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Legislation: Is It Ever Enough?

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Photo by ALICE MULOMBE MUYAMBO 

In 1985, the Republic of Zambia ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. It was another 23 years before legislation was enacted in the form of the 2011 Anti-Gender-Based Violence Act.  Its Preamble bold declared it “An Act to provide for the protection of victims of gender-based violence,”  prompting a sharp rise in the numbers of reported cases as non-governmental organizations conducted nationwide campaigns to inform the public of the new legislation.

On paper, the law was a step in the right direction, fighting widespread violence against women and thereby challenging years of traditional gender roles by criminalizing a wide range of abuses based on sex, from economic to physical, and emotional, verbal and psychological abuse.

However, when the legislation was put to the test in the Courtroom, it failed to meet its own high standard. Cases of domestic violence, sexual violence, and gender-based violence against women continued to be tried using outdated laws such as the Penal Code and Criminal Procedure Codes. Many of the victims of these shortfalls in the law are nameless and have no safety net when their cases fall through.

Take Jessie (not her real name) for example. A 25-year-old magistrate who graduated from a premier Law School in Lusaka, she was married to a military man whom she met while at law school. Their year-long marriage was stained by violent outbursts, physical violence, public humiliation and isolation from friends and family– all the things that the Anti-Gender-Based Violence Act was meant to protect her from.

Finally on December 3, 2015, Jessie’s military employee husband beat her unconscious. Jessie woke up in Kabwe General Hospital, blood drenched and deformed with two deep cuts to the head. She accepted support from her colleagues and family and especially from the justice system that she had worked so hard to be a part of.

Instead, she woke up to humiliating headlines in two public newspapers, “Army officer batters magistrate wife,” read one newspaper; four national radio stations carried the story without bothering to verifying any of the facts.

Physically, the wounds took four months to heal.  Her employers, however, demanded that she report to work for two weeks after the incident.

Meanwhile, her husband was arrested and released when she dropped the case due to pressure from her mother, who was concerned by what friends and family would say. After all, Jessie was a successful magistrate; her parents were marriage councillors who had been married for more than twenty years, she had a daughter – her mother reminded her – who needed both parents, and there was the Zambian proverb that urges women to “stay strong” in the face of turbulent times. Shipikisha club, they call it.

So, she took the advice of her mother and dropped the case against her husband, hoping that his three days in custody would force him to reflect on his behavior and start a journey to change.

Although the Penal Code gives the state the right to prosecute cases on behalf of victims, even after they give statements stating that they wish to drop them, the Judiciary did not take kindly to Jessie’s actions. When she reported for work, she was greeted by hostile stares and a suspension letter from the Deputy Director charging her with conduct likely to bring the Judiciary into disrepute, a vague term that can be used to cover a wide range of incidents. There was no provision under any code allowing or sanctioning the suspension, and the offense she was charged with carried a punishment of a written warning. The experience left her feeling victimised. She was given seven days within which to exculpate herself, and after she did, she did not hear from her employers for nine months.

Her husband in the meantime, continued to work for the Zambian Army.  He has not faced any sanctions from his employers or accountability for his behaviour by the public media, and his life continues as before.

Numerous letters later, Jessie was reinstated, with a thinly veiled threat that she must ensure that the incident never recurred if she wanted to keep her job. This seemed contrary to the official position of the Zambian Judiciary, which had taken a strong stance against gender-based violence against women in the media and was launching a fast-track court in Kabwe.

So, how does one pick up the pieces after being abused by all the people and institutions that are supposed to protect you? You do better. Jessie is a strong advocate for women’s rights in the workplace and uses the Anti-Gender-Based Violence Act in the Courtroom. With the help of friends and other victims, she overcame her initial misgivings about handling cases similar to her own, and she now sits on the bench in Monze Zambia.

Still, Jessie’s experience begs the question: is legislation enough to end violence against women?

By Mubanga Kalimamukwento, Hubert Humphrey (Fulbright) Fellow 2018/2019 – University of Minnesota, who is doing her professional affiliation with the International Justice Program of The Advocates for Human Rights.

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Expanding the Technical Expertise of Women’s Rights Defenders in 2018

FeaturedExpanding the Technical Expertise of Women’s Rights Defenders in 2018

Women’s rights are human rights. We make up half the world’s population, and therefore, half its potential. But unfortunately, laws, practices, and people’s attitudes do not always take into account the legacy of discrimination in women’s lives and the fact that women and girls routinely face violence and oppression.

We know that, when we lift up women, we see a ripple effect that goes far beyond women and girls and into the world. For example, when we see greater income equality across both women and men, poverty diminishes through the generations. When women hold assets or gain income, that money is more likely to be spent on their family’s nutrition, medicines, and housing. As a result, children are healthier and the community does better. When girls pursue a secondary education, they marry later and have fewer children. Their risk of domestic violence is lower compared to child brides who are forced to marry.

It Takes a Multifaceted Approach

From ending violence against women to stopping discrimination to empowering women.

What is The Advocates for Human Rights doing about it?

  • We change laws by analyzing and commenting on laws before they are passed to make sure they are the strongest they can be.
  • We monitor and document violations of women’s rights and make recommendations to fix the pitfalls and barriers to women.
  • We build the capacity of civil society to hold their governments accountable and safeguard women’s rights.
  • We provide our expertise to the United Nations to elaborate best practice standards on violence against women and evaluate on-the-ground practices.

We Were Busy in 2018!

Ending Violence Against Women

  • We completed the final two trainings for the Russian Legal Training Academy for Women’s Human Rights. Sixteen Russian-speaking lawyers from 8 countries in the Former Soviet Union were trained on how to use UN and European mechanisms when all domestic remedies have failed. The second training, in Chisinau, Moldova, led by Jennifer Prestholdt, Theresa Dykoschak, and Amy Bergquist, addressed using UN mechanisms to defend women’s rights. Local NGO, Promo-LEX, was our host partner for this second session. Rosalyn Park, Amy Bergquist and Theresa Dykoschak completed the third session this October in Tbilisi, Georgia. Local NGO, Anti-Violence Network of Georgia, was our host partner for the third and final session.

    • Rosalyn Park and volunteer Veronica Clark attended the Women Against Violence Europe (WAVE) Network annual conference in Malta in late October. They conducted interviews on the backlash against women’s rights across Europe.

    • Robin Phillips attended the “European Network for the Work with Perpetrators of Domestic Violence” (WWP EN) conference in Prague, Czech Republic in October with Denise Gamache of the Battered Women’s Justice Project. Our participation builds on our 2016 report, Batterer Intervention Programs: Recommendations for Effective Batterer Intervention Programs in Central & Eastern Europe & the former Soviet Union.

    • At the invitation of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Rosalyn Park was in Astana, Kazakhstan to present on international best practices for legal reform on domestic violence. The conference, “Preventing Domestic Violence through Effective Collaboration: A New Stage of Development of Crisis Centers,” was organized by OSCE, UN Women, UNFPA, and the Union of Crisis Centers in Kazakhstan and aimed at strengthening the work of the crisis centers and raising awareness on preventing domestic violence.

Stopping Discrimination

  • At the request of the UN Group of Experts on Coal Mine Methane, The Advocates undertook research to highlight the benefits of promoting female inclusion in traditionally male-dominated industries and identify ways to support the women in these sectors. Fish & Richardson and Dechert LLP provided pro bono assistance to help conduct the research. The Advocates presented its findings in Geneva at the annual meeting of the UN Group of Experts on Coal Mine Methane. The report will be published in early 2019.

    • Theresa Dykoschak, Staff Attorney, was in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan in early November as an expert panelist at a conference for systems actors from Central Asian countries on eliminating gender-based violence against women and girls. The conference was organized by UN Women, UNFPA, UNDP and UNICEF.

Empowering Women and Human Rights Defenders

  • Robin Phillips and Rosalyn Park trained 25 lawyers from 15 countries for the seventh round of the Women’s Human Rights Training Institute (WHRTI) in Sofia, Bulgaria. In partnership with the Bulgarian Gender Research Foundation and Equality Now, WHRTI strives to build the capacity of young lawyers from Central and Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union for litigation on women’s rights issues.

    • Robin Phillips and Rosalyn Park built the capacity of civil society to hold their governments accountable to effectively respond to rape and sexual violence. At the invitation of local partner Mobilizing for Rights Associates, The Advocates trained 23 civil society members and systems actors in Marrakech, Morocco in December.

    • In March we celebrated International Women’s Day, a day to catalyze activism and to focus on advancements and challenges in women’s rights and equality. Theresa Dykoschak presented on cyberviolence and Rosalyn Park facilitated a panel discussion by the keynote speaker and performing artist, Nekessa Julia Opoti and Andrea Jenkins.

Thank you to all our supporters! We look forward to continuing the work in 2019.

By: Rosalyn Park, director of the Women’s Human Rights Program at The Advocates for Human Rights.

 

Freedom

FeaturedFreedom

…it seems that the concept of freedom no longer has a consensus understanding among the American people.  What’s more, we have lost our ability to engage in debate, a cornerstone of a healthy democracy. 

Until recently, I had not visited Ellis Island or the Statue of Liberty.  Working with immigrants and asylum seekers has thus far defined my professional career, but my visit to Lady Liberty served as a reminder about our nation’s concept of freedom. The audio guide (love this modern invention) shared many new facts about Lady Liberty, reinforced ones commonly known and challenged visitors to define the statue’s significance to them.

At its inception in 1886, the Statue of Liberty was built as a sort of nod from the French to the United States which was, by then, a century-old democracy with a bright future, having recently withstood a civil war.

She was built filled with symbols: her torch as a sign of enlightenment; her sun ray crown sharing her light with the rest of the world; her tablet of laws symbolizing the importance of the rule of law; and at her feet, broken chains as a sign of freedom from slavery and political oppression.

A powerful part of the statue’s story is that the significance of her symbols has changed alongside U.S. history, a true sign of her aspirational nature.

In her early years, Lady Liberty was a symbol of hope, freedom and new beginnings, welcoming over 12 million new immigrants, accepting 98% of those who passed through Ellis Island from 1892-1954. During WWI and WWII, she welcomed troops back to the homeland, standing as a reminder of the freedoms they were fighting for while stationed in other parts of the world.  She now stands with the Manhattan skyline at her side, including the new World Trade Center, as a reminder of strength and resilience to rebuild in the name of freedom.

At the end of the tour, the audio guide challenged me (and everyone else who listened to it) to define what liberty means.

I was just about 10 when the Cold War ended, just over 20 when the Twin Towers fell and right around 30 when the Great Recession hit.  Each of these events has shaped my understanding of political, ideological and economic freedoms.  There was much debate among the American people about how much “liberty” could be sacrificed in order to protect “freedom” but little question about what “freedom” meant at the time.  At forty, it seems that the concept of freedom no longer has a consensus understanding among the American people.  What’s more, we have lost our ability to engage in debate, a cornerstone of a healthy democracy.

Immigration is one of the many issues where debate has become nearly impossible.  The last comprehensive reform to our immigration laws was over half a century ago.  The last meaningful attempt at reform was a decade ago. A week ago, without discussion or debate, our government temporarily closed the San Diego port of entry to asylum seekers and is attempting to close off the rest of the border permanently.

The 1980 Refugee Act amended the Immigration and Nationality Act to “revise the procedures for the [S. 643] admission of refugees, to amend the Migration and Refugee Assistance Act of 1962 to establish a more uniform basis for the provision of assistance to refugees, and for other purposes.” (Source: Public Law 96-212) Refugee law and humanitarian law recognize that refugees seeking safety cannot always follow an orderly immigration process when death is at their door. Thus, our laws allow for anyone in the U.S. to apply for asylum, regardless of how or where they entered.

Monday, December 10 is Human Rights Day and the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which establishes the equal dignity and worth of every person. It confirms that the State has a core duty to promote standards of life that enable us to enjoy equality and freedom, achieve justice, and live in peace.

I cannot think of a simpler concept of freedom than to be able to go to school, run your business, raise your family or live in your home without fearing that you might be killed.  As we turn our backs on these families and children seeking this most basic freedom that the Statue of Liberty symbolized, I cannot help but fear that in the next decade “freedom” in America will may lose its meaning altogether.

By Sarah Brenes, Director Refugee & Immigrant Program at The Advocates for Human Rights

 

Volunteering with The Advocates for Human Rights

FeaturedVolunteering with The Advocates for Human Rights

Why should you volunteer with The Advocates?
The Advocates for Human Rights is an organization dedicated to helping refugees and immigrants, women, ethnic and religious minorities, children, and other marginalized communities. For more than thirty years The Advocates have been able to change lives through investigating and exposing human rights violations; representing people who are seeking asylum; training and assisting groups that protect human rights; engaging the public, policy-makers and children; and pushing for legal reform around the world. This would not have been achievable without the thousands of volunteers that have dedicated their time and skills each year.

Volunteer model:
As a volunteer-based organization, The Advocates’ mission is to engage as many people as possible in the fight against human rights violations. Utilizing its resources and years’ in experience, The Advocates’ small staff is able to team with volunteers and partners to implement human rights standards to promote civil society and reinforce the rule of law. For instance, because of the generous assistance of volunteer attorneys, The Advocates can provide free legal services to asylum seekers. The Advocates relies on the support of individuals, law firms, foundations, and the business community to fulfill its mission.

What you can do to help:
There are opportunities for both professionals and non-professionals to get involved: the first step is subscribing to The Advocates’ monthly e-newsletter. Keeping in touch allows one to remain abreast of current human rights issues, as well as be notified of new opportunities to volunteer. To sign up for the mailing list and newsletter, please visit our web site.

Lawyers can donate their time to The Advocates by volunteering to represent asylum seekers pro bono in immigration court. No experience with immigration or human rights law is required. The Advocates will adequately prepare any lawyers who wish to do this. For more information about pro bono work and other volunteering opportunities in the professional world, please visit our web site.

In addition, The Advocates offers an upcoming Continuing Legal Education (CLE) program on human rights and human rights law.

For non-lawyers there are also many ways to get involved. High school and college students can apply to intern and work with The Advocates in various capacities. Furthermore, one can volunteer to be an interpreter or translator, provide office support, become a court observer, or work with The Advocates at the Minnesota State Fair. For volunteering information and to sign up, please visit our web site.

Additionally, immigration has recently become a hot topic with the most pressing issue that confronts us today is the treatment of immigrants at the United States border. In response to this outcry, The Advocates have formed the Immigrant Rights Defense Campaign (IRDC), which urges people to publicly commit to fighting for the rights of immigrants. Both individuals and entire firms can sign onto the IRDC and commit to publicly engaging with at least one campaign action. More information can be found on the IRDC website.

By Alyxandra Sego, an intern with The Advocates for Human Rights.

Using Theatre to Discuss Immigration with Children

FeaturedUsing Theatre to Discuss Immigration with Children

I Come from Arizona — a currently running Children’s Theatre Company production that is creating bridges for discussion.

When I was a child, I grew up on the East side of St. Paul. I lived in an old neighborhood that was home to people of diverse races, economic classes, sexual orientations, and religions. My own father was a refugee from Cambodia, and in 1995, he married a white woman and bought a house in that old neighborhood a year later. Our next-door neighbors were a large Mexican family, and when I was 9, the father was deported and my best friend at the time had to move away. I remember wondering if my father would ever be deported. I was told that it would never happen because he had become an official citizen. As a young child, this was a huge comfort.

That comfort of knowing that your parents are legally allowed in the United States is not something every child shares. I Come from Arizona is a play that seeks to have that conversation with younger audiences and their families/communities. It centers on the experience of a young girl named Gabi who learns that her family is undocumented from Mexico and her interactions with contrasting perspectives on immigration. It was premiered at the Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis October 9 and runs through November 25. Guest speakers from The Advocates for Human Rights have held post-play discussions to help audiences sift through the often challenging issues raised.
After the show, children from the audience have been invited to send their questions to Off-Book where CTC cast and crew and The Advocates can respond.

Here are some the questions and their answers:

Question: Why is the immigration debate always centered around Mexico and South America?

Madeline Lohman, Senior Researcher: “The immigration debate is centered around Mexico and Latin America for a few reasons. One is historical. Because of our land border with Mexico, it is true that the majority of undocumented immigrants in the past were from Mexico. This led opponents of undocumented immigration to equate it with Mexican immigration or even Mexican identity, when the vast majority of people of Mexican ancestry living in the United States are citizens or legal residents. Today, Mexicans may no longer be the majority of undocumented immigrants according to estimates from the Pew Research Center, which has some of the most reliable numbers on the topic. So, the focus on unauthorized immigration from Mexico is no longer accurate, but it still persists.

A second reason is racial prejudice. Immigrants from Mexico and Latin America are typically people of color and they share a common, non-English language. White, English-speaking citizens can see that they are different in a way that is more difficult with immigrants from Canada or most of Europe. Those white citizens may also have a family heritage from European countries that leads them to feel an affinity for immigrants from Europe that they do not feel for immigrants from Latin America. We can see the influence of racial prejudice in debates about refugee resettlement and granting asylum. When (white) Bosnians were fleeing during the collapse of the former Yugoslavia, there was far less push back than during today’s refugee crises in Syria, Central America, and Somalia.”

Question: Is it true that people have to walk through the desert to cross the border?

Michele Garnett McKenzie, Deputy Director: “Yes, it’s true. People often walk for many days through the desert to come to the United States.

People come to the United States for many reasons and in many different ways. Many people take airplanes, boats, or drive cars to visit or move to the United States. People who come to the United States need permission, called a “visa,” and need to be inspected and admitted by an officer at the border or airport. The government estimates that 76.9 million people came to the U.S. in 2017, mostly as visitors.

But the United States does not let everyone who wants or needs to come here into the country. People who want to visit, for example, have to prove they have enough money to travel and that they are going to return home when their trip is over in order to get a visa.

Sometimes people risk a dangerous journey to the United States so they can try to enter the country and get work to send money to their families. The United States only allows people to “immigrate” (move here permanently) if a close family member or employer in the United States files a “petition” with the government to let the person come here. But many people who want to come to the United States to build a better future for themselves and their families do not have someone to petition for them. For most, there is no way to legally immigrate. (The United States only allows people who can prove they will invest $1.0 million in a business to immigrate without a petition).

Some people have to leave their homes because they are not safe and come to the United States to seek asylum. People have to be in the United States or at a port-of-entry at the border or airport to ask for asylum — there’s no other process to follow. Asylum seekers from Central America and other countries sometimes make their way to the border on foot. More than 90,000 adults with children were apprehended by U.S. officials near the southern border in 2018.

Here is a good resource for learning more: Enrique’s Journey, a book by Sonia Nazario.”

Question: Why did Gabi’s mom have to lie to her [about their undocumented status]?

Michele Garnett McKenzie, Deputy Director: “Gabi’s mom was afraid that she would be deported if anyone found out she was in the United States without permission, which we sometimes call being “undocumented.”

People who don’t have permission from the U.S. government to be in the United States can be sent back to their home countries. This is called “deportation.”
Citizens cannot be deported from the United States. Today, everyone who is born in the United States is a U.S. citizen. People born outside the United States can become U.S. citizens through a legal process called “naturalization” where they take an oath of citizenship. U.S. citizens have permission to be here and cannot be deported.

But not everyone in the United States is a citizen. (The law calls anyone who is not a U.S. citizen an “alien”). Many people in the United States have permission to be in the country but are not citizens — they are permanent residents (we sometimes say they have a “green card”), visitors, students, or many other categories. People have to follow special rules and if they break the rules they can be deported. (For example, a person coming to visit the United States is not allowed to work here. If they work, they break the rules and can be deported).

Some people come into the United States without any permission or they stay in the United States after they were supposed to leave. They can be deported if the government finds out they are here without permission.

Here is a good resource for learning more: Documented, a film by Jose Antonio Vargas.”

Question: Do stories like this really happen?

Michele Garnett McKenzie, Deputy Director: “These stories really happen, and they may be happening to you or kids you know. This can be scary.

The government estimates there are about 11 million people in the United States who do not have permission to be here. About 6 million people under age 18 live with at least 1 undocumented family member.”

Question: Do ICE agents really take people away?

Michele Garnett McKenzie, Deputy Director: “ICE agents arrest, detain, and deport people from the United States every day.

Since 2008, more than 2 million people have been arrested by ICE and more than 1.2 million people have been ordered deported by immigration judges. ICE reports that 226,119 people were removed from the United States in 2017.

Here is a good resource to learn your rights and make a plan: IMMI: free and simple information for immigrants.”

If you would like to stay up to date with the questions and answers, Off-Book will continue to post updates here.

Or, if you would like to join the conversation and attend I Come From Arizona, resources and tickets can be found here.

By Alyxandra Sego, an intern with The Advocates for Human Rights.

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Representing Women Seeking Asylum in the US: Gender-Based Persecution

In reSVAW logo copypresenting several women seeking asylum in the US based on gender-based persecution, I have learned a lot and had some of my most memorable experiences as a lawyer.

  • “Nancy” is a woman from Guinea who was subjected to female genital mutilation at thirteen, and again at fourteen, and then the victim of persistent violence and rape by her husband that family, friends, her doctor, and the police were unable or unwilling to stop. She twice fled the country, but her husband found her and forced her to return home, which only led to escalating violence and prolonged imprisonment.  Her family counseled her to “accept” this treatment, and the police refused to intervene because her husband was a high ranking member of the military police.  She escaped to the US, was granted asylum, and is working to reunite with her children.
  • “Donna” is a woman from Cameroon who was the victim of levirate marriage. She was viewed as property of the family, since a dowry had been paid, so after her husband died she was required to marry one of her brothers-in-law.  When she refused, she was sexually assaulted, told she would “get used to it,” and her family and business were threatened.  She escaped to the US, was granted asylum, and has reunited with her children.
  • “Janet” is a woman from Kenya who was the victim of female genital mutilation. She was seeking protection for herself, and also to prevent having to take her daughter back to Kenya where her family would require that her daughter also undergo female genital mutilation.  She was granted withholding of removal, so that she and her daughter are safe in the US.
  • “Francis” is a woman from The Gambia who was the victim of female genital mutilation, and who sought to avoid a forced marriage to a much older man. She had secretly acted as an activist working to educate people about the risks of female genital mutilation, and her mother, at great risk to herself, persuaded her father to let Francis pursue her education.  In order to prevent the forced marriage, and to continue her education, she came to the US, sought and was granted asylum.

The primary reason these awful things happened to my clients is because they are women.  Female genital mutilation, forced marriage, levirate marriage, and ongoing domestic violence continues to happen because in some places women and girls are not viewed as fully human, endowed with the same rights as men. We should be proud that our legal system rejected that view, and instead found affirming their basic human rights worthy of protection.

A recent decision from the Attorney General has proposed to make it more difficult for women fleeing gender-based violence to get protection in the US. In Matter of A-B, 27 I&N Dec. 316 (A.G. 2018), the Attorney General invoked a rarely used power to certify to himself a case for decision so that he could change the law in this area.  In the case, the primary issue that had been litigated was whether the applicant was credible, and the Department of Homeland Security even had agreed that private violence like domestic violence that a government cannot or will not control can be a proper basis for asylum.  The Attorney General, however, reached out to decide a broader issue, which was whether, and under what circumstances, being a victim of private criminal activity constitutes a cognizable “particular social group” for purposes of an application for asylum or withholding of removal.  Though the holding of the decision narrowly overruled a previously-decided case from the Board of Immigration Appeals the Attorney General, largely through dicta, articulated and encouraged a very restrictive view of asylum law.  The decision posits that violence inflicted by private actors, rather than governments, is generally not the type of persecution that our asylum laws were intended to address.

There are many flaws, procedural and substantive, with the decision.  The odd procedure of the case suggests that the Attorney General was searching for a vehicle to render broad policy pronouncements to restrict asylum law.  The decision states that it is not minimizing the “vile abuse” that the woman in the case suffered in the form of domestic violence by her ex-husband.  Unfortunately, the way it elevates form over substance and erects barriers for women who have been so victimized suggests otherwise.  Most fundamentally, it applies a feeble, restrictive view of asylum law, somehow drawing perceived comfort from the rather hollow observation that “the asylum statute does not provide redress for all misfortune.”

I believe that gender-based persecution is indeed the type of harm that our asylum laws should work to address.  It is well-established in international law that states have an obligation to exercise due diligence to prevent, investigate, and punish actions by private actors. The U.N. Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women (DEVAW) states that governments are urged to “exercise due diligence to prevent, investigate and, in accordance with national legislation, punish acts of violence against women, whether those acts are perpetrated by the State or by privates persons” (Art. 4(c)). General Recommendation No. 19 by the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) also provides that states may be “responsible for private acts if they fail to act with due diligence to prevent violations of rights or to investigate and punish acts of violence.” In my experience, allowing the asylum laws to protect people deprived of their basic human rights by private actors because of their gender is a powerful way for this country to stand up for the dignity of all people.  When we see this harm not as mere private acts of violence but as systematic persecution, we affirm the importance of human rights for all people.  The Attorney General’s decision, which seeks to set aside years of development of the law in order to make it more difficult for women to obtain protection, is misguided.  It will make it more difficult for women like the ones that I’ve represented to be safe and free.

The decision will make it harder, but certainly not impossible, to win these cases.  There are still helpful cases from Circuit Courts of Appeals across the country that support gender-based claims from private actor persecution.  Advocates may need to present more arguments and evidence that demonstrate governments’ failure to prevent the harms inflicted by private actors.  Use of expert witnesses to present this evidence may also be needed in more cases.  While the Attorney General’s decision is a significant setback, there are still many claims based on private actor persecution that should prevail.

In 1788, George Washington wrote “I had always hoped that this land might become a safe and agreeable Asylum to the virtuous and persecuted part of mankind, to whatever nation they might belong.”  We know, however, that the history of the US regarding the protection of refugees has been uneven, vacillating between openness and prioritizing human rights to times where we have turned our backs to the persecuted and failed to live up to our country’s ideals.  At times like this when we fall back, lawyers can make a difference by standing up for victims of human rights abuses.  By helping asylum seekers overcome the new hurdles placed by the Attorney General, and hopefully restoring the law to embody greater respect for freedom and human rights, we can enlist ourselves on the right side of history.  I am so glad that Nancy, Donna, Janet, Francis and others like them are safe.  But today asylum seekers, particularly women who have been victims of private actor violence, are going to need help more than ever.

Dean Eyler is Principal and Intellectual Property Litigation Chair at Gray Plant Mooty and a volunteer attorney with The Advocates for Human Rights.

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Dignity for All: World Day Against the Death Penalty highlights detention conditions on death row

“The best way to ensure someone does not leave prison is to make him into the person he was prosecuted as.” – Damon Thibodeaux, exoneree who spent 15 years on Louisiana’s death row

Imagine living in a 8 by 10 foot room with a steel or concrete slab for a bed.  The door is solid steel and the food tray slot at the bottom offers the only source of contact with the rest of the world. These are the kinds of conditions that many death row inmates in the United States endure for 23 hours a day. The Advocates highlighting the brutal living conditions for people on death row at a Continuing Legal Education event on October 10, the 16th annual World Day Against the Death Penalty. The event was hosted at the law firm of Fredrikson & Byron. During this talk, speakers contrasted current conditions in U.S. prisons with the minimum standards set by the Nelson Mandela Rules. Their presentations highlighted the physical and psychological consequences of those conditions on people sentenced to death in the United States.

The Nelson Mandela Rules, formerly known as the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, outline prison standards with relation to disciplinary measures, legal representation, and medical treatment. Amy Bergquist, staff attorney at The Advocates and Vice- President of The World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, explained these rules and gave examples describing how they are seldom followed here in the United States and in other countries. For example, Rules 24-29 state that inmates have the right to access the same quality of healthcare that is available in the general community outside the prison. In many countries, including the U.S., healthcare for detained people is, however, grossly neglected in order to keep costs low. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ chief psychiatrist, close to 40% of inmates have mental illness while only 3% of them are being treated regularly. These services are typically provided only to inmates who had been diagnosed and were receiving treatment prior to their arrest, while people who develop symptoms or are diagnosed in prison are often overlooked.

When combining the substandard health care system in prisons with solitary confinement, prisoners are set up to play a self-fulfilling prophecy. Damon Thibodeaux, an exoneree who survived 15 years on Louisiana’s death row, described this degrading treatment during the World Day event.  He stated, “It is meant to break you down morally, mentally, and physically. It is meant to tear you down so they can paint you as the inhuman animal.” He detailed the unbearable heat in his small, unairconditioned cell during Louisiana summers, when the only way to cool off was to strip down and lie on the floor. Thibodeaux also described the communicable diseases that spread through the prison because of overcrowding. He explained that these diseases would often go untreated because inmates had to pay to see a healthcare provider and often faced long delays before receiving treatment.

Also speaking at the event was Lisa Borden, Baker Donelson’s Pro Bono Shareholder and an attorney who represents indigent death row inmates. Borden also described the prison conditions she has witnessed in the Alabama state prison system. She is currently representing detained clients in a class action lawsuit against the Alabama Department of Corrections. The district court found the mental health care services provided to prisoners are “horrendously inadequate”. One of the key problems, as Borden explained, is the privatization of healthcare in the prison system. Since the private health care providers are allocated a set amount of funding per person, they have an incentive to keep their costs low by using fewer resources.

Borden also shared the extreme conditions that prisoners who are not in solitary confinement routinely face. “Most facilities house 150-200% of the number of people for which they are designed.” These overcrowded conditions are worsened by staffing shortages, with some prisons having less than 40% of the recommended prison staff.  In addition, prisons in Alabama are old, with dilapidated structures.  Borden shared an account where a prisoner died in his cell after his neighboring cellmate reported his unresponsiveness. Due to the prison’s malfunctioning electronic locking system, the officers were not able to reach him until 30 minutes after they were notified.

This event highlighted the human rights violations faced by people sentenced to death, as well as by other detained individuals, in the United States. To learn more about living conditions on death row around the world, see http://www.worldcoalition.org/worldday.html

By Elshaday Yilma, Lutheran Volunteer Corps member and The Advocates’ International Justice Program Assistant

United States General Assembly. (2016). United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the Nelson Mandela Rules). Retrieved from https://www.unodc.org/documents/justice-and-prison-reform/GA-RESOLUTION/E_ebook.pdf

United States Department of Justice. (2017). Review of the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ Use of Restrictive Housing for Inmates with Mental Illness. Retrieved from https://oig.justice.gov/reports/2017/e1705.pdf

University of Texas School of Law Human Rights Clinic. (2017). Designed to Break You: Human Rights Violations on Texas’ Death Row. Retrieved from https://law.utexas.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/11/2017/04/2017-HRC-DesignedToBreakYou-Report.pdf