Archive for North America

How U.S. Cities can Advance Abortion as a Human Right

Sexual and reproductive rights are foundational to gender equality. Access to abortion care is essential to the full realization of a person’s human rights. Indeed, international human rights mechanisms have had an impact on liberalizing national abortion laws by requiring that governments take affirmative action to ensure that women can access safe abortion care as part of fulfilling their obligations under human rights law. For instance, treaty monitoring bodies (TMBs) have consistently interpreted that safe abortion care is the application of several fundamental human rights guaranteed by international human rights law such as: the right to life; freedom from cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment; liberty and security of the person; privacy; human dignity; health; and equality and non-discrimination.

Although abortion is legal in the United States, anti-choice groups and conservative lawmakers have been successful in restricting the right to an abortion. For example, the Hyde Amendment is legislation that for forty-two years has banned federal funds from covering abortion care for low-income women insured by Medicaid. The effects of the Hyde Amendment have been detrimental to American women. Despite the news that unintended pregnancy and abortion rates have fallen in the general population, abortions are becoming increasingly concentrated among poor women. U.S. constitutional law has upheld restrictions on abortion care, including the Hyde Amendment, leaving a large portion of reproductive age women without the ability to exercise their constitutional right to an abortion. In sum, poor pregnant people have been stripped of their right to choose because of their reliance on a government that will force them to give birth.

Unlike the U.S. Constitution, The Hyde Amendment could not withstand a human rights framework, which would require the government respect, protect and fulfill the right to an abortion. To name one notable example of this, the Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty recently visited the U.S. and recognized the harms of the Hyde Amendment in his report, stating that: “Low-income women who would like to exercise their constitutional, privacy-derived right to access abortion services face legal and practical obstacles… This lack of access to abortion services traps many women in cycles of poverty.” The Special Rapporteur recommended that the U.S. recognize health as a human right. Contradictory to the U.S. constitutional framework that merely requires government non-interference upon rights, there is international consensus among human rights bodies that abortion rights are human rights that require affirmative government fulfillment.

At the federal level, the U.S. takes an inconsistent stance on human rights, often promoting human rights ideas elsewhere but failing to comply with human rights standards at home.. However, there is a movement of  U.S. cities that are adopting the human rights framework of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the international women’s rights treaty that the U.S. has yet to ratify. The Cities for CEDAW (C4C) movement has been instrumental in bringing awareness of human rights to the local level, with thirty-nine cities and counties putting forth a CEDAW resolution or ordinance committing to the principles of CEDAW. In contrast to the U.S. Constitution, CEDAW imposes an equality standard that requires all laws that disparately impact women be scrutinized to secure de jure and de facto equality for women. The CEDAW Committee, the monitoring body for the treaty, has repeatedly made clear that it considers restrictive abortion laws incompatible with the human rights of women. Therefore, the Hyde Amendment would violate a human rights framework, which would require that the state ensure that every woman, regardless of her income or race, could access the same rights

The C4C movement can have an impact on abortion access in the U.S. by building advocacy around abortion as a fundamental human right that is inherently linked to women’s rights outlined in the UN CEDAW treaty. Framing reproductive health as a human right is a paradigm shift toward destigmatizing abortion. Additionally, local CEDAW activists can instigate a political shift by embracing and utilizing the jurisprudence, General Comments, and Concluding Observations identified by the UN CEDAW Committee regarding abortion as a human right. Furthermore, the local U.S. CEDAW ordinances and resolutions can be used to support other pro-choice policies at the municipal, county or state level. The negative human rights impact of the Hyde Amendment, although law of the land, can be challenged by activists through utilizing a human rights lens on abortion access through local CEDAW ordinances and resolutions.

If the localities adopting CEDAW prioritize abortion access as a serious issue affecting women in their communities, it could be groundbreaking for sexual and reproductive rights around the country. The U.S. is almost 80% urban by population and therefore the C4C campaign could have a ripple effect in improving abortion access around the country. In the era of Trump and a majority conservative Supreme Court, women’s rights activists cannot afford to play it safe and concede to the fear and stigma perpetuated by conservatives and extreme religious groups. Utilizing the power of a human rights mechanism like a local CEDAW ordinance to challenge restrictions on abortion access like the Hyde Amendment could be instrumental in restoring the right to choose for our most vulnerable citizens.

By Jessica Pierson

Jessica holds an M.A. in Human Rights Studies from Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. Her graduate thesis research explored abortion as a human right in the United States and the role of CEDAW cities in challenging the Hyde Amendment.

Access to Justice: the Indigenous Perspective

By Hannah Khaw, a political science and music major at Columbia University.

The term “justice” often brings to mind images of austere judges in their robes and eloquent lawyers with their clients, seated formally within stately courthouses. Such has been the influence of contemporary law upon our conception of what justice truly entails. However, can justice be pursued through channels other than the default ones that our modern society has conditioned us to accept? Numerous indigenous peoples’ groups all over the world seem to think so: for hundreds of years, justice has been meted out in these communities through indigenous courts and other tribal councils that are starkly different from the modern legal systems imposed on them in more recent times. With this in mind, then, states and international organizations such as the United Nations should arguably make provisions for indigenous peoples to have adequate access to justice not just in the conventional legal sense, but also within their own traditional contexts. However, the implementation of such provisions would understandably raise several practical questions for the states and international bodies concerned.

On one level, what would happen should the content or processes of indigenous justice systems diverge from those of the state’s legal system? The 1883 Ex Parte Crow Dog case in South Dakota provides a notable example of how tensions can arise between parallel—and often times, competing—justice systems. To summarize this case briefly, the Lakote tribe settled a murder case involving a Lakota individual named Crow Dog via traditional tribal means; however, the Territory of Dakota deemed the tribe’s punishment of restitution to be insufficient, overrode its decision, and sentenced Crow Dog to hanging instead. This is far being from an isolated case: indigenous law and tribal courts tend to be regarded as inferior to those of the mainstream legal system, and are therefore often not regarded as legitimate means of obtaining justice. However, such flippant treatment of indigenous justice systems is problematic especially in the light of Article 19 of the UN Declaration on the RigCourtroomhts of Indigenous Peoples, which stipulates that States need to “consult and cooperate in good faith with the indigenous peoples concerned through their own representative institutions in order to obtain their free, prior and informed consent”. This article affirms the legitimacy of indigenous peoples’ representative institutions, acknowledging that alongside regular courts, such institutions offer valid channels through which indigenous peoples may exercise their individual and collective rights to self-determination. With this in mind, states need to stop viewing indigenous justice systems as “soft” law, and rather take concrete steps to integrate said systems, as fully functioning, legitimate entities, into the larger legal landscape.

Encouragingly, a handful of states have begun to recognize the legitimacy of indigenous legal systems with some degree of success. In the Crow Dog case, for instance, the US Supreme Court eventually overturned the Territory of Dakota’s decision, ruling that “only an Indian government could punish an Indian for committing a crime against another Indian in Indian country”. Besides that, in the landmark Tsilhqot’in Nation vs British Columbia case of 2014, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that contestations over Aboriginal title “must be approached from the common law perspective and the Aboriginal perspective”, and that the Aboriginal perspective entails “laws, practices, customs and traditions of the group” (as opposed to the individual-centric orientation of mainstream legal systems). As a whole, though, positive outcomes such as these have been few and far between—thus, in the larger scheme of things, most states still have a long way to go in terms of exerting sufficient political will in order to protect indigenous peoples’ access to their own forms of justice and law.

Chief Roger Williams of the Xeni Gwet'in First Nation speaking following the favorable Supreme Court of Canada ruling

Chief Roger Williams of the Xeni Gwet’in First Nation speaking following the favorable Supreme Court of Canada ruling

Moving beyond legal concerns at the state level, the issue of the recognition of indigenous justice systems also raises tensions at the international level—specifically in the context of international human rights norms that simultaneously support both individual rights and cultural affirmations of collectivity. Here, although individual rights and collective rights are very often mutually reinforcing, there are exceptional cases in which the two may be pitted against each other. For instance, what would happen in a case in which an indigenous court insists that the legal testimony of indigenous women is invalid? On one hand, Article 5 of the UNDRIP protects indigenous peoples’ rights to “maintain and strengthen their distinct political, legal, economic, social and cultural institutions” (which would include indigenous justice systems); however, on the other hand, such a practice would also arguably contravene the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, which states that “[p]arties shall accord to women equality with men before the law”. This, then, raises the difficult question of which legal system should cede ground to the other if such a dilemma were to arise; or if at all possible, whether a balance can be struck between both legal perspectives.

With this in mind, the UNDRIP provides a human rights framework within which such potential conflicts may be solved. At the most basic, fundamental level, Article 46.2 of the UNDRIP states that

“[i]n the exercise of the rights enunciated in the present Declaration, human rights and fundamental freedoms of all shall be respected. The exercise of the rights set forth in this Declaration shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law and in accordance with international human rights obligations”.

Also, with reference to the earlier example of gender-based discrimination within certain indigenous cultural systems, the UNDRIP states in Article 44 that

“All the rights and freedoms recognized herein are equally guaranteed to male and female indigenous individuals”.

As a whole, these articles affirm that although the UNDRIP seeks, among other things, to protect indigenous peoples’ cultural rights as fully as possible, the Declaration cannot be used in ways that propagate violations of other international human rights norms and laws. It is “subject to… limitations” that necessitate the protection of human rights for all peoples—meaning that the protection of indigenous peoples’ human rights (whether cultural or otherwise) cannot come at the expense of any other group’s or individual’s fundamental human rights.

In conclusion, the mainstream justice system is arguably just a means to—and not the end of—justice itself. There are various other ways to effectively adjudicate legal cases, many of which do not necessarily entail the imposition of a colonial legal construct upon scores of indigenous peoples who have their own existing courts and tribunals. With this in mind, indigenous peoples should be given greater access to justice not just in a purely conventional sense, but also with respect to their own traditional legal contexts and practices. All of this—when done within the broader framework of international human rights—would bring indigenous peoples a step closer to actual, meaningful and efficacious access to justice.


Hannah Khaw is a political science and music major at Columbia University. Her particular interests concern issues of policy and advocacy for indigenous peoples in her home country, Malaysia.

Intervention Lessons From Kosovo for Syria

By David L. Phillips, Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at ISHR


President Bill Clinton intervened in the Balkans to end a war in Bosnia and stop the slaughter of civilians in Kosovo. As the United States considers military intervention in Syria, the Obama administration should reflect on America’s Balkan engagements in the 1990s, considering what was done right — and wrong.

The international community took more than 3 years to stop ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. While it dithered, more than 100,000 people were killed and millions displaced. The response to Serbia’s aggression in Kosovo was faster and more effective. NATO launched a 78-day air campaign that prevented what happened in Bosnia from happening in Kosovo. The diplomacy and military operations were imperfect, but Kosovo is the gold standard in humanitarian intervention.

Here are some lessons from Kosovo that are relevant to Syria:

-Diplomacy comes first: After more than a quarter million Kosovo Albanians fled to the mountains during the summer of 1998, the U.S.-led Contact Group, which included Russia, negotiated the Kosovo Verification Mission (KVM) to verify the withdrawal of Serb forces, enable the return of displaced Kosovars, and ensure the delivery of humanitarian supplies. The KVM was suspended after 40 Kosovo civilians were massacred in Racak, including women and children.

-Back diplomacy with the threat of force: After Racak, NATO approved an “activation order,” the last step in force readiness before launching an attack. U.S. Special Envoy Richard C. Holbrooke issued an ultimatum, but Slobodan Milosevic scoffed at Holbrooke’s threat. NATO launched limited operations, then paused. Holbrooke called Milosevic to give him a last chance, but his entreaties were ignored. NATO’s full force was unleashed only after all diplomatic options were exhausted.

-Build international coalitions: With the UN Security Council paralyzed, the U.S. abandoned efforts to gain a UN resolution and focused its diplomacy on building consensus among NATO Member States. NATO did not act alone. It was backed by the Organization of Islamic Conference and statements by the UN Secretary General.

-Gain Congressional and public support: The Clinton administration worked effectively with civil society groups and the media to expose Milosevic’s criminal regime and make the case for military action. Intervention was supported by a broad bipartisan group of lawmakers. Albanian-Americans played a key role garnering support.

-Keep all options on the table: Clinton pledged no U.S. ground troops. Milosevic believed he could withstand NATO’s air campaign, and hunkered down. Milosevic finally capitulated after 78 days of intensive bombing.

-Expect retaliation: Serbia intensified its ethnic cleansing when NATO attacked. Serbian forces went door-to-door, assassinating Kosovo Albanian leaders and displacing more than one million Kosovars. The U.S. had conducted extensive contingency planning. Expecting population flows, humanitarian supplies were pre-positioned in Macedonia and Albania.

-Anticipate collateral damage: NATO mistakenly bombed a convoy of Albanian refugees fleeing Decani, killing 73 civilians. In the fog of war, NATO also accidentally bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. Clinton personally apologized, but the incident entrenched China’s opposition to the war.

-Work with insurgents: Target selection became more difficult as the bombing campaign dragged on. NATO cooperated with the Kosova Liberation Army to identify targets and track Serbian troop movements. The KLA was an essential force on-the-ground that helped guide NATO air operations.

-Hand-over power to a credible local partner: American diplomats worked intensively to forge cooperation among Kosovar leaders. The Kosovo “Unity Team” became the nucleus of post-Milosevic administration in Kosovo.

-Walk-the-talk: In the middle of the Kosovo conflict, dignitaries from around the world gathered in Washington, D.C. to celebrate the 50th anniversary of NATO’s founding. The Clinton administration understood that Kosovo was more than a test of Western diplomacy. The future of the North Atlantic Alliance was also at-stake.

Has the Obama administration taken on-board lessons from Kosovo?

Picture from:

Picture from:

The United States is diplomatically isolated, except for France which endorsed air strikes against Syria. Even Great Britain, America’s erstwhile ally in Iraq and Afghanistan, has balked. The Obama administration released its intelligence verifying Assad’s use of chemical weapons too late to influence the British parliament’s vote to authorize use of force. After the vote, Obama offended Britain by referring to France as America’s “oldest ally.”

Though Russia and China have vetoed three resolutions designed to pressure Assad, the Obama administration has bent over backwards to work with Russia on talks between the regime and opposition. The Geneva conference was stillborn from the beginning, and has recently been overtaken by events. Hezbollah entered the battlefield, rolling-back gains by the insurgents and further regionalizing the conflict.

Indignation is the right response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons. However, the threat of military action is more effective when demanding compliance rather than as a punitive measure. With U.S. tomahawk cruise missiles locked and loaded, the Obama administration should demand that Assad sequester chemical weapons under UN control or hand over field commanders to the International Criminal Court. It could also give Assad a deadline to relinquish power.

Some Members of Congress want air strikes to advance the goal of regime change. But who will succeed Assad? Syria’s insurgency is dominated by the Al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda affiliated terror group murdering Alawites, moderate Arab Sunnis, and Syrian Kurds. Just like Kosovo when more than 100,000 Serbs fled after Milosevic was defeated, reprisals resulting in a bloodbath are a real possibility when Assad steps down.

Secretary of State John Kerry has been a passionate point man in the recent flurry of public diplomacy. However, the administration has not done enough to explain why it is in America’s national interest to attack Syria. Given public skepticism, Obama’s decision to consult lawmakers is a high-stakes gambit. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton launched strikes against Libya, Afghanistan and Kosovo without asking Congressional authorization.

Obama repeatedly characterized military action as “limited and narrow.” He called it a “shot across the bow.” He also publicly ruled out the possibility of ground troops. Taking the middle ground satisfies no one. Opponents to military action are not convinced. At the same time, moderation may be alienating some senators clamoring for a more robust response.

Obama is clearly a reluctant warrior. He understands that Americans are weary from a decade of conflict in distant lands. However, Obama has boxed himself into a corner. Speaking at an impromptu news conference more than a year ago, he went off-script saying that President Bashar al-Assad’s use or movement of chemical weapons represents a “red-line” that would change his administration’s “calculus,” with significant consequences including the possibility of more direct U.S. intervention in the conflict.

Drawing a red-line is morally correct. It is also in America’s national security interest. I visited Iraqi Kurdistan after chemical weapons were used to kill thousands. It was a horrific scene. Indiscriminate use of the world’s most heinous weapons against civilians violates international humanitarian law and norms of decency. Just like Milosevic’s murderous rampage in Bosnia and Kosovo, it cannot be tolerated.

However, military action is a tactic not a policy. The decision to go to war should be linked to a broader strategy of creating a safe haven on Syria’s border with Syria and Jordan. The safe haven would be protected by a no-fly-zone, enforced by NATO. As was the case in Kosovo, a Russian contingent under NATO’s command could be deployed. The safe haven would allow refugees to return to Syria. It would also provide a buffer between Syria and front-line states, furthering stability in the region. Creating a safe haven could also change momentum on the battlefield, revitalizing prospects for a Geneva conference and bringing the grinding conflict in Syria closer to an end.

This article previously appeared on The Huffington Post on September 3, 2013.


David L. Phillips is Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights. His most recent book is Liberating Kosovo: Coercive Diplomacy and U.S. Intervention.

The American DREAM: Immigrants’ Rights in the United States Today

By Barbara Borgese, recent graduate of the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University

On the night of the November 6th, about 11 million DREAMers and their supporters anxiously awaited the results of the Presidential election. Their fate in the United States – whether they will be able to pursue higher education, build a career and a have future in this country – largely depends on the decisions that our political leaders in Washington will have to make in the months to come. With President Obama’s reelection, the DREAM Act and the policy directive, Deferred Action for Child Arrivals (DACA), two important acts to advance immigrants’ rights in this country, will continue to be endorsed by the administration.

The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act is a bi-partisan legislative proposal that has been stalled in the Senate for a decade. In December 2010, after passing in the House of Representatives, it failed to pass in the Senate due to a Republican filibuster. Should this bill become law, it would allow undocumented students who were brought to this country as children to attend college, join the military, work legally and have a pathway to citizenship. This legislation, no doubt, would change the lives of millions of youth across the country. Maria* is one of these individuals for whom the DREAM Act is vitally important.

Maria is one of the approximately 4,550 undocumented students who graduated from a New York high school last year (country-wide, there are approximately 65,000 undocumented high school graduates every year). At age 10, Maria entered the US with her mother, fleeing gang violence and poverty in Honduras, to seek a better life in this country. Bright-eyed and fiercely determined to become a successful American, she has studied relentlessly to master a new language and culture. Her hard work paid off. This past June, she graduated at the top of her high school class and was awarded a full scholarship from a private university. But Maria is one of the few lucky ones. Only 5-10% of undocumented students pursue a college education due to the barriers they face. And those who do attend college are then excluded from lawful employment after graduation.

Even though Plyer vs. Doe (1982) established the right to education for all – stating that all students, regardless of their immigration status, are entitled to free elementary and secondary education, federal law bars undocumented students from accessing federal financial aid for higher education. These students are also ineligible for most scholarships and loans. In practice, this situation prevents undocumented students, most of which live in low-income households, from going to college. In a knowledge-based economy like the USA’s, does providing free K-12 education – while de facto limiting college access – really ensure the right to education for all?

In substance, the schooling of these youth – and the tax dollars spent on it – is deprived of any further educational and economic purpose. In fact, these DREAMers – who, as Obama said, “are American in every single way but one: on paper” – can neither access college funding nor work legally in a country they call home. As a result, with limited to no prospects for the future, many end up dropping out of school and accepting jobs for sub-minimum wages, subjecting themselves to economic exploitation and further human rights violations. This situation has also impacted the emotional and mental health of these youth, causing higher depression and suicide rates among undocumented adolescents – who reported feeling hopeless and resentful.


Speech by President Obama, June 15, 2012

While the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, to which the United States is a signatory nation, provides that education must be “directed to the full development of the human personality and the sense of its dignity,” that it should “enable all persons to participate effectively in a free society” and that “higher education should be made equally accessible to all,” the reality of young undocumented immigrants in the United States today is dire – so much so that even the fundamental right to health of this group is being greatly jeopardized.

Yet, the data shows that providing undocumented students with access to educational financial aid is not just a human rights issue but an economic one, as well. According to the US Census Bureau, “those who obtain a Bachelor’s degree earn $1 million more over the course of their lifetime than those with only a high school diploma.” Despite this difference in potential earnings, undocumented workers still contribute to the states’ revenue: in 2010, undocumented workers in New York paid $662.4 million in taxes. Furthermore, the National Skills Coalition reports that New York is facing a shortage of skilled workers: about 46% of jobs require more than a high school diploma but less than a Bachelor’s degree; and only 39% of workers had the skills to fill these positions in 2009. Providing undocumented students with access to financial aid for higher education would place them in a position to fill this shortage, thus contributing to the states’ and country’s economic growth.

Today, the New York DREAM Act and the Deferred Action for Child Arrivals (DACA) are providing some hope and relief. The former is a bill that, if passed, would allow undocumented youth meeting certain eligibility requirements to have access to the state’s Tuition Assistance Program; the latter, introduced by President Obama in June 2011, allows DREAMers to work legally in the United States. Specifically, the New York DREAM Act is a state version of the federal DREAM Act with the notable difference that it does not provide a pathway to citizenship. Texas, New Mexico and California have already passed state-level DREAM Acts. The New York DREAM Act has received the endorsement of Mayor Bloomberg, CUNY, SUNY and several private colleges.

DACA, on the other hand, allows youth with no criminal record who entered the United States illegally or overstayed their visa as of June 15, 2012 to request a 2-year grace period during which time they would not be deported but, instead, could apply for a work permit. These youth would not accrue unlawful presence in the US and could receive state-funded Medicaid or Family/Child Health Plus, as well as welfare through the Safety Net program, if otherwise eligible. However, there are cons to DACA: the applicants are making themselves known to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Therefore, if DHS finds them to be of high priority for deportation, they may be placed in removal proceedings. Also, there is no guarantee that the program will continue in the future since it is not a bi-partisan proposal like the DREAM Act but, instead, heavily depends on the political party in office. Had Romney become president, DACA would have been halted.

In sum, while DACA has provided DREAMers with renewed hope for the future, it is still not enough. The 2012 election was a wake-up call: both Republicans and Democrats have understood that immigration reform can no longer wait. There are millions of youth who can no longer wait for their voices to be heard.

To support the passage of the New York DREAM Act and make education accessible to all, go to:  For more ways to take action:


Barbara Borgese has worked on human rights education with a particular focus on the rights of immigrants and children in Italy, France and the USA for the past seven years. She is a graduate of SIPA where she concentrated in Human Rights. She also holds an M.S. Ed. in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages).

Beyond SOPA/Pipa: a human rights approach to Internet regulation

Wikipedia’s move three weeks ago to block access to its site across the English speaking world in protest against two proposed US bills – SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and Pipa (Protect Intellectual Property Act) – had its intended effect. A post on the Guardian joked, “the Internet seems a little…quiet today, don’t you think?” as the web buzzed with activity about the “blackout”. Countless independent blogs and a few big sites such as WordPress and Reddit joined Wikipedia by “turning the lights out”, while other big Internet sites used banners, pop-ups and logo-changes to signal their opposition to the bills and their backers. Google ‘censored’ its logo on its search engine.

Google’s ‘censored’ logo on its search engine.

In many ways, the objective of the protest was simple: to raise awareness of, and mobilize opposition against the badly designed anti-piracy bills and to dent their support in Congress. In this effort, opponents of the bills won an overwhelming victory. The Wikimedia Foundation reportedthat 162 million people experienced the Wikipedia blackout landing page in the space of 24 hours and eight million in the United States looked up their congressional representatives through the site, flooding phones and inboxes with protest. SOPA/Pipa became a top news story for the first time and the bills were promptly postponed after 13 senators withdrew support.

Wikipedia blackout landing page

The question is, during the course of the protest, did civil rights and free speech activists succeed in re-casting the controversial debate about copyright enforcement online? And what does this mean for the future of human rights on the Internet?

Understanding the debate: rightsholders vs. rightsholders

The essential problem with the debate over copyright enforcement online is that it pits two different systems of rights against one another.

On the one hand are the copyright holders whose essential concern is ensuring that Internet regulation protects the rights of creators and distributors against the ease of piracy on the global net.

SOPA and Pipa were designed to allow the U.S. Department of Justice, as well as copyright holders themselves, to seek court orders against websites outside U.S. jurisdiction accused of enabling or facilitating copyright infringement, with a view to safeguarding intellectual property, which, according to Rep. Goodlatte is “one of America’s chief job creators and competitive advantages in the global marketplace”.

On the other side are human rights groups and free speech activists who argue that Internet controls like this constitute Internet censorship, threatening free speech as well as fundamental rights such as the right to assembly and privacy. These groups condemn all forms of regulation that would give the U.S. government power to block access to Websites on the global Internet (not just those within the U.S.) without a court hearing or trial.

The objection to SOPA/Pipa was that the vague language of the bills would have done just this. Countless analysts have shown that the bills would have had a chilling effect on millions of ordinary users’ free speech online, even as they proved rather blunt tools to stop tech-savvy pirates from distributing stolen content. The below video gives a good explanation of how.



Copyright vs. Net Freedom

The problem is that too often the debate quickly veers away from a rights-based discussion to become an ideological debate between supporters of intellectual property and supporters of “Internet freedom”.

Is innovation damaged more by intellectual property theft or by the threat of censorship to start-ups, blogs and websites? Are die-hard defenders of IPR refusing to adapt to the realities of the digital age or are the champions of net freedom clinging to a waning era of the Internet as Wild Wild West? For many skeptics, it simply boils down to a standoff between the interests of the multi-billion dollar entertainment industry and the multi-billion dollar technology industry.

Predictably, these dividing lines underpinned commentary during the SOPA/Pipa protests. John Gapper in the Financial Times argued that the SOPA/Pipa defeat was a “strategic victory” for Silicon Valley. “The blackouts were a dramatic gesture,” he said. “But curbing piracy does not ‘destroy the Internet as we know it’. It would be wiser for Silicon Valley to cut the histrionics and help to fashion a decent law.”

Danny Goldberg on CBS news called it a “populist” victory and “also a victory for the enormously powerful tech industry”. In his NYT blog, John Pogue interpreted websites’ shock language about “fatally damaging the free and open net” as akin to a rallying-cry to “Light the torches! Grab the pitchforks!”. Pogue argued that the protests conflated two totally different points – the “you’re going about it the wrong way” camp and the “we want our illegal movies!” camp.

Can a human rights approach help navigate the debate?

Interestingly, in the course of the SOPA/Pipa protests, a coherent human rights approach emerged. The Amnesty Blog gave the following analysis:

Protecting IP is an obligation, and enjoying IP rights is a human right like any other. But the core concepts of indivisibility and interdependence of rights are meant to prevent the trade-off in rights enjoyment we’re faced with in these bills…(T)he real catch is that SOPA isn’t even an attempt to balance rights. (highlight in original)

From this perspective, the key criticism of SOPA/Pipa is that the US would be sacrificing “some rights over others through onerous and ultimately self-defeating efforts to control information”. The sacrifice made would be the US’s commitment to protect freedom of expression and information online – a failing of its obligations under international human rights law and a betrayal of the Obama administration’s professed stance on Internet freedom.

In other words, human rights groups seem to be making a coherent contribution to the “you’re going about it the wrong way” camp.

Why we need a human rights approach to Internet regulation

Rather than marking a decisive victory on the side of “Internet freedom”, the recent protest is a signal of the ever-higher stakes in Internet governance debates worldwide. Given the long line in flawed efforts to address piracy in the US, it is certain we have not heard the last of SOPA/Pipa. Equally, in Spain and in the UK, tough new piracy laws have provoked backlash from rights groups. Perhaps most controversial is the European Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), which was signed by EU member states two weeks ago and is already brewing up a storm.

SOPA/Pipa were typical of how such legislation often comes about, rushed through with no public consultation and designed with almost no consideration on the long-term implications on basic rights online.

Neither is the issue restricted to copyright enforcement. Online information controls exist or are planned for many reasons, from child protection to terrorism.

To ensure that in the course of creating information controls, governments do not end up forfeiting fundamental rights, citizens and civil society groups must find increasing unity and coherence in their claims. Public stunts such as the recent Internet strike are an important awareness raiser. Yet, in the long-run, advocating for citizen-centered regulation to balance and protect human rights online may prove the most fruitful tactic to defend the principles of the “free net”.

By Tanya O’Carroll. Tanya has just graduated with an MA in Human Rights Studies. Her thesis focused on “privatized censorship” online and freedom of expression claims made by activists against user-generated content (IGC) platforms such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. Tanya is an editor of RightsViews.

Welcome back!

We hope everybody’s semester is getting off to a good start. It has obviously been a busy few weeks for human rights… The news from Burma last week of a ceasefire deal between the government and the Karen rebels and a declaration of amnesty for 651 Burmese political prisoners, 130 of whom were reconciled with their families on Friday, was a moment for celebration – even as we wait to see what it means more broadly for human rights in Burma.

In the US, on the other hand, the new year brought us the more concerning National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which signed into law the ability of the US government to indefinitely detain citizens. On the tenth anniversary of the opening of the US detention camp at Guantanamo Bay last week, hundreds of activists led a march to the White House to condemn Obama’s betrayal of his promise to close the prison. Amnesty released this spoof video as a reminder of the mockery that Guantanamo continues to make of the US’s commitment to human rights – entertaining, if it wasn’t so scary.



And this morning the US and other English-speaking countries awoke to find a world without Wikipedia! The globe’s biggest free encyclopedia, along with hundreds of other websites and blogs, are staging a 24 hour strike in protest against legislation in the United States – the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA) – that, if passed, would seriously damage freedom of expression and information on the Internet. Check back next week for a post exploring the human rights implications of these bills in more detail.

With so much going on, this semester will undoubtedly be packed with great events and speakers (you can check out what the ISHR has planned on their calendar). We really hope to capture what is happening around campus by including more write-ups on events and conferences, opinion pieces from students and interviews exploring a wide range of topics in-depth. However, we need YOUR involvement so we really encourage anybody who is interested in writing this semester to get in touch via the How to Contribute page!

Finally, be sure to check out our first great post of the semester tomorrow by Deborah Brown, Leo Nevas Human Rights Fellow at the UN Association-USA, exploring the implications of Libya’s reinstatement to the Human Rights Council.


Happy Holidays!

As everything is wrapping up for Christmas, we wanted to say a MASSIVE  thank you to everyone for contributing to the first successful semester of RightsViews! We have had a great response from students and faculty. An especially big thank you to those who have started blogging with us – there have been some fascinating posts this semester reflecting the diversity of interests and passions within the Columbia human rights community. Thanks also to all of our readers – we have lots planned for the blog in the new year so stay tuned for some great content, and more of it!

For anyone who is not tucked up at home for Christmas (like ourselves), then we leave you with this and maybe we’ll catch you down at Zuccotti…

Occupy Wall Street Plans To Occupy Christmas (VIDEO link)

See you in January,

Tanya and Eve, The editors


Condoms as evidence: a discriminatory practice and contradictory policy in NYC

By Erica Mac Donald, recent graduate from Columbia University

Do you carry a condom with you? Is it in your pocket? Your purse? Your wallet?

If you answered yes, you are at risk of being arrested for prostitution in the State of New York. Sounds odd doesn’t it?

While this is a bit of an oversimplification, it reflects what is at the heart of the policy that allows police to profile, target and arbitrarily arrest those who are suspected to be sex workers.

As New York state law is currently written, police and prosecutors can use the fact that someone is carrying a condom to prove that they are guilty of a prostitution-related crime.

This routine police and prosecutorial practice has significant negative implications in that it perpetuates discrimination against sex workers and contradicts public health efforts to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS and other sexually-transmitted diseases.

A discriminatory practice

Clearly, condoms themselves are not illegal. However, profiling of sex workers based on their appearance, location, and behavior leaves them more susceptible to arrest.

That is, if someone looks a certain way, is dressed in a way that is deemed to be scantily-clad or risqué or is perhaps located in an area where prostitution is thought to be common, police may question and search them on no basis other than their appearance. If condoms are found on the suspects, police can use that as evidence to justify their arrest for prostitution-related activities.

There are many reports of false arrests of prostitution based on the presence of condoms, demonstrating the discrimination inherent in this practice. Transgendered women of color are particularly susceptible to being profiled and stopped. There have been cases of these women being targeted for “looking like” they are a prostitute when in fact they are going out to a club with friends or even just on a trip to the grocery store. Because of their outward appearance, they have been searched, arrested and charged with loitering with intent to prostitute.

Under the 14th amendment to the U.S. Constitution and Article 7 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, people have the right to equal protection under the law, and the right to be free from discrimination. As sex worker rights advocates point out, the current practice, where sex workers of color, non-conforming gender identities and low socioeconomic status are disproportionately targeted by police,  is a violation of these basic human rights. 

According to the Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center of New York, sex workers report they are more likely to be arrested if they have condoms, which deters many from carrying condoms as they fear it will lead to arrest.

Check out the Sex Workers Project’s public service announcement regarding “No Condoms as Evidence” produced by Madonna Productions:


A contradictory policy

The policy of using condoms as evidence  undermines and contradicts the New York City free condom distribution program. The NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene established the program in 1971 as a public health effort to promote safe sex practices and, later, curb the spread of HIV/Aids. In 2007, the New York was the first city in the U.S. to distribute city-specific condoms. To date, over 70 million of these NYC-brand condoms have been distributed.

The very condoms that are freely distributed for the people of NYC can be used as criminal evidence of committing prostitution-related crimes.

The “No Condoms as Evidence Bill”

In March of 2011, NYC Councilwomen Jessica Lappin introduced a resolution in support of New York State Bill A1008/S323, or the “No Condoms as Evidence Bill.” The bill seeks to prohibit the ability to use condoms as evidence of prostitution.

As the bill explains, the current practice:

“does not promote public health and welfare if the law discourages prostitutes from carrying condoms. If anything, (the) use (of condoms) by prostitutes should be encouraged by public policy as long as the sanction against prostitution are not affected. Also, the mere act of carrying or otherwise possessing condoms should not, in whole or in part, expose the individuals to the risk of being accused of prostitution or directly related offenses.”

This is not the first time a “No Condoms as Evidence Bill” has been on the legislative docket. In fact every year since 1999, a similar bill has been presented, only to die in committee each time.

On March 24, the NY Senate Codes committee passed the bill and sent it to the Judiciary committee for consideration. As of this fall the bill is sitting with the Judiciary Committee of the New York State Senate and the Codes Committee of the New York Assembly.

Currently, the Sex Workers Project is campaigning with a number of human rights and public health organizations to support the passage of the bill in the current legislative session.  The bill is imperative to promoting sound human rights and public health policies. Your activism on the matter is very much needed.

What you can do to support the bill

To read more about the bill and get involved in supporting its passage visit the Sex Workers Projects “No Condoms as Evidence Bill” campaign page for information on how to contact your NYC council person, or NY State assembly member as well as tips for talking points and sample letters of support. You can also sign the petition for no condoms as evidence at

Erica is a 2011 graduate of the MA in Human Rights Studies with a concentration in women, gender and sexuality. Her thesis focused on sex workers rights in New York City.