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.
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.
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.
• 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.
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.
“I was ready for the new women’s movement when it emerged and turned my talents and experience to it. Defying expectations, taking risks, and seeking what I could do beyond near horizons became my sport…It’s thrilling to imagine the possibilities that await my grandchildren—and you readers. This is my story. I wrote it to encourage other women to live fully and write theirs.” – Arvonne Fraser (from her memoir entitled “She’s No Lady”)
The human rights world has lost a giant. Arvonne Fraser inspired women’s human rights activists across the globe. She encouraged multiple generations of women to find their voices to make their lives better and improve the world. She helped develop international standards for the protection of women and was a tireless advocate herself. In addition to work on international human rights, Arvonne leaves a long legacy in many different arenas, including government, academia, and nonprofit.
She and her husband, Don, influenced our work at The Advocates for Human Rights from the very beginning. In their honor, the Don and Arvonne Fraser Human Rights Award is presented annually to an outstanding individual or organization promoting human rights. Arvonne’s legacy will live on through the many human rights activists she influenced, both in Minnesota and around the world. This year’s awardee, Jane Connors, spoke of the immense importance of her work in realizing the implementation of the human rights of women through the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.
“It is hard to overstate Arvonne’s impact. I have met people from the far corners of the world who when they learned I was from Minnesota, told me wonderful stories about how Arvonne has influenced them in their work,” states Robin Phillips, Executive Director of The Advocates for Human Rights.
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.”
“Domestic violence is a “style of communication between the parties.” It is the “victim’s choice . . . to be communicated to her with violence.”
My jaw dropped.
I then quickly pulled myself together from a momentary state of shock as I listened to a mediator in Montenegro matter-of-factly explain his thoughts on domestic violence. By this point in our mission, I kept thinking that I would get used to the way our interviewees spoke about domestic violence. After all, we had spent an intense week in six cities throughout the country — from the Albanian border to the Serbian border — interviewing members of Parliament, judges, prosecutors, police, social workers, doctors, and even the victims themselves. But in each interview, like in this one with the mediator, I always learned something new.
As a white collar and securities litigator at Dechert LLP, an international law firm, I joined the monitoring mission with The Advocates for Human Rights to Montenegro, having never done any domestic violence work, let alone traveled to the Balkans. But I simply couldn’t pass up the opportunity when our firm committed its resources to pursue the monitoring mission in Montenegro in 2015, a country that was a part of the former Yugoslavia and gained its independence in 2006.
Having the honor of learning from Rosalyn Park and Amy Bergquist, two impressive Advocates attorneys at the forefront of the human rights movement, we paired up in teams and started each day early in the morning traveling to a new city so that we could begin interviewing around 9 a.m. Our days were packed with organized interviews that very rapidly revealed that domestic violence was not only a widespread problem in Montenegro – it was also a very private one. I was struck how I took for granted our comparably victim-centered laws, practices, and education, as I heard story after story about how keeping the family together – as opposed to keeping the victims safe – came first. I witnessed the defense and excusal of offenders as interviewees pushed back about depriving offenders their rights: “where will the offender go if evicted?” was a reoccurring theme. In interview after interview, I heard about the lack of coherent coordination and adequate resources. And for the first time, as an associate, I viscerally understood why the rule of law and even how our physical courtroom is set up is so important – something I take for granted every day here in the U.S.
What impressed me the most about Montenegro wasn’t just the rugged mountains that explained why the country is called “Black Mountain,” nor was it the coastline that looked like it was straight out of movie. What impressed me the most was undoubtedly the resiliency and strength of the victims of domestic violence. I had the opportunity to interview one such victim who showed me photographs of bruises all over her body that were submitted to the court. She so bravely explained how she came up against road block after road block with every institutional response and is currently mired in multiple court proceedings to tell her side of the story. I saw victims weaving beautiful rugs at a women’s shelter as they heroically learned a new skill to have some form of economic independence. And as we stayed in that same shelter one night, I was moved by the incredibly strong women that are fighting every day with limited resources to help these victims. Our partners Natasa Medjedovic at SOS Hotline for Women and Children Victims of Violence – Niksic and Maya Raicevic at Women’s Rights Center were examples of such strength, who challenged the seemingly accepted notion that “just being a patriarchal society” is an adequate response to the problems these victims face.
Pictured above: Angela Liu, Megan Walsh, Maja Raicevic, Rosalyn Park, Milica Milic, Natasha Medjedovic, Tamara Radusinovic, and Amy Bergquist.
This trip, however, could not have been made possible for me without the support from my firm to which I am very grateful, and I would encourage other firms to continue their support as well. What I took away from the pro bono experience was how just taking the time and honing your own fact finding and deposition skills can impact the laws and practices of an entire country in a tangible way. It’s hard not to fall in love with a profession when you get to practice and develop your skills, let alone in a context where you’re seeing prosecutors, police, and doctors begin to consider using particular laws or protocols while being interviewed; or members of Parliament, judges, and even the victims ask for advice or more training to make their country better.
After two years of work, the 200+ page report based on our mission is now finished. It shines a light on the laws and practices in Montenegro, which will be helpful in advocacy in the country and at the United Nations. I also hope that one day domestic violence will never be known as a chosen style of communication in Montenegro.
As an International Justice Program intern with The Advocates for Human Rights, I have encountered many examples of human rights abuses throughout the world. Yet, while the recent drama of domestic politics continues to dominate the attention of American citizens, these international human rights violations go largely unreported and unaccounted for in U.S. media. The ongoing human rights crisis gripping the state of Burundi presents one such example as members of civil society continue to face politically-based violence at the hands of the ruling party.
April 2015 marked the start of a political and human rights crisis in Burundi that has claimed hundreds of lives. Violence flared following President Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision to seek a controversial third term and subsequent, political protests. Police and security forces responded by exercising excessive force and shooting demonstrators indiscriminately.
After a failed coup d’état by military officers in May 2015, the Government intensified its repression of political dissent by suspending most of the country’s independent radio stations. In addition, journalists and human rights defenders face violence and increasing restrictions on their rights to freedom of expression and association. Recently adopted legislation further limits the ability of non-governmental organizations to operate and for civil society to participate in public life. By mid-2015, most of Burundi’s opposition party leaders, independent journalists and civil society activists had fled the country after receiving repeated threats.
The human rights crisis that gripped Burundi in 2015 deepened in 2016 as government forces targeted perceived political opponents with increased brutality. The Burundian National Defense Forces (BNDF) and the Burundian National Intelligence Service (SNR)—often in collaboration with members of the ruling party’s youth league, known as Imbonerakure—committed numerous killings, disappearances, abductions, torture, rape, and arbitrary arrests against the perceived opponents of the ruling party.
For perpetrators of these crimes associated with the ruling party, there is almost total impunity. The ruling party continues to interfere with Burundi’s weak justice system and therefore these human rights abuses are rarely punished. The government’s suspected political opponents have been arrested and held for prolonged periods unlawfully. Ultimately, an average of more than one thousand people fleeing the violence escaped to nearby Tanzania per day in 2016 to join the 250,000 already spread across Eastern Africa.
The Advocates’ Refugee and Immigrant Program provides legal representation to individuals seeking asylum. The Advocates has received direct information about suppression of political opinion in Burundi from survivors fleeing human rights abuses in the country to seek asylum in the United States. Our clients share stories of being accused, often arbitrarily, of supporting anti-government protests. They report police and Imbonerakure members searching their homes, looting their businesses, and arresting, beating and interrogating them and their family members. While each client’s case is different, their experiences confirm that the legal system and policies in Burundi are failing to provide individuals with adequate protection from politically-based violence.
In July, The Advocates for Human Rights submitted a stakeholder’s reportto the Universal Periodic Review, identifying specific measures that the Burundian Government should enact to address political suppression in the country.
First, Burundi should combat impunity by systematically and promptly carrying out investigations of criminal activity committed by government affiliates and ensure appropriate compensation for such crimes. In the previous UPR, the Government of Burundi accepted recommendations to continue efforts toward combatting impunity including the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. While the Commission was established in 2016, serious concerns exist regarding the Commission’s ability to fulfill its mandate with the expanded use of temporary immunities which have de facto become permanent amnesty schemes. Burundi should then establish an independent mechanism for investigating complaints of torture or ill-treatment at the hands of members of police or security forces to ensure accountability for perpetrators of human rights violations.
Second, the Government should take the necessary steps to ensure that legal systems and policies are in full compliance with Burundi’s international obligations with respect to freedom of expression. During its last UPR, Burundi rejected 15 recommendations related to freedom of expression and association, as well as protections for human rights defenders. Burundi must afford journalists and human rights defenders the freedom to carry out their work independently and without fear of persecution or intimidation.
Overall, Burundi is failing to meet its international obligations to investigate and prosecute political-based violence perpetrated on behalf of the ruling party. Security forces, intelligence services, and Imbonerakure members are repeatedly identified as responsible for extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, abductions, arbitrary arrests and detention, torture and ill-treatment, and sexual violence. The Burundian Government must act to combat impunity and protect civil society members from such human rights violations.
With the ongoing human rights crisis gripping the state of Burundi, members of civil society continue to face politically-based violence at the hands of the ruling party. Unfortunately, these human rights violations continue to go largely unreported and unaccounted for in U.S. media. Although American domestic politics seem to dominate the current political discourse, we all need to remain vigilant and afford these international, human rights violations the attention they deserve.
By April Will, a second-year J.D. student (class of 2019) at the University of Minnesota Law School. She is a 2017 summer intern with The Advocates’ International Justice Program.
The Advocates’ stakeholder submission to the UN Human Rights Council for Burundi’s Universal Periodic Review includes direct information about human rights violations from survivors who have fled Burundi to seek asylum in the United States. Read the full report here.
What and who are behind the current wave of anti-immigrant feeling, including the cruel policy of “self-deportation” that is the subject of this two part series of articles?
It is important to acknowledge that fear of The Other is a near-universal human condition, and its causes and effects should not be oversimplified. It is also important to acknowledge the existence of elite interest groups which are currently working hard to exploit our fear of The Other and use it to advance their own agenda, an agenda aimed at keeping America a white and Christian nation.
The author of this, the second of two articles reflecting on the cruelty behind the currently ascendant hard-line anti-immigration movement, was raised in Minnesota during the fifties and sixties. Our state was then almost entirely lily white and raised in the Christian tradition. In the author’s high school class of more than 700, there were only two black students and, to the author’s knowledge, two Jewish students. Such an upbringing creates, in nearly every mind, assumptions that become part of an individual’s basic personality: a Minnesotan is automatically thought of as a white person of Christian heritage. People who don’t qualify on one or both counts may be fine folks in their way, but they are different from our concept of a Minnesotan. Carrying such assumptions in one’s mind doesn’t by itself make a person hateful or evil, but it can have consequences on a person’s beliefs and actions that might not be recognized. The assumptions brand our fellow human beings as The Other.
Recognizing that this non-diverse state of affairs once existed in many parts of the country, and still exists in many rural areas and small towns, may help explain the current rise of anti-immigrant sentiment, a recurring wave that has swept the United States several times in its history and has always been regretted afterward. Census data tells us that if current trends continue, the U.S. population will, for the first time, be “majority minority” by 2044. To some people, consciously or unconsciously, this means The Other is taking over, and that can be frightening.
They include the Federation for American Immigration Reform (“FAIR”); the Immigration Reform Law Institute (“IRLI”); the Center for Immigration Studies (“CIS”); Numbers USA; ProEnglish; U.S.English; the Social Contract Press and, the funding organization, U.S. Inc. Representatives of these organizations frequently lobby legislators, publish “think pieces,” do grass roots organizing on anti-immigrant themes, appear in the media and promulgate agendas for anti-immigrant actions by governments and private actors.
In such times, it is more critical than ever that human rights defenders such as The Advocates ceaselessly fight to implement national and international laws protecting refugees, and promote the application of a human rights framework to immigration policy.
To minimize the extent to which fear of The Other exists in this country, and in all the world, would be a mistake. But it would also be a mistake to ignore the wealthy elites who use that fear to support an agenda to keep America white.
Another Minnesotan, a Jew raised in a white Christian town in the northern part of the state, wrote a song after the assassination of civil rights leader Medgar Evers. It was called “Only A Pawn in their Game.” Bob Dylan caused some controversy with the song, which seemed to mitigate the fault of Evers’ murderer, but Dylan’s point was that the racism of poor whites was being manipulated by elites with an agenda of their own. As is often the case with Dylan, the lyrics sound with considerable force today.
He’s taught in his school
From the start by the rule
That the laws are with him
To protect his white skin
To keep up his hate
So he never thinks straight
‘Bout the shape that he’s in
But it ain’t him to blame
He’s only a pawn in their game
–Bob Dylan, “Only a Pawn in their Game”
By James O’Neal, volunteer attorney and Vice Chair of The Advocates for Human Rights’ Board of Directors.
Read the first article Cruelty as Policy: Part One here.