4-H Students Explore Human Rights with The Advocates

Head, heart, hands, health…and human rights? The Advocates for Human Rights recently piloted a new initiative with the 4-H program that allowed students to explore how human rights related to their lives, communities, and passions. Working with the Central Region 4-H Human Rights Project, The Advocates developed two webinars designed to introduce students to international human rights standards and how human rights can be applied to solve issues in their own communities. Students then undertook projects about the human rights issue of their choice with guidance and coaching from volunteer experts in human rights.

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Finally, the big day arrived and the students arrived at The Advocates for a day of career exploration and perhaps more importantly, project presentation and judging. Two Advocates staff served as judges, encouraging the 4-H presenters to describe how the knowledge or skills they used in their project might apply in other areas of their lives, and how they could use their work to change systems that perpetuate human rights abuses.

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The topics ranged widely. One young man, fueled by his observations of the schools he attended, examined how bullying violates a range of human rights, from the right to personal safety, freedom of expression, the right to health, and the right to education. He advocated for schools to have clear policies and sufficient resources dedicated to combat bullying.

A young woman explored her reaction to the current definition of the international right to life, which does not prohibit abortion. She offered a passionate argument that the moment of conception is when a person becomes human and should therefore be entitled to all their human rights, including life. She plans to continue to work on the issue and hopes to change international human rights law.

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Two students collaborated on a sculpture and news compendium highlighting the struggles and triumphs of the movement for LGBTQ rights worldwide. Inspired by their own struggles and success at establishing a Gay-Straight Alliance at their school, they spoke about continuing threats to the lives and wellbeing of LGBTQ individuals but also emphasized the tremendous courage and accomplishments of activists fighting for equality.

In all stages of the project, 4-H students enthusiastically welcomed a chance to engage with human rights and learn more about how human rights play out in their lives. The next generation of human rights defenders is ready to work!

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Puerto Rico and the Federal Death Penalty: A Legacy of Colonial Paternalism

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Today marks the 90th anniversary of the abolition of the death penalty in Puerto Rico. Following significant human rights progress in the nineteenth and twentieth century driven by Latin American abolitionist movements, Puerto Rico’s legislature abolished the death penalty on April 26, 1929.

A history of opposition

In 1952 the Puerto Rican Constitution further secured abolition by declaring: “The death penalty shall not exist.”

The Puerto Rican Constitution has a unique history. The Congress of the United States adopted a law in 1950 authorizing Puerto Rico to draft its own constitution. After several months of deliberation, the Constitutional Convention of Puerto Rico produced a draft Constitution. In 1952 the electorate in Puerto Rico approved that document, with support of nearly 82% of voters. After the referendum, the U.S. Congress amended the draft constitution, but did not amend the provision prohibiting the death penalty. After those amendments, the Constitutional Convention reconvened and approved a resolution accepting the congressional amendments. And in November 1952, the Puerto Rican electorate approved the amended constitution.

Commemorating 90 years of abolition

The legislature of Puerto Rico is commemorating the historic milestone of abolition of the death penalty with a joint resolution that explicitly reaffirms abolition of the death penalty and rejects the application of capital punishment as a “failed mechanism” which is implemented in an “arbitrary and discriminatory manner.”

Federal authorities have stepped up efforts to seek the death penalty in Puerto Rico

Despite Congress explicitly accepting and endorsing Puerto Rico’s Constitution, the federal government has continued to seek death sentences in Puerto Rico, ignoring strong local opposition. In this sense, today’s resolution, and the anniversary more generally, also highlight the complex colonial history of capital punishment in Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico’s continuing commitment to fighting the death penalty reflects not only the collective, cultural opposition of its citizens to capital punishment, but also a world view that recognizes the fundamental incompatibility of the death penalty with human rights. At a time when there may be ominous backsliding on these issues at the federal level, Puerto Rico is leading by example.

The Juan Pedro Vidal case sheds light on these tensions

When the federal government seeks the death penalty in Puerto Rico, it is violating not only the right of all persons to be protected from cruel and inhuman punishment, but also the right of self-determination of the people of Puerto Rico.

Today’s joint resolution by the Puerto Rican legislature highlights a decision issued earlier this month by Judge Gustavo A. Gelpi of the U.S. District Court for the District of Puerto Rico. In that decision, Judge Gelpi rejected Juan Pedro Vidal’s argument that the Federal Death Penalty Act does not apply to Puerto Rico.

Vidal argued that U.S. citizens who reside in Puerto Rico should not be subject to federal civil and criminal laws that are crafted by representatives for whom they did not vote, particularly in light of the history of Puerto Rico’s decision to abolish the death penalty and the formal act of the U.S. Congress approving that decision.

In a four-page opinion, Judge Gelpi rejected Vidal’s arguments, asserting that capital punishment falls into a category of federal laws that apply equally to all citizens, independent of questions of geography. The court stated that the issue of disenfranchisement of U.S. citizens living in Puerto Rico presented a question to be resolved through the political process, not the court. Moreover, the court reasoned, even though the Puerto Rican Constitution prohibits capital punishment, federal law preempts state law for federal crimes, as would be true in any other state.

The principle of consent of the governed

The court’s order ignores Puerto Rico’s unique status and history which place the people of Puerto Rico in a “democratic void,” unable to seek adequate political or legal recourse. Today’s joint resolution noted this dissonance, emphasizing that U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico have no say in the federal government policy that can take their lives.

Steven Potolsky, who represented Pedro Vidal and specializes in death penalty defense, argued that it was precisely due to this lack of representation that judicial action was necessary. Potolsky emphasized that because the U.S. Congress had originally accepted Puerto Rico’s constitutional prohibition of the death penalty, retroactive application of federal capital punishment was unreasonable and excessive, especially in light of the fact that U.S. citizens living in Puerto Rico have no democratic mechanism to voice their opposition at the federal level.

Federal judge’s arguments place Puerto Ricans in a double-bind

Although Judge Gelpi acknowledged that the lack of representation was undemocratic, he said that it was not unconstitutional, and that it was left to “the hands of Congress” to fix the problem.

The court never explains how to determine when something that is undemocratic is also unconstitutional, or why exactly the courts should not intervene. The court’s analysis drew on other opinions applying federal law to colonial territories, but ignored Puerto Rico’s distinct and unique history. The opinion seems to place Puerto Ricans in a political-legal double bind.

The court also ignores Puerto Ricans’ longstanding opposition to the death penalty. As the joint resolution highlights, no jury in Puerto Rico has ever sentenced a person to death under federal law, even after those juries have reached guilty verdicts.

Worrying trends under the Trump Administration

The court’s logic is even more worrying when framed within the broader of the death penalty in the United States since 2016. Amnesty International has documented an increase in the number of executions and death sentences since 2009 for two years in a row.

Although these numbers still remain at historical lows, the trend points to an ominous political and legal climate under the Trump presidency. They call on us to be vigilant and to combat backsliding.

In the context of Puerto Rico, the joint resolution noted that even though Puerto Ricans account for just 1% of the U.S. population, Puerto Rico accounted for 20% of all federal death penalty cases between 2012 and 2014. With these trends in mind, the federal courts should pay more careful attention to their role in safeguarding the rights of people in territories like Puerto Rico.

Continuing local, national, and international efforts to fight the death penalty

The Vidal decision has further galvanized the Puerto Rican fight against the death penalty. Kevin Miguel Rivera-Medina, President of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty and of the Puerto Rican Bar Association, expressed frustration at the hearing before Judge Gelpi. Attorneys for the federal government—both white and not Puerto Rican—asserted that Puerto Ricans were not traditionally opposed to the death penalty. The argued that the death penalty was used during the 19th century and in the early 20th century. But as Rivera-Medina pointed out, they ignored the fact that during that time Puerto Rico had been under the Spanish colonial regime and then was a U.S. colonial territory.

In celebration of the 90th anniversary of Puerto Rico’s abolition of the death penalty, universities and high schools are holding round tables on the topic and the Puerto Rican Coalition Against the Death Penalty is welcoming Witness to Innocence—an organization created by and for death row exonerees—to the Puerto Rican legislature.

The Advocates for Human Rights is preparing to bring these issues to the international stage

In May 2020, the United States will participate in its third Universal Periodic Review at the U.N. Human Rights Council. During the last UPR, The Advocates raised the issue of the death penalty in Puerto Rico in a joint stakeholder report coauthored with the Puerto Rican Coalition Against the Death Penalty and the Greater Caribbean for Life We are busy preparing an updated report that will identify some of the recent developments in Puerto Rico and throughout the United States that warrant the world’s attention. For more information about using the United Nations to promote human rights, see Chapter 9 of Human Rights Tools for a Changing World. To read more about the death penalty in the United States and other countries, consult our online library of UN submissions.

By Shubhankar Dharmadhikari, an intern with the International Justice Program at The Advocates for Human Rights. He is a student at the University of Minnesota.

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The Advocates Welcomes Progress in Ethiopia, Remains Concerned that Threats to Minority Rights Remain

The Advocates for Human Rights has worked in partnership with the Oromo diaspora for many years to hold the government of Ethiopia accountable for human rights violations.  In March 2019, volunteer Nagessa Dube made the following oral statement at the United Nations Human Rights Council during an Interactive Dialogue with the UN Special Rapporteur on minority issues.  

Dear Mr. President:

The Advocates for Human Rights, alongside partner organization United Oromo Voices, would like to thank the Special Rapporteur for his report on minority issues. The concerns that he raises in his report and in his 2018 country visits parallel the struggles minority indigenous groups face in Ethiopia.

Similar to Botswanan minorities, as discussed in the report, minority groups in Ethiopia face barriers to land use. Members of the minority Ogaden community have been subjected to the arbitrary confiscation of land and ethnic persecution since the beginning of Ethiopian rule over the Somali region in 1948. In April 2014 and again in November 2015, the Oromo people launched large-scale protests in opposition to the Addis Ababa Master Plan, which intended to forcibly displace the Oromos from their homes in favor of expansion of the territory of the capital city.

We call attention to the persecution and suppression of freedom of speech. Many Oromo people were injured and killed during the 2016 Irreechaa protests after security forces fired into crowds. Many survivors were taken into government custody.

We do commend the Ethiopian Government for accepting several recommendations in the last UPR in 2014 to take measures to alleviate tensions between and discrimination against ethnic groups through intercultural and inter-religious dialogue. And we welcome the current administration’s stated commitment to reforms, including the release of thousands of political prisoners—many belonging to minority and indigenous groups—and ending the state of emergency. Despite this progress, the threat to minority rights in Ethiopia continues via land displacement, persecution, and suppression of the freedom of expression.

We urge the government of Ethiopia and the Council to work together to confront the threats to minority rights in all their forms.

Thank you.

Briefing the UN Human Rights Council on Burundi

A growing number of victims fleeing politically-based violence in Burundi have requested legal assistance from The Advocates for Human Rights in applying for asylum in the United States. The Advocates for Human Rights recently brought the experience of our clients and concerns about violations of civil and political rights in Burundi to the United Nations Human Rights Council.  The Advocates for Human Rights’ volunteer attorney Carrie Brasser delivered the following oral statement in March 2019 during an Interactive Dialogue with the UN Commission of Inquiry for Burundi.

The Advocates for Human Rights welcomes the oral briefing of the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi.

Since April 2015, the human rights crisis in Burundi has escalated in both its extent and brutality. The ruling party’s repression of suspected opponents, civil society, and the media has involved enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detention, torture and rape. State actors, including members of the police force and the Imbonerakure youth league, have acted with impunity against their victims. The indiscriminate shooting of demonstrators, targeting of journalists and activists, and aggressive reprisals against witnesses are among the many abuses suffered by citizens. These conditions have caused over 250,000 to flee this state-sponsored oppression and violence.

As a provider of legal services to asylum seekers, The Advocates for Human Rights has represented victims of violence from Burundi and documented first-hand accounts of:

  • Illegal invasions and searches of homes and businesses, including firing on civilians, looting of property, and the rape of a witness
  • The arbitrary arrest of an anti-corruption activist based on false charges, culminating in her assault and rape, and
  • The targeting of supporters of constitutional election law, as well as journalists, involving arbitrary arrests followed by brutal torture for extended periods

We commend the Commission of Inquiry for making concerted efforts to engage in monitoring and fact-finding among people who have been forced to flee the country.

These and other accounts of human rights abuses support our recommendations that the Human Rights Council:

  • Continue the mandate of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Burundi and retain the situation in Burundi on its agenda under item 4
  • Request that the Security Council impose sanctions against individuals responsible for both gross systemic human rights violations as well as the obstruction of UN mechanisms to document violations and
  • Encourage effective justice mechanisms to ensure that individuals responsible for these abuses are held accountable.

Thank you.

In 2017, The Advocates also submitted a stakeholder submission for Burundi’s Universal Periodic Review, which included direct information about human rights violations from survivors who have fled Burundi to seek asylum in the United States.  Read the full submission here.

Trafficking in Women and Girls in the Context of Global Migration

Since 2014, a growing number of women and children fleeing gender-based violence in the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua have requested legal assistance from The Advocates in applying for asylum in the United States. The Advocates for Human Rights is able to help these women and children in two important ways: providing legal assistance in their asylum and trafficking cases and documenting their experiences to advocate at the United Nations for law and policy changes. 

In February 2019, Board member Peggy Grieve shared the experiences of our asylum clients with and made recommendations to the UN Committee on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women.  Peggy delivered the following oral intervention during the Committee’s Half-day General Discussion on Trafficking in Women and Girls in the Context of Global Migration.

Dear Members of the Committee:

From The Advocates for Human Rights’ direct legal representation of Northern Triangle clients, we have determined:

(1) children, even when traveling in the company of migrating adults, are vulnerable to sex trafficking; and

(2) after arrival in the U.S., adults and children are at risk of labor trafficking.

Two examples. One client entered the U.S. as a 15-year-old girl with her father. A family friend coerced her into leaving home. They traveled to live several states away where this friend groomed her to be sex-trafficked.

A client entered the U.S. without inspection with her boyfriend. He brought her to live with his family.  Before long, he demanded that she repay him $10,000 he had paid smugglers for entry. He sexually assaulted her. She was forced into a low-paid, illegal job to cover her “debt.”

No one is going to believe you. You don’t have a voice. Here you are nobody,” she was told.

To help women and girls, victims of trafficking, survive, heal, and ultimately integrate into society and live a life free of further exploitation, a victim-centered, trauma-informed approach that provides survivors with immigration and other legal protections and adequate support services is critical.  The criminal justice approach focused on punishing traffickers, by itself, is insufficient to address the human rights of sex and labor trafficked survivors.

On behalf of our clients, the Advocates for Human Rights thanks the Committee for this important initiative.

The Advocates for Human Rights encourages the Committee to consider the experience of our women and girl clients, as well as the recommendation for a victim-centered approach to identify and respond to meet the needs of trafficked women and girls in the context of global migration.

Building the Path to Albania’s Universal Periodic Review in May 2019

I am Aferdita Prroni, the Director of Human Rights in Democracy Centre, a grassroots Albanian NGO which works for the promotion and protection of human rights in Albania.

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On March 10–14, 2019, I worked with the dedicated team of The Advocates for Human Rights and directly engaged in lobbying and advocacy activities at the UN level regarding the Universal Periodic Review along with colleagues from Ethiopia, Cote D’Ivoire and Russia.

Albania will be reviewed on May 2019 in the 33rd Session of the Universal Periodic Review. Prior to the Geneva visit in 2018, The Advocates and HRDC prepared the Albania Stakeholder Report for the United Nations UPR called Domestic Violence Situation in Albania.

My role in UN advocacy was to lobby with Council members by advocating for the local implementation of human rights standards and law. Another aim was to encourage the Albanian government to fully respect, protect, and fulfill human rights under the umbrella of international law and agreements.

During this time, I carried out approximately 25 meetings with Human Rights Council members where I shared information about the general state of women’s rights and domestic violence in Albania. I discussed our concerns and lobbied with them about the recommendations that we suggest they make to the Albanian state in the UPR review in May.

On Wednesday, March 23, The Advocates for Human Rights along with United Oromo Voices and Alternatives Cote D’Ivoire presented for the Parallel Events at the Palais de Nations. Panelists discussed human rights abuses as well as the upcoming Universal Periodic Reviews – including domestic violence in Albania.

For me, this was a great experience and opportunity as it allowed me to directly present information to the international community about human rights with a focus on domestic violence.

The meetings with diplomatic missions were a unique opportunity to raise awareness of domestic violence in Albania on an international level. We shared the progress that the Albanian state had accomplished in complying with international commitments, but also highlighted our concerns about how the situation could be improved. We emphasized our recommendations that our organizations would like to see made at the upcoming UPR.

Working with The Advocates and other colleagues helped me gain skills on how to strategically conduct advocacy and I will use these skills back home. I think Albanian NGOs needs to strengthen their lobbying and advocacy skills on both the national and international level.

This UN Advocacy experience was indeed successful as I was able to meaningfully engage over 25 states to advocate recommendations for Albania during its upcoming UPR review in May 2019. If such recommendations are taken into account, they will undoubtedly help improve the protection of human rights and the conditions of women/girls and victims/survivors in my country.

HRDC would like to thank the dedicated team at The Advocates for Human Rights for their precious support and their lobbying efforts, which will improve the human rights situation on the ground, not only in Albania but around the globe.

Thanks The Advocates for Human Rights for this unique opportunity!

By: Aferdita Prroni, Director of Human Rights in Democracy Centre

International Women’s Day 2019: Think Equal, Build Smart, Innovate for Change

The theme for International Women’s Day 2019 is Think Equal, Build Smart, Innovate for Change. According to UN Women, this theme challenges us to think about how we can “advance gender equality and the empowerment of women.” This objective reflects that envisioned by Sustainable Development Goal 5, which recognizes that although discrimination against women and girls is decreasing, gender inequality persists and continues to deny women and girls basic human rights and opportunities. As we look at laws and practices around the world today, there are still laws that actively discriminate against women. Many countries still retain lists of prohibited jobs for women – banning them from jobs such as a truck driver, factory worker, metal welder, deck hand or barring them from working above certain heights or during night hours. In countries where economic opportunities are scarce, removing these employment opportunities from women’s reach hinders their empowerment, advancement and economic independence. For example, Russia bans women from 456 types of jobs, Ukraine bans women from 458 jobs, and Kazakhstan bans women from 287 jobs. These countries are rich in natural resources and therefore employment opportunities in those fields, yet the lists of banned professions often include jobs found in the extractives industries.

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At the request of the UN Group of Experts on Coal Mine Methane, The Advocates has undertaken research to examine the benefits of female inclusion and ways to support women in traditionally male-dominated industries, specifically the extractive industries of oil, gas, and mining. The report, Promoting Gender Diversity and Inclusion in the Oil, Gas and Mining Extractive Industries, demonstrates the numerous benefits that women and diversity bring to industries, including a larger talent pool for recruitment, greater profitability, improved performance, better safety records, and overall economic empowerment to women and communities. For example, it is well-documented that female inclusion boosts company profits. Companies ranking in the top 25 percent for gender diversity are 15 percent more likely to have “financial returns” higher than the national industry medians. Companies with more women employees and gender-diverse teams have better teamwork, communication, and greater creativity in solving business and technical problems than homogenous work forces, and women are more likely to use teamwork and cooperative approaches that draw on the skills and resources of a broader network. The report also addresses challenges that women face – both legal and in the workplace setting – that hinder their full participation in the workforce. The report concludes with recommendations to both states and private companies on how to promote gender diversity and inclusion, with the priority recommendation to repeal laws that discriminate against women in the workplace and in private life.

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