Ten years ago this month, Wyoming college student Matthew Shepard was brutally attacked and murdered because he was gay. A year before Matthew's murder, James Byrd. Jr. was kidnapped, beaten, and stripped naked by three white supremacists, who chained him by the ankles to a pickup truck and dragged his body for three miles. These tragedies reawakened American consciousness about hate crime and sparked debate far beyond U.S. borders.
Today, President Obama signed into law the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crime Prevention Act, critical legislation that strengthens existing U.S. laws by extending federal hate crime protection in cases where the victim was targeted because of their sexual orientation, gender, disability, or gender identity. The new law -- which the U.S. Attorney General Holder called a "civil rights issue that is clearly a priority" -- will also permit federal authorities to assist local governments in hate crime investigations and increase their capacity through training programs.
This much-needed step to enhance the government's response to hate crime at home will play an important role in enhancing US leadership on combating hate violence globally. This is already happening.
Secretary of State Clinton recently underlined the importance of combating hate crime, at the launch of the State Department's 2009 Report on International Religious Freedom by proclaiming that the best antidote to religious intolerance is "a combination of robust legal protections against discrimination and hate crimes, proactive government outreach to minority religious groups, and the vigorous defense of both freedom of religion and expression."
Together, President Obama, Secretary Clinton, and other members of the administration must be prepared to carry and promote this message overseas, in countries where governments are not responding adequately to violence motivated by religious intolerance, racism and xenophobia, sexual orientation and gender identity bias, or other similar manifestations of intolerance. In many parts of the world, governments are failing to take hate violence seriously by bringing the perpetrators to justice.
As the United States begins the work of enacting this important new bill, Human Rights First is encouraging the government to also demonstrate continued international leadership in multilateral organizations, advocate measures to combat hate crime in bilateral relationships, and expand efforts to support civil society organizations, by taking the following steps:
-Raising violent hate crime issues with representatives of foreign governments and encouraging, where appropriate, legal and other policy responses, including those contained in Human Rights First's ten-point plan for governments to combat violent hate crime. Talking Helps!
-Offer appropriate technical assistance and other forms of cooperation, including training of police and prosecutors in investigating, recording, reporting and prosecuting violent hate crimes as well as translation of Department of Justice and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) materials on hate crimes. Peer tutoring works!
-Ensuring that groups working to combat all forms of violent hate crime have access to support under existing U.S. funding programs, including the Human Rights and Democracy Fund and programs for human rights defenders. Money is needed!
-Maintain strong and inclusive State Department monitoring and public reporting on racist, antisemitic, xenophobic, anti-Muslim, homophobic, anti-Roma and other bias-motivated violence -- including by consulting with civil society groups as well as providing appropriate training for human rights officers and other relevant mission staff abroad. Reporting matters!
Today is a day to welcome the president's signing the Hate Crime Prevention Act into law and to congratulate all those who worked for more than a decade to make this happen. It is also an important moment to recall the global nature of hate violence. While not losing sight of the challenges at home, we call on the U.S. to enhance its global leadership role by working to ensure that hate violence is met with a vigorous response everywhere.