Celebrating Human Rights Day: Recover Better – Stand Up for Human Rights

Each year on December 10, people all around the world celebrate Human Rights Day.  The date was chosen to honor the United NationsGeneral Assembly‘s adoption on 10 December 1948 of theUniversal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the first global statement of international human rights principles. The UDHR was the first international document that spelled out the “basic civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights that all human beings should enjoy.” The UDHR has been translated into more than 500 languages, making it the most translated document in the world. 

For 2020, the Human Rights Day theme is “Recover Better – Stand Up for Human Rights”. As the world grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s theme focuses on the need to ensure that human rights are central to recovery efforts.  

We will reach our common global goals only if we are able to create equal opportunities for all, address the failures exposed and exploited by COVID-19, and apply human rights standards to tackle entrenched, systematic, and intergenerational inequalities, exclusion and discrimination. 10 December is an opportunity to reaffirm the importance of human rights in re-building the world we want, the need for global solidarity as well as our interconnectedness and shared humanity.  

Human Rights Day also provides the opportunity to raise awareness about the importance of human rights at the local, national, and international levels. For example, The City of Minneapolis and the United Nations Association of Minnesota in collaboration with other local organizations will offer a virtual panel discussion with local human rights leaders including The Advocates’ Amy Bergquist, senior staff attorney, at 11am CT on December 10. Additionally, The Advocates will hold a volunteer information session via Zoom on December 16 at noon CT, for anyone interested in learning more about ways to engage in human rights.

What are human rights? Human rights are the minimum standards that are necessary for all people to live with dignity, freedom, equality, justice, and peace. Every person has these rights simply because they are human beings – and they cannot be taken away. They are guaranteed to everyone without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth, or other status. These rights are interconnected and indivisible. Human rights are essential for each of us to develop to our full potential, as individuals and as members of our communities.  

Why do human rights matter? Human rights standards are are also part of international law, contained in multilateral treaties that define specific rights that countries are required to uphold. Countries often incorporate international human rights standards in their own national, state, and local laws. While it is international community agreement that defines the minimum human rights that must be protected and promoted, the impact of human rights is deepest at the individual and community level. Eleanor Roosevelt, who was Chairperson of the UDHR drafting committee and one of the primary authors of the UDHR, described it like this:  

“Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home — so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. […] Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.” 

Eleanor Roosevelt, a primary author of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Why does The Advocates conduct international advocacy? The Advocates’ mission is to implement international human rights standards to promote civil society and reinforce the rule of law. We engage with the UN to amplify the voices of our clients and partners to leverage the authority of the UN, pushing governments to uphold their responsibility to respect, protect, and fulfill human rights. The Advocates’ international advocacy involves documenting human rights violations and submitting written reports. We work alongside our partners to brief UN treaty bodies, lobby delegates to the Human Rights Council, host panel discussions for UN audiences, and lodge formal complaints. (Read more about how we build our partners’ capacity to engage in UN advocacy here.) 

How does The Advocates connect local human rights issues with the international human rights framework? The Human Rights Day theme Recover Better – Stand Up for Human Rights is particularly meaningful this year. The murder of George Floyd by police officers in May in Minneapolis, the city where The Advocates for Human Rights is headquartered, starkly illustrated the widespread and longstanding human rights violations experienced by Black people at the hands of armed State actors in our local community. Yet no major U.S. city, including Minneapolis, meets basic, minimum international standards regarding police use of force. (Read more in our article Police Use of Force: Minnesota Falls Short) Using international human rights standards to identify where U.S. laws and practices fall short can also help us to identify ways to address the gaps.  

In June, The Advocates made a written statement and recommendations at a special session of the UN Human Rights Council about the urgent need to dismantle the systemic racism that both fuels police violence in the US and leads to impunity for law enforcement officers who commit such violence. As the U.S. government response to protests grew increasingly violent, we provided training to human rights defenders in the United States and around the world to document crackdowns on peaceful protests and submit complaints to the UN. 

For the Universal Periodic Review of the United States in November, The Advocates submitted written information to the Human Rights Council addressing critical human rights issues here at home – asylum, labor traffickingthe death penalty, and police accountability. We engaged in electronic advocacy to educate Human Rights Council delegates about these issues and held online educational events on human rights in the U.S. and access to counsel in U.S. death penalty cases to encourage countries to take up our issues during their brief statements. 

While these steps to Stand Up for Human Rights in the U.S. have been important, we still have a long way to go. You can join us in celebrating Human Rights Day 2020 by taking action to promote and protect human rights. Here are some ideas: 

  • Learn more about human rights and why they are important in The Advocates’ Human Rights Toolkit 
  • Check out this illustrated flipbook of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  
  • Watch The Advocates’ training video to get an overview of advocacy with the UN’s human rights system here.  
  • Stand up for human rights by sharing on social media using hashtags #Standup4humanrights #HumanRightsDay 
  • Participate in the UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent’s public 27th session on “The Urgency of Now: Systemic Racism and the Lessons of 2020” on the key themes and priorities for the protection of the human rights of people of African descent and how to address systemic racism based on international human rights law. Livestreamed 30 November to 3 December, 14.00-16.00 (CET)/7 – 9 am (CST) and available subsequently on demand on UN WebTV.
  • Volunteer! Learn about more ways to engage in human rights at The Advocates’ volunteer information session via Zoom on December 16 at noon CT.
  • Join a virtual panel discussion about human rights at the local level, cosponsored by the City of Minneapolis and the United Nations Association Minnesota Chapter on Thursday, December 10 at 11am CT.

By Jennifer Prestholdt, Deputy Director and International Justice Program Director at The Advocates for Human Rights  


Live from Geneva: The United States Takes Center Stage

The Advocates’ scorecard to track recommendations from the international community

There may be a few reasons the world’s eyes are on the United States in recent days, but for three and a half hours on Monday, those eyes will be focusing not on election results, recounts, or infection rates, but on our country’s human rights record.

From 7:30 to 11:00 a.m. (CST) on Monday, the United Nations’ Human Rights Council will meet in Geneva to hold its third Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the United States. Read more about the process here.

The U.S. Government is sending a delegation to Geneva headed up by Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, Robert A. Destro. Destro and colleagues will describe the status of human rights in the country and any progress the country has made in implementing recommendations it accepted from the last UPR in 2015. The State Department recently submitted its own national report to inform the UPR process.

The national report presents the current administration’s views on pressing human rights concerns. For example, responding to 2015 UPR recommendations to address police profiling, excessive use of force, and systemic racism in law enforcement, the report asserts:

Each of these recommendations assumes – wrongly in our view – that the United States and federal, state and local governments engage in “systemic” racial discrimination, racial profiling, and that federal, state and local law enforcement officers are regularly engaged in excessive uses of force. We reject the notion that law enforcement in the United States is “systemically” racist.

As part of the UPR’s peer-review process, 120 countries have signed up to take the floor and offer their praise, criticisms, and recommendations for how the United States can better uphold its obligation to respect, protect, and fulfill human rights. Due to time constraints, each country will have just 55 seconds to provide its input. Slovakia will kick off the “interactive dialogue” on Monday and then the countries will proceed alphabetically, wrapping up with Singapore.

Ten countries have submitted advance questions for the U.S. delegation on topics ranging from LGBTI rights to the controversial Commission on Unalienable Rights to immigration detention and police violence.

For this UPR of the United States, The Advocates submitted reports to the Human Rights Council addressing three critical human rights issues – asylum, labor trafficking, and the death penalty. Separately, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, The Advocates made a detailed statement to the Council about the urgent need to dismantle the systemic racism that both fuels police violence in the US and leads to impunity for law enforcement officers who commit such violence. We’ve been busy engaging in electronic lobbying and holding online events to encourage countries to take up our issues during their brief statements.

Sadly, there have been significant adverse developments in all of the areas addressed by our submissions since the last UPR of the United States in 2015, and it is more important than ever for the international community to use its influence to pressure the US for change.

The federal government will have until March 2021 to decide whether to accept each recommendation it receives. Accepted recommendations set the stage for civil society to pressure the government toward implementation before the next UPR in 2025.

Here are some ways you can follow the UPR of the United States on Monday and get involved:

  • Watch the entire review live on UN Web TV, or when it appears in the archives later the same day. You can use our scorecard to keep track of which countries raise our issues.
  • Follow our Twitter feed at @The_Advocates, where we will livetweet the review. If you see us tweet a recommendation you think is particularly relevant or effective, especially if it addresses one of our issues of concern, retweet it and thank the government that made the recommendation. If we’ve @ mentioned the government in our tweet, they’ll see your reply. 
  • Join us on Facebook as we livestream two thematic debriefings on Tuesday, November 10:
    • At noon CST, we’ll have a conversation with staff, volunteers, and partners about immigration, worker rights, and police violence and accountability, where we’ll show clips of some of our favorite statements, celebrate successes, and plan our next steps. 
  • Join us as we collaborate on strategies to encourage the administration to accept recommendations before the Human Rights Council meets in March 2021 to conclude its review of the United States.

By Lisa Borden, staff attorney for the International Justice Program at The Advocates for Human Rights. Before joining The Advocates earlier this year, Lisa practiced law in Alabama and worked on civil rights litigation including numerous death penalty cases. Lisa was also a frequent pro bono volunteer for The Advocates while in private practice.

The Advocates for Human Rights is a nonprofit organization dedicated to implementing international human rights standards to promote civil society and reinforce the rule of law. The Advocates represents more than 1000 asylum seekers, victims of trafficking, and immigrants in detention through a network of hundreds of pro bono legal professionals.


Live from Geneva! The Pandemic Won’t Stop The Advocates’ Human Rights Advocacy: What You Need to Know about the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) 36th Session

A wide view during the 19th Session Human Rights Council. 15 March 2012. Photo by Jean-Marc FerrŽ

The next two weeks are exciting times to be engaged in human rights advocacy, and you can be a part of it, helping to amplify the voices of The Advocates For Human Rights, our clients, and our partners around the world. 

Three times a year, the United Nations turns its attention to human rights in a dozen or so countries that are called on stage for a peer-review process dubbed the Universal Periodic Review (UPR). This video gives an overview of the process and how civil society organizations can get involved. The global COVID-19 pandemic has changed how and when that process happens, but at long last the UPR session originally scheduled for May will be happening November 2-13.  

The countries called to the stage for this 36th UPR session include Belarus, Bulgaria, Croatia, Honduras, Jamaica, Liberia, Libya, Malawi, the Maldives, and the United States—all countries of interest for The Advocates and its clients and partners. For more than a year, we’ve been busy researching and submitting reports, lobbying delegates, and holding virtual events to ensure that our issues get attention when those countries are on stage. 

What to expect

Each country’s UPR culminates in a 3.5 hour “interactive dialogue” on the floor of the Human Rights Council in Geneva in which the country under review gives a summary of its work on human rights over the last five years and responds to questions. As part of the dialogue, countries around the world can make brief statements to the country being reviewed. Those statements usually include recommendations—steps the country under review should take to improve its human rights practices.  

The country under review has several months to decide whether to accept those recommendations. The country then has five years to implement any accepted recommendations and report back on its progress at the next UPR. 

Recommendations are the heart of the UPR. They echo the pleas of victims of human rights abuses and front-line human rights defenders, showing governments that the world is paying attention. They also give civil society organizations leverage to work with their governments to improve human rights on the ground. And as a cyclical tool, the UPR helps ensure that if a government promises to implement a recommendation, that government’s peers expect to see progress in keeping that promise within five years. 

Which countries and issues we’re following

Here’s a list of the countries we’re following, along with the dates and times of the interactive dialogues (adjusted to Minnesota time) and the issues we’re covering: 

Week 1: November 2-6 

  • Belarus, Monday, 2:00-5:30 am: Domestic violence, backlash against human rights, death penalty 
  • Liberia, Monday, 7:30-11:00 am: Accountability, female genital mutilation, LGBTI rights, human rights defenders, death penalty, detention conditions 
  • Malawi, Tuesday, 2:00-5:30 am: Death penalty and detention conditions 
  • Maldives, Wednesday, 7:30-11:00 am: Death penalty, human rights defenders 
  • Honduras, Thursday, 7:30-11:00 am: gender-based violence, LGBTI rights 
  • Bulgaria, Friday, 2:00-5:30 am: Domestic violence, backlash against human rights 

Week 2: November 9-13

  • United States, Monday, 7:30-11:00 am: Immigration and asylum, human trafficking and workers’ rights, police violence and accountability, death penalty and detention conditions 
  • Croatia, Tuesday, 2:00-5:30 am: Domestic violence, backlash against human rights 
  • Libya, Wednesday, 2:00-5:30 am: Death penalty and detention conditions 
  • Jamaica, Wednesday, 7:30-11:00 am: Death penalty and detention conditions 

How you can get involved 

The Advocates for Human Rights will be watching all the action online as it unfolds live from Geneva. We’ll be livetweeting the interactive dialogues for the countries we’re engaged in. Here’s how you can help: 

  • Watch the interactive dialogues live on UN Web TV, or, if you’re not an early bird, when they appear in the archives a day or two later. React on social media using the hashtag #UPR36 and tag The Advocates. 
  • Follow our Twitter feed at @The_Advocates. If you see us tweet a recommendation you think is particularly relevant or effective, especially if it addresses one of our issues of concern, reply to the tweet and thank the government that made the recommendation. If we’ve @ mentioned the government in our tweet, they’ll see your reply. 
  • Join us for our FacebookYouTube, and Instagram livestream debriefs after each UPR. We’ll be having conversations with staff, volunteers, and partners about the results of the interactive dialogue, showing clips of some of our favorite statements, celebrating successes, and planning next steps. If you’re watching on Facebook, ask us questions! Follow us on social media to keep an eye out for specific dates and times for these debriefs as we schedule them. 
  • Follow our partners at the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty on Facebook to watch their Facebook live debriefs focusing on death penalty issues raised in the UPRs of Belarus, Jamaica, Liberia, Libya, Malawi, the Maldives, and the United States. 

See our Take Action page for more details. 

Advance questions: Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommendations on accountability will be in the spotlight 

Countries can also submit questions in advance of the interactive dialogue. These questions can give hints about issues of concern that countries might speak about during the interactive dialogue. For example, the United States submitted several advance questions for Liberia, including questions about implementation of the recommendations in the 2009 Truth and Reconciliation Commission report. The United Kingdom asked,  

“What action has the Government taken in response to recommendations from the National Economic Dialogue and civil society organisations, calling for accountability for war crimes and related economic crimes, as defined by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, committed during Liberia’s civil conflict?” 

Germany also requested that the Liberian government “elaborate on the current state and further development of the implementation of the recommendations made by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) which were issued in 2009 but remain to be established successfully to date.” 

The Advocates worked directly with Liberia’s TRC, making history as the first-ever truth commission to make a systematic effort to include survivors outside of a subject country. We’ve been collaborating with Liberian and international human rights organizations to push for accountability, to ensure that the TRC’s recommendations are implemented. These advance questions reflect information that Liberian activists shared with Human Rights Council delegates about the need for a war crimes court during a briefing hosted by The Advocates on October 12. (available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_af-NkRIuRA). The advance questions give us hope that the countries we’ve been lobbying will use the interactive dialogue to pressure Liberia to finally take concrete steps to create a war crimes court to try civil wars-era atrocities committed in the country. 

Learn more

Each country under review has its own UPR country page with lots of relevant documents. You’ll see each country’s “national report,” a compilation of information from a variety of United Nations bodies, a summary of information submitted by stakeholders like The Advocates and its partners, and questions submitted in advance of the review.  

Here are links to the country pages and any reports we and our partners have submitted for those countries: 

To learn more about The Advocates’ work with the United Nations, read our blog post Celebrating United Nations Day and the UN Advocacy chapter of our toolkit, Human Rights Tools for a Changing World: A Step-by-step Guide to Human Rights Fact-finding, Documentation, and Advocacy

Amy Bergquist is a Senior Staff Attorney with the International Justice Program at The Advocates for Human Rights


Celebrating United Nations Day 2020

The Advocates’ staff and volunteers at The United Nations in Geneva

October 24, 2020, marks the 75th anniversary of the entry into force of the United Nations Charter, the document that remains the foundation for the United Nations system. On this United Nations Day, The Advocates for Human Rights rededicates itself to leveraging the strength of the United Nations to work toward a world where every person can live with dignity, freedom, equality, justice, and peace.

The Advocates uses the United Nations to further its mission

The Advocates’ mission is to implement international human rights standards to promote civil society and reinforce the rule of law. We engage with the UN to amplify the voices of our clients and partners to bring the authority of the UN to bear on governments, pushing them to uphold their responsibility to respect, protect, and fulfill human rights. Click here for a training video that provides an overview of advocacy with the UN’s human rights system.

Our clients and partners equip the UN with a vital tool: first-hand information about pressing human rights concerns. The UN, in turn, uses this information to hold governments accountable. The UN gives them a platform to speak truth to power.

We build our partners’ capacity to engage with the UN

The Advocates works with diverse partners in UN advocacy:

Joachim from Alternatives Cameroon lobbies a delegate to the Human Rights Council in Geneva

This advocacy goes beyond collecting information and submitting written reports. We work alongside our partners to brief UN treaty bodies, lobby delegates to the Human Rights Council, host panel discussions for UN audiences, and lodge formal complaints.

We need your help

As the world celebrates United Nations Day, you can get involved, too! From November 2-10, the United Nations will review the human rights records of several countries where The Advocates has targeted its advocacy: Belarus, Bulgaria, Croatia, Honduras, Liberia, and the United States. At this link you can discover how to get involved by learning more about the process, studying the issues at stake, and following the UN reviews as they happen.

But we also need your help during those two weeks to engage with us on social media. We’ll be live-tweeting the reviews, and you can help us amplify our clients’ and partners’ voices by replying to tweets you like to thank governments that make strong recommendations. Then join us on Facebook live as we debrief with our partners and volunteers after each review.

Amy Bergquist is Senior Staff Attorney with the International Justice Program at The Advocates for Human Rights.


Do Consular Notification Rights Matter? In Capital Cases, They Can Mean The Difference Between Life And Death.

A young black man, born in Germany, moved with his family to the United States as a small child, settling in rural Alabama. Let’s call him T. Although T struggled in school from the very start, and in developing the necessary skills to manage his life on a day-to-day basis, he received virtually no help – no medical, psychological, or real educational interventions to identify or develop skills to cope with what would only much later be found to be very significant disabilities. Predictably, T fell behind, left school, and drifted unsuccessfully through a series of menial jobs. When he was arrested and charged with having participated, with several other people, in a robbery murder, he was unable to explain how he had been manipulated by people who knew how to use his gullibility. He did not understand what had happened, and the State of Alabama didn’t care. It charged T with capital murder and sought the death penalty.  

The US death penalty system erects many barriers that impede the ability of people accused of capital crimes to adequately defend themselves. When the defendant is a foreign national, an additional barrier – one that violates international law – frequently arises. Under Article 36 of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, a treaty to which the US is a party, a person who is arrested or imprisoned must be notified “without delay” of his right to communicate with the consulate of his home country, and that if he so requests, his home consulate must be notified of his circumstances, also “without delay.”  

In dozens of US death penalty cases, this provision has been violated. In fact, the Death Penalty Information Center was able to identify only two cases of fully compliance with consular notification rights out of more than reported 130 cases it reviewed. The International Court of Justice, created by the United Nations to hear disputes between countries regarding their treaty obligations, has repeatedly held the US responsible for these failures. In cases such as the LaGrand case (Germany v. US) and the Avena case (Mexico v. US), among others, the ICJ found that foreign nationals were convicted and sentenced to death with no notification of their right to consular communication, and their home countries’ consular officials only learned of their plight years later, when it was far too late for any assistance provided to be effective.  

The right to have one’s consulate notified, and to receive consular assistance, is far more than a mere formality. Many foreign consulates take an active approach to death penalty cases involving nationals from their countries, and if given timely notice will take steps to ensure that their nationals receive adequate representation from the very outset of the case. This involvement can be critical in US state jurisdictions where authorities often violate indigent defendants’ right to effective counsel.  

During my many years of private practice in Alabama, I worked on many post-conviction death penalty cases in which the most glaring problem was woefully ineffective representation provided by appointed counsel for an indigent defendant. While in some cases the appointed counsel were simply unqualified or incompetent, a huge factor in every case was the severe lack of adequate compensation and resources provided to appointed counsel by the State of Alabama. To be handled properly, a death penalty case involves many hundreds of hours of work, a tremendous amount of research, multiple pretrial motions on a wide range of issues, and access to qualified experts to address matters such as intellectual disability, mitigation evidence, and so on.  

My own personal experience in T’s case in Alabama demonstrates how early consular intervention can make a life-saving difference in a death penalty case. T was very poor. His appointed counsel, unlike many others I had encountered, were both quite competent and diligent, but they suffered from the same lack of resources as all others. In addition, they faced a hostile trial judge who was trying to rush the case to trial, and who made bad rulings on important issues from the outset. Fortunately, T’s mother was a savvy person who notified the German consulate very early about her son’s case. Consular officials reached out to an international organization that works on death penalty issues. That organization, in turn, contacted me and asked that I get involved in the case along with its staff attorney, who was not in Alabama.  

Over a period of several months, my law firm and I provided pro bono support to the appointed trial team. We researched and drafted numerous pretrial motions, as well as successful mandamus petitions to overturn the trial judge’s earlier rulings. We assisted the trial team in identifying, seeking funds for, and hiring the experts needed to address T’s suspected intellectual disability, and ultimately filed a motion to exclude the death penalty in his case because of that disability. I’m happy to say that motion was also successful, and the trial court had little choice but to order that the death penalty be excluded. I have nothing but admiration for the hard work of the appointed lawyers in T’s case, but it is fair to say that this result would not have been achieved if the German consulate had not arranged for the additional pro bono assistance T received. The meager resources the appointed lawyers were provided, and the trial court’s efforts to rush them to trial before the intellectual disability case could be properly developed, would have prevented it from happening.  

Want to learn more about the vital importance of access to effective and adequately resourced counsel, as well as other important issues surrounding the death penalty? Check out the resources listed below, participate in World Day Against The Death Penalty, and join The Advocates and the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty for an informative one-hour panel discussion featuring three long-time US death penalty litigators.  

By Lisa Borden, staff attorney for the International Justice Program at The Advocates for Human Rights. Before joining The Advocates earlier this year, Lisa practiced law in Alabama and worked on civil rights litigation including numerous death penalty cases. Lisa was also a frequent pro bono volunteer for The Advocates while in private practice.

The Advocates for Human Rights is a nonprofit organization dedicated to implementing international human rights standards to promote civil society and reinforce the rule of law. The Advocates represents more than 1000 asylum seekers, victims of trafficking, and immigrants in detention through a network of hundreds of pro bono legal professionals.


Indonesia, the Interahamwe and… ICE: Why Forced Sterilization in Immigration Detention is a Bellwether for Large-Scale Human Rights Abuses

The United States conducts human rights programs and judges other countries’ record of human rights, is part of the world community which consistently condemns crimes against humanity, and has entered wars and supported international missions under the auspices of stopping and preventing such atrocities.  And yet, whistleblower allegations indicate that the United States Government is using forced sterilizations in ICE immigration detention facilities. This, combined with the pattern of practice by ICE and the Trump Administration, raises not only human rights concerns for the individuals subjected to these harms, but questions of the mass human rights catastrophe created by immigration detention and the Administration’s xenophobic approach. 

The complaint alleges improper access to medical care, insufficient protections against COVID-19 and a pattern of practice of forced sterilizations.  The number of women forced to undergo hysterectomies and the reasons given for such is what worried the whistleblower.  She noted, “I’ve had several inmates tell me that they’ve been to see the doctor and they’ve had hysterectomies and they don’t know why they went or why they’re going.”  

Forced sterilization is outlawed as a crime against humanity, war crime, and crime of genocide in international law.  Measures that are intended to prevent births within a group are also prohibited as a crime of genocide under the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which the U.S. agreed to uphold and prosecute violations of. Several treaties, including the Convention against Torture (CAT) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which the US has ratified and is legally bound to uphold, prohibit the practices alleged to be carried out in ICE detention. The Committee Against Torture has  stated that women are particularly at risk in contexts of “deprivation of liberty [and] medical treatment, particularly involving reproductive decisions. . . .”

Other treaties protect women against sex-based discrimination so they can “decide freely and responsibly on the number and spacing of their children.” (CEDAW, Art. 16(1)(e)). International law safeguards other related rights, including the right to security of person and protection against arbitrary interference with one’s privacy and family. More broadly, the right to protection of the family by both society and the state is widely recognized (UDHR, Art. 16(3)).

These legal standards have been built in response to the lessons learned by witnessing the abuse of women’s bodies as a tactic of war and oppression. For example, reading about forced sterilizations by ICE should conjure images of the eugenics-driven program in Nazi Germany, which also used forced sterilizations in furtherance of its ethnic cleansing campaign.  These allegations have particularly shocked me as I have witnessed the interplay of violence against women in the context of genocide and serious crimes against humanity. 

I worked in Timor-Leste and on the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) after focusing on human rights law and post-conflict recovery in my undergraduate and law school studies.  I have also worked as an immigration lawyer in the U.S. and on human rights programs with the United States government.  The coercive reproductive tactics used by ICE are familiar to me—not directly from my work in immigration, but from my experience in Timor-Leste and with the ICTR.  At the ICTR, I read witness statements and prepared summaries for the judges that spoke about coercive reproductive tactics used by the Interahamwe militia.  This was the first international tribunal to issue a conviction for rape as a means of perpetrating genocide and as a weapon of war, but it was not the first instance of such violations and, clearly, is not the last.  In my work on the island nation of Timor-Leste, I worked with strong Timorese women who explained how the Indonesian military used coercive reproductive tactics and sexual assault during a 30-year occupation, which saw more than 30% of the population murdered and untold numbers, especially women, subjected to other harms.  There, I also listened to Timorese women talk of the rape and sexual assaults perpetrated by Japanese soldiers during WW2.  Time has not healed these scars. 

While we read stories and see movies most often about the bloody murders committed as part of genocidal and tyrannical campaigns, the scars born by women’s bodies and minds are particularly salient.  Sexual violence, including forced sterilization, is a unique kind of evil that subjugates women as weapons of war and oppression.  It turns one of the most basic elements of womanhood—bodies—into a tool to erase one’s race, ethnic group, or nationality.  Reading that forced sterilizations have been carried out against detained women by agents of the government to whom I pay taxes— and for whom I have actually worked on human rights programs in a country that bears the traumas of such tactics— is beyond sickening. 

Yet, the whistleblower complaint comes in the context of other oppressive and xenophobic immigration policies used by the Trump Administration. In 2018, for example, the ACLU brought a successful lawsuit against the Administration for its attempts to force unwanted pregnancies amongst detained immigrant women and girls. Reports of sexual assault and abuse by ICE and CBP officers are also common.  The Administration has proposed and implemented policies restricting asylum protections for vulnerable women. It has never ended its shocking family separation scheme. And, the Administration continues to detain migrants and conduct apprehension operations at the border and within the United States—including right here in Minnesota— despite numerous condemnations about the risks of COVID-19 in facilities. These tactics reflect a general distain for the lives and humanity of people in immigration custody, and migrant women in particular.

Adding to the hypocrisy and shock of these actions is the fact that forced sterilization, if perpetrated in the woman’s home country, would provide a basis for the same Department of Homeland Security which houses ICE to grant asylum in the United States.  U.S. immigration law provides: “a person who has been forced to . . . undergo involuntary sterilization . . . shall be deemed to have been persecuted on account of political opinion.”  There is something distinctly disturbing about the very government that grants refugee protections on the basis of forced sterilization using such tactics against the same populations designed to be protected.  And, given the larger context of xenophobia, white nationalism and racism running through anti-immigrant policies, such actions by ICE raise concerns of a wider scheme that, left unchecked, will become akin to the ethnic cleansing we have condemned and sworn to prevent. 

Not only is this a departure from our standing as a leader against human atrocities, it is a regression to dark periods in the U.S. itself.  The United States has a long history of using such tactics to perpetrate xenophobic schemes against vulnerable populations. 

Without decisive action to investigate, prevent and punish these actions, we risk not only violating human rights but sliding down the path of ethnic cleansing that we have so urgently condemned. Abuse of human bodies, and particularly of women, is a bellwether for oppressive regimes. The Advocates for Human Rights calls on the Administration to immediately cease these tactics and investigate and punish these actors, for Congress to investigate and hold those responsible to account for these crimes against humanity, and for all of us to demand better. 

By Lindsey Greising, Staff Attorney, Research, Education and Advocacy at The Advocates For Human Rights