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Remembering Our Friend and Advocate, Arvonne Fraser

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“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.

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Our Work: Eradicating Violence Against Women

Our Work: Eradicating Violence Against Women

Kofi Annan said this when he was secretary-general of the United Nations:

Violence against women is perhaps the most shameful human rights violation. And, it is perhaps the most pervasive. It knows no boundaries of geography, culture or wealth. As long as it continues, we cannot claim to be making real progress towards equality, development and peace.

Think about that: the most pervasive violation of human rights.

The Advocates for Human Rights, through our Women’s Human Rights Program—and indeed through all of our programs—has a proud history of standing up for women and fighting against gender discrimination and violence. We are fighting at every level.

In the immediate term, we help make women safe by bringing their asylum claims to get them away from their abusers and away from the governments that refuse to protect them.

We also help at the level of changing bad laws. In North Africa, we helped bring about the repeal of laws in Morocco and Tunisia that had allowed rapists to escape prosecution if they married their victims. We also were instrumental in getting Mongolia to make domestic violence a crime for the first time in its history, and in getting Croatia to recriminalize domestic violence after the government had actually taken it out of the criminal code.

Finally, we know that laws are of little use if they aren’t enforced, so we help at the level of monitoring and education. Here in Minnesota, we educated law enforcement and licensing personnel about sex trafficking, leading to a whole new focus on prosecuting the traffickers rather than the victims of trafficking. Because of this work, more than 20 different Minneapolis businesses that were fronts for sex trafficking were identified and closed.

But we all know how much more must be done. Beating and torture of domestic partners is still too often, in too many places, thought of as a family matter, and governments won’t intervene. Vladimir Putin’s Russia has decriminalized domestic violence just as Croatia did, and is also targeting and successfully shutting down human rights organizations there by claiming they are spies.

Then, of course, there is our own country, which has proclaimed by attorney general fiat that even horrendous domestic violence without government recourse should not be grounds for asylum, arresting and jailing, with “zero tolerance,” adult refugees and their children who present at our borders with a legal claim to asylum—people whose only “crime” was to flee beatings or rape or torture and seek a better life in America.

We have to help all women who suffer violence and abuse, but we cannot do our work without your help. Our budget is tiny compared to the impact we’ve had. That’s because our model is to bring the extraordinary resources of our community, including many of the best and the brightest activists and lawyers, to achieve far more than our small size and budget suggest that we could. The only thing that limits us is having the resources to train, coordinate and support even more of this amazing talent.

Many of us see the horrific things on the news and ask ourselves, “What can I do?” Here are two things you can do right now. First, call your Congressional representative to express your outrage over what our country is doing at the border.

Second, go to www.theadvocatesforhumanrights.org and make a financial donation to the Advocates. Now is the time to step up, pull out your checkbook or credit card, give a little more than you thought you would, respond to the call. Speaking personally, I know from direct experience and observation, there is no better place for my family to focus our financial giving than this shining Minnesota beacon of hope called The Advocates for Human Rights.

If you look at the news and ask yourself “What can I do?” that’s what you can do and you can do it now.

By James A. O’Neal, Chair, Board of Directors, the Advocates for Human Rights

This post paraphrases remarks given by Mr. O’Neal at the Human Rights Awards Dinner on June 21, 2018.

The Government is Dragging Us Back Decades in the Protection of Women’s Human Rights

FeaturedThe Government is Dragging Us Back Decades in the Protection of Women’s Human Rights

In my 25 years as a human rights advocate, I have learned that it is very difficult to be female in many parts of the world.  In spite of this reality, Attorney General Jeff Sessions is dragging us back decades in the protection of women’s human rights. His recent rejection of the decision in the Matter of A-B shows a callous disregard for the lived experiences of women.

In many countries, girls are aborted or killed as infants solely because they are female. Some die during traditional rituals such as female genital mutilation. Other girls are married off as children, trafficked for sex, or sold as domestic servants. As adults, women face violence in their homes, the streets, or at the hands of their governments. Some women are prohibited from doing certain kinds of work by archaic labor laws developed based on stereotypes and prejudices about women. Others endure harassment and demeaning work conditions just to make a living.

It took the United Nations more than 45 years to acknowledge women’s rights as human rights and violence against women as a human rights violation. It long ago acknowledged that governments are accountable for the human rights they commit as well as those they systematically fail to prevent. Kofi Annan identified violence against women as the most widespread human rights abuse in the world. Governments around the world have slowly been adopting laws to address violence, but we see enormous difficulties in properly implementing laws to provide adequate protections.

This new recognition that legal protections should reflect the experiences of women was slowly being reflected in refugee and asylum law in the United States. Over the past two decades we have seen the definition of social group, an identified group who should be protected from persecution, extended to victims of domestic violence when their government cannot or will not protect them. These life-saving developments recognized that previous interpretations of the l aw ignored these human rights abuses against women.  Domestic violence is not a family matter, it is a global epidemic and the stakes could not be higher.

Another thing I learned is that governments around the world are failing women. I have heard countless stories over the years about women calling the police or presenting themselves to prosecutors seeking protection from abusive spouses. They are taunted, ignored, and turned away. We have seen some improvement in laws and practices, but they have not stemmed the tide of abuse and women are still being injured and killed at alarming rates.  In some cases, women are ignored because their husbands are police officers, military or high ranking government officials. In other cases, the women are just not believed.

I remember one particularly compelling interview when I first started doing this work. A beautiful young woman in prison in Albania told me about the violence and abuse she experienced at the hands of her husband. He bruised her, broke her bones and made her bleed until she fainted. She tried over and over again to get help from the police and the prosecutors and was routinely turned away and told it was a family matter. After a particularly brutal beating that left her unconscious, she woke to the sight of her husband preparing to sexually assault their daughter. She leapt to her daughter’s defense, attacking her husband. He died as a result of the injuries. She was prosecuted and sentenced to prison for the man’s death. This woman, repeatedly failed by her own government, would not be provided asylum by our government today if Jeff Sessions has his way. It is up to all of us to make sure he doesn’t.

Robin Phillips is the executive director of The Advocates for Human Rights. She is an attorney and has written extensively about human rights, including trafficking in women, employment discrimination, sexual harassment, and domestic violence.

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“Go Home & Work It Out With Your Husband”: Why Sessions’ Ruling On Asylum Is So Devastating for Women Fleeing Domestic Violence

Woman covering face with handSome years ago, before the United States recognized that domestic violence was grounds for asylum, I represented a woman who was seeking asylum due to years of brutal violence inflicted upon her by her husband and the failure of her government to protect her.

“Ann” was a successful business person from East Africa who had experienced sexual, physical, psychological and emotional violence so extreme that she went to the police for help. Their response?

“Sorry, but this is a family matter – not a police matter. You have children. Go home and work it out with your husband. It will be better for all of you.”

So she went home. Her husband beat her until she passed out from the pain and blood loss as punishment for going to the police.

Because her business was so successful, she had the chance to expand the business to a neighboring country. She took the kids and moved, leaving no forwarding address. But he eventually found her there and, with support from the police, strongly “encouraged” her to move back to her country with the children. His family, as well as hers, also put pressure on her to stay in the marriage.

I met Ann because her husband was studying in the U.S. The beatings had intensified after the family moved here and she had called The Advocates for help. We had to meet to prepare the asylum application, but her husband, wary of her meeting with Americans, controlled where she went. We found surreptitious meeting places like the coffee shop near the daycare center so he would not suspect.

Perhaps others are not familiar with how much work goes into preparing a case for asylum in the United States. Asylum seekers must show, through both credible testimony and documentary evidence, that 1) they have a well-founded fear of persecution; 2) on the basis of political opinion, race, religion, nationality, or membership in a particular social group; and 3) their government cannot or will not protect them. It is not an easy thing to do, to fit all the facts of your life and your fear into the narrow frame of U.S. asylum law (which is, in fact, U.S. implementation of our obligations under the International Refugee Convention).

As we were getting close to filing her application, Ann asked me to meet her in front the building where she was taking a class. I picked her up there once or twice, no problem, and we went to the library to work on her affidavit. But when I pulled up the next time, she was standing in front of the building holding her baby and looking nervous.  She made eye contact and shook her head.

“No,” she mouthed.  “Go.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a man coming towards her. My overall impression was a fast-moving blur of anger and intimidation.  I looked away from Ann and hit the accelerator. I couldn’t speed off – I was a human rights lawyer working for a nonprofit and my old car had zero acceleration – so I could see from her expression that it would do more harm than good if I stopped and tried to help.

I still am a human rights lawyer working for a nonprofit and I still drive an old car with zero acceleration.  Every once in a while, when I look in the rearview mirror, I think of Ann and remember that day. The sight of him yelling at her, fist raised… this is the closest I have ever come to witnessing domestic violence and it is the closest that I ever hope to be.  I waited on pins and needles until she called me late that night after he fell asleep. He had beaten her again but she was still alive.

We filed her asylum application not long after. She testified truthfully and credibly at her interview about the persecution she suffered, how she tried to leave but he tracked her down in another country, and about her government’s unwillingness to protect her from harm. The Asylum Officer asked the question that many people unfamiliar with the power and control dynamics of domestic violence ask victims: “Why do you stay with him if he beats you?”

Her answer was simple.

“Because I have tried to leave and he always finds me and brings me back. Then the beatings get worse. I am afraid every day that he will kill me. Then what will happen to my children?”

The day Ann was granted asylum, she took the children and left to begin a new life in safety and dignity as an American.

Ann was not the first domestic violence victim granted asylum in the U.S. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, an increasing number of adjudicators granted asylum to individuals fleeing persecution by non-State actors that the government was unable or unwilling to control.  These were cases of individuals fleeing domestic violence, traditional harmful practices like FGM, and violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.  In 2014, the federal Board of Immigration Appeals issued a precedential decision (Matter of A-R-C-G-) that people like Ann could be granted asylum based on persecution on account of a particular social group.

Now Attorney General Jeff Sessions has overturned that ruling and years of jurisprudence by announcing that victims of domestic violence and other persecution by private actors “generally” do not qualify for asylum. The attorney general announced his decision in Matter of A-B-, a case in which he invoked a rarely used power to personally intervene and certify to himself for reconsideration after the Board of Immigration Appeals reversed and remanded to the immigration judge with an order to grant asylum. The case concerns a woman from El Salvador who fled 15 years of sexual, physical, psychological and emotional violence that her government failed to protect her from.

What I would like my fellow Americans to know is this:

International law recognizes that asylum seekers are particularly vulnerable and deserving of protection.

The international refugee protection system was set up as a result of the horrors of World War II, when Jewish refugees attempted to flee and were returned to Nazi death camps.

When people present themselves at the U.S. border and ask for asylum, they are not breaking the law. They are acting lawfully. They are following the process established by federal statute. They are exercising their fundamental human right to seek asylum from persecution.

The attorney general is by fiat attempting to return U.S. asylum law to a time when domestic violence was seen as a “family matter.” This is only the latest salvo in the administration’s all-out war against refugees and asylum seekers. It is connected to the “Zero Tolerance” immigration policy and should be seen in that context.

From a global perspective, Sessions’ move is in line with efforts in Russia and other countries around the world to undermine protections against domestic violence. I recently traveled to Moldova to train women’s human rights defenders who have seen the rising tide of “family values” throughout Russia, former Soviet republics, and Eastern Europe, as laws are passed decriminalizing domestic violence.

My client Ann was granted asylum on the basis of her social group of women from her country who have experienced extreme sexual, physical and emotional domestic violence, (which the UN Committee against Torture recognizes as “torture”), who are unable to escape their abuser and who the government is unable or unwilling to protect. It was only due to the permanent legal status she gained through the U.S. asylum system that she was able to take her children and leave her abusive husband, and start a new life for her family as Americans.

Mr. Session’s attempt to unilaterally narrow the definition of who is eligible for asylum from persecution ignores existing U.S. law and jurisprudence.  Further, it violates international law and US treaty obligations. In interpreting the Refugee Convention, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has issued advisory opinions stating that domestic violence victims are potentially part of a social group. It turns back the clock to a time women fleeing gender-based persecution were not given refugee protection.

In my experience, when people have the chance to actually meet and get to know refugees and asylum seekers – and even other migrants who are coming for reasons of family reunification or work – they don’t say things like Mr. Sessions wrote in his opinion in Matter of A.B., “Yet the asylum statute does not provide redress for all misfortune.”

People who know asylum seekers fleeing domestic violence say things like, “She’s a really good person, just doing the best that she can for her family. She is trapped and has to get out of this violent situation. What can I do to help her?”

Before taking it upon himself personally to change well-established asylum law and practice, I really wish that Mr. Sessions could have met my client Ann. Or maybe even A.B. or others impacted by his decision.

By Jennifer Prestholdt, Deputy Director of The Advocates for Human Rights.

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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. 

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2017: A Year of Strength for Women

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As we look back on The Advocates’ women’s human rights work in 2017 and the movement to hold accountable perpetrators of sexual harassment and assault, the word that comes to mind is strength In the last year, we strengthened the capacity of women’s rights defenders, made life-saving recommendations for reforms, and strategized how the UN can become even better in achieving gender equality.

We continued to identify gaps in governments’ responses to violence against women so we can tell them how to make women’s lives safer. Last year, we released reports on domestic violence in Montenegro and Serbia, where they become tools to bring sweeping changes.

Because of our reports, laws become better: domestic violence is criminalized, victims’ protections strengthened, and shelters funded.

 

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We also began building a multi-country cadre of women’s human rights defenders to use international mechanisms. By teaching 16 Russian-speaking lawyers how to leverage these remedies, we build their capacity to safeguard women’s rights against sexual harassment, trafficking, domestic violence, and sexual assault. This work is powerful and life-saving for the women in many countries with few realistic options for safety.  One lawyer told us,

With your help, I have started to believe that we can change our situation to the best.”

 

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And, of course, we have continued our advocacy before the UN, holding countries to the highest standards of women’s rights, while expanding our lens to focus on the UN itself. After all, if the UN is going to lead on women’s human rights, it must lead by example. In the face of ongoing investigations of sexual harassment by senior UN figures, such scrutiny is long overdue.

As a core member of the UN Gender Network, we are reviewing the UN’s gender equality policies and will make recommendations for reform at a UN roundtable next month.

We will continue to build on our momentum through 2018. I hope you will join us at three exciting events:

Please join us in 2018 as we celebrate women’s human rights, and thank you for your support to make the world a better, safer place for women.

By: Rosalyn Park, director of the Women’s Human Rights Program at The Advocates for Human Rights.

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Ukraine delays decision on Universal Periodic Review recommendations on domestic violence

 

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The delegation from Ukraine, led by H.E. Mr. Sergiy Petukhov, Deputy Minister of Justice of Ukraine for the European Integration, speaks during Ukraine’s Universal Periodic Review on November 15, 2017. Source: http://webtv.un.org/meetings-events/human-rights-council/universal-periodic-review/28th-upr/watch/ukraine-review-28th-session-of-universal-periodic-review/5647215634001#

For the 3rd cycle Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Ukraine, The Advocates for Human Rights submitted a stakeholder report in collaboration with Center “Women’s Perspectives,” a non-governmental agency based in Lviv, Ukraine. The report focused on the prevalence of domestic violence in Ukraine.

Domestic violence is a pervasive problem in Ukraine. In 2016, the Ministry of Social Policy recorded 96,143 complaints of domestic violence, and data indicate that the number of complaints has been on the rise by 10% per year. The legal system fails to adequately protect women, a problem exacerbated by ongoing political conflict.  Ukraine has not yet created a specific crime of domestic violence, nor has it specifically defined gender-based violence in its laws. A package of laws to address violence against women passed a first hearing in Parliament in 2016, but was sent back to a working group over concerns the draft laws were harmful to traditional family values. Members of Parliament have asked the working group to remove references to “gender” and “sexual orientation” and to allow religious groups to sit on the Working Group. Ukraine has yet to ratify the Istanbul Convention on violence against women. Victim services remain insufficient and underfunded.

During the UPR in early November 2017, 70 countries made 190 recommendations to Ukraine, 29 of which were related to domestic violence or violence against women. This marks a significant increase from the four domestic violence-related recommendations made in 2012, a sign that more countries are taking note of conditions in Ukraine.

After the review, the country can either accept or reject the recommendations, and can choose to provide an additional response if it wishes to explain its decision. The UPR process also gives the state under review the option to delay its response to some or all of the recommendations. Ukraine has decided to defer decision on all of its recommendations and will have until March 2018 (the 37th session of the Human Rights Council) to submit an addendum with its responses to the recommendations.

By Laura Dahl, a 2017 graduate of the University of Minnesota with a degree in Global Studies and Neuroscience. She is a Fall 2017 intern with The Advocates’ International Justice Program.

This post is the fourth in a series on The Advocates’ international advocacy.  The series highlights The Advocates’ work with partners to bring human rights issues in multiple countries to the attention of the United Nations Human Rights Council through the Universal Periodic Review mechanism. Additional post in the series include:

The Advocates’ lobbying against the death penalty packs a big punch at the Universal Periodic Review of Japan

How The Advocates brings the stories of women and children fleeing violence to the international stage

Sri Lanka’s Evolving Stance on the Death Penalty