Civil society organizations play a crucial role in human rights monitoring at the United Nations. The mission of the United Nations – to monitor, protect, and advance human rights around the world – is best carried out when civil society actively participates. Non-governmental organizations, activists, and academics provide valuable information about human rights violations that governments miss or cover up. For instance, they can submit written information in the form of a “shadow” or “alternative” report. These reports give activists an opportunity to share local human rights violations directly with the international community and, ultimately, to change laws and policies.
While the United Nations welcomes civil society participation, the opportunities and deadlines for participation are not so easy to track down. Each mechanism has a different system, which is why we need volunteers to become experts on each one and compile the information into one easy-to-use database.
Thanks to a team of nine paralegal volunteers and twelve other remote volunteers, The Advocates facilitates civil society engagement with United Nations and Regional Human Rights mechanisms through an online deadline database. The database is searchable by country and provides up-to-date, accurate information about reporting opportunities all in one place. Without this team of volunteers, non-governmental organizations may be left in the dark about opportunities to engage with the United Nations.
As someone who personally works with our volunteers on a regular basis, I can attest to their enthusiasm and discipline. I am always impressed with how eager they are to know all the ins and outs of the United Nations monitoring process, even though they don’t need to know all the specifics for this work. It is a steep learning curve, yet they are always up to the challenge. I also appreciate how responsive they are to my many emails about updating the database when unexpected changes arise.
The global pandemic has not stopped them from continuing their work, even when many of their own workloads have increased. One volunteer recently told me she was going to check on the deadlines weekly as opposed to bi-weekly, just so she could make sure she caught all the updates due to COVID-19. Many other volunteers worked to quickly turn around new deadlines that changed due to COVID-19 so that our international partners at the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty could stay up to date.
When I asked our volunteers why they took on this work, here is how they responded. I hope you can see for yourself that something as simple as a database can have a big impact.
“The Advocates for Human Rights does important work and I’m grateful to have the opportunity to contribute my time to such a cause.” – Paralegal Volunteer
“I have been overwhelmed by the changes in policy toward immigrants and anyone in the world really who needs help. The first work I did for Advocates was on an asylum case. Even though we were not successful, the appreciation shown to me, by the wife and children of the man who was eventually deported, made me realize that I needed desperately to fill a hole in my life. When our pro bono director reached out to me on entering deadlines for treaty bodies, I jumped at the opportunity. There are still many things out there that make me sad, but doing this work, as minimal as it is, helps fill the “hole”.” – Paralegal Volunteer
“I took it on because it sounded terribly interesting and I wanted to contribute (albeit in a VERY small way) to making the world (not just my little suburban corner of it) a better place. I like to think that it enables someone (individuals or groups) to make a case to protect and improve the lives of those who cannot (or are not able) to do so themselves.” – Paralegal Volunteer
“Something that has always been important to me, is to ensure I put aside time to give back to the community, and beyond. Advocating for human rights is so crucial to promote equality within the community, society and all over the world. For me, volunteering my time to The Advocates of Human Rights, and having any part in facilitating their mission, is a real honor.” – Paralegal Volunteer
By Elizabeth Lacy, Program Assistant for Women’s Human Rights and International Justice Programs at The Advocates For Human Rights
The Advocates for Human Rights is a nonprofit organization dedicated to implementing international human rights standards to promote civil society and reinforce the rule of law. The Advocates represents more than 1000 asylum seekers, victims of trafficking, and immigrants in detention through a network of hundreds of pro bono legal professionals.