Our Work: Eradicating Violence Against Women

Our Work: Eradicating Violence Against Women

Kofi Annan said this when he was secretary-general of the United Nations:

Violence against women is perhaps the most shameful human rights violation. And, it is perhaps the most pervasive. It knows no boundaries of geography, culture or wealth. As long as it continues, we cannot claim to be making real progress towards equality, development and peace.

Think about that: the most pervasive violation of human rights.

The Advocates for Human Rights, through our Women’s Human Rights Program—and indeed through all of our programs—has a proud history of standing up for women and fighting against gender discrimination and violence. We are fighting at every level.

In the immediate term, we help make women safe by bringing their asylum claims to get them away from their abusers and away from the governments that refuse to protect them.

We also help at the level of changing bad laws. In North Africa, we helped bring about the repeal of laws in Morocco and Tunisia that had allowed rapists to escape prosecution if they married their victims. We also were instrumental in getting Mongolia to make domestic violence a crime for the first time in its history, and in getting Croatia to recriminalize domestic violence after the government had actually taken it out of the criminal code.

Finally, we know that laws are of little use if they aren’t enforced, so we help at the level of monitoring and education. Here in Minnesota, we educated law enforcement and licensing personnel about sex trafficking, leading to a whole new focus on prosecuting the traffickers rather than the victims of trafficking. Because of this work, more than 20 different Minneapolis businesses that were fronts for sex trafficking were identified and closed.

But we all know how much more must be done. Beating and torture of domestic partners is still too often, in too many places, thought of as a family matter, and governments won’t intervene. Vladimir Putin’s Russia has decriminalized domestic violence just as Croatia did, and is also targeting and successfully shutting down human rights organizations there by claiming they are spies.

Then, of course, there is our own country, which has proclaimed by attorney general fiat that even horrendous domestic violence without government recourse should not be grounds for asylum, arresting and jailing, with “zero tolerance,” adult refugees and their children who present at our borders with a legal claim to asylum—people whose only “crime” was to flee beatings or rape or torture and seek a better life in America.

We have to help all women who suffer violence and abuse, but we cannot do our work without your help. Our budget is tiny compared to the impact we’ve had. That’s because our model is to bring the extraordinary resources of our community, including many of the best and the brightest activists and lawyers, to achieve far more than our small size and budget suggest that we could. The only thing that limits us is having the resources to train, coordinate and support even more of this amazing talent.

Many of us see the horrific things on the news and ask ourselves, “What can I do?” Here are two things you can do right now. First, call your Congressional representative to express your outrage over what our country is doing at the border.

Second, go to www.theadvocatesforhumanrights.org and make a financial donation to the Advocates. Now is the time to step up, pull out your checkbook or credit card, give a little more than you thought you would, respond to the call. Speaking personally, I know from direct experience and observation, there is no better place for my family to focus our financial giving than this shining Minnesota beacon of hope called The Advocates for Human Rights.

If you look at the news and ask yourself “What can I do?” that’s what you can do and you can do it now.

By James A. O’Neal, Chair, Board of Directors, the Advocates for Human Rights

This post paraphrases remarks given by Mr. O’Neal at the Human Rights Awards Dinner on June 21, 2018.

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“Zero-Tolerance” Policy, in Tearing Families Apart, is Inhumane and Illegal

As Father’s Day approaches, I keep thinking about one father in particular from Guatemala who is over 2,000 miles away from his 8-year-old daughter. Last week, that little girl told me about the day she was torn from her father’s arms at the border. In tears, they begged the Border Patrol officer to let them stay together.  Months later this little girl, now in the custody of a caregiver, cries herself to sleep, worries constantly about her family, and feels helpless.

I am an immigration attorney who helps people apply for asylum in the United States. But when this little girl came to me, it was to ask me how fast I could help her get deported so she could return to her family.

This is exactly what the Trump administration seeks to achieve in tearing apart families at the border and criminally prosecuting “100 percent” of undocumented border crossers. According to Attorney General Sessions’ recent comments, the intent is to deter asylum seekers from pursuing protections to which they are entitled under U.S. law.  This “zero-tolerance” policy not only is inhumane, it is illegal. U.S. law and international treaty obligations both guarantee the right to seek asylum.

Many of our nation’s founders came to this country seeking refuge, to worship their God and express their political beliefs without fear of repression by their government or society. In that spirit, Congress enacted a pathway to protection for those who could demonstrate that they faced persecution in their home country because of a fundamental aspect of their identity, such as their race, religion, ethnicity, political opinion, or other characteristics. Recognizing that many fleeing for their lives may be forced to leave home before they can obtain a visa, U.S. asylum law explicitly states that a person who “arrives” at our borders “whether or not at a designated a port of arrival … may apply for asylum.”

Asylum is not just a reflection of our nation’s most fundamental values—it is also a reflection of the priorities of the international community. The right to asylum was established in the late 1940’s following the Holocaust. The member states of the United Nations, with the explicit leadership of the United States, created formal protocols to protect refugees.

Given the rhetoric, it might surprise people to learn that asylum seekers face enormous legal obstacles to protection. The majority of claims are denied (even before Attorney General Jeff Sessions overturned years of asylum case law for victims of domestic violence this week).

According to Sessions, the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy means that every undocumented border crosser will be criminally prosecuted and that parents bringing their children to the U.S. to protect them from death threats will be prosecuted for smuggling.

This “zero tolerance” violates the fundamental right, enshrined in international treaty and codified in our own U.S. law, to seek asylum from persecution. It violates the right to family integrity, recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court as a fundamental liberty interest. (See e.g. Supreme Court case Troxville v. Granville). It violates the right to due process of law.

To punish asylum seekers by taking away their children is exceptionally cruel. It’s also inefficient, creating duplication in a system already plagued by backlogs by requiring asylum seekers whose claims could otherwise by addressed together (parents and children) to present their factually identical claims in different immigration courts across the country.

Children like my bright little 8-year-old client, as well as their fathers and mothers, deserve our most zealous efforts to protect them from these cruel and illegal policies which purposefully deprive them of the right to seek and obtain asylum.  Many studies show that the majority of those presenting themselves at the Southern border have legitimate claims for humanitarian protection under international law.  Americans of all backgrounds must understand that these policies are not only inhumane, they are illegal.

As Father’s Day approaches, please stand with these families. For those whose ancestors came to the US as refugees, as asylum seekers, remember how your own family members made their journey to this country and the American welcome you would have wanted your family member to have.  Show our leaders that Americans believe that separating parents from their children at the border is illegal. Tell our leaders that you believe in the right to seek asylum.

Now is the time to come forward and stand in real solidarity with impacted immigrant communities. Please support organizations that represent these families and children on the border and when released, like The Advocates for Human Rights, the CARA Pro Bono Project  and the Migrant Center for Human Rights.  If you’re a legal professional or speak a second language, get involved with helping a child or family seeking asylum. Follow our blog for updates on advocating for separated families. Contact us and other local organizations that work with immigrants to learn how you can most effectively support your local immigrant communities in this time where their fundamental rights are under attack.

Alison Griffith is a Staff Attorney for The Advocates for Human Rights’ Refugee & Immigrant Program.

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2017: A Year of Strength for Women

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As we look back on The Advocates’ women’s human rights work in 2017 and the movement to hold accountable perpetrators of sexual harassment and assault, the word that comes to mind is strength In the last year, we strengthened the capacity of women’s rights defenders, made life-saving recommendations for reforms, and strategized how the UN can become even better in achieving gender equality.

We continued to identify gaps in governments’ responses to violence against women so we can tell them how to make women’s lives safer. Last year, we released reports on domestic violence in Montenegro and Serbia, where they become tools to bring sweeping changes.

Because of our reports, laws become better: domestic violence is criminalized, victims’ protections strengthened, and shelters funded.

 

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We also began building a multi-country cadre of women’s human rights defenders to use international mechanisms. By teaching 16 Russian-speaking lawyers how to leverage these remedies, we build their capacity to safeguard women’s rights against sexual harassment, trafficking, domestic violence, and sexual assault. This work is powerful and life-saving for the women in many countries with few realistic options for safety.  One lawyer told us,

With your help, I have started to believe that we can change our situation to the best.”

 

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And, of course, we have continued our advocacy before the UN, holding countries to the highest standards of women’s rights, while expanding our lens to focus on the UN itself. After all, if the UN is going to lead on women’s human rights, it must lead by example. In the face of ongoing investigations of sexual harassment by senior UN figures, such scrutiny is long overdue.

As a core member of the UN Gender Network, we are reviewing the UN’s gender equality policies and will make recommendations for reform at a UN roundtable next month.

We will continue to build on our momentum through 2018. I hope you will join us at three exciting events:

Please join us in 2018 as we celebrate women’s human rights, and thank you for your support to make the world a better, safer place for women.

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

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Ukraine delays decision on Universal Periodic Review recommendations on domestic violence

 

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The delegation from Ukraine, led by H.E. Mr. Sergiy Petukhov, Deputy Minister of Justice of Ukraine for the European Integration, speaks during Ukraine’s Universal Periodic Review on November 15, 2017. Source: http://webtv.un.org/meetings-events/human-rights-council/universal-periodic-review/28th-upr/watch/ukraine-review-28th-session-of-universal-periodic-review/5647215634001#

For the 3rd cycle Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Ukraine, The Advocates for Human Rights submitted a stakeholder report in collaboration with Center “Women’s Perspectives,” a non-governmental agency based in Lviv, Ukraine. The report focused on the prevalence of domestic violence in Ukraine.

Domestic violence is a pervasive problem in Ukraine. In 2016, the Ministry of Social Policy recorded 96,143 complaints of domestic violence, and data indicate that the number of complaints has been on the rise by 10% per year. The legal system fails to adequately protect women, a problem exacerbated by ongoing political conflict.  Ukraine has not yet created a specific crime of domestic violence, nor has it specifically defined gender-based violence in its laws. A package of laws to address violence against women passed a first hearing in Parliament in 2016, but was sent back to a working group over concerns the draft laws were harmful to traditional family values. Members of Parliament have asked the working group to remove references to “gender” and “sexual orientation” and to allow religious groups to sit on the Working Group. Ukraine has yet to ratify the Istanbul Convention on violence against women. Victim services remain insufficient and underfunded.

During the UPR in early November 2017, 70 countries made 190 recommendations to Ukraine, 29 of which were related to domestic violence or violence against women. This marks a significant increase from the four domestic violence-related recommendations made in 2012, a sign that more countries are taking note of conditions in Ukraine.

After the review, the country can either accept or reject the recommendations, and can choose to provide an additional response if it wishes to explain its decision. The UPR process also gives the state under review the option to delay its response to some or all of the recommendations. Ukraine has decided to defer decision on all of its recommendations and will have until March 2018 (the 37th session of the Human Rights Council) to submit an addendum with its responses to the recommendations.

By Laura Dahl, a 2017 graduate of the University of Minnesota with a degree in Global Studies and Neuroscience. She is a Fall 2017 intern with The Advocates’ International Justice Program.

This post is the fourth in a series on The Advocates’ international advocacy.  The series highlights The Advocates’ work with partners to bring human rights issues in multiple countries to the attention of the United Nations Human Rights Council through the Universal Periodic Review mechanism. Additional post in the series include:

The Advocates’ lobbying against the death penalty packs a big punch at the Universal Periodic Review of Japan

How The Advocates brings the stories of women and children fleeing violence to the international stage

Sri Lanka’s Evolving Stance on the Death Penalty

 

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Building the Capacity of Russian-Speaking Lawyers to Protect Women’s Human Rights 

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Our Legal Training Academy fellows from Georgia, Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan working together on a UN treaty body exercise.

Members of The Advocates’ staff recently returned from Bulgaria, where we finished training 16 lawyers at the first session of our Legal Training Academy on Women’s Human Rights (LTA). Through this two-year project, we are building the capacity of lawyers to use international and regional human rights mechanisms to defend women’s human rights after all domestic remedies have failed. Being able to effectively access these options is crucial. For lawyers in some countries, which may not have adequate public prosecution laws concerning domestic violence or even basic protections for victims, the option of being able to leverage another remedy is powerful. Once a lawyer has exhausted the options available to them in their country, it is not the end of the road for the victim/survivor. Instead, they can still pursue effective, top-down recourse through the UN, European Court of Human Rights, and the Council of Europe. This two-year training academy teaches these lawyers how to most effectively bring these cases.  

 

The lawyers hail from nine countries in the Former Soviet Union—Russia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, Georgia, Moldova, and Azerbaijan, to name a few. Often, these human rights defenders are operating under laws that oppress or hinder civil society. For example, some of these countries impose onerous NGO registration requirements, while others use “foreign agent” laws to brand NGOs as spies and subject to heavy surveillance and conditions. Yet, each of these lawyers brought energy, commitment, enthusiasm, as well as drive to learn and connect with each other.  

 

In this first of three training sessions, we spent the first day hearing from the participants about the issues they face in their country. They described issues such as the severe lack of shelters, legal aid, and resources for women victims and survivors, the abuse of women in prison, and the use of village elders to decide cases of violence against women rather than formal court systems.

For example, one participant described the harmful practice and effects of polygamy in her country: “How do you register second and third wives? As a second or third wife, if my husband comes and beats me, and I’m not married, I cannot get a restraining order.”  

 Throughout the week, we discussed various forms of violence against women, including sexual violence, sexual harassment, domestic violence, and trafficking. We also addressed human rights for LGBTI and persons living with HIV.  

 

In the next two sessions, taking place in spring and fall of 2018, we will build the skills of these lawyers to leverage the UN and European mechanisms. Importantly, we are building not only a cadre of trained women’s human rights defenders, but a network of peers who will continue to share best practices and strategies, support each other’s efforts transnationally, and celebrate successes. Already, we have begun to see the impact after our first training. At the conclusion of the session, one participant said, 

“With your help, I have started to believe that we can change our situation to the best. Thank you all very much.”  

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

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Stand with The Advocates in 2018

2017 was a year that has been as challenging as any in my more than two decades working in the human rights movement.The Advocates was founded on the principle that we all play a part in making human rights real and this principle is more relevant today than ever. It is news to no one concerned about human rights that the systemic affronts to dignity, freedom, and justice for all have been deep and widespread. It would be difficult to overstate the impact of the 2016 election on our work and the dramatic increase in the demands that came in its wake.

But, for every assault on human rights that we witnessed in the past year, we redoubled our efforts to advocate, educate, and litigate in the service of justice and human dignity. 

For every attack on our values, hundreds of our volunteers came forward. We have developed new initiatives to respond to these challenges:

  • the new court observer and pro bono bond project created in response to the Administration’s travel ban and increased punitive immigration policies;
  • a collaboration with our partners to train more than 100 attorneys on the legal implications of sanctuary work so that they can assist faith communities considering that option;
  • contributions to the nationwide efforts to end human trafficking by lending a human rights perspective, and more.

The fact is, there is great opportunity in the midst of the many challenges that face the human rights community.Even as we have watched appalling attacks on human rights, we have also witnessed hundreds of thousands of people all over the world come off the sidelines, many for the first time, and say “Enough!”

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Photo credit:
United Nations, Photo No. 1292 (Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt of the United States holding a Universal Declaration of Human Rights poster in English, November 1949.)

Our movement has the power to inspire, to galvanize people, because it is grounded in basic human rights principles. As stated in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights: the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world is the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family. Our job as advocates is to insist that public policy uphold human dignity and fundamental human rights principles. These rights include: the right to security, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom from discrimination—rights that belong to each of us simply by virtue of being a member of the human family.

As we move into 2018, The Advocates will continue to build the human rights movement locally and globally with persistence and determination. Together we can make a difference. From saving the life of an individual asylum seeker who has come for protection from persecution to adopting new laws and policies to protect the rights of human trafficking victims to ensuring that legal systems in the United States and around the world work to eliminate violence against women.

We appreciate all the many ways you have helped us work toward our vision of a world where all people live with dignity, freedom, justice, equality and peace.We know what to do. Please work with us to have an even greater impact in 2018, by making a donation, volunteering your time, and every day, advocating for human rights for all.

By Robin Phillips, Executive Director of The Advocates for Human Rights. 

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Sri Lanka’s Evolving Stance on the Death Penalty

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The delegation from Sri Lanka, led by H.E. Mr. Harsha De Silva, Deputy Minister of National Policies and Economic Affairs of Sri Lanka, at the November 15th, 2017 UPR of Sri Lanka. Source: http://webtv.un.org/meetings-events/human-rights-council/universal-periodic-review/watch/sri-lanka-review-28th-session-of-universal-periodic-review/5648383899001#

The Advocates for Human Rights serves on the Steering Committee of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty. In that capacity, The Advocates often collaborates with the World Coalition to engage in advocacy at the United Nations when a UN body reviews the human rights record of a country that retains the death penalty.

One recent example is Sri Lanka. The Advocates, in collaboration with The World Coalition, submitted a stakeholder report about the death penalty in Sri Lanka for consideration during the country’s third Universal Periodic Review (UPR) at the UN Human Rights Council.

Sri Lanka acknowledges itself as a de facto abolitionist state and carried out its last execution in 1976. Yet Sri Lankan courts continue to sentence defendants to death and the country’s constitution still authorizes the use of the death penalty. According to Amnesty International, in 2016 Sri Lankan courts sentenced at least 79 people to death and an estimated 1,000 prisoners were under sentence of death.

During Sri Lanka’s second UPR in 2012, six countries made recommendations that called on Sri Lanka to abolish the death penalty or consider a formal moratorium. Sri Lanka rejected all six recommendations. Since then, President Sirisena and his government have made positive public statements suggesting they are working toward abolishing the death penalty. In a speech given at the 30th Session of the UN Human Rights Council in September 2015, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Sri Lanka reinforced that the Sri Lankan Government was committed to maintaining the moratorium on the death penalty, with a view to its ultimate abolition. In December 2016, Sri Lanka voted with 116 Member States of the United Nations to support a universal moratorium on the death penalty.

The public statements made by Sri Lanka were reinforced by the country’s increased openness to UPR recommendations. During its latest UPR on November 15th, 2017, Sri Lanka accepted three of thirteen recommendations made on the death penalty.

In 2012, Sri Lanka rejected three recommendations that urged considering abolition of the death penalty: “Consider the definite abolishment of the death penalty in its internal legislation” (Argentina and Ecuador) and “Seriously consider the possibility to abolish capital punishment” (Italy). In 2017, Sri Lanka accepted two remarkably similar recommendations: “Consider to abolish the death penalty” (Italy) and “Consider abolishing the death penalty” (Timor-Leste). Sri Lanka’s willingness to accept such recommendations may indicate changing government attitudes toward the practice.

Sri Lanka pays particular attention to the specific wording of recommendations. Sri Lanka’s new-found willingness to accept death penalty recommendations extends only to accepting recommendations that don’t bind them to any decision — all three accepted recommendations begin with some form of the word “consider.” For example:

  • Sri Lanka accepted, “Consider ratifying the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, aimed at abolishing the death penalty” (Uruguay) but rejected “Ratify the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, aiming at the abolition of the death penalty” (Montenegro, Spain).
  • Similarly, Sri Lanka accepted “Consider abolishing the death penalty” (Timor-Leste) but rejected “Abolish the death penalty” (Australia). Sri Lanka rejected seven comparable recommendations, even those that recommended “taking steps” towards abolition.
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Mr. Aurélio Barros, representative from Timor-Leste, delivers his country’s recommendations to Sri Lanka during the November 15th UPR. Source: http://webtv.un.org/meetings-events/human-rights-council/universal-periodic-review/watch/sri-lanka-review-28th-session-of-universal-periodic-review/5648383899001#

To be sure, a recommendation to “consider” abolition of the death penalty is not as strong as a recommendation to abolish the death penalty. The fact that some governments made weaker recommendations and some made stronger recommendations nevertheless gives us some insights into Sri Lanka’s evolving position on the death penalty. And we expect the Sri Lankan government to take concrete steps between now and its next UPR in 2022 to explore how abolition could be incorporated into the Penal Code and Constitution or to conduct public awareness surveys on the popularity of the practice. Perhaps by the time Sri Lanka is up for its fourth-cycle UPR, the country will have had enough opportunity for careful consideration to be able to definitely abolish the death penalty.

By Laura Dahl, a 2017 graduate of the University of Minnesota with a degree in Global Studies and Neuroscience. She is a Fall 2017 intern with The Advocates’ International Justice Program.

This post is the third in a series on The Advocates’ international advocacy.  The series highlights The Advocates work with partners to bring human rights issues in multiple countries to the attention of the United Nations Human Rights Council through the Universal Periodic Review mechanism. Additional post in the series include:

How The Advocates brings the stories of women and children fleeing violence to the international stage

The Advocates’ lobbying against the death penalty packs a big punch at the Universal Periodic Review of Japan

Ukraine delays decision on Universal Periodic Review recommendations on domestic violence