The Rights Stuff

The Real Price of Amazon's Free Shipping

| Tue Sep. 20, 2011 5:01 AM EDT

A couple of weeks ago, my best friend sent me an email. She just got this new expensive makeup she'd ordered on the internet. It had arrived! But then she remembered that story I wrote about a warehouse in Ohio that ships products from online retailers and how miserable everyone who works there is and how shitty they're treated by their employers, and then she felt really sad. So, hey, she said, thanks a lot.

I'm not going to tell her, but now, via the Allentown (Pa.) Morning Call, there's more confirmation that products are often shipped from the internets to your house by very demoralized workers operating in very depressing conditions because they have no other job options. Specifically, at the Amazon warehouse in the story, an employee got in touch with OSHA when the heat inside hit 102 degrees. Fifteen workers collapsed, and those that went home to beat the heat got negative marks put on their records.

The Ohio warehouse I visited in June was the same kind of benefitless sweat-box. (It also sounds a lot like the sweltering warehouse described to my colleague Josh Harkinson here.) The Pennsylvania warehouse mentioned in the Morning Call article was not actually run by Amazon, just like the warehouse I was in wasn't run by the retailers whose product they shipped; both are staffed by temporary workers from a contract agency. Amazon responded by saying, "The safety and well-being of our associates is our number one priority." Hmm, no statement yet on whether they're going to make their contractors treat their employees like human beings. In the meantime, every one of Amazon's millions of customers should write them a really angry letter demanding change. Except we won't. Because then our shipping wouldn't be free.

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Putting the Pope on Trial

| Mon Sep. 19, 2011 5:00 AM EDT

Like most people who went to Catholic school, I have a long list of offenses I feel the church inflicted on me, which is probably partly why I sort of love the idea of an international police force arresting the pope. That's what a group of victims'-rights advocates is hoping for; last week, Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests filed a complaint with the International Criminal Court against Pope Benedict XVI and three senior Vatican officials.

It sounds like a publicity stunt to charge the pope with crimes against humanity. But the lawyers from the Center for Constitutional Rights who are handling the case sure sound like they mean business: "The Vatican officials charged in this case are responsible for rape and other sexual violence and for the physical and psychological torture of victims around the world both through command responsibility and through direct cover-up of crimes. They should be brought to trial like any other officials guilty of crimes against humanity."

Fair enough. But as explained in this primer, the ICC is a somewhat tricky institution. It can't just go after whomever it wants. Widespread rape totally qualifies as a crime against humanity, and has been a charge in several ICC cases. The real issues behind the court's potential involvement in this case are jurisdiction and responsibility.

First, jurisdiction. The court can only prosecute abuses that occur in a country that's a signatory to the ICC—or abuses that are perpetrated by a national of one of those signatories. Afghanistan, for example, is a signatory to the ICC; the United States is not. But the ICC would have jurisdiction over a crime against humanity committed by, say, an American soldier on Afghan soil. Which is precisely why the United States tried to block the creation of the ICC in the first place. The Vatican is not an ICC signatory, but theoretically, that's not a deal-breaker. The Democratic Republic of the Congo is an ICC signatory, and one of the cases cited in the Vatican filing took place there. Another case involves a priest from Belgium, which is also a signatory.

On the question of responsibility, it's not like the pope or Vatican officials wanted priests to unleash a wave of sexual abuse on innocent underage church-goers. Certainly, no one is alleging that Vatican officials actually ordered priests to rape kids. Look at the language ICC chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo used when explaining why the court indicted Muammar Qaddafi: "The evidence shows that Muammar Qaddafi personally ordered attacks on unarmed Libyan civilians." (My italics.) So far, the ICC has only mostly* gone after people who do bad things on purpose. It's not clear if it has the ability (or interest) to go after those who neglect to stop bad things from happening or try to cover them up.

Commenting on the Vatican complaint, the ICC has said only that it will examine the evidence and the jurisdictional issues. Which is the sort of empty and official-sounding thing it would say about any complaint. Moreno-Ocampo, whom I spent a decent amount of time with when reporting a story for our current issue and covering his requests for the Libyan warrants, wouldn't comment when I reached him.

My hunch is that it's extremely unlikely this complaint, one of many thousands the ICC has received, is going anywhere. But it is an important step in raising the issue of accountability. Though the ICC is a long, long, long shot for these victims of sex abuse, it is probably more likely than the Vatican to hold the responsible parties accountable. Even priests who abused hundreds of disabled children weren't punished by the church. And though headlines have been screaming about the priest-rape scandal since I was in grade school, it took the church years to clearly order its bishops to prioritize fighting sexual abuse in their dioceses. As in, it finally issued the directive this May.

*Thanks to Wronging Rights' briliant and actually-trained-and-qualified-to-pontificate-on-legal-issues Kate Cronin-Furman for hollering with the correction. The charges in the case against Jean-Pierre Bemba—some of whose trial I caught in April—she wrote me, "are not that Bemba ordered his guys to commit atrocities in [the Central African Republic], but that he could have prevented them from doing so, and failed to. This is known as command or superior responsibility doctrine. It's how you convict military commanders for actions taken by their subordinates that they should have prevented." Not that that, and the fact that the pope is at the top of the church's hierarchy, should necessarily give these rape victims hope that the ICC will act. It is a "neat idea," Cronin-Furman says, but concurs that it's "a stretch."

Today in Deepwater Horizon Updates

| Wed Sep. 14, 2011 3:42 PM EDT

A report by the Coast Guard and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement, says that everyone—BP, Halliburton, Transocean—is to blame for the April 2010 explosion that caused the second-largest oil spill ever and ruined a lot of lives along the Gulf Coast. The findings aren't particularly surprising; a presidential commission reached the same conclusion earlier this year.

Also, miles of tar balls and tar mats have appeared on Louisiana beaches after a tropical storm churned them up. This is also not particularly surprising, since BP was doing such a totally awesome job of cleaning the oil up when it first spilled. Workers are being dispatched to take care of the new mess posthaste.

But this is news: A refreshing dose of honesty from BP, which last year was insisting, along with a weirdly and tragically complicit media, that the oil was all gone. Said BP spokesman Curtis Thomas, explaining why they already had so much manpower ready to deploy for cleanup: "We knew this was coming."

Ohio's Employment Picture: Bleak and Bleaker

| Mon Sep. 12, 2011 7:22 PM EDT

I know, Labor Day was last week, but in case you missed it, there's a dismal new report out from the think tank Policy Matters Ohio about the state of my home state. According to it, wages have declined in 10 states in the last 10 years. Leading the pack? Ohio, which I've been blathering about since I spent a month there reporting on its abysmal employment prospects and its abysmal actual jobs. Its median wage decline—of 86 cents an hour—over the past decade has been steeper than that of Michigan, which is more famous for its decrepitude, and also the only place I ever came across a dead body on a sidewalk.

More fun facts about the Buckeye State: For the first time in 20 years, not even half of 16- to 24-year-olds are employed. Only about half of African-Americans are employed. Just a little more than half of women are.

But not all of the 26 pages in the report are bad news. Just 23 of them are. The last few include the ways the Ohio legislature could turn the trend around and save the day. Like by not cutting local government budgets by 50 percent and by not slashing school funding. Aw, wait. That's the exact opposite of what the legislature is starting to do right now.

A New Human Rights Logo, Brought to You By Qaddafi's PR Firm

| Fri Sep. 9, 2011 5:00 AM EDT
A Logo for Human Rights

Maybe the idea of universal human rights would catch on if it had a memorable emblem. That's the idea behind the Logo For Human Rights project, which is currently holding a competition to crowdsource a logo that it hopes, as the promotional email that landed in my inbox yesterday explains, "will become as iconic as the peace sign and serve to advance the global spread and implementation of human rights."

Since the logo campaign kicked off in May, more than 15,000 designs from more than 190 countries have been submitted. You can still vote for your favorites among the 10 finalists on its website through September 17. The contest has picked up endorsements from human rights "celebrities" including Chinese dissident Ai Wei Wei and Nobel Peace Prize winners Aung San Suu Kyi, Shirin Ebadi, Muhammad Yunus, Jimmy Carter, and Mikhail Gorbachev. Among the campaign's partners are Google and Cinema for Peace, a German foundation whose awards galas have been attended by Sean Penn, Leonardo DiCaprio, and George Clooney. The winning logo will be unveiled at a bash in New York on September 23. Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales will be there—no word yet on other celebs.

Which all sounds great, except that the PR firm that contacted me to publicize the event is Brown Lloyd James, which is also in the business of rebranding governments that couldn't care less about that shiny new logo.

According to records filed with the Department of Justice, in November 2010 the strategic communications agency landed a $5,000-a-month contract in which it "liased" between Syrian first lady Asma al-Assad and Vogue. The resulting glowing profile (since yanked from the Vogue website) described her as "glamorous, young, and very chic—the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies…a thin, long-limbed beauty with a trained analytic mind who dresses with cunning understatement." Syria, it claimed, was "the safest country in the Middle East."

In 2008, Brown Lloyd James signed a contract with a Libyan oil-drilling magnate to help Colonel Muammar Qaddafi clean up his international image. To that end, the firm assisted with an op-ed in his name and "reached out to newspaper editors to discuss placement and proposed edits." It also helped set up speeches for him at the United Nations and Georgetown University. (However, BLJ noted in its federal filings that it "did not advise on the content or delivery of these speeches." Highlights of his rambling UN speech included sticking up for the Taliban and suggesting that swine flu was man-made.) The firm reported that the Libyan Mission to the UN reimbursed it more than $1.2 million for "logistical support." In England, BLJ promoted Qaddafi as "a fascinating contemporary world figure" and arranged for him to give a video address at the London School of Economics.

The agency was one of a handful of PR shops that represented Qaddafi and his family, as Mother Jones has reported. Defending his firm's choice of clients, BLJ partner Sir Nicholas Lloyd told PR Week UK, "At the time, Libya was recognised by British and American governments. They all did business with Gaddafi."

When I inquired how Brown Lloyd James squares its current work for the human rights logo campaign with its previous work for the Assad and Qaddafi regimes, the company sent me this statement:

Working to advance the rights of all is a positive moral value and business practice. It is something we have done for years on behalf of a host of groups and individuals. Whether it was encouraging a better understanding of the groundbreaking role of Al Jazeera in the Arab world, establishing United Nations-recognized days in support of autism and the plight of widows, or supporting the first ever visit of Human Rights Watch to Libya, advancing social progress is at the core of our work. This is why we proudly support the first ever Human Rights Logo, which will create a common language for people around the world to communicate on this important global issue..

Unfortunately, BLJ's message of social progress didn't get through to Damascus and Tripoli. Maybe the winning human rights logo will be more successful.

Update: A few hours after this post was published, the Human Rights Logo Initiative tweeted, "@MotherJones thanks for pointing this out! BLJ helped announce NY event,they're not part of the initiative. There'll be no further cooperation."

Ohio Declines Federal Unemployment Funds for Battered Women

| Thu Aug. 25, 2011 1:16 PM EDT

I know I've mentioned this before, but Ohio governor John Kasich is really an asshole.

H/t JanieBT.

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False Report of Qaddafi's Son's Arrest Hurts ICC, Supposedly

| Tue Aug. 23, 2011 3:18 PM EDT

After the exciting news from International Criminal Court Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo that Qaddafi's son Saif al-Islam had been arrested, and the subsequent exciting-but-in-a-different-way news that he had actually NOT been arrested, the ICC is under fire. "It doesn't say very much, I'm afraid as someone who supports the international criminal court, for the credibility of that organisation that it should have apparently endorsed the information that the son had been taken into custody," analysts are saying. Or, "this is a terrible blow to the ICC’s credibility."

Here's my professional analysis, as a human rights reporter/ICC-feature writer/watcher: Meh.

Back in May, Moreno-Ocampo announced that he was requesting that the ICC issue arrest warrants for Qaddafi, his son Saif, and the head of military intelligence. In June, the warrants came through, making the three Libyans officially wanted for crimes against humanity for the systematic and widespread attack of civilians. At the time, Moreno-Ocampo was saying that Libyans should and could and, he believed, would make the arrests themselves. His announcement Monday that they'd arrested Saif was based on info from confidential sources, he told Reuters. Confidential sources who were evidently wrong.

It's true that the ICC exists to charge and prosecute war criminals, and that their charges are only as good as the reliable information they can get. But this mistake didn't happen in a courtroom or a legal brief. The efforts of hundreds of ICC researchers, some of whom I've met, go into those. It's not stunning that some misinformation was conveyed to Moreno-Ocampo in the midst of the shitshow that is revolution, going down in a shitshow like Libya. Certainly he wouldn't have announced it if he weren't pretty damn sure; he appears to not be responding to requests for comment about exactly how the mixup happened; he shouldn't have announced it in the heat of that moment, no doubt. I imagine there's a lot of unhappy scrambling going on in that drab International Criminal Court building since Saif started strolling around in front of the cameras. But this is not the thing that would destroy my faith in international justice.

We discuss some of the much bigger issues with international justice in my story in our current issue. Like if asking the ICC to issue arrest warrants for warmongering dictators just further entrenches them. Like if international justice only applies to the unpopular or smaller guys in the UN, with ICC warrants out so far only for Africans. As The Atlantic points out in this excellent post, it's the credibility of the Libyan rebels that might be most questionable after this particular incident. And that's no small concern, since pretty much everyone, not just the ICC, is relying on them for information. Not to mention hope for Libya's future.

Fun With Tax-Cut Comparisons

| Wed Aug. 17, 2011 5:59 PM EDT

In the process of putting together a feature about the great state of Ohio, where I was on assignment for a month this summer, I just re-came across a great chart. And by great, I mean for people who want to know just how fucked they got by the budget Republican governor John Kasich recently passed, which slashed funding to schools and local governments but kept a tax break that basically only benefits rich people. Take a look.

Unfriendly Fire

| Wed Aug. 17, 2011 5:16 PM EDT

This week, Guernica's got a feature up about the US military's flaming trash pits in Afghanistan. After all, "There are more than 100,000 troops currently deployed in Afghanistan—and thousands more private contractors—and the Department of Defense estimates that each soldier and contractor generates about ten pounds of solid waste per day," and they've got to do something with it. Who could possibly be harmed by burning it?

Early last year, MoJo did a story on how the toxic smoke from these conflagrations of everything from electronics to human feces could be killing otherwise perfectly healthy American soldiers. And as Guernica's thorough rundown of the environmental and human impacts shows, nothing has changed. It's heartbreaking, not just for the deaths and the senselessness, but for the Army's unwillingness or inability to deal with the longstanding problem. Sure, it's tough for a country to just pull out of a war, stop a war, fix all the problems a war caused. But it has somewhat more control over setting giant piles of poison on fire and making its soldiers and any nearby civilians breathe the fumes, no?

Quote of the Day, Ohio State Senator Edition

| Mon Aug. 15, 2011 5:49 PM EDT

"She got a little upset. Girls do that."

—Ohio state Senator Kris Jordan (R), to a deputy after his wife called 911 to request assistance because Jordan was pushing her around, drunk, for what she said was one of "numerous times" over the last two years. Last week, the city prosecutor announced he won't file charges. (H/t Plunderbund, which anyone interested in Ohio politics should follow.)