by-state gun laws pose a major problem for areas trying to thwart gun violence through legislative action. This is clear in Chicago, which has restrictive gun laws but high rates of gun violence because it’s neighboring states have more lax gun policies and residents of Chicago are able to easily carry firearms across state lines. In areas with restrictive gun laws that are also predominantly surrounded by states with stricter gun regulations, such as New York, there are lower rates of gun-related homicide. A study by Boston Children’s Hospital found an association between more gun laws and lower rates of gun-related deaths in states. Specifically, laws requiring universal background checks and purchase or carry permits were most clearly associated with decreased rates of gun-related homicides and suicides. Other studies reinforce this by finding that states with higher gun ownership and less restrictive gun laws also have the highest rates of gun related deaths. This indicates a greater need for advocating on a federal level for stricter gun regulations to prevent cross-state gun trafficking from deteriorating the impact of gun regulation.


A report by Amnesty International found that the United States’ gun policies have allowed serious human rights violations to impact the youth and communities of lower socioeconomic standing. This study points out the long term consequences of allowing these human rights violations to continue. For example, almost half of Chicago’s homicide victims between 2008 and 2012 were individuals under the age of 25 and youth exposed to this level of violence often display the same psychological traumas of children growing up in urban war zones. This ultimately leads to victims of gun violence turning into perpetrators themselves, propagating the cyclical nature of violence. Gang violence, the leading cause of gun related deaths, predominantly plagues lower income communities, posing a serious threat to international laws ensuring the protection of life and the right to non-discrimination, the report said.

Despite the fact we have seen over one million instances of death and serious non-fatal injuries caused by guns in the last decade—a blatant threat to public safety and health—many of our political leaders continue to push for weaker gun laws. Conservatives and supporters of the National Rifle Association frequently make arguments promoting the proliferation of guns to protect communities because, apparently, more guns keep people safer since criminals tend not to attack areas where they know there are firearms. This is a baseless and contradictory argument since this same author, a “conservative politics expert,” wrote an article admitting that gang violence is the leading cause of gun fatalities. Gang violence typically involves groups who are fully aware that the other possess firearms, proving that the most prevalent criminal tendencies do not prevent them from attacking areas where they believe firearms are present.

Moreover, there are very few studies with concrete numbers attempting to support the argument that more guns make communities safer, and the studies that are out there are full of holes. For example, the authors of one such study in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy conceded that they cannot conclude that more restrictive gun laws lead to more violent crime, since areas dealing with high crime rates tended to implement stricter firearm regulations as a reactionary measure, while areas with lower crime rates did not feel the need to pass strict gun laws. This study also admits that other factors outside an increase in individual gun ownership have had in impact in lowering crime rates (i.e. higher rates of incarceration and higher rates of abortion). The authors themselves argue that banning guns would not decrease murder or suicide. Using their logic, we can immediately conclude that the only way to properly prevent suicide is through better public health measures. On the topic of murder, it is pretty obvious that one can do a lot more damage in significantly less time with a rifle or handgun than with a knife. Case in point: on the same day of the Newtown tragedy in which 26 children and adults were killed, a man attacked 22 children and one teacher with a knife in a school in China—all the victims survived. This same study argues that we should not only analyze the prevalence of gun-related violence, but violent crime as a whole. While they find that the U.S. is a unique country in that we have higher gun ownership and a lower rate of overall crime (a point we should be critical of since many crimes in the U.S. go unreported), this does not mean we can ignore the upwards of one million firearm-related injuries and deaths in our country over the past decade. This study distracts us from the main issue, which is that the prevalence of gun ownership and a lack of regulation in our country has created a faster and more efficient way to commit violent crimes.

Data has consistently supported the conclusion that more guns per capita are linked with higher gun related homicide rates, indicating that gun proliferation would not make society safer. To effectively impede the threat to human rights posed by our gun policies, we must advocate on the federal level for more uniform gun regulation across states that fully protect our citizens from this public health hazard. Our failure to do so renders us incompliant with international laws designed to protect us from the human rights violations perpetuated by a lack of gun regulation.

Shruti Banerjee is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

Photo Credit: Thomas Hawk/Creative Commons

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Domestic violence: ensuring protection and accountability

By Shruti Banerjee Domestic violence

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights ruled in the 2014 landmark case Jessica Gonzales v. The United States that the United States is in violation of international human rights law by failing to protect women and children from the threat of domestic violence. The drastic need to address these issues was also recently discussed at Fordham University’s 19th annual Forum on Domestic Violence in March 2015, where I spoke with Yi-Jen Chang, Deputy Director of The Matrimonial/Economic Justice Project at Sanctuary for Families, who organized a panel on ‘Risk Assessment and Lethality Factors’ in domestic violence cases. She explained that the most important factors that must be determined in a domestic violence case are safety planning and risk assessment. This needs to be done on multiple levels in cooperation with law enforcement, legal counsel, psychologists and educators, who may discover a violent threat, Chang said. Unfortunately, many victims of domestic violence face major roadblocks when trying to access assistance and aid. By examining the lack of uniform collection of data on domestic violence incidents, the cultural and social factors preventing victims from seeking help and the way our legal system and law enforcement have dealt with threats of domestic violence, it becomes evident that significant improvements are necessary on all levels.


Domestic violence encompasses physical, emotional, sexual, psychological and financial forms of abuse. Gathering concrete numbers to fully gauge the prevalence of domestic violence cases is difficult due to numerous socioeconomic, cultural and legal factors. But by looking at multiple reporting sources in New York, and by using New York as a case study, it can be seen that instances of domestic violence are common and need to be addressed adequately and immediately. According to the Annual Reports of the NYC Domestic Violence Fatality Review Committee (FRC), the New York Police Department (NYPD) responded to 284,660 domestic violence incidents in New York City in 2013. In that same year, there were 62 family-related homicides, which only accounted for a tiny portion of domestic violence cases that year. Since less than one third of domestic violence homicide victims had prior contact with the NYPD, according to the report, this indicates that the number of domestic violence incidents responded to by the NYPD is lower than the actual number of cases in the city.

Since over half of family-related homicide victims had contacted at least one City agency prior to the homicide, looking at other resources can help gauge the prevalence of domestic violence in New York. For example, city-run domestic violence hotlines received 87,374 calls in 2014 and domestic violence shelters received 11,108 requests for housing in the same year, according to official statistics. In 2014, there were 54,667 client visits to all family justice centers in NYC, official statistics reported. And since 2005, family justice centers and legal resource providers have aided over 97,000 clients in domestic violence cases, according to a Mayor’s Office report on domestic violence in New York.

The discrepancies in these numbers indicate that domestic violence is underreported in New York, perhaps largely due to the many barriers faced by victims of domestic violence when it comes to reporting these incidents and finding sources of aid. These barriers are reinforced by many socioeconomic and cultural factors that prevent women and children from finding legal assistance or reaching out to law enforcement for help. Chang explained that many victims financially rely on their abusers, worry about familial instability from reporting the crime and fear retaliation from their abuser if the police are unable or unwilling to help. She also identified many layers of unique barriers for immigrant women including cultural norms of victim-shaming and blaming, dependence on their abuser for immigration documents, language barriers, misinformation from the abuser about available resources, unsuccessful interactions with law enforcement and fear of being expelled from their community for exposing the violence.

Recognizing the difficulties faced when reporting and collecting data on instances of domestic violence, The New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services implemented changes to its crime reporting system for domestic violence incidents by enforcing more uniform reporting policies and by expanding the definitions of domestic violence relationships in 2008. While this was a step in the right direction to help the City fully gauge the physical threat domestic violence poses, there is still much to be done in order to combat domestic violence and its detrimental societal consequences in communities.


United States courts, from the state level to the Supreme Court, have consistently ruled against victims of domestic violence who have filed lawsuits against law enforcement agencies for failing to protect them against threats of domestic violence. A tragic example of this in New York is the 1968 case, Riss v. City of New York, in which then 21-year-old Linda Riss contacted the police numerous times complaining about violent threats from her ex-lover. The New York Police Department (NYPD) ignored her complaints until her fears culminated in an attack by a thug hired by her ex. This attack caused permanent facial injuries and blinded her in one eye. Riss filed a suit against the NYPD, arguing that they had a duty to protect her against a known threat. But the courts rejected this argument and ruled that police do not have a duty to protect individual members of the public. This ruling leaves women and children who have reported a domestic violence threat unable to file lawsuits against law enforcement when they fail to protect them. Women and children are thus placed in an even more vulnerable position, unable to push for accountability or justice.

The Supreme Court ruled in a similar way in Castle Rock v. Gonzales. In this case, Jessica Gonzales called the Colorado police over four times in one evening, reporting that her three daughters (ages 7, 8 and 10) were missing and that their father had taken them. Jessica had filed a restraining order against her ex-husband after he began acting abusively towards her and her daughters. He was court-ordered to stay away unless it was a scheduled visit. Since no visit was scheduled and her young daughters were missing for hours, Jessica began to panic. Law enforcement officials kept telling her to wait to see if her daughters return. Early the next morning, the father began shooting outside the police station and was gunned down. After the shoot-out, law enforcement found the three dead bodies of her children in the back seat of their father’s car. Despite the gruesome outcome, the Supreme Court held that the presence of a restraining order did not create a mandatory requirement for police to act. The majority opinion, written by Justice Antonin Scalia, argued that, regardless of the mandatory language of the Colorado statute and restraining order, the need for police discretion makes this type of mandatory enforcement impossible. However, the dissent, written by Justice John Paul Stevens, intelligently points out that the Colorado statute purposely chose this ‘mandatory arrest’ language precisely to take away police discretion in analyzing the threat since the presence of a domestic restraining order is indication enough that a threat was present and a law was being broken.

Furthermore, Scalia chose to completely disregard the legislative history of the statute, which pointed out that in specific instances of domestic restraining orders, police are not meant to stop and discern a threat which a court has already discerned. In other words, law enforcement officials are meant to follow the language printed on the restraining order, clearly stating that they are to arrest anyone in violation of it. Ultimately, if law enforcement is not held liable for stopping physical threats, there is no real mechanism to enforce restraining orders. Readings of the law in this manner renders the 300,236 orders of protection issued by New York State Courts in 2013, as documented by official statistics, useless pieces of paper.

In recognition of this, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights held the United States government accountable for human rights violations against Jessica and her three deceased daughters in October 2014. They found that the U.S. violated its obligation to not discriminate and to provide equal protection under Article II of the American Declaration by ‘failing to act with due diligence’ to protect Jessica and her children from violence. The IACHR also concluded that the US is in violation of Article I, VII, and XVIII of the American Declaration for failing to take reasonable measures to protect the life of Jessica’s three daughters.


Since U.S. courts have ruled that victims of domestic violence—even those with restraining orders or orders of protection—rely on the discretion to police officers, in the immediate future, we must have greater training programs for law enforcement, such as the program implemented in Maryland that uses a two-pronged approach to protect and reach out to domestic violence victims. Other solutions include improving social programs in low-income neighborhoods to combat domestic violence, since 42 percent of domestic violence incidents occur in socioeconomically disadvantaged neighborhoods (i.e. those with high rates of unemployment, low high school graduation rates, low median household income and high rates of poverty), according to official statistics.

Ignoring the threat of domestic violence has had detrimental consequences on society as a whole, including a direct negative impact on economic productivity, higher crime rates, cyclical abusive behavior and weaker communities. Long-term advocacy should work towards guaranteeing that victims of domestic violence are ensured protection by law enforcement when they report it, as is required under international human rights law.

Shruti Banerjee is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

Photo Credit: Hibr/Creative Commons

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Q&A: Law professor Deborah Denno discusses the death penalty and upcoming Supreme Court case on lethal injection protocols

By Jennifer Li

In 2008, United States Supreme Court examined its first death penalty case on execution methods in decades when it upheld Kentucky’s lethal injection protocol in Baze v. Rees. In Baze, the Court held that the three-drug combination widely used in lethal injections across the country did not pose a “substantial” or “objectively intolerable” risk of harm that qualified as cruel or unusual when compared to available alternatives. Since 2008, however, most states have modified their lethal injection protocols by either substituting the drugs examined in Baze, or eliminating one or even two of the drugs altogether. The changes were spurred by drug shortages and challenges to states’ lethal injection protocols, factors that have also led many states to turn to compounding pharmacies – which are outside of FDA oversight – as well as secrecy laws that conceal state protocols from public knowledge. These changes to state practices have essentially rendered Baze moot.

Later this month, the Supreme Court will revisit the issue in Glossip v. Gross and review whether the use of the sedative midazolam violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishments. The case emerged out of Oklahoma, following the botched April 2014 execution of Clayton Lockett, an inmate who was administered midazolam and suffered for an excruciating 43 minutes before dying of a massive heart attack. On January 15, 2015, Charles Warner, another Oklahoma death row inmate and one of the original petitioners in the case – then called Warner v. Gross – was executed after the Court denied him a stay of execution. Days later, on January 23, 2015, the Court agreed to hear the appeal of the remaining petitioners challenging Oklahoma’s lethal injection protocol, and subsequently stayed the executions of the three remaining petitioners, Richard Glossip, John Grant and Benjamin Cole.

Professor Deborah Denno, Arthur A. McGivney Professor of Law at Fordham Law School, has written extensively on the death penalty and use of lethal injections, most recently in the Georgetown Law Journal, where she presented the results of an empirical study of over 300 cases that have cited Baze between 2008 and 2013. In the following edited interview, she discusses the death penalty, changes to lethal injection protocols since 2008 and the upcoming Supreme Court case, Glossip v. Gross.

JL: You have stated on many previous occasions that the death penalty and lethal injections are two very discrete issues, and that lawyers in particular should be careful to not muddy the waters by conflating the two. Can you explain why?

DD: It’s inevitable that discussions about the execution process are going to make us question why we even have a death penalty. It seems to have an impact on opinion polls, and it certainly has an impact on litigation as well as how people view the death penalty. From that perspective, any issue involving the execution process will make us reflect on the death penalty.

The reason I don’t like to conflate the two is because we’re a country that has always identified itself with having a death penalty. And if you’re going to have the death penalty and execute people, then that should be done in a humane way. But once the death penalty becomes conflated with the execution process, then the process itself gets lost in the shuffle. I think it hinders our ability to look at this process clearly when we start fogging it up with whether or not we should have the death penalty. I think there is a humane way of executing people; I just don’t think it’s by way of lethal injections. Firing squads would be more humane.

JL: In Baze, the Court only reviewed the three drugs that were being used in 2008: sodium thiopental, pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride. But the Court did not set a uniform standard across the country by limiting lethal injections to those three drugs. Do you think Glossip or any future cases will be able to address the current lack of consistency in lethal injections protocols?

DD: It may be possible that Glossip will set a safety standard for lethal injections, but I can’t see the Court applying a uniform standard to all states. There’s such a strong state’s rights issue, and there always has been with the death penalty.

In 2008, when Baze was decided, the use of other drugs outside of the three-drug protocol wasn’t even on the horizon. The Court wasn’t aware of the problem because there wasn’t even a thought that states would be going to other drugs. In Baze, one of the arguments was that states could just use one drug, not all three, and anesthesiologists in that case suggested that the best thing to do would be just to pump in a lot of sodium thiopental. As it turned out, Ohio went that route almost immediately, within months of the Baze decision.

JL: What propelled states to change their lethal injection protocols?

DD: One of the reasons that Ohio and other states modified their protocols was due to lethal injection challenges and concerns with the second drug, pancuronium bromide, which paralyzes the inmate. Everyone agrees that the sole reason that drug is used is so that people don’t twitch during the execution. I have interviewed Dr. Jay Chapman [who concocted the three-drug formula in 1977] at great length, and I asked him in three different ways and three different times about why he included the paralytic. He eventually conceded that it was for the benefit of the witnesses, for the people viewing the executions.

Although it may hasten death by just a little, it’s really the third drug, the potassium chloride, which induces cardiac arrest and causes death. So the only reason for having the paralytic is to paralyze a person so they don’t twitch around, for better optics – which is why a common misconception of lethal injection is that it induces a deep sleep. In reality, the inmate is sedated by the first drug, paralyzed by the second, and then induced into irreversible cardiac arrest by the third. And the third drug is horrifically painful. People have said it’s like putting a hot poker in your stomach.

JL: What is the standard for determining whether lethal injections constitute cruel and unusual punishment?

DD: Until Baze, the standard for executions was whether there was a heightened risk, a likelihood of wanton death, or cruel or painful death. Baze introduced some new strands to the Eighth Amendment. One, that it was incumbent – and this might be a focus of Glossip – on the attorney to show that there is an alternative, better method of execution. We’ll see if the Court chooses to address this argument in Glossip. The petitioners are questioning an interpretation of Baze that essentially imposed a burden on the defendant to come up with a better way of executing someone. The second matter raised in Glossip is whether a constitutionally-sound method would have to be substantially similar to the three-drug method presented before the Court in Baze. Currently, no state uses the three-drug method anymore because sodium thiopental is no longer available. In Baze, the Court also made it harder, actually, to show the severity of pain and harm to an inmate under the Eighth Amendment.

JL: Would midazolam satisfy the four-factor Furman test from the 1970s: whether the drug is degrading to human dignity; inflicted in an arbitrary fashion; totally rejected throughout society; and patently unnecessary?

DD: This is a great question. I think it’s safe to say that midazolam is a highly problematic drug to use in executions because it has been the source of some botches, and the circumstances of those botches are “degrading to human dignity.” Midazolam is also “inflicted in an arbitrary fashion” because it has been used only by some states, and in some executions, primarily because of its availability. Therefore, one could argue that it is “patently unnecessary” because states would prefer to use other drugs if they could access them – for example, sodium thiopental, pentobarbital, or even propofol. That said, midazolam has not been totally rejected throughout society because it is an approved anti-anxiety sedative that is used for medically-acceptable purposes. On the other hand, midazolam was not created for the purpose of executing human beings and there are many in the medical community and beyond who would “totally reject” its use in that context.

JL: What will the Court look at in the Glossip case this month?

DD: That’s hard to predict. It will probably be a narrow opinion and much of it will focus on Oklahoma’s selection and use of midazolam as the first drug in the state’s three-drug protocol. The second issue that might come up before the Court is also going to be pretty narrow – this question of whether defense attorneys have to come up with alternative methods, and what that means. The Court never actually explained that so-called requirement. Is the burden on the defendant to come up with an alternative method of execution?

JL: Even if the Court finds that midazolam isn’t a viable alternative drug to sodium thiopental, and that there are in fact no other alternative drugs to sodium thiopental, do you believe that it would still be unlikely for the Court to rule that lethal injections are now unconstitutional because there are no alternatives?

DD: I can’t imagine the Court rendering lethal injection generally unconstitutional. The Baze standard is whether the three-drug combination poses a substantial and objectively tolerable risk of serious harm compared to known and available alternatives. That’s a pretty high standard. And we aren’t able to run out and test these drugs on a hundred volunteers and conduct a survey on their level of pain before dying.

Battles of the experts rest on really fragile foundations, with experts coming in and projecting on how these drugs operate. In addition to the substantial risk standard that was used in Baze, in order to constitute an Eighth Amendment violation, a risk must be “sure or very likely to cause serious illness and needless suffering,” and give rise to “sufficiently imminent dangers.” That’s very bizarre language and it would be helpful for the Court to clarify it so that courts would have a greater opportunity to review some of these lethal injection protocols.

JL: In Baze, Chief Justice Roberts emphasized that the fact that one drug may be marginally better is not enough to satisfy the substantial risk requirement. But how different or similar must this alternative drug be to pose a substantial risk?

DD: I think that’s a great question and it would be helpful for the Court to clarify the meaning of “substantial similarity,” the language that the Court used in Baze. Interestingly, “substantial similarity” is not a criminal law or criminal procedure term. I was very surprised to see it when I first read Baze, and I later discovered that it’s an intellectual property term. For example, in the IP context, a question may be “is this drawing ‘substantially similar’ to the other drawing?” There is no precedent in determining what the term means outside of that context.

JL: With state secrecy provisions in place, how do we know which drugs each state actually uses?

DD: For the most part, we really don’t know. Usually, we discover facts through litigation. It was only because the Clayton Lockett execution was so terribly botched, for example, that we found out the details of how that execution was conducted – what drugs they used, how much was injected and who was participating. Journalists have also been very helpful about trying to uncover the manufacturer or the pharmacy involved in providing the drugs. Sometimes, journalists find out this information in indirect ways, for example when someone who’s close to the process reveals that kind of information to them. But it’s been difficult uncovering these secrets. We know that in a number of cases, departments of corrections have traveled across state lines to get a drug from a pharmacy which they then purchase with cash, thereby going to extreme lengths to cover up what they’re doing. And finally, there are some amazing human rights groups – for example, Reprieve in London – that eke out significant details about executions. But the discoveries are hit or miss, bits of pieces of information here and there.

JL: Can oversight and regulation come in the form of federal regulation of pharmacies?

DD: Despite states relying heavily on compounding pharmacies, they’re very lightly regulated. We may be seeing more changes and more federal regulation in the future but it hasn’t fully come into play yet. Even though information about the types and sources of lethal injection drugs is important for the public to know, states have been very successful with secrecy statutes. Georgia, for example, has a very tight secrecy statute, whereby the state can protect the identities of both the manufacturer and the pharmacy. And if states are protecting the manufacturer and the pharmacy, then they are hiding some very important components of the lethal injection process.

JL: What do you think the impact of Glossip will be on legal injection protocols and perhaps the death penalty, if any?

DD: We always want to know what influence a case like Glossip may have. But attempting to answer such a question is really like reading tea leaves. That said, just the mere act of the Court granting cert in Glossip can start to have reverberating effects on other kinds of decisions because it shows that the Court thinks the lethal injection issue is very important and that the Justices may want to change or clarify present practices. For example, both Oklahoma and Florida, which also uses midazolam, have held off all executions until the Court renders a decision in Glossip. Other states, such as Utah, have already adopted a fallback method of execution [the firing squad] in the likely event the state runs out of lethal injection drugs. The influence of a cert grant becomes all the more pronounced because the Court just handed down a decision concerning lethal injection [Baze] only seven years ago. Granting cert indicates that Baze has not been effective. There is also increased press attention and public discourse about the execution process. To sum up, the pending Supreme Court decision in Glossip will bear on one of this country’s most important governmental functions – the taking of a life – and what it says about us and our collective identity. We need to think about not only how we want other countries to perceive us, but also about how we want to perceive ourselves.

Jennifer Li is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

Photo credit: California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation/Creative Commons


Addressing an urgent need for increased monitoring of right-wing extremist groups and domestic terrorism

By Shruti Banerjee

With incidents like neo-Nazi Keith Luke raping a woman and murdering three people in 2009 because he wanted to kill all non-whites and Richard Poplawski, a white supremacist and gun enthusiast, killing three cops in 2009, it’s obvious that right-wing hate groups in the United States are active and prevalent. In a report for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Analyst Daryl Johnson warned of increased recruitment and radicalization amongst right-wing hate groups in light of current events, such as the candidacy and election of an African-American president. His predictions couldn’t have been more correct.

While conducting an internet survey, I was unsurprised to find a plethora of fear mongering, bigoted propaganda (Fox News has made me accustomed to this). But I was disturbed to come across a video of right-wing militia men training their followers to “kill fags in a way they won’t enjoy you touching them,” as well as right-wing extremist videos on how to make your own bomb and horrific images of judges and government officials being lynched [not linked for graphic and safety reasons]. These types of multimedia are unfortunately aplenty on YouTube and other sites, speaking to the prevalence of these extremist groups and their ideologies.

Despite these blatant messages to commit acts of domestic terrorism by over 900 active right-wing extremist groups, as of 2012, the U.S. government only had one analyst researching all right-wing hate groups’ activities in the country. As Johnson correctly predicted, a lack of surveillance and accountability for these hate-driven recruitment messages has ultimately led to more instances of domestic terror. By looking at a history of right-wing extremist groups from the 1990s to present and analyzing the government’s response to these groups, it’s evident that our failure to take Johnson’s warnings seriously has left our country more vulnerable to acts of domestic terrorism.


In the U.S., there are four main categories of right-wing extremist groups: militia groups, white supremacist groups, sovereign citizen movements and various single issues movements, according to the book Right-Wing Resurgence: How a Domestic Terrorist Threat is Being Ignored by Daryl Johnson. Militia groups are defined by federal law as domestic organizations that have two or more members who retain and use firearms, teach or endorsing paramilitary training and advocate for violent resistance or overthrowing of the federal government. They tend to be against government regulation—for example, anti-taxation and anti-gun regulation—and have a history of attacking federal buildings. White supremacists groups tend to believe in the intellectual superiority of Caucasians over all other races and have a history of violently targeting minority groups such as African-Americans and Latinos. Sovereign citizen movements aim to disassociate themselves with the U.S. by giving up citizenship and creating a self-sufficient environment. These movements generally have anti-government agendas and have attempted to rename U.S. territories. Single issue movements are comprised of groups that dedicate their time to a certain issue, such as anti-abortion and anti-immigration groups. These groups have been known to physically attack institutions that they do not agree with, like medical clinics that provide abortions.

According to a DHS report, there are many factors that lead to the rise of right-wing extremist groups, including slow economic growth, high unemployment, a liberal political climate (i.e. the election of the first African-American president), heavy recruitment of veterans, anti-immigration sentiment, anti-abortion sentiment, anti-LGBT movements, general anti-government and anti-authority sentiments and prevailing racism. For example, the report documents that there was an uptick in right-wing extremist activity during the early 1990s, a time characterized by high unemployment, slow economic growth, the appearance of a liberal political climate during the 1992 presidential election and the passage of more restrictive gun laws. This surge in right-wing groups and extremist rhetoric culminated in the 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing. This act of domestic terrorism, which was carried out by Timothy McVeigh, killed 168 people and injured over 600 others.

After the Oklahoma City Bombing, there was a decline in militia groups from 165 active militia groups in 1997 to only 60 active groups in 1999, according to Right-Wing Resurgence. Unfortunately, this decline did not last long, and Johnson was shocked by the uptick in extremist groups his department witnessed in the mid-2000s. The DHS documented in its report the formation of 45 new anti-government militia groups in an abrupt six month period (from October 2007-March 2008) after witnessing a gradual decline in these groups over the last decade. Johnson noted in his book that this drastic increase in extremist groups was the largest recorded in fifteen years, and the Southern Poverty Law Center currently reports that this number has further increased to 939 active hate groups. During this period, Johnson’s department at the DHS also noticed a sharp increase in hate speech and death threats directed at Barack Obama.


In January 2005, Johnson was asked to help draft a five-year budget plan for the DHS. He noticed that the edited version listed Islamic groups and left-wing groups as domestic terror threats, but failed to mention a single right-wing group. As Johnson recounts in his book, he was assured by his supervisor that this was not an actual assessment of the domestic terror threat and will just be used for budgeting purposes. This DHS budget plan garnered significant political attention, especially from Democratic Congressman Bennie Thompson from Mississippi. According to Right-Wing Resurgence, at a hearing Congressman Thompson said:

“As the bombings of the Alfred. P Murrah Building in Oklahoma City ten Years ago demonstrated, right-wing domestic terrorists are capable of harming America in ways similar to al-Qaeda. Indeed, white supremacists, violent militiamen, anti-abortion bombers, and other right-wing hate groups have shown a remarkable ability to resist law enforcement authorities. In 2003, for example, the American radical right staged a ‘comeback’ with the number of skinhead groups doubling from the prior year.” Thompson continued, “If DHS’ long term planning documents do not consider these and other risks posed by right-wing domestic terrorists, then lower-level agents working to fight these groups may not be receiving enough budgetary, policy, or administrative support from their superiors. This means possible threats to our homeland could go undetected”.

At the time of this report, Johnson was the only analyst researching non-Islamic domestic terror threats.  After this critique of the 2005 DHS budget, Johnson was allowed to hire more analysts to build a team specifically designed to detect and analyze right-wing domestic terror threats, though this team would later be dismantled due to political backlash.

Prior to this initiative, the government paid very little attention to domestic terror threats from right wing groups. Johnson recalls in his book that “between 2004 to 2009, virtually no one in DHS leadership had expressed an interest in non-Islamic extremists,” and Janet Napolitano was the first Secretary of Homeland Security to ask him about these right-wing threats. This seemed like a new era of surveillance of these right-wing groups until a DHS employee leaked Johnson’s DHS report in 2009 titled, “Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment,” which outlined the factors that were promoting the formation of right-wing terrorist groups (mentioned above).

Conservative news media immediately picked up the leaked report and used it as a political tool to undermine the Obama administration by distorting the analysis. For example, conservative figurehead Lou Dobbs argued that, “the report says that people who are opposed to restricting Second Amendment rights to bear arms or who are concerned about illegal immigration and border security could well fall under the Department Of Homeland Security definition of an ‘extremist’.” Dobb’s analysis is incomplete and incorrect under the actual definition of “extremist” provided in the report, but a lack of government responsiveness to these attacks allowed the conservative media to continue to distort and politicize the report, arguing that DHS monitoring directly targeted conservatives.

Napolitano showed some initial support, but the White House eventually distanced itself from this report and downsized Johnson’s unit, virtually dismantling the only government department monitoring non-Islamic domestic terror threats. A few days after the report leaked, the government also suspended all domestic terrorism-related training and reporting. Ironically, this report, which was used by conservatives as a political tool to criticize the Obama administration, was written by the epitome of a “good conservative.” Johnson is a family man, a gun owner, a registered republican and a devout Mormon.


In the aftermath of the leak, the political discourse surrounding the report completely overshadowed its resounding message: that right-wing groups pose a legitimate threat to our domestic safety. Caving to political pressures when we have compiled hard numbers proving the prevalence of a terrorist threat and ignoring the direct connection between propaganda, recruiting and instances of domestic terror creates a dangerous environment that allows extremist groups to stay active. As Congressman Thompson rightfully feared in 2005, the refusal to properly monitor these extremist groups has led to undetected and underreported human rights violations on our own soil. For example, the rise of anti-immigration propaganda, publicized rallies against immigrants and legislation endorsing racial profiling in Arizona and elsewhere, were all directly correlated with an uptick in violent crimes against Hispanics, as documented in my previous article.

It is appalling that law enforcement and government officials repeatedly call calculated crimes driven by hate ‘isolated incidents’. For example, John Stack, an anti-establishmentarian, was very open about his hatred for the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and government regulations. He outlined his frustrations in a six-page manifesto before flying a plane into the IRS building in Austin, Texas in 2010. Texas law enforcement insisted this was an ‘isolated incident’, which is hard to believe when instances of anti-government violence are common in Texas. Writing off these cases of domestic terrorism by right-wing extremists as ‘isolated incidents’ is a rhetorical tool used by politicians and law enforcement to make sure they are not liable for failing to protect their constituents from known and active domestic terror threats.

We need to be more critical of the deference we give to the first amendment rights of extremists when they are clearly promoting domestic terrorist activities. As President Obama acknowledged, we need a multifaceted approach to combat international terrorism because relying solely on military force does not thwart recruitment efforts, leaving individuals ‘ripe for radicalization’. We must combat domestic terrorism by impeding recruitment efforts with the same fervor that we do for international terror threats. This begins by combating hate speech and radical ideologies that preach intolerance, recognizing domestic extremist threats as systemic in nature and adequately monitoring right-wing extremist groups.

Shruti Banerjee is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

Photo credit: David Ingram/Creative Commons

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On military intervention, ISIS and human rights

By Chris Beall ISIS

On Feb. 11, President Obama submitted a draft proposal to Congress, seeking to “authorize the limited use of the United States Armed Forces against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant,” (ISIL, otherwise known as ISIS and the Islamic State. Following John Kerry’s recognition of the immense power of symbols in this conflict, I will also choose to employ, Daesh, the Arabic acronym for ISIL.). On one hand, President Obama’s latest Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) request is little more than symbolic. As every reader will know, we’ve been flying sorties over Iraq and Syria for a good six months now, raining war from the sky, casually aiming to “degrade and destroy” Daesh from above. By the White House’s own logic, the President has two perfectly good and non-expiring AUMFs leftover from the previous administration with which to legally combat the latest Sunni insurgency in Mesopotamia.

But on the other hand, Obama’s new AUMF request is surely a sign of further escalation regarding the US role in the regional fight against Daesh. The fact that the President seeks to endow a bipartisan aura on future intervention in the region amounts to, perhaps cynically, a political hedge and risk-sharing exercise with his Republican counterparts. With his hands freed of potential partisan fallout, Obama may finally confront Daesh in a way that properly addresses the situation in Iraq and Syria.

However, partisan politics is just one shallow layer of the constraints involved in adequately confronting Daesh. At a more foundational level, one might reasonably ask whether or not anybody in the administration (or elsewhere) has the slightest idea what properly addressing the Daesh catastrophe should actually look like. Beyond the relatively easy military component, what does our strategy look like diplomatically? Does it conform to the social and political realities of the region? What does it mean to the Middle East’s wider, ongoing power struggles? Who, exactly, are we trying to help? What, exactly, are our ultimate goals? And presuming we do have such a plan, presuming we do possess a comprehensive and well thought-out strategy which addresses these and other concerns, perhaps the most damning question of all: does the United States posses the political maturity to carry out such a strategy?

I’m getting ahead of myself. First, let’s talk about Daesh.


Clearly, the horrors unfolding daily in Iraq and Syria prove that these are troubling times for human rights in the region, both substantively and discursively. At one end of the spectrum, there’s the violence itself. Beyond the usual tragedies inherent to armed-conflict, displaced populations, sectarian strife and failed states, Daesh represents a particularly brutal malignment to the state of human rights in 2015. Summary executions, ethnic cleansing, mass kidnappings, mass rape, enslavement, beheadings, immolation: these sorts of things make the headlines, so I’ll say little about such barbarity here.

But, as alluded to above, Daesh has also raised a conflicting state of unease in the human rights discourse more generally. Given the movement’s ruthlessness and special mastery of atrocity—captured on film, nonetheless, and waved in our faces through a savvy social media campaign—it is now incredibly easy for even the most ardent pacifist to find him or herself tempted by the prospect of asymmetrical military intervention or any military solution to this grotesque and intense violence. If there’s ever been such a thing as an “evil adversary,” Daesh has put forth a compelling audition for that notorious role. If there’s ever actually been a “good fight,” this feels pretty close.

And yet, we should ask ourselves what is accomplished in these sorts of conclusions. What are their consequences, and what might they obscure?


In what might be called a positive byproduct or very small victory in nearly fifteen years now of a U.S.-led War on Terror, our past conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have birthed a compelling and insightful body of academic literature, related to the role of human rights in the public mobilization for war, including the work of Lila Abu-Lughod, Charles Hirschkind and Saba Mahmood. To take just one quote, their basic premise goes something like this: “In the crusade to liberate Afghan women from the tyranny of Taliban rule, there seemed to be no limit of the violence to which Americans were willing to subject the Afghans, women and men alike.”

Now, clearly, Daesh is not the Taliban of Afghanistan, and I don’t mean to reinforce the problematic and all too common practice of thinking of these sorts of movements as some essentialized and monolithic radical Islamist monster identity. But the lessons learned retroactively in 2001 and 2003 are lessons that human rights advocates would be wise to keep in mind proactively, as we think about intervening on behalf of those currently suffering under the brutality of Daesh.

On one level, we should ensure that our well-intentioned motives are not used to overlook America’s past failures in Iraq and our very real hand in making the region’s current human rights crisis. The destabilizing force of the U.S. intervention in 2003 unleashed decades worth of pent up Sunni-Shia divisions within Iraq, previously held in check only by Saddam Hussein’s oppressive Ba’ath Party. After thirty-some years of disenfranchisement and routine state violence at the hands of Sunni Ba’athists, Iraq’s majority Shiites (and Iran, for that matter) unsurprisingly viewed 2003 as their turn at the helm.

Seemingly oblivious to the fact that this social dimension even existed in Iraqi society, or perhaps sick and tired of our own unpopular war, the U.S. stood by silently while Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki extolled revenge on the nation’s previous power wielders. Watching their rights and livelihoods erode under their feet, Iraq’s Sunnis, naturally, began to look for alternatives. Hence the support base that Daesh currently thrives on.

To think that the U.S. has magically gained the ability to better navigate Iraq’s sectarian landscape, as we talk about returning to the region, is, frankly, an optimism that I cannot share with our president. As such, it feels incredibly naïve to think that our presence can offer anything beyond further destabilization to an already destabilized region.


Cue, also, Rumsfeld’s old “unknown unknowns.” Beyond our hand in stoking sectarian tensions generally, we should also note that we quite literally birthed Daesh within the walls of our occupation-era military prisons. According to The Guardian, just about every senior official in Daesh—including self-appointed Caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi—are all alumni of the U.S.-administered cells of Camp Bucca. After meeting and brainstorming jihad together during their early-occupation periods of confinement, members of the future Islamic State practically left American prisons with Sunni insurgency phone books smuggled out on the waistbands of their underwear. While this raises obvious policy questions concerning how the United States administers occupation, it also emphasizes our disturbing ability to make a bad situation worse, without our even realizing it.

While our role in creating this monster might itself give weight to the notion that we hold some moral obligation to combat Daesh—to quell the brutality that we have unleashed in the region—I return to the idea of political maturity, mentioned above.

In an article by Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, Roth poignantly recognizes that there cannot be a feasible U.S. military solution to the Daesh crisis, without simultaneously addressing “the other side” of this bloodshed: both murderous Shia militias in Iraq and Bashar al-Assad’s ongoing civilian massacres in Syria. Simply put, any intervention that fails to consider the legitimate security concerns of all sides of this conflict has little chance of achieving meaningful or lasting results.


The United States has demonstrated an unsettling track record, when it comes to these sorts of gray areas. We like good guys and bad guys, Manichean struggles that break down along the lines of “with us” or “against us.” Unfortunately, the conflict in Syria and Iraq fails to fit in such neat and clean boxes.

And so if tackling Daesh requires an equal pressure applied to Iraq’s Shia militias and Assad’s own Alawite regime, as Kenneth Roth suggests, it starts to appear that there can be no military solution here, short of drastic U.S. cooperation alongside the Shia/Alawite benefactors in Tehran. To actually pull off a meaningful military intervention against Daesh would require a serious reevaluation of our relationship with Iran, which would itself require a serious reevaluation of our relationship with the State of Israel, at least in its current form under the Likud. For all of our bombs and brute force, we simply lack the seriousness to see through this kind of reevaluation.

If we cannot take seriously the necessary conditions of a successful military intervention in Iraq and Syria—one that seeks to achieve a political balance and sustainable peace in the region—then it seems that anything short of this can only prolong and increase the suffering of all sides wrapped up in the conflict. With the latest official numbers of foreign fighters standing at 20,000 recruits flocking to the banners of Daesh, the U.S. does nobody any favors by bolstering their ranks with a new deployment of force in the region. Such a move would only provide Daesh with a propaganda victory in their ongoing struggle for legitimacy across the Islamic World.

Providing them with this victory, in exchange for an actual military-based rescue of human rights in the region, might hypothetically be very well worth it. Unfortunately, such a solution in today’s Syria and Iraq will not prove so easy. If a military rescue of human rights is beyond feasibility, then what can possibly be gained in any half-hearted attempt?

Chris Beall is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

Photo credit: Day Donaldson/Creative Commons


Discrepancies in hate crime statistics point to larger issues

By Shruti Banerjee

From the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963 to the Oak Creek Temple Shooting in 2012 to the recent shooting of three Muslim students in North Carolina, crimes motivated by prejudice occur all too often in the United States. Despite this, hate crimes are poorly documented by the government. An analysis of the US’s current methods of data collection on hate crimes shows drastic discrepancies in the data and severe underreporting of hate crimes, leading to an inability to properly address the underlying causes and frequency of these crimes.

Unable to adequately prevent, combat and prosecute hate crimes, minority groups in the US are left vulnerable to attacks and mistrustful of police. Not only does this allow for hate crimes to continue unabated, it also renders the US out of compliance with Article 26 of the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), as documented by a 2013 shadow report for the United States’ fourth Universal Periodic Review by the International Center for Advocates Against Discrimination (ICAAD). Article 26 of the ICCPR requires the protection of marginalized communities and prevention of hate crimes.


The US currently employs two different databases with varying data collection methods to assess the prevalence of hate crimes in the US—the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) Uniform Crime Reporting Program (UCR) and the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ (BJS) National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS). In 1990, Congress passed the Hate Crime Statistics Act to collect data “about crimes that manifest evidence of prejudice based on race, religion, sexual orientation, or ethnicity.” The Act was amended in 1994 by The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act to include crimes against people with disabilities and in 2009 by The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act to include statistics on hate crimes based on gender and gender identity prejudices. In 1996, hate crime data collection become a permanent part of the FBI UCR Program, which served as the primary source of data on hate crimes until the introduction of the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ (BJS) National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) in 2003.

The FBI UCR Program collects data on hate crimes known to the police and other law enforcement agencies. They rely entirely on the voluntary cooperation of state and local officials to accurately report hate crimes as outlined by the FBI Hate Crime Data Collection Guidelines and Training Manual, which trains law enforcement officials in discerning whether a crime was motivated wholly or in part by prejudice.

In contrast to the FBI’s UCR Program, the NCVS is a self-report survey annually conducted by U.S. Census Bureau for BJS. The NCVS collects data on hate crimes both reported and unreported to law enforcement and allows the victim to define whether a hate crime occurred. For a crime to be classified as a hate crime in the NCVS, the victim must show that the incident was motivated by bias in at least one of three ways: police confirmation, use of discriminatory language by the offender or presence of hate symbols.


The discrepancy in hate crime statistics between the two databases are both jarring and disturbing. In 2012, the FBI’s Annual Hate Crime Statistic’s Report reported 5,796 hate crimes, while the NCVS estimated 293,800 violent and property hate crimes in the same year. This disparity can be attributed in part to the FBI’s method of data collection. Since state and local agencies are not legally obligated to provide data to the FBI, hate crimes are often underreported. For example, according to the FBI’s data, there were zero hate crimes in Mississippi and Alabama in 2005. In contrast, California reported 1,379 incidents and New York reported 249 hate crimes in the same year. Drastic differences among state statistics such as these show how political motivations may hinder reporting. “The FBI hate crime count is based on a voluntary reporting system that many local police jurisdictions refuse to support,” Professor Jack Levin said in an interview with HateWatch. He continued, “It is hard to imagine such a huge divergence in rates [among states] arising out of anything but different reporting standards — and, perhaps, different levels of enthusiasm for reporting hate crimes at all.”

Moreover, states vary greatly in how they define hate crimes and in their standards for training law enforcement officials about detecting these crimes. Some don’t have an official data collection system for hate crimes and the majority of states do not require their police to be trained in identifying hate crimes, contributing furthermore to the lack of reporting. Even when hate crimes are properly classified by police, they often go unreported, possibly due to public relations concerns or a police officer’s personal bias. There may also be an unwillingness to publicize the attacks because it could garner more attention for minority group interests like LGBT rights and immigration reform.

Another part of the problem is the extremely low rate of victims reporting hate crimes to the police and other law enforcement agencies. According to the BJS an estimated 60 percent of hate crimes were not reported to law enforcement in 2012. This low rate of reporting to law enforcement can be attributed to many possible factors, including: distrust of the police, the fact that showing prejudice motivation is often difficult to prove, fear of racist or homophobic sentiment from the police, fear of deportation, fear of retaliation from ones attacker, fear of being exposed as a part of the LGBT community, lack of English proficiency, limited knowledge of the rights and services available to victims, and cultural norms against reporting/complaining, according to Levin and the ICAAD.


Without complete and accurate data on the prevalence of hate crimes, government officials and law enforcement agencies cannot make sound decisions about properly allocating resources to prosecute and prevent them, allowing for crimes to spiral out of control. For example, the Hispanic community in the US has seen an uptick in hate crimes. The BJS data from 2004 to 2012 showed that in 2012, 51 percent of hate crimes were motivated by ethnicity (the victim’s ancestral, cultural, national or social affiliation). Notably, the rate of violent hate crimes against Latinos rose more than threefold from 2011 (0.6 per 1,000 persons age 12 or older) to 2012 (2.0 per 1,000). This may have contributed to the 12 percent overall increase of hate crimes involving violence from 2004 (78 percent) to 2011 and 2012 (90 percent). In December 2008, LatinoJustice filed a petition with the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights (IACHR) asserting that, “The United States is failing to meet its obligation to ensure the security of Latinos who are residing in the United States. Latinos are being targeted, attacked, brutalized and murdered because of their race and ethnicity, and increasingly because of their perceived immigration status in incidents with rising frequency and severity throughout the United States. The United States is doing nothing to prevent these attacks or to protect Latinos from these incidents of hate.”

Alarmingly, Hispanics are not the only ones who are increasingly targeted. The NCVS data shows that the percentage of hate crimes motivated by religious bias almost tripled from 10 percent in 2004 to 28 percent in 2012, and that those influenced by gender bias increased twofold from 12 percent to 26 percent during the same period. These numbers indicate a recent rise in anti-Arab/Muslim-sentiment and an increase in crimes against the LGBT community. This could be attributed to negative media representations of minority groups, political discourse surrounding their interests and rights, as well as general lack of knowledge of these communities’ values.


Without hard numbers to prove the frequency and patterns in these hate motivated crimes, we allow our elected officials to write off the underlying issues behind hate crimes by viewing them as isolated incidents or calling them “senseless acts of violence”. Although the FBI UCR has tried to fill gaps in its data collection by expanding the bias types in the religious category to include all the religions identified by the U.S. Census Bureau and Pew Research Center, and by revising its hate crime data collection procedures to include an anti-Arab bias motivation beginning January 2015, these changes are merely a step in the right direction. The FBI’s reports will not reflect the true number of hate crimes in the US until all state offices accurately identify and report hate crimes, and victims of hate crimes feel comfortable reporting these incidents to law enforcement.

We cannot continue to ignore the factors that are contributing to these hate crimes and need to be critical of our elected officials when they do not take active steps to protect our communities under frequent attack. A crime motivated by hate is not senseless—it is calculated, intentional and rooted in bias. Ultimately, without proper data collection we are unable to gauge the full scope of hate driven crimes and our ignorance allows these crimes to continue unabated.

Shruti Banerjee is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

Photo credit: Tony Webster/Creative Commons


The violence of gentrification

By Urooj Rahman

Recent news coverage and events around the country have riled up discussions about the militarization of police and the over-policing of certain communities, predominantly neighborhoods of working and middle class people of color. These over-policed neighborhoods are also the same neighborhoods whose long-time (decades-long, in many cases) residents are slowly being pushed out for newer residents who can afford to pay higher rents, live in luxury condos and afford pricier shops, boutiques and restaurants. Places like El Barrio (aka Spanish Harlem), Harlem, Washington Heights, Bushwick, Williamsburg, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Crown Heights and Long Island City have all seen this change happening within the last few decades. As the New York Police Department (NYPD) continues to target working and middle class black and brown communities, continually arresting people for petty offenses and misdemeanors (widely known as “quality of life” offenses or “Broken Windows policing”), they pave the way for proponents of gentrification to come in and rezone neighborhoods until the longstanding residents are gone and the culture of the community is gutted. Militarized over-policing goes hand-in-hand with the gentrification of neighborhoods in New York City and throughout the country. Even NYPD Police Commissioner Bill Bratton expressed sentiments that, “a safe city means business thrives… If you make it safe, they will come, they will build, [and] we need to make those remaining areas of poverty and depression safe, so you will come and build.”

Gradual displacement of people, small businesses, art, and culture is often the result of discriminatory rezoning codes and real estate practices which allow wealthy real estate developers to build luxury condominiums and public spaces for the benefit of new residents, with very little consideration, if any, for providing affordable housing to the long-time residents of the area. This is often followed by an increase in the quality of services in the neighborhood—timely garbage pick-ups, development of public spaces, more access to healthy food and actual police assistance rather than police harassment—that were not there when the neighborhoods predominantly consisted of low to middle income people of color.

As the process of gentrification runs its course with the help of institutionalized racism, whole communities are erased and replaced. This process, concealed in symbolic violence, is also aided by physical violence. In order to maintain gentrification, the NYPD patrols and targets these already over-policed communities, and arrests individuals committing petty offenses, such as the selling untaxed cigarettes, evasion of subway fares, panhandling, sex work or simply standing (dubbed “loitering”) in the hallway of their New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) housing project. Such practices have often resulted in the asymmetric targeting, incarceration and killing of black and brown people, such as the killing of Eric Garner who was choked to death in Staten Island by a police officer performing an illegal chokehold on him for allegedly selling untaxed cigarettes. The intersection of policing and gentrification is not to be dismissed, as NYPD Police Commissioner Bill Bratton even expressed that he feels that creating “safer communities” lead[s] to tourism and job creation, and that policing was the “necessary ingredient for an inviting business climate.”

As rents continue to rise and working and middle class neighborhoods throughout New York City continue to be swallowed by gentrification, discriminatory and aggressive policing is also increasing in these fast-changing areas, despite the fact that crime continues to decline. Yet, the targeting of people who are committing petty offenses only occurs in certain areas. You will not see police officers patrolling around Columbia University on 110th and Broadway looking for local Morningside Heights residents who are “loitering” or selling and buying drugs. You will see the police only a few blocks away in Harlem patrolling NYCHA housing projects and the surrounding areas for anyone committing “trespass” offenses or loitering in the hallways, even when those individuals are actual residents of the housing projects. Often these patrols can go wrong as we saw with the tragic killing of Akai Gurley, a young black man from East New York, Brooklyn, who was gunned down by a rookie police officer in a staircase of the Louis Pink housing projects. The NYPD targets these areas because they view these predominantly Black and Latino communities as threats to safety and to a welcoming business climate for gentrification.

It has been well documented that people of color throughout New York City have experienced an increase in profiling and criminalization, often through unwarranted stops (previously, stop-and-frisks before the practice was halted) for aforementioned “quality of life offenses.” The first half of 2014 alone resulted in 27,527 stops, of which 82 percent “were totally innocent,” according to the New York Civil Liberties Union. Eighty-one percent of stops were of black and Latino New Yorkers, whereas only 12 percent of stop were of white New Yorkers. Making “quality of life arrests,” patrolling NYCHA buildings for loiterers, harassing street dancers and artists and the continued policing of minor offenses by police has resulted in the disproportionate targeting and continued killing of unarmed black and brown people.

The need for a policing overhaul must go hand in hand with the need to acknowledge gentrification’s violent effects on communities of color throughout the city. Recently, Mayor de Blasio announced a plan to build even more luxury condos, which in his mind, would somehow allow for the alleviation of gentrification by encouraging developers to build 20 percent of their units for affordable housing through a tax break. Investment in business and neighborhoods is not the only way to alleviate crime. The need to invest in and provide better services to underserved communities can also lend itself to making neighborhoods and communities safer. Conversely, petty offenses occur because of the lack of opportunity and investment in a community. If we continue to ignore the people who are the bedrock of this city—the long-time residents, the artists, the working class, people of color—then New York will continue down the dark path of becoming a shining example of inequality for the rest of the country to emulate.

Urooj Rahman is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

Photo credit: Alan Greig/Creative Commons