Featured

The Fight Against the Death Penalty Continues

Brunei
Brunei Darussalam’s delegation at the UN Human Rights Council 

In May 2019, the United Nations Human Rights Council held its 33rd session of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), as part of the third cycle of the review process. The UPR examines the status and progress of human rights in all 193 member countries of the United Nations. (For more information about the UPR, check out Chapter 9 of Human Rights Tool for a Changing World here.) Among other countries, both the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Brunei Darussalam received recommendations to further their progress toward abolishing the death penalty.

Both countries have a de facto moratorium on the death penalty. Brunei has had no reported executions since 1957, and the DRC has had the moratorium since 2003. But neither country has ratified the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to officially move toward abolition of the death penalty. Even though international human rights standards mandate that countries retaining the death penalty must reserve it for only the most serious crimes, Brunei continues to sentence people by hanging for far less.

Under the Syariah Penal Code, adultery, sodomy, rape, apostasy, blasphemy, and insulting Islam are all punishable by death by stoning in Brunei. In the DRC, the administration of the death penalty lacks transparency. Just last year, the government handed down 41 death sentences.

At the Universal Periodic Review

Due to these issues, at the UPR in May both countries faced increasing pressure to abolish the death penalty. Brunei Darussalam received 96 recommendations on the death penalty from 50 countries–38.6% of all recommendations the country received, and a 336% increase from Brunei’s second cycle UPR. The recommendations ranged from ratification of the Convention against Torture to repealing problematic provisions in the Penal Code. The DRC received death penalty recommendations from 17 countries, an increase of 13.3% from the second cycle.

The Advocates, together with the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, pushed for these recommendations behind the scenes. The two organizations submitted joint stakeholder reports on both countries. (To read the full reports, visit: Brunei and the DRC). Through both emails and in-person meetings, The Advocates lobbied 48 of the 50 countries that made death penalty recommendations to Brunei Darussalam, and 16 out of the 17 countries that made death penalty recommendations to the DRC.

A Lack of Progress?

After taking months to examine the recommendations from May, last month both Brunei Darussalam and the DRC “noted” all the recommendations relevant to the death penalty. In the language of the UN, noted means rejected. Both countries cited their respective sovereignty over the issue as the reason for rejecting the recommendations. Brunei Darussalam used the country’s religious background to justify the current use the death penalty in the Penal Code. Many countries and organizations, including Belgium and the UK, urged the government of Brunei to reconsider its decision. Similarly, a representative of the government of the DRC told the Human Rights Council that the nation’s own parliament should make the final decision on the death penalty. A delegate from Germany, however, urged the DRC to ratify the Second Protocol.

Despite noting these recommendations in the official meeting, the Brunei government took a small step forward. On May 6, the Brunei government announced that it would extend its moratorium on capital punishment to the crimes of homosexuality and adultery. Under laws that had taken effect in April, the two crimes would otherwise have been eligible for the death sentence of stoning. Furthermore, a representative from the government of Brunei told the Human Rights Council that the government had been making progress toward ratifying the Convention Against Torture. Many governments and non-governmental organizations welcomed this move.

The fight persists

This small victory, however, should not overshadow the larger picture. Despite overall progress toward abolition of the death penalty, many countries’ practices are far removed from international human rights standards. The cases of Brunei Darussalam and the DRC signal the difficulty ahead. The Advocates will continue to fight for a humane justice system on an international level.

To learn more about the death penalty, please visit our website here. Also, October 10 is the 2019 World Day against the Death Penalty, and encourage you to get involved.

To watch the full videos of the September 2019 meetings of the Human Rights Council adopting the outcomes of the UPRs of Brunei and the DRC, please visit the links below:

Brunei Darussalam

The Democratic Republic of Congo

By: Yunze Wang, an intern with the International Justice Program at The Advocates for Human Rights and a student at Macalester College.

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

UN HRC room
The Human Rights Council chambers in Geneva, Switzerland. UN Photo/Elma Okic. Source: http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=56915#.WjhEE7T83_Q

Since 2014, a growing number of women and children fleeing gender-based violence in Guatemala have requested legal assistance from The Advocates in applying for asylum in the United States. Using information from interviews with these clients, The Advocates documented violence against women in Guatemala and submitted a stakeholder report to the United Nations Human Rights Council for consideration during Guatemala’s third-cycle Universal Periodic Review, which took place on November 8, 2017.

Violence against women remains a serious problem in Guatemala, especially as the country continues to struggle to implement protective measures and programs. In the first ten months of 2015, the public ministry reported receiving 11,449 reports of sexual or physical aggression against women. In the first seven months of 2015, there were 29,128 complaints of domestic violence against women and 501 violent deaths of women.

Due to lack of protection and high rates of impunity, many women choose to leave the country rather than face potential reprisals and stigma. Domestic violence is also a significant push factor for unaccompanied child migrants.

The Advocates is able to help these women and children in two important ways: providing legal assistance in their asylum cases and using their experiences to advocate at the United Nations for law and policy changes in their home country of Guatemala.

There are several steps involved in bringing these individual stories to an international stage.

First, The Advocates drafted a report documenting violence against women in Guatemala, based on research on country conditions and client interviews. The Advocates submitted this stakeholder report to the Human Rights Council for consideration during Guatemala’s Universal Periodic Review. After the report was complete, I drafted a two-page summary that outlined the key information and suggested recommendations. I then reviewed countries that made recommendations to Guatemala during its second UPR in 2012, and selected 27 countries to lobby based on their past support for eliminating gender-based violence. I emailed these countries, thanking them for their interest in women’s issues and updating them on the status of past recommendations they made to Guatemala. I sent them the full report on Guatemala as well as the summary document.

The purpose of lobbying other countries is twofold— to alert the country to the dire situation in Guatemala and to provide suggested recommendations based on our report. The country under review must acknowledge the recommendations, which can serve as a rebuke for missteps as well as a blueprint for areas to improve.

For example, Guatemala received and accepted recommendations during its second-cycle UPR in 2012 to strengthen the 2008 Law Against Femicide. In order to implement these recommendations, the government established several agencies and institutions to give effect to the law, and created lower level courts. Yet weak implementation of these tools meant there was little reduction in levels of violence against women. In addition, there is no law against sexual harassment, despite its ubiquity. The partial implementation of these 2012 recommendations speaks to the importance of creating targeted recommendations, the success of which can be measured on a defined timeline.

Guatemala photo 2 Guatemala delegation
The delegation from Guatemala, led by H.E. Mr Jorge Luis Borrayo Reyes, President of the Presidential Coordinating Commission of Guatemala, delivers an introductory statement during the November 8th, 2017 UPR of Guatemala. Source: http://webtv.un.org/search/guatemala-review-28th-session-of-universal-periodic-review/5639386301001/?term=&lan=english&cat=UPR%2028th&sort=date&page=3#

After the UN published the recommendations made during the November 8th UPR, I reviewed them to determine the success of our lobbying efforts. Of the 27 countries we contacted, seven of them made recommendations, five of which Guatemala accepted. Interestingly, the number of VAW-specific recommendations made to Guatemala remained fairly constant from 2012 (30 recommendations) to 2017 (31), but the makeup of the countries making the recommendations changed. In 2017, 77% of the VAW recommendations were made by countries that did not make a VAW recommendation in 2012. This shift suggests that a wider group of countries is taking note of the situation in Guatemala and willing to use their platform at the UN to advocate for women. It also suggests we should expand our lobbying efforts to target additional countries.

I was pleased to see the following recommendation from Spain, a country we targeted with our lobbying:

“Allocate sufficient resources to specialized courts and tribunals with jurisdiction over femicide and other forms of violence against women as well as move towards the full implementation of the Law against Femicide and Other Forms of Violence against Women.”

 

Guatemala photo 3 Spain gives rec
Mr. Emilio Pin, the representative to the UN Human Rights Council from Spain, delivers Spain’s recommendations to Guatemala during the November 8th UPR. Source: http://webtv.un.org/search/guatemala-review-28th-session-of-universal-periodic-review/5639386301001/?term=&lan=english&cat=UPR%2028th&sort=date&page=3#

This recommendation indicates that Spain acknowledges steps Guatemala has taken (specialized tribunals, partial implementation of the Law against Femicide) and points out a key gap in the implementation of these efforts: lack of government resources.

It’s incredibly powerful to see this recommendation and other calls to action that grew out of The Advocates’ client testimonies.

Guatemala accepted 28 of the 31 VAW-specific recommendations and will have five years before its next review to work on implementing them. I hope, the country will continue to build on past work and use the recommendations made during this review to effect meaningful change.

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 second 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

Sri Lanka’s Evolving Stance on the Death Penalty

Ukraine delays decision on Universal Periodic Review recommendations on domestic violence

India’s failure to protect religious minorities

India is the world’s largest democracy and a pluralistic melting pot of different religions, cultures, and languages. Yet there has been an alarming rise in discrimination and violence against religious minorities in India. The Advocates for Human Rights, along with our partner organizations, went to the United Nations Human Rights Council to raise our concerns in advance of India’s Universal Periodic Review on May 4, 2017.

Indian human rights defender Teesta Setalvad presented this oral statement on religious minorities in India at the United Nations Human Rights Council on behalf of The Advocates for Human Rights, Citizens for Justice and Peace, Indian American Muslim Council, Jamia Teachers Solidarity Association, and the Quill Foundation.  The oral statement was made on March 15, 2017 at the Human Rights Council’s Interactive Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues. 

The Advocates for Human Rights, along with its partner organizations Indian American Muslim Council, Jamia Teachers Solidarity Association, Citizens for Justice and Peace, and the Quill Foundation, commend the Special Rapporteur for her report. We thank her for her work over her six-year tenure.

We recall the Special Rapporteur’s 2013 General Assembly report, and the first pillar of minority rights protection: protection of a minority’s survival by combatting violence against its members. We note the following developments in India since the 2013 report:

First, communal violence has increased. In 2013, for example, in Muzaffarnagar, Muslims were overwhelmingly targeted, resulting in over 60 deaths. Speeches by political leaders and Members of Parliament encouraged attacks on Muslims and exacerbated the violence.

Second, state governments are slow to intervene against the targeting of religious minorities accused of “improper” conversions from Hinduism.

Third, since 2015, in the wake of state laws banning the sale of beef, mobs have attacked people alleged to have beef in their possession.

Fourth, the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions reported that extrajudicial encounter killings “have become virtually a part of unofficial State policy” in India.

Fifth, the above acts often are committed with impunity, stemming in part from close alignment between the government and non-state actors.

Sixth, law enforcement agencies fabricate terrorism cases, where Muslims are often targets.

For these reasons, we agree with the Special Rapporteur that progress in minority rights protection is under threat, including by increasing hate speech, xenophobic rhetoric, and incitement to hatred against minorities. We add that such threats come, in part, from elected officials and Members of Parliament.

The Advocates for Human Rights and its partner organizations call on India to accept a visit by the Special Rapporteur. We also join the Special Rapporteur in calling on UN Member States and the Human Rights Council to recognize that States bear the primary duty to protect the security of religious minorities with positive and preventive actions, through active engagement with religious minorities.

The United Nations Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of India will take place on Thursday, May 4, from 14:30-18:00 in Geneva, Switzerland.  The UPR session will be webcast live at this link: http://webtv.un.org/live-now/watch/30th-regular-session-of-the-human-rights-council/4473498400001.  )Later that day it will be posted in the archives of UN WebTV: http://webtv.un.org/meetings-events/) The Advocates will be livetweeting the recommendations made to India on Twitter @The_Advocates.

The Advocates for Human Rights, along with partners the Indian American Muslim Council, Jamia Teachers Solidarity Association, Citizens for Justice and Peace, and the Quill Foundation, submitted a UPR stakeholder report to the UN Human Rights Council in 2016 that addresses India’s failure to comply with its international human rights obligations to protect members of minority groups. In particular, the report calls attention to serious problems with the treatment of Muslims in India. Significant human rights challenges include: extrajudicial executions committed by police and security personnel, as well as non-State actors; arbitrary and unlawful detentions; torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of terrorism suspects in police custody; discriminatory laws and practices; harassment of human rights defenders; as well as the targeting of NGOs through prohibitive legislation. Additionally, this report highlights the Indian government’s failure to adequately investigate and effectively prosecute perpetrators of these human rights violations against members of minority groups. You can read the full report here.

The Death Penalty Doesn’t Stop Drug Crimes

World Day 2015

On September 28, 2015, the UN Human Rights Council hosted a three-hour panel discussion on “The Impact of the World Drug Problem on Human Rights.” One of the panelists was Mr. Aldo Lale of the UN Office on Drug Control. The Advocates for Human Rights and several of its partner organizations prepared the following oral statement for the discussion, highlighting that tomorrow, October 10, is World Day Against the Death Penalty. The theme for World Day 2015 is the use of the death penalty for drug-related offenses.

This statement is made by The Advocates for Human Rights, Harm Reduction International, the Paris Bar, FIACAT, and the International Drug Policy Consortium, all members of the World Coalition against the Death Penalty.

Between 1980 and 2000, many countries added the death penalty as a punishment for drug-related offenses. This period coincides with the drafting, adoption and ratification of the Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances.

Only a handful of the 33 countries that impose the death penalty for drug crimes actually execute drug offenders. But in those countries, drug crimes often result in the bulk of capital sentences and executions.

On October 10, the international community celebrates the 13th World Day against the Death Penalty, this year highlighting the human rights violations involved with imposing the death penalty for drug crimes.

International human rights standards recognize that the death penalty must be limited to the most serious crimes—intentional killings.

Further, the World Drug Report recently confirmed that after 30 years, countries that sentence people to death and execute them for drug crimes have not seen reductions in drug consumption or trafficking.

UN assistance in the form of international funds contributes to the arrest, prosecution, and subsequent sentencing to death of drug suspects. Since 2008 we have called on the UNODC to take responsibility for its role in these human rights violations.

In 2012, a UNODC Position Paper stated: “If, following requests for guarantees and high-level political intervention, executions for drug-related offences continue, UNODC may have no choice but to employ a temporary freeze or withdrawal of support.”

However, UNODC continues to fund law enforcement-focused counter-narcotics activities in a number of countries which aggressively apply the death penalty for drug offences. Earlier this year it was finalizing a new five year funding settlement in a country that has executed at least 394 drug offenders in 2015. This funding continues despite a recent report from the UNODC’s own Independent Evaluation Unit finding that that country has taken “no action . . . yet in line with UNODC guidance.”

Mr. Aldo Lale, how has UNODC applied these guidelines, and has it ever frozen or withdrawn support in countries that still conduct widespread executions for drug crimes?

We urge donors to freeze all financial support pending an investigation into how funds have been spent and until clear risk assessments and accountability mechanisms are put in place.

We welcome the panel’s views on how best to ensure accountability of the UN and donors for ensuring that human rights are respected in drug enforcement.

Thank you.

By: Amy Bergquist, International Justice Program staff attorney with The Advocates for Human Rights and its representative on the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty’s Steering Committee.

Learn more about World Day Against the Death Penalty and how you can get involved.

Learn more about The Advocates’ work on the death penalty around the world.

Pledges & Punts at the UN: The U.S. Government Responds to UPR Recommendations

blog_un

Today marks the formal end of the U.S. government’s second Universal Periodic Review of its human rights record at the Human Rights Council in Geneva. But on many important issues, it’s really just the beginning of many years of work to implement the United States’ human rights obligations.

During the interactive dialogue part of the UPR in May 2015, the U.S. government received 343 recommendations from countries around the world. Today the government formally responded to each of them, stating whether it accepted, accepted in part, or noted (diplomatic UN-speak for “rejected”) each one. At the Human Rights Council in Geneva this morning, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Scott Busby acknowledged that the United States hasn’t “been perfect in our efforts, and we still have many challenges.”

The Advocates for Human Rights has been engaging in advocacy throughout the UPR process, lobbying on the death penalty, immigration detention, and the rights of non-citizens. We submitted stakeholder reports on those issues back in September 2014, and we traveled to Geneva in March to lobby delegates to the Human Rights Council to encourage them to raise our issues in the interactive dialogue.

Those lobbying efforts were successful. For example, 45 countries presented recommendations to the United States on the death penalty, and 23 offered recommendations on the rights of non-citizens. The Advocates lobbied nearly every country that made recommendations on those issues.

Here are some highlights from those 343 recommendations, and the U.S. government’s responses:

Death penalty

Transparency on lethal injection drugs

Some of the U.S. government’s responses were discouraging. Knowing that the government was not likely commit to abolishing the death penalty, The Advocates lobbied France and many other countries to highlight the issue of state laws and practices that keep secret the identity and sources of drugs used in lethal injections. Transparency regarding the types of drugs used and the sources of those drugs is increasingly important in light of the Supreme Court’s June 2015 decision in Glossip v. Gross, which places additional evidentiary burdens on individuals seeking to challenge the proposed method of their execution as a violation of the Eighth Amendment.

During the interactive dialogue in May, France took up our issue, recommending that the U.S. government “[c]ommit to full transparency on the combination of medicines used during executions by injection.” Today, however, the U.S. government formally “noted” that recommendation, providing no explanation other than its position that the death penalty comports with our country’s human rights obligations.

Moratorium

In explaining the government’s decision to reject calls from 37 countries around the world to abolish–or at least consider a moratorium on–the death penalty, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Busby told the Human Rights Council:

I’d also note that we received numerous recommendations–including from Ecuador, Austria, Lithuania, Congo, Nepal, and many others–concerning our administration of capital punishment. Domestic civil society also raised capital punishment as an issue of concern. While we did not support the majority of the recommendations on this topic, we respect those who made them. Our continuing differences in this are a matter of policy, and not what the rules of international human rights law currently require.

Racial bias and wrongful convictions

The U.S. government made some important pledges concerning the death penalty today. For example, we lobbied Angola and Poland about racial bias in the administration of the death penalty and about wrongful convictions. The government accepted these recommendations:

  • Angola: Identify the root causes of ethnic disparities concerning especially those sentenced to capital punishment in order to find ways [to] eliminate ethnic discrimination in the criminal justice system.
  • France: Identify the factors of racial disparity in the use of the death penalty and develop strategies to end possible discriminatory practices.
  • Poland: Strengthen safeguards against wrongful sentencing to death and subsequent wrongful execution by ensuring, inter alia, effective legal representation for defendants in death penalty cases, including at the post-conviction stage.

We also lobbied on the issue of compensation for victims of wrongful convictions. The U.S. government accepted, in part, a recommendation from Belgium to “[t]ake measures in follow-up to the recommendations of the Human Rights Committee to the US in 2014 with regards to capital punishment such as measures to avoid racial bias, to avoid wrongful sentencing to death and to provide adequate compensation if wrongful sentencing happens.” In its formal response, the government stated that it “support[s] consideration of these recommendations, noting that we may not agree with all of them.”

Immigrant detention

The U.S. government made several pledges on the detention of migrants, accepting a recommendation from Brazil to “[c]onsider alternatives to the detention of migrants, particularly children.” The government accepted, in part, a recommendation from Sweden to “[h]alt the detention of immigrant families and children, seek alternatives to detention and end the use of detention for reason of deterrence.” In its response, the government punted on the controversial use of immigrant detention to deter future migrants, but added that it is “working to shorten detention families may face while their immigration proceedings are resolved.”

One issue we lobbied on was the lack of due process in immigration removal proceedings. Honduras was particularly receptive to these issues, recommending that the United States “[e]nsure due process for all immigrants in immigration proceedings, using the principle of the best interest, especially in the case of families and unaccompanied children.”

Honduras is one of the main countries of origin for the unaccompanied children and families coming to the United States to seek asylum, so it was rewarding to see that government’s interest in the plight of its nationals.

In responding to Honduras’ recommendation, however, the U.S. government glossed over its international human rights obligation to ensure due process, instead asserting that “[n]oncitizens in the U.S. facing removal receive significant procedural protections.”

On the issue of the rights of children in immigration proceedings, the government ignored the fact that unaccompanied children have no right to a government-provided attorney, offering merely that “[t]he best interest of a child is one factor in determinations by immigration judges. [The Department of Health and Human Services] provides care and placement for children who enter the U.S. without an adult guardian, considering the best interests of the child in all placement decisions.”

Rights of migrants

Our lobbying and advocacy on the rights of migrants highlighted many of the findings in The Advocates’ groundbreaking report, Moving from Exclusion to Belonging: Immigrant Rights in Minnesota Today. One of the issues we highlighted was discrimination against and profiling of non-citizens. Iran, Mexico, and Nicaragua called for an end to discrimination and violence against migrants and non-citizens, among other targeted groups. In partially accepting these recommendations, however, the U.S. government glossed over migrants, describing efforts “to counter intolerance, violence, and discrimination against members of all minority groups, including African-Americans, Muslims, Arabs, and indigenous persons.”

Another issue we highlighted is excessive use of force by officials on our country’s southern border. Mexico called on the United States to “[i]nvestigate cases of deaths of migrants by customs and border patrols, particularly those where there have been indications of an excessive use of force, and ensure accountability and adequate reparation to the families of the victims.” The government accepted the recommendation in part, adding that it “cannot support parts of this recommendation concerning reparations.”

The U.S. government expressed its support for recommendations to “[r]eview in depth migration policy” (Congo), to “[f]urther improve the rights of immigrants” (Senegal), to give “special attention . . . to protecting migrant workers from exploitative working conditions, specifically in the agricultural sector” (Portugal), and to “[e]nsure the rights of migrant workers, especially in the sector of agriculture where the use of child laborers is a common practice” (Holy See).

But in responding to Algeria’s call to “[t]ake necessary measures to combat discriminatory practices against . . . migrant workers in the labor market,” the U.S. government ignored the obstacles immigrant workers face in combating discrimination. As we explained in our stakeholder report,

“immigrants who experience discrimination often do not complain, either because they are unaware of their rights under the law, because it is easier to leave the employer than to pursue a complaint, or, for undocumented workers, because fear of deportation keeps them silent.”

The U.S. government, in responding to Algeria’s recommendation, ignored these complexities, stating simply that “U.S. federal labor and employment laws generally apply to all workers, regardless of immigration status.”

What’s next?

The U.S. government may be breathing a sigh of relief that the UPR is finally over, but The Advocates and other members of civil society know that today is just the beginning. Now we begin the process of working with the government to implement the recommendations the government accepted. And we haven’t lost hope for those “noted” recommendations–surprisingly, research shows that governments often implement, at least in part, UPR recommendations that they formally reject.

To learn more about the Universal Periodic Review process, read the chapter on Advocacy at the United Nations in The Advocates for Human Rights’ 2015 toolkit, Human Rights Tools for a Changing World: A Step-by-step Guide to Human Rights Fact-Finding, Documentation, and Advocacy.

By Amy Bergquist, staff attorney for the International Justice Program of The Advocates for Human Rights.

“The Advocates for Human Rights, You Have The Floor…”

The location is Geneva, Switzerland, on the floor of the United Nations Human Rights Council in the Human Rights and Alliance of Civilizations Room at the Palais des Nations. I have pushed the large button on the microphone unit in front of me. The red disc around my microphone has begun to glow, signifying a live mic. If I dared to look up, I would no doubt see myself on one of the two big screens at the front of the room – staring down, wide-eyed, at the printed page before me.  In front of me are delegates from all of the nearly 200 UN member states, seated in alphabetical order with the current Human Rights Council members seated in the inner half-circle at the front. The black on white-lettered placard at my seat reads “Orateur ONG” (French for “Non-Governmental Organization Speaker”). I have practiced delivering The Advocates for Human Rights’ oral statement; the familiar text on the printed page clutched in my hands steadies me.

I am delivering The Advocates’ oral statement on the implementation of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action (VDPA), adopted in 1993. The VDPA, one of the alphabet soup of conventions and declarations relevant in the field of international human rights, contains strong language regarding women’s rights and domestic violence, and The Advocates for Human Rights is using this debate at the Human Rights Council regarding ongoing implementation of the VDPA to point out that there is still much work to be done.

I greet the Council leadership, and begin:

“Domestic violence violates a woman’s right to life, liberty and security, equal protection, and freedom from torture and discrimination. Strong laws are essential for women’s full and equal participation in all aspects of life, and for governments to meet their human rights obligations, they must have effective legislation and practices that promote victim safety and offender accountability.”

This about sums it up for me, and seems a pretty succinct statement of what drew me to the Advocates in the first place: The idea that legal reform needs to lead societal change. In other words, real social change can only happen when the law is on the side of the victim, not the abuser.

We were in Geneva, ten volunteers led by The Advocates’ staff, to continue this important work, and hopefully move the needle, at least a little bit, on issues ranging from domestic violence in places as far flung as Honduras and Mongolia, to the death penalty and the rights of migrants in the United States. We were joined by partners from other international NGOs in this important task. Overall, The Advocates submitted ten stakeholder reports on human rights issues in eight different countries as part of this cycle of the Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review, and participated in other proceedings such the Human Rights Committee (a UN treaty-monitoring body) review of Croatia’s implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. (You can read more about that review here.)  

I had two minutes for my statement. Members of the Human Rights Council (forty-seven countries sit on the Council at any given time) are allotted three minutes per topic; non-members and NGOs get two. In practice, I had been wrapping up with about three seconds to spare at what I considered an appropriate speaking pace. The consequences of going over time seemed to vary from being gaveled out of order, to having your mic cut, to receiving a tap on the shoulder from the gentleman in the earpiece standing behind you. I had no desire to find out which of these would be applied to me.

My internal mantra is “cool, calm and collected” as I speak about the issue of victims of domestic abuse being forced to prosecute their abusers on their own in private legal proceedings, and then the problem of “dual arrests,” where abuser and victim are arrested together. As I finish running through a list of actions member countries could take to combat these problems and thank the Council, I finally look up: The clock on the screen shows seven seconds remaining before resetting to zero. Although my voice has remained calm, I notice that I am still maintaining a death grip on the microphone button. I release it and my red microphone light fades to black.

I am honored to have been among the group of dedicated lawyers and human rights activists traveling with The Advocates to Geneva, and even more so to have had this opportunity to address a full session of the Human Rights Council. The Advocates has built itself as an organization that utilizes its volunteers to full capacity, but this experience has been life-changing for me, as well. Thanks to The Advocates and to my wonderful, engaging and talented traveling companions!

By Steven Clay, attorney and volunteer with The Advocates for Human Rights.  Mr. Clay traveled in March to the United Nations in Geneva with The Advocates and other volunteers.

Read the full text of The Advocates for Human Rights’ oral statement, delivered by Mr. Clay, below:

Please check against delivery

Speaker: Mr. Steven CLAY

Item 8 (General Debate)

March 23, 2015

 Mr. President/Madam Vice President:

The Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action stressed “the importance of working towards the elimination of violence against women in public and private life.” Domestic violence violates a woman’s right to life, liberty and security, equal protection, and freedom from torture and discrimination. Strong laws are essential for women’s full and equal participation in all aspects of life, and for governments to meet their human rights obligations, they must have effective legislation and practices that promote victim safety and offender accountability.

This means ensuring that domestic violence is criminalized and prosecuted by the government. Some governments, however, do not treat domestic violence as a public crime. Laws too often force the victim to privately prosecute the domestic violence she has suffered –meaning she must either hire a lawyer, or else prosecute and navigate the criminal justice system by herself. By treating domestic violence as a private crime, states fail to hold offenders accountable.

Another major problem is dual arrests, in which victims are arrested alongside their abusers. Dual arrests happen for several reasons. First, some laws classify psychological violence equal to physical violence. Authorities treat insults and name calling as domestic violence. They arrest both parties even if the victim only quarreled while the offender physically beat her. Second, authorities do not identify the primary aggressor or self-defense injuries; they will arrest a woman who has defended herself from violence. But we know that when a victim is arrested when she calls for help, she will never call the police for help again.

So, how can member states remedy these kinds of problems facing women?

First, The Advocates for Human Rights calls on member states to promote good legal reform. Good laws are the foundation of victim protection and offender accountability.

Second, ensure authorities receive trainings conducted in consultation with NGOs that best know victims’ needs.

Third, promote continual monitoring of how these laws are working in practice so legislation can be amended and responses customized to address these issues.

Finally, ensure adequate funding and support for victims, including shelters, hotlines, legal aid, and other services.

Taking measures such as these are critical steps to help fulfill implementation of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action. Thank you.

Advocating for the Rights of Children in Ethiopia

Amane and Sinke 2

During the week of September 22, the International Oromo Youth Association’s (IOYA) president, vice president, and I were in Geneva—invited there to meet with the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, the treaty body that oversees implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. IOYA worked diligently to raise funds from the Oromo diaspora to support our trip. The week was a good illustration of many of the ways diaspora groups can use the United Nations to advocate for human rights in their countries of origin and ancestry–the focus of Chapter 9 of our diaspora toolkit, Paving Pathways for Justice and Accountability: Human Rights Tools for Diaspora Communities.

The treaty-body review process is cyclical, like the Universal Periodic Review. It typically starts with the government’s report on its compliance with the treaty. You can read the Ethiopian Government’s report to the Committee on the Rights of the Child here. Next, civil society groups like The Advocates for Human Rights and IOYA can submit their own alternative reports (also called “parallel” or “shadow” reports), responding to the government’s report and identifying issues that need further attention. Read our report to the Committee here.

Amy Bergquist and IOYA President Amane Badhasso prepare for the closed-door session with the Committee on the Rights of the Child
Amy Bergquist and IOYA President Amane Badhasso prepare for the closed-door session with the Committee on the Rights of the Child

The next step in the process is for the Committee to publish a “list of issues” to guide the rest of the review. The Committee on the Rights of the Child invites some civil society organizations to meet with Committee members in person for a confidential briefing before it finalizes the list of issues. We met with the Committee on September 26 and had a productive dialogue about their issues of concern and ours. But because the closed-door session is confidential, I won’t go into details of what we discussed.

Two weeks later, the Committee published its list of issues for its upcoming review of Ethiopia. The Committee included many—but not all—of the issues we raised in our report. Based on the list of issues, we know the Committee is concerned about issues such as “discrimination and stigma faced by girls, children with disabilities, and children of ethnic minorities”; sexual abuse of children, including children with disabilities; FGM; support for children with disabilities, including children who live and/or work in the streets; “relocation of a significant number of indigenous families, belonging, inter alia, to the Anuak, Nuer or Oromo, under the ‘villagization’ programme, . . . to areas unsuitable for agricultural use, where they lack access to education and basic necessities”; child domestic workers; abuse and violence against children; and sexual violence perpetrated by teachers against students.

The next step in the process is for the Ethiopian Government to submit a written response to the list of issues. The Committee requested a response by March 15, 2015, but oftentimes the responses come much later.

Now that we know the issues the Committee is concerned about, we have the opportunity to submit a new report if we have any additional information that might be relevant. And after the Ethiopian Government submits its written response, we can submit our own alternative report to highlight any inaccuracies or omissions in the government’s report.

Next, the Ethiopian Government will send a delegation to Geneva for an “examination” by the Committee. The examination will take place during the Committee’s session running from May 18 to June 5, 2015. The examination isn’t limited to the topics covered in the list of issues, so it’s possible the Committee will voice its concern then about the government’s violent crackdown on student protests. Then, after the session, the Committee will publish its Concluding Observations and Recommendations for the Ethiopian Government. You can read the Concluding Observations from Ethiopia’s last review, in 2006, at this link.

To learn more about the UN treaty body review process, read pages 224-233 of Paving Pathways.

IOYA Meets with UN Special Procedures Staff

IOYA President Amane Badhasso meeting with the staff of one of the special procedures mandate-holders
IOYA President Amane Badhasso meets with the staff of one of the special procedures mandate-holders

We didn’t travel all that way just for one meeting. Rather, we decided to make the most of our time by following up on a letter we sent to some of the UN Special Procedures in June, encouraging them to visit Ethiopia to investigate the government crackdown on the Oromo protests. We met with staff of several special procedures, discussing the possibility of a country visit and also talking about what role the Oromo diaspora could play in assisting people who might want to submit individual communications to the special procedures. To learn more about how to engage with the UN Special Procedures, read pages 211-222 of Paving Pathways.

IOYA and The Advocates Host a Side Event
While the Human Rights Council is in session, NGOs with consultative status, like The Advocates for Human Rights, can apply for space at the United Nations to host a “side event.” To learn more about applying for consultative status with the United Nations, read pages 310-312 of Paving Pathways.

IOYA representatives present at the side event
IOYA Vice President, Sinke Wesho (right) presents at the side event

The Advocates and IOYA hosted a side event called “Diaspora Engagement on Human Rights: Ethiopia as a Case Study.” I introduced the audience to our Paving Pathways toolkit, and then I turned the floor over to my IOYA colleagues. IOYA’s President, Amane Badhasso, spoke about the ways in which the Oromo diaspora used social media to engage in advocacy surrounding the Oromo protests. To learn more about how you can conduct an effective human rights advocacy campaign, including a campaign using social media, read Chapter 7 , as well as Appendix C and D, of Paving Pathways.

IOYA’s Vice President, Sinke Wesho, talked about the issue of human trafficking from Ethiopia and the efforts of the diaspora to assist victims and document the problem. To learn how you can get involved in monitoring and documenting human rights violations, read Chapters 3, 4, 5, and 6 of Paving Pathways.

IOYA had invited members of the Oromo diaspora in the Geneva area to attend, but a mix-up by security at the entrance gate meant that most of them were not allowed into the building. Nonetheless, the event was well-attended. Even Ephrem Bouzayhue Hidug, Minister Counsellor of the Permanent Mission of the Federal Republic of Ethiopia to the UN Office at Geneva attended, perhaps to monitor whether people were criticizing Ethiopia. He listened politely and when we opened the session up for questions and comments, he praised the IOYA representatives for their advocacy. But then he went on to suggest that the criticisms of the Ethiopian government were unfounded. After the event, people came up to congratulate the IOYA representatives and take photos. When the cameras began to flash, Mr. Hidug angrily lashed out at the people taking photos, insisting that he did not authorize anyone to take his photo: “This is Switzerland, so if someone says you cannot take their photograph, you must not do so!” From my perspective, though, nobody was interested in taking his photograph.

The Advocates Delivers Statements During Human Rights Council Debates, Prompts Ethiopia to Exercise Right of Reply
NGOs with consultative status can also take the floor and make statements during certain periods of the Human Rights Council’s debates. While we were in Geneva, I delivered two statements.

Amy Bergquist delivers a statement on access to justice for Africans in the diaspora at the 27th Session of the Human Rights Council
Amy Bergquist delivers a statement on access to justice for Africans in the diaspora at the 27th Session of the Human Rights Council

The first was during a general debate about racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and related forms of intolerance following an interactive dialogue on access to justice with the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent. I spoke about the importance of access to justice for Africans living in the diaspora, particularly for human rights violations that occurred in their country of origin. You can read my statement here, and watch me deliver it here. (Scroll down to Chapter 21 of the video.)

The second statement was during a general debate on technical assistance and capacity-building. I spoke about the importance of providing technical assistance and capacity-building to diaspora communities that want to improve human rights and accountability in their countries of origin and ancestry. I pointed to Ethiopia as a particularly relevant example, noting that the 2009 Charities and Societies Proclamation had stifled civil society work on human rights within Ethiopia. In such circumstances, I observed, it is particularly important to build the capacity of diaspora organizations to promote human rights in their country of origin. You can watch me deliver the second statement here. (Scroll down to Chapter 52 of the video.)

Ephrem Bouzayhue Hidug, Miniester Counsellor of the Permanent Mission of the Federal Republic of Ethiopia to the UN Office at Geneva, exercising Ethiopia's right of reply in response to The Advocates' statement to the Human Rights Council
Ephrem Bouzayhue Hidug, Minister Counsellor of the Permanent Mission of the Federal Republic of Ethiopia to the UN Office at Geneva, exercising Ethiopia’s right of reply in response to The Advocates’ statement to the Human Rights Council

During these debates, countries may exercise a “right of reply” to respond to a statement made by another country or by an NGO. Mr. Ephrem Hidug, who had attended our side event earlier that day, felt compelled to respond to our statement. This time, though, he couldn’t stop the cameras from rolling.

He denied that the Charities and Societies Proclamation has had a negative effect on civil society organizations in Ethiopia, asserting that Ethiopia has thousands of organizations active on “advocacy, development, humanitarian, and other things.” Notably, he did not state that they work on human rights issues. You can listen to his full statement here at Chapter 69.

All Work and No Play . . . .

Switzerland's Oromos enjoying their 2014 Irreechaa celebration in Lausanne
Switzerland’s Oromos enjoying their 2014 Irreechaa celebration in Lausanne

As it turned out, at the end of our busy week in Geneva, Switzerland’s Oromo community had organized a celebration of Irreechaa, a harvest festival sometimes referred to as the “Oromo Thanksgiving.” The IOYA representatives and I traveled to Lausanne, a lovely town on the shore of Lake Geneva, and enjoyed a wonderful day soaking in Oromo culture, music, and food. Oromos had come from all over Switzerland–some had driven from more than 2 hours away–to join in the celebration. We were overwhelmed by their hospitality and their eagerness to hear what we had accomplished during our brief visit.

Advice for Diaspora Advocates Around the World: It’s a Long-Term Commitment

Amane Badhasso and Sinke Wesho in front of Palais Wilson in Geneva
Amane Badhasso and Sinke Wesho in front of the Palais des Nations in Geneva

After our busy week in Geneva, I asked IOYA President Amane Badhasso to reflect on what she’d done and lessons learned. I encouraged her to share advice that she would give to other diaspora organizations–both Oromo groups and other diaspora communities–that want to promote human rights in their country of origin or ancestry. Here are her recommendations:

The promotion of human rights is a long-term commitment, and those who want to implement/promote human rights in their country of origin should understand the issues within their country of origin and tell stories from the perspective of those on the ground. In addition, it is important for those in the diaspora to utilize all tools available to lobby their country of residence and assure that the international community is aware of various abuses in the country of origin. It is also crucial to educate the public and use resources available to collaborate with groups that deal with human rights advocacy so that a practical outcome could come out of advocacy.

During our week in Geneva, we learned about many ways the Oromo diaspora can engage in advocacy at the United Nations. IOYA can’t take on all of these strategies on its own; there are many opportunities for other diaspora groups to get involved. But our advocacy with the Committee on the Rights of the Child was an important step in raising visibility about human rights violations against the Oromo people in Ethiopia.

Are you a member of a diaspora community? What ways can you engage with the United Nations to promote human rights in your country of origin or ancestry?

By Amy Bergquist, staff attorney for the International Justice Program of The Advocates for Human Rights.

More posts about human rights in Ethiopia:

Building Momentum in Geneva with the Oromo Diaspora

UN Special Procedures Urged to Visit Ethiopia to Investigate Crackdown on Oromo Protests

Oromo Diaspora Mobilizes to Shine Spotlight on Student Protests in Ethiopia

Ethiopian Government Faces Grilling at UN

“Little Oromia” Unites to Advocate for Justice and Human Rights in Ethiopia

Diaspora Speaks for Deliberately Silenced Oromos; Ethiopian Government Responds to UN Review

Ambo Protests: A Personal Account (reposted from Jen & Josh in Ethiopia: A Chronicle of Our Peace Corps Experience)

Ambo Protests: Spying the Spy? (reposted from Jen & Josh in Ethiopia: A Chronicle of Our Peace Corps Experience)

Ambo Protests: Going Back (reposted from Jen & Josh in Ethiopia: A Chronicle of Our Peace Corps Experience)

The Torture and Brutal Murder of Alsan Hassen by Ethiopian Police Will Shock Your Conscience (by Amane Badhasso at Opride)

#OromoProtests in Perspective (by Ayantu Tibeso at Twin Cities Daily Planet)