A Step Toward Equal Voting Rights for DC Residents

Washington, DC, Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton speaks at a news conference on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, June 16, 2020. ©2020

© AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

The US House of Representative’s overwhelming vote today in favor of the admission of Washington, Douglass Commonwealth as the 51st US state affirms that Washington, DC residents are entitled to equal voting rights.

The House’s vote on H.R. 51 is the first time either chamber of Congress has meaningfully addressed DC residents’ longstanding deprivation of these rights. The district’s non-voting delegate to the House of Representatives, Eleanor Holmes Norton, has been pushing for passage of such legislation for decades.

DC residents do not have any voting representation in the US Congress and, though the district is now governed by a representative Council and mayor, its local laws are reviewed by Congress, which retains authority over its budget.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which the US has ratified, provides that citizens have the right to “universal and equal suffrage.” The United Nations Human Rights Committee, the international expert body that interprets the ICCPR, has noted that this means that where people exercise power through representatives, the treaty requires that “those representatives do in fact exercise … power.” The DC Delegate has not had such power. Due to this situation, the Human Rights Committee in 2014 urged the US to “provide for the full voting rights of residents of Washington D.C.”

International human rights law does not specify how voting rights should be realized, but the House bill would satisfy its requirements, granting equal voting representation to DC residents through the election of two senators and a representative.

The persistent denial of equal voting rights in the city also reflects structural racism. Washington, DC has long been majority African American, and is nearly 50 percent Black.

President Donald Trump has indicated that he would veto the bill, though it is expected to stall in the Republican-majority Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has previously said that it would not be brought to the floor for a vote.

The question of DC’s admission as the nation’s 51st state aside, US lawmakers on both sides of the aisle should realize its residents’ voting rights, and finally retire DC’s “Taxation without Representation” license plates.


Chechnya’s Leader Hinders Justice for Domestic Violence Victim

Two weeks ago, Madina Umaeva, 23, died in Russia’s Chechen Republic under suspicious circumstances. She had previously complained to family members about her husband repeatedly beating her. On the day she died, neighbors heard screams from her house and said Madina’s mother-in-law chased away a neighbor who saw Madina lying on the ground in the yard, claiming it was “nothing but theatrics.”

Madina’s in-laws buried her in the middle of the night and insisted she suffered a lethal fall down the stairs during an epileptic seizure, though her mother says she didn’t have epilepsy. Appalled by the overnight burial and the neighbors’ reports of a family row, she and other family members spoke to the media and demanded accountability. Madina’s cousin said the young woman described her husband as becoming “unruly, crazed like an animal” during beatings, and although she attempted to leave him, “She came back every time because of [their three] children.” Chechen traditional laws, often upheld by local authorities even when contravening Russia’s laws and international human rights standards, stipulate that children belong with the father and his family. This often dissuades women from fleeing abusive marriages. 

Public outcry following Madina’s death pushed the local prosecutor’s office to open an inquest. On June 20, authorities exhumed her body. It seemed that justice was on the way, until Chechnya’s governor, Ramzan Kadyrov, intervened.

At a June 23 meeting broadcast on Chechnya’s official television channel, Kadyrov accused Madina’s mother of spreading gossip about her daughter’s death. Although the exhumation findings have not been made public, he said it showed no evidence of a violent death. He expressed his indignation that an exhumation was even done, insisting it ran contrary to Islam and the Chechen authorities’ efforts to ensure that “When Chechens die, there is no autopsy.” Dismissing beatings as something that “can happen” in a marriage, he demanded Madina’s mother prove her daughter was in fact killed and present witnesses. Appearing distressed and frightened, Madina’s mother said on camera, “I apologize for having listened to rumors. I apologize to [you].”

Public humiliation of people who speak out isn’t new in Chechnya, but these circumstances were especially egregious. And they will block badly needed justice for a victim of domestic violence and reinforce a dangerous message that those seeking redress for abuse should stay silent. Russian authorities have an obligation to ensure women are safe from violence, including in their homes.


Giving Gambia a Big Voice on Human Rights

Gambia’s Justice Minister Abubacarr Tambadou speaks on the first day of hearings in a case against Myanmar alleging genocide against the minority Muslim Rohingya population at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands, December 10, 2019, as Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi looks on. 

© UN Photo/ICJ-CIJ/Frank van Beek. Courtesy of the ICJ.

Abubacarr Tambadou, who just stepped down as Gambia’s attorney general, was the right man at the right time for the country’s democratic transition. His tenure helped Gambia confront a legacy of abuse and his departure should not slow that progress.

Tambadou was the architect of Gambia’s far-reaching transitional justice policy, which has featured a dynamic truth commission examining crimes committed under the exiled former dictator Yahya Jammeh, an inquiry to recover Jammeh’s ill-gotten assets, and a draft constitution more protective of human rights. He defended women who came forward to accuse Jammeh of raping them, helped the United States arrest one of Jammeh’s alleged “death squad” soldiers, and made clear that if Jammeh tried to return to Gambia he would be arrested on atrocity charges. In his resignation speech, Tambadou predicted that Jammeh “will be brought to account someday here or abroad.” Under Tambadou’s leadership, Gambia rejoined the International Criminal Court and ratified core human rights treaties.

Human Rights Watch hasn’t always agreed with Tambadou. His decision to free some of Jammeh’s hitmen after their dramatic truth commission testimony implicating themselves and Jammeh in a series of murders, caused pain for family members who had just heard their loved one’s killing described, and made them question whether their killers would ever be brought to justice. But he always listened to Jammeh’s victims, and told them forthrightly why he made his decisions

What made Tambadou truly exceptional, though, was that he stood up for victims of abuse not only in his own country but those thousands of miles away in Myanmar. Last year, Gambia made the bold decision to address the plight of Myanmar’s beleaguered Rohingya minority by bringing Myanmar before the International Court of Justice in the Hague for committing genocide, a decision that grew out of Tambadou’s personal commitment to atrocity victims. The move demonstrated international leadership for the rule of law, and a sense of solidarity, uncommon these days.

Thanks to Tambadou and the work of awakened people across the country, Gambia – the smallest country on the African continent – has emerged from international isolation under Jammeh’s rule to speak with a giant voice in defense of global human rights. 


“Aflamuna” Film Festival Amplifies Queer Voices in Arab Cinema

In most Arabic-speaking countries, state censorship and pervasive social stigma around lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) issues often compel talented queer Arab filmmakers to show their films abroad, and not at home. Additionally, wherever in the world LGBT identities are portrayed in the media, these depictions often risk being one dimensional. Seldom are queer and trans people able to portray their lives and experiences, free of stereotypes.  

But one regional queer film festival is defying these simplistic narratives.

During  Pride Month last year, Cinema Al Fouad, named after the first queer film produced in Lebanon, launched the first ever queer film festival in Beirut. The well attended and groundbreaking festival presented a range of work by queer Arab filmmakers, which challenged normative ideas of gender and sexuality and made queer identities visible throughout the Middle East and North Africa.

Human Rights Watch partnered with Cinema Al Fouad for the festival and at the same time launched our own campaign “Facing the Myths: LGBT Voices in the Middle East and North Africa”.

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, for Pride Month this year Cinema Al Fouad, along with the “Mawjoudin Queer Film Festival” in Tunis, and the gender and sexuality production platform “Jeem,” have curated a free, online-only program called “Love and Identity in Arab Cinema”. It airs on Beirut DC’s streaming platform “Aflamuna” (our films) and features  six films by queer Arab artists which tackle stigma, injustice, exile, representation, migration, heartbreak, and love. Organizers have dedicated the program to Sarah Hegazy, the courageous Egyptian queer activist who died this month, after suffering abuse and torture in Egypt’s prisons.

The films offer a nuanced glimpse into the daily realities of people who reject conformity and protest attempts to silence their voices and artistic expression. In a region where the criminalization of same-sex relations and non-normative gender expression is detrimental to both art and activism, the work of queer artists from Lebanon, Morocco, and Tunisia who challenge the status quo is a defiant response to governments that claim that LGBT identities do not exist and are “imported from the West.”

While we continue to challenge the oppressive systems that render issues around gender and sexuality taboo, “Aflamuna” is providing an accessible, much-needed exposure of truths rarely seen in Arab media, and reminds LGBT people that their stories are not effaced, despite all odds.