Thanksgiving Mourning

The white man says, there is freedom and justice for all. We have had ‘freedom and justice,’ and that is why we have been almost exterminated.
-The 1927 Grand Council of American Indians

November is Native American Indian Heritage Month, and the Friday after Thanksgiving is Native American Indian Heritage Day. In this time for giving thanks, many of us celebrate with family, food, and football. Let us not forget, though, that for many others, this season is a time of reflection and mourning.

Although the United States is often considered the world’s most prominent advocate for freedom and liberty, its establishment was built on the denial of basic human rights to Native Americans that included brutal killings, the spread of conquerors’ diseases, racist government policies, broken treaties, theft, removal from native lands, uninhabitable reservations with poor land for farming, and child kidnapping, as well as assimilation in boarding schools, lack of education, poor health care, and banning of Native American languages, cultures, and religions.

The annihilation of the Native American population during the Indian Wars was so devastating that it was “far & away, the most massive act of genocide in the history of the world,” according to David Stannard in American Holocaust, published in 1992 by Oxford University Press.

Estimates show that the North American Indian population plummeted from an estimated 12 million people in 1500 to barely 237,000 in 1900, according to Were American Indians the Victims of Genocide, by Gunter Lewy, published on History News Network. Other estimates set the total of the number of Native American killed by genocide, diseases, famine, and other factors range between 10 and 30 million people, according to Russell Thornton in American Indian Holocaust and Survivial: A Population History Since 1492, published by University of Oklahoma Press.

This long history of oppression and marginalization continues today. “Indigenous peoples in the United States constitute vibrant communities that have contributed greatly to the life of this country; yet they face significant challenges that are related to widespread historical wrongs, including broken treaties and acts of oppression, and misguided government policies, that today manifest themselves in various indicators of disadvantage and impediments to the exercise of their individual and collective rights,” stated James Anaya, the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, states. For example, of the more than 5.2 million Native Americans living in federally recognized tribal areas in the United States, 28.4% live in poverty, nearly double the national average, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Facts for Features: American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month 2011.

The Advocates is pleased to announce its newest toolkit on the rights of indigenous peoples in the United States, an important resource for learning more about the human rights issues indigenous people face in this country every day. The kit will help you:

Learn about indigenous rights in the United States and about how well the U.S. doing in fulfilling those rights;

Take Action to advocate on indigenous peoples rights.

The Rights Indigenous Peoples Toolkit is available at

By: Emily Farell, program associate of the Human Rights Education program at The Advocates for Human Rights.


“We felt guilty going to bed, on warm beds . . .”

16 days logo high resFelicia Krecij often feels there is no point in living, now that her beloved sister, Kira Steger, is gone. Following Kira’s disappearance in Saint Paul, Minnesota, last February, suspicion swirled around Kira’s husband, Jeffrey Trevino. But he remained silent about what had happened to his wife.

A barge worker discovered Kira’s body in the Mississippi River in May, following months of searches organized by the family and others.

In October, a jury found Trevino guilty of her murder; this week the judge handed down a sentence of 27 1/2 years in prison.

In court statements made at Trevino’s sentencing, Kira’s family told of spending the past nine months “racked by depression, fear and anxiety,” reports today’s Pioneer Press. “Months of sleepless nights wondering what had happened to Steger. Eleven weeks of searching and wondering. Seventy-seven days; 38 organized searches.”

Kira’s family’s anguish and despair is palpable, and reverberates with other others who have lost loved ones because of this kind of violence. The picture Kira’s family paints is one that should propel each of us to take action. Read the full article in the Pioneer Press.

By: Susan Banovetz, director of communication, The Advocates for Human Rights

Two Gunshots on a Summer Night

16 days logo high resLegal system officials’ response to Michelle O’Connell’s death as documented in Two Gunshots on a Summer Night is shocking and shameful (New York Times, November 24, 2013). Authorities involved in this case should be held accountable for failing to diligently investigate the tragic death of a young mother in the presence of her deputy sheriff-boyfriend, with whom she had just broken up. Too many indicators of a domestic homicide were present to ignore them.

The Advocates for Human Rights frequently sees this type of conduct by legal system officials in countries around the world with whom The Advocates is just beginning to pass laws and improve community responses to domestic violence. These countries often have no laws on domestic violence, few resources or shelters, and little public awareness about domestic violence. In the United States, however, where there has been more than 40 years of learning and reform on domestic violence, there is no excuse for the conduct described in Two Gunshots on a Summer Night.

On the night of her death, Ms. O’Connell had ended a relationship with Jeremy Banks, a deputy sheriff in Florida. Present at the scene, Mr. Banks called the police to report the shooting, and based solely on Mr. Bank’s statement, Ms. O’Connell’s death was filed as a suicide. The article reports that the responding police officers did not investigate for domestic violence, despite information provided by the victim’s family and a report by Mr. Banks that they were arguing and she had just told him she was leaving him.

The article goes on to tell the devastating story and fight for justice by Ms. O’Connell’s family and how their desperate pleas have been continually ignored by the police and prosecutors.

A special investigation by the New York Times and the PBS investigative news program, “Frontline,” found that Ms. O’Connell’s case was mishandled from the start – that police, the sheriff, and medical examiners all failed to effectively investigate and respond to Ms. O’Connell’s death. For example, evidence was not tested for DNA, fingerprints, or gunpowder residue; witnesses were not interviewed until too late; and multiple theories were created to make the case fit with a suicide despite the overwhelming evidence that it was a suspicious death.

“A Death in St. Augustine,” a “Frontline” documentary produced in conjunction with the New York Times article, will premiere at 10 p.m., tonight, Tuesday, November 26, on most PBS stations. The full film is online now.

Since the early 1970s, we have been working in the United States to improve the legal system’s response to domestic violence. We have made great strides, training police and prosecutors, changing laws and policies, and building awareness. Ms. O’Connell’s case is an embarrassment to the State of Florida and a dangerous precedent.

Yesterday was the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, kicking off the 16 Days Against Gender Violence Campaign. For the next 16 days, we will share stories like Ms. O’Connell’s and promote activities that each of us can do to raise the collective awareness of violence against women.

To commemorate the day and start the campaign, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon released a statement:

“I welcome the chorus of voices calling for an end to the violence that affects an estimated one in three women in her lifetime. I applaud leaders who are helping to enact and enforce laws and change mindsets. And I pay tribute to all those heroes around the world who help victims to heal and to become agents of change.”

We hope you will join us in activism over the next 16 Days to end gender violence. Follow our 16 Days updates on Twitter and Facebook: @The_Advocates and

By: Cheryl Thomas, director of the Women’s Human Rights Program at The Advocates for Human Rights, and Mary O’Brien, program associate with the Women’s Human Rights Program.

Was Executed 14-Year-Old Innocent?

Only 14 years old, straight-A george-Junius-Stinney-Jrstudent George Stinney, Jr. became the youngest person in recorded U.S. history to be executed. That was nearly 70 years ago in Alcolu, South Carolina, and now attorneys in that state have requested a new trial in hopes of posthumously clearing the child’s name.

While seven decades have passed since George was executed, his case illustrates human rights abuses inherent in the death penalty that continue today.

Police contended at the time that George, who was black, had confessed to the crime of murdering two young white girls, 11-year-old Betty June Binnicker and 7-year-old Mary Emma Thames. The supposed confession came after hours of harsh interrogation, without either of his parents or an attorney present. Reports claim police officers offered the young boy ice cream if he confessed to the murders. His “confession” was said to be verbal, and there is no written record of a confession.

“False confessions are a very real, contributing factor to innocents being sentenced to death,” said Rosalyn Park, The Advocates for Human Rights’ research director. “One study shows that false confessions constitute nearly 10 percent of the causes behind wrongful convictions.” Park represents The Advocates on the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty’s steering committee, and she chairs the working group for World Day Against the Death Penalty.

George’s court-appointed white attorney, who at the time was preparing a run for the South Carolina state house, mounted no defense during a trial that lasted less than three hours. Moreover, there was no physical evidence linking George to the murder and no record on paper of his confession for the jury to consider. The courtroom was packed with 1,500 people, all white. Blacks were not allowed.

His family did not have a chance to provide the child’s alibi or present evidence in defense of their loved one because they had been run out of town. George’s father was not allowed to speak to or see his son before the trial.

It took only 10 minutes for the all-white jury to convict him. Two months later, George was electrocuted. Standing 5’1” and weighing 95 pounds, he was so small that his executioners had to stack books on the chair’s seat so that the child’s head would reach the electrodes.

George’s case is representative of the racial bias pervasive throughout the capital punishment system today. “If the victim is white, a defendant is more likely to be sentenced to death than if the victim is black” said Park. “The race of the defendant also increases the likelihood of a death sentence, and black persons are disproportionately overrepresented on death row in comparison to the general population.”

George’s case also indicates how the United States is behind international norms, said Parks. Although international law has long prohibited the execution of a juvenile offender, executing juvenile offenders was only abolished in the United States in 2005 with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

The Advocates for Human Rights has submitted a shadow report to the United Nations’ Human Rights Committee on the death penalty in the United States. Let’s hope that the next time the United States’ human rights record is reviewed by the United Nations, the death penalty will have been abolished in the United States, allowing the country to hold its head high.

Learn more:

By: Susan L. Banovetz, communication director for The Advocates for Human Rights

34,000 Heads in 34,000 Beds

Stock Photo woman behind fenceAn average of 34,000 immigrants must be incarcerated per day by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), thanks to a little-known Congressional mandate. This quota has steadily risen since it was established in 2006 by conservative lawmakers who insisted that the agency wasn’t doing enough to deport unlawful immigrants.

Listen to the Bed Mandate 101 webinar and learn more: