30 November 2011

For World AIDS Day: Getting to zero

Thursday, December 1, is World AIDS Day. This day each year is dedicated to raising awareness of the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

This year's World AIDS Day theme is "Getting to Zero", marking a campaign that runs until 2015 with the goal of getting to zero new HIV infections, zero discrimination, and zero AIDS-related deaths.

Accordingly, below are 10 goals for 2015, as listed on the United Nations website:

• Sexual transmission of HIV reduced by half, including among young people, men who have sex with men and transmission in the context of sex work;

• Vertical transmission of HIV eliminated and AIDS-related maternal deaths reduced by half;

• All new HIV infections prevented among people who use drugs;

• Universal access to antiretroviral therapy for people living with HIV who are eligible for treatment;

• TB deaths among people living with HIV reduced by half;

• All people living with HIV and households affected by HIV are addressed in all national social protection strategies and have access to essential care and support;

• Countries with punitive laws and practices around HIV transmission, sex work, drug use or homosexuality that block effective responses reduced by half;

• HIV-related restrictions on entry, stay and residence eliminated in half of the countries that have such restrictions;

• HIV-specific needs of women and girls are addressed in at least half of all national HIV responses;

• Zero tolerance for gender-based violence.

Ambitious goals, but worthy ones.

>> Read more on the UN website.

28 November 2011

In praise of retiring Rep. Barney Frank

U.S. Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) announced today that he will be retiring from Congress at the end of his current term and so will not seek re-election in 2012.

Frank has been in Congress since 1980. He came out as gay in 1987 - the first member of Congress to do so. And he has won re-election time after time ever since.

While many celebrities and ordinary citizens have spoken out on the principle that "it gets better" for LGBT persons who don't give up, Frank lived that slogan by example each and every day that he's been out of the closet.

My thanks go out to Rep. Frank for his decades of work to promote civil rights, social justice, reproductive choice, and other progressive causes.

27 November 2011

Oregon governor rightly suspends death penalty

In a September 7 debate among the GOP presidential hopefuls, Texas Governor Rick Perry seemed quite proud of leading the country in death row executions. He indicated that he loses no sleep over the possibility of executing an innocent person. This is despite the fact that we now know that at least one innocent man - Cameron Todd Willingham - had died by lethal injection on Perry's watch.

In sharp contrast, Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber wants to take no such chance. On November 22, Kitzhaber announced that he would allow no more executions through the end of his time in office.

During a previous term as Oregon's governor in the 1990s, Kitzhaber presided over two executions, despite personal doubts about the morality of the death penalty. Kitzhaber had this to say about those executions: "They were the most agonizing and difficult decisions I have made as Governor and I have revisited and questioned them over and over again during the past 14 years. I do not believe that those executions made us safer; and certainly they did not make us nobler as a society. And I simply cannot participate once again in something I believe to be morally wrong."

Kitzhaber pointed to flaws in Oregon's criminal justice system, which he described as "broken": "Oregonians have a fundamental belief in fairness and justice – in swift and certain justice. The death penalty as practiced in Oregon is neither fair nor just; and it is not swift or certain. It is not applied equally to all."

Indeed, studies in several states have shown that the death penalty is applied in a discriminatory, arbitrary, and uneven manner, and is used disproportionately against racial minorities and the poor. For example, a 1998 study of death sentences in Philadelphia found that African-American defendants were almost four times more likely to receive the death penalty than were people of other ethnic origins who committed similar crimes. That's not justice, it's discrimination.

Human rights group Amnesty International, which describes the death penalty as "the ultimate, irreversible denial of human rights", hailed Kitzhaber's decision. Furthermore, said Rob Freer, Amnesty International's USA researcher, "Oregon's state legislature should seize the opportunity provided by Governor Kitzhaber and turn this temporary moratorium into permanent abolition."

Doing so would follow a growing trend in death penalty abolition in the U.S. Illinois abolished the death penalty in that state earlier this year, joining 15 other states and the District of Columbia which had previously halted the practice.

The trend extends also through much of the rest of the world. The U.S. is one of very, very few western nations that still engage in state-sponsored killing. In maintaining the death penalty here in the U.S., we align ourselves with the other executing nations of the world such as Afghanistan, China, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Zimbabwe, and a handful of other countries known for their systematic violations of human rights.

This is apparently the kind of company that Rick Perry is proud to keep. Kudos to Governor Kitzhaber for instead moving his own state forward towards a more civilized approach to criminal justice.

22 November 2011

Amnesty reminds GOP candidates that torture is wrong

Tonight, starting at 8:00 pm ET on CNN, the Republican presidential contenders will have another debate. This one will focus on national security.

In advance of the debate, the Nobel-Prize-winning human rights group Amnesty International reminded the the candidates that waterboarding and other "enhanced interrogation techniques" are torture, and that torture is illegal.

Tom Parker, Amnesty International USA policy director for terrorism, counterterrorism, and human rights, issued the following statement:
"As the candidates prepare [for] Tuesday evening's debate, Amnesty International would like to remind them that torture is prohibited in all its forms under both United States and international law.

"At the previous national security debate in early November, some candidates spoke out in favor of reintroducing the unlawful interrogation techniques that led to the horrors of Abu Ghraib among other things. It has been widely established by military experts that these techniques are counterproductive at best.

"As a party to the United Nations Convention against Torture, the United States has an obligation to reject such methods and hold those who use them accountable before the law. Any candidate that embraces unlawful interrogation tactics not only does a terrible disservice to torture victims everywhere, but to a country already terribly wounded by its past behavior."
Will the candidates take these words seriously? I'm not optimistic. And that is perhaps what's most disturbing.

17 November 2011

California Prop 8 update: Back to Ninth Circuit

Today, the California Supreme Court ruled that an organized group of homophobes do have legal standing to appeal a lower court ruling that Proposition 8, the 2008 ballot initiative which outlawed same-sex marriage in that state, is unconstitutional.

This ruling was the result of action on the part of a determined group of bigots who decided to pursue the issue even after the State of California declined to pursue the case.

I had hoped that the Court would rule otherwise, which would have let stand the original ruling that Prop 8 is unconstitutional.

But, now that this technicality is out of the way, the case will move back to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which had requested today's clarification.

And I'm guessing that the case will eventually make its way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, where anything could happen.

Stay tuned. And keep fingers crossed for equality.

16 November 2011

SEIU endorses Obama for re-election

Today, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) officially endorsed President Barack Obama for re-election in 2012.

This is not surprising, given that most Republicans running for office these days appear to want to kill unions, not support them.

Some excerpts from SEIU's endorsement announcement:
"President Obama is the only candidate for president who shares our vision of America as a land of opportunity for everyone. We need a leader willing to fight for the needs of the 99 percent, and stand with hard working families to say that the world's wealthiest corporations must pay their fair share."
"President Obama is looking to turn things around, but he needs help from all of us to be heard over his wealthy opponents, people who seem to believe that the only thing wrong with the economy is that they have to share it.

"From now until Election Day, next November, we need to dedicate ourselves to this goal. We will knock on doors, we will talk to our friends and neighbors and coworkers, and we will fight shoulder to shoulder alongside working families across this nation to show the one percent that they aren't the only ones willing to fight for America's future."
Indeed, it will require a lot of work on the part of the left to hold on to the White House and Senate and take back the House of Representatives.

And I know that many of us are disappointed that we haven't seen as much change as we had hoped for in 2008. But to lose in 2012 would make matters much, much worse.

We must rebuild the momentum.

Kudos to the SEIU for doing its part.

09 November 2011

Big wins yesterday for women and workers

There were some good voting results yesterday.

Voters in Mississippi rejected an initiative which would have defined a "person" to include every human being "from the moment of fertilization", and which would likely have presented a serious challenge to Roe v. Wade.

At the same time, voters in Ohio rejected a Republican law that had limited the collective bargaining rights of public workers.

Hopefully this is a sign that America is growing tired of extreme tea party politics.

And hopefully that trend will continue through the 2012 elections.

08 November 2011

Ellen DeGeneres named Special Envoy for Global AIDS Awareness

Earlier today, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced that comedian and TV talk show host Ellen DeGeneres has been named as a Special Envoy for Global AIDS Awareness.

In her announcement, Secretary Clinton shared the following vision: "By lending us your energy, compassion, and star power to serve as our Special Envoy for Global AIDS Awareness, your words will encourage Americans in joining you to make their voices heard in our campaign to achieve an AIDS-free generation. The enormous platform of your television show and your social media channels will enable you to reach millions of people with the strong and hopeful message that we can win this fight."

DeGeneres responded: "I’m honored to have been chosen by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton as Special Envoy for Global AIDS awareness. The fight against AIDS is something that has always been close to my heart. And I'm happy that I can use my platform to educate people and spread hope. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go look up what 'envoy' means."

Congratulations and thanks to Ms. DeGeneres for taking on this new role in addition to all the valuable work she has already been doing in support of various humanitarian causes.

And let us all hope that Secretary Clinton's vision of an AIDS-free generation really can soon be realized.

(photo by Alan Light)

07 November 2011

Execution stay for Hank Skinner, but DNA testing not a sure thing

Texas death row prisoner Hank Skinner had been scheduled for a November 9 execution, despite the existence of untested DNA evidence that he contends could prove his innocence.

Fortunately, today the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals issued a stay of execution. But there's a catch: As noted on the blog The Agitator, "it doesn’t look like this is an order for DNA testing so much as a stay to determine whether [a new Texas law] allows Skinner to get DNA testing."

This technicality makes me uncomfortable, because there should be no excuse for executing Skinner as long as there is evidence that has not been considered. Texas should want to be absolutely sure it is not killing an innocent person. And so Texas should want to test the evidence for that reason alone.

Unfortunately, the Texas authorities have been fighting it every step of the way. What are they afraid of?

Fingers crossed in hopes that true justice will ultimately prevail.

Stay tuned for updates.

03 November 2011

Establishment of religion?

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution clearly states: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." Our nation's Founding Fathers drafted that Amendment for good reason: They knew from experience (via the Church of England's influence over the British government) that mixing religion with politics can impede individual freedom and democracy.

But that didn't stop the U.S. House of Representatives from taking a vote on Tuesday to reaffirm the phrase "In God We Trust" as the national motto. It passed by a vote of 396-9!

As Rev. Barry Lynn, Executive Director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, noted in a recent Washington Post blog post, "'In God We Trust' became the national motto is 1956 at the height of the Cold War. It was slap against those Godless commies. The fact that it was as bland and generic an endorsement of faith as one could get was actually seen as a plus."

It was unnecessary alarmist divisiveness then, and it's unnecessary alarmist divisiveness now.

As Rev. Lynn also noted in his blog post, "The fact is, we had perfectly good unofficial motto for a long time. 'E Plubus Unum' ('Out of Many, One') appears on the Great Seal of the United States, which was codified in 1782. That phrase really encapsulates what the United States is about. It celebrates that we are a diverse nation, a people drawn from many backgrounds who are united as Americans."

But apparently Congress is still afraid of the Godless commies.

Or a president with a foreign-sounding name, whom too many Americans mistakenly believe to be a secret Muslim.

But 396-9?

The Founding Fathers are surely spinning in their graves.

01 November 2011

Kim Kardashian and the real marriage threat

Those on the right speak out against same-sex marriage, saying that it would destroy the sanctity of the institution.

But would it?

I know several same-sex couples who have maintained loyal, faithful relationships that have lasted much longer than my own heterosexual marriage did.

And then we have reality TV star Kim Kardashian, who has filed for divorce after only 10 weeks of hetero marriage. And I don't think the gays had a hand in the fate of Kardashian's short union.

So think about it: Who - or what - is the real threat to the sanctity of marriage in this country?