The “Commission on Unalienable Rights” has No Place in International Human Rights Dialogue

EleanorRooseveltHumanRights
Eleanor Roosevelt and United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Spanish text. (Unknown – Franklin D Roosevelt Library website)

The Advocates for Human Rights is strongly opposed to the U.S. Department of State’s recently announced “Commission on Unalienable Rights.” As an organization committed to implementing international human rights standards, we are deeply concerned about the many legal, moral, and philosophical problems with the Commission, its mandate, and its makeup. We have joined with other U.S. human rights leaders in sending Secretary of State Mike Pompeo a letter calling for the Commission to be immediately disbanded. (Read the full text of the joint letter here.)  With this letter, we also express  our collective desire to refocus this administration on solving some of the human rights violations it has fueled through its reactionary policies on issues ranging from immigration, asylum, freedom of religion, and myriad due process and rule of law issues.

We remain focused on fighting these human rights violations and holding our government accountable for the harms it is inflicting by its hateful, xenophobic policies and its failures to protect vulnerable people in this country, on our borders, and around the world.

The United States is scheduled to be reviewed by the United Nations Human Rights Council in May 2020 under its Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process. The UPR process involves an evaluation of the U.S. government’s compliance with the full range of internationally recognized human rights outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This is a broad review that is based on the U.S. membership in the United Nations and is not focused on specific treaty obligations.

This review will be an opportunity to expose systematic violations of the rights of refugees, the rights of asylum seekers, and women’s right to be free from violence. The UPR process will highlight the U.S. government’s failure to protect the rights of religious minorities, the failure to ensure that all people live without discrimination, and the failure to respect the rule of law. These and many other violations will be exposed when the U.S. States government’s actions are evaluated by its peers in the Human Rights Council. The U.S. government will be called on to explain its human rights practices.

That’s a tall order for an administration that seems dedicated to reneging on our obligations at every opportunity: protecting perpetrators of violence against women; telling U.S. citizens to leave if they don’t like it here; attacking the press as enemies of the people; undermining the judiciary and the rule of law; and working to roll back guarantees of access to health care. So it is no surprise that the administration is trying to change the rules before it has to step into the spotlight.

Because that’s what this “Commission on Unalienable Rights” is all about. If we don’t like the rules, we will write new ones. And this administration has repeatedly made clear that it is prepared to violate any rule that gives those at the margins of power a voice or any rule that protects opportunities for diverse communities to live with dignity.

But human rights standards and the rule of law are stronger than this administration’s attempt to undermine them. We are better than we were at the end of World War II when there were no institutions to challenge the human rights violations perpetrated by dictators and those who model their policies after them. Human rights are not merely documents. They reflect the core values of our own Constitution and the decades of jurisprudence strengthening anti-discrimination laws that have sought to ensure that these core values can be enjoyed by all. No administration is above the law and we will continue to use all available mechanisms to hold our own government accountable for its bad practices.

By Robin Phillips, Executive Director of The Advocates for Human Rights 

New Asylum Bar Takes Effect

Statue of Liberty_erik-lindgren-unsplashA new regulation by the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice seeks to bar asylum to people who enter or attempt to enter the United States at the southern border if they do not first apply for asylum in at least one other country through which they traveled.  The Interim Final Rule published July 16 took immediate effect and allows only 30 days for public comment.

The new asylum bar is the latest in a series of actions designed to limit access to protection for refugees. The federal government has engineered a crisis at the southern border by starving the system of adjudicatory resources while exponentially expanding the capacity to detain people arriving in search of protection from persecution or torture. The government has used this engineered crisis to change unilaterally and without debate asylum eligibility rules.

The Advocates for Human Rights is deeply concerned about this restriction on the fundamental human right to seek and enjoy asylum from persecution. We are reviewing the regulation and monitoring its impact on our clients. Volunteer attorneys should watch for practice guidance and should reach out to The Advocates’ staff or consulting attorneys with questions.

What does the new rule do?

The new rule establishes a new mandatory bar to asylum for people who enter or attempt to enter the United States across the southern border if they did not apply for protection from persecution or torture in at least one third country through which they transited on their way to the United States.

Who does the rule apply to?

The new rule applies to anyone who enters or attempts to enter the United States at the southern border on or after Tuesday, July 16, 2019. This rule does not affect people who entered before July 16, 2019, or who enter or attempt to enter at other ports of entry.

Are there exceptions to the new rule?

There is a very limited exception for people who demonstrate that they are a victim of a severe form of trafficking in persons.

How can I help?

Speak out.

Comments to this rule, identified by EOIR Docket No. 19-0504, may be submitted via the Federal eRulemaking Portal: http://www.regulations.gov.

Call your congressional representatives at 202-224-3121 to ask them to protect the right to seek and enjoy asylum.

Volunteer.

We urgently need attorneys to represent asylum seekers. No immigration law experience is needed. You will get the training and support you need. Click here to get started.

Interpreters and translators make representation possible. Click here to help.

Human rights monitors are needed to observe immigration court hearings. Click here to learn more.

Donate.

The Advocates for Human Rights provides free legal help to more than 1000 victims of human rights abuses, including asylum seekers, victims of trafficking, and people in detention. We need your help now more than ever. Please click here to give.

Holding Abusive Employers Accountable

The Advocates is celebrating a victory at the state legislature this year! We are part of a coalition fighting to protect workers’ rights that helped pass a new law criminalizing wage theft.

Labor trafficking is closely linked to labor exploitation such as wage theft or dangerous working conditions. In certain industries, exploitative businesses routinely refuse to pay workers what they are legally owed, avoiding liability through subcontracting, misclassifying employees, and threatening retaliation if anyone complains. Traffickers take advantage of this environment of impunity, coupling exploitation with coercion and control that keeps their victims trapped, unable to stop working.

Press conference introducting wage theft bill 2

A key component of a system to prevent and identify labor trafficking is a robust response to labor exploitation, eliminating the environment where traffickers can operate undetected. As The Advocates discovered in our report Asking the Right Questions, our system for responding to labor exploitation was not doing enough to combat abusive employers.

The Wage Theft Coalition was formed to end this environment of impunity and this spring worked with Representative Tim Mahoney to craft legislation that corrects some of the shortfalls of current laws. Many hearings and negotiations later, the bill passed and Minnesota now has one of the strongest wage theft laws in the country.

Hearing on wage theft bill

Some highlights of the new law:

  • Wage theft can now be criminally prosecuted like all other theft. If an employer steals from an employee, they can face up to 20 years in prison. Even small amounts, like a withheld last paycheck, can trigger jail time and fines.
  • Retaliation against employees for making a complaint is specifically prohibited and subject to fines of up to $3000 per act.
  • The Department of Labor has expanded investigatory powers and the clear legal authority to collect all wages owed, not just minimum wage or overtime.
  • Workers must be provided notices when hired that list all the details of their pay including any deductions, as well as more detailed earnings statements with each paycheck.
  • Workers have a substantive rights to the payment of all wages and commissions on a regular pay day.Press conference introducting wage theft bill

Senior Researcher Madeline Lohman testifies before the MN Senate Jobs Committee on the link between labor trafficking and wage theft. She called for strengthening the current bill, SF 1816. Here are some key things she presented to the Committee:

Enhanced criminal and civil penalties for wage theft can help deter traffickers. I welcome Senator Pratt’s creation of a gross misdemeanor for wage theft, but would encourage the creation of felony wage theft provisions to allow prosecutors to match the gravity of the crime. Labor traffickers steal tens of thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars from their victims. In no other context is a theft of hundreds of thousands of dollars a gross misdemeanor and not a felony; it should not be one in the workplace.

Labor trafficking is a serious crime that inflicts lasting harm on its victims, undermines legitimate business, and imposes costs on all of us. We have an opportunity today to strengthen Minnesota’s response to this egregious human rights abuse. Please continue to strengthen the penalties against employers that commit wage theft so that traffickers can no longer operate with impunity.

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Senior Researcher Madeline Lohman testifying before the MN Senate Jobs Committee

Learn more about the new law here.

Thank you to everyone who supported these efforts and we look forward to continuing to improve Minnesota’s protections for workers and response to labor trafficking and exploitation!

Take Advantage of Volunteer Opportunities with The Advocates This Week

volunteerFor more than five years, we have seen children and families fleeing for their lives seeking safety in the United States. They face increasing challenges to receiving due process and navigating the asylum system. Yet many have found their way to Minnesota, with hopes of finding legal services, language access, and a welcoming community. By engaging pro bono attorneys and other volunteers, The Advocates for Human Rights is the largest provider of free legal services to low-income asylum seekers in the Upper Midwest. You can get directly involved in supporting asylum seekers in Minnesota.If you have legal or language skills, you can volunteer by taking a pro bono case, assisting with interpreting and translating, or by staffing the National Asylum Helpline.
60787894_10157094501063815_5749581936431464448_n (1).pngOur annual interpreter training is tonight from 5-7 pm. Info and registration are available on our website: http://www.theadvocatesforhumanrights.org/annual_interpreter_training.html
A general volunteer information session is on Wednesday, June 26: http://www.theadvocatesforhumanrights.org/volunteer_orientation_4.html Attorneys can register
Attorneys can register to receive more information about providing pro bono services: ttp://www.theadvocatesforhumanrights.org/asylumattorneys
If you are a community member interested in welcoming asylum seekers to our communities, consider attending the next Asylum Support Network meeting on Thursday, June 27 from 12:00 PM to 1:30 PM (CDT) at the North Regional Library (1315 Lowry Avenue North, Minneapolis, MN 55411). The topic will be Asylum Seeker Sponsorship. Katharine Gordon, as the Pro Bono Coordinator for Al Otro Lado, works with people who are in immigration detention throughout the country and who might have a better chance of being released on their own recognizance if they had a sponsor and network of community support. While Al Otro Lado has worked mostly with people who are detainees, sometimes sponsorship situations fall through once a person is released, and at that time folks may look to a wide variety of alternate sponsors throughout the country. Katharine has facilitated such sponsorships here in the Twin Cities. Come join us and learn what the different levels of sponsorship are and how you can be involved in extending hospitality and support to newly arrived asylum seekers.

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.

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. 

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.