Tag Archive | "voting"

Protestors hold signs and placards

Critical Analysis: Protesting China’s Pre-Approved Candidate List

October 20, 2014

Thousands of people in Hong Kong are protesting a decision by China’s top legislative committee that voters would be able to choose only from a list of pre-approved candidates for the office of Chief Executive of Hong Kong. This decision, which came down in August of 2014, is a way in which the Chinese government can fulfill its promise to Hong Kong to have direct elections for Chief Executive by 2017, while controlling who is eligible to be elected through the new system of universal suffrage.

The promise to have universal suffrage in Hong Kong stems from a 1984 agreement between China and Great Britain, in which Great Britain restored Hong Kong to China. This agreement promised Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy. Hong Kong’s leader, the chief executive, is currently elected by a 1,200 member election committee, which many view as pro-Beijing. The Chinese government decision to vet the candidates for chief executive is what sparked the protests in Hong Kong.

Two main groups lead the protests, which began in late September of this year. Occupy Central was founded by moderate pro-democracy activists and is insisting the Chinese government not assess and pre-approve candidates for election in 2017. The other main organizer of the protests is the Hong Kong Federation of Students, which initially boycotted classes, but is now protesting at sites throughout Hong Kong. Protestors believe that the Chinese government will use the vetting process to weed out any nominees who are not pro-Beijing. In a call for true democracy and genuine universal suffrage, the protestors have assembled in the streets of Hong Kong to pressure the government to make a change.

Protestors hold signs and placards

Pro-democracy lawmakers hold up a banner and placards to protest as the deputy general secretary of the National People’s Congress of China speaks during a brief session in Hong Kong. Photo and Caption Credit: Bobby Yip/ Reuters, http://www.wsj.com/articles/photos-hong-kong-election-decision-prompts-protests-1409515247.

The groups leading the protests have advocated for non- violent campaigns in the streets of Hong Kong. Street protests soon led to the students of the Hong Kong Federation of Students threating to occupy government buildings if the current Hong Kong Chief Executive CY Leung did not resign. In recent days, the protests have been mired in violence. On Saturday, October 18, protestors reclaimed a site that had been previously cleared by the Hong Kong police, sparking violent clashes with police using pepper spray and batons to gain control of the crowd. Pictures and video have surfaced of police officers, who are now on temporary leave, beating protestors. These photos have surfaced in the midst of increasingly violent altercations between police and protestors, including the use of riot shields and tear gas to disperse crowds.

The next step for the protestors advocating for a genuine direct election process will happen on Tuesday October 21st. Hong Kong Chief Executive, CY Leung, has set up talks with the Hong Kong Federation of Students but it is said that these talks will not address the core issue of genuine universal suffrage in 2017. Instead, these talk will focus on the recent violent clashes with local police.

While the upcoming talks between protestors and Hong Kong officials may not cover the key issues, they are a step forward for the protestors. In a time when violence is growing, dialogue between protestors and officials is increasingly important. The people of Hong Kong fighting for genuine democracy must continue to fight in a non-violent manner, to take the higher road. They are gaining the support of the international community and their movement will only be bolstered by a peaceful civil protest that delivers a message unblemished by violence.


Julie Marling is a 2L at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law and is a staff editor for the Denver Journal of International Law and Policy.

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taxation without representation plate on presidential motorcade

Voting Rights and Wrongs

It is Sunday the 9th of March.  Imagine if today, voting day for Congress in Colombia, Bogotanos could not go to the polls because they live in the Districto Capital (nation´s capital district) and not in a departmento (state); would this violate human rights law?  Imagine this same day if afro descendants, indigenous, women or those with modest incomes that don´t own property could not vote; would that violate human rights law?

former mayor of bogota

Former mayor of Bogota Enrique Penalosa after casting his vote (Guillermo Legaria/AFP)

Today, almost everyone would answer of course, it would violate human rights law and many would think that this just does not happen anymore.  But oddly, these types of violations of political rights are not a thing of the past.  Often, national courts go to great lengths to avoid having to strike down mechanisms and procedures that from an outside observer seem to be a clear violation of the right to vote. Often, those working in human rights organizations are puzzled by how some politicians and judges refuse to see what is a plain and egregious violation and how society has come to grow accustom to a violation.

Human Rights law is quite clear.  The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (a treaty to which 167 nations are state parties including all countries of North and South America) in Article 25 states:

Every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity, without any of the distinctions mentioned in article 2 (without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status) and without unreasonable restrictions:

(a) To take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives;

(b) To vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors;

(c) To have access, on general terms of equality, to public service in his country.”

My own country, the United States, actually excludes people who live in Washington, D.C. (District of Columbia) from voting for members of the U.S. Congress. Residents of Washington, D.C., the nation´s capital, who are citizens of the United States, have no voting representatives in the Senate or in the House of Representatives. The District of Columbia needs assistance from the international community, including Colombia, to fix this clear human rights violation, as here in Bogota, D.C., citizens are busy voting for their Congressional representatives.

Imagine how residents of Bogota, Districto Capital would feel today if everyone else in Columbia was voting for Congress, but they could not?

In fact, Mexico and Brazil, which both borrowed from the U.S. federal system and created capital districts where their citizens residing in the D.C. could not vote in Congressional elections, have both recognized the clear violation and changed the law.

It is hard to understand how this human rights problem persists in the U.S., especially when compared with rhetoric from that country on the importance of voting and how sacred this right is and how important it is to protect the voting rights of the people.

Former President Lyndon B. Johnson, who did a great deal to address race-based problems in voting in the US, stated: “The vote is the most powerful instrument ever devised by man for breaking down injustice and destroying the terrible walls which imprison men because they are different from other men.”

Over the years there have been a number of legal challenges to this restriction of voting rights.  U.S. courts have often decided that exclusion of individuals for race, economic status or gender violated their rights.  As Justice Black said in Wesberry v. Sanders: “No right is more precious in a free country than that of having a voice in the election of those who make the laws under which, as good citizens, we must live.”

It is important to compare this with the cautious language and decisions related to the right to vote of U.S. citizens living in Washington, D.C.

But so far the close to 5 million U.S. citizens that do not live in a state continue to be denied the right to vote and the courts have always prioritized a mechanism found in the  constitution over the rights of the citizens who do not live in a state.

If a U.S. citizen moves from any state to Washington, D.C., or to another non-state U.S. entity (Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands and America Samoa), she will find herself denied the right to vote in federal elections.  If that person moves from that state to Riyadh, or Reykjavik, or Bogota though, she would still able to vote absentee as a state resident. This is an injustice that needs to be fixed.

taxation without representation plate on presidential motorcade

Members of DC Vote demonstrate to get the “Taxation Without Representation” plate on the presidential motorcade, which the administration did in January 2013 (flickr/ekelly80)

In 1998, two complaints (the Adams and Alexander cases) were filed, each alleging, inter alia, that inhabitants of the District of Columbia are being unconstitutionally deprived of their right to vote for representation in the House of Representatives and the Senate.  They note that the citizens of the District pay federal taxes and defend the United States in times of war, yet are denied any vote in the Congress that levies those taxes and declares those wars. This, they continue, contravenes a central tenet of our nation’s ideals: that governments “deriv[e] their just powers from the consent of the governed.” The Declaration of Independent, para. 2.

In its original form, the U.S. Constitution provided: “The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State, chosen by the Legislature thereof, for six Years; and each Senator shall have one Vote.” U.S. Const. art. I, § 3.

The Seventeenth Amendment provides: “The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State, elected by the people thereof, for six years; and each Senator shall have one vote.”

Basically, if you do not live in a state, you have no right to vote in U.S. federal elections. Odd, as human rights law is clear that voting attaches to citizenship.  For years courts have tried to avoid the rights of the citizens and tried to contort their logic to not see how the right of a citizen is violated when they cannot vote for those that make decisions that impact them.

In Ballentine v. United States, Ballentine was born in St. Louis, Missouri on October 22, 1936. After working for a number of years as a deputy United States Marshal in the continental United States, Mr. Ballentine was transferred in 1973 to the U.S. Virgin Islands, where he has remained ever since. Mr. Ballentine brought an action on July 30, 1999, claiming that he has been denied his constitutional right to vote in presidential elections, and his right to be represented in Congress by a regular voting member, because of his status as a United States citizen residing in an unincorporated territory of the United States.

In this case, like so many others, it was decided that “the franchise for choosing electors is confined to ‘states’ cannot be ‘unconstitutional’ because it is what the Constitution itself provides.”  Odd, as the U.S. Constitution also provided for the exclusion of slaves and indigenous peoples from voting.  Rights should trump mechanical sections of the Constitution.

So how did rights override parts of the Constitution but not other parts?  Courts in the U.S. have been unwilling to find the Constitution unconstitutional, so they have done the changes in terms of voting rights within the framework of the Constitution, not touching the mechanism for voting, which is just with the states.

Countries that have integrated human rights law into their constitution have an easier time holding mechanisms within a constitution unconstitutional as they violate a developing notion of rights.  The U.S. has only two choices to bring their current practice into conformity with their human rights treaty obligation.  One, the Courts could read the 9th Amendment , which states: “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people,”  to conform to current thinking of rights and the right to vote as found in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The other would be for the U.S. to pass an amendment to the Constitution to create one non-state voting district for all those who are U.S. citizens, but do not have the right to vote in Congressional and Presidential elections.

Importantly, one poll shows approximately 80% of adult Americans are not aware that DC residents pay federal taxes and have no voting representation in the House or Senate. But once aware of this aberration, they overwhelmingly support federal voting rights for the residents of the District of Columbia.

The difficulty with this is that process defined by the Constitution to pass an amendment requires States to pass an amendment.  As this will dilute the voting power of States, there are forces of the status quo that impede this change.

The Fifteenth Amendment (1870) states: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” The Nineteenth Amendment (1920) provides that: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” Although these amendments seem to indicate that every U.S. citizen has the right to vote, the U.S. Supreme Court holds that this right only applies to residents of one of the fifty states.

There have been six countries that modeled their governments so closely after America’s that they, too, created the “D.C. voting problem” in their countries, including Brazil and Mexico. All six rectified the problem, in recognition of the need for all citizens to vote.

For those that don´t think the U.S. is violating its human rights obligations by excluding about 5 million citizens from voting in Congressional elections, they should come to Bogota and try to convince the people here that those living in Bogota, D.C., should not have the right to vote unless they moved to a departmento or state.  People would find the argument ridiculous.  Discriminating against citizens based on place or birth or residence can no longer be sustained in the U.S.  Allowing all citizens to vote is long past due.


Todd Howland is the Representative of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Colombia and a graduate of the University of Denver Sturm College of Law

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Critical Analysis: Egypt’s Pending Referendum: A step forward or back?

Egyptians headed to the polls on Tuesday to vote on a constitutional referendum for the first day of a two day voting period.  This will be the first vote in Egypt since the military disposed of President Mohamed Mursi, the only president to be voted into office through a democratic election.  It is also the third referendum for Egyptians in three years.  As a result of the unrest in Egypt since the removal of Mursi, this latest referendum has been eagerly anticipated.  Not only has the pending vote brought hope and unrest, but it also will have lasting impacts to the country’s stability and the rights of Egyptian citizens.

Egyptian voters headed to the polls this week in hopes of gaining a stable government. Image Source: alhayat.com/JerusalemWorldNews.com

Egyptian voters headed to the polls this week in hopes of gaining a stable government. Image Source: alhayat.com/JerusalemWorldNews.com

The anticipation of the vote brought both financial growth and death to the country.  The hope of a more stable government, after a potential Presidential election, if the referendum passes, brought the stock market to the highest levels since January 2011.  It is expected that if citizens vote to accept the agreement there will be a new Presidential election as early as April.  Not only is there expected to be an election, but one of the most promising candidates, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the general who was instrumental in bringing down Mursi, has indicated that he will rule if Egypt would support him.  Many citizens look at this referendum as a step in stabilizing the government by stopping the political upheaval and reinstating stability through el-Sisi’s impending election.

However, this referendum has brought unrest in addition to hope because the Muslim Brotherhood has fought the referendum.  The Brotherhood fought the referendum by trying to put up posters opposing the referendum, largely because they see the referendum as an attempt to legitimize the forced removal of Mursi. The Muslim Brotherhood, who support Mursi, has also vowed to boycott the vote and consequently clashed with the security forces instructed to protect the voters and the election process.  These clashes include security forces firing tear gas at Mursi supporters in Giza and bomb explosion in a poor neighborhood in Giza two hours before the balloting started.  Although no one died in that bombing, interior ministry officials have said that at least five civilians have been killed in clashes leading up to Tuesday, and an additional eleven people died on the Tuesday, the first day of voting.

Not only has the referendum created unrest through the voting process, but also has a significant impact on the rights of the Egyptian citizens.   One key effect of the referendum passing is the return of a president that is a member of the military, and accountable to both Egyptian citizens and the Egyptian military.  This effect conflicts the responses Egyptians made when polled by CNN about the type of government they would prefer; eighty percent of people believe democracy is a good political system whereas five percent believe that it is good to have a strong leader, indicating that citizens are willing to sacrifice their ideal government for immediate peace.  In addition to the probable reinstatement of a military leader, it also gives the military a special status to select their own candidates for positions and bring civilians before tribunals without oversight.  Other changes would include banning political parties based on their religion, giving women equal rights, and protecting Christians as a minority.

Ultimately this referendum, which does have some good provisions such as banning all forms of slavery and sex trade, is a flawed document which has brought about more unrest than usual in recent days.   The question that remains to be seen is whether the likely passage of the referendum improves conditions in Egypt.  Those voting for it hope that the killing and violence will stop and that the country will stabilize, but the price of reinstating a military leadership may ultimately be a high price to pay: giving up many of the rights earned during the Arab Spring.

Katelin Wheeler is 3L student and Sutton Editor for the Denver Journal of International Law and Policy

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Sources: CNN, New York Times, Arab Times

News Post: What Does the Right to Vote Mean for Saudi Women?

Sources: CNN, New York Times, Arab Times

Sources: CNN, New York Times, Arab Times

On Sunday, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia granted women the right to vote and the right to run in municipal elections.  This decision came on the heels of a number of royal decrees and civilization projects aimed at modernizing Saudi Arabia.  Many throughout the world commend this momentous declaration for women’s rights, however acknowledging, despite these changes, that women’s rights remain very limited in Saudi Arabia.  The question remains, what real change will these rights bear on women’s status in Saudi Arabian society?

According to the White House, this is, “an important step forward in expanding the rights of women in Saudi Arabia.”  The White House welcomed the announcement and noted it recognizes the significant contributions women make in Saudi Arabian society.  Yet, the King’s announcement was the result of the ever-increasing pressure, largely from the growing number of Saudi women activists, to grant women the right to vote.  In the past year, the activists have become much more active and adamant in increasing women’s rights.  The activists have written formal requests to the government to demanding the right to vote and to run for election, as well as attempted to gain entry into voting centers this past April for the chance to vote in the latest elections.  In June the activists also took to the streets in cars, defying the ban on female drivers, in efforts to obtain the right for women to drive and travel freely throughout the nation.   Many activists hail Sunday’s announcement as “great news,” but do so with the continued demand that further barriers be removed so that women can function without requiring a male guardian.

Ahmed Al-Jarallah sees the announcement as nothing short of completing the democratic process in Saudi Arabia.  He says that King Abdullah’s declaration is just the beginning because the King “does not want to marginalize the role of women in the Saudi society according to religious constraint.” Thus, he sees that there are more changes to come, and feels the royal decree will allow women to carry out their activities without a male guardian.  This expansive view of Sunday’s decree is, however, in the minority.

While the King’s declaration provided reason for jubilation, many political activists caution to temper the expectations of upcoming change.  “Some women wondered aloud how they would be able to campaign for office when they were not even allowed to drive. And there is a long history of royal decrees stalling, as weak enactment collides with the bulwark of traditions ordained by the Wahhabi sect of Islam and its fierce resistance to change.” Many question how quickly change will occur, and how many women will actually be able to participate since the religious traditionalism that dominates the country still allows, if not encourages, men to limit women’s participation in the legal realm.

Further, “Some analysts described the King’s choice as the path of least resistance.” By giving women this right, he may be able to ignore demands for an elected Shura.  Granting women the right to vote was also less controversial than giving women the right to drive.  Moreover, under the current system, often controlled by religious edicts, it is required that a male guardian accompany females when a female wants to travel or take part in daily commercial activities, if allowed to participate at all.  The problem in many instances is not with Saudi Arabian law, but with the vigor of traditional beliefs.  Thus, Fawazaih Bakr, an Education Professor in Riyadh said, “We are now looking for even more,” because this “is not something that will change the life of most women.”

There is no doubt that King Abdullah’s decree was a step in the right direction for women’s rights and their struggle for equality in Saudi Arabia.  Yet, there are serious reservations about whether this declaration was intended only as a symbolic step in hopes of avoiding the greater push for overwhelming change, or if this is the first step of many to come for veritable changes to women’s rights.  Activists are happy to see this step forward for women’s rights, but they will not stop here in their fight for equality.  Although unlikely that any monumental change will come fast, or without much resistance from traditional Saudi Arabia, Sunday’s decree does bring new hope for a future of equality for men and women within Saudi Arabia.

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University of Denver Sturm College of Law