Volunteer Relishes First-hand Experience Working at U.N.

A volunteer for human rights, or more accurately for The Advocates for Human Rights with whom I first became acquainted in the late 90’s when I joined The Advocates to conduct domestic violence training for NGOs from Moldova, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, and Armenia. Soon after, I teamed with The Advocates’ staff and an Armenian NGO to undertake careful fact-finding with the goal of assessing the status of the rights of Armenian women to be free from intimate violence. The recommendations from the report which resulted were used to increase services for survivors and to hold more offenders accountable in Yerevan and other communities in Armenia.

Today, more than 15 years later, I am sitting with a number of The Advocates’ staff and volunteers in the Serpentine Lounge in Building E, otherwise known as the home of the Human Rights Council in the United Nations Office in Geneva, Switzerland. The Serpentine Lounge is two floors below the formal major chamber where delegates from around the world sit in an orderly fashion, each taking their turn to deliver two-minute statements or sound bites to comment and vote on proposed resolutions on issues like food, sustainability, or listen to reports from special experts or rapporteurs on the status of a state’s record on various aspects of human rights as defined by a myriad of declarations and conventions.

In contrast, the Serpentine Lounge is a hub of activity against a mellow Geneva landscape. Delegates are in earnest conversations with each other and NGOs to learn from each other and no doubt try to persuade one other. Of the many opportunities I have had here over the week “working,” the Serpentine Lounge has been one of the most energizing.

Every four and one-half years, 16 countries are scheduled to appear for their Universal Periodic Review by the Human Rights Council. Given The Advocates’ special consultative status with the United Nations, we have the ability to meet with delegates who will be submitting comments on the status of the countries up for review this May. Building on the tremendous work already completed by The Advocates, my colleagues and I are meeting with delegates from literally every part of the world. I have met with delegates from countries as diverse as Finland and Paraguay who are interested in how effectively countries to be reviewed, such as Mongolia and Croatia, are with eradicating gender-based violence. We share our findings with the delegates, and in the instance of Croatia, our Croatian colleague, Valentina Andrasek, is here to offer her NGO’s first-hand experience helping battered women. The delegates are both surprised and discouraged to learn the way in which the Croatian criminal law is being implemented. In Croatia, more than 40 percent of domestic violence cases in which arrests are made result in dual arrests, with both the victim and the offender being arrested.

Not only do we share our recommendations and hand the delegates fact-filled one-pagers, we get the chance to learn about the values and politics of countries we may never visit. My mind has been going the proverbial mile-a-minute; I have learned so much about the complexities of the UN world—an alphabet soup of shorthand—where work really gets done. I have found my co-travelers as fascinating as the delegates with whom we have met. And as one of the few non-Minnesotans in The Advocates’ delegation, I have throughly enjoyed the Midwestern grace and calm that has infused our time together.

Thank you, The Advocates for Human Rights, NGO extraordinaire.

By: Joan Kuriansky, an attorney who has been involved in women’s rights throughout her career, has experience running local and national organizations that address a range of issues, including women’s economic empowerment and violence against women. Ms. Kuriansky recently traveled to the United Nations in Geneva with The Advocates for Human Rights and other volunteers.

The Answer to Preventing Atrocities: Human Rights Education

Zeod Ra'ad Al Hussein, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

If you ever wonder what you can do about human rights violations taking place in your community or around the world, I challenge you – on this World Day of Social Justice – to read the powerful message of Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, spoken recently at Washington, D.C.’s Holocaust Memorial Museum:

“…I wake up every morning and, along with brilliant staff – some of the world’s best human rights lawyers and activists – I scan the news and am revolted by what I read. I am sure you all feel the same. Everyday, we are outraged by one piece of news after another! In fact, we must fast be reaching a state of permanent disgust.

“…[Y]ears of tyranny, inequalities, fear and bad governance are what contribute to the expansion of extremist ideas and violence. Few of these crises have erupted without warning. They have built up over years – and sometimes decades – of human rights grievances: deficient or corrupt governance and judicial institutions; discrimination and exclusion; drastic inequalities; exploitation and the denial of economic and social rights; and repression of civil society and public freedoms. Specific kinds of human rights violations, including sexual violence, speech that incites violence, and patterns of discrimination against minorities, can provide early warning of the escalation of crisis into atrocity.

“With so much movement across our screens and newspapers, we believe we are now somehow cart-wheeling into a future more uncertain and unpredictable than ever before. We are also bombarded by so many individual pieces of news, and commentary, our thoughts become equally scattered and devoid of any clear understanding of what it all means…

“And so it would be easy for us to give way to a sense of complete hopelessness. But we cannot succumb to that way of thinking. Surely we now know, from bitter experience, that human rights are the only meaningful rampart against barbarity.

“…Since we cannot afford sinking into a state of paralysing shock, our task becomes the need to strengthen our ethics, our clarity and openness of thought, and our moral courage.

“To do this I can only suggest that we must turn to a new and deeper form of education. Education that goes beyond reading, writing and arithmetic to include skills and values that can equip people to act with responsibility and care. (Emphasis added.)

“…Before every child on this planet turns 9, I believe he or she should acquire a foundational understanding of human rights, and that these concepts should grow in depth and scope as he or she develops. The underlying values of the curriculum would be virtually identical in every school, deriving from the Universal – and universally accepted – Declaration of Human Rights. In this way, from Catholic parochial schools to the most secular public institutions, and indeed Islamic madrassahs, children could learn – even in kindergarten – and experience the fundamental human rights values of equality, justice and respect.

“My children, and yours, and children everywhere, need to learn what bigotry and chauvinism are, and the terrible wrongs they can produce. They need to learn that blind obedience can be exploited by authority figures for wicked ends. They should also learn that they are not exceptional because of where they were born, how they look, what passport they carry, or the social class, caste or creed of their parents; they should learn that no-one is intrinsically superior to her or his fellow human beings.

“Every child should be able to grasp that the wonderful diversity of individuals and cultures is a source of tremendous enrichment. They should learn to recognise their own biases, and correct them. Children can learn to redirect their own aggressive impulses and use non-violent means to resolve disputes. They can learn to be inspired by the courage of the pacifiers and by those who assist, not those who destroy. They can be guided by human rights education to make informed choices in life, to approach situations with critical and independent thought, and to empathise with other points of view.

“Children are fully able to grasp the implications of human rights. And they are able, too, to understand the power that human rights principles bestow on them. Every child can help to shape her or his universe: this is the lesson of that physically tiny and yet symbolically immensely powerful young woman, Malala, who has enriched the moral heritage of humanity.

“We do not have to accept the world as it is; indeed, we must not. We do not have to give in to the dark allure of hatred and violence: indeed, it is vital that we find the energy to resist it. These lessons are surely as fundamental to life on Earth as advanced calculus.”[1]

Parents, teachers, administrators, students, curriculum specialists, policymakers, and anyone reading this who appreciates the power of education as a means of preventing human rights violations, you can make a difference. The root causes of abuses ranging from discrimination to interpersonal violence to mass atrocities can and must be addressed through human rights education.

Here is what you can do:

  • Learn more about human rights education by going to org/uploads/hre_edition.pdf.
  • Contact your community school and ask how they are giving students at every grade level the knowledge, skills, and values of human rights. Offer free curricular resources available at org/for_educators.
  • Read the UN Declaration on Human Rights Education and Training and share it with your local school, through social media, and in conversation.
  • Become part of a national movement by joining Human Rights Educators USA by going to net. (If outside in the U.S., look for a similar group in your area.)

What we teach our children today has radical implications for the future of our communities and world. Human rights education is the obligation of governments and the moral imperative of individuals. We either equip children with the knowledge, skills, and values to uphold human rights – or we don’t. And we live with the repercussions either way.

By: Sarah Herder, The Advocates for Human Rights’ director of Education.

[1] Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Feb. 5, 2015. “Can Atrocities Be Prevented? Living in the Shadow of the Holocaust, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein at the Holocaust Memorial Museum.” http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=15548&LangID=E#sthash.QRxCwKej.dpuf.

2014’s Lesson: Take Action. Lives Depend on It.

Painted hand for WordPressDecember has been a terrible month for human rights—from the U.S. Senate’s report confirming the use of torture, to the slaughter of Pakastani school children, to two grand jury decisions not to indict police officers for the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Overall, 2014 has been an extremely troubling year. Some human rights abuses garnered a lot of attention; many did not, taking place under the radar of the media and public conversation. Let’s consider a few examples, and let them serve as a call to action.

  1. Boko Haram militants kidnapped 276 girls from a school in Chibok, Nigeria one night in mid-April. This travesty garnered wide media attention and support from around the world, with celebrities carrying “Bring Back Our Girls” placards and rallies demanding the girls’ return. Unfortunately, 219 girls are reported to remain in captivity. Boko Haram continued its reign of terror, and is responsible for other atrocities throughout Somalia and Nigeria during 2014, including kidnappings, mass recruitment of child soldiers, and bombings of churches and public squares. Just this month news reports surfaced that Boko Haram kidnapped at least 185 women and children and killed 32 people in northeast Nigeria.
  2. Central American refugees―mostly children (and many by themselves)―are seeking asylum, after journeying across one of the world’s most dangerous migrant routes to escape horrific violence in their home countries. The crisis was brought to light and much of the nation was shocked when, in June, images of children being held by US authorities surfaced, showing children crowded in makeshift prisons, and crammed into rooms and sleeping on concrete floors. Instead of treating them as refugees and in accordance with internationally-recognized human rights standards, the U.S. has treated these children as national security threats, warehousing them in razor-wired prisons, detaining them in horrendous conditions, and subjecting them to expedited proceedings to deport them at warp speed and back to the life-threatening dangers they fled.
  3. The terrorist organization ISIL has committed gruesome acts of violence that have alarmed the world community, including murdering political opposition members in mass, enslaving and brutalizing women and girls, and forcing young boys into its ranks. An August attack by ISIL in the Sinjar region caused thousands of Shiites and Yazidis to flee; in October, ISIL abducted 5,000-7,000 Yazidi women and children and sold them into slavery, reported the UN.
  4. Grand jury decisions not to indict police officers for the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner highlighted racial profiling, police brutality, and failures of the justice system throughout the country, including a police officer shooting 12-year-old Tamir Rice to death in Cleveland, Ohio.
  5. The Ethiopian government attacked a student protest in the nation’s Oromia region in April, killing as many as 47 students, as some reports indicate. The Ethiopian government has persecuted and targeted the Oromo people for years, subjecting Oromo to abduction, mass incarceration, and extreme levels of torture, including electric shock and repeated rapes.
  6. Nearly 200,000 people have been killed and millions more took flight because of violence in Syria―the world’s largest refugee crisis resulting from a civil war that has raged in the region following popular uprising during the Arab Spring in 2011. To date, UNHCR estimates that more than 2.5 million refugees have fled the disaster, surpassing the refugee crises in Afghanistan, the Central African Republic, and Central America.
  7. Countries took huge steps backward for rights of LGBTI communities, enacting draconian laws which punish homosexuality with prison terms, torture, and death. Members of LGBTI communities in some countries are hunted down by vigilantes and are beaten or killed. In 2014, Uganda enacted one of the most notorious laws—its “Kill the Gays” law—punishing homosexuality with life in prison. The Ugandan Constitutional Court struck down law. Unfortunately, because the court ruled on procedural grounds rather than on the merits, the court’s decision does not bar parliament from adopting an identical law in the future. And homosexuality remains a criminal act in Uganda, as it was before the new law was signed.
  8. The U.S.’s use of drone strikes are a significant setback to international law, setting new precedents for use of force by nations around the world. As of November 2014, attempts to kill 41 people resulted in snuffing out the lives of an estimated 1,147 individuals, reports The Guardian. The U.S. has, to date, used drones to execute without trial some 4,700 people— including civilians and children—in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, all countries against whom the U.S. has not declared war, the organization Reprieve reports.
  9. An Egyptian court sentenced 529 people to death in a mass trial in March. The next month, a court sentenced another 680 to death in a proceeding that lasted only a few minutes. These mass executions, issued by a military government than came to power in a July 2013 coup, represent some of the largest ordered executions in the last century. Activists who supported efforts to oust former President Hosni Mubarak continue to be rounded up and targeted by the military, aiming to crush political opposition and to roll back achievements made during the Arab Spring. And in November, an Egyptian court dismissed conspiracy to kill charges against Mubarak, and he was cleared of corruption charges; he will likely be freed in a few months.
  10. Women and girls have suffered immeasurably where they should be safest, in their homes. Women aged 15-44 are more at risk from rape and domestic violence than from cancer, motor accidents, war and malaria, according to the World Bank. On average, at least one in three women is beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused by an intimate partner in the course of her lifetime. One high profile domestic violence incident this year involved NFL player Ray Rice beating his then-fiance into unconsciousness and flattening her to the floor of an elevator. As a result of the attack, Rice was suspended for two games. When TMZ posted the video of the attack for the world to see, the NFL suspended Rice indefinitely and the Baltimore Ravens pressured his victim to apologize. Ultimately, the NFL reversed its decision to suspend Rice indefinitely in late November.
  11. Harmful cultural practices violate women. Many governments “address” human rights violations—even the most cringe-worthy, stomach-churning―against women and girls by punishing the victims. Or—as in the case of women from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala seeking refuge in other countries—governments turn their heads to the violence, empowering the perpetrators and further victimizing and subjugating the women. These abuses include acid attacks, female genital mutilation, forced marriage, honor killings, bride burning, and gang rapes. Consider the death of Farzana Iqbal, 25, in May in Pakistan; her family stoned her to death outside a courthouse in Pakistan because she sought to marry without consent from her family a man she loved. Consider Hanna Lalango, 16, who died a month after she entered a public mini-bus in Ethiopia and was gang-raped by strangers for five days―a case similar to one in India two years ago, but one that did not garner the same level of attention and outrage. As an added note, Lalango’s father said he would not have made the case public if his daughter had lived because the shame would have shadowed her for the rest of her life.
  12. The U.S. Senate “torture report” released on December 9 graphically details the CIA’s use of abuse, including keeping a prisoner awake for 180 hours with his hands shackled over his head, threatening to sexually assault and cut the throat of a detainee’s mother, penetrating a detainee’s anus for “rectal feeding,” and tying a prisoner to a floor until he froze to death.
  13. Taliban militants stormed a school in Peshwar, Pakistan and killed more than 130 students in a terrorist attack on December 16 to retaliate against the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Malala Yousafzai, the young girl who caught the world’s attention for being shot for going to school. Responding to the Peshwar slaughter, Malala stated, “I, along with millions of others around the world, mourn these children, my brothers and sisters—but we will never be defeated.”
  14. Forty-three students traveling to a protest in Mexico were rounded up and “disappeared” in September. The mayor of Iguala, Mexico in concert with local gangs ordered the capture and murder of these students, reports indicate. Federal police may also have complicity in the crime. The act has garnered widespread attention in Mexico, with people questioning the legitimacy of federal and state Mexican authorities, who for years has been corrupted by the influence of narco-traffickers and gangs.
  15. More than 2,000 Gazans were killed when Israel launched a military operation in the Gaza strip in July to stop rocket attacks that followed an Israeli crackdown on Hamas in retaliation for the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers. The disproportionate level of force used by the Israeli military resulted in large number of civilian deaths. Of the 2,192 Gazans killed, about 1523 civilians (including 519 children), 66 Israeli soldiers, five Israeli civilians (including a child), and one Thai civilian were killed, reports indicate. At the end of the conflict, 110,000 people were internally displaced and 108,000 were made homeless, according to Amnesty International.

What can we do in the face of these human rights violations and the countless others that go unnoticed? Pay attention. Look behind the headlines. Make our voices heard by public officials, leaders, and the world community. Volunteer for projects that address the issues most important to us. Support organizations such as The Advocates for Human Rights which take on the larger systemic issues that allow human rights abuses to continue. We are not helpless. In 2015, we can, by working together, move closer to our vision of a world in which all people live with dignity, freedom, justice, equality, and peace . . . because every person matters.

By: The Advocates for Human Rights’ Deepinder Mayell, Robin Phillips, Jennifer Prestholdt, and Susan Banovetz

Donate now. Because every person matters.

Thank you, Emma Watson

Emma Watson Source: UN Women
Emma Watson
Source: UN Women

I have never written a blog post before. I don’t consider myself to be a political person. I have never marched in a protest. I have never even voted in an election. All of this might make me seem apathetic, but it is only because I am just 13 years old. Emma Watson’s recent speech to the UN advocating for gender equality reminded me that even young people can and should have opinions. Emma Watson’s speech inspired me to think about gender equality in a new light. It made me think about ways that I have been treated unequally by my male peers.

Gender stereotyping can occur at a very young age. I remember during my lower school experience. In fifth grade, the boys in my class made a list of the top ten “hottest” girls in our class. They were listing us as though we were objects, and they were only 10 years old. This is one reason why I believe that, although adults should be a big part of creating gender equality, children need to be a part of the conversation, too.

Emma Watson’s speech made me realize, first, that girls are discriminated in society just as much as women. For example, many girls in South East Asia are denied an education because their families believe that educating girls is not as profitable as educating boys. Horribly, some of these girls are even sold into prostitution in order to make a profit for their families. Where did these ideas come about that girls are less capable of learning than boys?

Second, I had never thought that the word “feminism” had a negative connotation. I had neither associated it with “man- hating” nor had I ever thought it meant women having more rights than men. I had always thought of feminism as a concept describing the efforts to create an equal society for men and women. What in the world could be wrong with that? Maybe I should have known better but I was very disappointed to hear Emma Watson declare that no country in the world – even America – has achieved gender equality to date.

Lastly, Emma Watson helped me see that women cannot be the only ones pushing to have equal rights. Men have to join this movement as well. How can we achieve gender equality if only half of our society is advocating for it? I believe that feminism is a notion that one-day women will not be seen as objects to be sold or disrespected, but as peers with equal rights to men. This is what I wish for in society.

By: Jenna Schulman, an 8th grade student in Washington, D.C. 

U.S. Asylum Policy Founded on Politics, Not Humanitarianism

Child from Honduras

This post is part of a series delving into the plight of the Central American children and families fleeing violence in Central America. The series will examine the historical context of the crisis, challenges that refugees face, international human rights obligations, and costs of a response.

United States’ hypocrisy and its pick-and-choose humanitarianism is pointed out in The Advocates’ friend Mary Turck in her op-ed posted on Al Jazeera America. “U.S. immigration laws pose almost insurmountable barriers for these Central American youths fleeing gangs, drug lords and threats of death or rape,” she writes. “But consider another group of refugees that it welcomes without question: Cubans. The erratic treatment says that U.S. immigration policy is guided more by politics than by humanitarian considerations or respect for international standards for treatment of refugees.”

Mary Turck is an adjunct faculty member at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and a former editor of The Twin Cities Daily Planet.

End “Tinkering with the machinery of death”

Electric Chair DoctorHarkening back to the 1800s, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam signed a bill into law on May 22, 2014 that brings back the electric chair – a method of execution plainly fraught with error and considerable suffering. The new law allows Tennessee to electrocute death row inmates if the state is unable to obtain lethal injection drugs or if lethal injection is deemed unconstitutional. Lethal injection is currently the standard method of execution in Tennessee, as it is in all states that permit capital punishment. Existing Tennessee law allowed inmates convicted of an offense prior to 1999 to choose electrocution, although virtually no one did. The new law changes matters in that the state will be able to impose electrocution without providing inmates with any choice. The law becomes effective on July 1, 2014, and will apply to any person sentenced to death after that date.

The Tennessee law passed largely because of current complications surrounding lethal injections. The drugs required for lethal injection are becoming increasingly scarce and difficult to obtain. Foreign government regulations, European Union restrictions, and the refusal of drug companies to sell lethal injection drugs to states have limited the supply of such drugs. As a result, states have begun experimenting with untested and unchartered drug combinations and protocols to administer lethal injections. Compounding this issue is the fact that many states, including Oklahoma, Missouri, and Texas, are obtaining drugs for lethal injection without disclosing the source. These new protocols have resulted in multiple botched executions, including that of Clayton Lockett last month.

Recent accounts of failed lethal injections are sadly reminiscent of botched electrocutions of the past. The electric chair, first introduced in the late 1800s, replaced hanging as the “preferred” method of execution. At the time, electrocution was considered a more humane alternative, but multiple accounts of the gruesome effects of electrocution make it clear that use of the electric chair is untenable. Based on empirical evidence and eyewitness testimony, Justice William Brennan described execution by electric chair as follows:

. . . death by electrical current is extremely violent and inflicts pain and indignities far beyond the “mere extinguishment of life.” Witnesses routinely report that, when the switch is thrown, the condemned prisoner “cringes,” “leaps,” and “fights the straps with amazing strength.” “The hands turn red, then white, and the cords of the neck stand out like steel bands.” The prisoner’s limbs, fingers, toes, and face are severely contorted. The force of the electrical current is so powerful that the prisoner’s eyeballs sometimes pop out and “rest on [his] cheeks.” The prisoner often defecates, urinates, and vomits blood and drool. “The body turns bright red as its temperature rises,” and the prisoner’s “flesh swells and his skin stretches to the point of breaking.” Sometimes the prisoner catches on fire, particularly “if [he] perspires excessively.” Witnesses hear a loud and sustained sound “like bacon frying,” and “the sickly sweet smell of burning flesh” permeates the chamber. This “smell of frying human flesh in the immediate neighbourhood of the chair is sometimes bad enough to nauseate even the Press representatives who are present.” In the meantime, the prisoner almost literally boils: “the temperature in the brain itself approaches the boiling point of water,” and when the postelectrocution autopsy is performed “the liver is so hot that doctors have said that it cannot be touched by the human hand.” The body frequently is badly burned and disfigured. Glass v. Louisiana, (dissent from denial of certiorari) (citations omitted).

In 2001, Georgia’s Supreme Court held the electric chair to constitute cruel and unusual punishment (Dawson v. Georgia, 554 S.E.2d 137 (Ga. 2001))

At least in part due to these problems states began turning to lethal injection, and by the 1990s it displaced the electric chair as the United States’ favored means of execution. Again, this new alternative was seen as a more humane method of execution. However, as recent botched lethal injections make grimly obvious, lethal injection is also an untenable means of execution. Rather than face this reality, Tennessee has attempted to maintain the death penalty through a regressive law that reinstates the inhumane practice of electrocution.

Tennessee’s reinstatement of the electric chair will certainly face legal challenges. And supporters of capital punishment will no doubt cite In re Kemmler, an 1890 Supreme Court decision, as support for the constitutionality of the electric chair. But the decision does not stand for such a proposition. Kemmler declined to consider the validity (and thereby constitutionality) of electrocution. Kemmler simply held that the Eighth Amendment’s protections were not applicable to state actions through the Fourteenth Amendment (a holding that the Supreme Court has since reversed). Kemmler did observe, however, that “[p]unishments are cruel when they involve torture or a lingering death . . . .”

The Eighth Amendment provides that “[e]xcessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” The Supreme Court has observed that the Eighth Amendment reaffirms the duty of government to respect the dignity of all persons, even those who commit heinous crimes. The Court has held that when determining whether a punishment is unconstitutional as “cruel and unusual,” it must look to the “evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.” In recent years, the Court has applied this standard to limit the scope of capital punishment. For example, in Atkins v. Virginia (2002), the Supreme Court held that intellectually disabled individuals could not be sentenced to death, as to do so was a form of cruel and unusual punishment that did not conform with “evolving standards of decency.” And just last month, in Florida v. Hall, the Court held that a Florida law that defined intellectual disability based strictly on a rigid IQ cutoff “creates an unacceptable risk that persons with intellectual disability will be executed, and thus is unconstitutional.” The Hall decision reiterated the Court’s commitment to the evolution of “[t]he Eighth Amendment’s protection of dignity,” which, as Justice Kennedy said in his majority opinion, “reflects the Nation we have been, the Nation we are, and the Nation we aspire to be.”

Although the Supreme Court, in Baze v. Rees (2008), declined to hold lethal injection unconstitutional, that decision rested largely on the lack of sufficient “evidence regarding alleged defects in [lethal injection] protocols.” Recent events, namely the scarcity of lethal injection drugs and botched lethal injections inflicting severe and unnecessary pain, have provided just such evidence.

So where are we now? The answer to problems with lethal injection is not to regressively turn back to the electric chair, as Tennessee has done – both of these methods of execution have been shown to be cruel and inhumane. Indeed, the search for a “humane” way to execute people is a fool’s errand, certain to fail. If we are to live up to the Constitution’s protection of human dignity and recognition of evolving standards of decency, so that we can become the nation we aspire to be, the only answer is to recognize the unconstitutionality of capital punishment. The current state of capital punishment has reached its limit, and the nation should, as Justice Blackmun suggested 20 years ago, discontinue our “tinker[ing] with the machinery of death.”

The United States ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which prohibits torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, understood by the United States to mean the cruel and unusual treatment or punishment prohibited by the Fifth, Eighth, and/or Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution of the United States.[1] The Advocates for Human Rights submitted a shadow report to the United Nations Human Rights Committee, the treaty body that oversees compliance with the ICCPR, detailing how the death penalty in the U.S. violates basic human rights, including the right to be free from cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. The Advocates was present at the Committee’s 100th session in Geneva, Switzerland in March, when the Committee took the U.S. to task on the death penalty and other issues. In its concluding Observations, the Committee urged that measures be taken to ensure that the death penalty is not carried out in a racially biased or erroneous manner and that lethal injection drugs come from legitimate sources.

[1] The United States has also ratified the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, but issued a reservation stating, “That the United States understands that international law does not prohibit the death penalty, and does not consider this Convention to restrict or prohibit the United States from applying the death penalty consistent with the Fifth, Eighth and/or Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution of the United States, including any constitutional period of confinement prior to the imposition of the death penalty.”

By: Steven M. Pincus, shareholder with the Anthony Ostlund Baer & Louwagie law firm. His pro bono practice has included representing death row inmates from both Louisiana and Mississippi in post-conviction proceedings. Pincus is one of the lawyers who won the release of Albert Burrell from Louisiana’s death row. Burrell was exonerated and freed from the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola in January 2001, after spending more than 13 years on death row for a crime that he did not commit. 

Laura Gordon, a summer associate with Anthony Ostlund Baer & Louwagie, contributed to the blog post.

Call Legislators Today; Move People Out of the Shadows

Woman covering face with hand

Lack of access to a driver’s license forces many to hide in the shadows and steeps their every day lives in fear.

We have an opportunity to make a change for the better, and the time to take action is NOW!

Lack of ability to apply for a driver’s license is one of the pressing issues identified in The Advocates for Human Rights’ new, groundbreaking report, Moving From Exclusion to Belonging: Immigrant Rights in Minnesota Today. Minnesota regulations require proof of lawful presence in the United States for all applicants for driver’s licenses and state identification cards, effectively barring undocumented immigrants from obtaining driver’s licenses and making it difficult for many people who are lawfully present to obtain licenses.[1]

There are numerous reports of individuals being arrested and booked into local jails after minor traffic stops for failing to carry a driver’s license or proof of insurance. Once in jail, ICE officers zero in, interviewing the detained to try to get admissions of unlawful presence in the United States and then turning them over to federal authorities for deportation.

The driver’s license issue stokes fear. “We have big meetings and ask people what the biggest issue is – driver’s licenses,” one community member reports. “People are so afraid of being stopped, constantly thinking, ‘When was the last time I saw my kids; will I be deported?’”[2]

It is commonly believed that the ban on driver’s licenses is a way for police and other law enforcement agencies to target immigrants.[3] This fear is well founded. “A number of our leaders have been lost because they were driving to work, arrested for not having their address on their ID, and brought to the county jail where ICE comes,” a community organizer explained.[4]

One U.S. citizen, whose husband was deported following a traffic stop, told us that her husband knew he should not drive, but he needed to go to work. Arrested in May 2013 for driving without a license, her husband was detained in immigration custody until his deportation in November.[5]

In a similar incident, a public defender described the plight of a Latino man who, after parking his car, was walking toward a restaurant, when a patrol officer stopped him and asked for identification.[6] The officer made no allegations of any violation of motor vehicle operation or suspicion of any criminal activity.[7] When the individual failed to produce a valid Minnesota driver’s license, he was arrested, booked into county jail, and turned over to ICE for deportation.[8]

Consider the person who was simply helping out a friend. He had his car parked on the wrong side of the street in order to jump-start the friend’s car.[9] The police stopped, and asked him for identification. When he presented a Mexican matricula consular, they arrested him.[10] He was booked into jail, interviewed by ICE under the Criminal Alien Program, and placed in deportation proceedings.[11] The individual had no criminal history, and no criminal charges were brought against him.[12]

Living without a driver’s license weighs heavy on undocumented immigrants, their families, and their communities. And it has far-reaching, sometimes unanticipated, consequences. For example, undocumented immigrants are reluctant to turn to law enforcement for help when they are victims of crimes, and they are cut off from participation in schools, from the broad community, and from employment.

Minnesota can end this pervasive fear. The Minnesota House has the opportunity to pass a bill, H.F. 348, “Driver’s Licenses for All,” that would allow all residents of Minnesota to apply for driver’s licenses. The Minnesota Senate has already passed the bill, and Governor Dayton supports it. House Speaker Paul Thissen has stated that he will schedule a vote, if there is enough support for its passage.

Call today and help undocumented immigrants and their loved ones move out of the shadows.

To find information on contacting your Minnesota state representative, use the District Finder on the Minnesota Legislature’s webpage: http://www.gis.leg.mn/OpenLayers/districts/.

By: Madeline Lohman, a program associate in The Advocates for Human Rights’ Research, Education, and Advocacy Program.  Lohman received her Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy from the Fletcher School, with a focus on international human rights law and Latin America, and her B.A. in British history and literature from Harvard. Prior to joining The Advocates, she worked at a variety of nonprofits, including Freedom House in Washington D.C., International Relief Teams, Human Rights Education Associates, and PACT Bolivia.

[1] Minn. Rules 7410.0410 (2013) (as amended by 28 SR 314, Sept. 15, 2003). Even for some refugees and immigrants who are legally present in the United States, Minnesota’s restrictive driver’s license rules pose a problem. A public defender said “homeless refugees often have no documents. So, they end up getting arrested because they don’t have documents and can’t prove their identity.” Interview 124.

[2] Interview 128.

[3] Interview 139 (“people end up in contact with immigration because of driver’s license problems.”)

[4] Interview 107.

[5] Dianne Towalski, Couple’s plight spotlights need for immigration reform, The Catholic Spirit, Jan. 2, 2014, at 6.

[6] Interview 124.

[7] Interview 124.

[8] Interview 124.

[9] Interview 121.

[10] Interview 121.

[11] Interview 121.

[12] Interview 121.