In U.S., right to vote still threatened


CNN Contributor Donna Brazile

Tuesday, Attorney General Eric Holder delivers a major speech on voting rights at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library in Austin, Texas. The location is significant: In 1965, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law, a landmark piece of civil rights legislation that banned the worst forms of racial discrimination in American elections.

Over the past five decades, the VRA and other federal and state election reforms have greatly expanded access to the ballot box. As a testament to their success, the 2008 presidential electorate was the largest and most demographically diverse in the history of the United States. But the protections the VRA affords have not lost their relevance, or their indispensability. In the past year, lawmakers in 40 states have introduced legislation that would make it harder for all eligible Americans to vote -- and harder disproportionately for people of color, young Americans, and our seniors.

Some Southern states, like Florida, South Carolina, and Texas, have not only passed legislation restricting the right to vote, but also have refused to comply with their responsibilities under the VRA. The law requires certain states with histories of voting discrimination to submit any change in election law to the U.S. Department of Justice for "preclearance" before it can be implemented. Because these states for so long flaunted an obstinate refusal to allow African-Americans equal access to the voting booth, the VRA requires they demonstrate that new changes will not have a discriminatory effect.South Carolina and Texas both passed requirements that voters present restrictive forms of government-issued photo ID at polling places, even though 25% of African-Americans and 19% of Latinos lack the necessary form of ID. After passing their laws, both of these states filed preclearance letters with DOJ, but neither could explain how the new law avoided repeating an abhorrent history of discrimination.

Florida severely restricted voter registration drives, although minority voters register through drives at twice the rate of white voters. The Sunshine State also cut early voting, the process through which more than half of the state's African-Americans cast ballots in 2008. Florida implemented its restrictive bill in violation of the VRA and only submitted the legislation for preclearance after it was sued in federal court. When DOJ questioned the discriminatory impact of these changes, Florida removed the most controversial parts of its law from the department's consideration and instead asked a federal court to excuse it from its obligations under the VRA.

These states are seemingly unable and have clearly failed to craft election laws that will affect all equally. And, apparently, they don't even want to. Rather than work toward solutions that allow more eligible Americans to vote, some states have filed lawsuits arguing that parts of the VRA -- one of our nation's most successful pieces of civil rights legislation -- are unconstitutional.

Ensuring that all citizens can exercise their right to vote extends beyond just those states with significant histories of race discrimination. In 2011, many other states have embarked on voter suppression efforts. In a new report, "Defending Democracy," the NAACP and NAACP Legal Defense Fund examine the past year's assault on voting, demonstrating that the "onslaught of restrictive measures" was "designed to stem electoral strength among communities of color."

This is only the latest in a series of reports highlighting the wrongheadedness of this movement against voting rights. Earlier this month, the Democratic National Committee's Voting Rights Institute released a major report which said Republicans have undertaken this effort purely for partisan gain. Earlier this year, the Brennan Center for Justice and Advancement Project also released substantial reports.

Testifying before Congress in November, Holder said that legislation aimed at voter suppression is "inconsistent with what we say we are as a nation." I couldn't agree more. Johnson signed the VRA to ensure that the right to vote extended to all Americans, regardless of their race. The VRA was more than just another federal law; it was -- and remains -- the embodiment of years of struggle, resulting from countless sacrifices of brave men and women who built the civil rights movement.

We must not allow a new generation of restrictions to condition the right to vote on arbitrary qualifications and discriminatory rules. I welcome Holder's voice to the chorus of millions of Americans who have defended the sanctity of the vote. And I hope that DOJ will continue to move our nation forward and protect every eligible citizen's fundamental right to vote.

Balochistan: Constitutional limits and fundamental rights?

BY:Sana Baloch
daily times

Rather than counselling and redressing their grievances, the less harmful moderate Baloch activists are simply executed extra-judicially

The distasteful feature of Pakistani polity and disrespect for constitutional rights can easily be précised by a careful examination of the worsening human rights violations of non-core groups by dominant institutions.

Violation of human rights is a global phenomenon. The difference is one of degree. The violation of the rights of certain non-core groups by dominant security establishment is a permanent feature of Pakistani society, where in non-core group areas such as Balochistan, the violations of human rights are towering with mounting cases of enforced disappearances, a kill and dump policy, political assignations, targeted killings and systematic deprivation of socio-economic development — a common but institutionalised trend.

Despite a proclaimed independent judiciary, these violations are taking place under the shields of ‘uniform’ and ‘authority’, not to mention the fact that they are conducted with deliberate ‘negligence’ and ‘silence’ of national and domestic courts.

In October 2011, Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, during his visit to Quetta, the capital city of the unfortunate Balochistan province, said that he would “soon constitute a larger bench on the unrest and violation of fundamental human rights in Balochistan to collect evidence and ascertains reasons behind the violation of fundamental human rights in the province”.

No doubt the Supreme Court’s (SC’s) larger bench in Karachi took plausible measures and decisions, but till date, there has not been any indication or initiation regarding the SC’s larger bench on human rights violations in Balochistan.

Mr Chief Justice, at the same occasion, categorically and unequivocally voiced that “we will go to any extent to safeguard the rights of the people”.

Recently, on December 9, 2011, the CJP determinedly reiterated that the singular duty of the apex court was not only to enforce the freedom of life of the people, but also to ensure that complete quality of life was provided to the citizens of Pakistan.

Elaborating his views, the CJP said, “The constitution has set limits for every institution, whether it is parliament, the executive or the judiciary, and by adhering to the dictates of the constitution, the nation can achieve political stability, economic development and attain rightful and honourable place among the nations of the world.”

He said that fundamental rights had so much importance that under Article 8, even laws made inconsistent with or in derogation of fundamental rights could be declared as void. Theoretically, Pakistan’s constitution does talk about supreme civil liberties and guarantees; it empowers the apex court under articles 184, 187 and 190 to take cognisance in a variety of situations to enforce fundamental rights and do substantive justice. But in practice, none of these written guarantees are translated into practice to safeguard the rights of the oppressed.

Despite Himalayan assurances and well-versed statements of Pakistan’s top executive, the CJP, and repeated appeals of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), scores of mutilated bodies of marginalised Baloch activists are surfacing frequently.

In a statement issued on Friday, which was marked as the International Human Rights Day, expressing solidarity with the people of Balochistan and in support of their aspirations to realise their rights, the HRCP reiterated its grave distress at the absence of adequate measures to resolve lingering issues of human rights violations in the province.

The HRCP statement states, “It is a matter of grave alarm that 107 new cases of enforced disappearances have been reported in Balochistan in 2011, and the ‘missing persons’ are increasingly turning up dead. Bodies of 225 ‘missing persons’ have been recovered from various parts of the province since July 2010. It is scandalous that not a single person has been held accountable for these disappearances and killings.”

In fact, the traumatised, voiceless, unrepresented and helpless people of Balochistan are tirelessly gazing towards Pakistan’s SC, international organisations and human rights champions. But to no avail.

Pakistan is a multi-ethnic country and going through multifaceted crises and conflicts, such as fighting with extreme religious groups in FATA and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, sectarian radicals in Punjab and Sindh and pro-self-rule Baloch movement in Balochistan, but there is evident inconsistency with regards to dealing with these dynamics.

The security apparatus seems very harsh and intolerable towards the Baloch people. Even though Baloch reprisals towards security forces is not as harmful and damaging as the Taliban and radical groups, the Baloch activists are facing extreme treatment — a trend that demands greater and careful understanding of Pakistan’s ethnically structured institutions and their subjective policies.

During the early days of the Swat operation, a few cases of ‘kill and dump’ of suspected Taliban combatants were reported, but suddenly this policy was confronted by sizable Pashtun policy-makers and military officials. The policy of ‘kill and dump’ was quickly replaced by Sabawoon: a new dawn for children in the Swat Valley — the UNICEF-funded and Pakistan Army-administered school that provides free religious education and psychiatric counselling to a large number of Taliban combatants, including trained suicides, to reintegrate them in society. However, in Balochistan’s case, the inhuman policy of collective punishment is seen to continue uninterrupted.

Since Balochistan is voiceless in Pakistan’s policy and decision-making corridors, the destiny of the Baloch political activists is bleak. Rather than counselling and redressing their grievances, the less harmful moderate Baloch activists are simply extra-judicially executed for their simple crime of disagreement with Pakistan’s colonial, discriminatory and exploitative policies.

The security establishment in Balochistan is operating like an outdated tribal entity that is pursuing a policy of an eye for an eye by killing and dumping political activists for the acts committed by militants.

The Gestapo-like modus operandi is only being committed against the Baloch people. A careful examination of cases revealed that in Balochistan, a multi-ethnic province, 300 cases of ‘kill and dump’ were recorded in a period of 12 months. All victims were ethnic Baloch — political activists, professionals and journalists — a massive loss for a community that is horribly discriminated against, and has a very small educated and moderate class.

The empirical evidence and carefully documented national and international human rights reports raise serious concerns over a ‘slow-motion’ wipeout of moderate activists in the province.

In today’s world, multi-ethnic states are the norm. However, dominant cultures in countries around the world, particularly in developing countries, still seek to impose their rule and identity on other groups with whom they share a territory.

Attempts to impose uniculturalism in multi-ethnic environments often come at the expense of minority rights. To avoid marginalisation, the minorities often intensify their efforts to preserve and protect their identity. The hardening of opposing forces –assimilation on the one hand and preservation of minority identity on the other — can cause increased intolerance, and in the worst cases, armed ethnic conflict. In such cases and in order to prevent escalation, the protection and promotion of minority rights becomes essential.

In fact, good governance plays a vital role in involving non-core groups (ethnic minorities) in societies and protecting their rights and interests. Through recognition, dialogue, and participation, all the citizens of a diverse society can form a greater understanding of one another’s concerns. Educational institutes and the media have important roles to play in this regard, as do political representatives and community leaders.

State authorities need to ensure that ethnic minorities enjoy the fundamental right to equality, both in written legislation and in society at large. The roles of the local government, civic organisations and NGOs are important in this respect. Police, prosecutors and judges need to be more aware of what constitutes racial discrimination and racially motivated crimes, and in some cases, changing the composition of the security structure to better reflect the multi-ethnic communities they serve may be appropriate.

The writer is a former Senator who resigned in 2008 against systematic discrimination and continued military operation in Balochistan. He can be reached at