Tag Archives: international

Claim against Chiquita for funding Colombian death squads to go to trial in U.S.

After almost a decade of litigation, victims of Colombian paramilitary death squads funded by Chiquita are moving forward in a U.S. lawsuit against the banana giant.

This week, federal judge Kenneth Marra rejected Chiquita’s argument that the case should be heard in Colombia rather than the United States. This ruling could clear the way for the historic case to advance toward trial.

In 2007, EarthRights International and other co-counsel, filed a class action suit against Chiquita Brands International on behalf of the families of thousands of villagers, labor leaders and community organizers murdered by the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, a paramilitary terrorist organization.

The suit alleges that Chiquita made illegal, concealed payments to the AUC for years, totaling at least $1.6 million.

The lawsuit also alleges that the AUC shipped arms and drugs through Chiquita’s ports and on Chiquita boats.

In March 2007, Chiquita pleaded guilty to the federal crime of funding a designated terrorist organization and paid a fine.

“Chiquita profited from its relationship with the AUC and paid the Department of Justice $25 million, but the victims of their conduct have received nothing — it is past time Chiquita compensates the families in Colombia,” said Marco Simons, ERI’s general counsel.

“We are pleased that the court agreed that ‘the United States has a strong interest in monitoring and deterring unethical and illegal conduct of American corporations in supporting foreign terrorist organizations.’ The plaintiffs sued Chiquita here in its home court where Chiquita will get a fair hearing on the merits, something the company seems to have been trying to delay for a decade,” said co-counsel Agnieszka Fryszman of Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll.

Chiquita has pulled out of Colombia and now has no operations or assets there. Still, Chiquita argued that it was more “convenient” to litigate in Colombia than the United States.

The court rejected this claim, finding Colombia to be an inadequate forum in light of serious security risks for plaintiffs and their lawyers.

“Our clients chose to litigate in the United States because it is the only forum where they can litigate safely and where they can be sure that Chiquita will pay,” said Simons.

The plaintiffs also sued several former Chiquita executives who were allegedly responsible for making, approving and concealing the payments to the AUC.

On June 1, Marra ruled the claims against those executives, including claims for torture and extrajudicial killing under the Torture Victim Protection Act, could continue. That case now moves into the discovery phase.

In addition to ERI, the plaintiffs are represented by Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC and Schonbrun DeSimone Seplow Harris & Hoffman LLP and attorneys Judith Brown Chomsky, Arturo Carrillo and John DeLeon.

The case, Doe v. Chiquita Brands International, No. 08-MD-80421, is joined with several lawsuits against Chiquita proceeding before Marra.­

Trump gets rock-bottom ratings in international survey

A new multi-nation survey finds that confidence in Donald Trump’s ability to manage foreign policy should be become U.S. president is rock-bottom in a host of countries in Europe and Asia.

In seven of 15 countries outside of the U.S. polled by Pew Research Center, Trump’s ratings are in the single digits. Large majorities in 11 of the countries have little or no confidence in the prospective Republican presidential nominee ability to manage international affairs. That includes 92 percent of Swedes, 89 percent of Germans and 82 percent of Japanese.

He polls best in China, where there is a split between 40 percent who have no confidence in Trump and 39 percent who do not offer an opinion. Trump, who has advocated trade protectionism and temporarily banning Muslims from entering the United States, records his highest ratings in Europe among supporters of political parties that are anti-immigration or oppose European integration. But even among those poll respondents, his confidence ratings remains below one-third.

The survey, which examines international attitudes toward the U.S., gauged opinions from 20,132 people in Canada, the United States, 10 nations in Europe and four in the Asia-Pacific between April 4 and May 29.

Hillary Clinton fares much better. A median of 59 percent in Europe have confidence in the Democratic contender — compared with just 9 percent for Trump. She also gets positive marks in Canada, Australia and Japan, although views are mixed in China, where 37 percent say they have confidence in Clinton and 35 percent say they do not.

Pew said that in many of the countries where polling trends were available, views of former secretary of state have improved significantly since 2008 when she was running for the Democratic nomination against Barack Obama. She shows double-digit increases in Japan, Britain, Germany and China.

But her ratings today are still lower than Obama’s. In all countries surveyed other than Greece, half or more of those polled express confidence in the U.S. president. That includes more than 80 percent in Sweden, the Netherlands, Germany, France and Australia.

The survey found that the standing of the United States as the world’s leading economic power has recovered since the 2008 global financial crisis. As China’s once-astronomical growth rates have slowed, the percentage of Europeans naming China as the leading economic power have declined.

China’s favorability ratings have also declined since last year in six of the 11 nations where trends are available, Pew said.

The countries surveyed were Canada, the U.S., Sweden, Germany, Netherlands, France, Britain, Spain, Greece, Italy, Poland, Hungary, Australia, Japan, China and India. The margin of error varies among the countries, but ranges between 3.2 and 4.7 percentage points.

World shudders at prospect of Donald Trump in Oval Office

Donald Trump’s breathtaking string of Super Tuesday victories led politicians, editorial writers and ordinary people worldwide to reflect on the growing possibility the brash New York billionaire might become America’s next president — a thought that aroused widespread befuddlement and a good deal of horror.

“The Trump candidacy has opened the door to madness: for the unthinkable to happen, a bad joke to become reality,” German business daily Handelsblatt wrote in a commentary for its Thursday edition. “What looked grotesque must now be discussed seriously.”

There was also glee from some Russian commentators at how American politics is being turned topsy-turvy in 2016. And in Latin America, Ecuador’s president predicted a Trump win could boomerang and become a blessing to the continent’s left.

However, the dominant reaction overseas to the effective collapse of the Republican Party establishment in the face of the Trump Train appeared to be jaw-dropping astonishment, mixed with dread at what may lie ahead.

‘Dumbfounded’ over Donald Trump’s popularity

“The meteoric rise of the New York magnate has left half the planet dumbfounded,” wrote columnist Andrea Rizzi in Spain’s leading newspaper, El Pais.

“To consider Donald Trump a political clown would be a severe misconception,” said another European daily, Salzburger Nachrichten. If Trump is elected to the White House, the Austrian paper predicted, his ideas “would bring major dangers for the USA and the world … basically a nationalist-chauvinist policy that would make America not great but ugly, and risk the stability of the international order.”

Eytan Gilboa, an expert on U.S.-Israeli relations at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, said the best word to describe Israeli feelings about Trump is “confusion.”

There are certain parts of him that Israelis can relate to, such as his aversion to political correctness, his tough stance on Islamic terrorism and his call for a wall with Mexico to provide security, Gilboa said.

But others have been particularly jarring to Israelis, such as comments about Jews that many consider insensitive and his derision of U.S. Sen. John McCain’s captivity in Vietnam.

“This is something that every Israeli would reject. It’s a highly sensitive issue in a country where prisoners of war are heroes and people go out of their way to release them,” he said.

Trump has drawn concern in China, but not a huge amount of attention despite Trump repeatedly invoking the Asian giant during his campaign to cite U.S. weakness that he would turn around, accusing Beijing of manipulating its currency, stealing American jobs and unfair competition.

Chinese may not be taking his comments too seriously because they believe he won’t be elected or that he’d modulate his positions once elected, said Xiong Zhiyong, international relations expert at China Foreign Affairs University.

“If, hypothetically, Trump became the U.S. president and he held on to his stance and proposals made during the election, China-U.S. relations would be in big trouble in many aspects such as security and economics,” he said. “In that case, the U.S. foreign relations policies will undergo a huge change.”

Thuraya Ebrahim al Arrayed, a member of Saudi Arabia’s top advisory body, the Shura Council, said a Trump presidency would be “catastrophic” and set the world back “not just generations, but centuries.”

“We pray to God that a racist, politically incorrect personality does not win the election,” she said. “How can he tell Muslim students going there to study he will shut the door in Muslim faces?”

Writing in the Financial Times of London, Martin Wolf summed up the mood of a good share of Europe’s business and economic elite, arguing that it would be a “global disaster” if Trump, who won seven states in Tuesday’s Republican contests, made it all the way to the Oval Office.

“Mr. Trump is a promoter of paranoid fantasies, a xenophobe and an ignoramus. His business consists of the erection of ugly monuments to his own vanity. He has no experience of political office. Some compare him to Latin American populists. He might also be considered an American Silvio Berlusconi, albeit without the charm or business acumen,” Wolf wrote.

He also said Berlusconi, a former Italian prime minister and media tycoon, “unlike Mr. Trump never threatened to round up and expel millions of people.”

Wolf’s verdict: “Mr. Trump is grossly unqualified for the world’s most important political office.”

A Japanese online commentator used much the same language, and likened the Republican front-runner to the evil nemesis of wizard Harry Potter.

Trump’s unexpected political rise reflects “elitism and opposition to globalization, but at its heart is a xenophobia and populism that comes from ignorance,” said Masato Kimura, former London bureau chief for the conservative newspaper Sankei Shimbun. “Although this is another country’s election, Japan’s allies should raise their voices to help prevent the birth of a ‘Voldemort’ president in the United States.”

In the Mexican newspaper Reforma, columnist Sergio Aguayo compared anti-Mexican sentiments unleashed by Trump to the anti-communist Red Scares of the 20th century, and accused Trump of igniting a “brown panic.”

“We must answer again and again Donald Trump, and make the U.S. government understand that we’re not willing to continue being pointed out as the only ones responsible for problems that are also caused by the United States,” Aguayo wrote.

La Jornada, a leftist Mexican paper, ran a caricature of Trump wearing a “KKK” necktie and declaring, “I will make cremation ovens for the Mexicans and Muslims … and they will pay for their construction!”

In the moderate and predominantly Muslim West African nation of Senegal, Mame Ngor Ngom, editor-in-chief of La Tribune, a weekly newspaper, expressed hope that in the final analysis, Americans will not be “so thoughtless” as to hand Trump their country’s highest office.

“We think that the Americans won’t vote for him. They already paid the consequences with George W. Bush. … Donald Trump will fail,” the Senegalese journalist predicted.

In Russia, some took delight in how messy U.S. politics have become.

The popularity of Trump and Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders, who took four states on Tuesday compared to the seven won by Hillary Clinton, “bears witness to the crisis of trust in such traditional clans” as the Bushes and the Clintons, wrote Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the foreign affairs committee in Russia’s upper house of parliament, in a post on Facebook.

According to Alexander Dugin, a Russian nationalist ideologue with close ties to the Kremlin, Trump “is sometimes disgusting and violent, but he is what he is. It is true America.”

In Europe, where some also feel their nations are being submerged by waves of foreign migrants and violent Islamic radicalism is a real danger, not all have condemned Trump. Jean-Marie Le Pen, founder of France’s far-right National Front, has said that if he were an American, he would cast his ballot for Trump. On Wednesday, Laurent Wauquiez, a French conservative lawmaker, said Trump’s popularity is revealing of a general trend that has traversed the Atlantic.

“What it shows is that in democracies today, citizens no longer want people to tell them what they should think, what they should say. That’s what makes Donald Trump seductive,” Wauquiez told France 2 Television.

In the northern Indian city of Lucknow, one software company executive said he has been impressed by Trump’s muscular rhetoric.

“Trump looks like a tough guy,” said Rohitash Sharma. “He has clarity of idea, and he means business. He has advocated the use of enhanced interrogation techniques, if these improve the protection and safety of the country. He has a clear road map on how to protect his country from extremist forces.”

Though no fan, Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa said a Trump presidential win could be a political gift to Latin America’s left, which is recovering from a string of electoral defeats in Argentina, Bolivia and Venezuela.

“The most convenient for Latin America is a Trump victory, because his rhetoric is so clumsy, so basic, that I think it would awaken reactions in Latin America,” Correa told a group of radio journalists Monday. “I think a guy like him would be very bad for the U.S. (but) for the progressive movement in Latin America, it could be positive.”

For weeks, a Canadian website has poked fun at Trump by inviting disaffected Americans to move to an island off Nova Scotia. On Super Tuesday, as the returns rolled in, searches for “How can I move to Canada” on Google spiked by more than 350 percent in four hours, Google editor Simon Rogers tweeted. A social media link posted by Toronto city councilman Norm Kelly that gives helpful directions on how to apply for Canadian citizenship received over 37,000 retweets.

Bruce Arthur, a Canadian sportswriter and political commentator, tweeted this after Super Tuesday: “To my American friends, I have an eight-person tent that I can set up in the forest behind my house but you may need your own air mattresses.”

World shocked at nation’s enduring racism, gun violence

China wasted little time returning such charges following the shooting at a historic black church in South Carolina that left nine people dead. Elsewhere, the attack renewed perceptions that Americans have too many guns and have yet to overcome racial tensions.

Some said the attack reinforced their reservations about personal security in the U.S. — particularly as a non-white foreigner — while others said they’d still feel safe if they were to visit.

Especially in Australia and northeast Asia, where firearms are strictly controlled and gun violence almost unheard of, many were baffled by the determination among many Americans to own guns despite repeated mass shootings, such as the 2012 tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, where a gunman killed 20 children and six adults.

“We don’t understand America’s need for guns,” said Philip Alpers, director of the University of Sydney’s GunPolicy.org project that compares gun laws across the world. “It is very puzzling for non-Americans.”

A frontier nation like the U.S., Australia had a similar attitude toward firearms prior to a 1996 mass shooting that killed 35. Soon after, tight restrictions on gun ownership were imposed and no such incidents have been reported since.

Ahmad Syafi’i Maarif, a prominent Indonesian intellectual and former leader of Muhammadiyah, one of the country’s largest Muslim organizations, said the tragedy shocked many.

“People all over the world believed that racism had gone from the U.S. when Barack Obama was elected to lead the superpower, twice,” he said. “But the Charleston shooting has reminded us that in fact, the seeds of racism still remain and were embedded in the hearts of small communities there, and can explode at any time, like a terrorist act by an individual.”

A 21-year-old white man, Dylann Storm Roof, is accused of fatally shooting nine people at a Bible study at the historically black Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. An acquaintance said Roof had complained that “blacks were taking over the world.”

Racially charged shootings in the U.S. have received widespread global attention.

Prominent Malaysian social commentator Marina Mahathir said many in her country find it puzzling why the U.S. government won’t restrict gun ownership laws. The Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects the right to keep and bear arms.

“We are mystified by the freedom of guns there. It’s a bizarre idea that everyone should have their right to arms,” said Marina, the daughter of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.

In Britain, the attack reinforced the view that America has too many guns and too many racists. The front-page headline of The Independent newspaper said simply, “America’s shame.”

The newspaper said in an editorial that America seems to have moved backward in racial relations since Obama’s election, and that the “obscene proliferation of guns only magnifies tragedies” like the church shooting.

The leftist Mexico City newspaper La Jornada said the U.S. has become a “structurally violent state” where force is frequently used domestically and internationally to resolve differences.

“In this context, the unchecked and even paranoid citizen armament is no coincidence: Such a phenomenon reflects the feeling of extensive sectors about the supposed legitimacy of violent methods,” it said.

In China, the official Xinhua News Agency said the violence in South Carolina “mirrors the U.S. government’s inaction on rampant gun violence as well as the growing racial hatred in the country.”

“Unless U.S. President Barack Obama’s government really reflects on his country’s deep-rooted issues like racial discrimination and social inequality and takes concrete actions on gun control, such tragedy will hardly be prevented from happening again,” Xinhua said in an editorial.

On China’s Twitter-like Weibo microblogging service, some users compared the United States to lawless Somalia and said racial discrimination was fueling violence and high crime rates. Many reflected the official view that gun ownership and violent crime are byproducts of Western-style democratic freedoms that are not only unsuited to China but potentially disastrous.

Recalling the recent killings of Chinese and other foreign students in the U.S., office worker Xie Yan said he was still eager to visit the U.S., but would be “extremely careful” there.

Xie said he had heard much about racism in the U.S., but was uncertain about the underlying dynamics.

“We tend to see the U.S. as a violent place, but I don’t think we understand a lot about racism there. Chinese are free to study, visit and live there so it doesn’t feel like we’re discriminated against,” Xu said while waiting for a train on Beijing’s busy subway line 1.

Like Australia, China has had its problems with racial and ethnic discrimination. China is overwhelmingly dominated by one ethnic group, the Han, and activists decry the lack of awareness about discrimination in jobs and housing faced by minorities such as Tibetans and Turkic Muslim Uighurs from the northwest.

Chinese police have been accused of heavy-handed tactics against those labeled separatists or terrorists, although such measures appear to be supported by most Chinese.

In Japan, discrimination tends to be based less on skin color than on national origin, resulting in biases against Chinese and Koreans, said Hiroko Takimoto, 41, a patent attorney in Tokyo.

Racially motivated killings are “simply something Japanese as a people cannot understand,” she said.

Yukari Kato, vice president of the company Ryugaku Journal that assists Japanese students on overseas programs, including about 2,000 in the U.S., said violence there was nothing new and most of the country remained perfectly safe.

“It’s no different from Japan. There are places where you can become a victim of crime. You just have to be prepared to defend yourself,” she said.

However, Yuka Christine Koshino, 21, a political science student at Tokyo’s Keio University, said she was devastated by the shootings, particularly after having participated in racism awareness campaigns while studying at the University of California, Berkeley. Those interactions had given her hope that the situation was improving. The shootings “shocked me,” said Koshino.

Chairman of the Philippine Alliance of Human Rights Advocates Max de Mesa shared the sentiment of civil rights activists in South Carolina who pointed out that the Confederate battle flag, the symbol of the pro-slavery South during the Civil War, continued to fly over the state even as it mourned for the nine people killed.

“Some of the (old) structures and some of the attitudes remain and they were even nurtured, at least that is being shown now,” de Mesa said.

“That would be no different from a suicide bomber,” he said. “For a jihadist, `I will be with Allah if I do that.’ The other says, `I am proving white supremacy here.'”

Indonesian intellectual Syafi’i Maarif said he hoped the incident would help Americans stop equating terrorism with Islam.

“Terrorism and radicalism can appear in every strata of society under various guises and in the name of ethnicity, religion and race,” he said.

House votes to repeal country-of-origin labeling on meat

Beef, if it is what’s for dinner, do you want to know where it comes from?

The U.S. House of Representatives has voted to to repeal a law requiring country-of-origin labels on packages of beef, pork and poultry.

The World Trade Organization rejected a U.S. appeal last month, ruling the labels that say where animals were born, raised and slaughtered are discriminatory against the two U.S. border countries. Both have said they plan to ask the WTO for permission to impose billions of dollars in tariffs on American goods.

The House voted 300-131 to repeal labels that tell consumers what countries the meat is from — for example, “born in Canada, raised and slaughtered in the United States” or “born, raised and slaughtered in the United States.”

The WTO ruled against the labels last year. The Obama administration has already revised the labels once to try to comply with previous WTO rulings. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has said it’s up to Congress to change the law to avoid retaliation from the two countries.

The law was initially written at the behest of northern U.S. ranchers who compete with the Canadian cattle industry. It also was backed by consumer advocates who say it helps shoppers know where their food comes from. Supporters have called on the U.S. government to negotiate with Canada and Mexico to find labels acceptable to all countries.

Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, said repeal would be premature, adding, “Our people deserve a right to know where their food is produced and where it comes from.”

Meat processors who buy animals from abroad as well as many others in the U.S. meat industry have called for a repeal of the law they have fought for years, including unsuccessfully in federal court. They say it’s burdensome and costly for producers and retailers.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, has long backed the meat industry’s call for repeal.

“Although some consumers desire (country-of-origin labeling) information, there is no evidence to conclude that this mandatory labeling translates into market-measurable increases in consumer demand for beef, pork or chicken,” Conaway said on the House floor.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said after the vote that the last thing American farmers need “is for Congress to sit idly by as international bureaucrats seek to punish them through retaliatory trade policies that could devastate agriculture as well as other industries.”

The bill would go beyond just the muscle cuts of red meat that were covered under the WTO case, repealing country-of-origin labeling for poultry, ground beef and ground pork. The chicken industry has said the labeling doesn’t make much sense for poultry farmers because the majority of chicken consumed in the United States is hatched, raised and processed domestically.

The legislation would leave in place country-of-origin labeling requirements for several other commodities, including lamb, venison, seafood, fruits and vegetables and some nuts.

Canada and Mexico have opposed the labeling because it causes their animals to be segregated from those of U.S. origin _ a costly process that has led some U.S. companies to stop buying exports.

The two countries have said that if they are allowed by the WTO, they may impose retaliatory measures such as tariffs against a variety of U.S. imports. Their list includes food items like beef, pork, cheese, corn, cherries, maple syrup, chocolate and pasta, plus non-agricultural goods such as mattresses, wooden furniture and jewelry. The retaliatory measures could total more than $3 billion, the countries said.

Congress required the labels in 2002 and 2008 farm laws. The original labels created by USDA were less specific, saying a product was a “product of U.S.” or “product of U.S. and Canada.” The WTO rejected those labels in 2012, and USDA tried again with the more detailed labels a year later. The WTO rejected those revised rules last year, and the United States filed one last appeal, rejected in May by the WTO.

On the Senate side, Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., has said he will move quickly to respond to the WTO ruling, though he has yet to introduce a bill.

After the House vote, Roberts said repeal “remains the surest way to protect the American economy” from retaliatory tariffs.

U.S. names 1st envoy for LGBT rights

The United States named its first international envoy for gay rights this week, tasking a veteran diplomat with leading U.S. efforts to fight violence and discrimination against LGBT individuals overseas.

Randy Berry, currently the consul general in the Netherlands, will promote human rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals, Secretary of State John Kerry said. A longtime foreign service officer, Berry has served at U.S. posts in Bangladesh, Egypt, Uganda and South Africa, and speaks Spanish and Arabic.

“Defending and promoting the human rights of LGBT persons is at the core of our commitment to advancing human rights globally – the heart and conscience of our diplomacy,” Kerry said in a statement. He cited overturning laws that still criminalize same-sex activity in more than 75 countries as a specific priority.

The State Department has said it planned to appoint an openly gay diplomat to the post.

Long in the works, Berry’s appointment as a special envoy is the latest move by the Obama administration to make LGBT rights a prominent part of its human rights efforts around the world. In 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton declared during a speech in Geneva that “gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights.” And earlier this year, the White House for the first time included human rights protection for LGBT people in its formal national security strategy.

“Nations that place LGBT people in the cross hairs of danger must know that the United States will not turn a blind eye,” said Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights group.

Record number of UN countries call for moratorium on executions

A record number of countries this week backed a key United Nations General Assembly resolution calling for a moratorium on executions with a view to abolishing the death penalty globally.

Amnesty International said 117 of the UN’s 193 member states voted in favor of the resolution at the UNGA plenary session in New York, while 38 voted against and 34 abstained. This was the fifth time a resolution on the issue was voted on by the UNGA. At the last vote in December 2012, 111 states voted in favor, 41 against and 34 abstained. 

“The record vote in favor is yet another indication that global support for the death penalty is becoming a thing of the past. This vote sends an important signal that more and more countries are willing to take steps to end the use of the death penalty once and for all,” said Chiara Sangiorgio, death penalty expert at Amnesty International. 

“The strong cross-regional support evident in today’s vote shows that ending the use of capital punishment is a truly global goal issue. The international community recognizes the death penalty as a human rights issue, and has opened up space for new dialogues on the abolition of the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment.” 

Since 2007 there have been five resolutions calling for a worldwide moratorium on the death penalty at the UNGA, with support increasing each time. Six more countries supported this week’s resolution compared to last time a similar vote took place in 2012. 

New votes in favor came from Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Fiji, Niger and Suriname. Also, Bahrain, Myanmar, Tonga and Uganda moved from opposition to abstention. Papua New Guinea went from abstention to a vote against the resolution. 

Although UNGA resolutions are not legally binding, they carry significant moral and political weight. 

“This result is also a wake-up call for those 38 countries that still voted against the resolution. They are increasingly isolated in their support for this horrendous punishment.  The death penalty does not serve any legitimate purpose and is a stain on their human rights records,” said Chiara Sangiorgio. 

Amnesty International, in a news release this week, urged all countries that still retain the death penalty — the United States is one — to immediately establish a moratorium on executions, commute all death sentences and abolish the death penalty for all crimes. 

Some background 

When the UN was founded in 1945 only eight of the then 51 UN member states had abolished the death penalty. Today, 95 of the UN’s 193 member states have abolished the death penalty for all crimes, and, in total, 137 have abolished the death penalty in law or practice. 

The UNGA resolution was first adopted as a draft by the Third Committee of the UNGA on Nov. 21 November, with 114 votes in favor, 36 against and 34 abstentions. The adoption of five resolutions since 2007 on a moratorium on the use of the death penalty has generated momentum to renew the commitment to the abolition of the death penalty. 

Amnesty International opposes the death penalty in all cases without exception, regardless of the nature or circumstances of the crime; guilt, innocence or other characteristics of the individual; or the method used by the state to carry out the execution.

World on track to close gender gap — in 81 years

The world has seen only a small improvement in equality for women in the workplace in nine years of measuring the global gender gap. And, with all else remaining equal, it will take 81 years for the world to close the equality gap, according to a report by the World Economic Forum.

“Much of the progress on gender equality over the last 10 years has come from more women entering politics and the workforce,” said Saadia Zahidi, head of the gender parity program at the Geneva-based nonprofit and the lead author of the report. “While more women and more men have joined the workforce over the last decade, more women than men entered the labor force in 49 countries.”

The WEF has been measuring the gaps between men and women worldwide since 2006, and the ninth edition of their Global Gender Gap Report was released in late October, measuring 142 countries. The report measures gender equity in four areas: economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, political empowerment, and health and survival.

That last category features the narrowest gap, 96 percent, meaning women live 4 percent fewer healthy years than men worldwide. That gap has been closed entirely by 35 countries, three of which did so within the past 12 months.

The next narrowest is the educational attainment gap,  measuring literacy and educational enrollment rates worldwide. Women have 94 percent of the academic opportunities afforded men, with 25 countries having closed the gap entirely. 

No country has closed the gender gap in economic participation or political empowerment, and both gaps remain wide. Economic participation narrowed by four percentage points to 60 percent worldwide, meaning women get six-tenths of the income and labor force opportunities of men.

By far the largest gap is political. Women have 21 percent of the representation men have in legistlative and executive positions. Only two countries, Iceland and Finland, are even above 60 percent.

Zahidi said, “In the case of politics, globally, there are now 26 percent more female parliamentarians and 50 percent more female ministers than nine years ago. These are far-reaching changes. … However, it is clear that much work still remains to be done, and that the pace of change must in some areas be accelerated.”

With no one country having closed its overall gender gap, Nordic nations remain the most gender-equal societies in the world, according to the survey. Last year’s leading nations — Iceland (1), Finland (2), Norway (3) and Sweden (4) — are joined this year by Denmark (5).

Nicaragua climbs four places to 6 and Rwanda enters the index at 7, Ireland falls to 8, the Philippines declines four places to  9 and Belgium climbs one place to 10.

The United States climbs three places to 20, after narrowing its wage gap and improving the number of women in governmental positions.

Region to region

Countries from Europe and Central Asia occupy 12 of the top 20 positions in the index. Of that region’s major economies, Germany climbs two places to No. 12, France leaps from 45 to 16, while the UK falls to 26 from 18.

France’s gain is mostly due to increases in the number of women in politics and narrowing wage gaps.

The UK’s lower position can be mainly attributed to changes in income estimates.

In Asia and the Pacific, the Philippines remains the region’s highest-ranked country, followed by New Zealand and Australia. 

Japan moves one place to 104. China falls 18 places to No. 87 — largely due to its uneven sex ratio at birth, an indicator of male preference. And India slumps to No. 114, one of the few countries where female labor force participation is shrinking.

Ranked at 6, Nicaragua reinforces its position as the gender parity leader for Latin America and the Caribbean. This is due to strong performance in eliminatingw health, education and political gaps.

Among the larger economies, Brazil declines to 71 in spite of having closed both its educational attainment and health and survival gender gaps.

Mexico’s drop to 80 is a result of reduced female representation in politics, but is partially offset by improvements in labor force participation and income gaps.

In the Middle East and North Africa, Kuwait, at 113, is the highest-ranked country. The United Arab Emirates falls to 115 but shows major improvement on economic and political participation and remains the second highest-ranked country in the region. The region is also home to the lowest-ranked country in the index, Yemen, which, at 142, has remained at the bottom of the index in every single year.

Sub-Saharan Africa, meanwhile, boasts three countries in the top 20 of the index. The highest, Rwanda, scores well in economic and political participation and is the top developing country in the index. Next is Burundi, which climbs five places to 17, followed by South Africa. Nigeria, the region’s largest economy, falls 12 places to 118.

Nine years of data

Progress has not been even. Although many countries have reached parity in educational attainment and health and survival, the trend is actually reversing in some parts of the world. Nearly 30 percent of the countries have wider education gaps than they did nine years ago, and over 40 percent have wider health and survival gaps than they did nine years ago.

Also, of the 111 countries continuously covered in the report, 105 have narrowed their gender gaps, but another six — Sri Lanka, Mali, Croatia, Macedonia, Jordan and Tunisia — have seen prospects for women deteriorate. 

In the Americas, no country has widening gender gaps.

“Achieving gender equality is obviously necessary for economic reasons,” said Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the forum. “But even more important, gender equality is a matter of justice. As a humanity, we also have the obligation to ensure a balanced set of values.”

On the Web

For more information, visit the World Economic Forum’s website, weforum.org.

Meet the 10 semifinalists for World’s Funniest Person

The 10 semifinalists in the World’s Funniest Person competition are:

– Mustapha El Atrassi, France. Born in France to a Moroccan family, El Atrassi began doing stand-up as a teenager. He appeared in a one-man show in Paris at age 16 and two years later had his own sitcom in Morocco. Since 2008, he’s hosted a morning radio show in France.

– Ishmo Leikola, Finland. He does stand-up in both English and Finnish, appearing at clubs throughout Europe. He won his country’s stand-up rookie of the year award in 2003 and has been honored five times as the favorite performer at Tomatoes! Tomatoes!, the Nordic countries’ largest comedy festival.

– Vittorrio Leonardi, South Africa. Leonardi has appeared in comedy clubs throughout South Africa, given talks on comedy to Mensa members and taught comedy at St. Mary’s Diocesan School for Girls in Pretoria. He’s also the resident emcee at several South African comedy clubs.

– Saad Haroon, Pakistan. A founding member of the Pakistani improv group Blackfish and other comedy troupes, Saad also created the English-language Pakistani show “The Real News,” a mix of political and social satire. He’s performed on comedy tours in several countries, including the United States.

– Nitin Mirani, United Arab Emirates. Mirani bills himself as “Dubai’s much-loved comedic genius.” He has performed his Komic Sutra comedy show in India, the United States, Britain, Hong Kong, Singapore, the Maldives and several Middle Eastern countries. The publication DNA India called his show, “A laugh riot!”

– Archie Bezos, Spain. Bezos has been described as a Spanish pioneer among openly gay comedians. He made his TV debut in 2012 with an appearance on a Comedy Central show featuring upcoming comedians. The following year he won the top award at Madrid’s FIC comedy festival and recently toured Spain with his “Gay’s Anatomy” comedy show.

– Vivek Mahbubani, an ethnic Indian comic representing his native China. Mahbubani, who performs in English and Cantonese, was honored as Hong Kong’s funniest Chinese comedian in 2007 and its funniest English-language comedian in 2008.

– Tiffany Haddish, USA. Raised in foster homes in Los Angeles, Haddish says her social worker steered her toward a comedy camp for children after hearing her stories about her imaginary friends. She’s appeared on “Def Comedy Jam,” Comedy Central’s “Reality Bites” and recently took part in a USO Comedy Tour in Japan.

– Waddah Swar, Saudi Arabia. Originally from Bahrain, Swar has been described by Rolling Stone magazine as one of the pioneers of Middle Eastern comedy. He won the “Funniest in the Arab World” competition at the Kit Kat Comedy Break Show in Dubai in 2013.

– Lioz Shem Tov, Israel. A visual comedian, Tov frequently uses a range of props to work comically bad magic tricks into his act, which he can perform in either Hebrew or English. He made it to the semifinal round of the NBC series “Last Comic Standing” in 2008.

UN document promotes equality for women. Took heated debate to get there

After two weeks of heated debate, liberal and conservative countries over the weekend approved a U.N. document to promote equality for women that reaffirms the sexual and reproductive rights of all women and endorses sex education for adolescents.

The 24-page final declaration approved by consensus on March 22 by the 45-member Commission on the Status of Women expresses deep concern that overall progress toward the U.N. goal of gender equality and empowerment of women remains “slow and uneven”

The commission said “the feminization of poverty persists” and reaffirmed that equality for women is essential for sustained economic development.

It called for equality, empowerment and human rights for women to be a major plank in new U.N. development goals expected to be adopted next year.

For more progressive countries, there was relief that there was no back-pedaling on international recognition of women’s reproductive and sexual rights and access to health services in the final document.

It calls for “universally accessible and available quality comprehensive sexual and reproductive health care services, information and education.”

This should include “safe and effective methods of modern contraception, emergency contraception, prevention programs for adolescent pregnancy … (and) safe abortion where such services are permitted by national law,” the document says.

Egyptian minister and women’s rights activist Mervat Tallawy, who led the country’s delegation, said the final document reaffirmed all the gains women made at the 1994 U.N. population conference in Cairo and the 1995 U.N. women’s conference in Beijing.

“We will never give in to the prevailing web of conservatism against women in all regions of the world,” Tallawy said to thunderous applause. “We shall not allow fundamentalists and extreme groups to disarm women from their rights.”

“I am speaking for all the women of the world. We will continue to struggle for our rights,” Tallawy concluded to sustained applause that was finally cut off by the chair.

Delegates said the final vote was delayed because Russia at the last minute tried to insert a reference to sovereignty. It did not succeed.

Conservative countries did succeed in blocking any reference to different forms of the family, or to problems that women face because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The document recognizes the family as a contributor to the development of girls and women.

U.S. representative Terri Robl welcomed the final conclusions and the commission’s “commitment to fighting discrimination and prejudice, which for too long has denied many women and girls the ability to contribute to economic growth and development.”

But she expressed regret that the commission “did not explicitly acknowledge the vulnerabilities confronting women and adolescents as a result of their sexual orientation or gender identity.”

On the sensitive issue of sex education, the document calls for the development and implementation of educational programs for human sexuality, “based on full and accurate information, for all adolescents and youth … with the appropriate direction and guidance from parents and legal guardians.”

Among those expressing reservations about sex education after the document was approved were Qatar, Malta, the Holy See and Pakistan.

The commission also called for an end to early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation. Qatar asked for a definition of “early.”

Shannon Kowalski, director of advocacy and policy at the International Women’s Health Coalition, said: “The commission recognized that sustainable and meaningful development must address the root causes of gender inequality, which deny women and girls an education, the right to make decisions about their bodies and childbearing, to decent employment and equal pay, and to live free of violence.”

“We have achieved what we came to do against great odds and the determined attempts by the Holy See and a few conservative countries to once again turn back the clock on women’s rights,” Kowalski said.