Pledges & Punts at the UN: The U.S. Government Responds to UPR Recommendations


Today marks the formal end of the U.S. government’s second Universal Periodic Review of its human rights record at the Human Rights Council in Geneva. But on many important issues, it’s really just the beginning of many years of work to implement the United States’ human rights obligations.

During the interactive dialogue part of the UPR in May 2015, the U.S. government received 343 recommendations from countries around the world. Today the government formally responded to each of them, stating whether it accepted, accepted in part, or noted (diplomatic UN-speak for “rejected”) each one. At the Human Rights Council in Geneva this morning, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Scott Busby acknowledged that the United States hasn’t “been perfect in our efforts, and we still have many challenges.”

The Advocates for Human Rights has been engaging in advocacy throughout the UPR process, lobbying on the death penalty, immigration detention, and the rights of non-citizens. We submitted stakeholder reports on those issues back in September 2014, and we traveled to Geneva in March to lobby delegates to the Human Rights Council to encourage them to raise our issues in the interactive dialogue.

Those lobbying efforts were successful. For example, 45 countries presented recommendations to the United States on the death penalty, and 23 offered recommendations on the rights of non-citizens. The Advocates lobbied nearly every country that made recommendations on those issues.

Here are some highlights from those 343 recommendations, and the U.S. government’s responses:

Death penalty

Transparency on lethal injection drugs

Some of the U.S. government’s responses were discouraging. Knowing that the government was not likely commit to abolishing the death penalty, The Advocates lobbied France and many other countries to highlight the issue of state laws and practices that keep secret the identity and sources of drugs used in lethal injections. Transparency regarding the types of drugs used and the sources of those drugs is increasingly important in light of the Supreme Court’s June 2015 decision in Glossip v. Gross, which places additional evidentiary burdens on individuals seeking to challenge the proposed method of their execution as a violation of the Eighth Amendment.

During the interactive dialogue in May, France took up our issue, recommending that the U.S. government “[c]ommit to full transparency on the combination of medicines used during executions by injection.” Today, however, the U.S. government formally “noted” that recommendation, providing no explanation other than its position that the death penalty comports with our country’s human rights obligations.


In explaining the government’s decision to reject calls from 37 countries around the world to abolish–or at least consider a moratorium on–the death penalty, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Busby told the Human Rights Council:

I’d also note that we received numerous recommendations–including from Ecuador, Austria, Lithuania, Congo, Nepal, and many others–concerning our administration of capital punishment. Domestic civil society also raised capital punishment as an issue of concern. While we did not support the majority of the recommendations on this topic, we respect those who made them. Our continuing differences in this are a matter of policy, and not what the rules of international human rights law currently require.

Racial bias and wrongful convictions

The U.S. government made some important pledges concerning the death penalty today. For example, we lobbied Angola and Poland about racial bias in the administration of the death penalty and about wrongful convictions. The government accepted these recommendations:

  • Angola: Identify the root causes of ethnic disparities concerning especially those sentenced to capital punishment in order to find ways [to] eliminate ethnic discrimination in the criminal justice system.
  • France: Identify the factors of racial disparity in the use of the death penalty and develop strategies to end possible discriminatory practices.
  • Poland: Strengthen safeguards against wrongful sentencing to death and subsequent wrongful execution by ensuring, inter alia, effective legal representation for defendants in death penalty cases, including at the post-conviction stage.

We also lobbied on the issue of compensation for victims of wrongful convictions. The U.S. government accepted, in part, a recommendation from Belgium to “[t]ake measures in follow-up to the recommendations of the Human Rights Committee to the US in 2014 with regards to capital punishment such as measures to avoid racial bias, to avoid wrongful sentencing to death and to provide adequate compensation if wrongful sentencing happens.” In its formal response, the government stated that it “support[s] consideration of these recommendations, noting that we may not agree with all of them.”

Immigrant detention

The U.S. government made several pledges on the detention of migrants, accepting a recommendation from Brazil to “[c]onsider alternatives to the detention of migrants, particularly children.” The government accepted, in part, a recommendation from Sweden to “[h]alt the detention of immigrant families and children, seek alternatives to detention and end the use of detention for reason of deterrence.” In its response, the government punted on the controversial use of immigrant detention to deter future migrants, but added that it is “working to shorten detention families may face while their immigration proceedings are resolved.”

One issue we lobbied on was the lack of due process in immigration removal proceedings. Honduras was particularly receptive to these issues, recommending that the United States “[e]nsure due process for all immigrants in immigration proceedings, using the principle of the best interest, especially in the case of families and unaccompanied children.”

Honduras is one of the main countries of origin for the unaccompanied children and families coming to the United States to seek asylum, so it was rewarding to see that government’s interest in the plight of its nationals.

In responding to Honduras’ recommendation, however, the U.S. government glossed over its international human rights obligation to ensure due process, instead asserting that “[n]oncitizens in the U.S. facing removal receive significant procedural protections.”

On the issue of the rights of children in immigration proceedings, the government ignored the fact that unaccompanied children have no right to a government-provided attorney, offering merely that “[t]he best interest of a child is one factor in determinations by immigration judges. [The Department of Health and Human Services] provides care and placement for children who enter the U.S. without an adult guardian, considering the best interests of the child in all placement decisions.”

Rights of migrants

Our lobbying and advocacy on the rights of migrants highlighted many of the findings in The Advocates’ groundbreaking report, Moving from Exclusion to Belonging: Immigrant Rights in Minnesota Today. One of the issues we highlighted was discrimination against and profiling of non-citizens. Iran, Mexico, and Nicaragua called for an end to discrimination and violence against migrants and non-citizens, among other targeted groups. In partially accepting these recommendations, however, the U.S. government glossed over migrants, describing efforts “to counter intolerance, violence, and discrimination against members of all minority groups, including African-Americans, Muslims, Arabs, and indigenous persons.”

Another issue we highlighted is excessive use of force by officials on our country’s southern border. Mexico called on the United States to “[i]nvestigate cases of deaths of migrants by customs and border patrols, particularly those where there have been indications of an excessive use of force, and ensure accountability and adequate reparation to the families of the victims.” The government accepted the recommendation in part, adding that it “cannot support parts of this recommendation concerning reparations.”

The U.S. government expressed its support for recommendations to “[r]eview in depth migration policy” (Congo), to “[f]urther improve the rights of immigrants” (Senegal), to give “special attention . . . to protecting migrant workers from exploitative working conditions, specifically in the agricultural sector” (Portugal), and to “[e]nsure the rights of migrant workers, especially in the sector of agriculture where the use of child laborers is a common practice” (Holy See).

But in responding to Algeria’s call to “[t]ake necessary measures to combat discriminatory practices against . . . migrant workers in the labor market,” the U.S. government ignored the obstacles immigrant workers face in combating discrimination. As we explained in our stakeholder report,

“immigrants who experience discrimination often do not complain, either because they are unaware of their rights under the law, because it is easier to leave the employer than to pursue a complaint, or, for undocumented workers, because fear of deportation keeps them silent.”

The U.S. government, in responding to Algeria’s recommendation, ignored these complexities, stating simply that “U.S. federal labor and employment laws generally apply to all workers, regardless of immigration status.”

What’s next?

The U.S. government may be breathing a sigh of relief that the UPR is finally over, but The Advocates and other members of civil society know that today is just the beginning. Now we begin the process of working with the government to implement the recommendations the government accepted. And we haven’t lost hope for those “noted” recommendations–surprisingly, research shows that governments often implement, at least in part, UPR recommendations that they formally reject.

To learn more about the Universal Periodic Review process, read the chapter on Advocacy at the United Nations in The Advocates for Human Rights’ 2015 toolkit, Human Rights Tools for a Changing World: A Step-by-step Guide to Human Rights Fact-Finding, Documentation, and Advocacy.

By Amy Bergquist, staff attorney for the International Justice Program of The Advocates for Human Rights.

‪#‎HRC30‬: “Our lives are connected to one another.”

Zeod Ra'ad Al Hussein, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
Zeod Ra’ad Al Hussein, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

Statement by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein at the opening of the
Human Rights Council session in Geneva, 14 September 2015

Mr President,


It was the way he lay: asleep, terminal, so profoundly sad – as if by lying in supplication before the waves that killed him he was asking for a replay, with a different outcome this time; and his socks and little shoes told us he was ready to try life again. But his cheek on the soft sand whispered otherwise, it made us choke.  Shamed and disgraced, the world wept before the body of this little boy.

These speeches, these sessions, these protests by so many of us here for a world more humane and more dignifying of the rights of all humans, all humans – what good are they, when this happens?  Not just once, not just to this tiny boy, Aylan Al Kurdi, but to so many across the world: the horror they experience, relayed daily to us through the news media shreds our hopes for some mercy, some relief.

Mr President,

After a year as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights I, together with many of my colleagues at the office, feel exhausted and angry.

Exhausted, because the system is barely able to cope given the resources available to it, while human misery accelerates.  From poverty of annihilating proportions in the many conflict-ridden areas where peace remains elusive, to the denial of the civil and political rights of peoples trapped between the pincers of ruthless extremists and governments fighting them; hatred; bigotry; racism – it all seems too overwhelming.

And angry, because it seems that little that we say will change this. To take one utterly shameful example, despite the horrific human rights violations in Syria that have been investigated, enumerated, discussed, we must continue to deplore the international community’s failure to act. Unless we change dramatically in how we think and behave as international actors – Member States, inter-governmental organizations and non-governmental organizations alike – all of us, in the human rights community, will be inconsequential in the face of such mounting violations.

And yet the selflessness of the finest UN staff members – like those from OHCHR whom I met in Bangui last week, working in the most difficult, dangerous, environments to record and report on human rights violations; and the stunning courage of human rights defenders throughout the world; the loneliness and pain of refugees and other rights-holding migrants: the hundreds of millions who suffer from hunger, discrimination, torture – they prevent us from conceding defeat.

We are mindful, also, that some countries in the Middle East – Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey – and in Europe – Germany and Sweden – show commendable humanity and leadership when it comes to hosting refugees and migrants needing protection. And there are millions of ordinary people who in opening their individual homes to refugees and other migrants have also demonstrated remarkable generosity, and a kindness that should be repeated elsewhere. The outpouring of human conscience that surged up following the publication of the photograph of Aylan, gave evidence for a counter-narrative to the mean-spiritedness of some decision-makers who have been whipping up the baser instincts of their populations.

And so I implore decision-makers in Africa, the Americas, Asia and the Pacific – as well as Europe – to take swift action to establish effective and principled migration governance. States have a sovereign right to secure their borders, and to determine conditions of entry and stay in their territories. But they also have an obligation to respect international human rights law, refugee law and humanitarian law.

I welcome the President of the EU Commission’s proposal last week to relocate a further 120,000 people in member states, and his statement that this is “a matter of humanity and dignity”. In Austria, Belgium, Finland, Germany, Sweden and even  – despite the long-standing xenophobia of tabloids and some politicians – the United Kingdom, ordinary people have volunteered, not only assistance, but also political support for the rights of migrants and refugees. I urge European States to build on this surge of human feeling by putting in place an architecture of migration governance that is far more comprehensive, thoughtful, principled and effective. We need expanded channels of regular migration and resettlement – two measures which would prevent deaths and cut smuggling. Detention, particularly of children, and all forms of ill-treatment should cease, at borders and elsewhere.

I concur that there is no one swift solution to the terror, the trauma, the deprivation and neglect that drive so many millions of people to leave all that they have, and all they have ever known. To restore human rights in their homelands will take long and focused work. And yes, it is true the people most responsible for their migration are those leaders who have failed to uphold human rights, and robbed their people of hope.

But what we need from you, the distinguished members of the Human Rights Council, is a pledge to connect what you say here to material action on all fronts. The recommendations of the UPR and other human rights mechanisms must be implemented; the standing invitations to Special Procedures broadened; reports to mechanisms and treaty bodies must be accurate and timely; double standards must be banished, and hypocrisy, recognized.

We need your support to assist your countries, as well as others. We need you to accept scrutiny or criticism, and not to withdraw your voluntary contributions because we speak out. Ultimately it is you who exercise sovereign authority and bear that responsibility toward your own people. It is you who should be answerable to them – to respect and not fear them; to serve and not enslave them; to dignify, and not discredit them. My Office will be there to help where and when we can, upon request, and to comment when we receive information that raises concern. But in this, we are not infringing on the sovereign rights of any country.

Sovereignty cannot be damaged by carefully evaluated commentary. The search for truth can do many things, but it does not weaken, violate or assault.  But sovereignty is indeed threatened when tyranny in one country flings millions of people into flight and turmoil, and fuels the savagery of extremists who respect no laws or borders. Sovereignty is jeopardised when epidemics, unleashed by abject living conditions and failures to ensure health-care, endanger lives everywhere. When leaders responsible for crimes against humanity go unpunished and a culture of impunity feeds future cycles of violent instability across whole regions. When massive floods and endless droughts, kicked up by climate change, modify every parameter of people’s livelihoods regardless of State frontiers. When criminal networks, including human traffickers, are able to operate across countries freely. When corruption and cronyism eat away at the rule of law, the sense of community, the possibility of sustainable development and the legitimacy of government authority. These are factors which truly do endanger the sovereignty of States.

Upholding human rights is intrinsic to the obligations of sovereignty, and constitutes the fundamental basis for a healthy State. The voice of human rights is raised in support of your governance – to assist in building societies that are resilient, peaceful and prosperous.

Instability is expensive. Conflict is expensive. Offering a space for the voices of civil society to air grievances, and work towards solutions is free.

When ordinary people can share ideas to overcome common problems, the result is better, more healthy, more secure and more sustainable States. It is not treachery to identify gaps, and spotlight ugly truths that hold a country back from being more just and more inclusive. When States limit public freedoms and the independent voices of civic activity, they deny themselves the benefits of public engagement, and undermine national security, national prosperity and our collective progress.Civil society – enabled by the freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly – is a valuable partner, not a threat.

Yet for several years, I and my predecessor have enumerated at this Council States that have taken extremely serious steps to restrict or persecute the voices of civil society. While I will continue to list them, I am devastated to have to report that there are now too many countries on that list for me to name them here today. This is a grim indictment of our record in protecting that foundation of good governance, the State’s service to its people, and it bodes ill for the future of your societies.

Overly restrictive legislation is enacted to limit the exercise of public freedoms and work by civil society organisations. In many situations, the voices of minority communities are suppressed and their activists and advocates are crushed. Women human rights defenders are targeted for specific attacks, often grounded in harmful and out-dated stereotypes of women’s so-called “place”. Measures are taken to sharply restrict the democratic space online, including blocking of websites and mass surveillance. Several States seem almost to be engaged in a war on information, in which legitimate critics and journalists are targeted for violence, arbitrary arrest and detention, and even murder – particularly those who investigate human rights violations, corruption and malfeasance by officials.

I am, for example, concerned about the detention and interrogation in recent months of more than 100 lawyers in China, in connection with their professional activities, and by the adoption of new laws with far-reaching implications for NGOs. I am also dismayed by the stigmatisation of foreign-funded NGOs in the Russian Federation, where the 2012 law has resulted in marginalising and discrediting organisations that contribute to the public good. I hope that the newly established expert group, consisting of Government officials, parliamentarians and civil society representatives will come up with solutions to this issue. Similar restrictive laws have been adopted in Central Asia, contravening the people’s right to participate in, and criticise, decisions.

Some Member States have sought to prevent civil society actors from working with UN human rights mechanisms, including this Council. Session after session, they attempt to bar from accreditation – based on spurious allegations of terrorist or criminal activity – groups that strive to expose problems and propose remedies. Reprisals have targeted some activists who have participated in Council-related activities, undermining the legitimacy and credibility of the international human rights institutions.

I call for your contributions to my forthcoming report to the Council on good examples in the civil society space. The construction of rule of law institutions that promote governance that is participatory, accountable and transparent. Regulatory frameworks which protect and support the right of grassroots organisations to raise their voices. Positive political and public environments which recognize the value of civic contribution, the free flow of information, and space at the decision-making table. These are the tools that build public confidence and stability in the long term.

The United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development constitutes universal recognition that the challenges faced by any one of us may swiftly become crises faced by all. It grasps that these challenges cannot effectively be met by tinkering around the edges of economic, social and political governance, but require a fundamental shift in the dominant development model in all countries. The new Agenda offers real hope for stability, prosperity and conflict prevention. It points to development that is sustainable, equitable for all, environmentally sound, and grounded in human rights. Its promises must be implemented. I have high hopes for the Summit which will convene in New York in a few days, and I note that we may wish to consider how this Council, notably through the UPR, can best contribute to the implementation of this transformative agenda.

In December, the international community will gather for the United Nations Conference on Climate Change, an issue so vast and threatening to peace, prosperity, social justice and indeed life itself that it demands we seek solutions together, or face irreparable damage to humanity. Climate change is a threat multiplier, a force that intensifies the likelihood of poverty and deprivation of all kinds; conflict; and the precarious migration of people.

Mr President,

In the Central African Republic, which I visited two weeks ago, the most severe human rights violations have declined significantly since last year. But in several areas armed groups have set themselves up as de facto local authorities, and they continue to operate with almost total impunity. While a few alleged perpetrators have been charged with crimes, for the most part these have been minor figures. The most notorious leaders, with much blood on their hands, remain at liberty. The Government and the UN must do more to support the fight against impunity and to protect people from ongoing threats.It is critical to redress the national justice system and to swiftly set up the Special Criminal Court. Impunity is not the price of political stability; it is a strong driver of conflict.

I am also profoundly concerned about the impunity enjoyed by perpetrators of serious human rights violations in Sudan, particularly in Darfur, the Blue Nile and South Kordofan. I urge the international community’s support and assistance to the International Criminal Court. The people of Sudan deserve justice and redress no less than those of other countries.

There has also been near-absolute impunity for violations committed in South Sudan. UNMISS has reported further shocking atrocities in the course of an upsurge in fighting that began in April. I welcome the recent peace agreement and trust that there will be rigorous implementation of its provisions on transitional justice and accountability – including the proposed hybrid court to try serious crimes including genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

I remain deeply troubled by allegations of human rights violations in Somalia, by all parties. Violations of freedom of expression, forced evictions of displaced people in Mogadishu, and numerous reported cases of sexual violence also remain major concerns. It is vital to strengthen rule of law institutions to fight against impunity for human rights violations. I urge the Federal Government of Somalia to put human rights at the centre of the political and stabilization agenda, as a pre-condition for real peace.

In Mali, I regret to note that the people’s hope for peace following signature of the Peace and Reconciliation Accord has been tarnished by violation of the ceasefire, and related human rights violations. Further efforts are needed to compel all parties to comply with the Accord, and to ensure protection of the human rights of all Malians.

I continue to be concerned about the situation in Eritrea, where the Commission of Inquiry’s findings suggest that crimes against humanity may have been committed. My Office undertook an assessment mission to Eritrea earlier this year, and we hope that a second mission before the end of the year can find areas where we can cooperate with the authorities to strengthen national protection systems and implement the recommendations of the human rights mechanisms.

As this Council is aware, there have been some 100 deaths and over 600 arrests in the current crisis in Burundi, with over 180,000 people fleeing to neighbouring countries. The democratic space in Burundi has been largely erased, and the consequences for the nation and the Great Lakes region could be disastrous.

I welcome the important agreement between Iran and its international partners on nuclear issues, which promises to engage Iran more closely with the international community and alleviate some of the consequences of sanctions.  I urge Iran to make commensurate progress in human rights. Accelerated use of the death penalty, concerns about the right to a fair trial, and the continued detention of journalists, bloggers and human rights defenders remain a major cause for concern.

In Myanmar, the promise of democratic transition in November’s general election is being undermined by the detention and convictions of student activists, farmers, unionists and human rights defenders – people who are using their newfound rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly to protest against injustice and participate in the political sphere. I also strongly deplore the disenfranchisement of the majority of Rohingya due to a number of administrative and legal decisions in 2014 and 2015. Dozens of current Members of Parliament from the Muslim community and other minority groups – including prominent Rohingya MPs – have been refused permission to run as candidates because it is claimed that they or their parents are not citizens.

In the Maldives, the rule of law continues to be manipulated for political ends. I was initially encouraged by the Government’s decision, in July, to move former President Nasheed to house arrest, for health reasons and to appeal his conviction after a flawed trial. But the decision to return him to prison last month, and pursuit of a further criminal investigation against his family, are serious setbacks.  Given the deeply tainted nature of this case, I urge the Government to release him, and to review several hundred pending criminal cases against opposition supporters in relation to protests in recent months.

In Malaysia, the Government has increasingly sought to restrict public debate and protest around issues of governance and corruption. This effort has included amendments to the 1948 Sedition Act, to further broaden the activities categorized as offenses and introduce harsher penalties, and the arrest of individuals for tweeting criticism of corruption by officials or the policies of the Government or malfeasance by officials. It is unfortunate that such a confident and dynamic country should feel the need to intimidate critical voices.

The Australian government has recently decided to resettle more refugees from Syria. Yet the Government continues to restrict independent monitoring of detention centres for asylum seekers arriving by boat. Their access to medical care, independent legal counselling and journalists has also been curtailed. One consequence is that the public is misinformed about the situation in immigration centres.

I have also been concerned with the recent violence in the Terai region of Nepal, which has led to the death and injury of protestors and security personnel, as well as reported attacks against human rights defenders and journalists. I urge all political leaders to work together to address differences over the proposed constitution peacefully, and to ensure that the security forces uphold human rights at all times.

I am disturbed by the recent collective deportation of more than one thousand Colombians from Venezuela. My Office has been informed that this involved human rights violations, including lack of due process, destruction of property and separation of children from their families. The deportees may include large numbers of people in need of international protection. This deportation has generated such fear that thousands more have spontaneously fled. I urge the authorities to take immediate measures to guarantee family reunification and to prevent further abuse of Colombians.

My Office also continues to follow up the Dominican Republic‘s deportations of people of Haitian descent. I continue to urge the authorities to ensure that those with a valid claim to remain are allowed to do so, and that any deportation is carried out in line with international human rights standards.

Immigration has also been the object of shameless political grand-standing in the United States. I also remain very concerned about persistent discrimination against African-Americans. Repeated acts of violence have  highlighted racial biases in law enforcement, criminal justice and other areas. I encourage the US, and indeed all States, to take advantage of the programme of activities of the International Decade for People of African Descent to strengthen efforts to combat racial discrimination in the justice system, housing, employment, education, health and political participation.

The UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine reported last week that almost 8,000 people have been killed since the start of the conflict in April last year. I am alarmed by the shelling of residential areas on both sides of the contact line, with only partial withdrawal of heavy weapons from the area as foreseen in the Minsk Agreements. Civilians living near the contact line endure extreme hardship, including limited access to food and water. At the same time, I welcome the recent adoption of a national human rights strategy, and the on-going development of a national human rights action plan by Ukraine. ASG Simonovic will be further updating this Council on 29 September, under item 10.

In the Republic of Moldova, I urge immediate responses, grounded in human rights, to address people’s grievances regarding grave mismanagement of public funds, lack of transparency, and failures of information, participation and accountability. If not addressed properly, these concerns could lead to greater polarization of society, the deterioration of human rights, and dangerous political and economic instability.

I remain concerned about the continued social exclusion and forced evictions of Roma in several countries, including Bulgaria and France.

In Guatemala, massive demonstrations protesting corruption by officials recently resulted in the resignation and subsequent arrests of the Vice-President and the President. Elections which took place a week ago were largely peaceful, with a high turnout of voters and strong demands for an urgent and comprehensive reform of the State. My Office stands ready to assist reforms, which I hope will be carried out in the very near future.

Anti-corruption protests have been taking place in Honduras since May. I welcome the President’s call for “unconditional dialogue” with protesters and plans to crack down on graft in politics and in the judiciary.

In Ecuador, recent demonstrations have sparked excessive use of force by police and possibly arbitrary detentions. I remind the Government that the people have a right to the freedoms of peaceful assembly and of expression.

One year ago, 43 students disappeared in Mexico, and were likely murdered by criminal gangs connected to corrupt officials. I welcome the Mexican Government’s decision to seek the assistance of the Inter-American Commission, through its Interdisciplinary Group of Experts. Their report has provided authorities with important recommendations that I trust will be comprehensively followed-up, in order to refocus the investigation, scrutinise the responsibility of authorities at all levels, and establish the truth.

Long-standing disputes over indigenous land continue to cause suffering and loss of life in Brazil. I note in particular the killing of a leader of the Guarani-Kaiowa people last month, and I urge the authorities to not only investigate this death, but also to take far-reaching action to halt further evictions and properly demarcate all land.

The situation in Iraq remains of serious concern. Although government and associated military forces have reclaimed some territory from ISIL, the group still retains control of a large area. More than three million Iraqis have been displaced from their homes since June 2014, with heavy loss of civilian life. Large numbers of women and children remain enslaved by ISIL, which also continues to violently abuse minorities and critics in areas under its control, and to perpetrate terrorist attacks in other areas of the country. In areas reclaimed from ISIL, civilians are subject to armed militias, which perpetrate killings, kidnappings and destruction of property. You will be further updated on Iraq later in this session.

The situation on the ground in Yemen continues to be a cause for serious concern. My Office has found that over 2,000 civilians have been killed and more than 4,000 wounded. The humanitarian crisis continues to deepen, with estimates that as many as 21 million Yemenis – 80% of the population – are in need of humanitarian assistance. Credible allegations of human rights violations by all parties to the conflict should be thoroughly examined by an independent and comprehensive body. In this regard I welcome the announcement by the Yemeni authorities to set up an investigative body to examine all these allegations, and I strongly urge revival of the talks between the exiled government and the Houthis.

All of us are aware of the deepening nightmare that is Syria. Violating the prohibition of use of chemical weapons; the prohibition of torture; every norm intended to protect civilians; and, more broadly, every principle of human rights, such relentless, long-lasting and vicious violence bites deeply into the sense of community that underpins peace and well-being in our world. The international community – and specifically the Security Council – has great power and influence over this terrible conflict, and it must now urgently find the consensus to act. I also urge in the strongest possible terms an immediate end to the devastating obstruction of humanitarian aid to the people of Syria and of Yemen. There should be far greater concern for the protection of civilians, as laid down by international humanitarian law.

In Libya, we continue to see indiscriminate attacks on civilians and civilian objects through the use of imprecise weaponry in densely-populated areas; destruction of homes; summary executions and arbitrary detention; and torture and other ill-treatment, in some cases leading to death. Impunity is near-absolute, and migrants, refugees, women human rights defenders, the internally displaced and religious minorities are intensely vulnerable to violations. The Assistant Secretary General will further update you on our concerns in the course of this session.

I am profoundly dismayed by the persistence of serious human rights concerns in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory. A permanent and just resolution must be found to this long-standing conflict and occupation, in line with international norms. I note the spike in killings of Palestinians in incidents involving Israeli security forces in the West Bank over the past two months, which raise concern of excessive use of force, and the murderous arson of a Palestinian home in the West Bank village of Duma – sadly not the only act of violence against Palestinian homes in recent months. I am also concerned by an increasingly restrictive atmosphere in Israel, including for those who are critical of Israeli occupation policies and practices, and by legislation that enables financial penalisation of those who advocate for boycotts of Israeli settlements.

My Office has recently conducted missions to Morocco, to Western Sahara, and to the Saharan refugee camps near Tindouf, in Algeria, to gather greater understanding of the human rights situation and challenges in that region, and explore ways for cooperation to ensure effective human rights protection for all. Respect for the rights of the Saharan population remains essential to achieving resolution of this long-standing dispute.

Mr President,

Six years ago, we were confronted with serious violations and loss of civilian life in the last months of Sri Lanka‘s long civil war. This Council has been deeply engaged with the need for accountability, as a necessary step towards reconciliation in that country. On Wednesday I will release the report of the comprehensive investigation that OHCHR was mandated to conduct in March 2014, including my recommendations. Its findings are of the most serious nature. I welcome the vision shown by President Sirisena since his election in January 2015, and the commitments made by the new Government under his leadership. But this Council owes it to Sri Lankans – and to its own credibility – to ensure an accountability process that produces results, decisively moves beyond the failures of the past, and brings the deep institutional changes needed to guarantee non-recurrence.

In the course of my mission to the Central African Republic earlier this month, new allegations came to light regarding the sexual exploitation of a minor by a member of the Sangaris force. Although this was not a UN peacekeeping operation, I strongly believe that the time has come for Member States to take decisive action regarding investigation and courts-martial of peacekeepers involved in such abuses – in line with the recommendations that I made ten years ago, as adviser to the Secretary-General on this topic, and recommendations made by the High Level Panel on Peace Operations.

In June I travelled to Seoul to open OHCHR’s new office. As mandated by this Council, it will be a hub for monitoring, reporting and engagement on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Ilook forward to updating Council members later in the session. Allow me to note also that at the request of this Council, I intend to send a mission to South Sudan in October.

Later in this session, we will update you on human rights developments in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Libya and Ukraine, and on violations and atrocities committed by Boko Haram. My office will present reports on human rights in Yemen, technical assistance to Iraq, and the work of the Office in Cambodia.

Additionally, the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention will be presenting the ‘UN Basic Principles and Guidelines on Remedies and Procedures on the Right of Anyone Deprived of their Liberty by Arrest or Detention to Bring Proceedings before Court.’ This new protection tool, which was developed at the request of this Council through extensive global consultation, compiles and complements the existing norms of international law, standards and jurisprudence. I congratulate the Working Group on this essential contribution to the protection of any person against arbitrary detention, including secret detention, prolonged incommunicado detention, enforced disappearances, and torture.

Far too few of us are aware of the specific human rights violations faced by millions of intersex people. Because their bodies don’t comply with typical definitions of male or female, intersex children and adults are frequently subjected to forced sterilization and other unnecessary and irreversible surgery, and suffer discrimination in schools, workplaces and other settings. We plan an expert meeting to identify steps that States and others can take to end these abuses.


On 13 July I gave Member States a comprehensive briefing on the OHCHR Change Initiative. I emphasized that our planned regional hubs will position the Office to work more closely with Member States, ensuring real universality and facilitating greater support for this Council’s recommendations. The hubs will better balance our work geographically, and they will require no rise in our regular budget resources. In fact, decentralising resources will result in savings that will be reinvested, to strengthenthe support we are able to provide.

It is in this context that I appeal to Member States to endorse OHCHR’s regular budget proposal for 2016-2017, amounting to $198.7 million. I believe that this budget request should be considered minimal, in regard to the breadth and depth of the work we do, and it reflects a very significant effort to make the Office more efficient and more cost-effective. We count on your Governments to assist, and in the coming weeks I will follow up with many of you in this regard.

Mr President,

A cadence of anniversaries, beginning a year ago with the end of World War 1 and tolling through the past months, with the liberation of Auschwitz and the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, calls us to revisit the lessons that led to the founding of our institution. Those lessons cannot die with the generation that lived through those wars. They teach us, not only pity and horror for such atrocious suffering and broken lives; not only admiration for extraordinary individual courage and resilience; but wisdom, the difficult lessons of statesmanship.

In recent months, I have also given deep thought to the acts of genocide in Rwanda and Srebrenica. I have been privileged to share a conversation with three elderly South Korean victims of wartime sexual slavery who deserve the dignity of real acknowledgment of what they were forced to endure. And like so many, I have been moved to profound sorrow by the plight of the little boy on the beach, who represents in his life and death the injustices suffered by so many others.

Our lives are connected to one another. Actions and decisions in one country affect many other States; they shake the lives of many people, no less important and no less human than you and I. When the fundamental principles of human rights are not protected, the centre of our institution no longer holds. It is they that promote development that is sustainable; peace that is secure; and lives of dignity.

Thank you.

Note: The Advocates for Human Rights’ delegation, comprised of volunteers and staff, will be in Geneva to participate in the 30th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council. There, the delegation will put pressure on countries to effectively respond to gender-based violence and to end the death penalty. The delegation will also advocate on issues related to diaspora.

Learn more about The Advocates for Human Rights’ work at the United Nations and other human rights mechanisms, and read The Advocates for Human Rights’ submissions that hold governments around the world accountable for human rights violations and abuses.

Acknowledging the Truth

The Hunting Ground - flyer.indd
Recently, I went to a showing of a new documentary called, “The Hunting Ground.” The purpose of the film is to raise awareness of what is described as an epidemic of sexual assault of men and women on college campuses.

According to the documentary, one in five female college students and one in 33 male students is sexually assaulted on campuses each year. The majority of the college students interviewed for the documentary were women. They discussed how their universities responded to their sexual assault allegations by often ignoring or dismissing their complaints, or treating them like the guilty parties.

I was, first, surprised by the prevalence of sexual assault on college campuses. I was even more surprised by the response, or lack thereof, by many university administrators. Because the women were courageous to come forward with such serious complaints, it was hard for me to understand how some universities could sit still and not fully investigate their allegations.

Hopefully, this film creates a significant positive change with respect to the culture on college campuses. In my dream world, “The Hunting Ground” would be mandatory for all freshmen going into college, as well as college administrators, to watch — just as viewing drug and alcohol prevention videos is mandatory in many colleges.

I hope by the time I get to college, universities will have made progress in creating a space where it is safe for everyone to live and learn. Part of solving a problem is acknowledging its existence, and in my opinion, that is exactly what the “Hunting Ground” is achieving.

By youth blogger, Jenna Schulman, a ninth grade student at Georgetown Day School in Washington, D.C.

“The Hunting Ground” is being screened Monday, September 21, at 6:30 p.m., at the Merriam Park Library, 1831 Marshall Avenue, St. Paul, Minnesota. A post-film discussion will be led by Donna Dunn, member of The Advocates’ Women’s Advisory Committee. The film is being presented as part of the Women’s Human Rights Film Series, made possible through a partnership between The Advocates for Human Rights and The Friends of the Saint Paul Public Library. Check here for the list of films being presented now through November.

Voices from Silence: Personal Accounts of the Long-term Impact of 9/11 #NeverForget

candle from morgue file

Late in the afternoon of September 13, 2001, a Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights (now, The Advocates for Human Rights) staff attorney was meeting in our office with two of our asylum clients, a Christian couple fleeing religious persecution in Egypt. Although it had been rescheduled from the afternoon of September 11, this meeting to prepare their application for asylum was routine for our organization, which provides legal representation to hundreds of asylum seekers each year.

During the meeting, however, two uniformed Minneapolis police officers obtained access to the locked offices of Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights and, without warning, entered the room where our clients were meeting with their attorney. The police apologized for interrupting the meeting, but stated that they were obligated to investigate a report that a “Middle Eastern” man had entered the building, which was located next to the Federal Building in downtown Minneapolis. After they departed, we could see the fear in our client’s eyes as he asked,

“Am I not supposed to walk on the street anymore?”

We knew then that the impact of September 11 on our clients―and on our friends, colleagues, and ourselves―would go far beyond the loss and grief that we all felt when the World Trade Center fell.

We could not then have imagined, however, what the long-term government and community response to the terrorist attacks would be, nor the lasting impact of this response on Minnesotans from refugee, immigrant, and religious minority communities. The fear in the general public created by the United States government’s “War on Terror” has had a dramatic effect on the daily lives of many Minnesotans. We have received many reports from the public, as well as from staff and volunteers of The Advocates, of discriminatory behavior targeted at people based on their race or perceived religious affiliations.

For example, The Advocates’ staff attorney, a Sikh man, was denied access to a client at the Washington County jail in Stillwater, Minnesota. He was told that he must remove his turban or he would be denied entry to the facility. He told the official that such a rule denied his client a right to counsel and denied him a right to practice his religion. He produced his attorney license to no avail. The official told him that his entry was a safety concern but sought out the supervisor’s input. The supervisor indicated that he could meet with the client but that he could not be given a private meeting room for the attorney-client meeting. Instead, he had to meet with his client in a monitored room communicating via telephone.

In September 2001, we could not have envisioned the extent to which the new laws and policies would silence refugee, immigrant, and religious minorities. In the aftermath of September 11, several individuals requested that The Advocates address the negative impact of the governmental and societal responses on entire groups of innocent people in our community. One man, a Muslim naturalized U.S. citizen, implored The Advocates staff to take action:

“[I]t is not safe for us to speak out; you must speak out for us now.”

The Advocates’ report, Voices from Silence: Personal Accounts of the Long-term Impact of 9/11 (2007), was an attempt to give voice to these concerns. It was not meant to be a comprehensive or a scientific study. It was meant to illustrate the impact that widespread discriminatory private acitons, as well as public laws and policies that have overturned longstanding, fundamental legal protections, have had on real people and their families. In some cases, it is difficult to discern whether a specific situation was caused by the reaction to the September 11 terrorist attacks or by persistent racism that existed long before 2001. Our experience in preparing the report suggests that it is likely a combination of both.

We at The Advocates for Human Rights continue to work toward our vision of a country in which every person not only has the right to express his or her point of view, but every person also feels safe in doing so. We hope that by listening to these voices and by seeking out the voices of others, we are increasing the likelihood that future discussions a bout national security, civil liberties, and immigration will include recognition of the inherent human rights and dignity of all people.

Read Voices from Silence: Personal Accounts of the Long-term Impact of 9/11.

By: Robin Phillips, Executive Director, The Advocates for Human Rights

This blog post is a reprint of the Voices from Silence forward. Voices from Silence was published in February 2007.

No Matter Their Country, All Refugees Need Attention and Help

Aylan & Galip Kurdi

The photo of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi on a Turkish beach is an image we should never forget. Instead of romping on the resort beach, Aylan―in his red shirt and dark pants—lies lifeless, his face buried in the sand.

Aylan; his brother, Galip; his mother, Rehan; and his father, Abdullah, had fled the violence in Syria, crossing the Aegean Sea to Greece, and with plans to eventually make their way to Germany or Canada. But high waves flipped the 15-foot rubber raft they were in, pitching them into the sea. The little boys and their mother, and at least nine others, drowned. Only Abdullah survived.

The Kurdi family was on that boat because they were desperate. Eleven of their relatives had been slaughtered at the hands of the Islamic State [ISIS] in the Kurdish-Syrian city of Kobane in June.

There are more refugees in the world trying to escape unimaginable violence than at any other time since the world began keeping records of such desperate journeys. The international community has failed to address the crises. Countries’ policies that exacerbate and intensify the suffering of refugees compound the grief.

Tens of thousands of Syrian refugees are fleeing or are stranded. They are crammed into rubber boats, trucks, and cargo holds, and arriving in Europe en masse. Thousands are trekking across Hungary to Austria, evoking images of people fleeing the Nazis in World War II. Parents cling to their children for dear life. But many drown in the water or suffocate in a truck in the middle of the night, reaching out for a hand to pull them to safety.

While Hungary, Germany, Austria, and other European nations have gathered recent attention, fingers must also point to the United States’ refugee policies. The United States has not risen to its ability to take in Syrian refugees (about 1,500 since the start of the Syria’s civil war in 2011).

Also consider the United States’ shameful treatment of refugees from Central America. While these refugees occupied headlines a year ago, our attention to their plight has largely shifted elsewhere. Despite less attention and fewer media stories, they still need help. Thousands of children and families continue to arrive at the United States-Mexico border, fleeing horrendous violence in Central America. Many remain locked up in United States detention centers.

In the United States, Central American refugees are met by a ruthless immigration system that jails them, denies their due process rights, mistreats the vulnerable, and fails to abide by international human rights standards. Reports describe children being held in “The Freezer”— rooms deliberately kept cold to make children and mothers suffer. People, including children, are denied basic medical treatment. Children are administered adult doses of vaccinations (and without proper consent), causing sickness. Children as young as five appear in court alone, forced to “represent” themselves in complex, English-speaking legal proceedings. They are met by judges showing little mercy and prosecutors labeling them as national security risks.

After the horrors of WWII, the international community recognized that refugees require protection. The world understood that there are people who have no other option but to flee their homelands, and that international and United States law must protect them. This is not how the United States and other countries are acting and responding today. Instead, they behave and respond in blunt, inhumane, and unforgiving ways; they treat refugees as criminals and terrorists, and even worse.

Domestic politics confuse and conflate the crises. National leaders’ xenophobic and racist rhetoric fuels the fire. As refugees reach countries that have enormous resources, a troubling trend is exposed when people are not treated with dignity, humanity, and compassion. Each year, countries move closer to policies condemned in the past. As refugee flows expand, the United States and European countries are systematically denying refugees of their rights, violating human rights law, and the promises they had made and the treaties they signed.

You and I must hold our respective governments accountable. We must confront the consequences of the world’s collective failure to help migrants escaping violence in search hope and safety. We must pressure our governments to turn toward, not away from, refugees.

If you live in the United States, urge President Obama and U.S. Congress (House of Representatives and U.S. Senate) to increase the annual refugee admissions goal from the 2015 number of 70,000 to 200,000 for 2016.

The Advocates for Human Rights represents Syrian and Central American asylum seekers in legal proceedings and ensures that their right to asylum is protected. If you are an attorney or can interpret, please consider volunteering with The Advocates and support these refugees.

The words of Adnan Hassan, cousin of Abdullah and Rehan Kurdi, condemning the world for turning its back on Syrian refugees, can speak for all refugees, no matter the country they flee:

“Do we deserve to have our children picked up from beach shores because their parents panicked and wanted to save their children, save them from terrorism, from kidnappings, from being slaughtered?” Hassan asked in an interview with reporter Jack Moore (International Business Times, September 4.) “How long will they let our children either be killed by terrorists or drown trying to escape?”

By: Deepinder Mayell, director of The Advocates for Human Rights’ Refugee and Immigrant Program.