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Why Pompeo’s Commission on Unalienable Rights Is Wrong

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently unveiled the draft report of the Commission on Unalienable Rights (Commission). During the event at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia (“a place intentionally chosen”, even if it is currently closed to the public), Secretary Pompeo gave a speech entitled “Unalienable Rights and the Securing of Freedom”.   

“And it’s important – it’s important for every American, for every American diplomat, to recognize how our founders understood unalienable rights.  As you’ll see when you get a chance to read this report, the report emphasizes foremost among these rights are property rights and religious liberty.”   – Secretary Pompeo, July 16, 2020 

https://www.state.gov/unalienable-rights-and-the-securing-of-freedom/

When reading the draft report, it is important to remember that the Commission is a political body created by Secretary Pompeo to perform a very specific, political function: to create an official U.S. State Department document that reflects his own view of human rights, narrowing the definition to undermine fundamental principles of international human rights law and backtrack on U.S. foreign policy objectives that provide protections for historically marginalized groups, including women, racial and ethnic minorities, and the LGBTQI community (human rights which Secretary Pompeo has called “ad hoc” rights). 

As an organization committed to implementing international human rights standards, The Advocates for Human Rights is deeply concerned about the mandate and work to date of the Commission, as well as the potential harm that the Commission’s report may have on the United States’ fulfillment of its international human rights obligations.  When the Commission was created in July 2019, we joined with other U.S. human rights leaders in sending Secretary of State Mike Pompeo a  public letter letter expressing concern about the many legal, moral, and philosophical problems with the Commission, its mandate, and its makeup, and calling for the Commission to be immediately disbanded. Our concerns deepened as we observed the work of the Commission over the past year. In April 2020, we submitted comments directly to the Commission as it prepared its “advice and recommendations concerning international human rights matters” to Secretary Pompeo, in keeping with its mandate.  

Now that the Commission has released its draft report and recommendations, we are alarmed that the report would narrow the scope of U.S. obligations under international human rights law and justify a ranking of rights that prioritize some rights, such as the right to freedom of religion, over others. We remain strongly concerned that the Commission’s draft report seeks to reinterpret the international human rights framework established over the past 70 years and limit widely recognized international human rights – particularly the rights of women, girls, and LGBTQI persons.  We are alarmed that the Commission suggests “other criteria” in its draft report to determine “whether and when a new claim of human right warrants support in U.S. foreign policy”. 

“In short, human rights are now misunderstood by many, manipulated by some, rejected by the world’s worst violators, and subject to ominous new threats.”  – Draft Report of the Commission on Unalienable Rights 

https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/Draft-Report-of-the-Commission-on-Unalienable-Rights.pdf

The international human rights law framework already adequately defines the scope, content, and obligations of States to respect and promote human rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the nine core human rights treaties, particularly the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), codify widely recognized and accepted international human rights principles. These treaties are the product of decades of multilateral negotiations and represent an international consensus regarding the scope of human rights that bind the States that have opted into to ratifying them. In ratifying the ICCPR, as well as the treaties such as the Convention Against Torture and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the United States has agreed to be bound by these multilateral human rights treaties.  

As the UDHR and subsequent binding human rights treaties make clear, human rights are universal, indivisible, interdependent, and interrelated. In other words, all human rights are equal in importance. Although the international human rights framework does recognize a distinction between derogable and non-derogable rights, it does not establish a hierarchy that allows for the exercise of some rights in ways that violate others. A prioritization of one right – freedom of religion or belief – over the enjoyment of other human rights would constitute a violation of the United States’ binding obligations under international human rights law.   

As an organization with United Nations ECOSOC Special Consultative Status, The Advocates regularly participates in international advocacy at the UN human rights mechanisms.  The Advocates also partners with human rights defenders and civil society organizations throughout the world. Many of our partners are currently experiencing threats, including threats of physical harm, due to a backlash against human rights. We are concerned that the Commission’s work sends a signal to the international community that the U.S. government views the international human rights framework as malleable and open to unilateral re-interpretation. The Commission’s willingness to question the basic foundations of the human rights framework risks emboldening populist and authoritarian regimes to further restrict human rights and justify repressive policies. Further, it is in the U.S. government’s national interest to make the promotion and protection of human rights a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy. Redefining and restricting human rights would limit the United States’ impact on the protection of human rights around the world. 

We do agree with the Commission’s Concluding Observation that, “A crucial way in which the United States promotes human rights abroad is by serving as an example of a rights-respecting society…” Unlike the work of the Commission thus far, however, a good faith review of the role of human rights in U.S. government policy would necessarily focus on how the U.S. could both improve its human rights record at home and promote greater protections for all human rights worldwide. Such a review would begin by reaffirming the U.S. government’s commitment to the international human rights framework as developed over the past 70 years and would recommend appropriate changes to Trump administration policy based on that framework. Along with others in the U.S. human rights movement, we have expressed our collective desire to refocus this administration on solving some of the human rights violations it has fueled through its reactionary policies on issues ranging from immigration, asylum, freedom of religion, systemic racism, and myriad due process and rule of law issues.  

The Commission was instructed last year to provide Secretary of State Pompeo with “advice on human rights grounded in our nation’s founding principles and the principles of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”  We are better than we were when the UDHR was drafted, shortly after the end of World War II when there were no institutions to challenge the human rights violations perpetrated by State and non-State actors. Human rights are not merely documents. They reflect the core values of our own Constitution and the decades of jurisprudence strengthening anti-discrimination laws that have sought to ensure that these core values can be enjoyed by all. 

By Jennifer Prestholdt, Deputy Director and International Justice Program Director at The Advocates for Human Rights  

Take Action!  The release of the draft report on July 16 began a two-week public comment period.  The Commission welcomes all submissions.  Please route them by July 29 to commission@state.gov and/or Designated Federal Officer Duncan Walker, who may be reached at walkerdh3@state.gov

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Asylum Seekers Continue to Push for Change Abroad

Protesters carry a Burundian flag in Brujumbura, Burundi. Photo: Reuters/G. Tomasevic

As a newly-initiated intern in The Advocates for Human Rights’ International Justice Program, I was unsure what to expect when I walked into my first official team meeting in May 2019. Despite this uncertainty, I quickly learned that me and my intern team’s responsibilities would not follow the traditional Devil Wears Prada-esque intern tropes of office coffee runs and administrative purgatory. Instead, much of our role would involve conducting research for UN shadow reports by delving into former and current asylum cases. 

My team’s first major project of the summer involved writing a client-based report on the human rights situation in Burundi to submit to the UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) on Burundi. After President Nkurunziza announced that he would be running for a third term in April of 2015, a violation of Burundi’s constitutionally-mandated two-term limit, Burundians took to the streets in protest. Many were kidnapped, detained, or killed. One failed coup attempt and four years later, Burundians today continue to live in fear of speaking out, lest they meet a similar fate. And after Burundi’s government forced the UN to shut down its local office in 2019, fact-finding has proven increasingly difficult.

As an advocacy organization that also provides pro-bono legal representation to asylum seekers through its Refugee and Immigration Program, The Advocates for Human Rights routinely uses firsthand information from former and current clients in advocacy reports (examples of this can be found here, here, and here). Accounts from asylum seekers who have directly witnessed and survived human rights violations can help NGOs identify patterns of abuse, identify bad-faith actors, and ultimately push for accountability on the international stage. 

Full disclosure: I had heard nothing of the situation in Burundi before joining The Advocates. So when my supervisors informed me and my fellow International Justice interns of our project, I began gathering information: reading articles, watching videos, and sifting through The Advocates’ asylum case files from Burundi. Asking individuals to recount their experiences and, in some cases, relive their trauma, requires sensitivity, awareness, and humility. My fellow International Justice interns and I spent a week drafting an interview protocol complete with questions and disclaimers. After much deliberation, the questions we ultimately decided on centered specific incidents and specific perpetrators in the aim of identifying the types of abuse and distinguishing state actors from non-state actors. In pushing for accountability through international human rights law, the difference between the two was significant.

Due to the nature of asylum law in the US, all asylum cases must have some aspects in common. Gaining asylum requires a well-founded fear of persecution in the home country, and requires that the persecution be on the basis of race, religion, nationality, social group, or political opinion. The majority of the Burundians we interviewed experienced persecution on the nexus of political opinion, race, or social group.

Yet the practice of interviewing asylum seekers is not quite so formulaic.

The process began with raking through a database to find relevant case files–”relevant” included individuals who had fled from Burundi sometime around or after 2015, since the COI’s charge only concerned conditions in Burundi after the 2015 attempted coup. After identifying clients to contact, we first sent an introductory email explaining the charge of the COI and the request for an interview, and then we called. Many numbers had gone out of service, and just as many sent us straight to voicemail. We quickly learned the importance of persistence and of follow-up. Eventually, individuals began to pick up, and as we pitched our requests for interviews, we were met with a brave and resounding chorus of ‘yes’ from former Burundians. 

Your confidentiality and safety are of utmost importance to us. The Commission of Inquiry has promised to do everything in its power to protect the victims and witnesses included in this report. Every telephone conversation began with the same reassurance. Even with individuals who had successfully sought asylum, the threat of retribution against family or friends in Burundi remained present. The disclaimer served as a reminder: the information being shared is a lived experience, and, in some cases, the danger is still real. 

In total, we interviewed five individuals about the experiences of themselves and those around them. The stories shared were uniquely painful yet thematically similar. State repression. Friends and family members who had been kidnapped. Friends and family members who had been killed. Abuse by the police. Abuse by the pro-government militant youth group, the Imbonerakure. Rape and sexual assualt. Torture. Fear. 

And an abiding air of resilience. 

Flash forward to mid-July: as the end of my 10-week long International Justice internship with The Advocates for Human Rights approached, President Trump announced a federal policy eliminating nearly all asylum protections for Central Americans and other migrants seeking refuge in the United States at the US-Mexico border by introducing a safe-third-country agreement. This agreement requires that migrants must have already applied for asylum at the first country they entered on their route to the US before applying for asylum in the US. If asylum-seekers fail to do so, the government may deport them to this “first country” before allowing their asylum case to be processed in the US. 

This policy raised the bar for entry from merely demonstrating a “credible fear” of persecution in the country of origin to a prohibitively high burden of proof aimed to severely reduce the number of asylum seekers accepted into the US. Therefore as more migrants apply for asylum, a greater percentage of cases are denied. Trump’s immigration policies also exist within the context of a heavily backlogged asylum queue where hundreds of thousands of cases dating back to 2010 remain in a processual limbo. 

The result? A deeply unreliable process of asylum that violates domestic law and fails to meet international standards–a process that gambles with human lives. After spending a summer in proximity to asylum cases, I understood that, more often than not, asylum is not a choice. Asylum is a means to survive. 

At the end of one call, following protocol, I asked a former client if she had any last questions for me. “I do have one,” said the woman, an asylum seeker who had survived and escaped sexual abuse by government forces,

“Is Burundi going to get better?” 

For a moment, I struggled to find an adequate response. Yet if she still retained her capacity to hope, so could I. And with brave voices like hers cooperating with NGOs to speak out against human rights abuses, we have no choice but to believe in a better future. 

By Tala Alfoqaha, a Mathematics & Global Studies major at the University of Minnesota.  Tala was the 2019 Don Fraser Human Rights Fellow with The Advocates’ International Justice Program.

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New Help for Volunteer Attorneys Representing Domestic Violence Survivors

Matter of A-B-

Imagine you suffered years of near daily physical, sexual, and psychological abuse from your husband in silence, knowing that every time you tried to escape, he found you and beat you worse for attempting to leave him.

Imagine he told you that you were his property and your role as his wife was to serve him for the rest of your life.

Imagine you go to the police, begging them to keep you safe. They refuse, saying that your husband has the right to discipline his wife how he chooses. Your husband finds out and beats you worse to punish you for going to the police.

Terrified, you flee with your children to the United States, determined to give them a better life. You have heard that, in the United States, people believe women should have the same rights as men. You hear that there are laws in the United States against domestic violence, and that the laws are followed.

After a dangerous journey, you finally reach the United States. You file for asylum, but while your case is pending the law protecting domestic violence survivors changes. Now you live in fear that you will be deported back to the nightmare you and your children fled.

This situation is the lived reality of many domestic violence survivors represented by The Advocates for Human Rights and our volunteer attorneys. In the summer of 2018, Attorney General Jeffrey B. Sessions issued a decision in Matter of A-B- that threw into question the well-established precedent recognizing a protected group for survivors of domestic violence whose home country governments did not protect them from their abusers.

Following the Matter of A-B- decision, many judges around the country have recognized that domestic violence survivors who cannot receive protection from their home country governments continue to qualify for protection. In too many cases, however, judges have used this decision to deny protection to women and children fleeing domestic and family violence.

To support the efforts of our volunteer attorneys and others in the Eighth Circuit arguing for protection of asylum seekers fleeing domestic violence, we have issued Gender-Based Asylum Claims in the Wake of Matter of A–B– A Supplement for Practice in the Eighth Circuit. Drafted with our pro bono partners at Gray Plant Mooty, this practice advisory includes extensive strategy guidance that advocates can use to protect their clients.

Please consider taking a pro bono case with The Advocates for Human Rights today. Your work can save the lives, and families, of domestic violence survivors.

By Alison Griffith, a staff attorney working for refugee and immigrant rights at The Advocates for Human Rights

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Risking it all for Human Rights

Gretchen Piper speaking from Sarah Brenes
Volunteer Gretchen Piper speaking at a recent house party to support women’s human rights

Remarks from volunteer Gretchen Piper

Collectively, we risked nothing in attending tonight’s event—in coming together to advocate for others.

People around the world risk everything.

In July, Julianne and I attended a conference in Zagreb, the capital and largest city in Croatia. The conference was called by The Advocates for Human Rights. We were part of a team of 7 volunteers, trained by The Advocates, and assigned to collect the stories of 31 human rights defenders from 17 countries.

The first morning, we gathered in the hotel conference room at 8 a.m. Our first task was to find a coffee tin …

… to block cell phone signals.

Some participants worried their cell phones had been compromised, participants like Hanna from a Central European country. When her 8-year-old mobile phone was stolen during a lunch break, Hanna contacted her sister to let her know she was safe. She then activated her safety protocol to ensure that her phone was not compromised.

With the tin can secured, Julianne and I opened the conference with a talking circle. Our job was to quickly establish an environment of safety and trust—so people would share their stories.

As they did, a terrifying pattern emerged: the rise of populism and the radical right have fueled violence against women, the LGBT community and immigrants across the globe.

Participants shared harrowing stories of violence, of police ignoring hate crimes—of courts not enforcing laws that protect vulnerable communities.

What is as terrifying as the violence itself is this fact:

Violence. Discrimination. Human Rights Abuses. They are a tactic in a larger geopolitical effort to ensure that powerful global business interests have their candidates in elected positions of power.

Our new friends from Italy, Austria, Belarus, Serbia, Bulgaria, Russia, and Ukraine cited examples of extremist candidates elected by inciting fear of immigrants, of losing their “native” cultures, of ceding to gender politics.

The right is well organized, disciplined and well-coordinated … around the globe.

The right is a force we need to match, and The Advocates for Human Rights is on the forefront of that battle. With more than 20 years of experience in working with women’s groups in Europe, providing advocacy, legal training, and research, The Advocates is a trusted partner. They have a proven track record of leveraging skilled volunteers and building local capacity for action.

Rose and her team had prepared us well.

The conference galvanized the participants. They vowed to support one another, to reclaim human rights tools for rapid response to defend against false information and media attacks. To train lawyers, work with police and prosecutors, to learn effective communications strategies, to share resources and continue to meet—no matter the risks.

Two weeks after I returned home, I was sitting in my car, waiting for my kids to finish practice, thinking about what to make for dinner, what work I needed to finish. I picked up my phone and scrolled through the headlines.

In my news feed, was my new friend, Svetlana, an LGBT advocate in Russia whom I had met at the conference in Croatia.

Svetlana was speaking about her colleague, Yelena Grigoryeva, a well-known LGBT activist in Russia. Yelena had been found stabbed to death—murdered—outside her St. Petersburg apartment.

Days earlier, Yelena had gone to the police to report that she was on a “Gay Kill List.”

Just this past week, Svetlana, was in the news again. She and her colleagues in the Russian LBGT community were imploring the police and the ministry of internal affairs to solve Yelena’s murder—to find the people behind the Gay Hit List, a list published by an anonymous online group called Saw, after the American cult horror film. Saw continues their assault, offering cash for murders—and telling LBGT activists that unless they murder their own colleagues, they themselves will be killed.

Julianne and I don’t want to lose another friend, which is why we teamed up today to ask for your help.

Help people who are risking it all. Support The Advocates for Human Rights at TheAdvocatesForHumanRights.org/donate.

Gretchen Piper is a volunteer with The Advocates for Human Rights and President of Gretchen Piper, LLC, a consulting firm focusing on strategic planning, fund raising, and marketing.

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International Women’s Day 2019: Think Equal, Build Smart, Innovate for Change

The theme for International Women’s Day 2019 is Think Equal, Build Smart, Innovate for Change. According to UN Women, this theme challenges us to think about how we can “advance gender equality and the empowerment of women.” This objective reflects that envisioned by Sustainable Development Goal 5, which recognizes that although discrimination against women and girls is decreasing, gender inequality persists and continues to deny women and girls basic human rights and opportunities. As we look at laws and practices around the world today, there are still laws that actively discriminate against women. Many countries still retain lists of prohibited jobs for women – banning them from jobs such as a truck driver, factory worker, metal welder, deck hand or barring them from working above certain heights or during night hours. In countries where economic opportunities are scarce, removing these employment opportunities from women’s reach hinders their empowerment, advancement and economic independence. For example, Russia bans women from 456 types of jobs, Ukraine bans women from 458 jobs, and Kazakhstan bans women from 287 jobs. These countries are rich in natural resources and therefore employment opportunities in those fields, yet the lists of banned professions often include jobs found in the extractives industries.

promoting_gender_diversity_and_inclusion_in_the_oil_gas_and_mining_extractive_industries
At the request of the UN Group of Experts on Coal Mine Methane, The Advocates has undertaken research to examine the benefits of female inclusion and ways to support women in traditionally male-dominated industries, specifically the extractive industries of oil, gas, and mining. The report, Promoting Gender Diversity and Inclusion in the Oil, Gas and Mining Extractive Industries, demonstrates the numerous benefits that women and diversity bring to industries, including a larger talent pool for recruitment, greater profitability, improved performance, better safety records, and overall economic empowerment to women and communities. For example, it is well-documented that female inclusion boosts company profits. Companies ranking in the top 25 percent for gender diversity are 15 percent more likely to have “financial returns” higher than the national industry medians. Companies with more women employees and gender-diverse teams have better teamwork, communication, and greater creativity in solving business and technical problems than homogenous work forces, and women are more likely to use teamwork and cooperative approaches that draw on the skills and resources of a broader network. The report also addresses challenges that women face – both legal and in the workplace setting – that hinder their full participation in the workforce. The report concludes with recommendations to both states and private companies on how to promote gender diversity and inclusion, with the priority recommendation to repeal laws that discriminate against women in the workplace and in private life.

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

Freedom

Freedom

…it seems that the concept of freedom no longer has a consensus understanding among the American people.  What’s more, we have lost our ability to engage in debate, a cornerstone of a healthy democracy. 

Until recently, I had not visited Ellis Island or the Statue of Liberty.  Working with immigrants and asylum seekers has thus far defined my professional career, but my visit to Lady Liberty served as a reminder about our nation’s concept of freedom. The audio guide (love this modern invention) shared many new facts about Lady Liberty, reinforced ones commonly known and challenged visitors to define the statue’s significance to them.

At its inception in 1886, the Statue of Liberty was built as a sort of nod from the French to the United States which was, by then, a century-old democracy with a bright future, having recently withstood a civil war.

She was built filled with symbols: her torch as a sign of enlightenment; her sun ray crown sharing her light with the rest of the world; her tablet of laws symbolizing the importance of the rule of law; and at her feet, broken chains as a sign of freedom from slavery and political oppression.

A powerful part of the statue’s story is that the significance of her symbols has changed alongside U.S. history, a true sign of her aspirational nature.

In her early years, Lady Liberty was a symbol of hope, freedom and new beginnings, welcoming over 12 million new immigrants, accepting 98% of those who passed through Ellis Island from 1892-1954. During WWI and WWII, she welcomed troops back to the homeland, standing as a reminder of the freedoms they were fighting for while stationed in other parts of the world.  She now stands with the Manhattan skyline at her side, including the new World Trade Center, as a reminder of strength and resilience to rebuild in the name of freedom.

At the end of the tour, the audio guide challenged me (and everyone else who listened to it) to define what liberty means.

I was just about 10 when the Cold War ended, just over 20 when the Twin Towers fell and right around 30 when the Great Recession hit.  Each of these events has shaped my understanding of political, ideological and economic freedoms.  There was much debate among the American people about how much “liberty” could be sacrificed in order to protect “freedom” but little question about what “freedom” meant at the time.  At forty, it seems that the concept of freedom no longer has a consensus understanding among the American people.  What’s more, we have lost our ability to engage in debate, a cornerstone of a healthy democracy.

Immigration is one of the many issues where debate has become nearly impossible.  The last comprehensive reform to our immigration laws was over half a century ago.  The last meaningful attempt at reform was a decade ago. A week ago, without discussion or debate, our government temporarily closed the San Diego port of entry to asylum seekers and is attempting to close off the rest of the border permanently.

The 1980 Refugee Act amended the Immigration and Nationality Act to “revise the procedures for the [S. 643] admission of refugees, to amend the Migration and Refugee Assistance Act of 1962 to establish a more uniform basis for the provision of assistance to refugees, and for other purposes.” (Source: Public Law 96-212) Refugee law and humanitarian law recognize that refugees seeking safety cannot always follow an orderly immigration process when death is at their door. Thus, our laws allow for anyone in the U.S. to apply for asylum, regardless of how or where they entered.

Monday, December 10 is Human Rights Day and the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which establishes the equal dignity and worth of every person. It confirms that the State has a core duty to promote standards of life that enable us to enjoy equality and freedom, achieve justice, and live in peace.

I cannot think of a simpler concept of freedom than to be able to go to school, run your business, raise your family or live in your home without fearing that you might be killed.  As we turn our backs on these families and children seeking this most basic freedom that the Statue of Liberty symbolized, I cannot help but fear that in the next decade “freedom” in America will may lose its meaning altogether.

By Sarah Brenes, Director Refugee & Immigrant Program at The Advocates for Human Rights