A Trafficking Jam
The Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act of 2015 seemed poised to sail through a polarized Congress with wide bipartisan support. The legislation would establish a fund to assist and compensate victims of human trafficking and bolster enforcement efforts with fines from convicted offenders. Democrats have filibustered against the bill since it arrived on the Senate floor in March, objecting to a provision that restricts the use of restitution funds for abortions, which they say they had not noticed in earlier drafts.
The anti-abortion language, the Hyde Amendment, has been attached in some form to every Congressional appropriations bill since 1976 to prohibit the use of federal funds for abortion. The Democrats argue that its inclusion in the J.V.T.A. unacceptably expands Hyde by applying it to a fund that does not rely on taxpayer dollars but on monies collected from traffickers. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, said in an interview, “The Hyde provision is absolutely antithetical to the goal of anti-trafficking.” The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, meanwhile, has offered qualified support for the bill. Kevin Appleby, director of the bishops’ Office of Migration Policy and Public Affairs, said the support for victims was “a positive step forward,” but that if the Hyde Amendment were to be weakened, the bishops would oppose the legislation.
As it stands, the Hyde provision of the J.V.T.A. grants exceptions for pregnancies that result from rape or incest or threaten the life of the mother. It is unclear how limiting payments for other elective abortions is “antithetical” to ending trafficking. But holding up this bill with an absolutist pro-choice stand certainly does not help these victims.
Death From Above
The use of drones, the Obama administration maintains, is a civilized substitute for all-out war. After deliberation, each victim is put on a kill list by the Pentagon, then hunted down and killed by the Central Intelligence Agency or Special Operations forces. Unfortunately, according to the human rights group Reprieve, “targeted killing” terminates many more people than just the targets. In one study last November, attempts to kill 41 men resulted in the deaths of an estimated 1,147 people. Other studies report total drone deaths as exceeding 5,000.
But there is a sign of hope. Mohanad Mahmoud Al Farekh, an American citizen from Texas who moved to Pakistan in 2007 to join Al Qaeda, had been put on the kill list by the Pentagon and C.I.A. But instead of being obliterated, he was arrested in Pakistan and will be tried in federal court in the United States. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. was not convinced that he posed an imminent threat.
In May 2013 President Obama explained what he considered a rigorous standard for drone strikes, including “near certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured.” Some civilian casualties had been unavoidable, he said, “but those deaths will haunt us as long as we live.” Evidence is mounting that those deaths are not a few. A new study by the Open Society Justice Initiative reports that nine drone strikes in Yemen between 2012 and 2014 killed 26 civilians, including five children, and injured 13 others. Those deaths should haunt us all.
Missteps After Cuba
The appearance of President Raúl Castro of Cuba at the Summit of the Americas in Panama in April marked a breakthrough for the gathering, which has taken place every few years since 1994. Not only was it the first time a Castro appeared at the event; the United States also enjoyed a more positive reception than in years past. A few days after the conclusion of the summit, President Obama removed Cuba from a list of state sponsors of terrorism, another sign that a new era in Latin American relations may be breaking.
The White House decision to re-establish diplomatic ties with Cuba has clearly borne fruit. Yet the months since that announcement have not been free of controversy. Venezuelan leaders have condemned the White House for imposing economic sanctions on individuals who played a key role in Venezuelan government crackdowns that led to the deaths of dozens of protesters.
But the sanctions were not as controversial as the language that prefaced the announcement. The executive order said that Venezuela posed “an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.” The language, which was criticized throughout Latin America, was a mistake. It gave President Maduro added ammunition in his efforts to demonize the United States. Fortunately, President Obama sent a seasoned foreign policy hand to Venezuela to meet with the president. By the time of the summit, Maduro seemed willing to engage with Obama, at least in a limited way.
The episode illustrates the difficulties of clearing a new diplomatic path. In some quarters of Latin America, distrust of los yanquis still runs deep.