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The UN is about to put the United States under the microscope
by Nina Larson, AFP

The United Nations will on Monday review the US' rights record, with police brutality and racism, mass surveillance, and the legacy of the "war on terror" in the spotlight.

The half-day public debate before the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva comes as US authorities launched a civil rights investigation into Baltimore's police department following riots triggered by the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray while in police custody last month.

Monday's so-called Universal Periodic Review — which all 193 UN countries must undergo every four years — is likely to focus on a string of recent killings of unarmed black men like Gray by the police.

One of the most prominent cases was that of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old who was fatally shot in Ferguson, Missouri, last year, sparking extensive and sometimes violent protests across the nation.

The US delegation, headed by US ambassador to the council Keith Harper and acting US legal advisor Mary McLeod, were expected to face a range of questions about law enforcement tactics, police brutality, and the disproportionate impact on African Americans and other minorities.

Hard questions
"The world will be asking hard questions of a country that considers itself a human rights champion," Jamil Dakwar, head of human rights at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), told AFP.

How the US delegation responds to questions on a multitude of issues Monday could mark "the last opportunity for the Obama administration to shape the human rights legacy of the president," he warned.

Diplomats from around the world are expected to raise questions about widespread incarceration in the United States of illegal immigrants, including children.

Conditions inside US prisons, including the use of long-term solitary confinement and continued use of the death penalty, were also among the issues raised in reports and questions filed in advance of Monday's hearing.

The United States has seen its execution numbers drop in recent years to 35 in 2014, but still ranks fifth in the world after China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq, according to Amnesty International.

The issue of mass surveillance systems brought to light in documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden will also certainly be raised, as will US counterterrorism operations and targeted drone killings.

Also on the agenda is the US record on addressing its "war on terror" legacy, including alleged CIA torture, and Washington's failure to close the Guantanamo Bay detention centre in Cuba.

The United States underwent its first UPR in November 2010, but activists say it has done little to implement many of the 171 recommendations it accepted out of the 240 made by other countries that time around.

"The US has little progress to show for the many commitments it made during its first Universal Periodic Review," Antonio Ginatta, US advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.

He said he hoped diplomats this time would "press the US on mass surveillance, police violence and detention of migrant families," stressing that "the US should take the opportunity to make a serious commitment to roll back these abusive practices."

Dakwar agreed that after the last UPR, the US government "failed to deliver".

Now, he said, the administration had the opportunity to show what values it stands for.

"Will President Obama be remembered as the president who approved secret kill-lists, instituted indefinite detention, and failed to end unlawful surveillance practices?" he asked.

"Or will the president be on the right side of history by endorsing accountability for torture (and providing) an apology and reparations for victims?"

Josh Earnest is wrong; Obama's job on immigration not over
by Cesar Vargas, contributor

The 2016 presidential season has kicked off, and all attention has focused on the candidates from all sides who are talking about immigration. Meanwhile, the Obama administration seems to be preparing for retirement.

Election Day is still more than a year away, however, and the White House still has much to do: toasting at a Cinco de Mayo celebration is not the end of the line for President Obama's job on immigration.

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest is legally wrong that the president did all that he could. For example, by utilizing Section 504(b)(2) of the enlistment statute, the president has statutory power to direct the secretary of Defense to allow talented Dreamers to enlist because their enlistment is "vital to the national interest."

Republicans have shown, time and time again, that they are completely incapable of addressing immigration reform, allowing only bills attacking Dreamers to pass through the House of Representatives and never touching even the rightward-leaning Gang of 8 bill that passed the Senate with strong bipartisan support.

Even though Hillary Clinton took a great step by committing to further action on immigration, Obama should not defer to future presidents on leadership that is needed now.

Legal experts from around the country have agreed that a president has expansive legal authority to act to temporarily protect additional groups from deportation — and that this authority is rooted in statute, court opinion, regulations and precedent.

Obama has not exhausted the legal limits of this power yet, despite finding some political relief within a Department of Justice memo that outlined certain limits regarding executive power.

His authority on deportation relief, however, is fairly clear. Needless to say, the latest lawsuit against the president's immigration actions is nothing more than political theatrics by the far right of the Republican party and not based on law.

While almost everyone running for president puts an emphasis on immigration legislation, ferrying legislation through Congress will not be easy or quick, however, and will require executive solutions to bridge the gap between now and the enactment of new laws.

The president can still expand deportation relief — as he did with Dreamers — to help keep more families intact and talent in the U.S.

Significantly, the "bed mandate" is an arbitrary policy offensive to contemporary notions of due process written into the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Appropriations Act of 2010. DHS has interpreted this as a mandate to contract for and fill 33,400 beds in detention centers, which was increased in 2013 to 34,000.

As an agency, DHS is of course subject to executive authority: If the president were to direct DHS to interpret the funding differently, such as interpreting the 34,000 beds as an upper limit rather than a minimum, this could drastically change immigration detention, thereby allowing nonviolent immigrants to rejoin their families while their cases are processed.

Rather than settling for a legacy of executive timidity, President Obama can still leave a legacy of hope. While Congress is still relearning how to tie its shoes, the country needs an executive who will protect our families where our broken immigration system, and equally broken Congress, have failed.

Vargas is co-director of the Dream Action Coalition and a national advocate for immigration reform.

Presidential hopeful Ben Carson bases 10% tax plan on biblical tithing
The Guardian

‘You make $10bn a year, you pay a billion; you make $10 a year, you pay one. That’s pretty damn fair if you ask me,’ Carson said on Fox News Sunday

Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson said on Sunday his proposed flat-tax plan of about 10% was inspired by the biblical practice of tithing.

“You make $10bn a year, you pay a billion; you make $10 a year, you pay one. That’s pretty damn fair if you ask me,” Carson said on Fox News Sunday.

Carson, a former neurosurgeon who announced his presidential campaign last week, has cast himself as a non-politician and a problem solver in an attempt to set himself apart from the Republican field.

He is a long shot in the race, but his idea of a single, proportional tax may resonate with conservative evangelical Christians who believe in tithes and with Americans frustrated by a complicated tax system.

“I like the idea of a proportional tax – that way you pay according to your ability,” Carson said. “I got that idea quite frankly from the Bible.”

Carson disputed the idea that his plan could hurt the poor, saying it was condescending to assume they would not be able to pay.

“Poor people have pride, too, and they don’t want to be just taken care of,” he said, adding his plan would eliminate loopholes in the US tax system and make it hard for politicians to raise taxes.
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