Human Rights Education in the U.S. is About to Get a Boost

FeaturedHuman Rights Education in the U.S. is About to Get a Boost

Within the next two years, Massachusetts K-12 students will delve more deeply into the ins-and-outs of international human rights in their history and social studies classrooms. New readings and lesson plans will focus on international human rights treaties, cover a variety of human rights movements both inside and outside the United States, and include more comprehensive discussions on the topic of discrimination. Students will be exposed to human rights concepts from the earliest grades, with the material gradually increasing in complexity through high school.

This is thanks in part to a new initiative on the part of The Advocates for Human Rights and our partner Human Rights Educators USA (HRE USA) that seeks to improve human rights education in schools across the country. To this end, with the help of a team of dedicated volunteers, we evaluated how each state’s social studies standards handle the subject of human rights. Alongside this, we gathered information on when those standards will be updated and how the public can provide input on changes, so that we could act on our findings. First up was Massachusetts. We reviewed their proposed social studies standards and submitted our feedback. Happily, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education took our comments to heart. The end result is a curriculum that invests additional time and energy into teaching human rights.

These changes are about much more than facts and figures. Human rights education significantly impacts the life of each individual child. When they understand what their and others’ rights are, children can more easily identify human rights violations and take action accordingly. Even at a young age, they can begin to tackle issues like prejudice and inequality and become more aware of what’s going on around them. Research confirms this. In schools that instituted human rights programming, students developed an ability to analyze their lives through the prism of human rights, were more motivated toward action, and had a deeper appreciation of diversity and inclusion. [1] [2]

Introducing this type of material during these formative years may also increase children’s social awareness. Schools that incorporated human rights education reported that students showed an increase in tolerance, empathy, and respect. Bullying decreased and students exhibited more respectful behavior toward both their teachers and other students. Additionally, students became more engaged in their schoolwork and felt increased confidence in their academic ability. [3] [4]

Equally as important is the impact human rights education at the K-12 level can have on our country’s future. Imbuing our children with a meaningful and deep understanding of these topics is essential if we want to build a culture where human rights are respected. Imagine a world where all of the refugees at our border were treated with dignity, where everyone had access to sufficient food and housing, where racial and gender equality gaps had closed, and where the prison population was small and treated with dignity. This may sound utopian but the more we teach today’s children to see human rights as vital, the more such a world becomes a possible future, since tomorrow’s leaders will be more likely to prioritize human rights.

Unfortunately, in spite of these many benefits, our review process of existing state social studies standards revealed that most states provide little human rights education and eight states do not cover the subject at all. This means that even when teachers see the value of human rights education, there’s little they can do since they must cover state guidelines and standards before adding optional content like human rights. In Massachusetts, those very standards now give more weight to human rights education, ensuring that children will engage with this powerful topic. States with upcoming review periods include North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Texas. We look forward to achieving similar results in these states and others as we continue to engage in this process.

A huge thank you to all of the talented volunteers who helped to make this a reality. We couldn’t accomplish this without you!

By Rachel Adler, Research, Education, and Advocacy Intern at The Advocates for Human Rights

[1] Bajaj, M. (2011) Teaching to Transform, Transforming to Teach: Exploring the Role of Teachers in Human Rights Education in India, Educational Research, 53 (2), 207-221,

[2] Sebba, J. and Robinson, C. (2010) Evaluation of UNICEF UK’s Rights Respecting School Award. London: UNICEF UK.

[3] Covell, K. (2010) School Engagement and Rights-Respecting Schools, Cambridge Journal of Education, 40 (1) 39-51

[4] Tibbits, F. (2010) Impact Assessment of the Rights Education Action Programme (REAP). Final Report Submitted to Amnesty International Norway. HREA.

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Remembering Our Friend and Advocate, Arvonne Fraser

Arvonne Fraser 2012

“I was ready for the new women’s movement when it emerged and turned my talents and experience to it. Defying expectations, taking risks, and seeking what I could do beyond near horizons became my sport…It’s thrilling to imagine the possibilities that await my grandchildren—and you readers. This is my story. I wrote it to encourage other women to live fully and write theirs.” – Arvonne Fraser (from her memoir entitled “She’s No Lady”)
 

The human rights world has lost a giant. Arvonne Fraser inspired women’s human rights activists across the globe. She encouraged multiple generations of women to find their voices to make their lives better and improve the world. She helped develop international standards for the protection of women and was a tireless advocate herself. In addition to work on international human rights, Arvonne leaves a long legacy in many different arenas, including government, academia, and nonprofit.

She and her husband, Don, influenced our work at The Advocates for Human Rights from the very beginning.  In their honor, the Don and Arvonne Fraser Human Rights Award is presented annually to an outstanding individual or organization promoting human rights. Arvonne’s legacy will live on through the many human rights activists she influenced, both in Minnesota and around the world. This year’s awardee, Jane Connors, spoke of the immense importance of her work in realizing the implementation of the human rights of women through the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

“It is hard to overstate Arvonne’s impact. I have met people from the far corners of the world who when they learned I was from Minnesota, told me wonderful stories about how Arvonne has influenced them in their work,” states Robin Phillips, Executive Director of The Advocates for Human Rights.

We will miss Arvonne dearly.

Read the Star Tribune article about Arvonne.

Our Work: Eradicating Violence Against Women

Our Work: Eradicating Violence Against Women

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“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.

By Suzanne Perry, a volunteer with The Advocates for Human Rights

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.