Rights Wire

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

1 Comment

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


Self-fulfilling propaganda: the effects of arming Ukraine

By Chris Beall

Did you know that in November 2013, Ukrainians overthrew their legitimate and democratically elected government in a violent, Western-supported coup? Did you know that later in April, the Kiev military launched a brutal campaign against the nation’s “independence supporters” in Donbass, or that, through a sophisticated Western propaganda campaign, the U.S. has maliciously and wrongfully painted Russia as the conflict’s aggressor?

How about the “very likely” belief that most weapons possessed by the independence supporters are, actually, locally sourced? Or the fact—substantiated through multiple neutral inspections—that no indication of Russian military activity has yet to be detected along the Ukrainian border? That “Canada, Britain, the U.S. and the boys with their toys in NATO headquarters are looking for a fight with Russia,” and that these Western nations are implementing policies in the region based on “imperial hubris instead of science and expertise?”

So goes the discourse, under the Russian propaganda machine. This is what journalism looks like when the Kremlin handles your payroll.

Of course, as a preface, let’s not oversell this. Our own media system is no stranger to questionably selective cherry-picking. It’s rare even in the West to find a truly nuanced treatment of the Ukraine crisis: one which takes seriously Russia’s real geostrategic interests in the region, or, for example, the important role played by Ukrainian gas debts in explaining Russia’s reaction the above-noted coup.

And yet, without myself being on the ground in Donetsk, I’ll go out on a limb here and say that the bulk of the above amounts to utter absurdity. Amnesty International has highlighted the mounting evidence of direct Russian involvement in Ukraine, and a recent report by the Royal United Services Institute, a British security think-tank, confirms the same.

Writing for Foreign Policy, Peter Pomerantsev argues that Vladimir Putin’s greatest political success in recent years has been his construction of a truly modern Russian propaganda apparatus: a selective information machine marked by glitz and innovation beyond the scope of its stale Soviet predecessor. According to Pomerantsev, Putin has created a willingly captive audience for the narratives disseminated out of the Kremlin—claims like Ukraine’s new government being run by neo-Nazis or the borderline-paranoid assumption that the United States and NATO are constantly plotting to weaken and undermine Moscow. This partially explains Putin’s extraordinary 86 percent approval rating as of late, despite the virtual collapse of the ruble and Russia’s increasingly repressive domestic police measures.

But what is perhaps the most remarkable in all of this post-Soviet propaganda regarding the Ukraine crisis is how badly certain elements of our own government in Washington apparently seek to legitimize these exact narratives.

As the less-than-optimistic Minsk II peace treaty between Kiev and Ukraine’s Eastern Provinces limps onward, conversations have already resurfaced in Washington encouraging President Obama to arm the Ukrainian government with lethal aid and military assistance, aimed at countering Putin’s aggressive foreign policy actions. Just on March 4, a bipartisan mix of eleven U.S. Representatives brought a new letter to President Obama, urging the “transfer of lethal, defensive weapons systems to the Ukrainian military.” Meanwhile, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, U.S. Army General Martin Dempsey and our new Defense Secretary Ashton Carter have each displayed some willingness to adopt such a policy.

Needless to say, there is some logic to arming Kiev. These sorts of arms shipments are an all too familiar form of asymmetrical hard power, employed by nation-states all over the globe. The basic idea is to put Ukraine in a position where it may drastically increase the strategic costs of Russian intervention in the region. Put bluntly, the goal is to kill increasing numbers of Russians fighting alongside Eastern Ukrainian separatists, and thereby erode Putin’s domestic approval as casualties mount. Or, as Jeremy Shapiro of the Brookings Institution summarizes, “The government supposedly fears the ire of Russian mothers whose devotion to the well-being of their soldier-sons can move political mountains even in authoritarian Russia. Rather than face a growing number of aroused and organized Russian mothers, the thinking goes, President Vladimir Putin will avoid escalation in Ukraine.”

However, while this form of containment policy can be implemented cheaply and easily by the United States, this hardly means that it will actually solve anything. As Shapiro wisely recognizes, “Unfortunately, one of the few more powerful forces than mothers in Russian politics is anti-Americanism.” Given President Putin’s current approval ratings and the complex and multifaceted propaganda machine he has built for himself, it would be impossible for the United States to arm Kiev without providing support and credibility to the Kremlin’s U.S.-imperial narrative.

Furthermore, while it’s easy for members of the House to romantically sympathize with the ongoing struggle of the bullied Ukrainian government—as we should—it’s quite another leap entirely to think that sending guns will actually aid in their plight. Paternalistic as it may sound, it is crucial to consider the realpolitik backdrop of this conflict. Nobody doubts that geopolitically, Ukraine is far more important to Russia than to the United States. Likewise, it is clear that short of direct U.S. military intervention and open combat with Russia, nothing is really stopping the Russian military from storming Kiev and devouring the whole country, if that’s what the Kremlin actually wanted.

The risk, then, is turning this into a post-Cold War chicken match, in which the United States is almost certain to blink first, and the result of which will only reinforce the American imperialism framework that Russia has utilized to rationalize and build domestic support for this conflict. Statesmanship starts to get silly as one approaches universal approval ratings. By placing ourselves in a position where the U.S. actually does play a hand in killing Russian servicemen, Putin would have all the fuel he needs to make a real mess of things in the region.

This, ultimately, raises questions regarding the human rights concerns of this policy. By upping Putin’s stakes in Ukraine and escalating this conflict beyond the last year’s six-thousand casualties, the real losers of U.S.-Ukrainian arms shipments will be those exact victims who would benefit the greatest under a diplomatic close to hostilities. This includes future victims of Kharviv-style terrorist attacks, in Kiev and elsewhere, as well as the civilians on both sides of the conflict, currently caught in the crossfires of Donbass. An escalation of hostilities, absent some realistic end goal of peace, will simply drag out this crisis.

There’s a reason that the U.S.’s own allies are warning us not to arm the Ukrainian government. France and Germany, the brokers of the current Minsk II peace treaty, recognize that this conflict only ends diplomatically. The fact that we will rely on these nations, in any attempt to place further economic pressure or Russia, goes without saying. But the U.S.’s relationship with its allies aside, if we truly want to promote rights, democracy and peace in Ukraine, then there seems little choice here other than at least temporarily placing our bets on Minsk II. Shaky as this treaty as started, sending U.S. arms to Kiev can only cripple its efforts, and further delay a diplomatic peace in Ukraine.

Chris Beall is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

Photo Credit: People in Need/European Commission/Creative Commons


BRIEFING: Everything you need to know about Colombia’s peace process


Memorial to the victims of FARC violence.

By Guillermo Farias

The government of Colombia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country’s largest and most-organized rebel group, started holding peace talks with the government in November 2012 in Havana, Cuba. The talks have the potential to end the longest armed conflict in the western hemisphere.

In the past few weeks, the talks have entered a crucial stage and gathered momentum. In late February, the United States appointed a special envoy, Bernard Aronson, to the peace talks. Prior to Aronson’s appointment, the United States had only been peripherally involved in the talks. Adding to the momentum, on March 2, President Santos announced that five Colombian army generals would join the negotiations in Havana. While the generals won’t take part in the negotiations directly, their arrival marks the first time that active duty members of the military attend talks. At this stage, the generals’ role is to develop a framework for discussion on a permanent and verifiable cease-fire that would go into effect if the talks succeed. Most recently, the two parties agreed on a joint-program to clear landmines. Colombia is one of the world’s most heavily mined countries. Over the past 15 years, 11,000 people have been killed or injured by landmines. Unarmed guerilla fighters will work side by side with the Colombian military and Norwegian advisors will oversee the mine-clearing program. These developments indicate that an agreement, while far from certain, is within grasp.


Territorial disputes among the Colombian military, leftwing guerrilla groups, and rightwing paramilitary groups have left more 220,000 dead and 5.7 million internally displaced people (IDPs) over the past fifty years. According to the latest annual report from United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), only Syria has more IDPs than Colombia.

FARC and National Liberation Army (ELN), the two main rebel groups operating in Colombia, were founded shortly after a period of civil unrest and war known as La Violencia. The civil war, in which the Liberal and Conservative parties battled for control of the country, lasted from 1948 to 1958. La Violencia ended with a power-sharing agreement. However, both the FARC and ELN were excluded from the deal and took up arms against the new government.

The FARC and the ELN share some broad aims but draw support from different sectors of society. The ELN was made up primarily of Catholic radicals inspired by the Vatican II Conference, students and intellectuals inspired by the Cuban Revolution. FARC, on the other hand, draws support from rural areas and is composed of peasant self-defense groups and communist militants. Despite their different support bases, both the ELN and FARC oppose the privatization of natural resources, American influence in Colombia, right-wing paramilitary groups and claim to represent the oppressed rural population in its struggle against the wealthy elite.

Both FARC and ELN have lost significant strength over the last decade. Former President Alvaro Uribe, in office from 2002 to 2010, took an aggressive stance against the rebel groups. Uribe’s aggressive efforts to weaken FARC were supported by the United States, which trained, equipped and provided covert support to the Colombian armed forces. The aggressive military strategy, despite carrying high costs, succeeded in weakening the rebel groups.

According to Colombian government statistics, the FARC had around 7,000 members in 2013, which is a steep drop from 16,000 in 2001. And the ELN is has approximately 1,400 members, significantly less than its membership in the 1990s when it was at its peak. Despite their diminished ranks, both FARC and ELN continue to attack civilians on a routine basis and continue to use antipersonnel landmines. Both groups are also involved in drug-trafficking and other organized crime activities.

The conflict in Colombia also triggered the formation of right-wing paramilitary groups. Most of these groups were demobilized in 2003, when the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), the largest group, entered a peace deal with the government. Under the deal, paramilitary leaders surrendered in exchange for reduced jail terms and guarantees that they would not be extradited. The framework for demobilizing paramilitary fighters has so far, over 10 years after it came into effect, allowed those responsible for atrocities to escape prosecution and punishment. Only 37 out of the more than 30,000 members of paramilitary groups who demobilized have been convicted of crimes under the framework as of September 2014, according to Human Rights Watch. Further, many members of demobilized paramilitary groups reorganized into new, less cohesive groups that routinely commit serious abuses, including disappearances, sexual violence, and killings.


The current peace negotiations began in secret in 2010 and were made public in 2012. This is not the first time that the government and FARC have sat at the negotiating table. Several previous efforts at peace have failed. However, this round of peace talks has gathered more momentum than previous efforts.

Who are the participants?

Humberto de la Calle, a former Vice-President, leads the government’s negotiating team. The government’s team also includes retired generals from the armed forces and former police officers. The FARC party is led by Ivan Marquez, a member of the FARC secretariat, and includes other high-ranking members of the guerilla group.

Cuba is hosting the talks. Norway, Chile and Venezuela are acting mediators and observers.

The recently arrived active-duty generals won’t take part in the negotiations directly, as they are in Havana in an advisory capacity. Bernard Aronson, the United States’ special envoy, will also play a behind-the-scenes role.

How are the talks structured?

In 2012, at around the time the talks were made public, the two sides agreed to a five-point negotiating agenda that covers:

  • Land reform
  • Political participation
  • Drug trafficking
  • Victims rights and reparations
  • Disarmament and implementation of the peace deal

The talks have two key structural features. First, the government has refused to agree to a bilateral cease-fire until the agreement is finalized. Allowing for a cease-fire before then, it argues, would incentivize the rebels to extend the talks. In December 2014, FARC declared a unilateral cease-fire. Second, there will be no partial implementation of the agreements. If the sides fail to agree to a resolution on all the agenda points, no part of the agreement will not go into effect. President Santos believes that unless the agreement completely ends the conflict, voters will think that the government made unnecessary concessions to the guerrilla.

After both sides reach an agreement on all five agenda items, they will review and finalize the agreement. The final agreement would be ratified by in a popular referendum.

What has been agreed so far?

The two sides have so far reached agreement on the first three points of the negotiating agenda: land reform, political participation for the rebel groups and drug trafficking.

The land reform agreement focuses on improving the economic and social conditions of Colombia’s beleaguered countryside and on providing land to poor farmers. The agreement on counter-narcotics policy is centered on a promise to eliminate drug production, the rebel group’s main source of resources. The partial accord on political participation provides FARC with an opportunity to enter into formal politics. The rebel group aspires to become a political party after the deal is signed.

Details of the agreements have not been released and the two sides have not been widely available to the media. This is likely an effort to limit posturing and the pitfalls that have doomed previous peace efforts.

What remains to be negotiated?

Transitional justice, the fourth agenda point, is extremely sensitive and the two sides appear to have found little common ground. The FARC has so far insisted that its members serve no time in jail. The government, on other hand, has publicly stated that it will not guarantee impunity as a condition for peace.

Former President Cesar Gaviria, who was in office from 1990 to 1994 and later served as Secretary General of the Organization of American States, has issued a proposal that centers on a transitional justice model. Gaviria’s proposal would exempt non-combatants from prosecution if they confessed their involvement in human rights abuses. Lower-ranking officers of the Colombian military and those that committed crimes by “omission” would also avoid prosecution and jail time.

While Gaviria’s proposal is worthwhile and has attracted significant attention in Colombia, it has also raised some thorny and difficult issues as analysis by the Washington Office on Latin America’s (WOLA) points out. For example, why should all non-combatants avoid jail time? Many civilians were extensively involved in the conflict and likely bear responsibility for serious abuses. Should crimes of “omission” go unpunished? Many massacres committed by paramilitary forces appear to have been enabled by military inaction. Finally, lower ranking soldiers acting on their own are likely responsible for serious crimes, why should they avoid jail time simply because of their rank?

The debate over transitional justice has just begun and is likely to prove extremely complex.


The Colombian peace process has made significant progress. Peace, long outside the realm of the possible, is now within the grasp of both parties. Not only is a negotiated peace the best solution to Colombia’s deep structural problems, many of which were at the core of the conflict. It is also the best way to avoid renewed violence. If the peace talks were to collapse at this stage, the Colombian government would likely embark in a new all-out offensive to defeat FARC. That would inevitably bring new bloodshed and suffering to a country has already been through more than enough.

Guillermo Farias is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

Photo credit: Natalia Diaz/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

Agents of the Guatemalan National Police at their graduation.

Leave a comment

Getting away with murder in Central America

By Guillermo Farias

Guatemala is an excellent place to escape the consequences of committing murder. According to official 2013 figures, only 2 percent of crimes are prosecuted. Honduras and El Salvador present similar opportunities to murder with impunity and have criminal violence levels to match. According the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the three countries of Central America’s “northern triangle” have faced homicide rates above 40 murders per 100,000 inhabitants for much of the last decade. The high levels of violence are the result of a myriad of factors, including the entry of Mexican drug trafficking organizations into Central America, deteriorating socio-economic conditions and an increase in gang-related violence. However, the governments of the region have poured gasoline on the fire by adopting shortsighted security strategies that sacrifice human rights for a false sense of security.

In the face of the security crisis, the governments of the region have chosen to follow security strategies that emphasize arrests and violent action over effective prosecutions and institutional reform. Over 20,000 soldiers are currently deployed in a public security role in Guatemala and the government recently announced the creation of an inter-agency task force to address drug trafficking that includes military personnel. Simultaneously, the administration of President Otto Pérez Molina has undermined efforts to reduce impunity and increase accountability for abuses by security forces. In an opaque decision that many saw as motivated by outside forces, the Constitutional Court removed the Attorney General from office seven months before her term was due to end. Pérez Molina has also announced that the mandate of the United Nations-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), which has supported efforts to investigate and prosecute organized crime, will not be renewed when it expires in 2015. Guatemala’s neighbors have followed a similar path.

Honduras deployed the military to carry out public security duties in 2011 and created a military police force that has the power to carry out arrests and seize control of violent neighborhoods in 2013. In 2014, the military police was deployed. Despite these drastic actions, the 2015 murder rate in the country remained the highest in the world. As in Guatemala, the aggressive security strategy has been accompanied by an assault on judicial and prosecutorial independence. Four judges that were removed from the Supreme Court’s Constitutional Chamber in 2012 reported being subject to police harassment and death threats. Even more alarmingly, over 40 judges have been suspended by the Council of the Judiciary, a body created in 2011 and given authority to appoint and dismiss judges that has been criticized for lacking safeguards against political interference.

The director of the El Salvador’s national police recently urged officers to use their weapons against criminals with “complete confidence” and aggressively defended the use of lethal force in security operations. In tandem, the appointment procedure for judges has been weakened, raising concerns that appointments will be made based on political affiliation.

The aggressive use of force and the parallel weakening of the judiciary and other rule of law institutions in these three countries lays bare a raw political calculation: security requires action, not checks and oversight. In other words, you can either have security or you can respect human rights, but doing both is impractical. The international community, especially the United States, should put pressure on the governments of the region in order to change this calculation. Reducing impunity and focusing on institutional reform will go further in improving security than the fight-fire-with-fire approach that the governments of the region have adopted.

Guillermo Farias is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

Photo credit: Gobierno de Guatemala/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

Leave a comment

Placing women’s rights issues in Burma on the UPR agenda in November

By Jennifer Li

The rules for the Spaghetti Tower Challenge are simple and, as far as ice-breakers go, an interesting way to start off a three-day workshop with women’s rights NGOs in Burma. Take 20 strands of dried pasta, a few marshmallows, some Scotch tape, and build the highest tower you can. Just don’t tape the pasta to the floor.

The array of architectural innovation was impressive – though the engineering was, admittedly, less sound. Cell phone towers and leaning towers of pasta scattered across the floor space of our hotel conference room in Pyin Oo Lwin, Myanmar [Burma], about an hour’s car ride east of Mandalay. Bobble a marshmallow at the top, and suddenly it’s Jenga.

It is an improbable, ridiculous, but nevertheless accurate metaphor for Burma’s human rights situation. In January 2015, a team from the Asia Law and Justice Program at the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice – represented by Professors Elisabeth Wickeri and Joey Lee, along with 3L Fordham law students Dana Swanson and Jennifer Li – traveled with members of the New York-based Global Justice Center to Pyin Oo Lwin. The New York team met with over two-dozen members of the Women’s League of Burma (WLB) – a coalition of community-based women’s rights organizations – to introduce the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) as an additional tool to bring women’s rights issues to the attention of the international community. The three-day workshop, consisting of an introduction to the UPR process and the drafting of a research work plan on designated thematic issue areas, culminated in a commitment by all participants to work collectively on a stakeholder submission in advance of Burma’s next UPR in November 2015.

In the four years since Burma’s democratic transition began in 2011, the country has made notable strides forward in human rights reforms, including establishing a National Human Rights Commission and releasing scores of political prisoners. Burma’s human rights record, however, continues to be marked by political and ethnic tensions that serve as flashpoints for communal violence – not only between the Buddhist majority and Muslim minority, as widely reported in the international press, but also against local Christian minorities. Clashes between the national army and non-state groups have contributed to the forced relocation of hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) to southeast Burma, in addition to the nearly half a million refugees that continue to live in temporary camps in Thailand. Calls for constitutional and electoral reforms have rung hollow.

Serious and persistent violations against the most vulnerable populations are rampant, including violence against women and girls. Burma’s protracted internal armed conflict, spurred by ethnic and political divisions, have had a disproportionate impact on women and girls. A recent WLB report documented over 100 cases of systemic, state-sponsored sexual violence in ethnic communities – a conservative estimate of the number of actual violations when considering the volume of unreported incidents. Even as evidence suggests that the use of sexual violence has been used as a strategy and tool by the military regime, impunity provisions in the constitution prevent bringing the perpetrators to justice.

It was against this backdrop that Burma participated in its first UPR in January 2011. The UPR, then a relatively new UN mechanism whereby the General Assembly reviews each country’s human rights record on a four-year cycle, was a chance for Burma to present on the international stage its commitment to human rights reforms, and to engage in an interactive dialogue with other nations on a wide range of human rights issues. Not surprisingly, the Burmese delegation failed to provide meaningful responses in many issue areas, including judicial reform and ending military impunity. As Human Rights Watch reported at the time, even as the Burmese delegation was dispatched to Geneva for the UPR, the government army was forcing hundreds of prisoners to serve as porters for army units in combat areas in Karen State – in clear violation of international humanitarian law proscribing forced labor.

As with UN treaty body reviews, NGOs have the opportunity to help shape the conversation during UPR dialogues, both through written submissions as well as in-person lobbying at the review in Geneva. The lack of commentary in 2011 on the pervasive violations against women was a reflection of not only Burma’s fledgling engagement with democratic institutions, but also the lack of participation – whether due to limited opportunities or resources – by women’s rights NGOs.

Given that Burma has yet to accede to six of the nine core international human rights treaties, NGO participation in Burma’s UPR is particularly critical. Unlike treaty-body reviews, the UPR is unique precisely because it provides members of the international community a platform to review each country’s full spectrum of human rights conditions, not just those rights that the country under review is obligated by treaty to uphold. Yet despite Burma having acceded to the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 1997, of the nearly 200 human rights recommendations Burma received in 2011, only six related to women’s rights issues. This may be explained by the fact that, of the 25 joint and independent NGO reports that were submitted to the UPR Working Group prior to the review, only one submission was authored by Burmese women’s rights groups. The lack of participation by women’s rights NGOs during Burma’s first cycle UPR was a significant missed opportunity—one that should not be repeated now.

Before the end of the year, Burmese delegates will meet once again with other UN Member States in an interactive dialogue for its second cycle review before the UPR Working Group. As part of its mandate, the Working Group will examine strides the government has made in response to recommendations from the first cycle. Incidentally, in the same way that Burma’s first UPR coincided with the beginning of political reform in 2011, its second cycle UPR will occur within days of the forthcoming general elections in November. Four years after Burma’s first review, it remains to be seen whether the Burmese government will cooperate in providing a meaningful assessment of its human rights record – including an acknowledgment of its shortcomings in women’s rights – or continue to stonewall international demands for reform. Regardless, now is the moment for NGOs to pressure both the international community and the Burmese government to adopt a critical assessment of women’s rights in Burma.

Jennifer Li is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire. She also participated in the Asia Law and Justice Program’s training on the UPR process with women’s rights groups in Burma in January 2015.