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.

Dignity for All: World Day Against the Death Penalty highlights detention conditions on death row

“The best way to ensure someone does not leave prison is to make him into the person he was prosecuted as.” – Damon Thibodeaux, exoneree who spent 15 years on Louisiana’s death row

Imagine living in a 8 by 10 foot room with a steel or concrete slab for a bed.  The door is solid steel and the food tray slot at the bottom offers the only source of contact with the rest of the world. These are the kinds of conditions that many death row inmates in the United States endure for 23 hours a day. The Advocates highlighting the brutal living conditions for people on death row at a Continuing Legal Education event on October 10, the 16th annual World Day Against the Death Penalty. The event was hosted at the law firm of Fredrikson & Byron. During this talk, speakers contrasted current conditions in U.S. prisons with the minimum standards set by the Nelson Mandela Rules. Their presentations highlighted the physical and psychological consequences of those conditions on people sentenced to death in the United States.

The Nelson Mandela Rules, formerly known as the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, outline prison standards with relation to disciplinary measures, legal representation, and medical treatment. Amy Bergquist, staff attorney at The Advocates and Vice- President of The World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, explained these rules and gave examples describing how they are seldom followed here in the United States and in other countries. For example, Rules 24-29 state that inmates have the right to access the same quality of healthcare that is available in the general community outside the prison. In many countries, including the U.S., healthcare for detained people is, however, grossly neglected in order to keep costs low. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ chief psychiatrist, close to 40% of inmates have mental illness while only 3% of them are being treated regularly. These services are typically provided only to inmates who had been diagnosed and were receiving treatment prior to their arrest, while people who develop symptoms or are diagnosed in prison are often overlooked.

When combining the substandard health care system in prisons with solitary confinement, prisoners are set up to play a self-fulfilling prophecy. Damon Thibodeaux, an exoneree who survived 15 years on Louisiana’s death row, described this degrading treatment during the World Day event.  He stated, “It is meant to break you down morally, mentally, and physically. It is meant to tear you down so they can paint you as the inhuman animal.” He detailed the unbearable heat in his small, unairconditioned cell during Louisiana summers, when the only way to cool off was to strip down and lie on the floor. Thibodeaux also described the communicable diseases that spread through the prison because of overcrowding. He explained that these diseases would often go untreated because inmates had to pay to see a healthcare provider and often faced long delays before receiving treatment.

Also speaking at the event was Lisa Borden, Baker Donelson’s Pro Bono Shareholder and an attorney who represents indigent death row inmates. Borden also described the prison conditions she has witnessed in the Alabama state prison system. She is currently representing detained clients in a class action lawsuit against the Alabama Department of Corrections. The district court found the mental health care services provided to prisoners are “horrendously inadequate”. One of the key problems, as Borden explained, is the privatization of healthcare in the prison system. Since the private health care providers are allocated a set amount of funding per person, they have an incentive to keep their costs low by using fewer resources.

Borden also shared the extreme conditions that prisoners who are not in solitary confinement routinely face. “Most facilities house 150-200% of the number of people for which they are designed.” These overcrowded conditions are worsened by staffing shortages, with some prisons having less than 40% of the recommended prison staff.  In addition, prisons in Alabama are old, with dilapidated structures.  Borden shared an account where a prisoner died in his cell after his neighboring cellmate reported his unresponsiveness. Due to the prison’s malfunctioning electronic locking system, the officers were not able to reach him until 30 minutes after they were notified.

This event highlighted the human rights violations faced by people sentenced to death, as well as by other detained individuals, in the United States. To learn more about living conditions on death row around the world, see http://www.worldcoalition.org/worldday.html

By Elshaday Yilma, Lutheran Volunteer Corps member and The Advocates’ International Justice Program Assistant

United States General Assembly. (2016). United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the Nelson Mandela Rules). Retrieved from https://www.unodc.org/documents/justice-and-prison-reform/GA-RESOLUTION/E_ebook.pdf

United States Department of Justice. (2017). Review of the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ Use of Restrictive Housing for Inmates with Mental Illness. Retrieved from https://oig.justice.gov/reports/2017/e1705.pdf

University of Texas School of Law Human Rights Clinic. (2017). Designed to Break You: Human Rights Violations on Texas’ Death Row. Retrieved from https://law.utexas.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/11/2017/04/2017-HRC-DesignedToBreakYou-Report.pdf

Remembering and Honoring Our Remarkable Friend and Advocate, Marlene Kayser

Marlene Kayser

 

 

“My travels with The Advocates began with a trip to Beijing, China, in 1995, for the United Nations’ Fourth World Conference on Women. Experiencing the hope, beauty, determination, and power of the women there inspired me. I came home committed to work even harder for women’s rights.” – Marlene Kayser

 

 

 

 

We have lost an amazing Advocates’ family member, Marlene Kayser. Marlene served on the board, co-chaired our Women’s Program advisory committee, and volunteered for more than 20 years. Volunteers are the lifeblood of the organization and no one exemplified this value more than Marlene. Starting with our delegation to the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China, Marlene set the gold standard for volunteers. That event was an extraordinary gathering of women from every corner of the world. One of our goals was to learn as much as we could about the global women’s human rights movement. Marlene was a master connector and networker. She helped us establish and foster relationships that are still an important part of our work today.

Marlene was a tireless advocate. She rolled up her sleeves and got the work done at the same time inspiring the rest of us to keep going. Marlene worked in countries transitioning to democracy after the fall of communism in Central and Eastern Europe. She worked with us in Bulgaria to document sexual harassment and workplace discrimination. On another trip we documented domestic violence and the government’s response in Macedonia. The resulting reports from this research were used in advocacy to pass important new laws and policies protecting women in both of these countries.

Marlene was masterful in sharing her own experience with advocacy, organizing and fundraising. She also shared creative ideas with the rest of us that improved all our training skills. She was part of laying the groundwork for the amazing network of activists in the region today.

For more than 20 years, Marlene has helped steer our fundraising efforts at The Advocates. No job was too big or too small. She modeled the successful house party organizing that we now use with all of our programs.

Marlene took on making the silent auction at our annual awards dinner world class. She had the unique gift of knowing exactly what will appeal to people of all ages. It came to be known that “Marlene is always right.” Her baskets and item selections always got the most or highest bids.

It is not enough to work hard, but as Marlene taught us, we have a lot to learn from those who have more experience and we need to respect that expertise.

We will miss Marlene dearly.

Remembering Our Friend and Advocate, Arvonne Fraser

Arvonne Fraser 2012

“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.

We will miss Arvonne dearly.

Read the Star Tribune article about Arvonne.

Morocco’s human rights record should threaten eligibility to host FIFA World Cup

fahrul-azmi-578025-unsplash.jpgPhoto by Fahrul Azmi at Unsplash

On April 16, 2018, five individuals landed unexpectedly at the airport in Casablanca, Morocco, looked around the terminal for an hour or so, and then left. The group was sent by FIFA to inspect Morocco’s airports, hotels, and soccer stadiums as part of the country’s bid to host the 2026 FIFA World Cup, the global soccer tournament held once every four years. Only Canada, Mexico, and USA had submitted a joint bid to rival Morocco’s, and initially the question was whether the small North African nation had the resources and basic infrastructure necessary to host such an enormous event. But, in the days since the task force’s arrival in Casablanca, FIFA’s attention has turned, appropriately, to Morocco’s record on human rights.

Today, The Advocates for Human Rights sent a letter to FIFA President Gianni Infantino alerting FIFA that Moroccan criminal law discriminates against women and does not guarantee a safe environment for all World Cup attendees regardless of gender. The Advocates’ letter calls upon FIFA to uphold its commitment to international human rights – particularly women’s rights to freedom from discrimination and violence – by declaring that, until Morocco’s discriminatory criminal laws are repealed and measures are taken to respond adequately to sexual violence, the country’s eligibility to host the 2026 World Cup is called into question.

Moroccan criminal laws discriminate against women

Current Moroccan laws criminalize all sexual relations outside of marriage. Police are known to harass unmarried lovers, breaking into private homes in the middle of the night and arresting individuals on charges of adultery.

Further, Moroccan laws create significant barriers to justice for women who have been raped. For example, in cases of sexual assault and rape, Moroccan law continues to require that victims prove non-consent by showing actual physical injuries resulting from the act of violence, and ignores the act of violence itself. Moreover, rape victims are deterred from seeking help out of fear of prosecution for illicit sexual relations outside of marriage under articles 490 and 491 of the Moroccan Penal Code. And violence against women is a widespread problem in Morocco: 62.8 percent of women report some form of violence within a given one-year period; an estimated 23 percent of women experience sexual violence at some point in their lifetime.

The Advocates’ letter presses FIFA to further examine Morocco’s bid to host the 2026 FIFA World Cup and to engage in dialogue with national representatives toward solutions. Such discriminatory laws create disincentives to all fans – foreign and Moroccan – to attend World Cup matches and festivities. Moreover, the laws create disincentives to female fans in particular to attend because of the threat of gender-based violence. The resulting low attendance may have a direct, negative impact on the World Cup itself, both in ticket sales and in attendance at games and related World Cup events.

Other advocacy groups have noted that Moroccan criminal laws also discriminate on basis of sexual orientation. Morocco failed to disclose its anti-LGBT laws in its bidding materials, in violation of FIFA rules. In response, this week FIFA sent a second technical committee to Morocco to look into human rights concerns, in addition to infrastructure issues.

FIFA’s own human rights record

Stated simply, Morocco’s criminal laws are incompatible with international human rights standards and with FIFA’s Human Rights Policy. That a second, unplanned FIFA technical committee returned to Morocco this week, specifically to look into human rights concerns, suggests that FIFA is taking seriously its commitment to international human rights.

In 2017, FIFA adopted a new, landmark Human Rights Policy, while also creating a Human Rights Advisory Board to guide its implementation. Among other things, FIFA’s Human Rights Policy effectuates article 4 of FIFA Statutes, which prohibits discrimination of any kind, by requiring that future bids to host the FIFA World Cup are vetted against international human rights standards.

FIFA’s return to Morocco also suggests a sea change in FIFA policy and practice. In June, the 2018 FIFA World Cup will be held in Russia, a country known for anti-LGBT laws of its own, among other human rights concerns. Similarly, the 2022 FIFA World Cup will be held in Qatar, where there are serious concerns about labor trafficking in the country’s efforts to build the stadiums and other infrastructure necessary to host the event. Because of the overwhelming criticism from international human rights groups and others for its overt disregard for human rights abuses in connection to FIFA-sanctioned events, in 2015, FIFA engaged in a process to review and possibly overhaul its policies and business practices.

Whether that review has transformed the organization remains to be seen. But FIFA’s Human Rights Policy was adopted in the wake of that review, and such policy forms the basis for the added scrutiny over Morocco’s 2026 World Cup bid – clear evidence that the advocacy efforts of international human rights groups, like The Advocates for Human Rights, can leverage the private sector to shift national laws and public policy.

Conclusion

FIFA, like many private industries, believes that its product – soccer – has the power to change the world. At a March conference, FIFA President Infantino stated that the global sport has immense “strength” that can be used as “a force for good.” As The Advocates noted in today’s letter to President Infantino, although such statements carry great promise, to have meaning FIFA must act on them. The question is whether FIFA holds firm to its commitment to international human rights – particularly women’s rights to freedom from discrimination and violence – by engaging with Morocco’s national representatives to improve its World Cup bid. In turn, Morocco will have ample incentive to repeal its discriminatory laws and enact new protections for women.

Whether Morocco is awarded the 2026 FIFA World Cup will be decided by the FIFA Council on June 13, 2018.

By Jon Mosher, Spring 2018 PHRGE Fellow, Northeastern University School of Law 2018. Jon is currently a fellow with The Advocates’ International Justice Program. 

Jenna goes to the United Nations

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Thanks to The Advocates for Human Rights, I just had the opportunity to take my interest in human rights work— and particularly my longstanding advocacy work on gender violence issues— to the United Nations in Geneva. Along with 11 others, including representatives from NGOs in Cameroon and Azerbaijan, I participated in The Advocates’ annual UN Study Advocacy trip, where we spent five days in Geneva at the 37th Session of the Human Rights Council lobbying Human Rights Council members on gender violence, LGBTQ and death penalty issues. Even though I am just 17, during the week The Advocates ensured that I was not just a passive observer to their work – rather, they allowed me the opportunity to play an active role providing me with an opportunity to be an advocate at the international level.

On my first full day in Geneva, I got the opportunity to participate in a side event panel on Violence Against Women. I was honored to speak alongside experts in the field in women’s rights and gender violence, who addressed the issue of gender violence in Azerbaijan, Columbia and Russia. My presentation focused on gender violence at the high school level, an often overlooked issue. I spoke about, among other things, the need to change the dynamic and educate children at a young age about the meaning of consent. My hope is that by early education we might be able to dissipate the prevalence of gender violence in the community at large.

As if that wasn’t enough excitement, the next day I actually got to make an oral statement to the Human Rights Council — on the floor of the United Nations — on the implementation of the Vienna Declaration. The Vienna Declaration emphasizes the importance of eliminating “gender bias in the administration of justice.” In my statement, I spoke about the importance of criminal laws in combating violence against women and the need for UN member states to adopt laws in line with international standards to protect victim safety and promote offender accountability. I am glad I can speak quickly – as, during this particular session, each NGO had 90 seconds to speak. They actually cut you off if you go over your time. I think the man sitting next to me was a bit surprised to see someone so young sitting in the NGO speaker seat.

On days following, I got the opportunity to participate in small meetings with staff members of the Special Rapporteur on human trafficking in persons, especially in women and children and the Special Rapporteur on violence against women. We got to learn about their priorities for the coming year and some of the amazing work they have been doing. The representatives of the Special Rapporteurs truly seemed interested in the work of The Advocates and solicited examples of best practices as well as assistance in their ongoing work.

I also got to lobby. One of the primary reasons The Advocates attends the Human Rights Council sessions is to encourage delegates to comment during the Universal Periodic Review process – which involves a periodic review of the human rights records of all 193 UN Member States. It is done in cycles so every country is not up for review at once. During the UPR process there is an opportunity for any government to raise questions and make recommendations about any other government’s human rights compliance. Before the trip, The Advocates did extensive research regarding the human rights record of several countries up for their UPR — Azerbaijan, Cameroon, Colombia, Cuba, and Russia – and prepared recommendations on ways those countries could make improvement on issues including women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, and the death penalty. With those recommendations in hand, along with other members of our team, I got to approach delegates encouraging them to meet with us to discuss The Advocates’ recommendations – and, if they didn’t want to meet, giving them prepared fact sheets on the various issues. While at first I was afraid to approach some of the delegates (you literally go into the Human Rights Council chamber and tap people on the shoulder and ask them to speak with you), I was excited to see how receptive people were to speak with us. I understand that in the past, many delegates have not only adopted The Advocates suggested recommendations but also that the recommendations were ultimately accepted by the countries under review.

I also had the opportunity to watch the Human Rights Council debates. I got to hear a representative from Hungary declare that migration was not a fundamental human right and hear a delegate from Cuba call out US hypocrisy on issues of civil and human rights. More importantly, I got to watch in action a body of international players trying to hold countries accountable for human rights violations – asking questions and making proposals. It was amazing to see individual countries human rights records being held up to public scrutiny. I loved the fact that UNTV televises the debates, so that the discussions are readily accessible throughout the world.

Finally, I got to watch The Advocates staff in action – creating a team out of a group with disparate skill sets and expertise. Robin, Jennifer, Rose and Amy willingly shared their expertise, helping us all to become better advocates. I have a new found understanding of the importance of their work – and the influence they have at the international level. I will be forever grateful for this experience from which I learned so much not only from watching the UN in action but also from the members of the team who were incredibly kind and supportive. And, in case any of the team members are interested, I did get my AP American History paper on the Chinese Exclusion Act done in time (although the last night of our trip was a very long night).

By The Advocates for Human Rights’ youth blogger Jenna Schulman.  Jenna is a high school  student in Washington, D.C.