Category - Human Rights

A Philosopher Looks at the Syrian Refugee Issue

One of my favorite blogs is Justin Smith. He’s always worth reading but this is particularly good.

One of the memes circling around the French Internet shows the mayor of the town of Roanne telling a huddled group of refugees that they cannot stay, since they are not Christian. “Neither are you,” is the reply.

Yes, some people are so ignorant as to believe that all Syrians are Muslims, but the most relevant clarification is not that some are not, but that that is irrelevant to the refugee crisis.

At the popular level in Europe, there is both dispiriting xenophobia and its opposite, a seemingly unprecedented preparedness to welcome the refugees and to take responsibility for their well-being. State officials have so far tended to play to the interests of the xenophobes, mostly not by expressing outward xenophobia (with plenty of exceptions of course, as with the mayor of Roanne, or with Hungarian president Viktor Orbán), but by classic buck-passing, insisting that the crisis is someone else’s problem. This is particularly the case for the poorer countries of the EU to its south and east, which are of course also the countries that are so placed as to first receive the refugees travelling by land (and, more perilously, by water). The absence of any obvious authority, either at the union-wide level or in each individual member state, reveals, like no other situation has since the EU’s expansion to include former Soviet Bloc states, that transnational body’s utter impotence and irrelevance.

American liberals and progressives love to fawn over the great liberal democracies of northern Europe with their advanced welfare states and their commitment to fair distribution of resources to all citizens. Yet as long as these societies continue to adhere to a sharp political and moral distinction between citizens and outsiders, between those who are in the system and those who are outside of it, what they have accomplished is scarcely any more worthy of praise than the sort of ‘socialism’ we see practiced within major corporations. European social democracies that extend medical care and education to everyone who has theirpapers in order, while expelling irregular migrants in nighttime raids and strong-armed police operations, are not truly egalitarian societies, but protection rackets. The extent that European citizens are today, en masse, resisting this arbitrary distinction between citizen and non-citizen, in order to come to the direct aid of the Syrian refugees, is precisely the extent to which Europe is living up to its claim to be Christian.

El Salvador: Home of the world’s strictest anti-abortion law

The Globe & Mail, By Stephanie Nolen, September 18

San Salvador – It’s been nearly a year since Myrna Ramirez walked out of jail for the last time, but she still can’t quite believe she is free. She can’t believe, in fact, any of it: that she served nearly 13 years in jail for attempted murder, that she nearly bled to death in police custody, that she missed her daughter’s childhood – all because she went into premature labour at home one night, asked a neighbour for help, and that neighbour reported her to authorities for attempting to terminate a pregnancy.

She joined a prison wing full of women who ran afoul of El Salvador’s abortion law, perhaps the most restrictive in the world. “It’s like some kind of nightmare,” Ms. Ramirez says.

In 1998, after the civil war, El Salvador adopted a new law that outlawed abortion in all circumstances. Unlike the law it replaced, there are no exceptions for cases of rape, severe fetal abnormalities or threat to the mother’s life from pregnancy. Only six other countries in the world, all in Latin America and the Caribbean, have similarly prohibitive laws; in one, Chile, the President is pushing an easing of the law to allow abortion in some situations.

El Salvador, however, has the most active enforcement of its abortion law. Here authorities investigate and prosecute women whose pregnancies end before 40 weeks in what may be miscarriages or stillbirths or preterm labours, such as Ms. Ramirez’s. Judges have sentenced women convicted of terminating pregnancies to prison terms of up to 40 years.

After Freddie Gray

The Kingsley decision creates a crucial new constitutional protection against police abuse.

Slate, By Mark Joseph Stern, June 22

In April of 2010, five police officers put Michael Kingsley face down on a cement bunk in a holding cell, shocked him with a stun gun for five seconds, then left him alone, writhing in pain with his hands cuffed behind his back, for 15 minutes. Kingsley sued the officers, claiming they violated his constitutional rights by using excessive force. He lost.

On Monday, the Supreme Court gave Kingsley a second chance, ruling that the trial court gave the jury bad instructions. In a narrow sense, the decision turns on a technical question of intent. In a broader sense, though, the ruling is a blast of good news for opponents of police brutality—an emphatic declaration that the Constitution bars police from beating and abusing suspects in custody.

At the heart of Kingsley v. Hendrickson is a pretty straightforward question of intent. During the trial, the judge told the jury that Kingsley must lose unless he could prove the officers knew their actions could unduly harm Kingsley but went through with them anyway. Under that high standard, Kingsley lost. It’s incredibly difficult to prove law enforcement intentionally deprived suspects of their constitutional rights. Just ask the family of Michael Brown.

But Kingsley argued that he shouldn’t have to prove the officers were subjectively aware that their use of force was unreasonable. By forcing him to convince a jury that the officers had a malicious state of mind, Kingsley believed, the court made him clear too high a hurdle to vindicate his constitutional rights. Rather, Kingsley insisted that he should only have to prove that their use of force was objectively unreasonable to win his suit.

A bare majority of the Supreme Court agreed with Kingsley, sending the case back down to an appeals court to decide whether the error was so grave that Kingsley must be given a new trial. The dry majority opinion by Justice Stephen Breyer barely hints that the decision will have an impact beyond Kingsley’s case. But in reality, Kingsley constructs a crucial new constitutional protection against police abuse—a protection especially vital in the shadow of Freddie Gray’s shocking death.

Obama’s fast-track trade bill poised to clear final Senate hurdles

Los Angeles Times, By Lisa Mascaro, June 22

President Obama’s fast-track trade bill is poised to clear a procedural hurdle Tuesday in the Senate, all but ensuring it will win final passage this week and be sent to the White House for his signature.

Despite deep reservations from many in the president’s party, enough Democratic senators appear ready to join most Republicans to finish the legislation, which has sputtered in Congress but is a top White House priority.

“With just a little more trust, a little more cooperation, and simply voting consistently, we’ll get there,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Monday. “We shouldn’t let this opportunity for significant bipartisan achievement slip past us.”


Fast-track, or trade promotion authority, would allow the president to assure potential trade partners that the deals they negotiate with the U.S. will be presented to Congress for a yes-or-no vote without amendment.

The administration is wrapping up talks on the emerging 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership, the largest deal of its kind, and fast-track authority would cover it and future pacts for the next president.

Fourteen Senate Democrats voted for the fast-track bill last month as part of a broader package that also included funding to continue a worker retraining program for employees who lose their jobs to overseas trade.

But their support is no longer guaranteed after the worker retraining legislation was split off by House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), who faced resistance from Republicans who view the Trade Adjustment Assistance program as government waste.

Harpers: Nonsense Brokers, June 12

Meet the Gay Mormon Men (and Their Wives) Beseeching SCOTUS to Save ‘Traditional’ Marriage

TPM, By James Ross Gardner, June 17

We were in the basement, a shirtless Jim Morrison looming on the wall behind me, when Erin Caldwell’s naked foot snaked under her husband Danny’s leg. Her toes, one adorned with a ring, coiled around his thigh and hooked in to nest behind his knee.

Hardly a salacious gesture, not even for a conservative American family like the Caldwells. Except that Danny wants to have sex with men. “Want” isn’t the term he’d use; it’s more like his body desires it. His heart? He insists it belongs to Erin. Yet lately, “Horrible, horrible things have been said. Just a lot of stuff online,” he told me. “That our marriage is a sham. That I’m just sleeping around on the side, and that I’m not really in love with her…they’ve called her ‘a fag hag.’”

Erin flinched at those words. Fag. Hag. Two jagged syllables that seemed to gouge at her chest.

Six weeks earlier, in April of this year, the Caldwells declared their unusual marriage in the form of an amicus brief to the Supreme Court of the United States, which they cosigned with 19 other people, nearly all members of the Mormon church. Submitted in advance of the court’s oral arguments, the brief contests the constitutional legalization of gay marriage. Its signees, or amici, all hail from “mixed-orientation” marriages: same-sex-attracted men married to straight women.

With Little Fanfare, Mexican Supreme Court Legalizes Same-Sex Marriage

New York Times, By Randcal C. Archibold * Pauline Villegas, June 14

Mexico City – His church turned him away, his family discouraged him from a public fight and the government of the state where he lives vowed it would never happen.

But it did. Hiram Gonzalez married his boyfriend, Severiano Chavez, last year in the northern state of Chihuahua, which, like most Mexican states, technically allows marriage only between a man and a woman.

Mr. Gonzalez and dozens of other gay couples in recent months have, however, found a powerful ally: Mexico’s Supreme Court.

In ruling after ruling, the court has said that state laws restricting marriage to heterosexuals are discriminatory. Though the decisions have been made to little public fanfare, they have had the effect of legalizing gay marriage in Mexico without enshrining it in law.

The Real Lesson of the Stanford Prison Experiment

The New Yorker, By Maria Konnikova, June 12

On the morning of August 17, 1971, nine young men in the Palo Alto area received visits from local police officers. While their neighbors looked on, the men were arrested for violating Penal Codes 211 and 459 (armed robbery and burglary), searched, handcuffed, and led into the rear of a waiting police car. The cars took them to a Palo Alto police station, where the men were booked, fingerprinted, moved to a holding cell, and blindfolded. Finally, they were transported to the Stanford County Prison—also known as the Stanford University psychology department.

They were willing participants in the Stanford Prison Experiment, one of the most controversial studies in the history of social psychology. (It’s the subject of a new film of the same name—a drama, not a documentary—starring Billy Crudup, of “Almost Famous,” as the lead investigator, Philip Zimbardo.) The study subjects, middle-class college students, had answered a questionnaire about their family backgrounds, physical- and mental-health histories, and social behavior, and had been deemed “normal”; a coin flip divided them into prisoners and guards. According to the lore that’s grown up around the experiment, the guards, with little to no instruction, began humiliating and psychologically abusing the prisoners within twenty-four hours of the study’s start. The prisoners, in turn, became submissive and depersonalized, taking the abuse and saying little in protest. The behavior of all involved was so extreme that the experiment, which was meant to last two weeks, was terminated after six days.

Nigeria Becomes Latest African Nation to Outlaw Female Genital Mutilation

VICE News, By Hilary Beaumont, June 3

In one of his last moves as president of Nigeria, outgoing leader Goodluck Jonathan outlawed female genital mutilation last week, continuing a trend of criminalizing the practice in nations across Africa.

The new law criminalizes the cultural tradition of FGM, also known as female circumcision, which is performed on an estimated 125 million women and girls worldwide, according to a 2013 UNICEF report. The procedure can range from partial to total removal of the clitoris and labia. About a quarter of Nigerian women and girls are affected by the procedure, the report says.

According to a 2013 version of Nigeria’s bill, which criminalizes “harmful traditional practices,” anyone in Nigeria who performs female genital mutilation or engages someone to carry it out can be jailed for four years or fined the equivalent of $1,000. Attempting or aiding the procedure can also land Nigerians in jail for two years, with a fine up to $500.

According to Equality Now, an international group that’s working to end the practice, 23 African nations including Nigeria have enacted laws against FGM.

Kenya-based Mary Wandia, FGM Program Manager for Equality Now, called Nigeria’s criminalization of the practice “a vital first step.”

Canada’s indigenous schools policy was ‘cultural genocide’, says report

Truth commission delivers verdict on church-run residential institutions – Schools were one of Canadian history’s ‘darkest and most troubling chapters’

The Guardian, By John Barber, June 2

Canadian governments and churches pursued a policy of “cultural genocide” against the country’s aboriginal people throughout the 20th century, according to an investigation into a long-suppressed history that saw 150,000 Native, or First Nations, children forcibly removed from their families and incarcerated in residential schools rife with abuse.

After seven years of hearings, and testimony from thousands of witnesses, the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission called on Tuesday for a new era of forgiveness and understanding even as it exposed the cultural and personal devastation inflicted by the residential schools policy in excruciating detail.

“These measures were part of a coherent policy to eliminate Aboriginal people as distinct peoples and to assimilate them into the Canadian mainstream against their will,” the commission’s final report declares.

“The Canadian government pursued this policy of cultural genocide because it wished to divest itself of its legal and financial obligations to Aboriginal people and gain control over their land and resources.”

388-page Commission Report Executive Summary:Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future
Truth and Reconciliation Commission: Findings

The Toronto Star: Canada’s residential schools cultural genocide, Truth and Reconciliation commission says
New York Times: Canada’s Forced Schooling of Aboriginal Children Was ‘Cultural Genocide,’ Report Finds
Al Jazeera: Canada accused of ‘cultural genocide’
BBC: The schools that had cemeteries instead of playgrounds, By Sian Griffiths BBC News, Ottawa, June 13

Thus far, the government has agreed to just one. However, in a sure sign that an election is looming, opposition parties agreed, if elected, to implement all the recommendations.

One of those key demands is that this shameful chapter of Canadian history be taught as a mandatory subject in all Canadian schools. No doubt one key date students will never forget will be the day Judge Sinclair made Canadians face up to their past.


Canada commission issues details abuse of native children
Canada’s native people get a formal apology
RCMP ‘herded’ native kids to residential schools
Canada reopens its “most disgraceful” act
Well! It’s not just the Catholic Church…

Ireland Votes to Approve Gay Marriage, Putting Country in Vanguard

New York Times, By Danny Hakim & Douglas Dalby, May 23

Dublin — Ireland has become the first nation to approve same-sex marriage by a popular vote, sweeping aside the opposition of the Roman Catholic Church in a resounding victory Saturday for the gay rights movement and placing the country at the vanguard of social change.

With ballots from 34 out of the 43 voting areas counted, the vote was almost two to one in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage. All but one of the districts that were counted voted yes, and it appeared to be statistically impossible for opposition votes to overcome the ayes.

Turnout was large — more than 60 percent of the 3.2 million people eligible to vote cast ballots. Government officials, advocates and even those who had argued against the measure said that the outcome was a resounding endorsement of the constitutional amendment.

Irish Times: Marriage Referendum
Irish Times: Marriage Referendum Results
Irish Times: Ireland becomes first country to approve same-sex marriage by popular vote