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.

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