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What’s it like to be an Advocate for Human Rights? An interview with Amy Bergquist

AmyBergquist

Amy Bergquist is the International Justice Program Staff Attorney at The Advocates for Human Rights. Her job responsibilities include coordinating The Advocates’ advocacy at the United Nations and working with diaspora communities to improve human rights situations in their home countries.  Amy also represents The Advocates on the Steering Committee of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty  and was recently elected as the World Coalition’s Vice President.

Describe your typical day or week at work.

There’s nothing typical, so it’s not boring. There’s always something new. I keep up with correspondence with international partners and pro bono volunteers. I do a lot of writing, editing, and researching. Then there’s prepping and facilitating presentations, workshops, and trainings. I also respond to requests and questions on a variety of topics from a variety of people, many of whom have never before interacted with The Advocates.

What kinds of problems do you face on a day-to-day basis?

Finding on-the-ground facts and information and determining which facts are reliable. Also, people see our name and think we can do everything related to human rights, so if they have a request that isn’t something we do, finding referrals for them can be a challenge. It’s also a challenge to get the word out about our organization to potential partner organizations.

What do you most like about working in this field?

I like that the organization is small enough that there is not a lot of hierarchy and appreciate the autonomy I’m given. I have the ability to collaborate with partners, to help them do their work more effectively and make a tangible difference with them.

What do you like the least about it?

Human rights advocacy is frustrating. Accomplishing goals is slow, and sometimes it feels like we’re not getting anywhere. You have to celebrate the victories you get, but sometimes those victories aren’t there or are small. But this just shows that our work is needed.

What is it like to work for this particular organization? How would you describe the culture at The Advocates?

Our work is volunteer-based, which means that we’re not guardians of a castle that no one else can enter. We’re inclusive in our collaboration with others. You don’t have to be an expert in human rights to make a difference.

Tell us about your career path that led you to this job.

In college, I was interested in human rights issues, especially refugee issues. I tutored refugees and did my honors thesis on refugee issues. I also had an interest in law. Then I lived in Moscow for a couple of years, where I taught and developed my Russian skills. After that, I came home, got my teaching degree, and taught for 11 years. While I was teaching, I coached debate and found myself living vicariously through the students I was coaching. I was teaching social studies to recently arrived refugees and got to hear a lot of their stories. These factors were what drove me to giving law school a try so I could pursue law and human rights. During law school, I volunteered with The Advocates, where I did fact finding with Minnesota’s Oromo community. I participated in an immigration clinic representing asylum seekers. I was also a research assistant for a professor who was an expert in the field of human rights. After law school, I did some judicial clerkships and then spent a year in private practice. Then The Advocates had a position open up, and they hired me. I’ve been here for about six years now.

What experiences best prepared you for this job? How did you learn to do your work?

There’s a lot of learning on the job, which is a good skill, especially at the UN where things are always changing. Being a research assistant gave me the skill of figuring out how to do things I’ve never done before. It’s also important to know how and when to ask for help.

What is a typical career path in this field? Are there opportunities for advancement?

My career path is not typical. There are a lot of ways to do what I do without a law degree. On the law side, it’s good to go to a law school that has some human rights programming, particularly clinics. Take advantage of being a research assistant for someone who is involved in human rights. I did judicial clerkships after law school, but they don’t necessarily have ties to human rights. There are clerkships at the Hague, which may be beneficial. Go into private practice and do pro bono for for a human rights organization. Get support in a private firm and develop skills that will benefit human rights organizations. It’s unusual to go straight from law school to a human rights organization.

What does the future look like in this field? Is anything in the field changing?

There’s more of an emphasis on letting organizations in the global south take on leadership roles. We’re a great potential partner to organizations in the global south, and we’re building a reputation so organizations know that we are available for collaboration. We’re not trying to impose a particular model or dictate to our partners.

How could a student best prepare themselves for a track in human rights?

Get involved with human rights-oriented student organizations. Attend lunchtime talks and, if you attend the University of Minnesota Law School, participate in the asylum law project. Attend CLEs and try to meet people – it’s a way of networking without being “network-y,” and people are pleasantly surprised when law students show up. Get involved with committees of state bar associations or the ABA. Organizations that have law student components may not be human rights specific, but you can offer to set up presentations and CLEs for them on human rights topics, and then you’ll be the one calling potential presenters, and it’s a good way to get yourself out there. Judicial clerkships in U.S. courts aren’t super relevant, but they’re a good way to develop your legal research and writing skills.

Read more about Amy Bergquist’s work in the areas of the death penalty, as well as  LGBTI rights and discrimination based on sexual orientation/gender identity.

Young artists share their vision for a world without the death penalty

Abolishing the Death Penalty: in Memory of John Thompson 

The Death Penalty Doesn’t Stop Drug Crimes

African Commission Urges Cameroon to End LGBTI Discrimination

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back for LGBTI Rights in Africa

Out in the Cold: LGBT Visibility at Olympics Key to Ending Homophobia

Russia’s “Gay Propaganda” Law: How U.S. Extremists are Fueling the Fight Against LGBTI Rights

Locking the Iron Closet: Russia’s Propaganda Law Isolates Vulnerable LGBTI Youth

The Wild East: Vigilante Violence against LGBTI Russians

Moving Forward: Four Steps and Six Strategies for Promoting LGBTI Rights Around the World

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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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Sri Lanka’s Evolving Stance on the Death Penalty

Sri Lanka photo 1 SL delegation
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.
Sri Lanka photo 2 Timor Leste gives rec
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

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

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The Human Rights Council chambers in Geneva, Switzerland. UN Photo/Elma Okic. Source: http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=56915#.WjhEE7T83_Q

Since 2014, a growing number of women and children fleeing gender-based violence in Guatemala have requested legal assistance from The Advocates in applying for asylum in the United States. Using information from interviews with these clients, The Advocates documented violence against women in Guatemala and submitted a stakeholder report to the United Nations Human Rights Council for consideration during Guatemala’s third-cycle Universal Periodic Review, which took place on November 8, 2017.

Violence against women remains a serious problem in Guatemala, especially as the country continues to struggle to implement protective measures and programs. In the first ten months of 2015, the public ministry reported receiving 11,449 reports of sexual or physical aggression against women. In the first seven months of 2015, there were 29,128 complaints of domestic violence against women and 501 violent deaths of women.

Due to lack of protection and high rates of impunity, many women choose to leave the country rather than face potential reprisals and stigma. Domestic violence is also a significant push factor for unaccompanied child migrants.

The Advocates is able to help these women and children in two important ways: providing legal assistance in their asylum cases and using their experiences to advocate at the United Nations for law and policy changes in their home country of Guatemala.

There are several steps involved in bringing these individual stories to an international stage.

First, The Advocates drafted a report documenting violence against women in Guatemala, based on research on country conditions and client interviews. The Advocates submitted this stakeholder report to the Human Rights Council for consideration during Guatemala’s Universal Periodic Review. After the report was complete, I drafted a two-page summary that outlined the key information and suggested recommendations. I then reviewed countries that made recommendations to Guatemala during its second UPR in 2012, and selected 27 countries to lobby based on their past support for eliminating gender-based violence. I emailed these countries, thanking them for their interest in women’s issues and updating them on the status of past recommendations they made to Guatemala. I sent them the full report on Guatemala as well as the summary document.

The purpose of lobbying other countries is twofold— to alert the country to the dire situation in Guatemala and to provide suggested recommendations based on our report. The country under review must acknowledge the recommendations, which can serve as a rebuke for missteps as well as a blueprint for areas to improve.

For example, Guatemala received and accepted recommendations during its second-cycle UPR in 2012 to strengthen the 2008 Law Against Femicide. In order to implement these recommendations, the government established several agencies and institutions to give effect to the law, and created lower level courts. Yet weak implementation of these tools meant there was little reduction in levels of violence against women. In addition, there is no law against sexual harassment, despite its ubiquity. The partial implementation of these 2012 recommendations speaks to the importance of creating targeted recommendations, the success of which can be measured on a defined timeline.

Guatemala photo 2 Guatemala delegation
The delegation from Guatemala, led by H.E. Mr Jorge Luis Borrayo Reyes, President of the Presidential Coordinating Commission of Guatemala, delivers an introductory statement during the November 8th, 2017 UPR of Guatemala. Source: http://webtv.un.org/search/guatemala-review-28th-session-of-universal-periodic-review/5639386301001/?term=&lan=english&cat=UPR%2028th&sort=date&page=3#

After the UN published the recommendations made during the November 8th UPR, I reviewed them to determine the success of our lobbying efforts. Of the 27 countries we contacted, seven of them made recommendations, five of which Guatemala accepted. Interestingly, the number of VAW-specific recommendations made to Guatemala remained fairly constant from 2012 (30 recommendations) to 2017 (31), but the makeup of the countries making the recommendations changed. In 2017, 77% of the VAW recommendations were made by countries that did not make a VAW recommendation in 2012. This shift suggests that a wider group of countries is taking note of the situation in Guatemala and willing to use their platform at the UN to advocate for women. It also suggests we should expand our lobbying efforts to target additional countries.

I was pleased to see the following recommendation from Spain, a country we targeted with our lobbying:

“Allocate sufficient resources to specialized courts and tribunals with jurisdiction over femicide and other forms of violence against women as well as move towards the full implementation of the Law against Femicide and Other Forms of Violence against Women.”

 

Guatemala photo 3 Spain gives rec
Mr. Emilio Pin, the representative to the UN Human Rights Council from Spain, delivers Spain’s recommendations to Guatemala during the November 8th UPR. Source: http://webtv.un.org/search/guatemala-review-28th-session-of-universal-periodic-review/5639386301001/?term=&lan=english&cat=UPR%2028th&sort=date&page=3#

This recommendation indicates that Spain acknowledges steps Guatemala has taken (specialized tribunals, partial implementation of the Law against Femicide) and points out a key gap in the implementation of these efforts: lack of government resources.

It’s incredibly powerful to see this recommendation and other calls to action that grew out of The Advocates’ client testimonies.

Guatemala accepted 28 of the 31 VAW-specific recommendations and will have five years before its next review to work on implementing them. I hope, the country will continue to build on past work and use the recommendations made during this review to effect meaningful change.

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 second 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

Sri Lanka’s Evolving Stance on the Death Penalty

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Welcome Home Blog Series: Oromos organize and build bridges to hold Ethiopia accountable for human rights abuses

This is the third in the “Welcome Home” blog series featuring articles about groups that represent diaspora communities in Minnesota. Read additional posts here.

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Samuel Berhanu, one of the founders of the Peace and Justice Committee of Our Redeemer Oromo Evangelical Church and United Oromo Voice

 Minnesota is home to not only the largest Oromo community in the United States, but also the largest population of Oromo people outside of Ethiopia. The Oromo people have arrived in Minnesota over the past 30 years as a direct result of political persecution and other human rights abuses in Ethiopia.  Across the diaspora, Oromos continue to actively engage with the politics of their country of origin and encourage the governments of their adopted countries, including the United States, to apply pressure on Ethiopia to improve its human rights record.

 

One such organization is the Peace and Justice Committee of Our Redeemer Oromo Evangelical Church in Minneapolis, founded in part by Oromo diaspora member Samuel Berhanu. Samuel and others in his organization are dedicated to introducing Minnesotans to the Oromo people and educating them about the human rights violations Oromos experience at the hands of the Ethiopian government.

History of Persecution by the Ethiopian Government

Despite being the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, the Oromo people face discrimination based on their ethnicity as well as their real or perceived political opinion. Reports from civil society in Ethiopia reveal the government’s alarming disregard for civil and political rights. These reports include accounts of extrajudicial killings, torture, arbitrary arrests, detention without formal charges, prolonged incommunicado detention, inhumane detention conditions, surveillance of government critics, and pressure on the judiciary to rule in the government’s favor. The government’s repressive tactics have stifled political dissent, undermined the independence of the judiciary, and weakened civil society. [The Advocates for Human Rights documented these human rights abuses in the report Human Rights in Ethiopia: Through the Eyes of the Oromo Diaspora, as well as in reports submitted to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights; the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child; the UN Committee on the Rights of Persona with Disabilities; and the UN Human Rights Council.

Western States have largely overlooked the plight of the Oromo, instead supporting the Ethiopian government, which is dominated by one ethnic minority group. Since 1991, the United States has identified Ethiopia as an ally in the Horn of Africa and an ally in the war on terror. Samuel explains that, with the largely Muslim populations in neighboring Somalia and Sudan, the United States considers Ethiopia a stabilizing force within the region. Western leaders then use this designation to justify the financial and military support afforded to the Ethiopian government. Ethiopia remains one of Africa’s largest recipient of foreign aid from the United States, despite the human rights abuses the Ethiopian government perpetrates.

Mobilizing to Build Bridges

Samuel and other members of the diaspora are working toward changing the United States’ approach to the human rights violations occurring in Ethiopia. The Peace and Justice Committee originally formed as part of the congregation of Our Redeemer Oromo Evangelical Church with the goal of influencing the Ethiopian government by appealing to the Western governments. The Peace and Justice Committee has helped build the capacity of the Oromo community to set priorities and engage in advocacy about human rights in Ethiopia.

The Committee worked with The Advocates’ International Justice Program staff attorney Amy Bergquist to organize a two-hour workshop attended by over 50 members of the congregation, as well as other concerned Oromos. At the workshop, participants identified priority issues and explored the different stakeholders who have the power to improve the human rights situation on the ground in Ethiopia. They then mapped out the people and organizations that influence those stakeholders to help Oromos in the diaspora better target their advocacy efforts.

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Oromos participating in an advocacy workshop organized by the Peace and Justice Committee of Our Redeemer Oromo Evangelical Church. Photo credit: Amy Bergquist

Since then, the organization has expanded its reach to include non-Christian and non-diaspora members through a new organization called United Oromo Voice. Like the Peace and Justice Committee, United Oromo Voice is devoted to fighting against the injustices and human rights violations committed by the Ethiopian government.  Samuel hopes that United Oromo Voice will encourage Minnesotans to engage with the Committee’s advocacy work.

Facing the challenges ahead

One of the obstacles facing the Peace and Justice Committee is successfully bringing together differing political opinions within the Oromo community. While the diaspora community largely seeks to end the human rights violations in Ethiopia, members disagree on the proper means of achieving that end. Some Oromos seek to work with the Ethiopian government, while others believe that succession is the only solution. Samuel makes a distinction between the role of the diaspora and the role of Oromos who remain in Ethiopia, explaining that at the end of the day, it is up to the people currently in Ethiopia to decide which approach is best. Samuel believes that their role as Oromos in the diaspora should be to provide a voice for Oromos remaining in Ethiopia, appealing to the West to exert pressure internationally.

Like other diaspora community organizations, the biggest obstacle is that members are trying to juggle work, family life, and the importance of the cause. Samuel does not seem to mind the burden, explaining that,

“God brought me here not to just live my own selfish life . . . I have to think of those who can’t make a voice for themselves.”

Our Redeemer Peace and Justice Committee of Our Redeemer Oromo Evangelical Church and United Oromo Voice

Website: https://www.oromochurchmn.org/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/oroec/

Volunteer Opportunities: The Peace and Justice Committee along with United Oromo Voice are currently seeking volunteers to assist with their projects and advocacy work. United Oromo Voice needs short-term and long-term volunteers to help with projects including community outreach, diplomacy, advocacy, media, and writing letters to government officials. If you would like to get involved, contact Samuel Berhanu at samueelb@gmail.com.

Learn More: To learn more about human rights violations against the Oromo people in Ethiopia, read:

Oromo Protests One Year On: Looking Back; Looking Forward;

Building Momentum in Geneva with the Oromo Diaspora;

UN Special Procedures Urged to Visit Ethiopia to Investigate Crackdown on Oromo Protests;

Diaspora Speaks for Deliberately Silenced Oromos; Ethiopian Government Responds to UN Review;

Oromo Diaspora Mobilizes to Shine Spotlight on Student Protests in Ethiopia 

By April Will, a second-year J.D. student (class of 2019) at the University of Minnesota Law School. She was a 2017 summer intern with The Advocates’ International Justice Program.    

This is the third in the “Welcome Home” blog series featuring articles about groups that represent diaspora communities in Minnesota. The first blog posts highlighted the contributions of the Karen Organization of Minnesota and the United Cambodian Association of Minnesota.

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Burundi: The Human Rights Crisis You May Not Have Heard Of

Protesters carry a Burundi flag during a protest against President Pierre Nkurunziza's decision to run for a third term in Bujumbura
Demonstrators carry a Burundian flag during a protest in Bujumbura, Burundi. Photo: Reuters/G. Tomasevic

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 report to 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.

Related post:  Giving our asylum clients from Burundi a voice at the United Nations

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Uncovering hidden obstacles to the rights of persons with disabilities in Iran

IMG_3551The Advocates for Human Rights offers volunteers a remarkable and rewarding breadth of opportunities to effect change around the world. As an example, I recently had a chance to advocate for the rights of Iranians with disabilities when I traveled to Geneva, Switzerland with The Advocates to lobby the United Nations Human Rights Council on a variety of human rights issues.

A Persian Proverb says “A blind person who sees is better than a seeing person who is blind”:  Uncovering hidden obstacles to the rights of persons with disabilities in Iran.

Iran Under Review by the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

The Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) was considering the  initial report submitted by Iran since its adoption of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2008. In its report, and its opening remarks to the Committee, Iran painted a rosy picture of its progress in removing obstacles and providing greater equality and support for persons with disabilities.

Even without digging beneath the surface, though, the language of those documents displayed a continuing view that persons with disabilities are lesser beings. The State reported as an accomplishment, for example, that premarital genetic testing is required for all couples in Iran “in order to prevent the birth of children with disabilities.”

It is difficult to assess thoroughly the status of human rights in Iran because of the lack of independent civil society or non-governmental organizations (NGOs, like The Advocates) working on the ground there. Instead, Iran has what are called “GONGOs,” for “government-organized non-governmental organizations.” GONGOs often purport to act as watchdogs, but in reality they are mechanisms of the State. Members of our group were actively pursued and questioned by an Iranian GONGO whose representatives were very interested in finding out what we planned to tell the CRPD.

 Persons with Disabilities and the Death Penalty 

Despite the difficulties, The Advocates were able to identify and report on several specific areas of concern.  They presented to the CRPD a shadow report that addressed issues related to the justice system. Iran provides no procedural safeguards in its death penalty process for individuals with intellectual or psychosocial disabilities. Those familiar with U.S. death penalty law know that there is a significant body of case law addressing the execution of defendants with such disabilities, including a number of Supreme Court decisions. The Advocates urged the CRPD to recommend that Iran suspend its death penalty for people with these disabilities, and take steps to ensure proper safeguards in future cases. While opposing the death penalty in all instances, The Advocates sought a recommendation that the law not provide lesser punishments for crimes against victims with disabilities.

Private Briefings and Public Hearings

I attended an interesting private briefing, during which The Advocates’ Amy Bergquist provided members of the CRPD with details on Iran’s use of amputation as a punishment for certain crimes, such as theft.  Examples were given of the amputation of fingers, hands or feet, and the use of chemical blinding.  The defendant may not have any disabilities when the sentence is given, but is left afterward with a disability imposed by the government. Since defendants are often poor and lack education, this likely leaves them with little ability to find work.  The stigma associated with this visible disability and its well-understood origin put the individual at a severe disadvantage for life.

I was also able to attend public hearings at which Iran’s delegation responded to a list of issues and concerns raised by the CRPD. Some of the questions touched on issues discussed at our earlier private briefing. Most of the answers were vague and circular, providing little in the way of actual facts and data, despite specific requests for these, or evidence of progress.  There was a great deal of talk about meetings, trainings, brochures and pamphlets, and more meetings, but seemingly little in the way of concrete results. Some CRPD members pointedly remarked on the lack of answers.

Outcomes and Lessons Learned

The outcomes of the process, the CRPD’s “concluding observations”  were published in April. I was pleased to see that the CRPD included concerns and recommendations on issues that had been raised by The Advocates, as well as on LGBT rights.  The CRPD’s stated concerns included “the enforcement of mutilation as a form of criminal sentence, and the stigmatization against persons who have impairment as a consequence of such punishment,” as raised in our private briefing.

The CRPD also noted that “persons with disabilities, particularly persons with psychosocial and/or intellectual disabilities may be at risk of facing a greater risk of death penalty due to lack of procedural accommodations, in criminal proceedings,” as addressed in The Advocates’ shadow report.

The CRPD also expressed concern about “discrimination against persons perceived to have a disability, including on the grounds of gender identity and sexual orientation, being forced to undergo medical treatment.”

One of the lessons of this work has been the need for and value of patience. UN treaty bodies like the CRPD can’t simply order a country to change its conduct. The language of international diplomacy sometimes seems, to a newcomer like me, less strong than it ought to be. But participants in the process understand expressions of “concern” to indicate that the requirements of the convention are, in the CRPD’s opinion, not being upheld. Accompanying recommendations for resolving these concerns will be the subject of thorough review in the future, and Iran will be required to account for its implementation of, or failure to implement them.

International scrutiny, and international pressure, can change the course of a country’s conduct as the flow of water erodes rock and changes a river’s course. The change is incremental, but real and lasting.

By Lisa Borden, Birmingham-based Pro Bono Shareholder at Baker Donelson where her own pro bono legal work focuses on representation of indigent death row inmates in post-conviction proceedings.  Ms. Borden volunteers with The Advocates for Human Rights’ International Justice Program and traveled to the United Nations in Geneva with The Advocates’ team in March 2017 and March 2015.