30 June 2010

Does Petraeus care about Afghan civilians?

FOX News has reported a story that I hope is wrong. According to FOX, a military source has indicated that General David Petraeus plans to "modify the rules of engagement [in Afghanistan] to make it easier for U.S. troops to engage in combat with the enemy."

FOX went on to explain that "the [currently] strict rules -- aimed at preventing civilian casualties -- have effectively forced the troops to fight with one hand tied behind their backs."

This seems to suggest that you can't fight the enemy effectively if you need to look out for the civilians.

I guess that's why they refer to dead civilians as "collateral damage". It dehumanizes them and makes them easier to dismiss.

However, no matter what you call them, violence towards civilians is prohibited under the fourth Geneva Convention.

But then, such details have been overlooked and ignored for virtually the entire duration of this no-win war.

In the case of Petraeus's plans for Afghanistan, I hope this will turn out to be just another example of FOX getting the story wrong.

29 June 2010

Troy Davis hearing completed last week; decision may take a while

The SCOTUS-ordered evidentiary hearing for Georgia death row inmate Troy Davis wrapped up on June 24. The federal judge in the case must now decide whether Davis's attorneys presented adequate evidence to prove his innocence and thereby spare him from execution.

Laura Kagel, George Death Penalty Abolition Coordinator for Amnesty International USA (AIUSA) summarized the two days of hearings on AIUSA's Human Rights Now blog:

>> Day 1: Wednesday, June 23 (posted June 24)

>> Day 2: Thursday, June 24 (Posted June 25)

In her Thursday summary, Kagel noted that "Judge Moore promised not to delay, but cautioned that a ruling would not be forthcoming in the next couple of weeks."

At the close of Thursday's hearing, Anne Emanual, an AIUSA legal analyst, released the following statement:
"Given the evidence that emerged from the two-day hearing it is clear that the state's case against Troy Davis is thin and tainted. Today's hearing underscores the deepening doubt that has plagued this case. It is difficult to imagine that a jury would convict Davis today after hearing four of the witnesses who convicted Davis 19 years ago testify in open court before a judge that they lied. One eyewitness testified for the first time that he saw his relative, the alternative suspect, Sylvester 'Redd' Coles, shoot police officer Mark Allen MacPhail in 1989."
Will it be enough to free Troy Davis and spare him from the lethal injection?

Unlike his original trial, in which the prosecution (theoretically) had to prove guilt, in this evidentiary hearing the onus was on Davis's attorneys to clearly prove his innocence.

Fingers crossed.

Stay tuned for updates.


Troy Davis has been sitting on Georgia's death row since 1991 for the murder of a police officer which he maintains he did not commit.

Davis's original trial was flawed, and most of the witnesses have since recanted or contradicted their stories. There is no physical evidence linking him to the crime, and his conviction was based solely on that questionable testimony by witnesses.

In other words, there is reasonable doubt as to Davis's guilt. And there is no excuse to execute someone when there's reasonable doubt as to his guilt.

Unfortunately, the Georgia officials didn't want to be bothered with having to review the new evidence that could prove Davis's innocence. They just wanted to kill him and get the whole case out of the way.

Fortunately, the Supreme Court had a different opinion, and ordered that the evidence be reviewed in federal court. And that is what led to last week's hearing.

28 June 2010

Your humanitarian work could land you in jail

SCOTUS disappoints again.

On June 21, in Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it is not unconstitutional for the government to block speech and other forms of advocacy supporting a foreign organization that has been officially (and arbitrarily) labeled as terrorist, even if the aim is to support such a group's peaceful or humanitarian actions.

In other words, they're throwing out the baby with the bath water, because, even if you only intend to support the positive humanitarian efforts of such an organization, you could be seen as providing material support to terrorists.

Justices Breyer, Ginsburg, and Sotomayor dissented. (No surprise.)

In the case, the plaintiffs were seeking only to provide assistance and education on human rights advocacy and peacemaking to the Kurdistan Workers' Party in Turkey. However, the KWP happens to be designated a terrorist organization.

So, according to this ruling, you can go to prison for promoting peace in a case such as this.

Attorney David Cole of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) had this to say about the decision: "We are deeply disappointed. The Supreme Court has ruled that human rights advocates, providing training and assistance in the nonviolent resolution of disputes, can be prosecuted as terrorists. In the name of fighting terrorism, the Court has said that the First Amendment permits Congress to make human rights advocacy and peacemaking a crime. That is wrong."


And CCR Senior Attorney Shayana Kadidal offered these disturbing implications: "The Court's decision confirms the extraordinary scope of the material support statute's criminalization of speech. But it also notes that the scope of the prohibitions may not be clear in every application, and that remains the case for the many difficult questions raised at argument but dodged by today's opinion, including whether publishing an op-ed or submitting an amicus brief in court arguing that a group does not belong on the list is a criminal act."


Kadidal went on to challenge Congress and the White House to take on the issue: "The onus is now on Congress and the Obama administration to ensure that humanitarian groups may engage in human rights advocacy, training in non-violent conflict resolution, and humanitarian assistance in crisis zones without fearing criminal prosecution."

Amen. But I shall not hold my breath.

The ACLU, in a press release, made this good point: "The United States Supreme Court ... upheld the broad application of a federal law that hinders the ability of human rights and humanitarian aid organizations to do their work by making it a crime to provide 'material support' to designated 'foreign terrorist organizations' (FTOs). The ruling thwarts the efforts of human rights organizations to persuade violent actors to renounce violence or cease their human rights abuses and jeopardizes the provision of aid and disaster relief in conflict zones controlled by designated groups."

So, sadly, innocent people will likely suffer, in more ways than one, as a result of this ruling.

This is what George W. Bush's fear-fueled "war on terror" has wrought. And I am not optimistic that Congress or the White House will bother to do anything about it.

25 June 2010

More of our tax dollars are going to Blackwater

While I think Hillary Clinton is doing a fine job in general as Secretary of State, I'm very disappointed in one recent development: On June 18, the State Department awarded the mercenary group Blackwater (now renamed to "Xe Services") a new $120 million contract to guard U.S. officials in Afghanistan.

When Clinton was still a senator and running for president, she had co-sponsored the Stop Outsourcing Security (SOS) Act to end the use of private contractors in U.S. war zones. Why then is her department now giving Blackwater more work?

After all, this is the same Blackwater that is infamous for its massacres of innocent civilians.

Jeremy Scahill, writing for The Nation, summarizes Blackwater's sins as follows:
"The new security contract was awarded to one of Blackwater's alter egos, the United States Training Center, despite the indictments of five senior company officials on bribery, weapons and conspiracy charges. Its operatives in both Afghanistan and Iraq have been indicted for killing innocent civilians. The Senate Armed Services Committee has called on the Justice Department to investigate Blackwater's use of a shell company, Paravant, to win training contracts in Afghanistan. Despite these and numerous other scandals, the State Department once again awarded the company a lucrative contract."
This is not an acceptable (nor ethical) use of our tax dollars.

And, as if that $120 million State Department gig isn't enough of an insult to the American taxpayers, the CIA is now rumored to have just given Xe/Blackwater an additional $100 million contract.

Where is the change I can believe in?

24 June 2010

Philly loses Boy Scout case; taxpayers are forced to subsidize bigotry

The jury's verdict came in yesterday in the federal court case involving the Boy Scouts vs. the City of Philadelphia. The news was not good.

The jury ruled in the Scouts' favor. This means that Philadelphia taxpayers must continue to subsidize the Boy Scouts' rent-free occupation of a city-owned building despite the fact that the Scouts' anti-gay policy violates Philly's anti-discrimination charter.

What it boils down to is this: Philadelphia taxpayers are forced to continue subsidizing bigotry.

What's even worse is that Philadelphia's gay taxpayers are forced to continue subsidizing the city presence of a group that considers them to be second-class citizens, unworthy of Scout membership, simply because of who they are and who they happen to be attracted to -- and nothing more.

Then, to add insult to injury, the Scouts are going to ask the judge to force the city to pay the Scouts' legal expenses, which total more than $800,000.

I hope that the city will file an appeal.

23 June 2010

Federal judge blocks drilling moratorium; has ties to oil companies

So the oil companies win another one.

Yesterday, U.S. District Court Judge Martin Feldman, located in New Orleans (of all places), blocked the Obama administration's six-month moratorium on deep-water drilling. The moratorium was in response to the ongoing BP oil spill in the Gulf.

Michael Brune, Executive Director of the Sierra Club, issued the following response to the ruling:
"Keeping a ban on deepwater drilling in place is absolutely essential. To resume drilling as the disaster in the Gulf continues to unfold would be a slap in the face to the communities that have been hit hard by this tragedy. The oil industry's call to lift the ban on drilling now is one of the worst ideas ever proposed.

"We haven't even stopped the massive flow of oil yet, let alone begun to respond to the damage it has wrought. It's like there's been a car accident and we're talking about how to get the vehicle on the road again while the victim is still bleeding."

Why then would this judge want them to keep drilling even though we obviously can't cope with the disasters that can occur as a result?

The obvious answer is disgusting: It turns out that the judge recently owned stock in several drilling companies.

Kate Sheppard reported on this for Mother Jones. Here is a snippet:
"According to the most recently available financial disclosure form for District Court Judge Martin Feldman, he had holdings of up to $15,000 in Transocean [owner of the Deepwater Horizon rig] in 2008. He has also recently owned stock in offshore drilling or oilfield service providers Halliburton, Prospect Energy, Hercules Offshore, Parker Drilling Co., and ATP Oil & Gas."
Smells like a conflict of interest, doesn't it?

Fortunately, the Obama administration plans to appeal Feldman's ruling.

It will be interesting to see how the case progresses. And my fingers are figuratively crossed in hopes that it progresses in the right direction.

Stay tuned for updates.

22 June 2010

This week, will Troy Davis finally get justice?

This week, Georgia death row inmate Troy Davis might finally get a chance to prove his innocence. This is in compliance with a U.S. Supreme Court's order from last August that some new evidence be reviewed in federal court.

Prior to the Supreme Court's intervention, Georgia was ready to risk the possibility of executing an innocent person. There is no justice in that. Hopefully we will witness some real justice this week.

The hearing is scheduled to begin on Wednesday, June 23, in Savannah, and could last one day, two days, three days, or more.

Stay tuned for updates.


Troy Davis has been sitting on Georgia's death row since 1991 for the murder of a police officer which he maintains he did not commit.

Davis's original trial was flawed, and most of the witnesses have since recanted or contradicted their stories. There is no physical evidence linking him to the crime, and his conviction was based solely on that questionable testimony by witnesses.

In other words, there is reasonable doubt as to Davis's guilt. And there is no excuse to execute someone when there's reasonable doubt as to his guilt.

Unfortunately, the Georgia officials didn't want to be bothered with having to review the new evidence that could prove Davis's innocence. They just wanted to kill him and get the whole case out of the way.

Fortunately, the Supreme Court had a different opinion, and ordered that the evidence be reviewed in federal court. Hopefully that will be done right this week.

>> Read more background on the case from Amnesty International USA.

>> Read about a Father's Day visit with Davis and his family.

21 June 2010

Hillary raises the stakes on human trafficking

Unfortunately, slavery is not a thing of the past. Human beings are still being bought and sold for sex and labor. Only these days it's called human trafficking.

Fortunately, the Obama administration is aware of the problem and appears to be making a solid effort to address it.

To that end, on June 14, the U.S. State Department issued its 10th annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report. The report reflects the findings of the Department's work over the past year with embassies, analysts, NGOs, and activists in the field.

Upon the report's release, Maria Otero, Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs, issued the following encouraging remarks:
"The TIP report is a fair and transparent diagnosis of the impact of human trafficking, and it offers an assessment of how we can partner to end this human rights abuse, because human trafficking cuts across policies and sectors. We are challenged to gather our resources and increase our capacity to fight this crime together.

"I'm also proud to say that under Secretary [Hillary] Clinton's leadership, the issue of human trafficking is elevated as never before. Her belief that we must fight human trafficking with every tool has led us to where we are today and motivates us to improve what we are doing in the future. Secretary Clinton's longstanding commitment to this issue has helped make human trafficking a priority under the Obama Administration. Everywhere that I travel, I carry the mandate to address this issue, to raise it with the leaders across the world. I also meet with the advocates, I meet with the victims when I'm on the ground, those who have the real understanding of the impact of the crime."
In what I see as a positive step, the U.S. has rated itself in the report this year. The report gives the U.S. a Tier 1 ranking, meaning that the government complies with the minimum standards of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, but notes that the United States is "a source, transit, and destination country for men, women, and children subjected to trafficking in persons, specifically forced labor, debt bondage, and forced prostitution."

Here are Secretary Clinton's remarks on that:
"The Report, for the first time, includes a ranking of the United States based on the same standards to which we hold other countries. The United States takes its first-ever ranking not as a reprieve but as a responsibility to strengthen global efforts against modern slavery, including those within America. This human rights abuse is universal, and no one should claim immunity from its reach or from the responsibility to confront it."
Fighting the problem, and hopefully eventually ending all forms of slavery, will be a big job. But it's good to know that it's being recognized and addressed at such a high level and on a wide global scale.

In the meantime, we all need to push our elected officials and law enforcement to identify -- and implement -- more and more ways of combatting slavery here in the U.S. and abroad.

Remember: If not for luck, that slave could be you.

The report is available online, along with related information, at: www.state.gov/g/tip/rls/tiprpt/2010

19 June 2010

For Aung San Suu Kyi's birthday, demand her unconditional release

Today, June 19, 2010, marks Aung San Suu Kyi's 65th birthday.

Suu Kyi, an ailing Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Burmese pro-democracy leader, has spent almost 15 of the past 20 years in some form of detention in Myanmar (Burma), mostly under house arrest. Most recently, she was convicted last August of breaching the terms of her previous detention when she received an uninvited American visitor at her home. She received an 18-month sentence for that breach, and that sentence drew worldwide criticism.

Amnesty International believes that these charges and punishment were politically motivated and fail to meet international legal standards.

Amnesty is calling for Suu Kyi's immediate and unconditional release.

How you can help:

>> Call on Than Shwe, the head of the military junta, to immediately release Aung San Suu Kyi and all political prisoners in Myanmar.

18 June 2010

Not just Barton: Ordinary right-winger defends BP CEO against "liberal" CNN

Yesterday, BP CEO Tony Hayward got a good grilling on Capitol Hill about the oil spill.

I walked past a television set that was tuned to CNN's coverage of the proceedings. A right-wing acquaintance stood by the TV and remarked in outrage:
"Look at that! They've got split screens, showing the oil spill on one side and the BP guy on the other side! The goddamned left-wing media wants to make him look as bad as possible, the poor guy!"
I just shook my head, and not because I felt bad for the "poor BP guy".

17 June 2010

On June 26, join Hands Across the Sand!

As oil continues to pour into the Gulf waters from BP's Deepwater Horizon rig, Americans are organizing to call on our state and federal officials to stop offshore drilling and get to work on clean, renewable energy alternatives.

To that end, on Saturday, June 26, Americans will be joining hands on beaches and in parks and cities across the U.S. to symbolically "draw a line in the sand" against offshore oil drilling.

The event has been dubbed "Hands Across the Sand", and will take place at noon local time across the nation. At that hour in each time zone, participants will join hands for 15 minutes.

For more information, including locations, rules, and resources, visit the official Hands Across the Sand website: www.handsacrossthesand.com

16 June 2010

What if McCain were president?

According to a recent AP poll, 52 percent of Americans disapprove of President Obama's handling of the BP oil spill. Time will tell if his speech last night will make a difference.

As I watch it all, I shudder as I imagine what it would be like if John McCain had won the election in 2008.

At least President Obama has put a freeze on offshore drilling (albeit temporary) and is encouraging the development of clean and renewable energy resources.

I cannot imagine that a McCain-Palin administration would be handling it as intelligently. After all, the theme of their 2008 Republican National Convention ended up as "Drill, baby, drill!"

And Palin continues to call for more drilling, even going so far as blaming the oil spill on environmentalists. (Yes, really!)

Obama uses a logical approach. Those on the right use emotion. And the tea partiers -- especially those who live near the Coast -- should calm down long enough to ask themselves, honestly, which is really more effective when disaster strikes.

After all, livelihoods are on the line. As is the planet itself.

15 June 2010

Philly and the Boy Scouts go to court

An issue that has been brewing for a couple of years here in Philly is finally being heard in federal court this week. It has to do with the Boy Scouts' exclusion of gays and the city's resultant attempt (well justified, in my opinion) to discontinue the Scouts' free (actually $1/year) use of a city building.

Here is some history:

In 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Boy Scouts are a private organization, and are therefore entitled to bar whomever they want from their ranks. But Philadelphia doesn't want to subsidize the Scouts' bigotry. So, city officials notified the Scouts that they must denounce the organization's national policy against homosexuals, or pay market rate rent ($200,000 a year) for its headquarters on city-owned land, or find a new home.

In June of 2008, the city filed eviction papers, stating that the Scouts refused to comply with the city's nondiscrimination policies. The Scouts sued back, arguing that the city was violating the their constitutional rights. The Scouts pointed out that the city doesn't impose similar measures against religious organizations that use other city-owned properties.

And the whole thing has been tied up in red tape ever since.

Whatever the federal court decides in this week's trial, I have a feeling that the drama will continue, perhaps all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court (which would be especially interesting given the 2000 decision and the changes to the Court's judicial roster since then).

In any event, this case will certainly set an important precedent at some level. I just hope it's the right one.

14 June 2010

Did CIA doctors commit war crimes for Bush?

Not only were terrorism suspects tortured under the Bush administration, it now appears that they were used as human guinea pigs as well.

On June 7, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) released a report containing evidence that CIA doctors and other medical personnel engaged in illegal experimentation on prisoners regarding "enhanced interrogation techniques" (i.e., torture).

It was apparently part of the Bush administration's lame attempts to justify the unjustifiable. According to the report, as part of the administration's attempts to redefine the "limits" of what constitutes torture, doctors and other medical personnel were "ostensibly responsible for ensuring that the legal threshold for 'severe physical and mental pain' was not crossed by interrogators."

But how do you measure another person's pain and suffering?

According to one of the infamous "torture memos" by the Bush administration lawyers, for an act to constitute torture, the physical pain "must be equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death." And the interrogator must have "specifically intended" to cause such severe pain.

Otherwise, claimed the Bushies, it's not torture. It's just "enhanced interrogation". No big deal, they would have us believe. Run along now. (As if we're all so stupid.)

And so, as PHR points out, "The apparent experimentation and research appear to have been performed to provide legal cover for torture, as well as to help justify and shape future procedures and policies governing the use of the 'enhanced' interrogation techniques."

Again, they were trying to justify the unjustifiable.

By participating, PHR speculates, these doctors may have been complicit in the commission of war crimes.

Here is how PHR describes some of its alarming findings:
[The report] indicates that there is evidence that health professionals engaged in research on detainees that violates the Geneva Conventions, The Common Rule, the Nuremberg Code and other international and domestic prohibitions against illegal human subject research and experimentation. Declassified government documents indicate that:

• Research and medical experimentation on detainees [were] used to measure the effects of large-volume waterboarding and adjust the procedure according to the results. After medical monitoring and advice, the CIA experimentally added saline, in an attempt to prevent putting detainees in a coma or killing them through over-ingestion of large amounts of plain water. The report observes: "'Waterboarding 2.0' was the product of the CIA's developing and field-testing an intentionally harmful practice, using systematic medical monitoring and the application of subsequent generalizable knowledge."

• Health professionals monitored sleep deprivation on more than a dozen detainees in 48-, 96- and 180-hour increments. This research was apparently used to monitor and assess the effects of varying levels of sleep deprivation to support legal definitions of torture and to plan future sleep deprivation techniques.

• Health professionals appear to have analyzed data, based on their observations of 25 detainees who were subjected to individual and combined applications of "enhanced" interrogation techniques, to determine whether one type of application over another would increase the subject's "susceptibility to severe pain." The alleged research appears to have been undertaken only to assess the legality of the "enhanced" interrogation tactics and to guide future application of the techniques."
So there you go. Our tax dollars at work.

How can a physician, who has sworn to do no harm, justify doing this sort of thing?

And will the Obama administration have the guts to do anything about it, as PHR is calling for? (Sadly, I suspect that this will remain merely a rhetorical question.)

The report is available for download in PDF format at phrtorturepapers.org. Read it if you dare.

11 June 2010

State Dept eases passport rules for transgender people

On June 10, updated requirements went into effect for transgender people who wish to change the gender designation on their U.S. passports.

In the past, passports wouldn't be changed unless/until a person actually underwent sexual reassignment surgery and could prove it with a notarized letter from the surgeon. This, I believe, was unfair to the many transgender people who stop short of the surgery.

Under the new rules, all a person needs is a certification from an attending physician that the person has undergone "appropriate clinical treatment" for gender transition. A limited-validity passport is also available for people who are in the process of gender transition.

The new policy is based on recommendations by the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH), which is recognized by the American Medical Association as an authority in this field.

These changes happily coincide with the celebration of LGBT Pride Month.

Each step forward is a step worth celebrating.

10 June 2010

From EJUSA, a good summary of Hank Skinner death row case

I've written before about the case of Texas death row inmate Hank Skinner. Skinner was convicted of three 1993 murders that he maintains he did not commit. To back up Skinner's claims of innocence, there appears to be DNA evidence that could exonerate him in this case. However, Texas has refused to test that DNA.

Fortunately, the Supreme Court recently agreed to hear the case. That is expected to happen during the upcoming fall term.

Meantime, in a recent newsletter to supporters, the organization Equal Justice USA did a good job of summarizing the Skinner case. I thought it worth sharing:
Whoops! You're Dead.

Henry "Hank" Skinner has been on Texas' death row since 1993. He came within one hour of execution - even though there are several key pieces of DNA evidence in his case that have never been tested.

Skinner has spent ten years trying to get the testing, but the prosecutors refused (even with Medill Innocence Project offering to cover the costs). The Texas court agreed with the prosecutors, saying that DNA testing is not a constitutional right.

Such an absurd stance might be expected in Texas, but surely they are the exception to the rule, right? Not quite. In a similar case last year, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that convicted people are not entitled to testing on evidence, even if it might prove their innocence.

Fortunately, a couple of weeks ago the Supreme Court agreed to consider Skinner's request for DNA testing. This should be a no-brainer, but the system's capacity for mistakes seems infinite.

As if on cue, El Paso, Texas had to fire its Chief Medical Examiner just days after the Court agreed to consider Skinner's request. The Medical Examiner lied about his credentials, and his faulty evidence in one Ohio death penalty case forced the Governor to step in. How many more of his lies might be too late to catch?

We will never eliminate error completely in criminal justice. But when it comes to life and death, how wrong are we prepared to be?
And what the hell is Texas thinking? (Rhetorical question, of course.)

Stay tuned for updates.

09 June 2010

Bush's ongoing irrational torture fetish

Last week, Politico reported that George W. Bush said he "has no regrets about waterboarding Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, saying that, if presented with the same opportunity, he'd 'do it again.'"

Never mind the fact that Mohammed has already been tortured at least 183 times by the CIA.

Never mind the fact that experts agree that torture does not produce reliable intelligence, because the victim is likely to say whatever he thinks his torturer wants to hear, in order to make the pain stop.

And never mind the fact that Mohammad himself gave false information to the CIA after being tortured.

Bush, of course, has never let facts or logic get in the way of his agenda.

And that is one of the reasons why the world is such a mess today.

08 June 2010

Thoughts on World Oceans Day

Today, June 8, is World Oceans Day. This day is set aside each year to celebrate, appreciate, and respect our oceans.

This year, the timing of this day couldn't be more ironic, as thick, dark oil continues to gush into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico from that BP oil well gone wild.

The oil executives don't respect our oceans. They respect only profits. "Drill, baby, drill!" Even now.

I wonder what those oil executives think when they see the pictures of the oil-covered birds and fish. Do they feel any remorse? That question, of course, is merely rhetorical.

But it's not just the oil companies that are to blame. We all have a hand in the devastation of the earth's waters.

If you drive a gas-guzzling SUV, you're consuming much more gasoline than you need to, and you are supporting the oil companies more than you need to. And you're polluting the air much more than you need to, which also affects our oceans.

If you drink bottled water, you are supporting the commoditization of something that is supposed to be a natural resource. And, in doing so, you are contributing to the gross water shortages in some third world countries.

And if you carry your groceries home in plastic bags rather than paper or reusable canvas totes, you are contributing to the great trashing of the ocean, where plastic residue endangers marine life and destroys the beauty of our waterways.

Reversing the damage to our oceans isn't impossible, but it is improbable unless and until we all change our ways. Especially the corporations which cause the most damage.

Therefore, I shall not hold my breath.

I can only hope that our government suddenly gets a conscience and a backbone and imposes regulations that can truly make a difference.

Again, sadly, I shall not hold my breath.

07 June 2010

Can Roe survive?

Roe v. Wade is established law in the United States of America. But that isn't stopping some states from trying to undermine it as much as possible via their own anti-choice legislation, unconstitutional though some of it might seem.

In April, for example, Nebraska criminalized abortions after 20 weeks. However, under Roe, a woman has the right to an abortion until fetal viability, which is generally believed to occur somewhere between 24 and 28 weeks.

So, some might expect that the Nebraska law will find its way into the courts. And some might expect that it would ultimately be struck down based on Roe.

But I'm not so confident.

As the tea party movement continues to demonstrate, a very vocal far-right contingent is gaining more and more influence in government.

So the anti-choice crowd is taking advantage of the current political climate, and is working overtime to push its agenda, with small steps as well as large ones.

Already, Arizona, Tennessee, and Mississippi have implemented limits or outright bans on abortion coverage in health care exchanges under the new health care reform legislation. And other states are pushing for similar measures.

In Oklahoma, any woman who wants an abortion is subjected to an intrusive vaginal-probe ultrasound while being forced to view the fetus as the physician describes it in detail.

Perhaps even worse, given the departure of the fairly liberal Justice John Paul Stevens from the Supreme Court, I'm not convinced that Roe is safe from being overturned by the Roberts Court, if given the chance anytime soon.

Forget any kind of legislative push-back from Washington. Given that a Democrat forced an anti-choice compromise in order to pass the health care reform bill, we can't count on Congress to reinforce Roe at a legislative level.

So, if Roe is indeed ever overturned (perish the thought), abortion rights will likely revert to the jurisdiction of the individual states, many of which may outlaw it completely. In fact, North Dakota is already prepared, having enacted a near-total ban on abortion in 2007 which would become effective if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade. Under the ban, abortion providers could face up to five years in prison.

And so, if Roe is indeed ever overturned, women in some so-called red states may find themselves unable to obtain a legal (and safe) abortion without traveling to a state that allows it.

That's no solution for the women who cannot afford to explore their long-distance options.

And, sadly, those are the women who most need a choice.

04 June 2010

Child abuse by secondhand smoke

It was a beautiful spring afternoon, and several of my neighbors were sitting out on their porches and balconies.

One of them, however, got my blood boiling.

She was holding a young child, about 1 year old, on her lap. At the same time, she was smoking a cigarette and blowing the smoke right past the child's head. There is no way that the child could have avoided inhaling her mother's smoke.

Below are some facts on the dangers of exposing children to secondhand smoke, as outlined on the EPA website:
• Exposure to secondhand smoke can cause asthma in children who have not previously exhibited symptoms.

• Exposure to secondhand smoke increases the risk for Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

• Infants and children younger than 6 who are regularly exposed to secondhand smoke are at increased risk of lower respiratory track infections, such as pneumonia and bronchitis.

• Children who regularly breathe secondhand smoke are at increased risk for middle ear infections.
While I respect the mother's right to kill herself with cigarettes, I believe her rights end where her daughter's airspace begins. The daughter has a right to a healthy environment, and that means the right to smoke-free air to breathe.

Given the clear dangers associated with secondhand smoke, that mother's choice to expose her child to it is, in my opinion, nothing short of child abuse.

There should be fines imposed for this sort of thing. Hefty ones.

03 June 2010

Isn't justice a civil right?

On May 14, Alaska became the 48th state to allow prisoners to seek post-conviction DNA testing in cases where it could prove innocence. Now only Oklahoma and Massachusetts lack such a provision.

I wonder why it is even in question.

According to the Innocence Project, which was founded in 1992 to work for exoneration of the innocent through post-conviction DNA testing, more than 240 people in the U.S. have had their convictions overturned as a result. Nevertheless, even in states where post-conviction DNA testing is permitted, laws are often limited in scope, and motions for DNA testing are often denied.

Again, I wonder why it is even in question.

If DNA is available which could prove that you're punishing the right -- or wrong -- person, what good reason could there be to refuse to test the evidence?

This is especially crucial in capital cases. After all, what good reason could there be to risk the possibility of executing the wrong guy?

The egos of the prosecutors, or prejudices of any court, are not good reasons.

I am not a lawyer, but this seems to me like something that any reasonable person would consider a basic civil right. And it seems to me that evidence denied is justice denied.

Still, the courts remain sharply divided on this issue and tend to focus on process rather than innocence.

The Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits the infliction of cruel and unusual punishment. What punishment is more cruel and unusual than executing the wrong person?

What good reason could there be for this to happen in America?

Again, I wonder why it is even in question.

02 June 2010

Rights groups call for investigation of Israeli attack on flotilla

On May 31, Israeli troops attacked a flotilla headed to Gaza with humanitarian aid supplies. According to the Free Gaza Movement, which organized the flotilla, the six boats were carrying more than 10,000 tons of aid and about 600 passengers from more than 20 countries.

On one of the boats, the scene got ugly and violent, and at least nine people died.

Israel says that its troops were acting in self-defense. According to CNN, "the Israel Defense Forces said its troops 'were met with premeditated violence, evident by the activists' use of clubs, metal rods, and knives, as well as the firing of two weapons stolen from the soldiers.' It said troops responded with 'defensive action on behalf of the forces who felt their lives were endangered.'"

But the human rights group Amnesty International (AI) suspects that the Israeli troops overreacted. "Israeli forces appear clearly to have used excessive force," said Malcolm Smart, AI's director for the Middle East and North Africa. "Israel says its forces acted in self-defense, alleging that they were attacked by protestors, but it begs credibility that the level of lethal force used by Israeli troops could have been justified. It appears to have been out of all proportion to any threat posed." So AI has called for an independent inquiry into the incident.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) agrees. "A prompt, credible, and impartial investigation is absolutely essential to determine whether the lethal force used by Israeli commandos was necessary to protect lives and whether it could have been avoided," said Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW's Middle East director.

And they are not alone.

On June 1, a coalition of more than 30 NGOs from around the world, who had gathered at an International Criminal Court (ICC) Review Conference in Uganda, signed a statement condemning the killing and injury of the civilians carrying humanitarian supplies to Gaza, and calling on the international community "to immediately take all appropriate measures in response to this unacceptable violence."

The statement urged the following:

• The illegal closure of the Gaza Strip to be immediately lifted;

• The ICC Prosecutor to make an urgent determination regarding the opening of an investigation into the situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT);

• The UN Secretary General to urgently address the UN Security Council with respect to the ongoing impunity crisis in Israel and the OPT in order to engage all appropriate international mechanisms;

• The UN Security Council to refer the situation to the International Criminal Court;

• All States Parties to the ICC to take all appropriate measure, at the diplomatic and legal levels, to uphold the rule of law in the OPT;

• The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to urgently visit the Gaza Strip; and

• Israel to comply with their international legal obligation and cooperate with investigative authority.

The statement was signed by the following organizations:

- Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR)

- International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH)

- Centre for Constitutional Rights (CCR, USA)

- Turkish Coalition for the ICC

- Track Impunity Always (TRIAL)

- Kenyan Section of the International Commission of Jurists

- Gender Justice Initiative

- Fondazione Internazionale Lelio Basso (Italy)

- Cairo Institute for Human Rights

- University College Dublin, (Ireland)

- Africa Freedom of Information Centre

- Uganda Joint Christian Council

- Human Rights Network – Uganda

- Uganda Women and Children Organisation (UWCO)

- Hope After Rape (HAR, Uganda)

- Disabled Women’s Network & Resource Organisation in Uganda (DWMRO)

- Cameroon Coalition for Human Rights

- Iranian Islamic Human Rights Commission

- Kituo Cha Sheria (Kenya)

- Coalition for Justice and Accountability (Sierra Leone)

- Colombian Comission of Jurists

- Network Movement for Democracy Human Rights (NMDHR, Sierra Leone)

- Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights

- Indonesian Civil Society Coalition for the ICC (ICSLCC)

- Ligue pour la Paix et les Droits de l’Homme (LIPADHO, DRC)

- Synergie des ONG’s Congolaise pour les Victimes (SYCOVI, DRC)

- Femme pour la Paix, le Developpement et les Droit de l’Homme (DRC)

- Sierra Leone Coalition for the ICC

- Association Espanola De Derecho International De Derechos Humanos (AEDIDH)

- Justice Without Frontiers

- Lebanese Centre for International Law and Human Rights

- La Coalition Marocain Pour La Cour Penal Internationale

- Institute for Justice and Reconciliation

The coalition's recommendations may seem harsh, but the Palestinians have suffered enough. It's time that Israel be held accountable for its years of aggression against innocent civilians, be they the Palestinian people themselves or the international aid workers who try to help them (see Rachel Corrie).


01 June 2010

Jim Webb's DADT mistake

The U.S. Congress is moving towards a repeal of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (DADT) policy which keeps gay and lesbian service members in the closet lest they be discharged from duty. It's about time.

On May 28, the House passed an annual Pentagon policy provision that "would allow the Defense Department to end the ban 60 days after military leaders receive a report on the ramifications of openly gay and lesbian soldiers and certify that doing so would not disrupt the armed forces," according to the New York Times.

The previous day, the Senate Armed Service Committee had passed the measure, which will go to the full Senate floor soon.

In the Senate Committee, one Republican supported the bill -- Susan Collins of Maine. Kudos to her.

But, to my disappointment, a lone Democrat -- Senator Jim Webb of Virginia, a Vietnam veteran -- opposed the bill, citing Pentagon reluctance. He doesn't believe that Congress should make such a move until after the Pentagon completes its study.

Both the Pentagon and Senator Webb are wrong to want to delay the repeal.

Until DADT is repealed, gays and lesbians in the U.S. military are second-class soldiers. They do not have the freedom of speech and freedom of expression that their straight colleagues enjoy. They are forced to live a lie. And no one can perform at his or her best under those circumstances, so it's the military -- and this country -- that ultimately suffer as well. In that regard, today's U.S. military might represent the home of the brave, but certainly not the land of the free -- unless you're heterosexual.

And leaving it up to the Pentagon is wrong. It's like Republican Senatorial candidate Rand Paul's criticism of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 per his belief that businesses should be free to discriminate as they see fit. The backlash against Paul's position was strong, and came from all sides of the political spectrum. Why no similar backlash against the lawmakers and Pentagon officials who can't quite admit that it's also very wrong to discriminate on the basis of whom you happen to be attracted to?

In passing the Civil Rights Act, the government didn't do a study to determine whether or not the White majority in business and public institutions would have difficulty -- logistically or philosophically -- with giving blacks equal treatment. No, the Congressional majority just went ahead and passed it because it was the right thing to do.

Similarly, Congress today is wrong to have included in its legislation the provision that delays a DADT repeal until after the Pentagon study is complete. But, given the current political climate, I suppose that compromise was probably the best they could do.

I'd like to see an immediate repeal. And, until that happens, I would like to see a Presidential order suspending any further discharges of service members under DADT.

But that's just me speaking from the conscience. In Washington, on the other hand, it's not about conscience, just politics. And that is why social progress will always be an uphill battle.