Tag Archives: human rights watch

E-Team Film Review

My review of the film E-Team

E-Team, co-directed by Katy Chevigny and Ross Kauffman, is an immersive look into the work of Human Rights Watch’s Emergency Team, a group of people that travel to war-torn countries, document human rights abuses world-wide, and then draw media and government attention to those crimes.

Perhaps the greatest strength of the film is in its insider look at exactly how this sort of work takes place, the perils involved, and the authenticity and rigor expected. More specifically, the team is careful to get thorough (multiple) eyewitness accounts, which preempt questions about the veracity of the reports produced by Human Rights Watch. We meet Anna Neistat and Ole Solvang, a husband-and-wife team, who are literally on the ground as bombs are going off around them in Syria. The viewer gets a keen sense that this is not the fare of an armchair philosopher IR wonk; Anna and Ole do not wait until “conditions are safe” to make their way to the conflict areas.

The film’s portrayal of the civil war in Syria is especially poignant. They smuggle themselves across the Turkey-Syria border in 2013 by literally running across a barbed wire fence. There, they take the testimony of frightened Syrian villagers who huddle with them in an apartment rattled by the explosions outside. The sense of terror is palpable, and the feeling of death ever present. In one of the most moving scenes in the film, a mother who has just lost three of her sons, says, “What is the point of talking?” as she cries. E-Team convinces us that even in the incredibly cynical world of politics, the stories of the people suffering – trapped in a situation beyond their control – have incredibly gravity and that suffering should not go unnoticed just because it is so rampant.

We also meet the E-Team’s other members: Peter Bouckaert, a weapons specialist, and Fred Abrahams, the “father” of the group. Abrahams testified against Slobodan Milosevic at the Yugoslav Tribunal, recounting the atrocities he encountered in Albania. Abrahams’ testimony against the smirking Milosevic is an illustration of what happens when the heartbreakingly human meets with the glib heartlessness of the political. The team’s work aims to simply give voice to those who were forever silenced, to shine light on the hidden.

E-Team, despite its very political matter, stays clear of pontificating asides. In fact, one gets the sense that the kind of work Human Rights Watch does is very much the kind of work that journalists should be doing: documenting stories, gathering accounts of various witnesses, and speaking on issues of concern to all of us as humans. Yet, they seem to be able to do more than journalists can. For example, it is their report on the Assad’s regime use of chemical weapons that spurs UN Security Council action on the issues and negates the rebels being blamed for the attack.

The team also visits Libya to document survivors’ accounts of Gaddafi’s attacks on civilians and protesters in 2011. Here we see how the knowledge of weapons experts like Peter is used to pinpoint who fired what weapons, when, and how. In other words, the film does a great job of illustrating the breadth and veracity of HRW’s reports and the extensive knowledge of the people compiling those reports. The organization’s mission, in its own words, is not necessarily to effect policy change per se but rather to document abuses and alert us to them. Despite the harrowing and dangerous nature of their work, the team members come across as atypically down-to-earth and not even a little bit self-righteous or arrogant. The adrenaline junkie zealot stereotype is not to be found here.

E-Team benefits from incredibly tight editing and crisp cinematography that belies the guerrilla-style film-making usually associated with this genre. The engrossing storyline and behind-the-scenes look at human rights work gives the viewer a lot to appreciate.

Incarcenation: In Pursuit of Liberty in American’s Broken Prison System

My article for Voice of Russia

A 2014 report published by the National Research Council asserts that the prison population of the United States “is by far the largest in the world. Just under one-quarter of the world’s prisoners are held in American prisons.” There are currently 2.3 million people behind bars. Since 1980, the federal prison population has grown 721 percent, according to a recently released Human Rights Watch Report.

“In the last 40 years, there has been a historic marked expansion in the US prison system. There are 7 times as many people in the prison system today than in the 1970s,” says Marc Mauer, Director of The Sentencing Project, a non-profit that documents trends and calls attention to policies.
The exponential rise in imprisonment rates is, sadly, not a reflection of rising crime rates. The prevailing consensus points a finger squarely at politicians and their push for policy changes in a much more punitive direction, intended to send more people to prison and to keep them there longer. According to a national study, 88 percent of the increase in incarceration rates between 1980 and 1996 was due to policymakers’ decisions to lengthen sentences, impose incarceration (as opposed to probation), and ensure that offenders spent an increased amount of their sentence in person (for example, by reducing parole).
In the 1980s, with rising crime rates, simmering racial tensions, and the spread of crack cocaine, legislators adopted a “tough on crime” stance. The “war on drugs,” that gained tremendous political speed during the Reagan administration, contributed significantly to the skyrocketing rates of incarceration. The number of people behind bars for nonviolent drug law offenses increased from 50,000 in 1980 to nearly 500,000 by 2000. The political hysteria led to the passage of draconian penalties at the state and federal levels. Even as the drug scare faded from the public mind, the tough-on-crime stance became a default for most politicians.
“Mandatory sentencing laws took away the power of discretion from judges to consider the personal circumstances of the offenders. ‘Three strikes and you are out,’ the war on drugs, and a number of other policies have all combined to make the system much harsher,” says Mauer. If all of this was intended to safeguard public safety, how has increased incarceration impacted crime rates? “The broad consensus is that while the threat of prison has some effect on crime, as the system has grossly expanded, we very much have a case of diminishing returns.” According to an ACLU report, over half of prisoners with a sentence of one year or more are serving time for a non-violent offense. Life sentences are often imposed on recidivists for property or drug-related crimes.
On average, it costs $25,000 to keep someone in prison for a year. With almost 700,000 people returning home from prison each year, “they find it hard to establish themselves since in most cases, they did not pick up any substantial work skills or education in prison that would enable them to reintegrate back,” Mauer explains. As a result, recidivism rates remain high, he adds—66% for violent crimes, 78% for property crimes, and 71% for drug re-arrests.
Who stands to profit from the massive incarceration? One obvious culprit, the private prison industry, interestingly enough, is not as deeply enmeshed in the system as one would think. Mauer points out that only 130,000 inmates are held in the private prison system, which amounts to roughly 8% of the total prison population. The industry has, instead, focused its profit-seeking efforts on immigration detention as the new area for expansion and has spent over 45 million in lobbying funds to ensure that immigration reform remains mired in a legislative quagmire. With a record number of deportations taking place, imprisonment is turning into the solution of choice when it should be the last option.
And prison labor has become the new sweatshop labor. Nearly a million prisoners are performing labor for private corporations, while getting paid somewhere between 93 cents and $4.73 per day, giving new meaning to the term “confinement at hard labor.” The Corrections Corporation of America and G4S sell inmate labor at subminimum wages to Fortune 500 corporations like Chevron, Bank of America, AT&T, and IBM. In 1979, Congress created the Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program to establish employment opportunities for inmates “that approximate private sector work opportunities”—a far cry from the tidy profit-making scheme for corporations that exploit the captive labor force it has devolved to. The worst abuses have taken place in the agricultural sector, especially in states like Arizona that require inmates to work, earning between 10 and 50 cents an hour, hardly approximating “private sector work opportunities.”
So what should be the priorities in seeking to reform the system? “Sentencing policy change is the most important. Reforming or eliminating mandatory minimum sentencing laws that prevent judges from being able to tailor sentences to the individual crime and the particular defendant is vital. Extremely long sentences are far too common. Far too many 25 year olds are sentenced to life in prison when their progress should be reviewed and they could be released back into the community,” states Mauer.