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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“Zero-Tolerance” Policy, in Tearing Families Apart, is Inhumane and Illegal

As Father’s Day approaches, I keep thinking about one father in particular from Guatemala who is over 2,000 miles away from his 8-year-old daughter. Last week, that little girl told me about the day she was torn from her father’s arms at the border. In tears, they begged the Border Patrol officer to let them stay together.  Months later this little girl, now in the custody of a caregiver, cries herself to sleep, worries constantly about her family, and feels helpless.

I am an immigration attorney who helps people apply for asylum in the United States. But when this little girl came to me, it was to ask me how fast I could help her get deported so she could return to her family.

This is exactly what the Trump administration seeks to achieve in tearing apart families at the border and criminally prosecuting “100 percent” of undocumented border crossers. According to Attorney General Sessions’ recent comments, the intent is to deter asylum seekers from pursuing protections to which they are entitled under U.S. law.  This “zero-tolerance” policy not only is inhumane, it is illegal. U.S. law and international treaty obligations both guarantee the right to seek asylum.

Many of our nation’s founders came to this country seeking refuge, to worship their God and express their political beliefs without fear of repression by their government or society. In that spirit, Congress enacted a pathway to protection for those who could demonstrate that they faced persecution in their home country because of a fundamental aspect of their identity, such as their race, religion, ethnicity, political opinion, or other characteristics. Recognizing that many fleeing for their lives may be forced to leave home before they can obtain a visa, U.S. asylum law explicitly states that a person who “arrives” at our borders “whether or not at a designated a port of arrival … may apply for asylum.”

Asylum is not just a reflection of our nation’s most fundamental values—it is also a reflection of the priorities of the international community. The right to asylum was established in the late 1940’s following the Holocaust. The member states of the United Nations, with the explicit leadership of the United States, created formal protocols to protect refugees.

Given the rhetoric, it might surprise people to learn that asylum seekers face enormous legal obstacles to protection. The majority of claims are denied (even before Attorney General Jeff Sessions overturned years of asylum case law for victims of domestic violence this week).

According to Sessions, the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy means that every undocumented border crosser will be criminally prosecuted and that parents bringing their children to the U.S. to protect them from death threats will be prosecuted for smuggling.

This “zero tolerance” violates the fundamental right, enshrined in international treaty and codified in our own U.S. law, to seek asylum from persecution. It violates the right to family integrity, recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court as a fundamental liberty interest. (See e.g. Supreme Court case Troxville v. Granville). It violates the right to due process of law.

To punish asylum seekers by taking away their children is exceptionally cruel. It’s also inefficient, creating duplication in a system already plagued by backlogs by requiring asylum seekers whose claims could otherwise by addressed together (parents and children) to present their factually identical claims in different immigration courts across the country.

Children like my bright little 8-year-old client, as well as their fathers and mothers, deserve our most zealous efforts to protect them from these cruel and illegal policies which purposefully deprive them of the right to seek and obtain asylum.  Many studies show that the majority of those presenting themselves at the Southern border have legitimate claims for humanitarian protection under international law.  Americans of all backgrounds must understand that these policies are not only inhumane, they are illegal.

As Father’s Day approaches, please stand with these families. For those whose ancestors came to the US as refugees, as asylum seekers, remember how your own family members made their journey to this country and the American welcome you would have wanted your family member to have.  Show our leaders that Americans believe that separating parents from their children at the border is illegal. Tell our leaders that you believe in the right to seek asylum.

Now is the time to come forward and stand in real solidarity with impacted immigrant communities. Please support organizations that represent these families and children on the border and when released, like The Advocates for Human Rights, the CARA Pro Bono Project  and the Migrant Center for Human Rights.  If you’re a legal professional or speak a second language, get involved with helping a child or family seeking asylum. Follow our blog for updates on advocating for separated families. Contact us and other local organizations that work with immigrants to learn how you can most effectively support your local immigrant communities in this time where their fundamental rights are under attack.

Alison Griffith is a Staff Attorney for The Advocates for Human Rights’ Refugee & Immigrant Program.

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Welcome Home Blog Series: English-Speaking Cameroonians Work to Highlight Human Rights Abuses

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Partners in Hope for Southern Cameroons Refugees, a new nonprofit, raises money to send containers of goods from Minnesota to English-speaking Cameroonian refugees in Nigeria.

Minnesota is home to a wide variety of immigrants who fled violence and oppression in their home countries, but some groups are better known than others. Roger Akembom, who has volunteered for The Advocates, wants to draw attention to some residents who have attracted little political or media attention: his fellow English-speakers from Cameroon, in central western Africa.

Cameroon is a predominantly French-speaking country whose government, according to human-rights watchdogs, has committed serious abuses against residents of the former Southern Cameroons, two Anglophone regions that comprise about 20 percent of the population. These include forced disappearances, arbitrary detentions, mass arrests, excessive force by security services, bans on public meetings, and periodic government restrictions on internet access.

Akembom, whose father was a political prisoner, arrived in the U.S. about 17 years ago and won asylum. He says he is among more than 5,000 English-speaking Cameroonians who have settled in Minnesota. But people here are more familiar with larger populations like the Somalis, he says: “There are other immigrant groups like mine. We are facing the same issues.”

He and other Anglophone Cameroonians have been working to raise awareness among policymakers and the public about the dire situation facing their compatriots. One area of deep concern: the tens of thousands of people who have fled to Nigeria to escape military crackdowns. Those escalated last Oct. 1, when Anglophones staged protests about their marginalization in society and activists declared independence for a state they call Ambazonia. Security forces killed more than 17 protesters, according to Amnesty International. (The government argues it needs to take strong action to fight “terrorists” who are waging an armed insurrection and have killed members of security forces.)

Akembum says the refugees need food, medicine, clothing, hygiene products, and money to pay for hospital care. Minnesota Cameroonians have just launched a new nonprofit, Partners in Hope for Southern Cameroons Refugees (PHOSCAR), to ship goods and pay for services at Holy Family Catholic Hospital, in Ikom, Nigeria. Many of the refugees have no money, Okembuom says, and “this is a new country to them; they don’t have transferable skills.”

PHOSCAR will work with a nonprofit that is on the ground in Nigeria. A group called The Southern Cameroons Ambazonia Women of Minnesota raised about $11,000 for the refugees at a fundraising gala last month. For more information about PHOSCAR, email info@phoscarelief.org.

French speakers in Cameroon are also victims of human-rights abuses by the government of Paul Biya, who has held power for 35 years. The Advocates has helped 87 Cameroonian clients in the past 10 years with asylum claims. In 2017, it accepted 13 cases, the highest number in any given year over the past decade, says Sarah Brenes, Director of the Refugee and Immigrant Program. While she didn’t have hard numbers, she believes the majority of the claims have come from Anglophones.

Akembum says a major problem for Cameroonian immigrants is integrating into society. Many are highly educated, he says, but have trouble finding work to match their qualifications. He cites himself as an example: he earned a master’s degree in public policy at St. Thomas University but is working at the post office.

Meanwhile, he is working with other members of the Cameroonian diaspora in the United States who advocate independence for the English-speaking Northwest and Southwest Regions, which activists call by the historical name “Southern Cameroons.” They argue that option was wrongfully denied to Anglophones when Cameroon became independent from France and the United Kingdom in the 1960s. Anglophone representatives ended up negotiating a federalist ystem that was supposed to grant them a large degree of autonomy, but over the years the central government has consolidated power.

For more information about that history, see “Cameroon’s Anglophone Crisis at the Crossroads” by the International Crisis Group.

For information on human rights abuses in Cameroon, see “Press Release on the human rights situation in Cameroon,” African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights; Cameroon: human rights must be respected to end cycle of violence – UN experts, ReliefWeb; Cameroon 2017 Human Rights Report, U.S. State Department.

This article is part of the “Welcome Home” blog series featuring articles about groups that represent diaspora communities in Minnesota. The first blog posts highlighted the contributions of the Karen Organization of Minnesota, the United Cambodian Association of Minnesota,   and the Oromo Peace and Justice Committee.  If you would like to tell your story, please contact Amy Bergquist at abergquist@advrights.org.
Continue reading “Welcome Home Blog Series: English-Speaking Cameroonians Work to Highlight Human Rights Abuses”

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Building the Capacity of Russian-Speaking Lawyers to Protect Women’s Human Rights 

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Our Legal Training Academy fellows from Georgia, Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan working together on a UN treaty body exercise.

Members of The Advocates’ staff recently returned from Bulgaria, where we finished training 16 lawyers at the first session of our Legal Training Academy on Women’s Human Rights (LTA). Through this two-year project, we are building the capacity of lawyers to use international and regional human rights mechanisms to defend women’s human rights after all domestic remedies have failed. Being able to effectively access these options is crucial. For lawyers in some countries, which may not have adequate public prosecution laws concerning domestic violence or even basic protections for victims, the option of being able to leverage another remedy is powerful. Once a lawyer has exhausted the options available to them in their country, it is not the end of the road for the victim/survivor. Instead, they can still pursue effective, top-down recourse through the UN, European Court of Human Rights, and the Council of Europe. This two-year training academy teaches these lawyers how to most effectively bring these cases.  

 

The lawyers hail from nine countries in the Former Soviet Union—Russia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, Georgia, Moldova, and Azerbaijan, to name a few. Often, these human rights defenders are operating under laws that oppress or hinder civil society. For example, some of these countries impose onerous NGO registration requirements, while others use “foreign agent” laws to brand NGOs as spies and subject to heavy surveillance and conditions. Yet, each of these lawyers brought energy, commitment, enthusiasm, as well as drive to learn and connect with each other.  

 

In this first of three training sessions, we spent the first day hearing from the participants about the issues they face in their country. They described issues such as the severe lack of shelters, legal aid, and resources for women victims and survivors, the abuse of women in prison, and the use of village elders to decide cases of violence against women rather than formal court systems.

For example, one participant described the harmful practice and effects of polygamy in her country: “How do you register second and third wives? As a second or third wife, if my husband comes and beats me, and I’m not married, I cannot get a restraining order.”  

 Throughout the week, we discussed various forms of violence against women, including sexual violence, sexual harassment, domestic violence, and trafficking. We also addressed human rights for LGBTI and persons living with HIV.  

 

In the next two sessions, taking place in spring and fall of 2018, we will build the skills of these lawyers to leverage the UN and European mechanisms. Importantly, we are building not only a cadre of trained women’s human rights defenders, but a network of peers who will continue to share best practices and strategies, support each other’s efforts transnationally, and celebrate successes. Already, we have begun to see the impact after our first training. At the conclusion of the session, one participant said, 

“With your help, I have started to believe that we can change our situation to the best. Thank you all very much.”  

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

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Sri Lanka’s Evolving Stance on the Death Penalty

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The delegation from Sri Lanka, led by H.E. Mr. Harsha De Silva, Deputy Minister of National Policies and Economic Affairs of Sri Lanka, at the November 15th, 2017 UPR of Sri Lanka. Source: http://webtv.un.org/meetings-events/human-rights-council/universal-periodic-review/watch/sri-lanka-review-28th-session-of-universal-periodic-review/5648383899001#

The Advocates for Human Rights serves on the Steering Committee of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty. In that capacity, The Advocates often collaborates with the World Coalition to engage in advocacy at the United Nations when a UN body reviews the human rights record of a country that retains the death penalty.

One recent example is Sri Lanka. The Advocates, in collaboration with The World Coalition, submitted a stakeholder report about the death penalty in Sri Lanka for consideration during the country’s third Universal Periodic Review (UPR) at the UN Human Rights Council.

Sri Lanka acknowledges itself as a de facto abolitionist state and carried out its last execution in 1976. Yet Sri Lankan courts continue to sentence defendants to death and the country’s constitution still authorizes the use of the death penalty. According to Amnesty International, in 2016 Sri Lankan courts sentenced at least 79 people to death and an estimated 1,000 prisoners were under sentence of death.

During Sri Lanka’s second UPR in 2012, six countries made recommendations that called on Sri Lanka to abolish the death penalty or consider a formal moratorium. Sri Lanka rejected all six recommendations. Since then, President Sirisena and his government have made positive public statements suggesting they are working toward abolishing the death penalty. In a speech given at the 30th Session of the UN Human Rights Council in September 2015, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Sri Lanka reinforced that the Sri Lankan Government was committed to maintaining the moratorium on the death penalty, with a view to its ultimate abolition. In December 2016, Sri Lanka voted with 116 Member States of the United Nations to support a universal moratorium on the death penalty.

The public statements made by Sri Lanka were reinforced by the country’s increased openness to UPR recommendations. During its latest UPR on November 15th, 2017, Sri Lanka accepted three of thirteen recommendations made on the death penalty.

In 2012, Sri Lanka rejected three recommendations that urged considering abolition of the death penalty: “Consider the definite abolishment of the death penalty in its internal legislation” (Argentina and Ecuador) and “Seriously consider the possibility to abolish capital punishment” (Italy). In 2017, Sri Lanka accepted two remarkably similar recommendations: “Consider to abolish the death penalty” (Italy) and “Consider abolishing the death penalty” (Timor-Leste). Sri Lanka’s willingness to accept such recommendations may indicate changing government attitudes toward the practice.

Sri Lanka pays particular attention to the specific wording of recommendations. Sri Lanka’s new-found willingness to accept death penalty recommendations extends only to accepting recommendations that don’t bind them to any decision — all three accepted recommendations begin with some form of the word “consider.” For example:

  • Sri Lanka accepted, “Consider ratifying the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, aimed at abolishing the death penalty” (Uruguay) but rejected “Ratify the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, aiming at the abolition of the death penalty” (Montenegro, Spain).
  • Similarly, Sri Lanka accepted “Consider abolishing the death penalty” (Timor-Leste) but rejected “Abolish the death penalty” (Australia). Sri Lanka rejected seven comparable recommendations, even those that recommended “taking steps” towards abolition.
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Mr. Aurélio Barros, representative from Timor-Leste, delivers his country’s recommendations to Sri Lanka during the November 15th UPR. Source: http://webtv.un.org/meetings-events/human-rights-council/universal-periodic-review/watch/sri-lanka-review-28th-session-of-universal-periodic-review/5648383899001#

To be sure, a recommendation to “consider” abolition of the death penalty is not as strong as a recommendation to abolish the death penalty. The fact that some governments made weaker recommendations and some made stronger recommendations nevertheless gives us some insights into Sri Lanka’s evolving position on the death penalty. And we expect the Sri Lankan government to take concrete steps between now and its next UPR in 2022 to explore how abolition could be incorporated into the Penal Code and Constitution or to conduct public awareness surveys on the popularity of the practice. Perhaps by the time Sri Lanka is up for its fourth-cycle UPR, the country will have had enough opportunity for careful consideration to be able to definitely abolish the death penalty.

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 third 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:

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

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

Ukraine delays decision on Universal Periodic Review recommendations on domestic violence

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Burundi: The Human Rights Crisis You May Not Have Heard Of

Protesters carry a Burundi flag during a protest against President Pierre Nkurunziza's decision to run for a third term in Bujumbura
Demonstrators carry a Burundian flag during a protest in Bujumbura, Burundi. Photo: Reuters/G. Tomasevic

As an International Justice Program intern with The Advocates for Human Rights, I have encountered many examples of human rights abuses throughout the world. Yet, while the recent drama of domestic politics continues to dominate the attention of American citizens, these international human rights violations go largely unreported and unaccounted for in U.S. media. The ongoing human rights crisis gripping the state of Burundi presents one such example as members of civil society continue to face politically-based violence at the hands of the ruling party.

April 2015 marked the start of a political and human rights crisis in Burundi that has claimed hundreds of lives. Violence flared following President Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision to seek a controversial third term and subsequent, political protests. Police and security forces responded by exercising excessive force and shooting demonstrators indiscriminately.

After a failed coup d’état by military officers in May 2015, the Government intensified its repression of political dissent by suspending most of the country’s independent radio stations. In addition, journalists and human rights defenders face violence and increasing restrictions on their rights to freedom of expression and association. Recently adopted legislation further limits the ability of non-governmental organizations to operate and for civil society to participate in public life. By mid-2015, most of Burundi’s opposition party leaders, independent journalists and civil society activists had fled the country after receiving repeated threats.

The human rights crisis that gripped Burundi in 2015 deepened in 2016 as government forces targeted perceived political opponents with increased brutality. The Burundian National Defense Forces (BNDF) and the Burundian National Intelligence Service (SNR)—often in collaboration with members of the ruling party’s youth league, known as Imbonerakure—committed numerous killings, disappearances, abductions, torture, rape, and arbitrary arrests against the perceived opponents of the ruling party.

For perpetrators of these crimes associated with the ruling party, there is almost total impunity. The ruling party continues to interfere with Burundi’s weak justice system and therefore these human rights abuses are rarely punished. The government’s suspected political opponents have been arrested and held for prolonged periods unlawfully. Ultimately, an average of more than one thousand people fleeing the violence escaped to nearby Tanzania per day in 2016 to join the 250,000 already spread across Eastern Africa.

The Advocates’ Refugee and Immigrant Program provides legal representation to individuals seeking asylum.  The Advocates has received direct information about suppression of political opinion in Burundi from survivors fleeing human rights abuses in the country to seek asylum in the United States. Our clients share stories of being accused, often arbitrarily, of supporting anti-government protests. They report police and Imbonerakure members searching their homes, looting their businesses, and arresting, beating and interrogating them and their family members. While each client’s case is different, their experiences confirm that the legal system and policies in Burundi are failing to provide individuals with adequate protection from politically-based violence.

In July, The Advocates for Human Rights submitted a stakeholder’s report to the Universal Periodic Review, identifying specific measures that the Burundian Government should enact to address political suppression in the country.

First, Burundi should combat impunity by systematically and promptly carrying out investigations of criminal activity committed by government affiliates and ensure appropriate compensation for such crimes. In the previous UPR, the Government of Burundi accepted recommendations to continue efforts toward combatting impunity including the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. While the Commission was established in 2016, serious concerns exist regarding the Commission’s ability to fulfill its mandate with the expanded use of temporary immunities which have de facto become permanent amnesty schemes. Burundi should then establish an independent mechanism for investigating complaints of torture or ill-treatment at the hands of members of police or security forces to ensure accountability for perpetrators of human rights violations.

Second, the Government should take the necessary steps to ensure that legal systems and policies are in full compliance with Burundi’s international obligations with respect to freedom of expression. During its last UPR, Burundi rejected 15 recommendations related to freedom of expression and association, as well as protections for human rights defenders. Burundi must afford journalists and human rights defenders the freedom to carry out their work independently and without fear of persecution or intimidation.

Overall, Burundi is failing to meet its international obligations to investigate and prosecute political-based violence perpetrated on behalf of the ruling party. Security forces, intelligence services, and Imbonerakure members are repeatedly identified as responsible for extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, abductions, arbitrary arrests and detention, torture and ill-treatment, and sexual violence. The Burundian Government must act to combat impunity and protect civil society members from such human rights violations.

With the ongoing human rights crisis gripping the state of Burundi, members of civil society continue to face politically-based violence at the hands of the ruling party. Unfortunately, these human rights violations continue to go largely unreported and unaccounted for in U.S. media. Although American domestic politics seem to dominate the current political discourse, we all need to remain vigilant and afford these international, human rights violations the attention they deserve.

By April Will, a second-year J.D. student (class of 2019) at the University of Minnesota Law School. She is a 2017 summer intern with The Advocates’ International Justice Program.  

 The Advocates’ stakeholder submission to the UN Human Rights Council for Burundi’s Universal Periodic Review includes direct information about human rights violations from survivors who have fled Burundi to seek asylum in the United States.  Read the full report here.

Related post:  Giving our asylum clients from Burundi a voice at the United Nations

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Uncovering hidden obstacles to the rights of persons with disabilities in Iran

IMG_3551The Advocates for Human Rights offers volunteers a remarkable and rewarding breadth of opportunities to effect change around the world. As an example, I recently had a chance to advocate for the rights of Iranians with disabilities when I traveled to Geneva, Switzerland with The Advocates to lobby the United Nations Human Rights Council on a variety of human rights issues.

A Persian Proverb says “A blind person who sees is better than a seeing person who is blind”:  Uncovering hidden obstacles to the rights of persons with disabilities in Iran.

Iran Under Review by the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

The Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) was considering the  initial report submitted by Iran since its adoption of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2008. In its report, and its opening remarks to the Committee, Iran painted a rosy picture of its progress in removing obstacles and providing greater equality and support for persons with disabilities.

Even without digging beneath the surface, though, the language of those documents displayed a continuing view that persons with disabilities are lesser beings. The State reported as an accomplishment, for example, that premarital genetic testing is required for all couples in Iran “in order to prevent the birth of children with disabilities.”

It is difficult to assess thoroughly the status of human rights in Iran because of the lack of independent civil society or non-governmental organizations (NGOs, like The Advocates) working on the ground there. Instead, Iran has what are called “GONGOs,” for “government-organized non-governmental organizations.” GONGOs often purport to act as watchdogs, but in reality they are mechanisms of the State. Members of our group were actively pursued and questioned by an Iranian GONGO whose representatives were very interested in finding out what we planned to tell the CRPD.

 Persons with Disabilities and the Death Penalty 

Despite the difficulties, The Advocates were able to identify and report on several specific areas of concern.  They presented to the CRPD a shadow report that addressed issues related to the justice system. Iran provides no procedural safeguards in its death penalty process for individuals with intellectual or psychosocial disabilities. Those familiar with U.S. death penalty law know that there is a significant body of case law addressing the execution of defendants with such disabilities, including a number of Supreme Court decisions. The Advocates urged the CRPD to recommend that Iran suspend its death penalty for people with these disabilities, and take steps to ensure proper safeguards in future cases. While opposing the death penalty in all instances, The Advocates sought a recommendation that the law not provide lesser punishments for crimes against victims with disabilities.

Private Briefings and Public Hearings

I attended an interesting private briefing, during which The Advocates’ Amy Bergquist provided members of the CRPD with details on Iran’s use of amputation as a punishment for certain crimes, such as theft.  Examples were given of the amputation of fingers, hands or feet, and the use of chemical blinding.  The defendant may not have any disabilities when the sentence is given, but is left afterward with a disability imposed by the government. Since defendants are often poor and lack education, this likely leaves them with little ability to find work.  The stigma associated with this visible disability and its well-understood origin put the individual at a severe disadvantage for life.

I was also able to attend public hearings at which Iran’s delegation responded to a list of issues and concerns raised by the CRPD. Some of the questions touched on issues discussed at our earlier private briefing. Most of the answers were vague and circular, providing little in the way of actual facts and data, despite specific requests for these, or evidence of progress.  There was a great deal of talk about meetings, trainings, brochures and pamphlets, and more meetings, but seemingly little in the way of concrete results. Some CRPD members pointedly remarked on the lack of answers.

Outcomes and Lessons Learned

The outcomes of the process, the CRPD’s “concluding observations”  were published in April. I was pleased to see that the CRPD included concerns and recommendations on issues that had been raised by The Advocates, as well as on LGBT rights.  The CRPD’s stated concerns included “the enforcement of mutilation as a form of criminal sentence, and the stigmatization against persons who have impairment as a consequence of such punishment,” as raised in our private briefing.

The CRPD also noted that “persons with disabilities, particularly persons with psychosocial and/or intellectual disabilities may be at risk of facing a greater risk of death penalty due to lack of procedural accommodations, in criminal proceedings,” as addressed in The Advocates’ shadow report.

The CRPD also expressed concern about “discrimination against persons perceived to have a disability, including on the grounds of gender identity and sexual orientation, being forced to undergo medical treatment.”

One of the lessons of this work has been the need for and value of patience. UN treaty bodies like the CRPD can’t simply order a country to change its conduct. The language of international diplomacy sometimes seems, to a newcomer like me, less strong than it ought to be. But participants in the process understand expressions of “concern” to indicate that the requirements of the convention are, in the CRPD’s opinion, not being upheld. Accompanying recommendations for resolving these concerns will be the subject of thorough review in the future, and Iran will be required to account for its implementation of, or failure to implement them.

International scrutiny, and international pressure, can change the course of a country’s conduct as the flow of water erodes rock and changes a river’s course. The change is incremental, but real and lasting.

By Lisa Borden, Birmingham-based Pro Bono Shareholder at Baker Donelson where her own pro bono legal work focuses on representation of indigent death row inmates in post-conviction proceedings.  Ms. Borden volunteers with The Advocates for Human Rights’ International Justice Program and traveled to the United Nations in Geneva with The Advocates’ team in March 2017 and March 2015.