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Posts Tagged ‘human rights’

If you’re arrested in the USA, you’re entitled to certain rights.

Being arrested’s not the same as being formally found guilty, after all. Once you’ve been convicted, you become a convict; if they just suspect you’ve committed a crime, you’re a suspect.

I’m tempted to embark on an etymological tangent about how the noun forms of those two words both have the emphasis on the first syllable, but the verb forms place it on the second, but that’s beside my point.

Closer to my point: When the authorities are still trying to figure out whether there’s any evidence that you’ve done anything wrong, they can’t just start throwing you in jail for as long as they like, or treating you like inhuman terrorist scum. You’re still just a person who they suspect.

If you don’t want every suspect to have full access to all these basic rights until the point of conviction, then you’re granting the police and the criminal justice system a large amount of power over literally everyone. Being arrested isn’t just for the guilty. Even convictions are often overturned when it later becomes clear they got the wrong person; merely suspecting some totally innocent people is, even more regularly, a necessary step on the path to investigating a crime and finding a guilty party.

If you want to start taking away people’s rights as soon as they’re a suspect, before any due process has found them guilty, then you want to give police the power to arrest anyone they like, on suspicion of a crime, without having to prove that they’re guilty of anything, and start refusing them the rights specifically granted them under the law and the Constitution. You basically want a police state.

If you only want to save that kind of thing for the worst offenders, the terrorists who want to destroy your whole freedom-loving country (and maybe the child molesters too because they’re terrible and frightening and definitely not human), then you still want the police to be able to decide, before any kind of trial or impartial assessment, who those worst offenders are, and how guilty are the people they’ve taken into custody. You still want to give the unelected guys with guns and badges a police-state level of power to take other people’s rights away.

And that is not a good thing to do.

This really isn’t that hard. I get that finding deep compassion for people and understanding their humanity after you’ve confirmed with certainty that they’ve done terrible things is a bigger pill to swallow, but “don’t call down the lynch mob on the first guy you slap handcuffs on, before there’s been any kind of hearing or arraignment let alone a fucking trial” is Basic Humanity 101, people. This stuff almost comes in the same lesson as the thing about not throwing bricks through paediatrician’s windows.

Some of the reaction to the arrest of a suspect in the Boston bombings has made it hard not to start shouting “THIS IS EXACTLY WHAT DUE PROCESS IS FUCKING FOR, YOU GODDAMN NUMBSKULLS”. So hard, in fact, that I couldn’t hold back from shouting exactly that, in the sentence immediately preceding this one. The whole point is to put systems in place that rein in those baser instincts in us that call for immediate, eye-for-an-eye vengeance when we are wronged. It’s about recognising that we’re all made of meat, and we all fuck shit up. It’s not about making a token gesture to the ideas of accountability and transparency and individual liberty, and then chucking even that out the window once you’ve got someone who you just know is really bad.

And it’s not just from easily ignored extremists, either. Lindsey Graham’s been in the Senate for a decade, and has declared that letting this particular suspect have his rights is the last thing we may want to do. So, there you go. You can trust the cops to know who’s guilty and doesn’t deserve rights. Hardly even seems worth the hassle of a trial.

Hi again, new followers. You may also notice that, as well as a devout atheist, I’m kind of a crazy libertarian. (And even more of a crazy socialist. But we’ll get to that later.)

Anyway, I’ll be back on atheism tomorrow, in response to some questions from my last post and some other recent Twitter interaction. This is just something that bugged me today.

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A guy in prison is suing for being forced into slave labour.

He’s been offered the choice of working for 25 cents an hour, or suffering a condition known to be injurious to mental health.

And he hasn’t been convicted of any crime.

He’s awaiting trial because he can’t afford bail, and is one of a thousand such inmates in this one county alone, who are deemed to pose “little to no” danger to the public. But even if it had been established that he’d done anything wrong in his life – which, bear in mind, it hasn’t – this is the kind of retributive attitude to criminal justice which only serves to further distance the least advantaged from the rest of us.

Initially, a judge dismissed his case on the grounds that none of this man’s rights were being violated by this self-evidently inhumane treatment. The case was based on the 13th Amendment, and the judge said that what was going on here was “nothing like” the slavery of 19th century America which prompted the law in question.

Obviously, there are ways in which this guy’s situation is importantly different from the ownership of other human beings as property. But while the distinctions are important to remember, the similarities are too significant to ignore. An appeal court later decided:

Contrary to the district court’s conclusion, it is well-settled that the term ‘involuntary servitude’ is not limited to chattel slavery-like conditions. The amendment was intended to prohibit all forms of involuntary labor, not solely to abolish chattel slavery.

Whether this is true or not, you don’t need to be a constitutional scholar to observe injustice in the modern world. The way America’s system of crime and punishment treats those people who fall into its domain – whether wrongdoers or innocent bystanders – is a prime example.

(h/t BoingBoing)

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I think same sex couples should be able to get married.

Thus spake President Obama yesterday, and yea, there was much rejoicing.

And maybe there should be. It’s a positive development, after all, to have such an unequivocal statement of support from the leader of the free world. People in same-sex relationships are still having to struggle hard for equality all over the world, whether that struggle is just a matter of being taken seriously, or the right not to be executed as an abomination in the eyes of God.

But a lot of the public reaction has been over the top. I don’t want to take anything away from gay people for whom this is a significant victory. But too much import is being ascribed to too insipid a gesture.

Society is changing, and Obama’s announcement reflects just how far we’ve come in a relatively short time. How long ago would it have been impossible to imagine the President of the United States saying something like this? Twenty years? Less? But compare that to Obama’s own “evolving” view on the issue of same-sex relationships. See how far he’s come in, say, the past sixteen years, back when the then State Senate hopeful’s stated position was:

I favor legalizing same-sex marriages, and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages.

Huh. So, long before he was running the show, he felt at least as strongly about this as he does now. In fact, if he was prepared to actually fight for it back then, he’s arguably back-pedalled since. Nearly four years into his presidency, he now supports individual states’ rights to decide on what side to let the law come down. (Not, as Radley Balko points out, a stand he seems to take on many other matters.)

In fact, there were a lot of provisos accompanying his statement of support yesterday. I’ve quoted the main highlight above, but he took a lengthy run-up to get there:

…at a certain point I’ve just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that…

…I think same sex couples should be able to get married.

You’re welcome, gay people.

I think it’s fair to say that after much careful deliberation and contemplation I’ve decided provisionally but with conviction that it’s become a moral necessity for me as an individual in my own way to just go right ahead and stick my neck out there and lay my cards on the table and say that at the end of the day I happen to think in my own head personally all things considered that Barack Obama ought to stop being such a fucking politician about this.

I don’t question the sincerity of his feelings at all. I’m sure he’s perfectly fair-minded and decent and progressive about same-sex relationships. I doubt there’s a homophobic (or hetero-supremacist, or whatever) bone in his body. But he has to constantly worry about whether expressing an honest opinion is going to cost him 10,000 votes in a swing state, which would of course result in TOTAL CATASTROPHE. And so his honest opinion is often a long time coming. Because politics is insane.

I share many queer folk’s joy that we continue to see signs of an approaching time when this whole discussion is irrelevant, and true equality is really possible. But some people’s gratitude at having their humanity acknowledged is spilling over into a kind of demeaning, fawning obsequiousness.

He’s not your saviour, and he’s not some hero deserving of your worship. At best, he’s someone who means well and is finally making some sort of effort to do the right thing. But you’re a human being deserving of dignity and respect entirely on your own merits, without having to wait on anybody else’s say-so.

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One legal activist is considering the possibility of an action that might “bring the whole [justice] system to a halt” in America.

That action? Organising people to claim their constitutional rights.

At the moment, most people who are charged with a crime will waive their right to a trial. They’re commonly advised that a full trial could lead them to face serious penalties, whereas agreeing a guilty plea beforehand and getting it all sorted out quickly and efficiently would be better for everyone.

If they took the rights they were entitled to, there’s no way the system could cope. But they’re pressured to plea out, and sometimes they have little choice.

Erma Faye Stewart pleaded guilty, having been told that it was the only way she’d be able to look after her children. As it turns out, if she’d gone to court, the case against her would have been dismissed. But that’s no comfort now that she’s been evicted from her home, made ineligible for food stamps, lumped with court costs and probation fees, and given a permanent criminal record.

I already told them, I’m having a hard time, buying my son medicine. I have to have his medicine for his asthma.

Her son needs medicine for his asthma. Goddammit, if you wrote a character in a movie as heart-wrenching as this woman, people would be vomiting into their popcorn at how schmaltzy and contrived it was. Why the fuck are we not better at helping people?

The fact that the US has a serious incarceration problem is no secret. The idea that the system could be so easily crashed just highlights how broken it already is.

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I wrote a thing yesterday about proposals within the UK government to take certain rights away from prisoners, and it turned into something that fit better on my Other blog. Here’s a snippet:

These latest proposals suggest stripping those in prison of even more of whatever rights and human decency remain to them. Convicted criminals may be banned from “claiming compensation for injuries sustained in attacks, in prison or after release”, as well as being denied the right to vote while serving time.

As The Justice Gap points out, the language used by politicians around these issues often serves to place “criminals” in some external category, as being separate from the rest of us and wholly defined by the fact of their having been convicted of some crime. The fact that these are still people we’re talking about is easily forgotten, making the idea of denying them compensation if they’re physically assaulted easier to swallow.

You can read the whole thing here.

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Here, have a slightly adapted form of a brief rant I just had on Twitter.

@unfortunatalie reported David Cameron as saying: “No human rights concerns will get in the way of bringing these people to justice.” (By “these people”, he means those who have been rioting, looting, and vandalising bits of London this past week.)

Did he really say that? I’ve already got a headache, otherwise I’d bang it on something.

I’ll try an analogy. Claiming to cherish free speech is only meaningful if you defend it most strongly for speech you find vile and hateful. As Greta Christina points out, any free speech law:

wasn’t written to protect our right to say that puppies are cute and apple pie is delicious.

Similarly, we don’t venerate human rights solely for the sake of lovely old ladies doing some knitting. They’re to protect suspected criminals too. It’s so we don’t behave inhumanly to those we believe have wronged us, and who we might be tempted to see as less than human.

So if Cameron’s really promising not to let human rights stand in the way of justice, I reject any claim he might make to care a jot for either humans or rights.

Right. Ill-informed and idealistic social tirade ACCOMPLISHED. Time for a cup of tea.

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There’s a bigger prison than Guantanamo out there, run by the US military, which has been holding 1,700 detainees for years without charge, despite an official report that many of them have no reason to be there.

I know, right?

It’s at a place called Bagram, in Afghanistan. It’s detaining more people than have ever been at Gitmo, with no apparent public accountability whatsoever, and no recourse for anyone locked up who might want to protest their innocence.

There was a damning report put out by a human rights organisation recently, which nobody seems to have really noticed except other human rights organisations and activists.

Despite the number of ways that things have improved since the Obama administration took over, the report still concluded, among other things:

The current U.S. detention policy in Afghanistan does not provide detainees the minimum level of due process required by international law, including the right to see and effectively challenge the evidence, and to have their rights determined by an independent authority, empowered to order release.

So, that sucks.

And what else is going on out there which we don’t know about?

The first commenter on that Nieman Watchdog article claims that the detainees are prisoners of war. He doesn’t expand on this point except to be obnoxious and inane, but there’s an implicit argument there to be addressed. The context of war does add layers of complication to all kinds of situations. Sometimes, on the battlefield, questions may arise about whether the important aims of maintaining security and saving lives would best be served by circumventing some of the usual standards of behaviour.

“Prisoners of war” may be a different matter than just “prisoners”. But these people are citizens of a country we’ve invaded and attacked, who are being forcibly imprisoned and mistreated for years on end, with no hope of being able to help themselves, and who may not have ever done a thing wrong. If you think that slapping them with the magic label “prisoner of war” solves all the problems that matter, then your opinions of humanity are so at odds with mine I don’t think I could even talk to you.

I hadn’t heard about any of this until reading a post on annarky’s blog. Score another one for the anti-statists.

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