30 Years of Working for Dignity and Justice

Jim Dorsey

By Jim Dorsey

Thirty years ago, Sam Heins gathered a group of lawyers for a lunch meeting at Windows on Minnesota, the restaurant that then sat on the top floor of the IDS, and asked them, “Is there something that we can do as lawyers, here in Minnesota, to further the cause of human rights both here and overseas?”

Barb Frey had just returned from living in Pinochet’s Chile, and I had recently hitch-hiked through apartheid South Africa. We both reported that we had contacts with reform-minded people in both of those countries. Mayor Don Fraser noted that, if we were interested in doing international human rights work, Chile and South Africa were two good places to start. Perhaps drawing on the spirit of social justice that is part of our community’s culture, we then answered Sam’s question with a determined “yes.” And so, as the result of that meeting and that answer, the organization now known as The Advocates for Human Rights came into being.

Our first name was the Minnesota Lawyers International Human Rights Committee. In those early years, we had a small budget and an even smaller staff. We were largely a board-driven organization, and we took on projects as we came across them. For instance, we deputized a volunteer traveling to Argentina for his honeymoon to meet with “the grandmothers of the disappeared.” Formally known as the Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo, these Argentine women demanded that the government account for their missing sons and daughters, who had been killed by government agents, as well as re-unite them with their grandchildren, who had been adopted and raised by members of the ruling class following the murders of their parents.

In the 1980’s we also supported the work of mothers in Guatemala who had lost family members during that country’s prolonged “dirty war.” As the result of our work there, we published a report entitled “Expectations Denied: Habeas Corpus and the Search for Guatemala’s Disappeared.” In 1987, we honored these brave women from both Guatemala and Argentina at our annual dinner. As a result of our work on projects like these, for many years Abogados de Minnesota was better known in many foreign countries than it was here in Minnesota.

During our first decade, we used Don Fraser’s matchless contacts as catalysts for fact-finding trips to Central America and the Philippines. We developed an expertise in doing human rights research in “mystery” countries such as Albania and North Korea. Sam Heins’ trial observation mission in Romania and John Borman’s report on human rights in Tunisia also grew out of opportunities that came to our door.

The biggest global events involving human rights over the past 30 years were: (1) the fall of the Soviet Union, which freed the eastern bloc countries and ended the Cold War; (2) the proliferation of democracies in southeast Asia, Africa, and South America, enabled in part by the end of the Cold War) and (3) more recently, the Arab Spring, the outcome of which is still being written. At the same time, the United Nations has continued to adopt and promulgate human rights treaties, and, as of 2006, all of its members undergo a Universal Periodic Review involving a peer review process focused on human rights compliance every four years.

As human rights advocates, we celebrated each of these developments. While they have far to go, the governments of the world, as a group, are slowly and inexorably meeting the mandate of human rights treaties to “respect, protect, and fulfill” human rights obligations.

While a volunteer organization at its inception, today The Advocates for Human Rights is staff-driven and tenacious. Our programs and activities are consistent from year to year, and those programs are phenomenal. In recent years:

Our Women’s Program has aided groups in efforts to draft and enact legislation to protect against domestic violence in at least 30 countries.

     Our Women’s Program has aided groups in efforts to draft and enact legislation to protect against domestic violence in at least 30 countries.

     Our Refugee and Immigrant Program has provided legal assistance in over 500 immigration cases annually, and    the cases frequently involve clients who need to escape persecution in their home countries.

     Our Advocacy Program shepherded the Safe Harbor Act through the Minnesota legislature. The Safe Harbor Act ensures that children caught in the sex industry are treated as victims, not criminals. The Advocates is currently championing No Wrong Door bills through the Minnesota legislature. No Wrong Door puts Safe Harbor into action by funding and requiring safe housing, medical and mental health care, and other support for children who are victims of sex trafficking.

     Our International Justice Program coordinated the research and writing of a report to the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission containing the stories and experiences of Liberia’s diaspora community.

     Our Education Program has developed cutting edge curricula on a range of human rights topics, and they recently went to Seychelles and trained a group of Ugandan parliamentarians in human rights in general and in human rights treaty monitoring and reporting in particular.

Most importantly, by all measures—the size and professionalism of our staff; the breadth and depth of volunteer engagement and support; our local, national and international reputation; our interaction and collaboration with foreign NGOs; and our financial strength and stability—the organization has never been stronger.

During his welcoming remarks at the 2011 Annual Human Rights Award Dinner, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak explained that Minnesotans’ concern for international human rights is part of our heritage. Given the ongoing and deep community support for the work of The Advocates, determined and creative protection of human rights is also our destiny.

Jim Dorsey is a board member, former board chair, and co-founder of The Advocates for Human Rights. He is an active pro bono volunteer and practices law with Fredrikson & Byron, P.A.

Letter from Liberia

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By Amy Bergquist

Life can be a heavy load in post-conflict Liberia, a country torn apart by a 14-year civil war that ended in 2003. What happened to a little girl, Olivia, evidences the toll of human rights abuses in that country, as reported to The Advocates’ “Team Liberia” while we were in Liberia in January conducting needs assessments with that country’s human rights organizations.

Olivia, at age 7, was reportedly raped by her 20-year-old cousin in 2005. The rape wasn’t reported to authorities until three years later when the girl’s uncle discovered his niece gravely ill and family members told him about the crime. The uncle took Olivia to Monrovia for medical care. The cousin was arrested.

A heavy price was paid for the uncle breaking the silence: The family shunned Olivia and her mother. The ostracism they suffered compelled Olivia’s mother to drop all charges, and the cousin was released.

The flag of Liberia is a reminder of the long history between that country and the United States.
The flag of Liberia is a reminder of the long history between that country and the United States.

Olivia had multiple surgeries to attempt to repair a severe fistula, as well as to treat infections and malnutrition. Liberia’s Gender Ministry paid for Olivia’s medical care, but the delayed medical care was inadequate. Last year, Olivia, at age 13, died of injuries related to her rape. A documentary film called Small Small Thing features Olivia’s story.

As the brutality suffered by Olivia demonstrates, Liberia, like other post-conflict states, is confronted with more than shifting discourse from “bullets to ballots.” While the country returned to a democratically-elected government when the war ended, work remains because post-conflict states must rebuild their nations and rebuild their civil societies, as we were told many times during our interviews.

The Liberian Electoral Commission in Monrovia
The Liberian Electoral Commission in Monrovia

Child rape is one urgent human rights issue Liberian organizations cited during our interviews. Liberians took steps to respond when, on December 10, 2012—Human Rights Day, Liberia’s National Independent Commission on Human Rights launched a year-long campaign, Break the Silence on Child Rape in Liberia: My Voice Counts.

Commissioner Ruby Johnson-Morris, who is spearheading the initiative, explained to Team Liberia that child rape is on the increase in Liberia, with some victims as young as six-years-old. Doctors Without Borders reports that, in 2011, a staggering 92% of patients receiving care for rape in Liberia were under age 18.

Refreshment stand outside the Samuel Kanyon Doe Sports Complex in Paynesville, Liberia
Refreshment stand outside the Samuel Kanyon Doe Sports Complex in Paynesville, Liberia

Commissioner Johnson-Morris explained that one obstacle to addressing the problem is the desire of victims’ families to resolve the issue “the family way,” by reaching a “compromise” with the perpetrator and not publicly acknowledging the crime. One only needs to think of Olivia to know that such informal settlements can have tragic consequences.

As the photos below show, we saw beautiful children in Liberia, many of whom are experiencing extreme poverty in one of Africa’s poorest countries. Their smiles and playfulness inspired us. Just as inspirational are the many organizations we met with in Liberia that are devising creative ideas to protect and promote the human rights of Liberian children as their country rebuilds from its legacy of civil war.

The Advocates’ Executive Director Robin Phillips (left) with Commissioners Boikai Dukuley (center) and Ruby Johnson-Morris (right) at the National Independent Commission on Human Rights
The Advocates’ Executive Director Robin Phillips (left) with Commissioners Boikai Dukuley (center) and Ruby Johnson-Morris (right) at the National Independent Commission on Human Rights
A poster promoting the campaign to Break the Silence on Child Rape in Liberia (1)

We met with 30 organizations and individuals in Liberia involved in a wide range of human rights efforts around the country. This work is part of The Advocates’ Africa Advocacy Project to support local organizations in Africa with pro bono legal assistance involving pro bono lawyers to advance human rights and the rule of law through projects a country’s local organizations identify and lead.

Our work in Liberia kicked off a series of in-country visits. During the first three months of 2013, The Advocates’ staff and volunteer attorneys from Faegre Baker Daniels are traveling to Morocco, Cameroon, and Tanzania, in addition Liberia, to conduct in-country needs assessments with local human rights organizations.

A poster promoting the campaign to Break the Silence on Child Rape in Liberia
A poster promoting the campaign to Break the Silence on Child Rape in Liberia (2)

Members of Team Liberia include Faegre volunteer attorney Jim O’Neal; Robin Phillips, The Advocates’ Executive Director; and me, The Advocates’ International Justice Staff Attorney.

The Advocates has a long history with the Liberian people. We represent asylum seekers fleeing persecution in Liberia and, from 2006-2009, we worked with Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission to incorporate the experiences of the Liberian diaspora—those who had fled the conflict—into the Commission’s historical record.

Minnesota is now home to the largest concentration of Liberians outside of West Africa, and the enduring ties between Liberia and The Advocates’ home state of Minnesota was evident in Team Liberia’s meetings—and even at street vendor stands advertising “Minnesota Ice and Water.”

For more information on Liberia’s history and the effects of the country’s civil war on the Liberian diaspora, read A House with Two Rooms, The Advocates’ final report to the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Liberian boys playing a roadside game of
Liberian boys playing a roadside game of “check up.”
Liberian children dancing and drumming at a roadside stand
Liberian children dancing and drumming at a roadside stand
A Liberian girl street vendor
A Liberian girl street vendor

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Amy Bergquist is a staff attorney in the International Justice Program.

All photos by the author.