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This is an expanded and hyperlinked version of an article I contributed to Bolivia Information Forum’s News Briefing service. Please support BIF’s appeal for funds to continue its valuable work.

Bolivia’s record on human rights came up for review by the United Nations’ Human Rights Committee* during its October session. As a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Bolivia submits a report on its performance every five years. The Committee looked at that report and submissions from numerous human rights organizations in drafting a series of recommendations (Concluding Observations [es] | all documents from the process). In the UN committee’s view, the state of political freedom and social equality in the country is an uneasy balance between ambitious new legislative protections and inadequate practical implementation of national and international norms.

The Bolivian government has passed new laws to guarantee rights and combat discrimination, including norms against racism and other forms of discrimination (2010), violence against women (2013), and gendered political harassment (2012). While some regional commissions on racism are operating, the regulations to protect women from violence are still pending. A law on consultation with indigenous communities is also pending. The Committee criticized Bolivia for failing to respect the right to free, prior, and informed consent on projects and laws that affect indigenous peoples and their territories.

The Committee’s strongest criticisms refer to Bolivia’s overwhelmed criminal justice system. Investigations and prosecutions are slow, while prisons are overcrowded to 230% of their capacity. Four out of five people in Bolivia’s jails are awaiting trial, and the Committee suggested that alternatives like house arrest and location monitors could see many of them released. It said that those who remain should have the right to be housed separately from convicted criminals. A government amnesty plan is underway, but progress remains slow. Delays in prosecution are also creating a situation of impunity for those responsible for racist attacks perpetrated in 2008, the murder of two women council members in 2012, and police repression at Chaparina and Mallku Khota, among others. The Committee also urged further action to combat lynchings, as well as corporal punishment carried out in the family and traditional spheres of the justice system.

The Bolivian armed forces and police were singled out in a number of observations.  A series of revelations of brutal treatment of conscripts and of beatings of prisoners have generated controversy, but there have been few successful prosecutions.  The Committee also urged opening military records from the dictatorship era (between the mid 1960s and early 1980s), and the creation of an alternative to military service for conscientious objectors.

Finally, the UN Committee urged expanded protection of rights on several fronts.  It argues that the current obligation for women seeking a legal abortion (in cases of rape, incest, and medical necessity) to get a judge’s backing contributes to maternal mortality and should be eliminated. It also urged new action to free hundreds of Guaraní families still trapped in servitude, and to criminalize violence against sexual minorities and transgender people.

* This Human Rights Committee is a body established by article 28 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Marriage is a political binding spell. It obliges the state to not ask you to testify against one another, the boss who doesn’t respect your love to provide health care for your partner, the florist and the venue owner to treat you equally, the immigration inspector to see you as family. No love should be denied these powers.

And,

These protections should be spread far more widely. Collectivities of dissent should be spared grand juries. Health care should be for all, gay or straight; married or single; salaried, waged, or unemployed. Love in all its forms should be regarded as a blessing, celebrated by neighbors and friends, and honored by strangers. People should find their homes regardless of borders.

This week’s demands on marriage equality are just small asks compared to these. But they’re so easy to say yes to.

xo

I don’t usually repost my comments in the world of social media, but since a couple people asked… I live between a circle that has come to celebrate LGBT equality, with this week’s cases as a big symbol, and a circle where the priority of marriage for LGBT movements has long been rightly questioned. I hope this very short piece challenges people in the first circle to expand their demands and visions, and those in the second circle to embrace the limited but daring requests being put forward this week.

p.s. See also: Caitlin Breedlove, Thoughts on the Supreme Court & Gay Marriage: “I believe the way forward is not the same old fight of picking sides. The question, instead, becomes: how do we move from the push for a US-based civil right for some, to the struggle for liberation for all?” Shay O’Reilly, LGBT Activists Look Beyond Marriage To A Bigger Gay Agenda. Laura Flanders, Take the Oath: A Critic of Marriage Gets Teary: “…if we care so much about loving and honoring and comforting and cherishing someone else, what if, as a society, we took that oath to one another?”

In a very busy Wednesday, Bolivia’s Plurinational Constitutional Tribunal struck down a longstanding law criminalizing “contempt” toward public officials and limited the scope of an anti-corruption law; rounding out the court’s surge into the headlines, justice Gualberto Cusi made biting comments on the government’s failure to abide by the court’s ruling on the TIPNIS consultation.

Contempt law ruled unconstitutional: The Tribunal found, in Judicial Ruling 1250/2012, that the law prohibiting contempt (“desacato” ) towards senior public officials through defamation is an unconstitutional violation of the freedom of expression. The court advised public officials that they may use civil court procedures to deal with slander, and nullified the law in its entirety. Numerous opposition figures, including the center-left Mayor of La Paz, Luis (Lucho) Revilla, and the right-wing Governor of Santa Cruz, Ruben Costas, have been indicted under this very broad statute following complaints from the governing Movement Towards Socialism party.

The “Marcelo Andrés Santa Cruz” Anti-corruption Law cannot be applied retroactively: In the first legislative session under the new Constitution, the Movement Towards Socialism supermajority wasted no time in approving a new law criminalizing corruption. The law allows for severe penalties against officials who took bribes or other compensation to change policies. It was designed to give the government room to revise contracts and licenses approved under improper influence, and to recover fortunes which had been pilfered from the government. However, it was also referred to as the “Guillotine Law” (including by the Vice President) for its ability to end the political careers of past government officials. On Wednesday, the court sharply limited this aspect, finding that the law may not be applied retroactively “when the sanction [it imposes] is more severe or the act being judged would not have constituted a crime when it was carried out.”

Gualberto Cusi speaks out on TIPNIS: The Constitutional Tribunal had already ruled on the TIPNIS consultation, insisting that any process establishing the will of the communities in the Isiboro-Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory about the proposed Villa Tunari–San Ignacio de Moxos highway, which would cut through the region and accelerate already serious deforestation, must occur in a mutually agreed framework. Justice Gualberto Cusi—the judge who received the most votes in last year’s judicial election—denounced the current consultation process as a “disaster” that violates the indigenous inhabitants’ rights. Further, the justice suggested that the TIPNIS indigenous may need to look outside Bolivia for protection of their rights: “I believe that in Bolivia, no[, nothing can be done.] It will have to be the indigenous who appeal these acts to international tribunals. Yo creo que en Bolivia no (se puede hacer algo), tendrán que ser los indígenas quienes apelen a estos hechos en tribunales internacionales.” The most likely forum for international appeals is the Inter-American Court on Human Rights, which has been a pathbreaking forum for indigenous rights.

None of these rulings would be particularly exceptional for a high court around the world, but this particular high court is in its first year, and came out of a controversial nominating and election process which was boycotted by multiple opposition forces. For it to strike down major laws embraced by the governing party and publicly embrace human rights standards around freedom of expression, indigenous consultation, and ex post facto laws makes this something* of a Marbury v. Madison moment for the new court.

* The analogy is inexact since a Constitutional Tribunal began operation in 1999.

The Bolivian government will be seeking to hold the political leadership of Sucre’s Inter-Institutional Committee responsible for the their role in coordinating the horrifying events of May 24, 2008. On Saturday, the Prosecutor’s Office issued its long anticipated indictments on the day of racist violence, street clashes, and public humiliation. Its conclusions were backed up by reports from the Defensoría del Pueblo and the Legislature’s Human Rights Commission. The allegations, which will serve as the basis for prosecutions of many members of Sucre’s right-wing political elite, ratify the assessment of responsibility put forward by Cesar Brie’s June 2008 documentary Humiliados y Ofendidos. [Background on this blog about that day and its aftermath: 1 | 2 | 3 ].

Peasants forced to kneel in Sucre

Captured peasants are forced to kneel by civic protesters in Sucre's central square. They were required to strip to the waist, hold the Chuquisaca flag, watch as the indigenous wiphala was burned, and shout political slogans as press cameras filmed.

The accused include:

  • Savina Cuéllar, Prefect of Chuquisaca from June 2008 to May 2010
  • Jaime Barrón Poveda, former rector of the Universidad San Francisco Xavier, and Mayor Elect of Sucre
  • Aydée Nava, former Mayor of Sucre.
  • Fidel Herrera, former council member of Sucre.
  • John Cava, expresident of the Comité Cívico and recent unsuccessful candidate for governor of Chuquisaca.
  • Epifania Terrazas, member of the the Constituent Assembly

The formal accusation will suspend Barrón from taking office as Mayor.

The MAS/State newspaper Cambio editorialized about the case on Monday under the headline “Racism out of time“:

The indignation of people who have arrived in the 21st century with the mentality of this new century will not accept racist acts like those that took place in the capital of the Plurinational State. … We are sure that the Prosecutor’s Office will fulfill its duty to put Bolivia back in tune with the times.

Cambio also noted the prominence of indigenous individuals among the actors on May 24:

Racism has been and is one of the practices upon which colonialism bases its power. Many times, like in Sucre in 2008, violent actions taken against the racil condition of its victims are carried out by those who share the victim’s blood, an old practice well known among the sepoys of English colonialism in India, the caporales, blacks who managed black slaves, and the so-called kapos, Jews who managed the Jews who would be killed in Hitler’s death camps. [...]

What leads these people to act against their own origins? Perhaps, like the sepoys, caporales and kapos, to enjoy a rise in social and economic status, to be Mayor or Prefect, must imply a new social relationship with the representatives of the old regime that still has so much power in colonial cities like Sucre.

The enormously long lapse of time between the events and the beginning of prosecution is not atypical of the Bolivian justice system, especially in political cases. The trial of Leopoldo Fernández, former Prefect of Beni, for the Pando Massacre has yet to begin, and he is jailed awaiting trial (none of the Sucre defendants are currently jailed).  Women jailed at Cochabamba’s San Sebastián began a hunger strike picket against judicial delays on Saturday, according to a report in Tuesday’s La Prensa.

Full story available in Spanish from Los Tiempos.

Once again the U.S.’s now right-shifted Supreme Court has reaffirmed the concept that limiting spending on political ads is limiting speech. They threw out campaign finance regulations that restricted corporations from funding issue-based ads that are parallel equivalents to giving money to candidates. As John Bonifaz of Voter Action puts it:

The court continues to equate money with speech in the political process. But beyond that, it gives First Amendment rights to corporations. And these artificial entities don’t have the same, obviously, qualities as you and I do as breathing human beings, and they should not be given those kind of First Amendment protections.

The fact is, is that we need to protect the electoral process and to protect our democracy. And we should not have big money corporate interests drown out the voices of ordinary citizens. The court does not weigh in any way whatsoever the First Amendment rights and the equal protection rights of voters, of people who do not have access to wealth, but yet under our Constitution and our promise of democracy have an equal right to participate. And that continues to be a problem with the court’s jurisprudence in this area.

In a way the ruling is no surprise, as the legal equation of money with speech is long standing in the U.S., and corporations have maintained the status of “people” with legal rights (except the right to die after a reasonable period, it would seem) since the 1880s. More importantly, the U.S. view of what exactly is free speech is stuck in the eighteenth century. That’s how you have the traditionally liberal ACLU supporting this strange entitlement for corporations. (See also Kaja Tretjak’s “Why U.S. Liberalism Must Change or Die“)

What do I mean by stuck in the eighteenth century. Take this snippet of the ruling:

The First Amendment requires us to err on the side of protecting political speech, rather than suppressing it. Where the First Amendment is implicated, the tie goes to the speaker, not the censor.

Now it’s easy enough to argue about whether buying television and radio ads is political speech, especially when it’s a kind of speech that 98% of us could never have, or whether protecting a kind of speech where a few people are massively louder than everyone else makes sense at all.

But I’m writing this from Mexico City, and that offers a bit of perspective. One of the prime issues in last year’s disputed presidential election is the intervention of private corporations into the election at all. And, they intervened quite massively by using fear-stoking political ads insisting the left-leaning PRD candidate, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador was a “danger to Mexico” and threatening massive economic collapse should he win. An entire block of Reforma Avenue, a central thruway in the City which is now lined with a massive outdoor exhibition charging the winner with fraud, is devoted to this corporate intervention. Now in Mexico, corporate funding of candidates is just plain illegal, while in the U.S. it’s an industry (for all you ever wanted to know about that industry, ask the Center for Responsive Politics). Free speech is a shared concept in both countries, but it means something different.

Encoding the right of free speech and a free press, our First Amendment is a bit vague: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press;”. That “make no law” clause meant that violations of free speech weren’t even subject to lawsuits until after the Supreme Court took the 14th Amendment (1866) to mean that rights were defensible. And it took decades of defiance of baton-wielding cops to guarantee regular practice of free assembly, something not really achieved until the unionization push of the 1930s. For the press, though, the no-interference nature of the 1st Amendment boils down to what A.J. Liebling said: “Freedom of the press belongs to those who own one.” So Eighteenth Century.

What do I mean by Valley Girl-style dissing the Constitution? I mean, get with the program. This press freedom for those who own one thing isn’t convincing anyone, in the same way that giving property owners only the vote is passe. And like a lot of things, if you zoom out from the U.S., you see a lot of people have different ideas. The biggest change is to think of rights as belonging to people (all of them, right) instead of restricting the government. So you have South Africa’s constitution:”Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, which includes ­1. freedom of the press and other media; 2. freedom to receive or impart information or ideas; 3. freedom of artistic creativity;” or even clearer the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

Whoa, “any media” for everyone. That’s going to take some work. Yeah, it’s time to move from our limited idea of freedom (the government leaves you the heck alone) to something which takes work, but is worth fighting for. Building our own media is as much a part of the free speech struggle as is suing for it. That takes all kinds of forms: When the Solidarity movement in Poland (look ‘em up, ’cause they were once so rad) demanded a free right to publish, it’s demand was backed up by printing press workers taking over their shops to print & by the free use of pasted poster & graffiti if they weren’t going to be allowed on air. The May 1970 student takeover of Berkeley and the May 1968 revolt in France essentially turned universities into giant publication factories (all those xerox machines and paper), with Berkeley having public competitions among art students to design the best posters and students running from Berkeley and downtown Paris to outside and inside factories organizing blue collar folks to join them. Oaxacan women nonviolently invaded a TV station last summer when they were tired of being ignored, and when a long while later riot police chased them out, activists took over at least ten more broadcasters and opened their doors and their airwaves.

Less confrontationally, but just as effectively, zine publishers & internet folks have been spreading out “those who own one [a press, remember]” to the rest of us. Check out Electronic Frontier Foundation, which has been acting as the legal and legislative defense arm of that effort for the past couple decades.

Cue soundtrack: They Might Be Giants, “I should be allowed to think.”

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