Friday, June 24, 2011

Human Rights Body Concerned About Alabama's Immigration Law

Does Alabama's new immigration law violate international human rights? Today the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, a body of the Organization of American States, expressed concerns that the law will lead to discrimination and other serious human rights violations in that state. The IACHR "strongly urges the United States authorities to use the legal mechanisms that are available to amend" the Alabama law and the similar law passed by Arizona in 2010 "and adapt them to international human rights standards for the protection of immigrants."

Click here for the full press release on the IACHR's website.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

United Nation's International Day in Support of Victims of Torture Approaches

The United Nations Convention Against Torture was initially drafted on June 26, 1984 and formally adopted three years later in 1987. During the drafting of the convention, member states discussed the harsh realties of torture around the world and implemented a strict position against the practice altogether. In doing so, the U.N. instantly set an international precedent for the humane treatment of prisoners, urging all member states to take swift action against torture, both within their own states and abroad. Ever since then, the international community has recognized June 26th as the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, using this day each year to spread awareness about the status of torture globally, and to support those who have been victims of torture in the past.

As the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture 2011 quickly approaches this Sunday, we're each reminded of the great strides that we have made, but also of the many steps that still lie ahead of us in the future. Torture still exists throughout the world today, including in the United States. Human Rights USA is working hard to promote accountability for torture in the United States, and to help victims obtain the justice that they deserve.

If you would like to learn more about Human Rights USA's legal work against the practice of torture and make a donation to support our future efforts, please click here.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

U.S. Government Undermines Abu Ghraib Torture Victim's Right to Remedy

By Melina MilazzoPennoyer Fellow, Law and Security

Once again, the Obama administration shirked its legal and moral responsibility to ensure torture victims are provided an enforceable remedy when it advised the U.S. Supreme Court not to hear a case brought by Iraqi detainees tortured by private military contractors at Abu Ghraib.
The case, Saleh, et al. v. Titan Corporation, et al., is a civil suit brought by 250 Iraqi detainees for torture by U.S. private contractors CACI and Titan (now L-3 Services). The two companies were retained to provide interrogation and interpretation services at Abu Ghraib, the infamous Iraqi prison that the Department of Defense (DoD) reported was the site of “numerous incidents of sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses” of Iraqi prisoners committed by Americans under the authority of Americans. Army investigations implicated private contractors in the torture and abuse of detainees held there. While 11 soldiers were convicted on detainee abuse charges, no contractor was ever criminally charged.
In September 2009, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the civil case on the ground that contractors involved in combat activities on a battlefield should be protected from lawsuits. The victims appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and Human Rights First submitted an amicus brief arguing that the decision by the D.C. Circuit to immunize the criminal conduct of private military contractors is incompatible with the United States’ international legal obligations, including its obligation under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) to provide “enforceable” or “effective” remedies to victims for acts of torture and serious abuse.
Before deciding whether or not to hear the case, the Supreme Court asked the U.S. government, which is not a party to the suit, its opinion or interest. Human Rights First sent a letter to the Acting Solicitor General urging the government to advise the Court to hear the case and reverse the decision that denies victims a remedy.
The Acting Solicitor General, however, did the exact opposite.
Eight months after the Supreme Court requested the government’s opinion, the U.S. government submitted a brief telling the Supreme Court it should deny cert and leave the appellate court’s dismissal intact. While acknowledging the appellate court ruling’s shortcomings – that contractors cannot be “fully integrated” into combat and that torture by private contractors is a war crime actionable under U.S. law – the U.S. government largely aligned itself with the appellate court’s majority position.
The government’s brief asserts that it has a “variety of tools at its disposal” to punish people who torture and compensate victims, but it fails to mention not only that it has failed to enforce the applicable laws, but has also thwarted every effort by victims to seek legal redress. It also goes to great lengths to describe the number of steps the U.S. government has taken to improve contractor oversight, including barring contractors from performing interrogations. But improvement does not amount to accountability and it certainly does not provide victims an enforceable right to remedy. Indeed, the government’s brief makes no mention of its obligations to provide torture victims an enforceable remedy under the ICCPR and CAT.
But even apart from its legal obligations, there are good reasons why the United States should as a matter of policy afford victims of torture a compensatory remedy. First, civil actions are a beneficial addition to criminal actions, which may alone not sufficiently create accountability for human rights abuses due to lack of will to prosecute. Second, monetary compensation provides victims of torture the necessary funds for treatment and rehabilitation. Third, the absence of an enforceable right to redress for serious crimes against civilians can only alienate local populations, which undermines U.S. counterinsurgency efforts.
The United States recognized that providing civil remedies for contractor abuses advances U.S. interests when it became a signatory to the Montreux Document on the Pertinent International Legal Obligations and Good Practices for States related to Operations of Private Military and Security Companies during Armed Conflict, which recommends that States “provide for non-criminal accountability mechanisms for improper and unlawful conduct” of private contractors including, civil liability.
Moreover, the military has expressed its preference to rely on the existing structure of tort liability as a tool to deter contractor misconduct.
It’s unclear whether the Supreme Court will follow the U.S. government’s recommendation to not hear the case, effectively foreclosing any possibility that Abu Ghraib torture abuses will be remedied. But what is clear, is that the U.S. government is not serious about meeting its international legal obligations to ensure torture victims have such a right.

Maryland Couple Indicted for Holding Filipino Woman in Domestic Servitude

The Washington Post recently reported that a local couple of Upper Malboro, MD was indicted for illegally holding a Filipino woman in domestic servitude within their home. The woman (whose name is not being disclosed for her own safety) was allegedly forced to cook, clean, garden, and perform other domestic tasks, receiving no more than $50 a month for her services. According to the indictment, the couple procured a fraudulent visa to allow the woman to enter the U.S., and then repeatedly abused, threatened, and assaulted her to ensure her continued service within their home. During this time, the couple allegedly withheld pay and travel documents belonging to the woman, forbidding her to send funds or visit her family and eight children. They are now facing serious charges, including forced labor and domestic servitude. If convicted, each could possibly face up to a 50-year sentence and as much as a $250,000 fine.

For more on this story, click here.

Unfortunately, human trafficking is prevalent throughout the United States. Human Rights USA is in the process of bringing a similar case on behalf of our client, Ms. Reena Patel (a pseudonym used for her safety), involving charges of forced labor, involuntary servitude, and trafficking. Shortly after her marriage in India, Ms. Patel's in-laws brought her to the United States against her will, violating a contract they had made previously with her father. The contract provided that Ms. Patel be allowed to finish her schooling in India, which her in-laws did not permit. When they arrived in the U.S., Ms. Patel was forced to become a domestic servant in her in-law's home while her husband lived in an entirely different state. She was forced to work a daily schedule, which began at 5 am and ended around 11 pm. She was subjected to verbal and physical abuse, surveillance, coercion, and constant threats of divorce, which is greatly stigmatized in India.

By providing legal support for survivors of human trafficking who want to pursue their rights in court and hold the perpetrators accountable, Human Rights USA works to ensure that similar cases will stop appearing in our headlines and that human rights standards will be upheld in our community.

For more on Human Rights USA's other work for survivors of human trafficking, please visit our website.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Human Rights Groups Challenge Government Secrecy on the Use of Waterboarding

On June 10, 2011, the World Organization for Human Rights USA (Human Rights USA) joined with the Brennan Center for Justice and nine other human rights organizations filed an amicus brief urging the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit to overturn a district court decision permitting the U.S. government to continue withholding information about its use of the illegal interrogation method of waterboarding.

The decision was issued in ACLU v. Department of Defense. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sought access under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) regarding the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) use of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” including waterboarding. The district court ruled against the ACLU, holding that the CIA had authority under the FOIA to withhold the information because it relates to “intelligence methods.”

On appeal, the ACLU argues that the FOIA does not permit the CIA to withhold information about the use of waterboarding – an interrogation technique that the United States has prosecuted as a war crime and that President Obama has declared to be torture, and therefore unlawful. The ACLU notes that since waterboarding is unlawful, it is outside the scope of the CIA’s charter and therefore, cannot be considered a valid “intelligence method” eligible for withholding under the FOIA.

In the brief filed in support of the ACLU’s appeal, the human rights groups detail the CIA’s history of conducting secret illegal or improper activities—from domestic surveillance to extraordinary rendition— as well as Congress’ repeated attempts to reign in the agency. The brief argues that although confidentiality may be necessary to protect legitimate methods of intelligence gathering, Congress has repeatedly made it clear that secrecy to conceal illegal CIA conduct is not in our nation’s interest.

Allison Lefrak, Litigation Director at Human Rights USA, stated, “Permitting the CIA to withhold information concerning unlawful conduct such as waterboarding would undermine the rule of law and remove one of the most important tools for ensuring government accountability for torture.”

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Setting the Standard: Domestic Policy Implications of UNDRIP

Check out the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs' Oversight Hearing on Setting the Standard: Domestic Policy Implications of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) today, June 9th. The United States is signatory to this Declaration, which sets international policy goals. Witness a discussion about the United States' policies. Click here to see details.