On September 26, 2014, in the southern state of Guerrero, a group of 80 students from a Rural Teachers Training School in Ayotzinapa were attacked by the municipal police of Iguala. According to reports of witnesses in the area, the police opened fire without warning and then captured 43 young men. It was later revealed that the 43 men were subsequently turned over to a criminal gang known as Guerreros Unidos (United Warriors), which then caused the disappearance of all 43. It is known that at least one student was tortured, his eyeballs taken out and his face skinned. To this day, the actual whereabouts of the missing students remain unknown.

It is hard to believe that police could be involved with criminal gangs and actively participate in such a heinous crime, but it is even worse because in Mexico corruption goes beyond the police. Mexico’s Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam found evidence that Jose Luis Abarca, the arrested former mayor of Iguala, and his wife were working with Guerreros Unidos and ordered police to attack the students because the mayor feared they would disrupt an event to promote his wife’s political ambitions. In addition to the mayor of Iguala and his wife, several local police officers were also on the payroll of the criminal organization, and dozens were believed to be involved in the kidnapping and alleged murder of the students.

The disappearance of the students and the protests throughout Mexico in connection with them has shocked the world. The White House, Pope Francis and the EU have all taken up the matter in recent public statements. However, the tragedy of the students’ disappearance is miniscule as compared with the broader problem Mexico has with crime and the drug cartels that dominate the landscape of the country from one end to the other.

Mexico is the third largest poppy producer in the world, and 60% of it is grown in Guerrero state alone. Guerrero is considered a “narco state” and the war between cartels there has been savage. Guerreros Unidos fights other gangs such as La Familia and Los Rojos for control of the smuggling routes. So, in Iguala, a Guerrero key city for drug trafficking, disruptions to average citizens are part of every day life. However, what goes on in the state Guerrero is only part of a much broader and serious problem across the whole country.

In the last eight years, in the context of the war against drugs, about 120,000 people have been killed, more than 30,000 have disappeared, and a quarter of a million have been displaced in Mexico. A UN report estimated that 17,958 people were killed worldwide in terrorist attacks in 2013. The Mexican government reported that there were 31,532 homicides in the country between January and November of 2013 including 16,736 labeled as “intentional” murder and 14,796 as “negligent” manslaughter. This figure released by the Mexican government does not take into account individuals who have disappeared but not been labeled yet homocides.

A major investigation into mass graves in Mexico found the corpses of 24,000 people, all of them related to “narco crimes” of one type or another. Entire cities and towns have erupted into war zones replete with military checkpoints and drug cartel roadblocks. Armed with military grade weapons, including grenade launchers, the drug gangs are an equal match for Mexican soldiers and those police who have not been corrupted and are still willing to fight the gangs.

Given this reality, it is hard to distinguish between criminals and law enforcement. Many local politicians, federal and state lawmakers, party leaders, police chiefs and military bosses are closely tied with or identified with the criminal gangs. Drug cartel assassins, the military, and the police have all committed atrocities and violated human rights. Dismembered body parts have been left on streets or found decomposing in barrels of acid. Dead bodies with mouths duct taped often hang from commuter bridges. Women are raped and murdered, and journalists who expose law enforcement corruption are kidnapped and killed. People are afraid to report any crimes for fear of reprisals, and the current rate of unsolved murders is somewhere between 96 and 98%.

Mexico’s largest and most powerful drug gangs are the Zetas and the Sinaloa cartel. The Zetas operate in more than half of Mexico’s states and overtook their rivals (the Sinaloa cartel) in 2012 in terms of geographic presence and control. The Zetas’ brutal violence gave the gang an advantage over the Sinaloa cartel, which has always preferred to use bribes (mainly to police and politicians) to acquire territory and take over drug smuggling routes. Although the arrests of Zeta leader Miguel Ángel Treviño Morales in 15 July 2013, and of Gulf cartel (the oldest Mexican drug gang) leader Mario Armando Ramirez Treviño in 17 August 2013, were expected to have an impact on their respective organizations and on the overall problem, there has been no decrease in drug related violence since their arrests.

Despite President Enrique Peña Nieto’s stated efforts and various initiatives to combat drug cartels, drug related violence in Mexico continues to increase.  Before taking up office, he said he would break with the approach of Felipe Calderon, his predecessor, who had deployed the army to go after cartel kingpins and had declared “war” on the drug gangs. Mr. Peña Nieto promised a lower-profile approach aimed at tackling the violence on a local level by setting up a national police department to handle drug related crimes. However, when the violence escalated in Michoacan, he too sent the army to back up federal and local police forces. He also decided to strike a deal with vigilante groups, allowing them to keep their weapons as long as they agreed to be integrated in the official security forces.

As most nations focus on events in Syria, Egypt, and Iran, another violent struggle that is constantly taking human live is taking place in Mexico. Despite enormous casualties, the turmoil in Mexico does not receive nearly the level of scrutiny or attention that conflicts in other countries do. Everyone recognizes that Mexico has a serious problem with the drug cartels but there has been no concerted international initiative to eradicate it as there has been with terrorism.

The drug problem in Mexico is reminiscent of the drug problem that Colombia had in the nineties. Colombia was the world’s largest exporter of cocaine and heroin and a focal point for money laundering and arms trafficking in the Western Hemisphere. Its government had waged a losing battle against insurgents and drug traffickers for over two decades, and drug-related violence was steadily on the increase throughout the early nineties.

In 1999, the Clinton Administration backed the then newly elected Colombian President Andrés Pastrana’s agenda to curb drug smuggling. “Plan Colombia” included provisions for more aggressive eradication and interdiction efforts, encouraging rural guerrillas to disarm through peace talks, replacing coca farmers’ lost income with alternative crops and employment programs, and strengthening the country’s historically weak government. Of the plan’s initial $7.5 billion cost, the Clinton Administration committed $1.3 billion for eradication and interdiction, the European Community was asked to commit $2 billion for alternate crop development and government reform, and Colombia committed $4 billion overall to the plan. By 2012, the US had spent nearly $8 billion on the initiative.

Since Plan Colombia began in 2000, the positive changes in the security situation in Colombia are undeniable. Under the rubric of “democratic security,” developed by Álvaro Uribe, Colombia’s two-term president (2002–2010), the presence of the national police was extended throughout the country, to all of Colombia’s 1,300 municipalities. Due to the strengthened capacity of Colombia’s security forces and vastly improved intelligence capabilities, kidnappings declined between 2002 and 2009, from nearly 3,000 to just over 200 annually, and killings were reduced by nearly half in the same period. President Juan Manuel Santos, who took office in 2010, built on the foundation established during the Uribe administrations, and also emphasized extending the permanent, regular presence of security forces in small towns. Plan Colombia is today seen as a success for Colombians and for those who supported the initiative.

The situation in Mexico is difficult but not hopeless. Based on the experience of Colombia, there is reason to think that with help, Mexico can also win the war against the cartels and become a safer place. However, the international community must get involved. Merely analyzing the Mexican situation and doing nothing to help should not be an option; the human costs are too great.



Why have the Girls Kidnapped by Boko Haram still not been rescued?

On April 2014, in the northeastern Nigerian village of Chibok, Boko Haram militants abducted 276 girls; seven months later, more than 200 remain in captivity. Boko Haram leader Abubaker Shekau recently released a video mocking any attempts at a rescue. With regards to the girls, he stated: “[w]e have married them off … [t]hey are all in their marital homes.”

Even after all the international outcry and support for the girls when the kidnapping occurred, and Nigeria’s president vows to rescue the girls, why are they still in captivity?

Boko Haram is a powerful religious sect in the north of the country that has claimed thousands of lives over the years in its violent campaign to create a religious state. Bombings, shootings and kidnappings have become common events, and the group is estimated to control an area of northeast Nigeria the size of Rhode Island.

An important reason the girls have not been rescued is due to Nigeria’s failure to effectively counter Boko Haram from a military/policing standpoint. The military has a bad track record when it comes to fighting the militant group. A day after the abduction, they claimed to have rescued the girls, but later had to retract that claim. Then, in May 2014, they released a statement saying they knew where the girls were being held, but would not use force to rescue them. And in a tragic incident early last month, several Nigerian troops were killed by their own air-strikes aimed at Boko Haram hideouts.

Distrust of the Nigerian military from the civil society also contributes to the continued failure in dealing with Boko Haram.  In Nigeria, many civilians consider the Nigerian military to be as bad as Boko Haram when it comes to human rights violations, even in the face of the continued reign of terror that is perpetrated in the north of the country by the terrorist organization. In order to capture key Boko Haram leaders and to cut off funding sources that might weaken the militant group, it would be essential for the government to win the support and trust of communities in that part of the country. Many of these communities feel abandoned by the central government, terrorized by Boko Haram, and yet they still do not trust the military—which makes gaining any traction in the fight against the group extremely difficult.

This poor record on human rights of the Nigerian military also hinders international efforts to lend a hand in the fight. Because of the poor human rights record of the Nigerian military, other countries, including the United States, are hesitant about cooperating more in their efforts to rescue the girls. The US and other countries are concerned about how much they can cooperate because they do not want to be associated with the kind of abuses that have already been documented in connection with the Nigerian military.

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the Executive Director of UN Women and a United Nations Under-Secretary-General has said that, “[o]ur world must not forget these adolescent girls…. [t]he world must come together and make every possible effort to rescue these girls and bring their captors to justice. We cannot and must not move on with this humanitarian tragedy still unresolved.” This is a statement with which everyone can agree; and the parties involved, including the Nigerian government, its military, and other nations must make more of an effort to ensure that the girls are returned home soon. We must not forget these girls.




The Grand Jury Process in the US: Does it Work?

Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager, was shot and killed on Aug. 9, 2014, by Darren Wilson, a police officer, in Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri. On Nov. 24, the St. Louis County prosecutor announced that a grand jury had decided not to indict Mr. Wilson.

On July 17, 2014, Eric Garner, 43, was stopped on a street in New York on suspicion of selling loose, untaxed cigarettes. After a confrontation, police officer Daniel Pantaleo placed his arm round Mr. Garner’s neck and wrestled him to the ground. Mr. Garner became unresponsive and later died. A grand jury also declined to indict officer Pantaleo.

Many people around the world are scratching their heads, wondering how is it possible that two men died at the hands of police officers and the officers have not been charged with any wrongdoing. These concerns and questions are accentuated by the inescapable reality that in each of these cases the officers are white and the dead men black. How come these two different grand juries, in different parts of the country, failed to charge the officers to ensure a proper trial and a full airing of the facts surrounding the deaths? Many have asked: what is a grand jury, anyway?

The grand jury plays an important role in the American criminal system. Its role does not involve a finding of guilt or innocence of a party; instead, a prosecutor works with a grand jury to decide whether to bring criminal charges or an indictment against a potential defendant. Grand jury members may be called for jury duty for months at a time, but need only appear in court for a few days out of every month. During that time, they listen to testimony and review evidence presented by the prosecutor. Finally, they decide if charges should be filed against the potential defendant. A grand jury is in some ways similar to a trial jury because it is made up of civilians called for duty by the justice system. However, while regular trial juries are usually made up of 6 or 12 people, a grand jury is composed of somewhere between 6 to 23 people depending on the state.

The grand jury that weighed whether to charge the officer involved in the death of Eric Garner heard from 50 witnesses and saw dozens of exhibits, including four videos, before declining to indict. The grand jurors in the Ferguson case heard 70 hours of testimony from roughly 60 witnesses, and they confronted a number of forensics reports, police radio logs, medical documents and tapes of FBI interviews with bystanders. In both cases, after reviewing all of the evidence presented by the prosecutor, and having been instructed on the law applicable to the case, the grand jurors declined to indict.

Under the civil law system, found in 60% of the world, including Europe and Latin America, a judge makes the decision of filing charges against a defendant after he or she has taken testimony from police officers, victims, the accused and other witnesses, and has seen the available evidence relevant to the case. It is unlikely, that under the civil system, and given the controversial racial issues surrounding the two cases, officers Wilson and Pantaleo would not have been indicted. Even if after the trial they had been found not guilty, there would have been a trial. This is largely due to the inquisitorial nature of the proceeding where if the judge finds any evidence of guilt the charge is sustained and the case moves forward to the trial phase. The prosecutor has little or no role in that determination.

There are many benefits to the grand jury system. Historically, its purpose was to protect citizens from unfounded accusations whether from the government, partisan passions, or personal enmity. The grand jury is seen as affording protection to the individual from arbitrary and unjustified prosecution launched solely by one biased official, the prosecutor. Additionally, the grand jury can act as an investigating agency, having the power to subpoena records, documents, and witnesses. Issues such as organized crime, public corruption, or other areas where prosecutors might be unwilling to look can be investigated and brought to trial. In 1933 a Cleveland grand jury exposed a corrupt police and prosecution system; and between 1937 and 1938, a Philadelphia grand jury was responsible for the ultimate correction of widespread police misconduct. The grand jury also helps prosecutors by allowing them to test their case before they present it to a trial jury.

However, in recent times, the grand jury system has faced a great deal of criticism. For one thing, grand juries are inefficient. Grand jurors are not trained in the law, therefore, the average grand juror is unable to direct questions to genuine relevancies or to form a definite judgment as to the evidence presented. Most of the time, the grand jury merely acts as a rubber stamp for the prosecutor, hearing only the witnesses selected by him/her, and assuming that the mere making of an accusation justifies prosecution. Likewise, if the prosecutor presents the evidence, or if the judge explains the law, in a way that benefits the potential defendant (as if appears to have occurred in the Ferguson case), there would be no indictment. Overall, the effectiveness of the grand jury system seems to be in question.

The grand jury is not the only way to indict in the United States. Prosecutors in some states can charge a potential defendant by information, an indictment prepared by the prosecutor based on police testimony and reports, as well as other evidence pertinent to the case. Although some states by statute or their constitution provide that criminal proceedings shall be only on grand jury indictment, others have the two systems as alternatives regardless of the crime charged. In between are a number of states neither wholly allowing nor disallowing the information, but permitting its use in a variety of circumstances. It is interesting to note that when information has been adopted as a process to charge a potential defendant, no state has later abandoned or rejected it. To the contrary, it has almost completely supplanted indictment by a grand jury. In states where changing a defendant is permitted by way of information or by grand jury indictment, some argue prosecutors choose to utilize a grand jury when they want to evade the responsibility of charging a controversial figure, like in the case of politicians, police officers, etc.

It is clear that a large number of people believe that the grand juries in both the Ferguson and Garner case erred by not charging the officers, and therefore, not allowing the case to be presented to a jury to determine whether their actions were warranted. However, the more important issue is whether the grand jury system works. It might be that grand juries had an important purpose once, but have become obsolete and are now more detrimental than beneficial to the fairness of the criminal system in the US.




Today we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the world’s most universally ratified human rights treaty. The treaty requires the commitment of states that embrace it to do all possible to ensure children’s wellbeing, dignity and protection. The U.S., accompanied by Somalia and South Sudan, are the only three countries that have failed to ratify this important instrument of international law. One hundred and ninety-four nations – including all of America’s closest allies — have ratified the CRC. To say that the US is in bad company is an understatement.

The CRC was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1989 and became one of the most rapidly and widely adopted human-rights agreements. The United States signed it in 1995 but never ratified it. Signing a treaty implies that a country endorses its principles, whereas ratification means committing to be legally bound by it. Treaty ratification under US law requires that after the President sends the treaty to the Senate it must be approved by a two-thirds majority, the same standard required for a Constitutional amendment. The Convention on the Rights of the Child has never made it to a vote.

The Convention upholds the ideal that all children, everywhere, have the same human rights to survive and thrive, to learn and contribute to society. The CRC recognizes every child’s right to develop physically, socially and mentally to his or her fullest potential, to be protected from discrimination, exploitation, abuse, discrimination, and violence; to express his or her views freely and to participate in decisions affecting his or her future.

Most American laws are already consistent with the ideals of the CRC, but not all. A notable exception is that in the United States children under 18 can be incarcerated for life without parole. Since the treaty prohibits cruel and degrading punishment of children, those laws may be deemed in contravention of the treaty. Opponents of the treaty say it would usurp American sovereignty. Although America has laws against child abuse, a third of states allow corporal punishment in schools and none bans it at home. Parent-rights groups claim the treaty would undermine parents’ authority, particularly over religious and sex education.

Studies by the Children’s Defense Fund, UNICEF, and others show that, relative to its wealth and compared to other industrialized countries, the U.S does not fare well with regards child poverty, teen birth rates, low birth weight, infant mortality, child victims of gun violence, and the number of minors incarcerated. It is incomprehensible how the richest nation on earth allows one out of six children to live under the poverty level; how its laws permit a child to be killed by guns every three hours; or how so many children and families live without basic health insurance.

Ratification of the CRC in itself would not immediately change the situation of children in American. However, it might help establish a national framework to establish clear objectives that the federal and state governments, private organizations, and individuals, can use to shape policies and initiatives to better meet the needs of children and their families.

Internationally, ratification of the CRC would help enhance U.S. standing as a global leader in human rights. Additionally, as a party to the Convention, the U.S. would be eligible to participate in the Committee on the Rights of the Child (which is the international body that monitors the CRC’s implementation), and work toward strengthening further progress for children in all countries.

On behalf of President Bill Clinton, Madeline Albright signed the CRC in 1995, signaling the U.S. government’s intention to move toward ratification. But the George W Bush administration took no further action. President Obama has done nothing tangible towards getting the treaty ratified by the U.S. Senate.

As a presidential candidate in 2008, referring to the CRC, Barack Obama underscored the importance of the US returning “[…] to its position as a respected global leader and promoter of human rights” and promised to “[…] review this and other treaties to ensure that the U.S. resumes its global leadership in human rights.” Over 100 CEOs and leaders of prominent American child welfare organizations and faith-based groups have made a joint appeal to President Obama to order such a review.

As we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the CRC, many of us hope that the United States will join the international community in embracing the CRC as a safeguard for the defense of children’s rights and well being everywhere.


The New York Times recently published an article in which it was reported that the US Government that had nearly 50,000 requests to the US Postal authorities to intercept mail approved during 2013. According to the report, the surveillance program, known as “mail covers,” has been in place for many years. What essentially occurs is that the law enforcement agencies or the Postal Inspection Service make the initial request and postal workers then record all the information on the outside of the envelope before delivering the mail. The scope of the intercepts increased significantly in 2013 raising concerns, as cited in the Times article, about how little oversight there is of the program and how postal workers are called to make the ultimate decision about the legitimacy of the request.

Such intercepts of mail may seem at first blush not to involve a violation of constitutionally protected rights as the mail is not opened by postal workers—which would absolutely require a warrant. However, when one considers the Supreme Court jurisprudence on constitutionally protected searches, the answer is not quite so clear. Recall that what is being done here is targeting an individual’s mail in order to gain intelligence information about that target’s communications, which may then be used to draw other conclusions or even to obtain warrants. The discussion in United States v. Jones, 132 S. Ct. 945 (2012), the landmark GPS case, is very instructive on this point particularly since Jones involves the collection of data. As Justice Sotomayor wrote in her concurring opinion, “[m]ore fundamentally, it may be necessary to reconsider the premise that an individual has no reasonable expectation of privacy in information

voluntarily disclosed to third parties.” This reasoning which extends accepted Fourth Amendment thinking which centers on the expectation of privacy as set forth in Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347 (1967) based on the invasion of your private space. This would allow a constitutionally protected privacy right to things that lie outside your private space such as the writing on the outside of your correspondence, which although voluntary disclosed to a third party, the postal service, is not intended for prying eyes.

Moreover, these “intercepts” of the mail may run afoul of federal law. Under 18 USC § 1703 any postal employee who “unlawfully secretes, destroys, detains, delays, or opens any letter….shall be [subject to a fine].” How these scans are actually done and whether the mail is removed from the ordinary stream of mail may bear on any such application, but it is definitely worth considering.

In the end, these new revelations are just further confirmation of the US government’s ongoing efforts to obtain information on individuals’ outside the judicial framework laid out for constitutional searches. The government continues to use tools that are subject to little or no oversight to collect information and in effect conduct surveillance on US citizens and thereby further encroach on privacy.  In historical context, the infringement into the mail bag seems particularly troubling given the founding fathers’ concerns about the absolute power of the monarchy and its ability to encroach on the life of the citizenry when they wrote that “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated…”

By Ivan Mercado

Blasphemy Laws and the case of Aasia Bibi

Yesterday, a two-member bench of the Lahore High Court (LHC) upheld the death sentence given to Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman convicted in 2009 of blasphemy.

On June 19, 2009, in a village near Nankana in Pakistan, Aasia Bibi, 50, a mother of five, was jailed after being accused by her neighbors of making derogatory remarks about the Prophet Mohammed. According to her neighbors, she was working in a field when she was asked to fetch water. Muslim women laborers objected, saying that as a non-Muslim she was unfit to touch the water bowl. She entered into a heated debate with her Muslim colleagues, which is when she is alleged to have made the blasphemous remarks.

A few days later, the co-workers went to a local cleric and recounted the blasphemy allegations. Shortly thereafter, Bibi was incarcerated and charged with blasphemy. During her trial, recorded statements of eight prosecution witnesses were presented, and on November 8, 2010, she was sentenced to death by hanging. Bibi became the first woman to be sentenced to death under Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy law.

In Pakistan, Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC), which was enacted in 1986, mandates capital punishment for “use of derogatory remarks in respect of the Holy Prophet.” This blasphemy law has become an all-purpose tool in the service of intolerance. Even though there are parts of the law could technically serve to protect all religions from blasphemy, only the Muslim majority has invoked the provision against the Christian minority.

Bibi’s case attracted the attention of then Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer, who visited her in jail and denounced her conviction as well as the blasphemy law. A couple of months later, Taseer was killed by his own bodyguard Mumtaz Qadri. Another high-profile politician, minorities minister Shahbaz Bhatti was also murdered in 2011 after calling for reforms to the blasphemy law and describing Aasia Bibi’s trial as flawed.

According to Pew Research, an American research firm, 22% of countries have laws that penalize blasphemy or the insulting of religious symbols. Most of these countries are Muslim and the laws prohibit insults to Islam’s prophet or holy book. However, the list also includes other countries where old laws banning blasphemous or religiously disrespectful speech have remained on the statute books, albeit rarely if ever invoked. Such countries include Denmark, Greece and Germany. As recently as 2009, Ireland introduced a blasphemy law which penalizes “the publication or utterance of blasphemous matter” with a fine of up to €25,000. This law covers blasphemy to other religions as well as Christianity.

As for Bibi’s case, a two-judge appellate panel has dismissed her appeal, but her attorneys can still appeal the case to the Supreme Court for further review.



In recent weeks, Islamic State militants have decapitated American and British hostages, while four French journalists held by some of the same captors were released earlier this year. A former U.S. ambassador to Mali has said the French government paid $17 million to free the French hostages who were kidnapped in Niger in 2010 and subsequently handed over to Al Qaeda.

The latest hostage shown in an ISIS propaganda video is British journalist John Cantlie. In the video Cantlie says European hostages were freed because of actions taken by their governments. The assumption is that the actions to which he refers have to do with paying a ransom for the release of hostages. That is something Canada, Britain and the U.S. have asserted they will not do. The killing of the American journalist James Foley, a few months after the release of his European colleagues held captive alongside him, has underlined the disparities in national policies towards paying ransom, and leads us to examine the merits of such policies.

Hostage-taking is defined under international law (International Convention Against the Taking of Hostages, adopted December 17, 1979) as the seizing or detaining and threatening to kill, injure, or continue to detain a person in order to compel a third party to do or abstain from doing any act as an explicit or implicit condition for the release of the seized or detained person. In 2013, all major western countries signed an accord reinforced by a UN Security Council resolution, not to pay ransom to terrorist groups for hostages. However, by all appearances, only the US and the UK have stuck to that commitment. Other European states – including France, Italy, Spain and Germany – have found ways of channeling money to militant groups in exchange for the release of their citizens.

According to reliable sources, Al Qaeda and its direct affiliates have taken in at least $125 million in revenue from kidnappings since 2008, of which $66 million was paid just last year. The countries that have a policy of not paying ransom for hostages claim that payment of ransom money has unintended but inevitable consequences. The most obvious is that the money paid funds terrorist organizations and furthers their goals. Additionally, the paying of ransom inflates the price for other captives, putting the cost beyond the reach of families or employers trying to negotiate privately.

But those who question the policy of not paying ransom argue that when a human life is at stake a government has an obligation to do anything in its power to save that life. On July 31, 2009, three Americans, Joshua Fattal (27), Sarah Shourd (32), and Shane Bauer (28) were taken into custody by Iranian border guards for crossing into Iran while hiking near the Iranian border in Iraqi Kurdistan. Iran subsequently claimed the three were spies but was never able to offer any evidence to support its contention. Sarah Shourd was released 14 months later on “humanitarian grounds.” Fattal and Bauer were convicted of “illegal entry” and “espionage” two years after their arrest and each sentenced to eight years in prison. However, both were released on September 21, 2011 after payment of 5 billion rial (about US$465,000) bail which was arranged by the Sultan of Oman. Regarding the US policy of not paying ransom for hostages, Fattal has said that “[a]s someone who was held and who was released in part because of a ransom, it seems like it’s important to have the U.S. government be supporting U.S. citizens abroad.”

Those against giving in to the terrorists demands argue that paying ransoms backfires because once a ransom gets paid, the terrorist group has an incentive to take more hostages from your country.  So if a country’s goal is to prevent its citizens from being kidnapped by terrorist groups, the argument goes, the wisest thing to do is to set a policy of not paying ransoms. If terrorist groups think the country will pay, they will be likely they are to abduct its people. On the other hand, given the way these kidnappings often take place, namely, that terrorist groups just kidnap a group of people, often not knowing their nationalities, and then decide what to do with their captives, the question of incentive to kidnap depending of nationality is irrelevant.

There are no easy answers to the question of whether to pay ransom to terrorist groups for hostages; however, one has to wonder, if terrorists kidnapped President Obama’s daughters would a ransom be paid? Would a third country be given authority to negotiate their release? Or would their fates be determined by their captors’ wishes?







More than 4,000 people in Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, Senegal and Sierra Leone have contracted Ebola since March, according to the World Health Organization. To date, more than 2,300 people have died, mostly in West African countries.

ZMapp, an experimental drug to treat those infected by the Ebola virus has been developed by the biotech firm Mapp Biopharmaceutical Inc., based in San Diego. So far, there are some individuals who have been provided with the experimental drug. Two American aid workers, who were the first patients treated for the Ebola virus at a hospital in the United States, recovered from the disease. William Pooley, the first Briton to contract Ebola during the outbreak, was given the experimental drug ZMapp and also recovered. However, father Miguel Pajares, a Spanish Catholic priest who contracted the disease in Liberia was also treated with the experimental drug but he did not respond and died of Ebola on August 12. More recently, on Sept. 5, an American doctor who was infected with the disease arrived in the United States for treatment. In total, 5 out of 7 people treated with ZMapp have recovered.

Mapp Biopharmaceuticals said in a statement that its drug, Zmapp, was only identified as a possible Ebola treatment in January of this year, and has not yet been evaluated for safety in humans or approved by the US Food and Drug Administration. However, while it is true that the FDA must grant permission to use experimental treatments in the United States, the FDA does not have authority over the use of such a drug in other countries, therefore, in theory, the antidote could be administered in other countries with their government’s permission.

As people in Africa continue to die of the disease some have wondered why the experimental drug has not be made available to them. Should untested, experimental drugs to combat Ebola be made widely available?

There are other issues that appear of concern to those studying the spread of Ebola. The WHO says conventional means of controlling the outbreak, which include avoiding close physical contact with those infected and wearing personal protective equipment, are not working in African countries. The reason could be linked to burial practices, which can include touching the body and eating a meal near it. There are also not enough resources in the affected countries to treat Ebola patients. The aid agency Medecins Sans Frontieres has expressed the frustration of health workers at the largest treatment centre in Monrovia, Liberia, being completely overwhelmed with the lack of medical supplies and about not having sufficient beds to treat people infected, having to turn people away who might be infected with the virus.

Some have argued that the seriousness of the current Ebola outbreak means there is a moral imperative to abandon normal stringent testing and get the experimental drugs to sufferers as quickly as possible. There are those who even go to the extent of hinting at an underlying racism in the administration of the Ebola experimental treatment. They argue that African lives are worth less than Western ones, and that it is highly likely that if Ebola were now spreading in Western countries, public health authorities would give at-risk patients access to experimental drugs or vaccines.

However, the issue surrounding the moral obligations other countries might have about providing help to those African counties affected by the disease is not limited to the ethics of making widely available an experimental drug to people in Africa, but also about the moral imperative of providing help with the basic resources needed to combat the disease, such as hospitals, beds, medical supplies, etc. These are resources easily available for Western governments and for which no FDA approval is required.

It is difficult to fathom that there would not be a massive response to such a public health situation if the same circumstances were found in Europe, the US or some other place with greater impact on the global economy. The reality is that the response to the spread of Ebola in West Africa has been lethargic, poorly coordinated and devoid of a sense urgency that should always be present when human lives are in peril.


Ugandan’s notorious Anti-Homosexuality Act is overturned but for the wrong reasons

A Ugandan constitutional court declared the country’s anti-gay law illegal. The reason was that parliament did not have a quorum when it was passed. The five judge constitutional court ruled that the speaker of parliament had acted illegally when she allowed a vote on the measure despite the lack of a quorum when the bill was passed. They also found the speaker ignored objections by the prime minister to this effect.

The anti-gay bill, which has been very disputed by international rights groups (and discussed previously in this blog), was signed into law in December by President Yoweri Museveni. The bill provided for homosexuals to be jailed for life, outlawed the promotion of homosexuality and obliged Ugandans to denounce gays to the authorities or be charged with promotion of homosexuality.

Anti-homosexuality sentiment is prevalent in Uganda, and critics have said that Mr. Museveni signed the law to win domestic support ahead of a presidential election scheduled for 2016, which will be his 30th year in power. But Western nation opposed to the bill responded with aid cuts to Uganda’s government in protest since the law was passed. Rights groups say the law triggered a sharp increase in arrests and assaults of members of the country’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community

The government could call for a new session with quorum or appeal the ruling in the Supreme Court.