31 October 2013

Diplomacy seems to be working in Syria

It's being reported today that all Syrian chemical weapon production and mixing facilities have now been destroyed or rendered inoperable, thereby meeting a major deadline.

According to Reuters, Syria's next deadline is November 15, when Syria and the international Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) "must agree to a detailed plan of destruction, including how and where to destroy more than 1,000 metric tonnes of toxic agents and munitions."

So far, so good. Diplomacy seems to be working. No U.S. military strikes were necessary.

I hope this will be a lesson learned.

The OPCW won this year's Nobel Peace Prize.

29 October 2013

Amnesty supports legislation to end U.S. mass surveillance program

In light of recent relevations regarding the U.S. National Security Agency's mass surveillance program, Amnesty International announced its support of the proposed USA Freedom Act, introduced today, which would limit the NSA's spying authority.

Zeke Johnson, Director of Amnesty International USA's Security with Human Rights campaign, explained that excessive surveillance is a threat to each person's right to privacy and self-expression. "Finally," he said, "Congress has introduced a bill to reform the NSA mass surveillance program that everyone should support. It's not perfect, but it is an important step in the right direction and Congress should pass it."

In a news release today, Amnesty described the favorable and not-so-favorable components of the Act:

"Particularly notable are: the bill's creation of an Office of the Special Advocate, with strong authority to take part in cases and appeal them; an opening for the participation of amici curiae; and new requirements of disclosures of the courts' opinions. Also positive are requirements throughout the bill of greater reporting on what kind of surveillance is used and how many people are affected.

"However, Amnesty International is deeply concerned that the bill retains discriminatory distinctions between the rights of U.S. citizens and non-citizens. Any final solution to the mass surveillance program must uphold the rights of all people equally without distinction based on national origin or other discriminatory factors."

For now, we'll take what we can get. But we must keep on fighting for our rights and liberties.

28 October 2013

Amnesty remembers Lou Reed as a powerful ally for human rights

Sadly, rock music legend Lou Reed died on Sunday, October 27.

Ann Burroughs, chair of the Board of Directors for Amnesty International USA, reacted to his death with the following statement:

"With the sad passing of Lou Reed, the human rights movement has lost a powerful voice for humanity and a strong ally in the defense of freedom and justice.

"Just as he inspired generations of rock fans with his indelible songs, he was also a passionate proponent for our cause. At his core, he bridled against repression in all its forms and he inspired others to speak up to protect human rights.

"One of his many admirers was the late Czech President and human rights activist Vaclav Havel, who famously smuggled a Velvet Underground album out of New York in the late 1960s. The two men later became friends.

"In 1986, Lou joined with other leading musicians for the first of Amnesty International's 'Human Rights Concerts' series - performing at all six concerts on the 'A Conspiracy Of Hope' U.S. tour. Recently, he very generously supported the release of his historic performances as part of Amnesty's DVD box-set of those concerts.

"We send our deep condolences to his loved ones. He will be greatly missed by the human rights movement that he so strongly and eloquently supported."


25 October 2013

Everyone should see "12 Years a Slave"

Today, the movie "12 Years a Slave" opened in Philly. I was there for the first matinee screening.

It is the true story of a free-born black man living well in upstate New York who was then kidnapped and sold into slavery in the South prior to the Civil War. The movie is based on the book of the same name, which is a memoir by the actual lead character, Solomon Northup.

The movie was difficult to watch at times, due to the brutal violence and humiliation forced upon the enslaved characters, and I still feel quite shaken. But it is a story that needs to be told. And it is a movie that needs to be seen.

Overall, the filmmakers did a very good job of condensing the book (which I recently read) into a powerful 2-hour film.

It will open nationwide next week. Please see it.

Meantime, you can visit the film's official website here.

24 October 2013

Ban Ki-moon's statement for UN Day 2013

Today, October 24, is United Nations Day, which each year commemorates the entry into force in 1945 of the UN Charter. In other words, it's the UN's birthday.

As usual, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issued a statement to mark the occasion.

Here are some excerpts:

United Nations Day is a chance to recognize how much this invaluable Organization contributes to peace and common progress.

It is a time to reflect on what more we can do to realize our vision for a better world.

The fighting in Syria is our biggest security challenge.

Millions of people depend on UN humanitarian personnel for life-saving assistance.

UN experts are working hand-in-hand with the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to destroy Syria’s stockpiles.

And we are pushing for a diplomatic solution to end suffering that has gone on far too long.

Our most urgent development challenge is to make sustainability a reality.

The Millennium Development Goals have cut poverty in half.


We continue to show what collective action can do. We can do even more.

In a world that is more connected, we must be more united.

On United Nations Day, let us pledge to live up to our founding ideals and work together for peace, development, and human rights.


The UN is certainly not perfect, but the world would be far less secure without it.

>> Read the full statement.

23 October 2013

Evergreen State College to dedicate Rachel Corrie memorial today

Rachel Corrie was an American peace activist who, in 2003, was crushed to death by a US-made Caterpillar D9 military bulldozer in Rafah while acting as a human shield, trying to stop the unlawful demolition of a civilian Palestinian home.

Today, a memorial in her honor will be dedicated at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, where Rachel had taken classes. The memorial features a beautiful bronze and polished steel sculpture of a dove on the tip of a pyramid. The piece, titled "Reflecting on Peace and Justice", was created by international artist and Evergreen graduate Ross Matteson.

See pictures of the lovely sculpture here.

22 October 2013

Human rights groups release reports on U.S. drone killings

Today, Amnesty International (AI) and Human Rights watch (HRW) jointly released two disturbing reports on U.S. drone strikes and other air strikes in Pakistan and Yemen.

The AI report, titled "Will I Be Next?", documents nine drone killings in northwest Pakistan in 2012 and 2013 that "may amount to war crimes or extrajudicial executions, including the killing of a 68-year-old grandmother and 14-year-old boy," according to an AI news release.

The HRW report, titled "Between a Drone and Al-Qaeda", documents six strikes in Yemen from 2009 to 2013, "two of which indiscriminately killed several dozen civilians in violation of the laws of war," according to the same AI news release.

Read the full reports online via these links:

• AI report: "Will I Be Next?"

• HRW report: "Between a Drone and Al-Qaeda"

19 October 2013

Human rights groups to release reports on U.S. drone killings

On Tuesday, October 22, Amnesty International (AI) and Human Rights watch (HRW) will jointly release two reports on U.S. drone strikes and other air strikes in Pakistan and Yemen.

The AI report documents nine drone killings in northwest Pakistan in 2012 and 2013 that "may amount to war crimes or extrajudicial executions, including the killing of a 68-year-old grandmother and 14-year-old boy," according to an AI news release.

The HRW report documents six strikes in Yemen from 2009 to 2013, "two of which indiscriminately killed several dozen civilians in violation of the laws of war," according to the same AI news release.

I will post links to the reports when they are available online.

Stay tuned.

Update 10/22/2013: Links to the two reports are available here.

17 October 2013

Only 2% of U.S. Senators are black

With the election yesterday of Cory Booker (D-NJ), we will now have two African-American U.S. senators serving this term. In other words, 2 percent of our U.S. Senators are black, as of this election.

Compare this with the fact that 12.6 percent of the U.S. population is African-American (as of the 2010 census).

Those who say that race no longer matters should think again.

16 October 2013

On Thursday, Oct. 17, wear purple to fight bullying!

Tomorrow - Thursday, October 17 - is Spirit Day 2013.

Spirit Day, named for the purple stripe of the rainblow flag representing "spirit", was established as an opportunity for people to speak out against the plague of bullying aimed at LGBT youth.

On Spirit Day, please wear purple to show your support. I certainly will, as I do every year. (The photo is of me wearing purple for the first Spirit Day in 2010.)

Do more:

>> Find more Spirit Day actions at www.glaad.org/spiritday.

15 October 2013

Yes, "Redskins" is a racial slur

With American football season in full swing, the old controvery has been resurrected: Should Washington's football team change its name?

I've heard some people (mostly older white men) say that they don't find the "Redskins" name offensive at all. But KKK members were probably not offended by the N-word. They're not the targets of those slurs.

The best people to judge the offensiveness of a potential slur are the targets of that slur. In the "Redskins" case, Native Americans.

So I emailed a close friend who had married into a Native American family, and asked how her husband and his family feel about the term.

Her response was brief and straightforward:

"Redskin(s)" is derogatory and racist. Can you imagine any sports team named the N-word?

I rest my case.

14 October 2013

Debunking Columbus

Today, the second Monday in October, is Columbus Day in the U.S., commemorating the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Americas. It is a federal holiday, celebrated with parades and other festivities.

But I will not be celebrating. Here are my reasons:

What we learned about Columbus in school was not the whole truth. In some cases, it wasn't the truth at all.

First of all, Columbus did not originate the theory that the earth is round. Such had been known since ancient times.

Columbus also did not discover America. Leif Ericson and his Norsemen had built a settlement in what is now the Great Northern Peninsula of Newfoundland and Labrador some 500 years before Columbus wandered into the West Indies.

And, once Columbus got here, he enslaved the Native Americans, while helping himself to the new world's gold and other precious resources.

This is what you are really celebrating on Columbus Day.

I consider it a national embarrassment at best.

09 October 2013

October 10 is World Day Against the Death Penalty

Thursday, October 10, 2013, is the 11th annual World Day Against the Death Penalty. This day was established by the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty to raise awareness on the issues related to the death penalty and to ultimately abolish the practice worldwide.

Fortunately, there has been a steady trend towards abolition in some parts of the world. The death penalty has already been abolished in all European countries except for Belarus. In fact, today over two-thirds of the world's nations - 141 - have ended capital punishment in law or practice. This reflects the growing awareness that there are alternative punishments that are effective and which do not involve state-sponsored killing.

Amnesty International (AI) has called the death penalty "the ultimate, irreversible denial of human rights." Indeed, its finality is a huge problem, given so many cases of death row inmates here in the U.S. and around the world who have been exonerated after conviction, based on DNA or other evidence. How many other innocent persons were not lucky enough to be proven innocent prior to their executions? We know of at least a few.

Some proponents of the death penalty believe that it serves as a deterrent. That theory is demonstrably untrue. According to AI, the murder rate in non-death-penalty states has remained consistently lower than the rate in states with the death penalty.

Others argue that the death penalty is the only way to bring closure to a murder victim's family. But not all such families agree. In fact, so many families oppose the death penalty that some have formed organizations such as Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation and Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights, through which they actively work to abolish the death penalty. As noted on the latter organization's website, "MVFHR members have come in different ways and times to the understanding that the death penalty does not help us heal and is not the way to pursue justice for victims." They should know.

The death penalty does not represent justice. It represents revenge - sometimes misdirected revenge.

We as a society need to evolve beyond this kind of thing.

What you can do:

>> Read more about the death penalty - and take action - on the AIUSA site here.

07 October 2013

Amnesty to Putin: Do not blow out the flame of freedom (+ online petition)

Yesterday, the Olympic flame arrived in Moscow, one day ahead of Russian President Vladimir Putin's 61st birthday.

Steven W. Hawkins, the new executive director of Amnesty International USA, marked the occasion with the following statement:

"Amnesty International USA's birthday wish to President Putin is: do not blow out the flame of freedom. The vibrant Olympic celebrations will not obscure the Russian government's vicious assaults on the rights to freedom of expression, assembly, and association.

"Since Vladimir Putin's return to the presidency in May 2012, punk musicians cannot sing about repression in Russia, LGBTI individuals cannot organize a Pride parade or wear a rainbow ribbon without risking arrests or beatings by police, and peaceful protestors are brutally beaten and detained for expressing their political opposition.

"As the Olympic torch arrives at the stadium celebrating athletic competition, it should also shine a light on Russia's failure to safeguard the dignity and rights of all its people.

"The ruthless suppression of human rights and the rule of law in Russia are incompatible with the spirit of the Olympics Games and should be protested."


What you can do:

Click here to send a birthday message to President Putin urging him to end the attack on human rights.

05 October 2013

Troy Davis and family live on in new book

Jen Marlowe's newest book, I Am Troy Davis, was published right around the second anniversary of Davis's September 2011 execution by the state of Georgia. Davis was killed by lethal injection despite considerable evidence suggesting that he was innocent.

Davis was convicted of the 1989 murder of police officer Mark MacPhail in Savannah, Georgia. Years of appeals were unsuccessful despite significant doubts about his guilt.

Davis's original trial was flawed, and most of the witnesses later recanted or contradicted their stories. There was no physical evidence linking Davis to the crime, and his conviction was based solely on that questionable testimony by witnesses. In other words, there was reasonable doubt as to Davis's guilt.

Davis's case was so compelling that Pope Benedict XVI called for the case to be reconsidered. So did Desmond Tutu, Jimmy Carter, and countless private citizens. Amnesty International called it "an outrageous affront to justice." But the public outcry was ignored by those in charge.

As a longtime member of Amnesty International, with a particular interest in death penalty issues, I was already quite familiar with the case, which I had followed and written about through the years leading up to the execution. Still, I learned so much from Marlowe's in-depth book, which teaches us more about the case details - and the remarkable Davis family - than we could ever have learned through the mainstream media's coverage of the case.

The book has four heroes:

1. Troy Davis himself, who spent his 20 years on death row selflessly doting long-distance over his family on the outside, and caring more about their wellbeing than his own fate.

2. Virginia Davis, Troy's mother, who nurtured the family through the hard times until her death just a few months before his execution.

3. Martina Davis-Correia, Troy's older sister, who fought tirelessly for justice, even as she fought her own battle against breast cancer.

4. De'Jaun Correia, Martina's son, now a young man, who bravely and strongly carried the torch while his mother's health was failing.

This is a story about Troy Davis's legal battle, and the flaws in the legal system that led to this miscarriage of justice. But, even more, it is a story about the love that holds a family together even through the worst of times.

I recommend this book to anyone who cares about justice - whether you favor the death penalty or oppose it.

I don't think any human being could read this book and not be strongly moved - and maddened.

01 October 2013

The GOP doesn't care about your furlough

According to the Wall Street Journal, more than 800,000 federal workers are facing furloughs today due to the government shutdown.

Most of them are not rich. And so, as long as they're out of work, they will need to cut back on spending. And that could significantly stall our economy, which is already recovering too slowly.

Furthermore, national parks and other federally owned attractions are shutting down, which will take a toll on the tourism industry.

The combined effects could be devastating to the economy and to so many American families.

But the House Republicans don't care. They have theirs.