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Domestic Violence Awareness Month: Remembering the Origins of WATCH

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Robin Phillips, Executive Director of The Advocates for Human Rights, presents Susan Lenfestey with the 2019 Golden WATCH Award

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, as well as the month in which Sheila Wellstone and her husband Sen. Paul Wellstone died in the crash of a small airplane in 2002.

For those who knew her, the two are forever linked, because Sheila was a leader in bringing awareness to the crushing impact of domestic violence.

A self-described ‘wrestling mom’, Sheila traveled the state with Paul during his 1990 senate campaign.  As she sat in coffee shops and VFW halls, she heard women talking about the abuse they suffered in their own homes at the hands of the men they thought loved them.  While economic dependency played a role, it was also a mix of fear and shame that shackled them to their abusers.

Recognizing these women and children needed laws and services to help them find safety and to break the cycle of violence, Sheila and Paul enlisted then Sen. Joe Biden to help them draft the bill that would become the Violence Against Women Act of 1994.

Meanwhile, 1991 saw the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the United States Supreme Court and the testimony of Anita Hill about the sexual comments Thomas had allegedly made to her when they worked together in a previous job.   The panel of male senators sniggered their way through her testimony like embarrassed schoolboys, and we know how that turned out. I still believe Anita Hill!

Shortly after that, the Star Tribune ran a series called “Free to Rape,” detailing the lenient sentencing practices in Minnesota in cases of rape and domestic assault.

In that series, a Hennepin County victims’ advocate said that she wished there was an organization like MADD to keep an eye on the courts.  “Until that happens, nothing will change.”

That article was the catalyst for WATCH (Women At The Court House, later condensed to WATCH), which I helped found later that year.  The mission was to make the courts more responsive and effective in handling cases of violence against women and children and to create a more informed and involved public.

The idea was simple: trained volunteers would monitor felony cases of sexual assault and domestic violence from arraignment through sentencing. They would note “objectively observable behaviors” of court personnel, such as timeliness, ability to he heard, attentiveness to the victim, apparent race of the victim and the defendant, amount of bail set, any upward or downward departures from the sentencing guidelines, as well as how much of the proceeding took place in the judges’ chambers.

Cases with unusual outcomes would be referred to staff for further research to develop a more complete understanding of the issues affecting the case.   WATCH looked for systemic patterns of behavior, not for the occasional misstep.

And yes, volunteers would carry clipboards because judges requested a way for them to be easily identifiable to them, but not to a jury.  Red clipboards were chosen because they were on sale the day we went shopping, not as an incendiary color to intimidate anyone (as one judge later charged)!

After one year, WATCH issued its first report, Hennepin County Criminal Courts, A View from the Outside, which was based on observing more than 1600 appearances in cases related to domestic abuse and criminal sexual conduct.  The report can be found here:

The report made recommendations on how the often-byzantine system could be more easily navigated by the public, especially victims and their families, as well as changes to certain policies that left victims exposed to more danger  As Hennepin County District Court Judge Daniel Mabley wrote at the time, “The report demonstrates that sometimes the best ideas for change come from “outsiders” who are not biased by the assumptions and history that often blinds insiders to the need or potential for change.”

Over the years, WATCH expanded into observing and reporting on similar cases at the misdemeanor level, conducted a multi-year monitoring and research project in child protection court, advocated successfully for a designated domestic violence court, monitored family court in order for protection hearings, compared sentencing practices in misdemeanor domestic violence cases in the suburban courts to those in the downtown court, worked to pass legislation making strangling a felony offense, not a misdemeanor, and much more.  Recently, WATCH expanded into Ramsey and Washington counties and issued two reports on the prosecution of sex trafficking in those jurisdictions.

But in the very early years, we were encouraged and guided by Sheila Wellstone. She moved behind the scenes to bring domestic violence out of the shadows. With others, including WATCH, she helped change the legal and cultural attitudes that viewed domestic violence as a family matter.

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Rosalyn Park, Director of The Advocates’ Womens’ Human Rights Program, and Susan Lenfestey announcing that WATCH will become a project of The Advocates for Human Rights (June 2019)

WATCH recently became a project of The Advocates for Human Rights, and I cannot imagine a more perfect partnership.

Our work is cut out for us.  In 2017, 24 people in Minnesota died as a result of domestic violence, 19 of them women, the other five family members or friends of the victims.

All acts of violence are horrific, but violence in the home passes its toxic seeds on to the next generation, and the next after that. Children who grow up witnessing abuse have a difficult time breaking the cycle.

In October, we pause to remember those who have been silenced by an intimate partner, and to renew our commitment to end the pandemic of domestic violence.  And I’d add, to honor the courageous work of Sheila Wellstone.

To volunteer with The Advocates’ WATCH Project, please click here.

By: Susan Lenfestey, founder of WATCH, the court monitoring and judicial policy non-profit based in Minneapolis, MN. Susan is the 2019 Gold WATCH Award Recipient. 

 

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The Rights of Children Whose Parents Are Sentenced to Death – The Case of Tunisia

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Lisa Borden (The Advocates for Human Rights), Bronwyn Dudley (World Coalition for Human Rights,and Choukri Latif (Coalition tunissiene contre la peine de mort)

As a longtime practicing attorney in the United States, I spent much of my professional career working on cases related to criminal justice, including prison conditions and the death penalty. My death penalty work brought me in contact with The Advocates for Human Rights several years ago, when I had the opportunity to write a report to the UN Human Rights Council about the death penalty in the United States. So began a volunteer relationship in which I was able to participate in The Advocates’ UN work to abolish the  death penalty and many other issues. It’s thanks to that relationship that I’m now studying International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights at the Geneva Academy in Switzerland, and hope to continue addressing criminal justice issues using different approaches after graduation.

While pursuing my studies, I am also still a volunteer for The Advocates in Geneva. Recently, I had the opportunity to participate in a pre-session meeting with the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child regarding Tunisia’s progress in implementing the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The pre-session meetings provide a chance for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and other interested stakeholders to provide information to the Committee in a confidential setting. I joined Bronwyn Dudley of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, and Choukri Latif of the Coalition tunissiene contre la peine de mort (a Tunisian anti-death penalty NGO), to address the committee regarding Tunisia’s failure to implement the rights of children whose parents have been sentenced to death or were executed. The Advocates, the Tunisian Coalition, and the World Coalition highlighted these issues in a recent report to the Committee.

Children: Unseen victims of the death penalty

WDADP 2019 poster

This year’s World Day Against the Death Penalty, on October 10, 2019, will focus on how children around the world are affected by the death penalty, so meeting with the Committee on the Rights of the Child was a timely opportunity to apply this broader concern to a concrete situation. The World Coalition seeks to raise awareness of the severely damaging psychological trauma inflicted upon children whose parents are sentenced to death, at every stage of the process from arrest to incarceration to execution.

Punishing Tunisian Children for Their Parents’ Wrongdoing Violates the Convention

As in many retentionist countries, people sentenced to death in Tunisia typically spend many years in prison. Indeed, since Tunisia has thankfully been observing a moratorium on the death penalty since 1991, parents who are sentenced to death may spend decades in prison. As Choukri explained in his opening statement to the Committee, Tunisia is failing to protect the rights of those children to maintain meaningful relationships with their parents during their incarceration. Many of these parents are incarcerated far away from their families, and the prohibitive costs of transportation prevent children from exercising their visitation rights. Even for those who can do so, visits are limited to 30 minutes and, for younger children, direct physical contact with the parent is not permitted. Children of death-sentenced and executed parents are not provided with badly needed medical and mental health care to cope with the trauma they endure. Additionally, a new anti-terrorism law has expanded the potential application of the death penalty in Tunisia, including to children themselves, and is very unclear as to what conduct is covered.

Tunisia Must Reform Its Laws and Practices to Respect Children’s Rights

During follow-up questioning by Committee members, an inquiry was made about whether Tunisia has good laws in place and just needs to improve implementation, or whether more work needs to be done on the laws themselves. In addition, Committee members requested more information about the justification for the anti-terrorism law and possible alternative measures. These questions provided me with an opportunity to offer some specifics about the failings of Tunisia’s laws, and how Tunisian authorities must address those failings to bring Tunisia into compliance with its human rights obligations.

Around the world, the death penalty in anti-terrorism laws is typically justified as a supposed deterrent to would be terrorists. But academic research reveals that there is no support for the notion that the death penalty is a deterrent to terrorism. In 2016, the UN Special Rapporteurs on summary executions, torture, and human rights while countering terrorism, respectively, specifically warned against using the death penalty in an effort to deter terrorism, stating:

“there is a lack of persuasive evidence that the death penalty could contribute more than any other punishment to eradicating terrorism. The death penalty is also an ineffective deterrent because terrorists who are executed may just gain in prestige, as may their cause.”

In other words, the death penalty, if it has any impact at all, may provide incentives to terrorists.

Tunisia Creates Unnecessary Barriers to Children’s Rights

With regard to the need to continue reviewing and revising laws, I offered the laws affecting children of death-sentenced parents as an example showing that Tunisia’s laws are not yet compatible with the Convention and continue to be in need of reform. The Tunisian Constitution of 2014 expressly recognizes the rights of children and the government’s obligation to act in their best interests, and the law on Special Regulations for Prisons expressly provides that children are entitled to visit their detained parents. But these laws are vague and do not give Tunisian authorities direction about how to account for the recognized rights and obligations. In law and in practice, Tunisia continues to violate children’s rights through arbitrary interference (30 minute visit limitations and lack of physical contact), and failure of the government to make any provision to address the financial barriers associated with transportation to far-flung prison facilities. The latter failure constitutes a de facto denial of the right to visit, but Tunisia does nothing to take this right into account when deciding where a parent will be incarcerated. In fact, Tunisian authorities often deliberately place parents far from their families, considering such isolation to be part of the parent’s punishment. Such punishment obviously violates the rights of the child, just as expressly denying visits would.

I was also able, thanks to the detailed research Bronwyn conducted before the meeting, to point the Committee to two of its own previous recommendations that supported our position that Tunisia has a positive obligation to take the child’s interests into account during criminal proceedings related to the parent.

To learn more about The Advocates’ work on the Death Penalty, click here. For ideas of things you can do to take action for World Day Against the Death Penalty, click here.

By: Lisa Borden, a volunteer with The Advocates for Human Rights, currently based in Geneva, Switzerland.

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The Fight Against the Death Penalty Continues

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Brunei Darussalam’s delegation at the UN Human Rights Council 

In May 2019, the United Nations Human Rights Council held its 33rd session of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), as part of the third cycle of the review process. The UPR examines the status and progress of human rights in all 193 member countries of the United Nations. (For more information about the UPR, check out Chapter 9 of Human Rights Tool for a Changing World here.) Among other countries, both the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Brunei Darussalam received recommendations to further their progress toward abolishing the death penalty.

Both countries have a de facto moratorium on the death penalty. Brunei has had no reported executions since 1957, and the DRC has had the moratorium since 2003. But neither country has ratified the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to officially move toward abolition of the death penalty. Even though international human rights standards mandate that countries retaining the death penalty must reserve it for only the most serious crimes, Brunei continues to sentence people by hanging for far less.

Under the Syariah Penal Code, adultery, sodomy, rape, apostasy, blasphemy, and insulting Islam are all punishable by death by stoning in Brunei. In the DRC, the administration of the death penalty lacks transparency. Just last year, the government handed down 41 death sentences.

At the Universal Periodic Review

Due to these issues, at the UPR in May both countries faced increasing pressure to abolish the death penalty. Brunei Darussalam received 96 recommendations on the death penalty from 50 countries–38.6% of all recommendations the country received, and a 336% increase from Brunei’s second cycle UPR. The recommendations ranged from ratification of the Convention against Torture to repealing problematic provisions in the Penal Code. The DRC received death penalty recommendations from 17 countries, an increase of 13.3% from the second cycle.

The Advocates, together with the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, pushed for these recommendations behind the scenes. The two organizations submitted joint stakeholder reports on both countries. (To read the full reports, visit: Brunei and the DRC). Through both emails and in-person meetings, The Advocates lobbied 48 of the 50 countries that made death penalty recommendations to Brunei Darussalam, and 16 out of the 17 countries that made death penalty recommendations to the DRC.

A Lack of Progress?

After taking months to examine the recommendations from May, last month both Brunei Darussalam and the DRC “noted” all the recommendations relevant to the death penalty. In the language of the UN, noted means rejected. Both countries cited their respective sovereignty over the issue as the reason for rejecting the recommendations. Brunei Darussalam used the country’s religious background to justify the current use the death penalty in the Penal Code. Many countries and organizations, including Belgium and the UK, urged the government of Brunei to reconsider its decision. Similarly, a representative of the government of the DRC told the Human Rights Council that the nation’s own parliament should make the final decision on the death penalty. A delegate from Germany, however, urged the DRC to ratify the Second Protocol.

Despite noting these recommendations in the official meeting, the Brunei government took a small step forward. On May 6, the Brunei government announced that it would extend its moratorium on capital punishment to the crimes of homosexuality and adultery. Under laws that had taken effect in April, the two crimes would otherwise have been eligible for the death sentence of stoning. Furthermore, a representative from the government of Brunei told the Human Rights Council that the government had been making progress toward ratifying the Convention Against Torture. Many governments and non-governmental organizations welcomed this move.

The fight persists

This small victory, however, should not overshadow the larger picture. Despite overall progress toward abolition of the death penalty, many countries’ practices are far removed from international human rights standards. The cases of Brunei Darussalam and the DRC signal the difficulty ahead. The Advocates will continue to fight for a humane justice system on an international level.

To learn more about the death penalty, please visit our website here. Also, October 10 is the 2019 World Day against the Death Penalty, and encourage you to get involved.

To watch the full videos of the September 2019 meetings of the Human Rights Council adopting the outcomes of the UPRs of Brunei and the DRC, please visit the links below:

Brunei Darussalam

The Democratic Republic of Congo

By: Yunze Wang, an intern with the International Justice Program at The Advocates for Human Rights and a student at Macalester College.