Volunteer Relishes First-hand Experience Working at U.N.

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A volunteer for human rights, or more accurately for The Advocates for Human Rights with whom I first became acquainted in the late 90’s when I joined The Advocates to conduct domestic violence training for NGOs from Moldova, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, and Armenia. Soon after, I teamed with The Advocates’ staff and an Armenian NGO to undertake careful fact-finding with the goal of assessing the status of the rights of Armenian women to be free from intimate violence. The recommendations from the report which resulted were used to increase services for survivors and to hold more offenders accountable in Yerevan and other communities in Armenia.

Today, more than 15 years later, I am sitting with a number of The Advocates’ staff and volunteers in the Serpentine Lounge in Building E, otherwise known as the home of the Human Rights Council in the United Nations Office in Geneva, Switzerland. The Serpentine Lounge is two floors below the formal major chamber where delegates from around the world sit in an orderly fashion, each taking their turn to deliver two-minute statements or sound bites to comment and vote on proposed resolutions on issues like food, sustainability, or listen to reports from special experts or rapporteurs on the status of a state’s record on various aspects of human rights as defined by a myriad of declarations and conventions.

In contrast, the Serpentine Lounge is a hub of activity against a mellow Geneva landscape. Delegates are in earnest conversations with each other and NGOs to learn from each other and no doubt try to persuade one other. Of the many opportunities I have had here over the week “working,” the Serpentine Lounge has been one of the most energizing.

Every four and one-half years, 16 countries are scheduled to appear for their Universal Periodic Review by the Human Rights Council. Given The Advocates’ special consultative status with the United Nations, we have the ability to meet with delegates who will be submitting comments on the status of the countries up for review this May. Building on the tremendous work already completed by The Advocates, my colleagues and I are meeting with delegates from literally every part of the world. I have met with delegates from countries as diverse as Finland and Paraguay who are interested in how effectively countries to be reviewed, such as Mongolia and Croatia, are with eradicating gender-based violence. We share our findings with the delegates, and in the instance of Croatia, our Croatian colleague, Valentina Andrasek, is here to offer her NGO’s first-hand experience helping battered women. The delegates are both surprised and discouraged to learn the way in which the Croatian criminal law is being implemented. In Croatia, more than 40 percent of domestic violence cases in which arrests are made result in dual arrests, with both the victim and the offender being arrested.

Not only do we share our recommendations and hand the delegates fact-filled one-pagers, we get the chance to learn about the values and politics of countries we may never visit. My mind has been going the proverbial mile-a-minute; I have learned so much about the complexities of the UN world—an alphabet soup of shorthand—where work really gets done. I have found my co-travelers as fascinating as the delegates with whom we have met. And as one of the few non-Minnesotans in The Advocates’ delegation, I have throughly enjoyed the Midwestern grace and calm that has infused our time together.

Thank you, The Advocates for Human Rights, NGO extraordinaire.

By: Joan Kuriansky, an attorney who has been involved in women’s rights throughout her career, has experience running local and national organizations that address a range of issues, including women’s economic empowerment and violence against women. Ms. Kuriansky recently traveled to the United Nations in Geneva with The Advocates for Human Rights and other volunteers.

In Memoriam: Sharon Rice Vaughn

Sharon Rice Vaughan Photo: Lisa Miller, U of M
Sharon Rice Vaughan
Photo: Lisa Miller, U of M

Dear Friends,

What a great privilege to have known Sharon Rice Vaughan. She was an amazing teacher, and one of the greatest examples of a servant leader I have ever met. Sharon was the first expert to consult with us at The Advocates for Human Rights when, more than 20 years ago, we started our Women’s Program. I remember listening to her story and thinking how amazing it would be for her to share that story with women around the world.

Sharon was part of our delegation to the UN Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China in 1995. I witnessed how easily she connected with women from every corner of the globe and how her story touched them in profound ways. The following year she traveled with us to Tirana, Albania, and shared her story again with women from nine countries in the Balkans. Sharon mesmerized the entire room with her story of how the seeds of the first shelter were planted by welcoming battered women into her own home in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and how she and other amazing women built the first shelter. She inspired these women who were in the earliest stages of organizing after the fall of communism; through her example, she showed them that with passion, commitment, and creativity, they too could start a movement.

I am grateful for the ways Sharon changed my life, and I am inspired by the ways she changed the world.

Sincerely,

Robin Phillips, Executive Director
The Advocates for Human Rights

Sharon Rice Vaughan was a national pioneer in providing safe havens to abused women. Her life ended this week, as a result of a car accident in Cuba. Learn more about Ms. Rice Vaughn.

Driver’s Licenses for All

MN with Road
The Minnesota legislature is set to consider a proposal that would decouple immigration status from driver’s license eligibility. This important proposal restores Minnesota law to its pre-2003 state and returns the driver’s license to its original purpose of ensuring that drivers on Minnesota roads have demonstrated that they know how to drive.

The bills, HF 97 (Hamilton) and HF 98 (Clark) in the House and SF 224 (Champion), each would allow Minnesota to accept a valid, unexpired passport and certified birth certificate as an acceptable form of proof of identity. The bills would also repeal the Minnesota rules that require driver’s license applicants to submit proof of current authorized legal presence in the United States.

In 2003 Minnesota amended its regulations to require that applicants for driver’s licenses must present proof of residency and “demonstrate proof of either lawful short-term admission to the United States, permanent United States resident status, indefinite authorized presence status, or United States citizenship.” Minn. Rules. 7410.0410, subpart 1.

The Advocates for Human Rights opposed the 2003 rules change, noting that they were likely to “result in discriminatory and potentially unconstitutional practices, will decrease public safety, and will fail to advance the purpose of the rule.” We cited concerns about the erosion of immigrant community trust in police and decreased willingness to cooperate with police in the investigation of crime. We also noted that the rules may lead to unconstitutional actions, including unconstitutional stops, arrests, and detention incident to traffic stops made solely on the basis of perceived immigration status.

Those concerns were born out in the findings of The Advocates’ 2014 report Moving from Exclusion to Belonging: Immigrant Rights in Minnesota Today, where immigrant crime victims reported that fear of deportation stands in the way of calling the police. Advocates reported incidents of law enforcement routinely running license plates of Latino drivers, jailing people for failure to have a driver’s license, and calling federal immigration officials during the course of traffic stops.

In 2003, we also raised the concern that “due to extensive delays in application processing, many immigrants and lawful nonimmigrants will be unable to present documentation of their status” despite being lawfully present.

The Advocates represents asylum seekers – people who have fled their countries out of fear of persecution, torture, and death. Asylum seekers may struggle through years of bureaucratic delays before their applications are approved. They are lawfully present in this country under federal law and international treaty, but the only proof of their authorized stay acceptable under Minnesota Rule 7410.0410 is the work permit issued to asylum seekers in one-year increments. Asylum seekers are issued Minnesota driver’s licenses marked with the words STATUS CHECK and the expiration date of their work permit. Unfortunately, US Citizenship and Immigration Services, the federal agency which issues employment authorization documents, is plagued by bureaucratic backlogs which often result in delays of weeks or even months in work permit renewals. In these situations, even though the asylum seeker remains lawfully present in the United States, their driver’s license is cancelled and, when the new work permit finally arrives, the asylum seeker must pay a renewal fee for a new license to be issued. They cannot drive while they wait for their immigration paperwork.

Asylum seekers in our community have endured persecution in their home countries and trauma in flight to safety. Minnesota law should ensure that, when they arrive in our state seeking to rebuild their lives in safety, they are met with welcome and given access to the tools they need to move forward. Returning Minnesota’s driver’s license law to its pre-2003 status is the right thing to do.

By: Michele Garnett McKenzie, The Advocates for Human Rights’ director of advocacy.