Clinton to United Nations: "Gay Rights Are Human Rights"

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addresses the assembly at the United Nations in Geneva on December 6, 2011. ©J. SCOTT APPLEWHITE/AFP/Getty Images

The fight for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) human rights took not one but two critical steps forward this week with President Obama’s release of a Presidential Directive on LGBT rights followed closely by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s international human rights day speech at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland.

As we’ve pointed out, in too many countries being gay, or being suspected of being gay, can get you thrown into jail, tortured, raped or killed.  From the so-called corrective rape of lesbians to proposed legislation to institute the death penalty for homosexuality, LGBT people around the world face the daily threat of violence simply for who they are.

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Maryland Death Penalty Meets Globalization

As Maryland officials attempt to develop a lethal injection protocol that is acceptable to the courts, they have run into an unexpected roadblock – Globalization.   Pharmaceutical companies that produce the drugs used in executions are for the most part multi-national entities, either headquartered in Europe or with large business interests in that region. Capital punishment has been banished in Europe.  Extraditing suspects who might face the death penalty is forbidden, and exporting materials that might be used for executions has now come under intense scrutiny.

Sodium thiopental, the anesthetic Maryland (and all other executing states) had been using as the first drug in its three-drug protocol, was produced by Hospira, at a factory in Italy.  Now, because of controversy over its use in executions, Hospira will no longer make the drug at all.  A generic version of sodium thiopental is manufactured by a subsidiary of Swiss-based Novartis, but that company has announced it will take all steps necessary to prevent its export to the US.  An alternative to sodium thiopental, pentobarbital, which has been used in Oklahoma and may soon be used in Ohio, is made by a company called Lundbeck, based in Denmark.  That company has already gone on record objecting to the use of their drug in executions, and it may only be a matter of time before Lundbeck takes steps to ensure that their drug doesn’t wind up in US execution chambers.

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The Long Arm of the Law

Yesterday a spokesman for former US President George W. Bush announced that he was abandoning a planned visit to Switzerland because of “security concerns”.

Although President Bush’s team officially played down the possibility, it seems likely that the decision was taken in part because of fears that he might be arrested by the Swiss authorities. In 2005 former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld cancelled a visit to Munich, Germany, for the same reason.

Last Friday Amnesty International wrote to Genevoise and Swiss federal prosecutors outlining a lengthy and detailed case calling for the local authorities to investigate President Bush for authorizing the use of torture during the ‘war on terror’.

Since President Bush admitted in his memoir Decision Points that he personally ordered the water-boarding of terrorism suspects and water-boarding comfortably falls within the spectrum of acts prohibited by the Convention against Torture (and for that matter domestic US law) this frankly wasn’t a hard case to make.

Switzerland has an obligation under international law arising from the Convention against Torture to investigate these allegations. Switzerland ratified the Torture Convention in 1986 but even if it had not the prohibition of torture, and the duty to investigate suspects, is considered customary international law.

Furthermore, the Bush administration seized on the law of war as the framework within which it pursued Osama bin Laden and there is no statute of limitations on war crimes. Water-boarding, walling and learned compliance all amount to war crimes.

To borrow a turn of phrase used by General Petraeus, President’s Bush’s criminal liability for these abuses is non bio-degradable.

The reports that have emerged from Cairo this past week about the torture and abuse of pro-democracy activists by Egyptian security forces remind us of the company we keep if we allow the use of torture to go unpunished.

Ending impunity for human rights abuses is not a cause we can only pursue overseas. If our values are to have any meaning we must first put our house in order at home.  We can’t just ‘turn the page’.

It can be easy to get discouraged fighting against impunity when progress is most often measured not in years but in decades. However, this weekend we have been reminded that the law has a long arm and that even Presidents can’t ignore its reach.

Sri Lanka: effective action needed from UN Human Rights Council

The U.N. Human Rights Council will hold a special session on Sri Lanka in Geneva on Tuesday, May 26 (and not May 25 as I reported earlier).  Today, the Sri Lankan government tried to head off any serious review by the Council of the human rights situation in Sri Lanka by tabling a self-congratulatory resolution to be adopted by the Council.  For the sake of all the victims of the recent violence in Sri Lanka, the Council should reject Sri Lanka’s proposed resolution.

Even now, after the fighting between the Sri Lankan security forces and the opposition Tamil Tigers appears to have mostly ended, Amnesty International continues to receive credible reports of widespread human rights violations by the security forces and their paramilitary allies, including enforced disappearances, torture and political killings.  More than 250,000 civilians displaced by the recent fighting, including some 80,000 children, are being held in internment camps without adequate security, food, water and medical care.  The Sri Lankan government has recently restricted access to the camps by international aid agencies, including the U.N. and the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The Human Rights Council should note that the human rights issues in Sri Lanka go beyond the current humanitarian crisis.  They stem from a breakdown in the rule of law and a pervasive climate of impunity which has seen human rights violations by the security forces go unpunished for decades.  I should also mention that the Tamil Tigers have over the years been responsible for gross human rights abuses, including deliberate and indiscriminate killings of civilians, torture of prisoners, and the forced recruitment and use of child soldiers. 

Switzerland also tabled a draft resolution today for the Council’s special session.  While it’s much stronger than Sri Lanka’s own resolution, it doesn’t go far enough.  It calls for Sri Lanka to undertake investigations into human rights violations and bring the perpetrators to justice.  Given the Sri Lankan government’s weak institutional mechanisms for human rights and repeated failures to hold violators accountable, we need international involvement.  The Council should set up an international fact-finding mission to investigate abuses of human rights and humanitarian law by both the security forces and the Tigers.  It should also establish a UN human rights monitoring mission in Sri Lanka, to help the Sri Lankan government to implement reforms to provide effective safeguards for human rights.

Finally, I don’t want to omit the immediate crisis.  The Council must persuade the Sri Lankan government to open up the internment camps so that aid agencies can provide the necessary assistance and reporters can find out the truth of what’s been happening.  International monitors should be placed at all registration and screening points, internment camps and detention places, so that human rights violations are prevented.  The displaced civilians should be allowed to leave the camps if they wish - they’re not prisoners of war, they’re people who were trapped in the crossfire against their will and have already suffered too much.  They desperately need the Council’s assistance now.  We’ll be watching Geneva next week.  I hope we’re not disappointed.