Archive | November 2012

Deteriorating human rights in U.S. client states belie claims of progress

Victims of the crackdown in Bahrain

Several months after the United States resumed military aid to the Bahraini dictatorship amid promises of reform, the human rights situation in the country continues to deteriorate, according to a new report by Amnesty International. Repressive practices are growing increasingly entrenched, says Amnesty, and the government is displaying flagrant disregard for the recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), set up to investigate widespread human rights violations during the 2011 uprising.

“The Bahraini authorities can no longer shield themselves from criticism by using the pretence of reform, and Bahrain’s close allies, including the USA and the UK can no longer brandish the BICI report to go back to business as usual,” reads the Amnesty report.

The findings come six months after the U.S. State Department informed Congress that the U.S. would be releasing “items and services for the Bahrain Defense Force, the Coast Guard, and the National Guard for the purpose of helping Bahrain maintain its external defense capabilities.”

In a statement at the time, State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said that the decision was made “mindful of the fact that there are a number of serious unresolved human rights issues that the Government of Bahrain needs to address.” Saying that the U.S. will continue to maintain holds on certain material such as TOW missiles and Humvees, the State Dept. noted that “the Government of Bahrain has begun to take some important steps to implement the recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry report.”

“Going forward,” Nuland said, “we will continue to engage with Bahrain to encourage meaningful progress on human rights and reform.”

Amnesty’s criticism of Bahrain’s human rights record since U.S. aid was resumed demonstrates that contrary to occasional claims by the U.S. government, supplying weapons to dictators does not necessarily have the effect of producing leverage over those regimes’ human rights practices.

This is a specious argument that is made from time to time by U.S. officials, particularly when aid to an unsavory regime is criticized as geopolitical opportunism, for example in September 2011 when the U.S. lifted restrictions on aid to Uzbekistan – one of the world’s worst human rights abusers.

In response to criticism over that move, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton claimed that “our continuing dialogue with officials of the [Uzbek] government is essential.” That dialogue “always raises, as I have and as others from our government continue to do so, our concerns about human rights and political freedoms. But at the same time we are working with the Uzbeks to make progress, and we are seeing some signs of that, and we would clearly like to deepen our relationship on all issues.”

Some at the time wondered what progress the U.S. was seeing from the regime in Uzbekistan, which is known to boil people alive and commit other horrific human rights abuses. One blogger facetiously pointed out that “They haven’t boiled anyone alive in at least 5 years!”

As Human Rights Watch noted however in January 2012,

Uzbekistan’s human rights record remains appalling, with no meaningful improvements in 2011. Torture remains endemic in the criminal justice system. Authorities continue to target civil society activists, opposition members, and journalists, and to persecute religious believers who worship outside strict state controls.

Freedom of expression remains severely limited. Government-sponsored forced child labor during the cotton harvest continues. Authorities continued to deny justice for the 2005 Andijan massacre in which government forces shot and killed hundreds of protestors, most of them unarmed.

Reacting to the pro-democracy Arab Spring movements, the Uzbek government increased the presence of security forces across the country and widened its already-tight control over the internet. Despite the government’s persistent refusal to address concerns about its abysmal record, the United States and European Union continued to advance closer relations with the Uzbek government in 2011, seeking cooperation in the war in Afghanistan.

In defending the resumption of military aid to this regime that Freedom House identifies as among “the worst of the worst,” Victoria Nuland offered assurances that Clinton has spoken “very frankly” with Uzbek President Islam Karimov about U.S. support for human rights and the desire to see reforms. Clinton also raised “individual cases” that Washington is especially concerned about, Nuland said.

“Nobody is shying away from having the tough conversation,” she added. “That said, we also have other interests and things that we need to protect in our relationship with Uzbekistan.”

Those “other interests and things” are primarily related to securing support from the dictatorship for the decade-old U.S. war in neighboring Afghanistan. As Freedom House described the situation in May 2012,

Uzbekistan has largely repaired relations with the EU and United States in recent years, in part by agreeing to the overland transportation of nonmilitary supplies to support NATO operations in Afghanistan. The rapprochement gained new momentum in 2011, as NATO increased transit traffic, the United States approved waivers for Uzbekistan on some human-rights related sanctions, and high-level visits between U.S., European, and Uzbek officials resumed.

The U.S. reconciliation with Uzbekistan however has not resulted in any advances in human rights, with freedoms of speech and the press severely restricted, torture used pervasively in overcrowded prisons, and freedom of association tightly constrained. The country received Freedom House’s lowest possible score in its latest report, along with totalitarian states such as North Korea and Saudi Arabia.

Similarly, the situation in the island monarchy of Bahrain continues to deteriorate despite U.S. assurances of progress and pleas from the human rights community for the United States to stop supplying the regime with military aid. In a letter to Hillary Clinton in September, several human rights organizations pointed out that “the security forces of the Government of Bahrain continue to engage in human rights violations against non-violent, pro-democracy protesters.” The groups urged the State Department “to immediately suspend further U.S. military assistance and arms transfers to the responsible units, as required by law.”

The letter notes that

Bahrain Watch has visually documented the use of some U.S. origin weapons during the initial phase of protests (February-March 2011). [5] Members of the BDF can be seen in videos and photos attacking non-violent and unarmed pro-democracy protesters with U.S.-supplied arms, including M4 rifles sold to Bahrain as part of a 2008 arms sales package and .50 caliber machine guns mounted on M113 armored personnel carriers, of which the United States is the sole supplier to Bahrain. Again, we assume that the State Department has knowledge of which units operate U.S.-supplied arms, and that it has notified the Government of Bahrain that these units are ineligible to receive further U.S. taxpayer funded assistance until it takes the steps required by FAA 620M.

It further points out that Section 620M of the Foreign Assistance Act (the “Leahy Law”) stipulates that “No assistance shall be furnished under this Act or the Arms Export Control Act to any unit of the security forces of a foreign country if the Secretary of State has credible information that such unit has committed a gross violation of human rights.”

In offering such “credible information” to Secretary of State Clinton, the groups argue that attacks by the police and other security forces on unarmed, non-violent, pro-democracy activists rise to the level of “gross human rights violations,” particularly so when the attacks resulted in death.

Yet, the United States has continued supplying aid despite ongoing crackdowns in Bahrain, even amid the State Department expressing concern that the recommendations made by the BICI have not been fully implemented.

“I think we’re concerned that a year has gone – almost a year has gone by and we’ve only seen about half of the recommendations go forward and that dialogue is not going forward between the government and the opposition,” Nuland said earlier this month.

Amnesty International however offers a harsher assessment, stating in its new report that “a year on, the promise of meaningful reform has been betrayed by the government’s unwillingness to implement key recommendations around accountability, including its failure to carry out independent, effective and transparent investigations into allegations of torture and other ill-treatment and excessive use of force and to prosecute all those who gave the orders to commit human rights abuses.”

It calls on the U.S. to “immediately condemn human rights violations and match their condemnation with action, instead of satisfying themselves with the narrative of reform while ignoring the reality of repression.”

U.S. complicity in Israeli war crimes in Gaza

A Palestinian man sits next to the body of his one-year-old son Iyad Abu Khoussa during the baby’s funeral in Bureij refugee camp, central Gaza Strip, 18 November. The child was killed when an Israeli warplane fired a missile at the fence of his family’s home; two other small children were wounded in the strike. (Ashraf Amra / APA images)

With the death toll of Israel’s assault on the Gaza Strip continuing to rise, President Barack Obama is voicing the United States’ unconditional support for the bombing, raising questions of legality in relation to U.S. backing of potential Israeli war crimes.

In the latest news, three Palestinians were killed in two separate strikes in Gaza on Tuesday morning. The latest deaths pushed the Palestinian death toll to 112, with the number of injuries over 920, and came after a night of relative calm – the first to see no fatalities since the Israeli air campaign began nearly a week ago.

As the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights reported yesterday,

The number of Palestinians killed by Israeli Occupation Forces in the course of the offensive on the Gaza Strip, that is ongoing for the sixth consecutive day, has increased to 87, including 58 civilians. The civilian deaths include 18 children and 12 women. Over the past 24 hours, many civilian casualties, mostly women and children, have been reported, as Israeli forces have bombarded populated houses, in the vast majority of cases without any prior warning. A number of houses have been destroyed over their residents, causing several civilian casualties. Additionally, Israeli forces have attacked civilian and governmental facilities located in densely-populated areas, and a number of civilian vehicles.

In a grave incident on Sunday afternoon, 18 November 2012, Israeli forces killed 8 members of the al-Dalu family in Gaza City. Another 2 members of the family are still missing, since Israeli warplanes bombarded the family home. 2 neighbours, including 1 elderly woman, were also killed, while 9 civilians, including 2 children and 3 women, were wounded.

As the killing intensified, President Obama weighed in to fully back Israel’s “right to defend itself” and placed the blame for the conflict squarely at the feet of Hamas. “There is no country on earth that would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders,” he said, referring to the homemade rockets fired by Hamas, not the high-tech weaponry used by Israel against the people of Gaza.

Despite the high civilian casualties inflicted by Israel compared to the relatively low death toll on Israel’s side (only three Israelis have been reported killed in the fighting so far) Obama reiterated the U.S.’s unwavering support for Israel. “We are fully supportive of Israel’s right to defend itself from missiles landing on people’s homes and workplaces and potentially killing civilians,” he said. “And we will continue to support Israel’s right to defend itself.”

While not surprising considering the fact that Israel has long been the world’s number one recipient of U.S. military aid, the president’s unequivocal backing for potential Israeli war crimes could place the United States in violation of international law, and possibly domestic law.

According to the International Law Commission (ILC), the official UN body that codifies customary international law,

A State which aids or assists another State in the commission of an internationally wrongful act by the latter is internationally responsible for doing so if: (a) that State does so with knowledge of the circumstances of the internationally wrongful act; and (b) the act would be internationally wrongful if committed by that State” (Article 16 of the International Law Commission, “Articles on Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts,” (2001) which were commended by the General Assembly, A/RES/56/83).

Further, the U.S. Foreign Assistance Act stipulates that “no security assistance may be provided to any country the government of which engages in a consistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognized human rights” and the Arms Export Control Act  authorizes the supply of U.S. military equipment and training only for lawful purposes of internal security, “legitimate self-defense,” or participation in UN peacekeeping operations or other operations consistent with the UN Charter.

As the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation points out,

Because Israel misuses U.S. weapons to commit human rights abuses of Palestinians living under Israeli military occupation in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza Strip, including, but not limited to:  the injuring and killing of civilians, the destruction of Palestinian civilian infrastructure, the severe restrictions on Palestinians’ freedom of movement, and the expropriation of Palestinian land and resources for Israeli settlements, it is pertinent to investigate whether Israel is violating U.S. laws aimed at ensuring that U.S. military aid and weapons are appropriately and legally used.

Given that U.S. military aid to Israel “directly contributes to Israel’s systematic human rights violations against Palestinians,” both Congress and the President “must utilize the investigative and reporting mechanisms found in these laws and hold Israel accountable for any and all violations of these laws as required,” concludes the U.S. Campaign.

While supporters of Israel and most American media outlets claim that Israel is simply retaliating against provocations from Hamas — choosing to begin the story of the latest round of violence in Gaza on November 10 when four Israeli soldiers were wounded by Palestinian fire — in fact, just two days before this incident, a 13 year old Palestinian boy was killed in an Israeli military incursion into Gaza.

Further, as respected scholar Phillis Bennis notes, the Israeli attacks did not begin as a response to rockets fired from Gaza, but rather with Israel’s assassination of Hamas military commander Ahmed al-Jabari on November 14. “History is determined by when you start the clock,” Bennis points out.

Political dissident Noam Chomsky argues that there is no such thing as the concept of self-defense in the context of military occupation. “You can’t defend yourself when you are militarily occupying someone else’s land,” he says. “Call it what you like, it is not self-defense.”

When it comes to the legal issues of Israeli war crimes and U.S. complicity, as a backdrop to the current fighting, the 2009 UN Goldstone Report provides a stark reminder that Israel is responsible at least for “internationally wrongful acts,” if not wanton crimes against humanity.

The United Nations fact-finding mission on the 2008-2009 Gaza conflict (dubbed Operation Cast Lead by the Israeli military) found clear evidence that Israeli forces committed serious war crimes and breaches of humanitarian law, which in some cases may have amounted to crimes against humanity.

“We came to the conclusion, on the basis of the facts we found, that there was strong evidence to establish that numerous serious violations of international law, both humanitarian law and human rights law, were committed by Israel during the military operations in Gaza,” the head of the mission, Justice Richard Goldstone, said in September 2009.

Non-governmental organizations placed the overall number of persons killed by Israel between 1,387 and 1,417 during the operation.

The 575-page report found, inter alia, “that the conduct of the Israeli armed forces constitute grave breaches of the Fourth Geneva Convention in respect of wilful killings and wilfully causing great suffering to protected persons and as such give rise to individual criminal responsibility.”

It went on to criticize the “deliberate and systematic policy on the part of the Israeli armed forces to target industrial sites and water installations,” as well as the use of white phosphorus weapons:

Based on its investigation of incidents involving the use of certain weapons such as white phosphorous and flechette missiles, the Mission, while accepting that white phosphorous is not at this stage proscribed under international law, finds that the Israeli armed forces were systematically reckless in determining its use in built-up areas. Moreover, doctors who treated patients with white phosphorous wounds spoke about the severity and sometimes untreatable nature of the burns caused by the substance. The Mission believes that serious consideration should be given to banning the use of white phosphorous in built-up areas. As to flechettes, the Mission notes that they are an area weapon incapable of discriminating between objectives after detonation. They are; therefore, particularly unsuitable for use in urban settings where there is reason to believe civilians may be present.

Under intense pressure from Israel and the Jewish Lobby in the United States, Richard Goldstone issued a partial retraction and clarification of his report’s most controversial findings in April 2011. While his public disavowal of portions of the report received much fanfare from the Israel Lobby which hailed it as a total vindication of Israel’s actions in Operation Cast Lead, in fact it was a fairly limited retraction that also reaffirmed some of the original report’s important findings.

“The allegations of intentionality by Israel were based on the deaths of and injuries to civilians in situations where our fact-finding mission had no evidence on which to draw any other reasonable conclusion,” Goldstone wrote in the Washington Post. “While the investigations published by the Israeli military and recognized in the U.N. committee’s report have established the validity of some incidents that we investigated in cases involving individual soldiers, they also indicate that civilians were not intentionally targeted as a matter of policy.”

Goldstone laid some of the blame for the report’s shortcomings on the fact that Israel refused to cooperate with his investigation: “Israel’s lack of cooperation with our investigation meant that we were not able to corroborate how many Gazans killed were civilians and how many were combatants.”

Nevertheless, Palestinian deaths over the past ten years are estimated in the thousands. According to the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, which documents precisely which U.S.-supplied weapons are responsible for how many deaths, Israel killed at least 2,969 Palestinians from September 29, 2000 to December 31, 2009 – Palestinians who took no part in hostilities.

It is now clear that history is to some degree repeating itself in Israel’s current actions in the Gaza Strip (codenamed Operation Pillar of Defense). If anything, it could be said that the indications of intentional targeting of civilians are even stronger this time around than they were four years ago, with prominent Israeli leaders openly calling for war crimes and collective punishment to be inflicted on the people of Gaza.

Israeli Interior Minister, Eli Yishai, for example, was quoted by Haaretz as saying, “The goal of the operation is to send Gaza back to the Middle Ages. Only then will Israel be calm for 40 years.”

Not to be outdone, Gilad Sharon, son of former Israeli leader Ariel Sharon wrote in an op-ed on Sunday that, “We need to flatten entire neighborhoods in Gaza. Flatten all of Gaza…. The Americans didn’t stop with Hiroshima – the Japanese weren’t surrendering fast enough, so they hit Nagasaki, too…. This needs to end quickly – with a bang, not a whimper.”

For what it’s worth, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called today for an immediate ceasefire and said an Israeli ground operation in Gaza would be a “dangerous escalation” that must be avoided.

Unfortunately however, as we have seen in the past, the only real way to rein in Israel would be diplomatic pressure from its principle sponsor the United States – and with public pronouncements from the president granting Israel carte blanche to “defend itself,” this doesn’t look likely.

This is especially the case since Obama has steadily increased the amount of aid given to Israel during his presidency. In each of his budget requests to Congress between 2009 and 2012, Obama has asked for increases in U.S. military aid to Israel, with Congress obliging each year. President Obama’s FY2013 budget request includes a record $3.1 billion in military aid to Israel.

Nevertheless, public pressure is mounting to force the United States and Israel to de-escalate the conflict, with demonstrations taking place throughout the world against Israel’s aggression.

Efforts are also intensifying to place pressure on Israel through an economic boycott and divestment campaign, as well as calls to cut U.S. aid to Israel.

“All U.S. aid to Israel should be ended once and for all,” said the ANSWER Coalition in a statement.

The people of the United States stand against the government that speaks in our name and sends $3 billion of our tax dollars every year so that Israel can kill and colonize the people of Palestine. The fact that the Obama administration was briefed on Monday prior to the attack shows that these latest crimes are a joint U.S.-Israeli operation. The Pentagon immediately announced after the first wave of murderous assaults today that Israel was its ‘partner.’ Israel may be a partner of U.S. imperialism as it acts as an extension of Pentagon and CIA power in the Middle East. But it is absolutely not the partner of the people of this country who are horrified by its policy of endless war against the Palestinian people and all the peoples of the region.

Upcoming protest actions across the United States are listed here. Protests elsewhere around the world can be found here.

More irregularities emerge in Election 2012

A week after the international election observation mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe noted serious shortcomings in Election 2012, irregularities continue coming to light. Concerns are growing, in particular, over Election Day voting procedures, partisan decisions to limit access to the ballot box and the long-term effects of the election-rigging practice known as gerrymandering.

The state of Arizona is coming under scrutiny for its practices related to issuing provisional ballots to Latino voters on Election Day and apparent attempts at voter suppression prior to the election. In the lead-up to the voting, local municipal offices in Arizona distributed voter ID cards that falsely provided information in Spanish that the election date is November 8, while the date was provided correctly as November 6 in the English version of the document. Although a spokesperson for the Maricopa County Elections Department said that no more than 50 of the documents were distributed before the mistake was caught, a local immigrant rights group said the damage had already been done.

“It’s a mistake that should not have happened,” said Petra Falcon, the executive director of Promise Arizona in Action. “To know that there’s information out there that’s wrong, it’s going to take a lot of work to make sure that people know the correct date.”

Even after that somewhat awkward mistake, Maricopa County distributed additional material in Spanish with the same false information. Bookmarks distributed by the Recorder’s Office were discovered to provide an incorrect Nov. 8 election date in Spanish, while English-language voters were correctly informed that Nov. 6 was Election Day. In this case, the Recorder’s Office said that 2,000 of the erroneous bookmarks were printed before the mistake was found.

The Campaign for Arizona’s Future, an organization dedicated to increasing voter turnout and removing Sheriff Joe Arpaio from office, criticized the partisanship and conflicts of interest in the county’s election administration bodies that may be contributing to these sorts of “mistakes.”

“The whole thing is like Bizarro World,” spokesperson Daria Ovide said. “This is the county recorder, she is an elected official and as I understand it, her responsibility is to manage the elections process in the county.”

The Arizona irregularities continued through Election Day, with civil rights groups claiming that the number of uncounted early ballots was unusually high and that many Latino voters were improperly given provisional ballots rather than being allowed to cast their vote at the polling place. Further, the ACLU has sent letters of complaint to state election officials expressing concern that the state’s voter ID law is disproportionately impacting minority voters in violation of the Voting Rights Act.

According to the Arizona Secretary of State, two days after the election there were more than 630,000 ballots yet to be counted, of which more than 160,000 were provisional ballots. Of those, about 115,000 provisional ballots were cast in Maricopa County (compared to 99,826 in 2008) and 26,194 provisional ballots were cast in Pima County (compared to 17,912 in 2008). As of Nov. 14, there were still more than 192,000 ballots that remained uncounted, prompting protests from the Latino community.

Advocacy groups working on registration of Latino voters have raised questions about why these provisional ballots were issued in the first place. These groups and others are seeking information on where such ballots were cast and if there has been a disproportionate impact on Latino voters, many of whom were voting for the first time.

“Arizona’s voters deserve an election system that works, and works equally for every eligible voter who comes to the polls,” said Alessandra Soler, executive director of the ACLU of Arizona. “At the very least, we have the right to know whether our ballots were verified and counted in a timely manner, and, if not counted, the reasons why. These questions must be answered.”

Arizonans of course were not alone in experiencing these sorts of irregularities. As Barbara Arnwine, executive director of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, pointed out in a Nov. 13 column,

From the perspective of the command center at the voting-rights coalition Election Protection, last week’s election was the story of a system badly in need of reform – of voters who did everything right but were turned away due to registration problems; of rights being deliberately misconstrued or obstructed; and of hours and hours of waiting.

Call after call came in to our hotline – more than 89,000 on Election Day alone – from confused and concerned voters. Voting machines were jamming in Ohio, and ballots were being stored in boxes marked “provisional.” Pennsylvanians were being wrongly turned away for lack of government-issued photo identification, even though the voter-ID law was not in effect. North Carolina voters were told that voting for one party would be held on Wednesday instead of Tuesday.

Unthinkably long lines were commonplace – in some places, scandalous. The last vote in Fairfax County, Va., was cast 3 1/2 hours after the polls officially closed. Faulty machines, ballot shortages, registration errors, poorly trained poll workers, and overwhelming demand were to blame – no doubt deterring thousands from voting.

Some of the biggest problems were seen in the state of Florida, where voters waited in lines for up to eight hours to cast a ballot. Nevertheless, Republican Governor Rick Scott has repeatedly stated since Election Day that he did “the right thing” by cutting early voting from 14 days to just eight in Florida this year, and then refusing to expand those hours on the weekend before the election, despite clear evidence of high voter turnout.

During the 2008 election, about 55 percent of black voters cast their ballots during the early voting period that Scott had ordered reduced in 2012, according to data from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

International observers from the OSCE noted in 2008 that “the increased possibility to vote early was a highly positive step for the U.S. electoral process.” That year, more than a third of American voters voted early: 18 percent of them cast their ballots at early voting sites, while 19 percent voted by mail. This was seen as especially encouraging because in past election cycles, hours-long lines effectively disenfranchised tens of thousands of voters.

Following the midterm elections of 2010, OSCE observers again noted the beneficial development of early voting, which facilitated the participation of millions of Americans and “eased any capacity problems that might have occurred.”

Despite this positive feedback from the international community, states across the country sought to reduce early voting this year, with new restrictions adopted in Georgia, Ohio, Tennessee, and West Virginia.

In Florida, not only was early voting reduced by a week, but election boards were permitted to schedule as little as 48 hours of early voting.

The Florida governor came under such criticism for these decisions that he announced a review of his state’s voting processes with a particular emphasis on areas where voters waited four hours or longer to cast their ballots.

“I have asked Secretary of State Ken Detzner to review this general election and report on ways we can improve the process after all the races are certified,” Scott said in a statement. “As part of this evaluation, Secretary Detzner will meet with county election supervisors, who are elected or appointed to their position – especially those who ran elections in counties where voters experienced long lines of four hours or more.”

But as blogger Brad Friedman pointed out, the decision to appoint Detzner to review this process is fraught with conflicts of interest. “The only worse, less independent person who could possibly be chosen to head up a ‘review’ of what went wrong in this year’s disastrous election in Florida would be Scott himself,” wrote Friedman.

But since his hand-picked Sec. of State Ken Detzner carried out every single one of Scott’s horrendous, un-American orders to restrict voting and voter registration and to try and toss eligible voters off the rolls this year, resulting in even active-duty military voters getting purged, all while ignoring actual, massive voter registration fraud carried out by the Republican Party of Florida itself (until it could no longer be ignored), it may as well be Scott himself in charge of this so-called “review” in which Detzner has been assigned to tell us all why it was that, among other things, voters were still in line trying to cast their votes at 2am on Wednesday morning in Miami-Dade, even as the President of the United States was delivering his re-election victory speech in Chicago.

Another issue that has more fully come into focus since Election Day is just how big of an effect that partisan gerrymandering has had in ensuring continuing Republican dominance in the House of Representatives. As an analysis by Mother Jones magazine points out, “Americans woke up on November 7 having elected a Democratic president, expanded the Democratic majority in the Senate, and preserved the Republican majority in the House. That’s not what they voted for, though. Most Americans voted for Democratic representation in the House.”

Despite Democrats receiving more votes nationwide than Republicans (49 percent-48.2 percent), the GOP has secured a 233-195 seat majority in the House. This is the “second-biggest House majority in 60 years and their third-biggest since the Great Depression,” according to an analysis by the Washington Post.

So how did Republicans keep their House majority despite more Americans voting for the other party? Because they drew the lines. As Mother Jones explains,

After Republicans swept into power in state legislatures in 2010, the GOP gerrymandered key states, redrawing House district boundaries to favor Republicans. In Pennsylvania, Democratic candidates received half of the votes in House contests, but Republicans will claim about three-quarters of the congressional seats. The same is true in North Carolina. More than half the voters in that state voted for Democratic representation, yet Republicans will fill about 70 percent of the seats. Democrats drew more votes in Michigan than Republicans, but they’ll take only 5 out of the state’s 14 congressional seats.

To illustrate the point, Mother Jones created this graphic:

As the Center for Voting and Democracy explains, the entire redistricting process can be easily manipulated as a way to essentially rig the election before it takes place:

Redistricting encourages manipulation of our elections by allowing incumbent politicians to help partisan allies, hurt political enemies and choose their voters before the voters choose them. The current process is used as a means to further political goals by drawing boundaries to protect incumbents and reduce competition, rather than to ensure equal voting power and fair representation.

This problem has led to some recent attempts at reform around the country, such as in California, where an outside commission was adopted to handle the redistricting process. In Florida, a ballot measure was adopted that amended the state constitution so as to prevent lawmakers from drawing the lines in a way that would “favor or disfavor an incumbent or political party.”

But the reform process is slow-going. Attempts at national reform, such as the Fairness and Independence in Redistricting Act, would require state legislatures to appoint independent commissions that would be responsible for redrawing district boundaries, which would be prohibited from drawing lines based on partisan interests. The bill, however, has not made it out of committee.

A common theme, of course, running through many of America’s electoral problems, including the irregularities found in Election 2012, is the partisanship and conflicts of interest that underlie U.S. election administration. Whether it is partisan state legislatures drawing district boundaries to prevent competition or partisan election officials making decisions about who is allowed to cast votes and how those votes will be counted, the obvious problem is that partisans are running election administration at the state and local levels — in contrast to good electoral practices.

As OSCE observers delicately stated last week, in the United States,

Administrative authority is vested in the respective state secretary or state election board. However, the greater part of election administration is typically delegated to county or lower-level election officials, resulting in a wide variety of electoral practices across the country. While some election officials are appointed, others are elected, which raises possible conflicts of interest.

This language echoes previous OSCE statements, such as the final report on the 2010 midterms, which stated that while election administration in the United States “enjoys the overall confidence of stakeholders, the potential for possible conflict of interests of election administrators who run as party candidates remains.”

Due to this “potential,” the OSCE recommended that “if an election official wishes to be a candidate, or to campaign or actively support a candidate or a party, consideration could be given to requiring the official to resign and to be replaced, due to perceived or real conflict of interest.”

It could be said that the OSCE is being overly kind in its assessment that the system “enjoys the overall confidence of stakeholders.” The obvious lack of confidence can be seen in the epic legal battles that now coincide with every election cycle and the allegations of fraud and misconduct that come from both sides. But whether or not it is being unduly diplomatic for whatever reason, the organization is correct in saying that the system provides for the possibility of conflicts of interest – to say the least.

In fact, a system that allows election administration bodies to be run by partisan activists, candidates and elected officeholders flies in the face of electoral best practices and international standards. As long as the United States continues to allow ideologues of one party or another determine electoral rules, draw district boundaries and dictate voting practices, the U.S. will continue to suffer from perennial controversies over elections and will continue to be out of compliance with international norms.

International observers note serious shortcomings in Election 2012

Despite warnings from several U.S. states that international observers would not be allowed to visit polling stations, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) completed its observation of the U.S. general elections this week, and in two separate press conferences issued pointed criticisms of the electoral system in the United States. In key respects, the OSCE found the U.S. election falling short of international standards.

In a press conference on Wednesday, the head of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR)’s observation mission, Ambassador Daan Everts, noted “broad public confidence” in the U.S. electoral system, but pointed out that there are “areas that clearly need further study and work.”

The main areas of concern for ODIHR include the accuracy and integrity of the voter registration system, which is overly decentralized and prone to mistakes; the voting rights of disenfranchised U.S. citizens including ex-felons and Americans who are not registered to vote; the politicized issue of voter identification, which is marked by a debate over integrity vs. access, and the campaign financing system, which is characterized by a lack of transparency and accountability.

An overriding concern of the observers appeared to be the tendency to disenfranchise various segments of the population, whether inadvertently by making voter registration a cumbersome process or intentionally, by stripping ex-felons of the right to vote. An estimated 5.9 million U.S. citizens are disenfranchised due to a criminal conviction including some 2 million who have served their sentences. In most states, felons can regain the right to vote after fulfilling their sentences, but in 12 (Alabama, Arizona, Delaware, Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, Tennessee, Virginia and Wyoming), felons may permanently lose their voting rights.

Everts stated that stripping ex-felons of their voting rights may be a violation of the U.S.’s international commitments as a member of the OSCE. “International norms,” he said, “require that those rights be restored after the completion of sentences.”

Another issue identified by the observers was regarding the enormous amount of money spent on the campaigns, which this year was estimated at $6 billion – by far the most money ever spent on a U.S. election (or an election anywhere in the world for that matter). Much of this money was funneled through so-called Super PACs, making it virtually untraceable and leading to a proliferation of misleading advertisements and attempts at voter suppression.

This lack of transparency “must be addressed,” said Everts.

With the electoral debacle of 2000 still on people’s minds, Everts acknowledged that fears remain of a prolonged election dispute due to the flawed system of election administration and vote-counting. Specifically, he pointed to the possibility of a Florida 2000 scenario playing out once again, and said that some states have not learned the appropriate lessons. Legislation is clearly needed to ameliorate the outdated election systems of certain states.

Indeed, with the 2012 Florida election still unresolved several days after the Nov. 6 balloting, Everts may have a point. The only reason that the U.S. was not subjected this year to a prolonged electoral dispute as it was in 2000, was that Obama had already clearly won the Electoral College votes without the state of Florida.

In conclusion, the ODIHR noted that despite the elections largely taking place “in a pluralistic environment,” decisions on technical aspects of the electoral process “were often unduly politicized.”

“Highly competitive campaigns were covered extensively in the media, allowing voters to make informed choices,” ODIHR concluded. “While characterized by broad public confidence, further steps should be taken to improve the electoral process, in areas such as  voting rights, the accuracy of voter lists, campaign finance transparency, recount procedures, and access of international election observers.”

When it comes to the media environment – the fairness of which is considered an integral aspect of democratic elections – ODIHR observed “highly partisan” coverage on the cable news networks.

Both Obama and Romney received more negative than positive coverage, according to ODIHR’s analysis. Fox News dedicated 66 percent of its coverage to Obama, ODIHR found, and 34 percent to Romney. Coverage of Obama on Fox News was mostly negative in tone (72 percent), while MSNBC dedicated 34 percent of its coverage to Obama and 66 percent to Romney. Coverage of Romney on MSNBC was mostly negative in tone (87 percent).

Another problem identified by ODIHR was that broadcast media dedicated the greater part of their electoral coverage to non-substantive issues such as daily opinion polls and the holding of campaign events (64 percent), often at the expense of substantive discussion of policy (36 percent).

In a separate press conference on Nov. 8 the OSCE’s other election monitoring body, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA), offered a somewhat rosier picture of U.S. elections, although also identified substantial problems. Joao Soares, the head of the OSCE PA’s election observation mission – which included some 100 members of parliament from across Europe – said that despite some concerns, the election was “yet another demonstration of the country’s commitment to democracy.”

He said among those concerns were the “often negative role” played by campaign financing and “the avalanche of paid advertisements,” which he described as “propaganda.” The OSCE PA observers also noted controversial legislation on voter ID and early voting, which it said had “a tendency to reduce confidence in the process.”

Despite those concerns, Soares said “things work very well here in the United States.” Regarding the massive amounts of money spent by corporations to influence the election, he claimed that it did not create unfair disadvantages for any candidate.

“These were the most expensive elections in U.S. history, and although this cash flow did not create an uneven playing field, it could have a negative effect on the factual independence of elected politicians,” he said.

The claim that the spending did not create an uneven playing field seemed to refer specifically to the race between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, not to the congressional races, the primaries, or to third-party candidacies. As the OSCE PA’s full post-election statement made clear, the spending “did not yet create an uneven playing field between the two major presidential candidates.” (No mention was made of other candidates.)

The OSCE PA’s largely positive assessment of the elections – particularly its description of voting day procedures – was challenged at the press conference by Sergei Chumaryov, a senior counselor at the Russian embassy in Washington

“I had the opportunity to also monitor the elections in Florida – two main, key counties where OSCE observers, Parliamentary Assembly or the organization as such, were not present: Miami-Dade County and Palm Beach County,” he said. “And I would tell you that I have a completely different story. Are you here to monitor or to visit Potemkin polling stations?” Chumaryov claimed the observers only visited polling stations “where you were allowed to visit.”

The OSCE PA’s team was deployed to Pennsylvania, Maryland, Washington DC, Virginia and North Carolina, but not to swing state Florida – the site of many problems with early voting and election day procedures. They also declined to visit Ohio, which had its share of problems.

In defense of the OSCE PA’s limited observation, Soares said, “We [chose] freely the polling stations we wanted to visit” and noted that they were not obstructed by the authorities in any way.

The Russian challenge to the OSCE’s findings comes after Russian election chief Vladimir Churov last week described the U.S. electoral system as “the worst in the world.”

report commissioned by Russia’s Central Election Commission claimed that the U.S. electoral system is neither free nor fair. In contrast to the OSCE’s findings, which largely ignored the existence of third parties in the United States, the Russian report questioned the fairness of an election that systematically excludes the participation of independent parties such as the Libertarians and the Greens.

“Candidates were not granted equal access to the media, particularly to television debates, which were held exclusively between two candidates,” said Aleksandr Ignatov, one of the report’s authors. “And we all know there were six candidates. The principle of open elections was not respected since there are no guarantees for international observers.”

Participants in yesterday’s OSCE PA press conference largely dismissed this report. Senator Benjamin Cardin (D-Maryland), the co-chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, was at the press conference. He called the Russian report “regrettable.”

Nevertheless, the Russians’ focus on the fairness of the election for third parties is an area that the OSCE seems to have neglected. This is despite the fact that the obstacles that third parties face, such as ballot access laws and exclusion from the media and televised debates, are clear violations of the U.S.’s OSCE commitments as spelled out in the 1990 Copenhagen Document.

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