Don’t Believe the Trump Administration: MS-13 is Not Ravaging the United States.

Flickr: Mara Salvatrucha

Immigration rates are slowing, and violent crime is at historic record lows, yet the rhetoric about both could not be more heated. The number of new legal immigrants leveled off starting with the Great Recession, while the absolute number of unauthorized immigrants has been falling since 2007. Crime rates have been dropping sharply for far longer, especially for violent crimes, which are just half as common as in 1993, according to FBI statistics.

Yet if you didn’t know better, you might think we’re living in a crime-ravaged dystopia out of “RoboCop,” where foreign gangs prey on fearful citizens in lawless sanctuary cities. That’s certainly the impression one gets from President Trump, who spoke of “American carnage” in his inauguration speech and has proposed a federal agency to track crimes by immigrants, even though research has shown immigrants commit less crime than U.S.-born citizens. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been leading a crusade against sanctuary cities — cities that limit their cooperation with federal immigration authorities to encourage immigrant cooperation with local police — claiming that these cities have higher rates of violent crime than other cities. The report he cited, however, actually showed this is not true.

The latest boogeyman is MS-13, a gang network that is playing a larger-than-life role in the Virginia gubernatorial election, with encouragement from Trump. Last week, he tweeted that Democratic candidate Ralph Northam “is fighting for the violent MS-13 killer gangs & sanctuary cities.” The tweet echoed television ads that Northam’s Republican opponent Ed Gillespie has been airing throughout the commonwealth, which state Northam “voted in favor of sanctuary cities that let dangerous illegal immigrants back on the street, increasing the threat of MS-13,” while flashing the words “Kill, Rape, Control.”

Read the full article at The Washington Post.

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Trump Is Signaling an Unprecedented Right Turn on Foreign Policy

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Shutterstock

Every few years — sometimes four, sometimes eight — America’s political mood swings from one pole to another.

It’s a not-uncommon disorder for democracies. Voters get disgusted with one flavor of politics and opt for another. For better or worse, the United States doesn’t have a Baskin-Robbins democracy. So, the vacillations in Americans’ political taste can only pendulum between chocolate and vanilla.

It’s one thing for America to lurch from one end of the spectrum to the other on fiscal matters, the advisability of universal health care, or the economic impact of immigration.

On foreign policy, however, the shifts are not just mystifying to those outside U.S. borders, they’re downright frightening.

Consider the Trump administration’s decision to make a U-turn on Iran policy. This week, Trump has pledged to go against the previous administration, many of his own top advisors, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and an overwhelming majority of the world’s nations in decertifying that Iran has abided by the terms of the nuclear deal negotiated back in 2015.

For Trump’s critics, including virtually all Iran policy experts at the moment, this attempt at scuttling the world’s most sophisticated arms control agreement sends absolutely the wrong signal to Iran. Trump is essentially saying, “It doesn’t really matter whether you have adhered to the letter of the agreement, we’re still going to break our commitment because, honestly, we just don’t like you. And by the way, you can’t count on the United States to keep its word in the future.”

Trump is sending an even more damaging message to the rest of the world: “We as a country suffer from mood swings so severe and delusions so enduring that we can no longer be a responsible member of the international community.”

After deep-sixing the Trans-Pacific Partnership and pulling the United States out of the Paris climate agreement, the Trump administration is making good on this one campaign promise even as all the others stall in Congress or the courts. Trump will make America First even if it means going against obvious American national interests, even those defined by the Chamber of Commerce.

This is not the first time that other countries have witnessed the political instability of the United States. But in the past, some underlying continuity provided a measure of reassurance to other countries. Voters might choose vanilla or chocolate, but the world still expects in the end to get some variety of ice cream.

What makes the Trump era different is the lack of that underlying continuity. Trump might look like vanilla or chocolate or some kind of swirl, but in reality he’s Semtex in a cone. After pretending for a year or more that he’s a natural product of the system, even top members of the governing party have become deeply worried about the orange brick of plastic explosive that now occupies the Oval Office.

Past Mood Swings

The last 40 years of American political life have been a series of switchbacks. Ford made way for Carter who made way for Reagan. After George H.W. Bush came a leftish turn under Clinton, a rightish turn under George W. Bush, then a left with Obama, then a hard right with Trump.

In some cases, the new party in power instituted a profound policy transformation. Ronald Reagan ushered in a new economic order. George W. Bush introduced a new post-Cold War unilateralism.

Trump has vowed to destroy the old order altogether.

Adversaries and allies alike can be excused for suffering from whiplash trying to keep up with the changes. Let’s consider this problem from the vantage point of North Korea, which has had only three leaders in over 70 years and no significant U-turn in policy during that time.

The North Korean leadership negotiated a deal with the Clinton administration in 1994 only to come face to face six years later with open hostility from the George W. Bush administration. It was a bewildering experience. Kim Jong Il apparently mourned what had been possible under Clinton, saying to the former president when he visited in 2009 that “The United States would have had a new friend in Northeast Asia in a complex world.”

Then, after finally managing to secure agreement with this initially hostile Bush administration in 2005, North Korea came up hard three years later against the cautious indifference of the Obama administration. The North Koreans were not entirely blameless in this shadow play, but still they must think that the United States has cyclical bouts of insanity.

It’s not just the North Koreans. The democratic world, for instance, found the transition to the George W. Bush years particularly bewildering. Even before the attacks of September 11, 2001, the Bush administration announced that it wouldn’t implement the Kyoto Protocol on global warming. After the attacks, the administration broke with international law by embarking on a “preventive” war, violating the Geneva Conventions on treatment of captured combatants, and engaging in torture. The administration also backed away from the Rome statute establishing the International Criminal Court in May 2002 and withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with the Russia in June 2002. All of these actions profoundly troubled America’s allies.

And yet in some respects even the Bush years seem like a golden age of multilateralism compared to the present moment. The Bush administration mobilized international support against al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. It attempted to fashion its own “coalition of the willing” to invade Iraq. It would put together six-party talks to negotiate a deal with North Korea. It pushed through a Central America Free Trade Agreement. Bush may have been a cowboy, but he didn’t embrace an entirely go-it-alone ethos.

In other words, even with its sharp turn toward unilateralism, the Bush administration held to a bipartisan consensus in favor of multilateral initiatives that benefit the United States. In some ways Bush offered only a variation on the Clinton theme of “a la carte multilateralism” in which the United States picks and chooses the international structures with which it wants to cooperate.

This kind of Bush-style unilateralism wrapped in a-la-carte multilateralism has returned to the White House. It’s represented by most of the top administration officials involved in foreign affairs: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Pentagon chief James Mattis, and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster. These are the so-called adults in the room.

But Trump is something different. And that’s what has thrown Republicans like Bob Corker (R-TN) into a tizzy.

Corker and Iran

When the Obama administration was trying to win congressional support for the Iran nuclear deal back in 2015, the Republican Party was skeptical, to say the least. In the Senate, Republican lawmakers even managed to attract four Democrats to their effort to break a Democratic filibuster against a resolution to reject the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). But the effort still fell two votes short, and the deal went through.

Bob Corker was part of this Republican bloc. But his role behind the scenes was more complicated than this vote might indicate. Together with Ben Cardin (D-MD), Corker negotiated a series of deals with the Obama administration that ultimately eased passage of the bill by requiring not congressional approval but, rather, congressional disapproval of the agreement (which required more than a simple majority vote). In return, the administration agreed to various oversight mechanisms — including one that requires the president to certify Iranian compliance with the deal every 90 days. Corker and Cardin also worked to expand non-nuclear sanctions against Iran.

Bob Corker is not a moderate Republican. He has an 80 percent ranking from the American Conservative Union for 2016 (by comparison, Susan Collins of Maine clocks in at 44 percent). He’s no softie on Iran, either. Last year, he continued to try to pile on additional sanctions against Iran. Ultimately, he had to content himself with an extension of the Iran Sanctions Act for another 10 years. During the presidential campaign, Corker advised Donald Trump on foreign policy and was even in the running for secretary of state.

Corker is cut from the same cloth as Rex Tillerson. They’re conservative Republicans who believe in “America First.” But they’re also committed to preserving a measure of professionalism, if nothing else, when it comes to U.S. foreign policy. They want to preserve U.S. alliances. They want to advance the interests of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

They’re not isolationists, and they’re not exactly internationalists either. They occupy the right wing of the underlying foreign policy consensus that encompasses the think tanks, lobby shops, and mainstream media in DC. They play ball whether it’s a Democrat or a Republican in the White House and whichever party controls Congress. They are part of the continuity in American foreign policy that transcends the elections.

So, when Bob Corker takes aim at Donald Trump, it represents a serious breach not just within the Republican Party but within the foreign policy establishment. Over the weekend, Corker charged that Trump was making threats toward other countries that could send the United States reeling toward “World War III.” Later, Corker tweeted in response to Trump, “It’s a shame the White House has become an adult day care center. Someone obviously missed their shift this morning.” Having decided not to run for re-election, Corker is now free to speak truth to power.

Corker’s most proximate concern is Trump deciding to bomb North Korea. But the issue of Iran is also on the senator’s mind. Trump has blamed Corker for the Iran deal when in fact the Tennessee senator was merely trying to give Congress some say over the process. When the president decertifies Iran’s compliance, according to the legislation that Corker helped to pass, Congress will then have the authority to re-impose the nuclear-related sanctions that the JCPOA lifted. But the Republicans have a slim majority in the Senate and the president can’t afford to alienate a single member of his party.

So, why pick a fight with Corker just when the president will need him most on the congressional battle over any new Iran sanctions? Writes Adam Taylor in The Washington Post:

By handing off any real decision to Congress, [Trump] can avoid having to make a hard decision himself. And by picking a fight with Corker, he has a scapegoat if his supporters grow frustrated with a lack of action in Congress. It seems plausible that Trump’s allies are simply being prepared for another legislative failure.

In other words, it’s all about the war that Trump and his still-loyal lieutenant Steve Bannon, assisted by UN ambassador Nikki Haley, have declared on the “deep state.” They want to dismantle the foreign policy establishment that has presided over America’s engagement in the world. A progressive might find much to rejoice in this attack, given that America’s engagement with the world has often been through war and corporate penetration. But the establishment is more than that, and Trump/Bannon also want to unravel everything of diplomatic and humanitarian value as well.

Also, Trump and Bannon aren’t really interested in draining the foreign policy swamp in DC. They simply want to install their own cronies who will ensure that war and globalization benefit them rather than Kissinger and his ilk. It’s a shell game designed to fool Trump’s base, but the rest of the world has kept its eye on the ball. That’s why Israel and Saudi Arabia, who also benefit from Trump-style war and globalization, continue to rejoice at White House policies when everyone else is aghast.

Trump is calculating that every defeat he’s handed by the foreign policy establishment will only boost his standing for the next election. The outrage of Bob Corker and the international community only burnishes his reputation among those who want to build walls everywhere, from the border with Mexico to the public bathrooms of North Carolina, and destroy everything else.

But those elections are still some time away. In the meantime, Corker and other freethinking conservatives in his party may be the only thing that can contain the politician of mass destruction that is Donald Trump.

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So Many Tax Lies, So Little Time

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Michael Fleshman / Flickr

In most cases, it’s best practice to cut through the media noise and go straight to the source to understand what’s happening in public policy. Donald Trump’s tax plan is not one of those cases.

The president is crisscrossing the country giving speeches to crowds about his plan to cut taxes on the very wealthy. Of course, he’s not using those words, but that’s what his plan will do.

If you want to understand what’s in Trump’s latest tax plan, skip the bluster and look straight at the numbers.

Three figures in particular shed a light on the actual impact of the plan.

80 percent.

Trump’s tax plan is essentially a collection of tax cuts for individuals and businesses. Of the cuts on the individual side, 80 percent of them will go to the wealthiest 1 percent, according to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center.

When Trump says he’s out to help the middle class and not the rich, his words are directly countering the actual impact of the plan. This could be because he doesn’t understand his own plan — a valid possibility.

More likely, though, it’s because he’s lying through his bleached teeth.

0.2 percent.

Trump’s tax plan would repeal the federal estate tax, also known as the inheritance tax.

This often misunderstood portion of the tax code is a levy on the inter-generational transfer of immense wealth, and by immense I mean more than $ 11 million. Only the wealthiest 0.2 percent of households will ever pay the tax, an exclusive group of multi-millionaires and billionaires.

Trump and others would like you to believe the estate tax is levied on the $ 10,000 your grandmother left you, or the $ 400,000 house your parents want to pass down. Again, not the case.

Don’t get it twisted: The estate tax only impacts the extremely wealthy, and eliminating it benefits only them.

15 percent.

Trump often says he’d like to see the corporate tax rate drop to 15 percent, down from its current statutory rate of 35 percent. Cutting the rate by more than half is going to usher in a jobs boom like we’ve never seen before, he rants.

Nuh-uh.

First off, the plan overall would cost a whopping $ 1.5 trillion over 10 years. That alone is enough to pay more than 18 million elementary school teachers to improve our education system over the same period of time. (Maybe then we’d know the basic arithmetic that our president chooses to overlook.)

Second, it could lead to a dramatic drop in jobs.

recent report from the Institute for Policy Studies looked at profitable companies who, thanks to loopholes, paid an effective tax rate of 20 percent or less. Those companies, on average, cut their workforce even while the rest of the private sector saw a 6 percent jobs increase.

Cutting taxes doesn’t create jobs, the report concluded. It does, however, contribute to higher and higher CEO pay. Just what we need!

The Trump tax plan is a giveaway to the ultra-wealthy, and selling it as anything other than that is a misrepresentation of the facts. Don’t take my word for it — look at the numbers!

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Detroit’s Revival Can’t Happen Without Women of Color

Detroit is full of what the late, legendary Detroit civil rights activist, Grace Lee Boggs, called solutionaries— women who have a revolutionary fervor for solving the city’s deep-rooted, chronic problems that threaten true, long-lasting revival of the city. The Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Policy Studies spent a year surveying 500 women of color solutionairies through focus groups and a citywide survey in response to their near absence from the story about Detroit’s comeback. What we found is relayed in our new report, “I Dream Detroit: The Voice and Vision of Women of Color on Detroit’s Future.”

Solutionary women of color across the city work tirelessly to address problems like the fact that 33 percent of African-American and Latino boys do not graduate from high school. They support families caught in the crisis caused by the water department shutting off 30,000 delinquent residential accounts in 2016. And they help Detroiters who want to work, but are challenged by the fact that only 16 percent of the region’s jobs are within city limits and regional transportation is limited.

Detroit’s solutionaries are anchors within their communities; architects who build badly needed infrastructure that meet basic human needs; entrepreneurs who create jobs for people that the labor market overlooks; and advocates who represent the interests of those at the margins, as elected officials and leaders of community-based organizations. Most of the realities they confront are inextricably linked to poverty, a condition plaguing 40 percent of Detroiters, including a whopping 57 percent of the city’s children.

Read the full article in the Detroit News.

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The Racial Wealth Divide in Trump’s America

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(Photo: Ellie / Flickr)

The majority of Black and Latino voters didn’t pull the lever for Donald Trump last November. He is, however, the president — and thus has the power to leave a lasting effect on the trajectory of their lives.

Trump has recently made headlines for making significant reversals in policy positions on issues ranging from immigration to the national debt ceiling. Perhaps, he could change his tune on how he addresses the growing racial wealth divide as well.

Will the already deep racial wealth divide grow wider under Trump, or can we begin to close it?

Recently released figures from the Census Bureau show that Black and Latino families saw a slight uptick in their household income last year. They still lagged far behind White families — with median households earning more than $ 10,000 less than their White counterparts. The racial income gap did get a bit smaller over the very short term.

Unfortunately, the long term trends go in the other direction.

A just released report I co-authored titled “The Road to Zero Wealth” looks at trends in household wealth, which includes the total sum of a families’ assets minus their debts. Wealth, not income, is the better measure of long-term financial stability.

The median Black family today has just $ 1,700 in wealth, with Latino families not far ahead at just $ 2,000. White families, meanwhile, own more than $ 100,000. That gap is staggering.

And it’s getting worse.

The report looks at racial wealth data over the past 30 years to project what we can expect in the future if current trends continue. By 2020, the end of Trump’s first term, median Black and Latino households stand to lose nearly 18 percent and 12 percent of the wealth they held in 2013, respectively.

Median White household wealth, on the other hand, looks set to increase 3 percent.

At that point, White households will own 85 times more wealth than black households, and 68 times more wealth than Latino households. That’s in just three years — let that sink in for a moment.

Looking a bit further into the future, Black families are projected to own no wealth at all by 2053. By that point, our country will be majority non-White, but Whites and non-Whites will be farther apart than ever.

That’s assuming nothing changes. If Trump moves forward with the policies he campaigned on, especially his tax “reform” plan, the gap surely grows.

Trump’s tax plan is heavily skewed toward providing massive tax breaks for the ultra-wealthy. Half of the proposed cuts will go to millionaires, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. Less than 5 percent go to families with household incomes below $ 45,000.

Perhaps more insidious is Trump’s plan to eliminate the federal estate tax, also known as the inheritance tax. This levy applies exclusively to the wealthiest 0.2 percent of households and is intended to curtail the growing concentration of wealth in families like, say, the Trumps.

Fortunately, the president has other options. He could choose to expand, rather than abolish, the estate tax.

He could also address the deep disparities in homeownership — and particularly in the mortgage interest deduction in the tax code, which benefits the wealthy and those who already own a house. Thanks to generations of discrimination in housing and credit, black families trail whites in homeownership by a margin of over 30 percent.

Unfortunately, it’s unlikely Trump changes course. While the president is nothing if not mercurial, his commitment to protecting the wealth of the already wealthy has remained steadfast.

That the vast majority of the nation’s wealth is, and always has been, held in predominantly white hands at the expense of non-whites hasn’t concerned him. Perhaps, however, he’ll change his mind.

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How to Successfully Engage North Korea On Human Rights

UN Special Rapporteur Catalina Devandas Aguilar on a site visit in the DPRK in May 2017 (Uriminzokkiri)

North Korea has the worst human rights record of any country in the world, except perhaps Eritrea and Syria. There is, however, a curious exception to this record: disability rights. This case offers a powerful counter-example of successful engagement in an arena where the country normally experiences nothing but universal condemnation.

For nearly two decades, outside NGOs have been working with Pyongyang to improve conditions for the nearly two million people with disabilities in the country. Over the course of this engagement, North Korea has altered its conduct in three important ways: It has cooperated with the United Nations to bring its disability policies more in line with international standards,  has permitted the growth of the very first shoots of civil society focused on the rights of the disabled,  and has allowed more contact between its citizens with disabilities and the outside world.

At a time when tensions between North Korea and the international community have increased dramatically and the United States in particular has pushed to isolate the regime even further, can this kind of engagement become the new normal?

Dealing with the UN System

It’s not easy to visit North Korea if you work on human rights. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has repeatedly rejected the requests of UN human rights officials to tour the country. Even the three people who have served as the special rapporteur for human rights in the DRPK over the last 13 years have had to write their reports without ever setting foot in the country.

This past May, Catalina Devandas Aguilar became the first independent expert designated by the UN Human Rights Council to visit North Korea. Devandas Aguilar is the UN’s first special rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities. Not only did she meet with a wide range of North Koreans during her trip, but she received virtual celebrity coverage in the country’s media.

“Just the fact that a woman with a disability from Costa Rica is seen on national television in the DPRK running around on a scooter and being very modern and talking brings a different perspective and even hope to persons with disabilities in a country that has been in such isolation,” Devandas Aguilar said.

The United States has generally viewed the UN human rights system as another stick with which to beat North Korea. The Obama administration, for instance, supported the UN-established Commission of Inquiry (COI) and the conclusion, in its 2014 report, was that the leadership of the country committed crimes against humanity (among other transgressions). In the wake of the report, the Obama administration also imposed its first human-rights-related sanctions against the DPRK.

North Korea has signed the UN convention on the rights of the disabled. The otherwise scathing COI report barely mentions disability rights, other than to urge ratification of the convention, which North Korea did this last December. It also notes that “there are signs that the State may have begun to address this particular issue” of discrimination against the disabled—one of the few signs of progress in the report.

By signing the convention on the rights of the disabled—as well as those on women and on children—the DPRK has committed to submitting regular reports and interacting with various UN human rights personnel. In this way, it learns both the language and the substance of human rights practice. Whether it translates that knowledge into practice is another matter.

“While we welcome the engagement, writing reports is not progress on the ground and we haven’t seen any real improvement in women or children rights yet from this renewed willingness to deal with the UN treaty bodies,” cautions Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch.

Sonja Biserko, a Serbian human rights expert who was one of the three experts on the commission, believes that the DPRK’s divergent approaches to the UN human rights system are actually related. “The release of the COI report had an enormous impact worldwide, and the DPRK was aware of that,” she says. “For the first time the human rights situation was revealed to the world in a very comprehensive way, and it was shocking. Because of that, they invested effort in improving their image by signing the convention on disabilities.”

But even before the COI report, North Korea was moving in the direction of engagement on disability rights and, arguably, showing “progress on the ground.”

Signs of a Civil Society?

North Korea is one of the few countries in the world without any significant civil society. It lacks public dissidents, opposition parties, even non-governmental organizations (NGOs). When President Obama made a commitment to meet with civil society representatives around the world, even in places like Cuba, North Korea was not on the list. There was no one in North Korea with whom he could meet.

Engagement on disability rights, however, has produced some perhaps unexpected results. Foreign organizations working on disability issues inside the DPRK cooperate with the Korean Federation for the Protection of the Disabled (KFPD), an organization that bills itself as an NGO though it functions more like a government agency. However, the Federation, which started up in the late 1990s, has encouraged the creation of groups run by the disabled to advocate for themselves.

The Federation, Devandas-Aguilar points out, “promotes the creation of groups of women with disabilities, also deaf people and blind people, which they call associations. Those associations seem to be more independent from the Federation and from the government. These groups deal with income-generation activities. They are dealing with sports, with arts.”

The US government, through its funding of the National Endowment for Democracy, has devoted considerable resources to supporting operations that beam information into North Korea via radio broadcasts and other means—to expose North Koreans to news of the outside world.

Yet, without any US government assistance, organizing around disability rights has brought quite a few North Koreans in contact with foreigners. Handicapped International has been working in the country since 2001, collaborating with the KFPD in the field of prosthetics and physical rehabilitation. The World Federation of the Deaf maintains an office in Pyongyang staffed by a fourth-generation deaf German, Robert Grund, who has helped popularize sign language services and greater educational opportunities for the deaf.

Kathi Zellweger has been traveling back and forth to North Korea since 1995, first with the Catholic charity Caritas Internationalis and now with her own NGO based in Hong Kong. In December 2016, her organization brought four North Korean women to Hong Kong for 10 days “to expose them to a wide variety of services for intellectually challenged children.” The key task was to provide training in assessment. “Once you have assessed children properly,” she continues, “then you can design for each child the needs for health, education, and how you work with parents and caregivers.”

Over her more than 20 years of work in the DPRK, Zellweger has witnessed a change in attitudes inside the country. “Up to a few years ago, you would see very few people with disabilities in the streets,” she observes. “Now that has changed. You see more people in wheelchairs, on crutches, parents with special needs children.” She credits the KFPD with helping to transform public attitudes, but it’s also a function of relationships established with outsiders.

“Every year, the country celebrates the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, with a lot of local officials attending,” Zellweger notes. “It’s a big thing. We suggested that they should include special needs children. When I was there the next year, they had a small group of special needs children performing. Sometimes you just need to give them some ideas of what to do.”

That some of the people affiliated with the nascent civil society around disability rights have travelled outside North Korea is unusual for a country that rarely grants permission to travel abroad for anyone other than a government official, an athlete, or a guest worker. More unusual still, some North Korean teenagers with disabilities have even made the trip. In 2015, a youth ensemble of two blind musicians, two amputee vocalists, and eight dancers with hearing impairment traveled to the United Kingdom and France at the invitation of the UK-based organization DULA International. This Para-Ensemble returned for another tour this year.

It wasn’t easy to make the visit happen. “With disability welfare and awareness still in its developmental stages, many North Koreans at first felt that this young, disabled group of performers were not the country’s best representatives,” explains DULA International’s director, Lee Seok-Hee. After considerable persuading, the DPRK government agreed and cooperated.

The exchange, in turn, had a transformative impact. “Whereas the DPRK public—and even the Para-Ensemble performers—largely misunderstood issues of disability before the tour, awareness of disability grew following it,” Lee continues. “Performances of the first tour, and the reception of international audience, were aired on national TV in the DPRK. This led an increasing number of people contacting the KFPD and inquiring about how they could get involved.”

Moving Forward

Although North Korea has had laws on the books related to people with disabilities going back to the 1990s, it has stepped up its activities in the last few years. The first North Korean Paralympic athlete, for instance, participated in the 2012 games in London. The KFPD has been releasing periodic disability surveys. And the government has allowed disability organizations from around the world to partner with the KFPD.

Given the opacity of the North Korean government, it’s not easy to figure out definitively why it treats disability rights differently than it does many other human rights issues. But observers can make some educated guesses.

“First of all, progress on the disability issue is not a threat to the regime,” points out Robert King, former US special envoy for the issue of North Korean human rights from 2009 to 2017. “It’s not like freedom of speech or access to television from South Korea. It’s not going to undermine the claims of legitimacy of the government.”

King also suspects that people high up in the regime have children or siblings with disabilities. In China, for instance, the disability issue acquired a much higher profile when Deng Pufang, the son of former premier Deng Xiaoping, actively promoted it. A paraplegic thanks to an assault by militant Revolutionary Guards during the Cultural Revolution, Deng Pufang established the China Welfare Fund for the Disabled in 1984 and won a UN human rights award for his work in 2003. “A few people like that could make an appeal to the leadership and have some effect in getting some programs to benefit the disabled,” King says.

The overall human rights situation inside North Korea remains dire. Some North Korean defectors dispute that the government has changed its policies at all, and rumors abound of horrific treatment. Some experts on human rights in North Korea also argue that advocacy of disability rights is largely cosmetic.

“I’ve spoken with many UN officials, and I don’t think anyone is under any illusion of a dramatic sea change in North Korean human rights,” says Greg Scarlatoiu, the executive director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. The country has ignored other issues, he points out, such as “the terrible things done to political prisoners in the camps, the utter lack of freedom of expression, freedom of association, any conceivable human right. But in this case, they selected [disability rights] as a point of contact where they can make some cosmetic changes and get away with it—or who knows, perhaps go a little deeper and make some serious changes and see where it takes them.”

However, organizing international support for human rights in North Korea around disability rights demonstrates that engagement can yield positive benefits for North Koreans and still advance certain US goals. It’s also a good example of how human rights work can promote more connections with the international community rather than fewer. “Especially in the current context of escalating tensions, the human rights system needs to put its energy into promoting dialog and discussion,” says the UN’s Devandas Aguilar. “That is the only way forward to avoid armed conflict or confrontation.”

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States and Local Advocates Lead the Way for Criminal Justice Reform

Stealing From The Mouth of Public Education to Feed the Prison Industrial Complex

It can be easy to overlook the role of our deeply broken criminal justice system in perpetuating the cycle of poverty and rising inequality.

While Congress stalls on any semblance of progress on criminal justice reform, a number of states are taking matters into their own hands.  Kimberly Hart, a life-long New Haven, Connecticut resident is using her own personal story to bring about change in her home state.

Hart is a community advocate and mother of a 15-year-old son. She was convicted of a felony 30 years ago, but the sentence has carried on long after she exited prison. She knows first hand the economic disadvantages placed on the formerly incarcerated and has dedicated her life to helping others like her navigate in an economy tilted against them.

The United States has the largest criminal justice system in the world spending over $ 80 billion annually. The Sentencing Project found that U.S. incarceration rates have increased by more than 500 percent in the last 4 decades, despite a decrease in crime rates across the country. The incarcerated population today is 2.2 million people.

According to the Friends Committee on National Legislation, 600,000 individuals are released from prison every year, with very few access to programs that could ensure a smooth transition back into society, leading them to face barriers in getting a job, securing stable housing and much more. They are often shut out of government provided opportunities that would lead to stability such as employment, housing, and education.

“Because my felonies are all larcenies, I can’t get a living wage job. I can’t get a job at a retail store.” Hart goes on to explain how she can’t even get trained to become a Certified Nursing Assistant because potential employers are too afraid to let her into clients’ homes. “I told myself, I don’t do those things anymore. Why am I still being held accountable for it? I’ve already paid my dues, why do I have to pay for the rest of my life?”

Shutting out formerly incarcerated people from these essential programs creates massive economic problems not limited to this population but for the nation as a whole. The Center for Economic Policy Research estimated that excluding people with criminal records out of the job market results in “a loss of as many as 1.9 million workers and costs the U.S. economy up to a whopping $ 87 billion each year in lost gross domestic product.” With people of color occupying 60 percent of the current prison and jail population, they face the brunt of these economic burdens.

Having been exposed to advocacy at a young age thanks to her parents, Hart became involved with the organization Mothers For Justice, a grassroots women’s advocacy group that focuses on welfare reform, prison re-entry, and affordable housing. “In order to affect change, you have to affect policy. I join advocacy groups that address the problems that I’m going through because I know that I’m a part of the solution. That’s when I learned that legislators work for me and I have the power to hire and fire,” Hart says.

In 2016, she worked with Mothers For Justice to push the Connecticut state legislature to pass the “ban-the-box” law that prohibits employers from requesting past criminal history on initial employment applications. While this law is a step in the right direction, it chips a small piece away at the large wall that stands between those with felony records and financial security.

For the past few years, Hart’s best chance at employment has been with a telemarketing company that doesn’t do background checks, where she has to deal with the harsh reality of receiving no benefits, no paid holidays, or paid sick time. “I get paid off of commission and I have to work hard because if I don’t make a sale, my fifteen-year-old son and I can’t eat.” Because of this, Hart still has to rely on government safety net programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

Hart is concerned over the future of SNAP as the program faces funding cuts under the Trump Administration’s proposed 2018 budget. She explains how food is a basic necessity that people need to build better lives for themselves. “If you cut SNAP that means my child will go hungry. When you’re hungry you can’t sleep or learn. In order for my child to become self-sufficient and not have to rely on social services, he’s going have to get a decent education, go to college, and land a decent job so he can be a productive member of society. You can’t do any of that hungry.”

Kimberly Hart now works with the organization Witnesses to Hunger where she sits on the New Haven Food Policy Council working to eradicate hunger in New Haven. Among other issues related to poverty, Hart ensures that her voice remains one that represents people like her who are victims of the criminal justice system.

“If the state of CT looked at me as Kimberly Hart who happens to have a 30-year-old felony conviction instead of looking at me as a convicted felon whose name is Kimberly Hart then they could be more humane about this,” Hart said. “All we want is a second chance, life happens but it definitely doesn’t define who I am today.”

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Regions from Catalonia to Kurdistan are Clamoring for Their Own States

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(Photo: Joan Campderrós-i-Canas / Flickr)

Democracy can be messy. In the northeast corner of Spain this week, democracy was downright chaotic.

Catalans went to the polls on Sunday to vote in a referendum on whether to stay in Spain or go their separate way. The Spanish authorities, however, declared the vote illegitimate and sent in the national police to disrupt the referendum.

In many locales, as the police swept into the polling station to seize the ballots, the Catalans merely hid all the voting paraphernalia. When the police left, the Catalans set up again to register voter preferences, and lines reformed outside.

Such Keystone Kops scenarios would have been amusing if not for the outright violence of the Spanish police, which beat voters with batons and fired rubber bullets into crowds. In The Independent, Hannah Strange and James Badcock write:

Video footage showed officers from Spain’s national police — 4,000 of whom had been brought in by the government to help quash the ballot — fighting with elderly voters, some of whom were left bleeding, and dragging young women away from polling stations by their hair.

The Spanish government has been monumentally stupid. Its case for unity is much stronger than Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont’s case for independence. The Spanish constitution of 1978 speaks of the country’s “indissoluble unity,” while also according Catalonia considerable autonomy. “The Catalan government claims the right to self-determination,” The Economistpoints out. “But international law recognizes this only in cases of colonialism, foreign invasion, or gross discrimination and abuse of human rights.” None of those conditions applies to Catalonia.

Sure, the relatively wealthy Catalans are aggrieved that a portion of their economic success is redistributed elsewhere in Spain. But that’s a fundamental element of the modern state. New Yorkers subsidize New Mexicans, London subsidizes Leeds, Germans subsidize Greeks. Catalans can certainly challenge the terms of the economic arrangement — after all, the poorer Basque region doesn’t share much of its tax revenues with Madrid — but neither Spanish law nor international law allows them to gather up all their marbles and go home.

Meanwhile, the very process by which Puigdemont rammed through the referendum doesn’t reflect well on his democratic credentials. Writes Yascha Mounk in Slate:

The government rushed the necessary legislation for the referendum through the Catalan Parliament without giving deputies adequate time to discuss it. It passed the legislation in a late-night session even though the opposition was absent. It vowed to secede from Spain even if a majority of the population stayed away from the polls. And, taking a page from Trump’s playbook, it has been smearing everybody from opponents of secession to judges doing their jobs as enemies of the people.

With only a 42 percent turnout for the referendum, the Catalan authorities have no authoritative mandate for a declaration of independence. Many people who opposed secession simply refused to vote. On the other hand, the Spanish government’s reaction may well have pushed more people into the independence camp. On Monday, thousands of protesters poured into the streets of Barcelona to protest the Spanish government’s actions and assert their popular sovereignty. On Tuesday, unions called a general strike for the same purpose.

Ultimately the Catalan crisis boils down to consent — whether the Catalans continue to agree to be part of the larger Spanish nation. In an 1882 essay on nations and nationalism, the French philologist Ernest Renan famously wrote that the nation is a “daily referendum.” He meant that the nation is a matter not of inviolate borders or ancient history. Renan continued:

A nation is therefore a great solidarity constituted by the feeling of sacrifices made and those that one is still disposed to make. It presupposes a past but is reiterated in the present by a tangible fact: consent, the clearly expressed desire to continue a common life.

If a majority of Catalans no longer consent to be part of the larger Spanish nation, then the specifics of the Spanish constitution are largely irrelevant. The people will force a change. Given that the younger generation favors independence, demography is on the side of the secessionists. The more polarized the situation becomes in Spain, the less room there will be for the sensible middle option of greater autonomy for Catalonia.

In the past, secessionist movements represented not a challenge to the nation-state system, but its ultimate expression. After all, rebellious provinces or peoples want nothing more than to become nation-states themselves. If every nation deserves a state, then how can the international community deny the Slovaks, the Slovenes, and the East Timorese? Secessionist movements were simply the continuation of a process interrupted by historical anomalies like the Soviet, Yugoslav, or Czechoslovak federations, or the often arbitrary border delineations of colonial administrators.

But the Catalan case suggests a different kind of future. In this future, economics, geopolitics, and technology all point toward what I’ve called in my latest book: the splinterlands.

Catalonia and the EU

The architects of the European Union imagined that their new entity would solve the challenge of endless division on the continent.

Europe has always been a patchwork of different peoples, all striving for sovereignty over their own territory. People of varying histories, cultures, languages, and religions have been mixed together in a way that has defied any easy drawing of borders. Order has usually come over the centuries by force of arms. In the last century, two world wars were fought to upend those orders, and a third war beckoned.

The EU was supposed to change all that by pointing toward something beyond the nation-state.

Not only did the EU weaken the powers of the state by appealing to the benefits of something larger — economies of scale, a unified foreign policy voice, greater individual freedoms to travel and work — it also appealed to a “Europe of regions.” According to this project, regions could deal directly with Brussels, bypassing their national governments, and also cooperate horizontally with one another: Provence with Basque country, Bavaria with Lombardy, and so on. Secession would be rendered moot, for Catalans could get what they wanted if not from Spain then from Brussels or other European entities.

Alas, it was not to be. Writes Anwen Elias back in 2008, “Regionalist or autonomist parties who saw in the EU an opportunity for organizing political authority on a post-sovereigntist basis were also forced to recognize that, in practice, Europe was still dominated by sovereign states and sovereignty-based understandings of politics.” Even in Europe, the nation-state held onto its privileged position. Attempts to revive the “Europe of regions” to accommodate pressures from below, particularly after the last Catalan referendum in 2014, came up hard against the growing Euroskeptical movements, the continued problems in the Eurozone, and ultimately Brexit.

The problem of consent, in other words, has infected the EU as well. Many citizens of wealthier European countries don’t want to subsidize the citizens of less-well-off countries. Europe-firsters have been unenthusiastic about the influx of immigrants that the EU as a whole embraced. Though others threatened to do so, the British have been the first to withdraw their consent entirely.

If the Catalans withdraw from Spain, they are also withdrawing from the EU, which would amount to a second defection in so many years. The decision could prove even more costly for Catalonia than Brexit is proving for the UK, since it doesn’t have an economy the size of England’s, hasn’t preserved a separate financial system (and currency), and doesn’t have the same international profile (for instance, Catalonia is not a member of the World Trade Organization).

Of course, would-be countries are often prepared to take an economic hit for the sake of independence.

But the Catalans have perhaps not factored in just how big a hit they’re going to take, naively thinking that the small bump up in revenues not turned over to Madrid will make the difference. They’re also disgusted, and rightly so, with the economic austerity measures that the EU has imposed on Spain. But little Catalonia will have even less power to resist these forces after independence.

Now that the “Europe of regions” has faded into irrelevance, Europe faces more fracture points. As a result of the Brexit vote, Scotland is once again reconsidering its commitment to the United Kingdom, though public opinion polls suggest that a second referendum on independence would fail by a narrow margin just like the first. In Belgium, the largest political force is a nationalist party, the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), which supports Flemish independence. Of course, the Flemish are the majority in Belgium, and Flanders is doing much better economically these days than Wallonia, but Belgian unity remains a fragile thing. Other regions of Europe are also restive — Basque country, northern Italy, Corsica.

Although the Catalan vote isn’t likely to unravel the tapestry of Europe quite yet, other forces are at work in Europe — and not just Europe.

Kurdistan, Finally?

Kurds have wanted their own states for centuries. They’ve attempted to carve out autonomous regions in Turkey, Iran, and Syria. Last week, the Kurdish territory in Iraq held a non-binding referendum on independence, which garnered overwhelming support.

Surrounding states all took measures against the would-be new state of Kurdistan. Iran declared a fuel embargo, as did Turkey. Both countries moved troops to their borders for joint military exercises with Iraq. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called the referendum “illegitimate.”

Baghdad, too, rejected the non-binding vote. But unlike Madrid, the Iraqi authorities did not attempt to stop the vote from happening. Iraq banned flights to Kurdistan airports and imposed sanctions on Kurdish banks. But it didn’t send in troops. The Kurdish government has announced new elections for November 1, and Baghdad seems to be waiting to see what the Kurds’ next move will be. Neither side wants war.

As in Catalonia, the referendum wasn’t simply a transparent bid for independence. Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani used the vote as a way to boost his own popularity and that of his party, as well as to make a stronger bid for Kirkuk, a disputed oil-rich area that Baghdad also claims. Regardless of Barzani’s motives, however, independence is clearly popular in Kurdistan.

Indeed, it’s hard to imagine the Kurds dialing back their ambitions in Iraq. They’ve been running a de facto state of sorts for years. They thought, not unreasonably, that they could trade their extraordinary efforts against the Islamic State for a shot at real, de jure sovereignty. They’ve even embraced a rather ruthless realpolitik to their ethnic brethren across the borders. Kurdistan has maintained strong ties toward Turkey — despite President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s crackdown on Turkey’s own Kurdish population — and have been cool toward the de facto Kurdish state of Rojava in northern Syria.

But there’s still a huge difference between de facto and de jure. Just as Catalonia can be the string that unravels the European tapestry, Kurdistan can be the string that unravels the Middle East tapestry. Turkey, Iran, Syria, and Iraq all fiercely defend the unitary nature of their states, and the Kurds represent a strong threat to that structure.

Moreover, the region is as much of a patchwork as Europe. Yemen and Libya have already effectively fallen apart. Palestinians have been thwarted for decades from having their own state. Turkmen, Shia (in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain), and others might lobby as well for a piece of their own pie.

But what if they get their slice just when the pie has become stale and inedible?

Slouching toward Splinterlands

What’s happening in Europe and the Middle East is part of a larger pattern.

The global market has been eroding the power of the nation-state for several decades, as transnational corporations flit around the world to get the best tax deals and the cheapest labor, international trade deals remove key points of leverage that national governments once had over various economic actors, and global financial authorities impose conditions on all but the largest economies that governments must meet or face default.

The global market has delegitimized states. No wonder, then, that subnational units are taking advantage of this weakness.

Technology has amplified this trend. Communications advances make this global market possible, and the transfer in microseconds of huge amounts of capital in and out of nation-states renders national economic policy increasingly illusory. The Internet and social media have broken the monopoly on national media, providing civic movements (along with global disrupters like the United States and Russia) the means to challenge the once authoritative narratives of the nation-state. What happened in the Arab Spring to authoritarian governments is now happening to democratic governments as well (witness the Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s victory).

Finally, in the world of geopolitics, the overarching reasons for ideological unity are gone. The West no longer faces a “Communist threat,” while the East no longer huddles together against the “Yankee threat.” Sure, there’s the Islamic State and its ilk to worry about. But all nation-states see these non-state actors as a threat. The “war on terrorism” hasn’t forced states to give up a portion of their sovereignty for the cause — only citizens to give up a portion of their civil liberties.

In the 1950s and 1960s, utopians dreamed of a world government even as dystopians feared a global Big Brother. Today, when the international community can’t even come together to stop climate change, the prospect of world federalism seems impossibly quaint. A much grimmer reality presents itself in places like Libya and Somalia and Yemen: failed states and the war of all against all.

Today the world faces a crisis of the intermediate structure. The EU is under siege. The power of nation-states is eroding. If this trend continues, with the world continuing to splinter, the only entities left with any global power will be corporations and religious organizations, a world where frightened people pray to Facebook and the gods of Google that the fierce winds of nationalism and the rising waters of climate change and the random fire of lone gunmen will stay away for one more day.

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The NFL Should Do More Than Just Take A Knee

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Colin Kaepernick (Photo: Kaepernick7.com)

When Colin Kaepernick began to protest during the national anthem at NFL games last year, he made his intent very clear. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick told NFL Media.

“To me, this is bigger than football,” he explained, “and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

Kaepernick made the brave decision to do this mostly alone — and of course faced the backlash and took the heat on his own. That was until President Trump decided to attack black sports players who raised awareness about racial injustice.

At a campaign rally in Alabama, Trump called out NFL players that chose to take a knee or sit during the anthem. “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, say, ‘Get that son of a b*tch off the field right now’?” Trump asked.

The following Sunday, a far greater number of NFL players stood up for those who protest inequity during the national anthem — and were joined, surprisingly, by many of the team owners Trump called out to.

While this was a good show of solidarity, it led some to wonder whether the NFL actually cares about black lives, or whether team owners were just looking to distance themselves from Trump’s problematic and divisive comments.

African-American males are only 6 percent of the United States population, but comprise nearly 70 percent of NFL players. It’s no wonder that issues around race are making their way into the NFL spotlight.

Black issues have never been a concern for NFL officials when it came to causes worthy of their monetary support. Instead, many NFL officials have donated millions to causes that were openly hostile to the Black Lives Matter movement — such as the Trump campaign.

CNN Money reports that “at least $ 7.75 million of the $ 106 million raised for Trump’s inaugural committee came from NFL owners and the league.” Several owners, many of whom supported Trump — and seven of whom had donated at least $ 1 million to him — released statements denouncing Trump’s comments.

Yet none have used their economic power to actually address the problem that brought the protest on in the first place.

Now would be a fine time to take the next step. While there are a number of ways the league can contribute to this movement, there’s one obvious way: supporting the Colin Kaepernick Foundation.

After Kaepernick began to raise awareness on the field, he put his money where his mouth is and created a foundation aimed at fighting oppression of all kinds globally, through education and social activism. Through this foundation, he made a pledge to “donate one million dollars plus all the proceeds of my jersey sales from the 2016 season to organizations working in oppressed communities.”

Imagine what could really transpire if NFL officials decided to make this same commitment.

We need to hold the NFL accountable, just as we do for other powerful American organizations. Taking a knee, banding arms, and releasing statements of support is easy compared to what the league can actually do to help fight racial injustice.

It’s time for the NFL to stand up for black lives and the rights of all Americans.

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VIDEO: The U.S. War in Afghanistan Is Now 16 Years Old. Trump Has No Plans to End It.

On October 7, 2001, the U.S. invaded Afghanistan. The war is now 16 years old — and that’s not even counting the decade of U.S. intervention in the country during the Cold War.

Donald Trump once advocated the “speedy withdrawal” of U.S. troops from that country. As president, however, he’s gone in the opposite direction, demanding the U.S. must now “fight to win.” 

As Phyllis Bennis, director of the IPS New Internationalism project, explains in this short video, Trump’s plans to extend the war he once supported ending are even more worrisome for their lack of transparency. He’s not said how many new troops he’ll send or how long they’ll be deployed. Worse still, civilian casualties in multiple U.S. wars have been on the rise since he took office — by 67 percent in just six months.

It’s clear by now that the solution to terrorism won’t come from using military power, Bennis explains. That can only be achieved by diplomacy. “It’s harder, it takes longer, it’s not as sexy, it’s not sexy on CNN, it’s not any of those things,” she concludes. “But it’s the only thing that will work.” 

Video by Victoria Borneman and Peter Certo.

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