“I Had No Idea What I Was Getting Into:” Amnesty’s Death Penalty Repeal Campaign in Maryland

After decades of work towards abolition, activists were finally rewarded when the Maryland House of Delegates passed the death penalty repeal bill (Photo Credit: Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post via Getty Images).

After decades of work towards abolition, activists were finally rewarded when the Maryland House of Delegates passed the death penalty repeal bill (Photo Credit: Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post via Getty Images).


Last week we had great news – Maryland’s General Assembly voted to repeal Maryland’s death penalty! The bill is now in the hands of Governor Martin O’Malley, who will certainly sign it as one of the most outspoken proponents of the bill.

Amnesty activists celebrated last week – but the victory came after years of hard work. Amnesty International has campaigned for the worldwide abolition of the death penalty since 1977, the same year that the USA restarted executions after 10 years without capital punishment. In 1978, Maryland passed a law reinstating the death penalty. Amnesty volunteers and staff, as part of an increasingly broad and dynamic coalition, have been working to repeal that law for most of its existence. This year, 35 years after its reinstatement, Maryland’s death penalty looks at last to be on its way out.

This week’s special blog series tells the story of Amnesty International’s involvement in this campaign, featuring the memories and insights of volunteers and staff who played critical roles over more than three decades.

Take action to thank Maryland’s leadership for their support of death penalty repeal and urge them to ensure that funding to support victims’ families in included, as originally promised, in this year’s state budget.


Supreme Court to Hear Amnesty FISA Challenge

us supreme courtThe United States Supreme Court decided yesterday to hear an important case related to warrantless government surveillance and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Amendments Act of 2008:  Amnesty et al v. Clapper.

Amnesty, other NGOs, journalists and attorneys are being represented by the American Civil Liberties Union. “Clapper” refers to James R. Clapper, Jr., the Director of National Intelligence.

The issue before the Court is whether we can challenge the constitutionality of the FISA Amendments Act, which basically allows “dragnet” surveillance of emails and phone calls without warrant and without sufficient independent judicial oversight.

Our argument is that we have standing to challenge the law’s constitutionality because as human rights advocates, journalists and attorneys, we rely on confidentiality in our international communications with victims of human rights abuses, whistle-blowers and government officials–and our work is severely impacted by the law. 

The Obama administration claims that we don’t have standing in the case because we can’t prove that we are impacted—i.e., subject to surveillance. But how can we prove such a thing when the information about who the government monitors is secret and the process of surveillance is designed to be undetectable?


Human Rights: Time to Practice What We Preach

Originally posted on HuffingtonPost.com

In a recent speech to the American Society of International Law (ASIL) the legal advisor to the State Department, Harold Koh, stressed the “most important difference” between the Obama and the Bush administrations is their “approach and attitude toward international law.” Koh said this difference is illustrated by an emerging “Obama-Clinton Doctrine,” based on a commitment to four main principles: “principled engagement; diplomacy as a critical element of smart power; strategic multilateralism; and the notion that living our values makes us stronger and safer, by following rules of domestic and international law; and following universal standards, not double standards.”

The commitments to “principled engagement” and “living our values” are especially vital to advancing human rights. For years, U.S. leadership on the world stage has suffered because the U.S. seems to hold a double standard on human rights. Historically, notions of U.S. exceptionalism and selectively ignoring injustices and human rights violations at home and abroad have bred mistrust of U.S. leadership based on our incomplete commitment to universal human rights. The Obama administration, however, has committed to leading by example. According to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, this means “holding everyone to the same standard, including ourselves.”

In many areas, the administration’s actions have matched its rhetoric. Joining the United Nations Human Rights Council and signing the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities have both sent the right message that President Obama is prepared to engage with the international community on new and more principled terms than previous administrations. The appointment of many officials who are self-defined human rights champions with careers both inside and outside the government promoting civil and human rights evinces a commitment to “a vision of common humanity, universal rights and rule of law.” Moreover, the willingness of this administration to work with members of civil society to align our human rights rhetoric with our human rights practices demonstrates a commitment to lead by example based on both “principled engagement” and “living our values.”

These efforts, however, are not enough. What we have yet to see are new bold steps that prioritize human rights at home. This administration has not adopted domestic policies designed to translate its rhetoric and commitments into reality. And although the administration has made positive statements about the indivisibility of rights and the importance of recognition of economic, social and cultural rights, there has been no concrete action to fully incorporate those principles into domestic policies. “Principled engagement” and “living our values” require nothing short of a complete reversal of the positions, policies and practices from which this administration has assiduously worked to distance itself. This is the type of change an Obama presidency promised. This is the hope on which many relied when casting their votes in the 2008 election.


Posted in USA

We're Going to #CloseGitmo!

closegitmoAnother January 11th  Guantanamo  anniversary has come and gone, and still 198 men are detained at the facility (and hundreds more at Bagram). Over the last year there has been some progress, but not with the kind of momentum that we had hoped for last January.  Tomorrow marks the first anniversary of the Executive Order that President Obama drafted to have the Guantanamo Detention Facility closed within a year, but unfortunately, the detention facility is still open.  The military commissions process continues. And some in the Obama Administration seem to be flirting with the idea of indefinite detention (just in a US-based facility vs. Gitmo). The failed Bush-era policies on torture and indefinite and illegal detention sadly continue to linger on.  And thus the need for our important human rights work continues!

Last week on January 11th, we launched 10,000 Against Torture, a project to demonstrate to the White House and Congress, that Americans want both security AND respect for the rule of law. Over the next weeks, we’ll be doing weekly actions calling for the closure of Gitmo (in a way that respects human rights!) and accountability for these failed policies on torture and indefinite detention.

To mark the missed deadline tomorrow, we’ll be joining MoveOn, ACLU, Human Rights Watch and artists like Coldplay, Tom Morello, and others, by using Twitter and Facebook to get everyone online talking about closing Guantánamo.

Join us by taking action online today, January 21 and tomorrow, January 22:

  • Tweet messages with the “#closegitmo” hashtag (if you follow the  Amnesty USA, you can re-tweet messages that we will be posting)
  • Spread the word! Our goal is to make #closegitmo a top trending topic, and our success depends on reaching many people in a short amount of time to jump-start the conversation. Help us deliver this important message by asking others to join us (especially those with large followings online!)

Written by Njambi Good, Director of Counter Terror with Justice (CTWJ) campaign for Amnesty International USA

Defending Our Right to Protest: Amnesty International and the ACLU Settle Lawsuit with City of Miami

Amnesty International and the ACLU recently settled a lawsuit that defended our members’ right to peacefully protest.  Miami officials admitted that during the 2003 Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) protests in Miami, they used overwhelming police force prohibiting a group of Amnesty International members from peacefully protesting.

Even though members of the Amnesty International Miami Chapter had a permit to assemble, police officers restrained people from gathering, preventing them from exercising their constitutional right to assemble and protest.  Although Amnesty International took no position on the FTAA treaty itself, the protests were planned to bring attention to human rights abuses in the Americas.

In 2006 the ACLU of Florida filed the Amnesty International USA v. Louis Battle and Thomas Cannon lawsuit that was finally settled last week. Miami-Dade and City of Miami officials acknowledged their use of vast and unnecessary police force, also disclosing regret that their actions had prevented Amnesty International’s attempt to communicate an important message to the public.

The outcome of this lawsuit stands as an example of our rights as citizens to free speech and freedom of people to peacefully assemble, in the hopes that in future demonstrations, the actions of the November 2003 FTAA protests will not take place.