“All our SPCS family r safe…”

SPCS students enjoying recess.  March 2015. (Credit:  Jennifer Prestholdt)
Students at the Sankhu-Palubari Community School enjoying recess in March, 2015. (Credit: Jennifer Prestholdt)

“All our SPCS family r safe …”

This was the message I received from Anoop Poudel, headmaster at the Sankhu-Palubari Community School (SPCS), on Monday night. We had been desperately trying to reach Anoop and others connected with SPCS since the 7.8 earthquake devastated Nepal on Saturday, April 25.  Our concern grew as the death toll mounted and the strong aftershocks continued in the Kathmandu Valley. What a relief to learn that the teachers and 340 students at the school, as well as their families, are safe!

The Sankhu-Palubari Community School in the rural Kathmandu Valley, March 2015. (Credit: David Kistle)
The Sankhu-Palubari Community School in the rural Kathmandu Valley, March 2015. (Credit: David Kistle)

In my role as The Advocates for Human Rights’ deputy director, I coordinate The Advocates’ Nepal School Project. I was in Nepal just a few weeks ago with a team of volunteers to conduct our annual monitoring visit. The Advocates has been partnering with the Sankhu-Palubari community since 1999 to provide education as an alternative to child labor for low-income children in the area who would otherwise be working in brick yards or in the fields.

The Sankhu-Palubari Community School provides free, high quality education to children in grades pre-K through 10. Many of the students walk a long way to get to school – some as long as two hours each way.

The students’ standardized test scores are among the highest in Nepal, a highly competitive honor. And the school was awarded Nepal’s prestigious National Education Service Felicitation Award in 2014. Graduates are now studying at universities, preparing to become doctors, social workers, teachers, and agronomists; many plan to return to their village to improve the community’s quality of life. Their contributions will be even more important now, in the aftermath of this devastating earthquake.

Some students walk - up to 2 hours each way - to Sankhu-Palubari Community School to access their right to education.  (Credit: Laura Sandall)
Some students walk – up to 2 hours each way – to Sankhu-Palubari Community School to access their right to education. (Credit: Laura Sandall)

The school is especially important for girls, who make up 52 percent of the student body. When SPCS began, girls often left school at an early age to marry or work. Now, they are staying and graduating because families have experienced the benefits of education. (You can read the inspiring story of SPCS’ first female graduate in Kanchi’s Story.)

First grade student at SPCS (Credit: Jennifer Prestholdt)
First grade student at SPCS (Credit: Jennifer Prestholdt)

The new school year had just started at SPCS, but school was not in session when the earthquake hit. Students in Nepal attend school six days a week; Saturday is the only day when there is no school. Many people believe that, had it been a school day, the numbers of dead and injured in Kathmandu and throughout the Kathmandu Valley could have been much higher.

Even with that one tiny bright spot in a terrible national tragedy, UNICEF estimates that nearly one million children in Nepal were severely affected by the earthquake. Most of our students, who come from extremely poor agricultural families, are included in that number. Anoop sent me several more texts after the first, describing heavy damage in the area of the eastern Kathmandu Valley where the school is located. Media sources and other Nepali contacts also confirm extensive destruction in the Sankhu area. While we don’t have a lot of information yet, Anoop reported that he believes that more than 90 percent of the students and teachers have lost their homes in the earthquake. They are living outside in temporary shelters because of continuing aftershocks.  Word about the school building’s fate is yet to be received.  The first relief teams are reportedly scheduled to arrive in the area on Wednesday.

Primary students at SPCS (Credit: Jennifer Prestholdt)
Primary students at SPCS (Credit: Jennifer Prestholdt)

Our hearts go out to everyone in our SPCS family, as well as to the millions of other Nepalis affected by the “Black Saturday” earthquake.  At The Advocates, we believe that support for basic human needs such as water, food, and medical assistance in Nepal is the most urgent need at this point in time. We encourage people to give to reputable international humanitarian assistance organizations involved in the earthquake relief effort (you can find more information in the links below). In the long term, Nepal will need sustainable rebuilding and development programs.

Because education is essential to reducing poverty and inequality, the best way that The Advocates can support the rebuilding of Nepal is to is to ensure that the education of the students at our school continues with the least amount of interruption possible. We remain focused on that goal.

To find people in Nepal:

Use the Restoring Family Links tool on the ICRC website to search for a family member or friend in the area hit by the earthquake.

Use Google Person Finder if you are looking for, or have information about, someone in the affected area.

Use Facebook Safety Check to connect with you friends in the area and mark them as safe if you know that they’re ok.

Articles about how to contribute to the earthquake relief effort in Nepal: 

How to Help The Relief Effort in Nepal

Nepal Earthquake: How To Donate

How To Help Nepal: 7 Vetted Charities Doing Relief Work Following the Earthquake

Don’t Rush to Nepal. Read This First. 

Photo of pre-K students at the Sankhu-Palubari Community School (Credit: David Parker)
Photo of pre-K students at the Sankhu-Palubari Community School (Credit: David Parker)

Deputy Director Jennifer Prestholdt interviewing a student.Jennifer Prestholdt is the Deputy Director and International Justice Program Director at The Advocates for Human Rights.  

In March 2015, she made her sixth trip to the Sankhu-Palubari Community School in Nepal.

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Leading by Example? The International Impact of Marriage Equality Ruling

LGBT_world*This post, written by Amy Bergquist, a staff attorney with The Advocates for Human Rights, is part of American Constitution Society’s blog’s symposium on the consolidated marriage equality cases before the Supreme Court.

A decision by the U.S. Supreme Court recognizing a right to marriage equality would make headlines around the world, but the implications for the rights of people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or intersex (LGBTI) in other countries may be complex.

The Advocates for Human Rights collaborates with partner organizations advocating for LGBTI rights in African countries like Cameroon and Tanzania, where the governments not only criminalize consensual sexual conduct between people of the same sex, but also condone or even participate in discrimination and violence targeting LGBTI people.  We know from our partners that government officials, religious leaders, celebrities and the media fuel anti-LGBTI animus by arguing that, in African culture, “homosexuality . . . is considered universally as a manifestation of moral decadence that should be fought.”

Many countries have laws on the books prohibiting sexual conduct between people of the same sex, but Cameroonian authorities aggressively enforce their country’s law; courts convict people simply for acting or dressing in a gender-non-conforming manner.  Vigilante groups in Cameroon organize patrols to round up suspected violators and hand them over to the police.  Violence and discrimination targeting LGBTI people are widespread.

The complexity of advocacy for LGBTI rights in the international context arises out of the false characterization, in some parts of the world, of LGBTI rights as a “western invention.”  In collaboration with our partners in Cameroon, we submitted a report to Africa’s leading human rights body, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, debunking this myth.  In Cameroon, as in many other African countries, criminalization of consensual same-sex sexual conduct is a legacy of the colonial era.  In our report, we quote Dr. Sylvia Tamale, law professor and former dean of the law faculty of Makere University in Kampala, who explains: “There is a long history of diverse African peoples engaging in same-sex relations. . . . Ironically, it is the dominant Judeo-Christian and Arabic religions that most African anti-homosexuality proponents rely on, that are foreign imports.”  Indeed, as I’ve argued at The Advocates Post, anti-gay extremists from the United States and Europe attempt to export their animus to Africa and the former Soviet Union.

A decision on marriage equality by the highest court in the United States could spur countries to adopt sweeping reactionary legislation similar to two laws adopted last year: Nigeria’s “Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act,” which not only imposes criminal penalties of up to 14 years imprisonment for entering into a same-sex marriage, but also criminalizes participation in “gay clubs, societies and organisations” and public displays of affection by same-sex couples; and Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act, which increased that country’s criminal penalties for crimes such as “aggravated homosexuality,” imposed a penalty of life imprisonment for any person “purport[ing] to contract a marriage with another person of the same sex,” and imposed a punishment of up to seven years imprisonment for any person or institution conducting a same-sex marriage.  (Uganda’s law was later struck down on a procedural technicality.)  Our partners in Tanzania are already reporting that their parliament is considering a law similar to Uganda’s.

When the U.S. Supreme Court rules on marriage equality, some foreign courts will, without a doubt, cite the opinion ― or the dissent ― as they address challenges to laws prohibiting marriage equality.  (Courts in countries with common-law traditions, including Fiji, Hong Kong and India, have cited Lawrence v. Texas in assessing domestic laws prohibiting same-sex sexual conduct.)

In the international context, however, marriage equality is not the end of the road but just one component of a complex set of efforts to ensure equal rights for LGBTI persons throughout the world.  In 2006, for example, South Africa became the fifth country in the world to recognize a right to marriage equality.  Yet nine years on, anti-LGBTI violence in South Africa is still common.  Photojournalist Clare Carter recently documented the practice of “corrective rape” ― oftentimes with the collusion of the victim’s family ― intended to “cure” lesbians and transgender men.  The South African government has only recently stepped up efforts to respond to widespread violence targeting LGBTI people.  To achieve lasting change, advocates for LGBTI rights around the world need to develop strategies that take into account the local context.  The Advocates recently published a toolkit of resources to help.

The African Commission, in an official concluding statement about Cameroon’s human rights record, recently urged Cameroonian authorities to “[t]ake appropriate measures to ensure the safety and physical integrity of all persons irrespective of their sexual orientation and maintain an atmosphere of tolerance towards sexual minorities in the country.”  For our partners, these words offer more promise for advancing LGBTI rights in Africa than any ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court ever could.

Migration Not Border Security Problem; People Like Us Face Perilous Choices

Photo credit: ALJAZEERA AMERICA
Photo credit: ALJAZEERA AMERICA

The capsize of a ship overloaded with migrants seeking to cross the Mediterranean has galvanized attention on what The New York Times characterizes as a surge in refugees from throughout the Middle East and North Africa. With, as The Times reports, “about 17 times as many refugee deaths in the Mediterranean Sea from January to April compared to the same period last year,” the human tragedy unfolding is shocking, particularly to those of us who have never faced such a perilous choice.

But while calls for a naval blockade continue to be heard, a more nuanced take on Fortress Europe and the obligation to consider human dignity have surfaced. Pope Francis, who last year urged European leaders not to allow the Mediterranean to become a vast cemetery, reminded those gathered for his weekly address that the migrants whose boat had foundered are men and women like us, our brothers seeking a better life, starving, persecuted, wounded, exploited, victims of war.

Even European leaders who according to NPR’s Sylvia Poggioli have long been “pressed by anti-immigrant parties… are now facing a backlash for having neglected the humanitarian disaster taking place in the waters of the Mediterranean.” Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi struck a new note when he said: “We are asking not to be left alone. Our political priority is not just a security issue. We want to ensure the dignity of human beings and block human traffickers. The new slave traders of the 21st century must not believe that Europe considers this one of the least important issues on its agenda.”

The recognition that migration is more than a border security issue is one the United States needs to take seriously.

Several weeks ago NPR’s Steve Inskeep had a rather horrifying exchange with Simon Henshaw, the U.S. State Department deputy secretary charged with explaining how the United States’ is fulfilling its international refugee protection obligations despite its multifaceted deterrence strategy through a recently-opened process for Honduran children whose parents are permanent residents to enter the U.S. more quickly than the normal visa backlog allows:

INSKEEP: Does it bother you, though, that there may be a young person who asks
for help and then has to go away from a U.S. consulate and go back into the neighbor-
hood where their lives have been threatened?

HENSHAW: Yes, it does. But what really bothers me is the thought that that child
might take a risky journey through Mexico and come to the United States. So what
I want to do is make sure that our program addresses their situation as fast as possible.”

Yes, Mr. Henshaw, La Bestia is dangerous. But even more dangerous is abandoning the fundamental right to non-refoulement – to seek and enjoy asylum from persecution.

Last December NPR’s Robert Siegal summed up the Obama Administration’s official word: “if you, a child in Central America, try to come up North, you’ll be put in detention; you’ll be sent back; you’ll be flown back home.”

In a report released this month, Detention Watch Network traced the role of deterrence strategies in U.S. immigration policy, noting that the Obama administration’s “recent reliance on the deterrence justification to rationalize the long-term detention of asylum-seeking families marks a new level of aggressive and inappropriate use.”

The human rights violations endured by asylum-seeking families are numerous. Included in the (very long) list of violations flagged by The Advocates for Human Rights and Detention Watch Network in a joint submission to the UN last year was the growing use of detention to deter asylum seekers from seeking protection in direct contravention of international obligations.[1] We pointed to Central American mothers and children seeking asylum being subject to arbitrary detention in a stated effort by the United States to deter asylum seekers from coming to the United States.[2]

Detention and deportation to deter people from seeking asylum from persecution (in direct contravention of this fundamental human right) is not the only tactic being used by the United States. The Los Angeles Times reports that “under U.S. pressure, Mexico for the first time in many years has launched a wide crackdown on the migrants. More than 60,000 have been deported this year, as many as half in recent months, the government says.” Also on the deterrence menu: increased train speeds.

While the United States’ deterrence strategies violate international law by abrogating the right to seek asylum, the European Union’s shift toward targeting the traffickers is little better. As commentator Kenan Malik writes, replacing the border security narrative with a narrative of criminality is not the answer:

The traffickers are certainly odious figures, recklessly placing migrants in peril.
But what pushes migrants into the hands of traffickers are the European Union’s
own policies. The bloc’s approach to immigration has been to treat it as a matter
not of human need, but of criminality. It has developed a three-pronged strategy
of militarizing border controls, criminalizing migration and outsourcing controls.”

What, then, is the answer? Perhaps an immigration policy that includes the words “ensure human dignity” is a start.

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

“The Advocates for Human Rights, You Have The Floor…”

The location is Geneva, Switzerland, on the floor of the United Nations Human Rights Council in the Human Rights and Alliance of Civilizations Room at the Palais des Nations. I have pushed the large button on the microphone unit in front of me. The red disc around my microphone has begun to glow, signifying a live mic. If I dared to look up, I would no doubt see myself on one of the two big screens at the front of the room – staring down, wide-eyed, at the printed page before me.  In front of me are delegates from all of the nearly 200 UN member states, seated in alphabetical order with the current Human Rights Council members seated in the inner half-circle at the front. The black on white-lettered placard at my seat reads “Orateur ONG” (French for “Non-Governmental Organization Speaker”). I have practiced delivering The Advocates for Human Rights’ oral statement; the familiar text on the printed page clutched in my hands steadies me.

I am delivering The Advocates’ oral statement on the implementation of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action (VDPA), adopted in 1993. The VDPA, one of the alphabet soup of conventions and declarations relevant in the field of international human rights, contains strong language regarding women’s rights and domestic violence, and The Advocates for Human Rights is using this debate at the Human Rights Council regarding ongoing implementation of the VDPA to point out that there is still much work to be done.

I greet the Council leadership, and begin:

“Domestic violence violates a woman’s right to life, liberty and security, equal protection, and freedom from torture and discrimination. Strong laws are essential for women’s full and equal participation in all aspects of life, and for governments to meet their human rights obligations, they must have effective legislation and practices that promote victim safety and offender accountability.”

This about sums it up for me, and seems a pretty succinct statement of what drew me to the Advocates in the first place: The idea that legal reform needs to lead societal change. In other words, real social change can only happen when the law is on the side of the victim, not the abuser.

We were in Geneva, ten volunteers led by The Advocates’ staff, to continue this important work, and hopefully move the needle, at least a little bit, on issues ranging from domestic violence in places as far flung as Honduras and Mongolia, to the death penalty and the rights of migrants in the United States. We were joined by partners from other international NGOs in this important task. Overall, The Advocates submitted ten stakeholder reports on human rights issues in eight different countries as part of this cycle of the Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review, and participated in other proceedings such the Human Rights Committee (a UN treaty-monitoring body) review of Croatia’s implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. (You can read more about that review here.)  

I had two minutes for my statement. Members of the Human Rights Council (forty-seven countries sit on the Council at any given time) are allotted three minutes per topic; non-members and NGOs get two. In practice, I had been wrapping up with about three seconds to spare at what I considered an appropriate speaking pace. The consequences of going over time seemed to vary from being gaveled out of order, to having your mic cut, to receiving a tap on the shoulder from the gentleman in the earpiece standing behind you. I had no desire to find out which of these would be applied to me.

My internal mantra is “cool, calm and collected” as I speak about the issue of victims of domestic abuse being forced to prosecute their abusers on their own in private legal proceedings, and then the problem of “dual arrests,” where abuser and victim are arrested together. As I finish running through a list of actions member countries could take to combat these problems and thank the Council, I finally look up: The clock on the screen shows seven seconds remaining before resetting to zero. Although my voice has remained calm, I notice that I am still maintaining a death grip on the microphone button. I release it and my red microphone light fades to black.

I am honored to have been among the group of dedicated lawyers and human rights activists traveling with The Advocates to Geneva, and even more so to have had this opportunity to address a full session of the Human Rights Council. The Advocates has built itself as an organization that utilizes its volunteers to full capacity, but this experience has been life-changing for me, as well. Thanks to The Advocates and to my wonderful, engaging and talented traveling companions!

By Steven Clay, attorney and volunteer with The Advocates for Human Rights.  Mr. Clay traveled in March to the United Nations in Geneva with The Advocates and other volunteers.

Read the full text of The Advocates for Human Rights’ oral statement, delivered by Mr. Clay, below:

Please check against delivery

Speaker: Mr. Steven CLAY

Item 8 (General Debate)

March 23, 2015

 Mr. President/Madam Vice President:

The Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action stressed “the importance of working towards the elimination of violence against women in public and private life.” Domestic violence violates a woman’s right to life, liberty and security, equal protection, and freedom from torture and discrimination. Strong laws are essential for women’s full and equal participation in all aspects of life, and for governments to meet their human rights obligations, they must have effective legislation and practices that promote victim safety and offender accountability.

This means ensuring that domestic violence is criminalized and prosecuted by the government. Some governments, however, do not treat domestic violence as a public crime. Laws too often force the victim to privately prosecute the domestic violence she has suffered –meaning she must either hire a lawyer, or else prosecute and navigate the criminal justice system by herself. By treating domestic violence as a private crime, states fail to hold offenders accountable.

Another major problem is dual arrests, in which victims are arrested alongside their abusers. Dual arrests happen for several reasons. First, some laws classify psychological violence equal to physical violence. Authorities treat insults and name calling as domestic violence. They arrest both parties even if the victim only quarreled while the offender physically beat her. Second, authorities do not identify the primary aggressor or self-defense injuries; they will arrest a woman who has defended herself from violence. But we know that when a victim is arrested when she calls for help, she will never call the police for help again.

So, how can member states remedy these kinds of problems facing women?

First, The Advocates for Human Rights calls on member states to promote good legal reform. Good laws are the foundation of victim protection and offender accountability.

Second, ensure authorities receive trainings conducted in consultation with NGOs that best know victims’ needs.

Third, promote continual monitoring of how these laws are working in practice so legislation can be amended and responses customized to address these issues.

Finally, ensure adequate funding and support for victims, including shelters, hotlines, legal aid, and other services.

Taking measures such as these are critical steps to help fulfill implementation of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action. Thank you.

Is It Just a Piece of Paper that Makes Someone an American?

Vargas
Jose Antonio Vargas

Jose Antonio Vargas painted a stark picture of what it means to live life as an undocumented immigrant when he spoke to a packed crowd at Tuesday’s “Out of the Shadows Immigration Symposium.”

“One of the biggest ironies about being undocumented in this country is knowing that your life is limited by a piece of paper — all the while knowing that your life is way more than a piece of paper,” said Vargas, who at age 12 was smuggled into the United States from the Philippines.

“Are pieces of papers what make someone an American?” he asked.

Learn about the center opened in the heart of the Minneapolis Latino community to help people who are undocumented.

Read about Vargas’s visit in MinnPost.

Out of the Mouths of The Advocates

blog_un
When Human Rights expert Margo Waterval questioned the delegation from Croatia, I recognized her words; they came directly from The Advocates for Human Rights’ “one-pager.” Astonished, I turned around to look at Rosalyn Park, director of The Advocates’ Women’s Human Rights Program; she knew those words, too. The look on her face probably mirrored mine. Simply put, we were thrilled.

Rosalyn and I, along with The Advocates’ Croatian partner, Valentina Andrasek, and other volunteers of The Advocates, were attending the United Nations Human Rights Committee’s review of Croatia in Geneva, Switzerland. The responsibility of the Committee, which is comprised of independent experts on human rights, is to monitor the compliance of State parties to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The Committee examines reports and listens to statements by the State, as well as non-governmental organizations. At the end, the Committee addresses its concerns and makes recommendations to the State party in the form of “Concluding Observations.”

Starting in 2010, The Advocates has studied Croatia’s domestic violence laws in action. Together with its partner on the ground, Autonomous Women’s House Zagreb (AZKZ in Croatian), The Advocates’ lawyers have interviewed police officers, prosecutors, judges, counselors, and shelter staff about how the laws have worked in practice. In 2012, The Advocates published the comprehensive report, Implementation of Croatia’s Domestic Violence Legislation. Based on this report and updates from AZKZ, The Advocates and AZKZ submitted a parallel report on domestic violence to the Committee in advance of Croatia’s March 2015 review. The “one-pager” Professor Waterval quoted in her question to the delegation summarized this parallel report.

In its reviews of State parties, the Committee provides for input by non-governmental organizations, such as The Advocates and AZKZ. Valentina Andrasek, the director of AZKZ, made a presentation to the Committee summarizing our parallel report. We also participated in a forum for NGOs and Committee members. It was at that forum where we met Professor Waterval and gave her a copy of our “one-pager.”

Professor Waterval’s question to the Croatian delegation began with our words. “Research shows that men are the perpetrators of violence 95 percent of the time. Yet in Croatia, police arrest and charge women in 43.2 percent of the cases,” she said. She continued, using our words, and asked the Croatian delegation to respond and explain these “dual arrests.”

Over its two-day review of Croatia, the Committee considered many issues in addition to domestic violence. The Croatian delegation responded, but said little about domestic violence. The chairman of the Committee took notice. He said, in summary, “We all know domestic violence is about power and control, and I would like to hear Croatia’s answers to the questions that were asked about why police arrest the victims along with their abusers.”

Again, Rosalyn and I exchanged looks. Here before our eyes was evidence again that The Advocates and AZKZ, working together, helped focus the Committee on protecting victims of domestic violence in Croatia. The Committee recently issued its Concluding Observations based on its review of Croatia, and much of it reflects The Advocates’ advocacy and recommendations on domestic violence:

“While commending the State party for criminalizing domestic violence in its Criminal Code, the Committee notes with concern the inconsistent application of penalties due to the fact that domestic violence can also be defined as a misdemeanour. The Committee is concerned at reports of lack of investigation and prosecutions as well as lenient sentences imposed on perpetrators. In particular, the Committee is concerned at recurrent reports of dual arrests and convictions of both the perpetrator and the victim of domestic violence. The Committee is also concerned about the low number of women benefiting from the free legal aid system, the low number of protective measures issued and the lack of follow-up to protection orders, rendering them largely ineffective. Furthermore, the Committee is concerned about the lack of a sufficient number of shelters for victims of domestic violence. The Committee regrets the absence of statistical data on acts of domestic violence (arts. 3 and 7).

“The State party should:

“(a) Adopt a comprehensive approach to preventing and addressing violence against women in all its forms and manifestations;

“(b) Intensify its awareness-raising measures among the police, judiciary, prosecutors, community representatives, women and men on the magnitude of domestic violence and its detrimental impact on the lives of victims;

“(c) Ensure that cases of domestic violence are thoroughly investigated by the police, perpetrators are prosecuted, and if convicted, punished with appropriate sanctions, and victims are adequately compensated;

“(d) Eliminate the practice of dual arrests and convictions of both the perpetrator and the victim of domestic violence;

“(e) Ensure the issuance of effective protective orders to ensure the safety of victims and that measures are in place to follow-up on protection orders;

“(f) Ensure the availability of a sufficient number of shelters with adequate resources; and

“(g) Collect data on incidences of domestic violence against women and, based on such data, continue to develop sustainable strategies to combat this human rights violation.”

(The full Concluding Observations document may be found here.)

By Julie Shelton, attorney and long-term volunteer who The Advocates for Human Rights honored with its Volunteer Award in 2014. Ms. Shelton traveled in March to the United Nations in Geneva with The Advocates and other volunteers.

You can learn more about how to conduct advocacy at the United Nations in The Advocates’ new manual Human Rights Tools for a Changing World: A step-by-step guide to human rights fact-finding, documentation, and advocacy. Follow the link here for Chapter 9: Advocacy at the United Nations.

African Commission Urges Cameroon to End LGBTI Discrimination

An asylum seeker from Uganda covers his head with a paper bag in order to protect his identity. (Photo: Jessica Rinaldi, Reuters)
An asylum seeker from Uganda covers his head with a paper bag in order to protect his identity. (Photo: Jessica Rinaldi, Reuters)

Last month, Cameroonian human rights defender Alice Nkom traveled to London with a plea: “I need everyone because right now, I am a little isolated. It’s on occasions like this that we must show we are one, united, universal in this fight.” Nkom, who is in her 70s and was the first woman admitted to the Cameroonian bar, is one of only two lawyers in Cameroon who represents people who are charged with violating the country’s law criminalizing same-sex conduct.

The Advocates for Human Rights has been working with Nkom and other human rights defenders to advance the rights of LGBTI persons in Cameroon.  And, in part because of this collaborative advocacy, Africa’s leading human rights body has joined the fight against LGBTI discrimination in Cameroon.

The Advocates and Cameroonian partners report on LGBTI discrimination in Cameroon

Jennifer and Alice NkomIn 2013, after meeting with Nkom in Douala, The Advocates for Human Rights partnered with Nkom’s organizations, the Association for the Defence of Homosexuals (ADEFHO) and the Network of Human Rights Defenders in Central Africa (REDHAC), along with the Cameroonian Foundation for AIDS (CAMFAIDS), to submit a 45-page report to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights for its periodic review of Cameroon’s human rights record. The report details violations of rights on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in Cameroon, demonstrating how the Government of Cameroon is violating its obligations under the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

African Commission responds, urging Cameroon to protect and promote tolerance of sexual minorities

African Commission on Human and People's RightsThe African Commission on Human and People’s Rights recently published its concluding observations from its review of Cameroon. The concluding observations draw on our report, making several references to persecution of sexual minorities. The African Commission identifies several areas of concern:

“The judicial harassment, offences against life and other violations of rights of human rights defenders, in particular the rights of defenders working in the area of sexual orientation;” and

“The discrimination, stigma and violation of the right to life and physical and mental integrity of individuals based on their sexual orientation.”

The African Commission urges Cameroonian authorities to “Take appropriate measures to ensure the safety and physical integrity of all persons irrespective of their sexual orientation and maintain an atmosphere of tolerance towards sexual minorities in the country.”

LGBTI Cameroonians and their advocates continue to face pervasive violence and discrimination

As the African Commission’s concerns suggest, people in Cameroon face pervasive violence and discrimination based on actual and perceived sexual orientation and gender identity. Discrimination extends to human rights defenders like Nkom, who work on their behalf. Nkom describes conditions as “an anti-homosexual apartheid.”

Eric Ohena LembembeAs we highlighted in our report, in 2013 CAMFAIDS founder Eric Ohena Lembembe was discovered brutally murdered in his own apartment. Authorities have conducted a lackluster investigation into the circumstances of his death, and investigators have even attempted to intimidate his friends and family.

After Ohena Lembembe’s murder, threats against other human rights defenders escalated, with some anonymous messages simply saying, “You’re next.” “It has become more difficult; I must die, and I will,” observed Nkom. “Because many died for us to be free today—free to be a woman, to be a black woman, to do what I do. So we must continue.”

In 2014, Roger Jean-Claude Mdede died in his home village under troubling circumstances. Mbede had notoriously been convicted in 2011 for sending a man a text message saying “I’ve fallen in love with you.” Nkom and Michel Togué, the other Cameroonian lawyer who takes on these cases, secured Mbede’s release.

But Mbede faced serious health problems. And the notoriety of Mbede’s case meant escalating persecution; he was physically assaulted by four unknown men near the university where he studied. Local and international efforts to get Mbede out of Cameroon failed. Mbede returned to his village in ill health, and some people close to him say that his family thought he was cursed and held him in the village against his will until he died.

Nkom takes case to Cameroon’s Supreme Court

Nkom is taking Mbede’s case to the Supreme Court of Cameroon, challenging the constitutionality of the country’s prohibition on same-sex relations. The Constitution of Cameroon includes and incorporates the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which proclaims that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” The constitution further states that “duly approved and ratified treaties and international agreements,” including the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, shall “override national laws.”

When we first met with Nkom back in 2013, we discussed ways that The Advocates and its volunteers could collaborate on Mbede’s case and in placing pressure on Cameroonian authorities to respect the rights of LGBTI people. Our report to the African Commission was one such strategy. The African Commission’s call for Cameroonian authorities to take action to end persecution and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is a positive sign of change.  Now the the Supreme Court of Cameroon must pay careful attention to the African Commission’s words when it hears Mbede’s case.  At The Advocates for Human Rights, we will be watching closely.

Because, in the words of Alice Nkom, “[W]e are one, united, universal in this fight.”

Read more about the global movement for LGBTI rights:

African Commission to Consider Violence Perpetrated Because of Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity

“Look at the details of Eric Ohena Lembembe’s life and you will understand why he died.”

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back for LGBTI Rights in Africa

Recent Anti-LGBTI Laws Violate Human Rights

Out in the Cold: LGBT Visibility at Olympics Key to Ending Homophobia

Russia’s “Gay Propaganda” Law: How U.S. Extremists are Fueling the Fight Against LGBTI Rights

Locking the Iron Closet: Russia’s Propaganda Law Isolates Vulnerable LGBTI Youth

The Wild East: Vigilante Violence against LGBTI Russians

Moving Forward: Four Steps and Six Strategies for Promoting LGBTI Rights Around the World

 Watch the short documentary Hate Unleashed, which follows Alice Nkom as she seeks to challenge the prosecutions, and provide some care and support to those who have been incarcerated.

Amy Bergquist is a staff attorney with The Advocates’ International Justice Program.