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Category: Human Rights

50 years ago today: JFK's "Peace Speech"

Photo courtesy of NPR

On June 10, 1963, then-President John F. Kennedy gave the commencement speech at American University.  What could have been merely an exciting day in the graduates' lives became one of the most important turning points in the Cold War era.

In the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis, President Kennedy chose this day to reveal his new approach to the Soviet Union and the United States' nuclear program.  He declared that the United States would not continue testing nuclear weapons and would seek to form an agreement with other nations to ban nuclear tests in the atmosphere.  This led to the passage of the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (LTBT), and later and more importantly, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty of 1968.  A good way to honor JFK would be to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the updated version, which would ban all types of nuclear testing, including those left out in 1963.

In addition to setting in motion these critical agreements, JFK's speech also accomplished a second important feat: it changed the course of U.S.-Soviet relations for the better.  The President boldly and eloquently made an appeal to the humanity of the Soviets.  He acknowledged the differences between us, but also drew important comparisons:

"So, let us not be blind to our differences-but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved.  And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity... Our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet.  We all breathe the same air.  We all cherish our children's future. And we are all mortal."

UN Post-2015 Development Agenda: The Same Old Story?

Photo Courtesy of

The Secretary-General of the United Nations’ panel of experts recently released a report detailing goals for the Post-2015 Development Agenda. This 27-person panel made recommendations for development beyond 2015, building upon and amending the Millennium Developmental Goals of 2000.

As before, the overarching objective is to eradicate extreme poverty from the earth by 2030. The overall tone of the report is positive, with the panel stating they have a “great optimism that a transformation to end poverty through sustainable development is possible within our generation.” To help achieve this, the panel illustrates five fundamental or transformative shifts, summarized below:

1) Leave No One Behind:The panel emphasizes that we cannot simply focus on reducing extreme poverty, but instead must focus on ending it. No person should be denied universal human rights or basic economic opportunities.

2) Put Sustainable Development at the Core: We need to focus on development that is long-lasting and environmentally friendly. The panel argues that at least 1/3 of the activities needed to lower global carbon emissions (such as switching to LED lighting) more than pay for themselves under current market conditions, although we still need incentives to make people more willing to take actions that foster sustainable development.

3) Transform Economies for Jobs and Inclusive Growth: The panel emphasizes the need to ensure everyone has access to quality education, healthcare, clean water, electricity, telecommunications, and transport. With this comes the imperative for implementing good urban management, raising productivity, and providing a stable environment that allows businesses to flourish.

Worker's Rights: A Matter of Secondary Importance

Wang Haofei/AP

Two workers’ rights scandals have recently affected the international community.

On April 24th, Rana Plaza, a building home to several garment factories, collapsed in Bangladesh. More than 1,100 people died in the horrific accident. This week, less than two months after the tragedy in Bangladesh, a fire sparked by an ammonia gas leak in a Chinese poultry plant killed 119 workers.

These accidents could have been prevented.

Just days before the collapse of Rana Plaza, managers disregarded cracks in the building’s walls and reassured workers that the building’s infrastructure was secure. The Chinese poultry factory was touted by local government officials as “one of the top 100 agricultural processing companies” and was praised for “its advanced management concept and business model.” Clearly, these officials ignored or overlooked crucial warning signs that contributed to the gas leak.

What can be done to prevent disasters like these from happening in the future?

Experts Weigh in on Obama's Syria Policy

Chairman Ros-Lehtinen (Image courtesy of

Earlier this week, I attended my first House Subcommittee hearing on the Hill. The hearing was rather critically titled "A Crisis Mismanaged: Obama's Failed Syria Policy" and heard testimony from three experts on the subject of America's Middle East policy.

While I was initially struck by the strong language in the title, much of the testimony confirmed the speakers' beliefs that our policy on Syria so far has done little to resolve the situation. The Representatives who attended the hearing were relatively split in terms of political ideology and offered their own views and questions for the panelists.

Here's an overview of the main points the panelists brought to the table:

Mr. Tony Badran, a Research Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, had several suggestions for where the U.S. should go from here.  He recommended a "two-fold strategy based on sound threat prioritization" with our top priority being "to break the Iranian archipelago of influence in the eastern Mediterranean." Badran also emphasized the importance of taking a leadership role in bringing our allies together to address issues in Syria. He ended by stating the importance of recognizing that there can be no "managed political transition" in Syria, thus in his opinion, Assad and his regime are going to have to be toppled.

Rice and Power: The 21st Century Faces of Security and Diplomacy

Susan Rice and Samantha Power

The appointment of UN Ambassador Susan Rice as the National Security Advisor and nomination of Samantha Power to replace Rice at the UN is a solid move for the Obama administration, the US and the UN. Both Rice and Power have been close advisors to President Obama since before the 2008 elections.

Amb. Rice greatly improved the United States’ standing at the UN. In 2009, she lead the effort to pay back dues to the UN and erased the US’s status as a “deadbeat” nation. She successfully negotiated new sanctions on Iran and North Korea. She has witnessed the terrible face of genocide as one of the first Americans to enter Rwanda after its mass killings and understands the importance of stopping such atrocities. She led efforts to prevent Muammar Gaddafi from committing mass murders in Libya and to halt a brutal war in Cote d’Ivoire. She worked tirelessly for an election to determine the fate of South Sudan, rather than a civil war. She is a smart choice to head Obama’s national security team.

A New Role Model and a Promising Outlook

Photo credit: The London Evening Post

As of 10 a.m. yesterday, I have a new idol: María Corina Machado, member of the Venezuelan parliament. I attended her presentation on the current political situation in Venezuela, held at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. I was struck by the bravery and composure that she showed in the face of an increasingly repressive regime. María Corina is an opponent of Venezuela's President Maduro, who narrowly won the April 14th elections by a margin of 1.5 percent in the wake of President Chavez's death.

At the talk, I learned that María Corina was one of the victims of the April 30th assault at the Venezuelan parliament against opposition members. This assault left Corina badly hurt and in need of surgery.

Despite this assault and other threats made by Maduro and his supporters, María Corina is still fighting for democracy in her beloved Venezuela. In fact, Corina is here in D.C. on a diplomatic mission to appeal to the United States Congress. She would like to see Congress stand up for institutions and democracy and not ignore the tense political situation in Venezuela.

María Corina's experience drew my attention to two issues. First is the persistent need to end violence against women. I cannot imagine how violated I would feel if I were assaulted for standing up for what I believe in-either as a woman or as a human being. For me, any regime that promotes violence against women loses all sense of legitimacy.

Turkey in Turmoil

Turkey in Turmoil

If you're like me, the past few days of protests in Turkey came as a surprise. Before this week, I viewed Turkey as a model democracy in a region where autocratic regimes and rogue states are widespread.

Currently anti-government protests have extended throughout the country as it appears we are on the verge of a Turkish Spring.

The root of the uprising started as a small scale environmental protest against turning Taksim Square into a shopping mall. Last Tuesday, May 28th, civilians began to occupy the square after bulldozers had begun construction during the night. Those occupiers wanted to save the last of what little green space exists in Istanbul, angered at the government's decision to continue construction after large public disapproval. Subsequently, officials sent police to break up the protest by using trucks mounted with water cannons, burning tents of the people that decided to stay overnight and shooting canisters of tear gas into crowds.

Unrest has been brewing amongst Turks for some time. Much of the negative attention has been focused on Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his government. Erdoğan has been accused of media censorship, including the imprisonment of journalists throughout the country. A report by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) found that "authorities have imprisoned journalists on a mass scale on terrorism or anti-state charges."

Sound familiar? Think Egypt or Libya where the government blocked the use of twitter and social media sites as protests begin to erupt, and even arrested foreign journalists.

Signing the Arms Trade Treaty: A Signal for the Future

Picture courtesy of Oxfam

The United States likes to picture itself as a prominent player and arbiter in the international community, paving the way for progress on a number of global fronts. A key part of maintaining our legitimacy in the international community is signing the Arms Trade Treaty, which opened for signatures today at the United Nations. Secretary of State Kerry indicated in a statement that the United States looks forward to signing the Treaty, and will soon be able to do so once "the process of conforming the official translations" is finalized. This is a firm step in the right direction.

The Arms Trade Treaty is a multilateral international agreement, in the making since 2006 and negotiated at a 2012 global conference, that seeks to implement and enforce standards in the international sale and transfer of "all conventional arms" (tanks, planes, artillery, ships, missiles, small arms, etc.). Don Kraus, President and CEO of, succinctly described the purpose of the ATT, explaining how it "is designed to help prevent the more than 500,000 deaths worldwide that happen as a result of armed violence." Further, the ATT will bring "foreign governments up to US export standards" and prohibit arms transfer when a country knows that the arms would be used in the commission of genocide or crimes against humanity.

Red Cross in Afghanistan Attacked

Photo courtesy of The Guardian

Yesterday evening, an attack on the International Committee of the Red Cross's Jalalabad, Afghanistan office marked the second attack this week on an aid organization within the country. The attack was carried out by three insurgents, who have not yet identified themselves as belonging to a particular group. Armed with suicide vests, the militants caused quite a stir, committing the first attack on the ICRC building in the nearly 30 years it has been there.

One unarmed Afghan guard was killed in the blast and another was wounded. News sources mention that all seven foreign workers were rescued from the site and are free from harm.

Yet, the coverage still leaves a few questions unanswered:

1. Who else was in the building at the time and why weren't they mentioned? What about the local Afghans who worked at the ICRC or those that may have been on the premises procuring ICRC services? Aren't their lives and their safety just as important to mention?

Several reputable news sources did not mention any workers besides seven foreigners who work at the Jalalabad office. With around three dozen staff members, surely there should have been some news about the others.

2. Why would insurgents want to attack a humanitarian organization like the ICRC?

Justice Denied

AP Photo/Moises Castillo

On May 10th 2013, former Guatemalan president Rios Montt was convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity. His trial marked the first time a former head of state had been prosecuted for genocide by a national court. Shockingly, just 10 days later, Guatemala's Constitutional Court overturned this historical verdict on a technicality and set the trial back.  

Though Montt held office for only 17 months, almost half of all human rights violations committed against the Ixil Maya people occurred the year he assumed power. Compelling evidence presented by victims and experts at Montt's trial provided further affirmation that Montt was responsible for the deaths of over 1,700 people and the forced displacement of nearly 30,000 individuals.    

José Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Americas at Human Rights Watch, issued this response to Montt's conviction:

The conviction of Rios Montt sends a powerful message to Guatemala and the world that nobody, not even a former head of state, is above the law when it comes to committing genocide. Without the persistence and bravery of each participant in this effort - the victims, prosecutors, judges and civil society organizations - this landmark decision would have been inconceivable.