Collaborate with The Advocates for Human Rights!

Intern Rachel with partner brochures

As an organization that promotes human rights on a global scale, collaborative partnership is integral to the work of The Advocates. One way The Advocates partners with other nongovernmental organizations is through producing joint submissions to the United Nations on violence against women, use of the death penalty, and LGBTI rights, among other topics. The Advocates also collaborates with multiple diaspora communities in the United States. For example, The Advocates partnered with the Oromo diaspora to create a report that documented experiences of community members that have faced human rights violations throughout three political regimes in Ethiopia.

The Advocates encourages other communities and organizations interested in collaborating to connect with us at any time. The Advocates recently created some materials to make it easier for organizations that want to collaborate to initially reach out.

The Collaboration Request Form aims to increase effective outreach and make the process of asking to partner with The Advocates more accessible. Organizations and communities that want to learn more about opportunities to work jointly with The Advocates are welcome to fill out the form. The form asks organizations to provide information about the timing of the proposed collaboration, goals and needed resources, and specific issue-area(s) of focus for the partnership.

In addition, The Advocates is currently creating a series of brochures and will share these materials at conferences, committee meetings, and other events that representatives of prospective partner organizations may attend. These documents provide information about the mission and work of The Advocates, and concrete steps to become involved. These brochures identify opportunities to connect and provide a direct link to the Collaboration Request Form.

Partner with The Advocates Brochures

Together, the Collaboration Request Form and the brochures create more opportunities for consistent, structured, and accessible outreach to other organizations, communities, and individuals who are committed to the mission of protecting human rights. In turn, The Advocates can more efficiently organize responses and follow-ups with interested organizations.

The Advocates’ model is collaborative and inclusive. The Advocates provides many different opportunities for partnership. For collaborative projects, partner organizations identify their own priorities, and The Advocates provides them with technical assistance and capacity building to support their work. The Advocates supports organizations by providing customized trainings and workshops (both in-person and web-based), assisting with fact-finding and reporting on a variety of human rights issue-areas, and offering pro-bono legal assistance to support capacity-building for partner organizations.

Through working on the Collaboration Request Form during my internship this spring, I learned that building effective partnerships is a long-term process and providing consistent opportunities for collaboration is essential for human rights work. I hope my work will lay the foundation for many new organizations to partner with The Advocates.

Interested in finding out more information about partnering with The Advocates for Human Rights? Click here.

By Rachel Stromsta, a Macalester student majoring in Political Science and Human Rights & Humanitarism and a 2019 intern with The Advocates for Human Rights’ International Justice Program.

 

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Seeing signs of progress for LGBTI rights in Côte d’Ivoire

Philippe from Alternative Côte d’Ivoire standing in front of the flags at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

Today is the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia, or IDAHOT. Today at The Advocates we take stock of our progress over the past year to advance LGBTI rights and what lies ahead.

One highlight of the past year was working with Alternative Côte d’Ivoire https://www.facebook.com/alternativeci.infosbranches, an Ivoirian non-governmental organization committed to the fight for the rights of sexual minorities and to combatting HIV/AIDS. We first connected with Alternative CI after they prepared a stakeholder report for the 3rd Universal Periodic Review of Cote d’Ivoire. They were eager to learn what they should do with the report.

Lobbying at the United Nations

Starting in November 2018, we collaborated with Alternative CI to condense their report into a “one-pager” to use for lobbing, identified dozens of countries to target for our lobbying efforts, and provided them with advice about approaching embassies in Abidjan to seek their support.

In March, Philippe from Alternative CI was able to join us and our team of volunteers in Geneva to continue that advocacy. He participated in our half-day training and then hit the ground running, reaching out to delegates to the UN Human Rights Council and participating in meetings to share what is happening on the ground in the country.

As Alternative CI highlighted in its stakeholder report, even though LGBT status or conduct is not criminalized, people face discrimination and violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity. This violence and discrimination comes from private parties as well as officials, including police officers and health care workers.

Philippe joined our partners from United Oromo Voices and Human Rights in Democracy Center (Albania) to present in a parallel event during the Council session. Several government representatives attended the event to learn more about the types of recommendations Alternative Côte d’Ivoire would like them to make during the UPR’s interactive dialogue.

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Philippe from Alternative Côte d’Ivoire examines the team’s color-coded notecards to determine which countries he should reach out to on the floor of the Human Rights Council

Hard work pays off

Just last week, we had the chance to witness the fruits of Philippe’s hard work. The Council held its interactive dialogue with representatives of the government of Côte d’Ivoire on Tuesday, May 7. During the interactive dialogue, 101 countries offered a total of 251 recommendations to Côte d’Ivoire. Nine countries we lobbied—Argentina, Australia, Chile, the Czech Republic, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, the Netherlands, and the United States—made recommendations specifically addressing LGBTI rights. It was a huge victory. By way of comparison, during Côte d’Ivoire’s 2nd UPR in 2014, just 3 countries raised the issue of LGBTI rights.

Tripling the number of recommendations turned up the heat on the government. During the interactive dialogue, the Ivoirian government felt compelled to respond. The head of the delegation stated, “Our position is unchanged since our previous UPR, and therefore no measures have been taken or are intended to be taken regarding LGBT individuals. But our legislation does not make sexual orientation subject to punishment.” It was a big step, however, for the government even to speak those words at the Human Rights Council. In 2014, the government delegation was completely silent on the issue.

Ivoirian Government responds

As part of the UPR process, all of the recommendations from the interactive dialogue are transcribed and compiled into an official document called the Report of the Working Group https://www.theadvocatesforhumanrights.org/uploads/cote_divoire_upr_2019_report_of_working_group.pdf. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights publishes those recommendations two days after the interactive dialogue, and then the government has approximately 4 months to respond to each recommendation. For each recommendation, governments have two options: accept or “note” (reject).

Many governments take the full four months to read the recommendations carefully and decide what to do. But some governments, including Côte d’Ivoire, act quickly and respond to most of the recommendations before OHCHR publishes the Report of the Working Group.

Côte d’Ivoire said it needed more time to consider just 24 of the 251 recommendations. It accepted 219 recommendations and summarily “noted” just 24. But all of the 9 recommendations on LGBTI rights were among the noted recommendations.

That the government should decide so quickly to reject all of those hard-fought recommendations stung. But then we looked more closely at the recommendations and saw the absurdity of the government’s position. The government rejected Iceland’s recommendation to “ensure that law enforcement officers comply with laws protecting the rights of LGBTI individuals.” Did the government of Côte d’Ivoire really not want to promise that police officers would follow existing law? And it rejected the United States’ recommendation to “investigate allegations of violence and serious levels of discrimination targeting LGBTI persons.” Did the government really think authorities should bury their heads in the sand if they receive a report alleging anti-LGBTI violence?

It became clear that the Ivoirian government didn’t even read the nine recommendations. It simply rejected any recommendation that referenced sexual orientation, gender identity, or the acronym LGBTI. Even Cameroon—a country that criminalizes consensual same-sex conduct and actively prosecutes people on suspicion they are LGBT– had accepted a recommendation from Belgium to “investigate police violence that took place on persons because of their actual or perceived gender identity.”

A silver lining?Pride-Day-Flag-Rainbow-Lesbian-Pride-Color-Lgbt-3822489.jpg

Looking over the recommendations more carefully, we discovered a few openings. Côte d’Ivoire accepted a recommendation from Jordan to “provide training to all actors in promoting and protecting human rights,” and a similar recommendation from Mexico to “implement human rights training programs for personnel of institutions involved in security and justice in the country.”

We had lobbied for training for police officers and health care workers on LGBTI rights. Perhaps Alternative CI can get involved in these trainings and ensure that they include some lessons on LGBTI rights.

Moving forward on IDAHOT

On this IDAHOT, we are looking forward to a future in Côte d’Ivoire and throughout the world where governments take seriously their obligation to respect, protect, and fulfill the rights of LGBTI persons. We’re looking forward to collaborating with Alternative Cote d’Ivoire on an alternative report on the rights of lesbians, bisexual women and trans women for the upcoming review of Côte d’Ivoire by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women. And we will persist in pressing the Ivoirian government to uphold its obligations under international human rights treaties to protect people from violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. We’re in it for the long haul, and with hard-working partners like Alternative Côte d’Ivoire, we know that we will see results.

To learn more about The Advocates’ work on LGBTI rights, click here: http://www.theadvocatesforhumanrights.org/lgbti_rights

To learn more about UN advocacy, click here: https://www.theadvocatesforhumanrights.org/uploads/chapter_9.pdf

If your organization would like to collaborate with The Advocates on UN advocacy or other projects, fill out this form: https://www.theadvocatesforhumanrights.org/partner

4-H Students Explore Human Rights with The Advocates

Head, heart, hands, health…and human rights? The Advocates for Human Rights recently piloted a new initiative with the 4-H program that allowed students to explore how human rights related to their lives, communities, and passions. Working with the Central Region 4-H Human Rights Project, The Advocates developed two webinars designed to introduce students to international human rights standards and how human rights can be applied to solve issues in their own communities. Students then undertook projects about the human rights issue of their choice with guidance and coaching from volunteer experts in human rights.

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Finally, the big day arrived and the students arrived at The Advocates for a day of career exploration and perhaps more importantly, project presentation and judging. Two Advocates staff served as judges, encouraging the 4-H presenters to describe how the knowledge or skills they used in their project might apply in other areas of their lives, and how they could use their work to change systems that perpetuate human rights abuses.

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The topics ranged widely. One young man, fueled by his observations of the schools he attended, examined how bullying violates a range of human rights, from the right to personal safety, freedom of expression, the right to health, and the right to education. He advocated for schools to have clear policies and sufficient resources dedicated to combat bullying.

A young woman explored her reaction to the current definition of the international right to life, which does not prohibit abortion. She offered a passionate argument that the moment of conception is when a person becomes human and should therefore be entitled to all their human rights, including life. She plans to continue to work on the issue and hopes to change international human rights law.

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Two students collaborated on a sculpture and news compendium highlighting the struggles and triumphs of the movement for LGBTQ rights worldwide. Inspired by their own struggles and success at establishing a Gay-Straight Alliance at their school, they spoke about continuing threats to the lives and wellbeing of LGBTQ individuals but also emphasized the tremendous courage and accomplishments of activists fighting for equality.

In all stages of the project, 4-H students enthusiastically welcomed a chance to engage with human rights and learn more about how human rights play out in their lives. The next generation of human rights defenders is ready to work!

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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The Advocates Welcomes Progress in Ethiopia, Remains Concerned that Threats to Minority Rights Remain

The Advocates for Human Rights has worked in partnership with the Oromo diaspora for many years to hold the government of Ethiopia accountable for human rights violations.  In March 2019, volunteer Nagessa Dube made the following oral statement at the United Nations Human Rights Council during an Interactive Dialogue with the UN Special Rapporteur on minority issues.  

Dear Mr. President:

The Advocates for Human Rights, alongside partner organization United Oromo Voices, would like to thank the Special Rapporteur for his report on minority issues. The concerns that he raises in his report and in his 2018 country visits parallel the struggles minority indigenous groups face in Ethiopia.

Similar to Botswanan minorities, as discussed in the report, minority groups in Ethiopia face barriers to land use. Members of the minority Ogaden community have been subjected to the arbitrary confiscation of land and ethnic persecution since the beginning of Ethiopian rule over the Somali region in 1948. In April 2014 and again in November 2015, the Oromo people launched large-scale protests in opposition to the Addis Ababa Master Plan, which intended to forcibly displace the Oromos from their homes in favor of expansion of the territory of the capital city.

We call attention to the persecution and suppression of freedom of speech. Many Oromo people were injured and killed during the 2016 Irreechaa protests after security forces fired into crowds. Many survivors were taken into government custody.

We do commend the Ethiopian Government for accepting several recommendations in the last UPR in 2014 to take measures to alleviate tensions between and discrimination against ethnic groups through intercultural and inter-religious dialogue. And we welcome the current administration’s stated commitment to reforms, including the release of thousands of political prisoners—many belonging to minority and indigenous groups—and ending the state of emergency. Despite this progress, the threat to minority rights in Ethiopia continues via land displacement, persecution, and suppression of the freedom of expression.

We urge the government of Ethiopia and the Council to work together to confront the threats to minority rights in all their forms.

Thank you.

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.

Trafficking in Women and Girls in the Context of Global Migration

Since 2014, a growing number of women and children fleeing gender-based violence in the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua have requested legal assistance from The Advocates in applying for asylum in the United States. The Advocates for Human Rights is able to help these women and children in two important ways: providing legal assistance in their asylum and trafficking cases and documenting their experiences to advocate at the United Nations for law and policy changes. 

In February 2019, Board member Peggy Grieve shared the experiences of our asylum clients with and made recommendations to the UN Committee on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women.  Peggy delivered the following oral intervention during the Committee’s Half-day General Discussion on Trafficking in Women and Girls in the Context of Global Migration.

Dear Members of the Committee:

From The Advocates for Human Rights’ direct legal representation of Northern Triangle clients, we have determined:

(1) children, even when traveling in the company of migrating adults, are vulnerable to sex trafficking; and

(2) after arrival in the U.S., adults and children are at risk of labor trafficking.

Two examples. One client entered the U.S. as a 15-year-old girl with her father. A family friend coerced her into leaving home. They traveled to live several states away where this friend groomed her to be sex-trafficked.

A client entered the U.S. without inspection with her boyfriend. He brought her to live with his family.  Before long, he demanded that she repay him $10,000 he had paid smugglers for entry. He sexually assaulted her. She was forced into a low-paid, illegal job to cover her “debt.”

No one is going to believe you. You don’t have a voice. Here you are nobody,” she was told.

To help women and girls, victims of trafficking, survive, heal, and ultimately integrate into society and live a life free of further exploitation, a victim-centered, trauma-informed approach that provides survivors with immigration and other legal protections and adequate support services is critical.  The criminal justice approach focused on punishing traffickers, by itself, is insufficient to address the human rights of sex and labor trafficked survivors.

On behalf of our clients, the Advocates for Human Rights thanks the Committee for this important initiative.

The Advocates for Human Rights encourages the Committee to consider the experience of our women and girl clients, as well as the recommendation for a victim-centered approach to identify and respond to meet the needs of trafficked women and girls in the context of global migration.