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Turkey in Danger of Returning to the Death Penalty

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Photo by Engin Akyurt on Pexels.com

On the heels of the July 2016 attempted coup, Turkish officials expressed their intention to reinstate the death penalty for “child killers” and terrorists. The Deputy of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) threatened that the government would introduce a bill calling for the execution of rebel soldiers involved in the coup. President Erdogan stated that he would approve any legislation brought forth by the government to restore the death penalty. The following month, far-right leader of the Great Unity Party, Mustafa Destici, announced that a proposal to reinstate the death penalty would be introduced to Turkey’s parliament in October of that year.

Turkey abolished the death penalty in 2004 and made abolition permanent in March 2006 when it ratified the 2nd Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (OP2-ICCPR). The Protocol states that “[n]o one within the jurisdiction of a State Party to the present Protocol shall be executed” and “[e]ach State Party shall take all necessary measures to abolish the death penalty within its jurisdiction.” OP2-ICCPR does not authorize a State Party to subsequently withdraw ratification.

Reinstating the death penalty contradicts Turkey’s obligation to abolish capital punishment as a State Party to OP2-ICCPR. What’s deeply troubling is not just that Turkey would renege on its international human rights obligations and resume the use of a cruel and dehumanizing penalty, but that the Turkish government has major motivation to do so in an effort to silence its political opposition and marginalized groups.

Remember how Turkish officials pushed to assign the death penalty specifically to “terrorists” in the wake of the attempted coup in 2016? Terrorist, in this context, seems to be code for dissident. Since 2016, the Turkish Government has used counter-terrorism efforts as a means of cracking down on political opposition. Charges of “terrorism,” “terrorist sympathy,” and “terrorist propaganda” are levied against journalists, academics, and activists who oppose the Turkish Government’s actions and policies. In addition to stifling opposition voices, the government regularly uses charges of terrorism to further persecute the already vulnerable Kurdish community. The Turkish government has historically targeted the Kurdish people; Turkish nationalism promotes both the assimilation and the elimination of non-Turkish minority groups, such as Kurds and Armenians.

In the defense of human rights, it is critical that we say the quiet part out loud: if Turkey reinstates the death penalty under the pretext of using it as a means to combat vaguely defined “terrorism,” Turkish authorities will wield it unjustly to permanently rid Turkish authorities of political opponents. As Turkey’s government institutions are characterized by weak separation of powers, compromising the independence of the judiciary, reinstatement of the death penalty would place even more power in the hands of the executive branch. Reinstatement of the death penalty is a threat not only to journalists and human rights defenders, but also to the Kurdish community, which already faces ethnically motivated persecution and violence at the hands of the Turkish state.

The Advocates for Human Rights frequently collaborates with the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, serving on its Steering Committee and leading the Coalition’s advocacy at the United Nations. The UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) is a mechanism during which each nation reports on the state of human rights within its jurisdiction and receives recommendations from its peers—other nations around the world. It is an opportunity for The Advocates and other civil society organizations to lobby UN member states on issues like the death penalty. Often we urge governments to adopt best practices and ratify treaties, usually in response to reports of human rights violations.

Turkey’s third UPR is scheduled for January 28, 2020. Turkey has signed and ratified the relevant treaties, the death penalty has been struck from the law. To defend the Turkish people’s right to life, freedom of opinion, and freedom of expression, The Advocates will lobby governments to press the Turkish Government to make further commitments to uphold the country’s international human rights obligations.

As an intern in the International Justice Program at The Advocates for Human Rights, my work focuses on preparing for and evaluating the success of our lobbying efforts at the UN. Researching the death penalty in Turkey feels like a departure from the norm; past lobbying efforts have been successful and the death penalty was abolished officially, and yet the threat remains. In instances like these, The Advocates and its partners recognize how vital it is to act and advocate proactively to prevent future human rights violations. It is a reminder that even in countries and regions where we can celebrate progress, the protection and maintenance of human rights is ongoing and critical work, whether across the globe or in our own backyards.

You have the power to take action in the face of human rights violations. Learn what you can do to assist The Advocates for Human Rights in our work here. Learn more about our work to end the death penalty here.

By Grace Curtiss, rising junior at the University of Minnesota and summer 2019 intern with The Advocates’ International Justice Program. 

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Capital punishment: victims and their families deserve better

WDADP 2019 posterIn announcing the Justice Department’s decision to resume executions for people sentenced to death under federal law last Thursday, Attorney General William Barr said, “We owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system.”

Barr’s words reflect a common misunderstanding about justice and the interests of family members of people who have been killed in horrific crimes.

People often assume that after execution, family members will be able to “move on” or achieve some kind of “closure.” But not all family members share those sentiments. Research confirms that often after the execution family members realize that state-sanctioned killing did not bring them peace. In fact, prosecutors and officials like Barr who want to seem “tough on crime” too often use victims and their family members as pawns.

Tsarnaev jurors kept in the dark about family members’ wishes

One of the people most recently sentenced to death under federal law was Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who was convicted of crimes related to the Boston Marathon bombing. Bill and Denise Richard, whose 8-year-old son Martin was one of three people killed near the finish line, had urged federal authorities not to pursue the death penalty for Tsarnaev:

We know that the government has its reasons for seeking the death penalty, but the continued pursuit of that punishment could bring years of appeals and prolong reliving the most painful day of our lives. We hope our two remaining children do not have to grow up with the lingering, painful reminder of what the defendant took from them, which years of appeals would undoubtedly bring.

For us, the story of Marathon Monday 2013 should not be defined by the actions or beliefs of the defendant, but by the resiliency of the human spirit and the rallying cries of this great city. We can never replace what was taken from us, but we can continue to get up every morning and fight another day. As long as the defendant is in the spotlight, we have no choice but to live a story told on his terms, not ours. The minute the defendant fades from our newspapers and TV screens is the minute we begin the process of rebuilding our lives and our family.

The sister of police officer Sean Collier, another person Tsarnaev and his brother killed, also spoke out against the death penalty, as did two people who lost limbs in the bombing.

Yet despite these sentiments, prosecutors kept the Tsarnaev jury in the dark. When Bill Richard delivered his victim impact statement to the jury, he was not allowed to disclose his opposition to the death penalty.

Prosecutors not only benefit from but also perpetuate the misplaced assumption that all family members of victims want the death penalty. At least one juror in the Tsarnaev trial, Kevan Fagan, said knowing the Richards’ views probably would have changed his vote at the sentencing phase.

Victims’ families are organizing against the death penalty

Victims’ family members like Bill and Denise Richard who oppose the death penalty are often marginalized and mistreated in the criminal justice system. Renny Cushing, who opposed the death penalty long before his father’s murder, recognized that the structures that are designed to benefit victims and survivors are often reserved for people who support capital punishment:

These hard-won benefits are too often unavailable to victims if they oppose the death penalty. Whether this is because victim’s advocacy offices operate under the auspices of the prosecutor or because an assumption exists among advocates that all family members of murder victims will want the perpetrator executed, the result is the same. Too often, family members who oppose the death penalty are silenced, marginalized, and abandoned, even by the people who are theoretically charged with helping them.

(Earlier this year Cushing, who now serves in the New Hampshire legislature, successfully pushed for that state’s repeal of the death penalty.)

Several organizations organized by and for the families of murder victims are speaking out against the death penalty. Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights, an organization of victims’ family members who oppose the death penalty, has a mission to challenge the assumption that all families of murder victims support the death penalty. MVFHR plays an important role in educating the public and amplifying the voices of victims’ family members who oppose the death penalty, and its website includes a gallery of stories from victims’ family members who oppose the death penalty. Similarly, murder victim family members lead an organization called Journey of Hope . . . From Violence to Healing, a group that conducts public education speaking tours to address alternatives to the death penalty.  They testify side by side with family members of people on death row, family members of people who have been executed, and people who have been exonerated from death row.

Victims’ family members are better off without the death penalty

The President of Journey of Hope, Bill Pelke, co-founded the organization after four teenage girls murdered his grandmother. Pelke originally supported the death penalty for Paula Cooper, who was characterized as the girls’ ring-leader. But he “went through a spiritual transformation in 1986 after praying for love and compassion for Paula Cooper and her family.” He then championed an international crusade and ultimately helped get Cooper’s sentence commuted from death to sixty years in prison. In Pelke’s words, “The death penalty has absolutely nothing to do with healing. [It] just continues the cycle of violence and creates more murder victims family members. We become what we hate.  We become killers.” Research backs up his words.

Dr. Marilyn Armour at the University of Texas and Dr. Mark Umbreit at the University of Minnesota conducted research comparing outcomes for family members of murder victims in Minnesota (which does not have the death penalty) and Texas (which does). Their interviews with family members of murder victims demonstrated that the death penalty results in more negative outcomes:

Although the [death penalty] is promulgated as the ultimate justice, this Study found that the critical dynamic was the control survivors felt they had over the process of getting to the end. In Minnesota, survivors had greater control, likely because the appeals process was successful, predictable, and completed within two years after conviction; whereas, the finality of the appeals process in Texas was drawn out, elusive, delayed, and unpredictable. It generated layers of injustice, powerlessness, and in some instances, despair. Although the grief and sorrow remained high for Minnesotans, no longer having to deal with the murderer, his outcome, or the criminal justice system allowed survivors’ control and energy to be put into the present to be used for personal healing.

These conclusions echo and reinforce the reasons the Richards gave in asking that prosecutors not seek the death penalty for Tsarnaev.

A University of Minnesota study found that just 2.5% of family members reported achieving closure after the execution of the perpetrator, while 20.1% said the execution did not help them heal. Lula Redmond, a therapist who works with victims’ family members in Florida, observed: “More often than not, families of murder victims do not experience the relief they expected to feel at the execution. Taking a life doesn’t fill that void, but it’s generally not until after the execution that families realize this.”

Family members of murder victims deserve support and assistance.

As studies confirm, capital punishment is no panacea to “heal” family members of murder victims. Rather, true healing comes through support, assistance, and restorative justice. Instead of plowing scarce federal and state funds into costly death penalty cases, we would better spend our dollars on improving the scope and quality of victim services. Victoria Coward, whose son Tyler was murdered in 2007, remarked:

If we are serious about helping surviving victims — all of us — we need to see the bigger picture. The bigger picture is that the death penalty is given in fewer than 1 percent of cases, yet it sucks up millions and millions of dollars that could be put toward crime prevention or victims’ services. What I wouldn’t give for a tiny slice of those millions to give my grieving daughters some professional help to process the death of their brother.

Take action

On July 25, the same day as Barr’s announcement, Representative Ayanna Pressley introduced H.R. 4052, a bill to prohibit imposition of the death penalty for any violation of federal law. The bill currently has 12 cosponsors, including independent Rep. Justin Amash.

In introducing the bill, Rep. Pressley said, “It was wrong then and it’s wrong now and I am proud to introduce a bill that completely abolishes the use of capital punishment as a punitive measure. The cruelty is the point – this is by design.”

Encourage your Representative in Washington to cosponsor H.R. 4052 and contact your Senators and ask them to sponsor a companion bill in the Senate. If you live in a state that still has the death penalty, invite speakers from MVFHR, Journey of Hope, or Witness to Innocence to meet with your state elected officials.

The Advocates for Human Rights is proud to join with Journey of Hope, MVFHR, and Witness to Innocence as a member of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty. Learn more about our work to abolish the death penalty here.

By Amy Bergquist. Amy is a Senior Staff Attorney with the International Justice Program at The Advocates for Human Rights and she currently serves as Vice President of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty.

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Domestic Violence in Bosnia and Herzegovina: Bringing the Issue to the UN

UPR cycle
Illustration of the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review Process from The Advocates’ resource Human Rights Tools for a Changing World: A Step-by-step Guide to Human Rights Fact-finding, Documentation, and Advocacy

The UN Human Rights Council provides opportunities for non-governmental organizations to pursue human rights advocacy at the UN level through the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), a process for reviewing the human rights records of States. Before the start of a particular country’s review, non-governmental organizations can submit a “stakeholder report” to the Council about the overall human rights situation or focusing on a specific issue in the country, relying on desk research and firsthand information.

Reporting on domestic violence in Bosnia and Herzegovina

As an International Justice intern with The Advocates for Human Rights, I had the opportunity to work on the organization’s UPR stakeholder report about domestic violence in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In my research, I focused on understanding victims’ experiences with key institutions that provide support for victims of domestic violence, such as centers for social work, courts, police, and safe houses. I found out that victims lack access to resources due to insufficient funding, poor multi-sectoral collaboration, and inadequate responses from some of the key actors mentioned above.

Based on this research, I assisted with compiling a report that The Advocates and our local partner Ženski Centar Trebinje submitted to the Human Right Council in March 2019 for the UPR of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which will take place in November 2019. Apart from shedding light on the issues that victims of domestic violence in Bosnia and Herzegovina face, our report put forth recommendations for the Government of Bosnia and Herzegovina to improve its responses to domestic violence. You may find the report here.

A meaningful way to get involved with issues in my home country

Being from Bosnia and Herzegovina, I really appreciated the opportunity to get involved with this report. As much as I am grateful for my education in the United States, I wish that I could get physically involved with social movements and activism in my home country. While I was working on this report, my city held a protest because the Center for Social Work did not adequately respond to a domestic violence case perpetrated by a father against his daughters. Their mother issued a plea via Facebook, sharing how unsupported she felt by the institutions whose sole responsibility was to protect her daughters. Hearing her story made it even more important to engage with the issue of domestic violence.

Although I was not able to protest, I could at least voice her concerns in our report. By translating her story and bringing it to a space devoted to human rights, I made it possible for the relevant international actors to hear her story. To me, The Advocates’ work implies carrying messages from the local actors to international institutions, bridging the physical distance between the two, overcoming language barriers if there are any, and navigating the bureaucratic nature of international institutions.

Looking forward

While I cannot guarantee that delivering her message will have an impact on the case, nor that this report will eliminate domestic violence in Bosnia and Herzegovina overnight, I recognize that advocacy at the UN, as a well-established mechanism, is a useful first step. It serves as a platform to raise awareness about issues and put pressure on government officials to implement the suggested solutions. Based on the recommendations from the 2014 UPR cycle Bosnia and Herzegovina established free legal aid clinics, but yet has to implement many more recommendations.

As part of the UPR process, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s government delegation and UN member countries will engage in an interactive dialogue this November. Often, countries raise questions and suggest solutions based on stakeholder reports. I hope that they will voice the concerns that we included in the report and make a formal expectation for the Government of Bosnia and Herzegovina to implement our recommendations, as important steps toward the elimination of domestic violence.

By Ana Gvozdić, a rising junior at Macalester College studying Political Science and Environmental Studies.  She was a spring 2019 intern with The Advocates’ International Justice Program.

To learn more about advocacy, check out The Advocates’ manual Human Rights Tools for a Changing World: A Step-by-step Guide to Human Rights Fact-finding, Documentation, and Advocacy”, and especially Chapter 9, which focuses on Advocacy at the United Nations.

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Eritrea and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights: A Step-By-Step Guide to United Nations Advocacy

Eritrea
The Government delegation from Eritrea at the 125th Session of the UN Human Rights Committee in Geneva, Switzerland on 12 Mar 2019 [photo credit: UN Web TV]

Eritrea, a Sub-Saharan African country nestled between Sudan and Ethiopia with roughly the same size and population of Minnesota, is the center of alarming human rights abuses. Despite ratifying its Constitution in 1997, the government has not implemented that framework and instead retains a one-party dictatorship. The president, Isaias Afwerki, and his security apparatus have disregarded civil liberties and basic human rights, arbitrarily detaining people, holding detainees without due process and in inhuman conditions, mandating national service, and applying systematic torture both in prisons and national service facilities. Members of non-authorized religions face persecution.

In the face of grave human rights abuses, civil society has a powerful weapon: The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). A State Party to the treaty since 2002, Eritrea is bound to its reporting and accountability measures. As an NGO with special consultative status with the United Nations, The Advocates for Human Rights works with U.N. mechanisms to hold States accountable for wrong-doing. And at the 125th Session of the Human Rights Committee, The Advocates did just that.

Introduction to the ICCPR Review Process

The first three steps in the ICCPR review process take place before the parties meet in Geneva. First, the State Party submits its report to the Committee. Eritrea failed to submit its report to the Committee, so it was more important than usual for civil society stakeholder reports to give a full picture of human rights in the country. Second, the Committee prepares a list of issues and questions for the State Party to consider. Third, members of civil society—referred to as “stakeholders”—compile reports of the country’s progress and failures in improving the state of civil and political rights since the previous review. Compiling information from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the U.S. Department of State, recent U.N. investigations, and interviews with clients seeking asylum from Eritrea, The Advocates made sure that the Committee knew what the Eritrean Government was doing.

The primary accounts provided by our clients are some of the most important aspects of any report we submit to the United Nations. First, staff and interns in our Refugee and Immigrant Program interview asylum clients, detailing their experiences with human rights violations in their country of origin. When that country comes up for review at the U.N. Human Rights Committee, our International Justice Program staff and interns identify patterns in the client files that help describe the human rights situation. These unique experiences inform a more complete understanding of the State Party under review. We include that information in our report after receiving explicit permission from the clients in question. These client interviews confirm and illustrate the information that secondary reports provide about the State Party’s human rights practices.

Recommendations and Constructive Dialogue

In response to the bleak state of civil and political rights in Eritrea, The Advocates also suggested recommendations for the Committee to present to the State Party in order to improve its human rights practices. The Advocates makes several recommendations, such as to allow international observers to monitor the condition of Eritrean detention centers, to narrow the scope of the death penalty in the Penal Code, and to eliminate the registration process that creates “non-authorized” religions.

After receiving reports from civil society and the State Party, the Committee engages in a constructive dialogue with the State Party. During the dialogue, Committee members recognize the progress the State Party has made and recommend improvements and reforms for the State Party to adopt.

To watch the full constructive dialogue between the Human Rights Committee and the Government of Eritrea, click here.

During the review of the State Party, NGOs such as The Advocates can take several actions to promote their reports and recommendations. They can make oral interventions before the examination, participate in informal briefings with Committee members, and circulate shorter versions of their reports—one pagers—that highlight the most important points.

Concluding Observations

After State Party and stakeholders have had their say, the Committee compiles and releases its Concluding Observations on next steps that the State Party should take to improve its human rights practices. In the case of Eritrea, the Committee’s report adopted many of The Advocates’ conclusions and recommendations for:

  • holding human rights abusers accountable;
  • ending arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, and the use of torture;
  • improving detention conditions;
  • ending severe—sometimes lethal—restrictions on freedom of movement;
  • improving conditions in national service, shortening the length of national service, creating alternatives for conscientious objectors, and ending the placement of minors in national service; and
  • guaranteeing freedom of religion.

With the report of the Human Rights Committee in hand, it is once again the duty of civil society to hold the government accountable and pressure Eritrean leaders to implement these recommendations. In the meantime, The Advocates will continue to offer asylum assistance to Eritreans fleeing the ongoing human rights violations.

To read our full report on Eritrea, click here.

To learn more about advocacy at the United Nations, read Chapter 9 of The Advocates’ groundbreaking publication, Human Rights Tools for a Changing World: A Step-by-step Guide to Human Rights Fact-finding, Documentation, and Advocacy.

To support our mission of advancing global human rights, consider volunteering with The Advocates.

Watch our volunteer, Olivia Leyba, testify at the U.N. Human Rights Council about Eritrea’s human rights practices.

 

By Benjamin Allard, International Justice Program intern and 2019 graduate of the University of Minnesota, where he majored in Political Science and Asian Languages & Literature. 

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Advocates for Indigenous and Minority Rights

Samone with Marcia Kran HRComm member
Samone Khouangsathiene from the Tai Studies Center briefed the UN Human Rights Committee on indigenous rights in Vietnam

The Advocates for Human Rights recently sent a delegation to the United Nations Office at Geneva. In addition to staff and volunteers, our delegation included representatives of partner organizations advocating for indigenous and minority rights.  The Advocates  partnered with The Tai Studies Center to draw attention to the discrimination and violence experienced by the Tai indigenous people in Vietnam.  With diaspora-based United Oromo Voices, The Advocates submitted a report on ethnic minorities in Ethiopia for consideration as part of Ethiopia’s Universal Periodic Review by the UN Human Rights Council.

While in Geneva, our delegation participated in the discussion around the Special Rapporteur on Minority Rights’ report to the UN Human Rights Council. The agenda for this meeting was focused on the Special Rapporteur’s country visits this past year to Botswana and Slovenia, and the issues minorities face there. The Advocates highlighted for the Special Rapporteur and the Council members that minorities face similar issues in Vietnam and Ethiopia.  As a non-governmental organization with Special Consultative status, The Advocates can participate in interactive dialogues by making oral statements at the Human Rights Council. These two-minute statements are our opportunity to share our concerns with the Council, and they are recorded and published afterward on the UN website. Nagessa Dube from United Oromo Voices made the oral statement on behalf of The Advocates for Human Rights.

As an intern, I helped draft the oral statement on minority rights. Through the drafting process, I had the opportunity to learn more about the obstacles and harassment encountered by indigenous and ethnic minorities within these countries. Although these human rights issues are ongoing and The Advocates continues to receive reports of abuses from our clients, they are often forgotten by global media attention.

Here’s what we must continue to pay attention to:

In Vietnam, the government refuses to acknowledge the Tai people’s indigenous status and right to self-determination. Along with other local indigenous groups, they face barriers to land management and the state denies them adequate compensation for the resulting damage to their livelihoods. They struggle against cycles of poverty, discrimination from the majority community, and limited access to public services, electricity, and water. The Vietnamese government continues to confiscate land from indigenous groups; the Tai and other groups’ lands in Highlands’ villages have been confiscated without full compensation for state economic development projects. The government arbitrarily detains and disappears members of indigenous groups, and suppresses protesters by using national security provisions to claim that potential ties of indigenous groups to organizations abroad promote so-called “separatist aims.”

In Ethiopia, the state has continually subjected members of the minority Ogaden and Oromo communities to the arbitrary confiscation of land and ethnic persecution since the beginning of Ethiopian rule over the Somali region in 1948. In November 2015, large scale protests began in Oromia in opposition to the Addis Ababa Master Plan, which intended to forcibly displace the minority Oromos from their homes in favor of expansion of the territory of the capital city. Various Advocates clients interviewed reported that many Oromo people were injured and killed during the 2015 Irreechaa protests after security forces fired into crowds. Many of those who survived the massacre were taken into government custody. The Government of Ethiopia continues to subject minority populations to violence and arbitrary arrests.

Partners presenting at side event at UN in Geneva

I was excited to watch the delegation present our concerns to the Special Rapporteur in Geneva over the UN WebTV from my Minneapolis desk. It was rewarding to know that for those two minutes, our advocacy held the attention of the Special Rapporteur and the entire Human Rights Council. Afterward, the delegation facilitated a side event for both Vietnam and Ethiopia minority rights. The side event allowed both representatives more time to educate and advocate for the issues that minorities in these countries face.  Furthermore, it allowed representatives of many minority groups to build solidarity, highlighting the similarities of indigenous minority struggles all across the world.

I talked to The Advocates’ partners who participated in the delegation about their experiences advocating for indigenous and minority rights at the United Nations.

Samone Khouangsathiene with The Tai Studies Center reflected that “regardless of which country or which indigenous group we are from, we all have similar human rights violations occurring.  Indigenous people are being marginalized and even decimated by ruling governments around the world.” However, by the end of the event she left with a sense of hope:

Through my attendance I put Tai Dam concerns front and center not only to the Human Rights Committee but to the Vietnamese delegation.  This “face to face” showed the delegation that the Tai Dam backed by the UN holds the government accountable.  The Tai Dam are no longer voiceless.

Nagessa Dube from United Oromo Voices had a similar perspective. He appreciated the opportunity to develop connections and build relationships with different advocates and organizations in attendance. He hopes that the outcome of his time in Geneva will encourage the government of Ethiopia to listen to the recommendations of The Advocates by halting human rights violations against indigenous communities and committing to reparations for past damages.

By Alison Brady, Macalester College Class of 2019 and spring 2019 intern with The Advocates’ International Justice Program. 

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

90th anniverario

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

A history of opposition

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

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

Commemorating 90 years of abolition

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

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

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

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

The Juan Pedro Vidal case sheds light on these tensions

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

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

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

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

The principle of consent of the governed

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

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

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

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

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

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

Worrying trends under the Trump Administration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Briefing the UN Human Rights Council on Burundi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you.

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