Volunteering with The Advocates for Human Rights

FeaturedVolunteering with The Advocates for Human Rights

Why should you volunteer with The Advocates?
The Advocates for Human Rights is an organization dedicated to helping refugees and immigrants, women, ethnic and religious minorities, children, and other marginalized communities. For more than thirty years The Advocates have been able to change lives through investigating and exposing human rights violations; representing people who are seeking asylum; training and assisting groups that protect human rights; engaging the public, policy-makers and children; and pushing for legal reform around the world. This would not have been achievable without the thousands of volunteers that have dedicated their time and skills each year.

Volunteer model:
As a volunteer-based organization, The Advocates’ mission is to engage as many people as possible in the fight against human rights violations. Utilizing its resources and years’ in experience, The Advocates’ small staff is able to team with volunteers and partners to implement human rights standards to promote civil society and reinforce the rule of law. For instance, because of the generous assistance of volunteer attorneys, The Advocates can provide free legal services to asylum seekers. The Advocates relies on the support of individuals, law firms, foundations, and the business community to fulfill its mission.

What you can do to help:
There are opportunities for both professionals and non-professionals to get involved: the first step is subscribing to The Advocates’ monthly e-newsletter. Keeping in touch allows one to remain abreast of current human rights issues, as well as be notified of new opportunities to volunteer. To sign up for the mailing list and newsletter, please visit our web site.

Lawyers can donate their time to The Advocates by volunteering to represent asylum seekers pro bono in immigration court. No experience with immigration or human rights law is required. The Advocates will adequately prepare any lawyers who wish to do this. For more information about pro bono work and other volunteering opportunities in the professional world, please visit our web site.

In addition, The Advocates offers an upcoming Continuing Legal Education (CLE) program on human rights and human rights law.

For non-lawyers there are also many ways to get involved. High school and college students can apply to intern and work with The Advocates in various capacities. Furthermore, one can volunteer to be an interpreter or translator, provide office support, become a court observer, or work with The Advocates at the Minnesota State Fair. For volunteering information and to sign up, please visit our web site.

Additionally, immigration has recently become a hot topic with the most pressing issue that confronts us today is the treatment of immigrants at the United States border. In response to this outcry, The Advocates have formed the Immigrant Rights Defense Campaign (IRDC), which urges people to publicly commit to fighting for the rights of immigrants. Both individuals and entire firms can sign onto the IRDC and commit to publicly engaging with at least one campaign action. More information can be found on the IRDC website.

By Alyxandra Sego, an intern with The Advocates for Human Rights.

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Representing Women Seeking Asylum in the US: Gender-Based Persecution

In reSVAW logo copypresenting several women seeking asylum in the US based on gender-based persecution, I have learned a lot and had some of my most memorable experiences as a lawyer.

  • “Nancy” is a woman from Guinea who was subjected to female genital mutilation at thirteen, and again at fourteen, and then the victim of persistent violence and rape by her husband that family, friends, her doctor, and the police were unable or unwilling to stop. She twice fled the country, but her husband found her and forced her to return home, which only led to escalating violence and prolonged imprisonment.  Her family counseled her to “accept” this treatment, and the police refused to intervene because her husband was a high ranking member of the military police.  She escaped to the US, was granted asylum, and is working to reunite with her children.
  • “Donna” is a woman from Cameroon who was the victim of levirate marriage. She was viewed as property of the family, since a dowry had been paid, so after her husband died she was required to marry one of her brothers-in-law.  When she refused, she was sexually assaulted, told she would “get used to it,” and her family and business were threatened.  She escaped to the US, was granted asylum, and has reunited with her children.
  • “Janet” is a woman from Kenya who was the victim of female genital mutilation. She was seeking protection for herself, and also to prevent having to take her daughter back to Kenya where her family would require that her daughter also undergo female genital mutilation.  She was granted withholding of removal, so that she and her daughter are safe in the US.
  • “Francis” is a woman from The Gambia who was the victim of female genital mutilation, and who sought to avoid a forced marriage to a much older man. She had secretly acted as an activist working to educate people about the risks of female genital mutilation, and her mother, at great risk to herself, persuaded her father to let Francis pursue her education.  In order to prevent the forced marriage, and to continue her education, she came to the US, sought and was granted asylum.

The primary reason these awful things happened to my clients is because they are women.  Female genital mutilation, forced marriage, levirate marriage, and ongoing domestic violence continues to happen because in some places women and girls are not viewed as fully human, endowed with the same rights as men. We should be proud that our legal system rejected that view, and instead found affirming their basic human rights worthy of protection.

A recent decision from the Attorney General has proposed to make it more difficult for women fleeing gender-based violence to get protection in the US. In Matter of A-B, 27 I&N Dec. 316 (A.G. 2018), the Attorney General invoked a rarely used power to certify to himself a case for decision so that he could change the law in this area.  In the case, the primary issue that had been litigated was whether the applicant was credible, and the Department of Homeland Security even had agreed that private violence like domestic violence that a government cannot or will not control can be a proper basis for asylum.  The Attorney General, however, reached out to decide a broader issue, which was whether, and under what circumstances, being a victim of private criminal activity constitutes a cognizable “particular social group” for purposes of an application for asylum or withholding of removal.  Though the holding of the decision narrowly overruled a previously-decided case from the Board of Immigration Appeals the Attorney General, largely through dicta, articulated and encouraged a very restrictive view of asylum law.  The decision posits that violence inflicted by private actors, rather than governments, is generally not the type of persecution that our asylum laws were intended to address.

There are many flaws, procedural and substantive, with the decision.  The odd procedure of the case suggests that the Attorney General was searching for a vehicle to render broad policy pronouncements to restrict asylum law.  The decision states that it is not minimizing the “vile abuse” that the woman in the case suffered in the form of domestic violence by her ex-husband.  Unfortunately, the way it elevates form over substance and erects barriers for women who have been so victimized suggests otherwise.  Most fundamentally, it applies a feeble, restrictive view of asylum law, somehow drawing perceived comfort from the rather hollow observation that “the asylum statute does not provide redress for all misfortune.”

I believe that gender-based persecution is indeed the type of harm that our asylum laws should work to address.  It is well-established in international law that states have an obligation to exercise due diligence to prevent, investigate, and punish actions by private actors. The U.N. Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women (DEVAW) states that governments are urged to “exercise due diligence to prevent, investigate and, in accordance with national legislation, punish acts of violence against women, whether those acts are perpetrated by the State or by privates persons” (Art. 4(c)). General Recommendation No. 19 by the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) also provides that states may be “responsible for private acts if they fail to act with due diligence to prevent violations of rights or to investigate and punish acts of violence.” In my experience, allowing the asylum laws to protect people deprived of their basic human rights by private actors because of their gender is a powerful way for this country to stand up for the dignity of all people.  When we see this harm not as mere private acts of violence but as systematic persecution, we affirm the importance of human rights for all people.  The Attorney General’s decision, which seeks to set aside years of development of the law in order to make it more difficult for women to obtain protection, is misguided.  It will make it more difficult for women like the ones that I’ve represented to be safe and free.

The decision will make it harder, but certainly not impossible, to win these cases.  There are still helpful cases from Circuit Courts of Appeals across the country that support gender-based claims from private actor persecution.  Advocates may need to present more arguments and evidence that demonstrate governments’ failure to prevent the harms inflicted by private actors.  Use of expert witnesses to present this evidence may also be needed in more cases.  While the Attorney General’s decision is a significant setback, there are still many claims based on private actor persecution that should prevail.

In 1788, George Washington wrote “I had always hoped that this land might become a safe and agreeable Asylum to the virtuous and persecuted part of mankind, to whatever nation they might belong.”  We know, however, that the history of the US regarding the protection of refugees has been uneven, vacillating between openness and prioritizing human rights to times where we have turned our backs to the persecuted and failed to live up to our country’s ideals.  At times like this when we fall back, lawyers can make a difference by standing up for victims of human rights abuses.  By helping asylum seekers overcome the new hurdles placed by the Attorney General, and hopefully restoring the law to embody greater respect for freedom and human rights, we can enlist ourselves on the right side of history.  I am so glad that Nancy, Donna, Janet, Francis and others like them are safe.  But today asylum seekers, particularly women who have been victims of private actor violence, are going to need help more than ever.

Dean Eyler is Principal and Intellectual Property Litigation Chair at Gray Plant Mooty and a volunteer attorney with The Advocates for Human Rights.

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Dignity for All: World Day Against the Death Penalty highlights detention conditions on death row

“The best way to ensure someone does not leave prison is to make him into the person he was prosecuted as.” – Damon Thibodeaux, exoneree who spent 15 years on Louisiana’s death row

Imagine living in a 8 by 10 foot room with a steel or concrete slab for a bed.  The door is solid steel and the food tray slot at the bottom offers the only source of contact with the rest of the world. These are the kinds of conditions that many death row inmates in the United States endure for 23 hours a day. The Advocates highlighting the brutal living conditions for people on death row at a Continuing Legal Education event on October 10, the 16th annual World Day Against the Death Penalty. The event was hosted at the law firm of Fredrikson & Byron. During this talk, speakers contrasted current conditions in U.S. prisons with the minimum standards set by the Nelson Mandela Rules. Their presentations highlighted the physical and psychological consequences of those conditions on people sentenced to death in the United States.

The Nelson Mandela Rules, formerly known as the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, outline prison standards with relation to disciplinary measures, legal representation, and medical treatment. Amy Bergquist, staff attorney at The Advocates and Vice- President of The World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, explained these rules and gave examples describing how they are seldom followed here in the United States and in other countries. For example, Rules 24-29 state that inmates have the right to access the same quality of healthcare that is available in the general community outside the prison. In many countries, including the U.S., healthcare for detained people is, however, grossly neglected in order to keep costs low. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ chief psychiatrist, close to 40% of inmates have mental illness while only 3% of them are being treated regularly. These services are typically provided only to inmates who had been diagnosed and were receiving treatment prior to their arrest, while people who develop symptoms or are diagnosed in prison are often overlooked.

When combining the substandard health care system in prisons with solitary confinement, prisoners are set up to play a self-fulfilling prophecy. Damon Thibodeaux, an exoneree who survived 15 years on Louisiana’s death row, described this degrading treatment during the World Day event.  He stated, “It is meant to break you down morally, mentally, and physically. It is meant to tear you down so they can paint you as the inhuman animal.” He detailed the unbearable heat in his small, unairconditioned cell during Louisiana summers, when the only way to cool off was to strip down and lie on the floor. Thibodeaux also described the communicable diseases that spread through the prison because of overcrowding. He explained that these diseases would often go untreated because inmates had to pay to see a healthcare provider and often faced long delays before receiving treatment.

Also speaking at the event was Lisa Borden, Baker Donelson’s Pro Bono Shareholder and an attorney who represents indigent death row inmates. Borden also described the prison conditions she has witnessed in the Alabama state prison system. She is currently representing detained clients in a class action lawsuit against the Alabama Department of Corrections. The district court found the mental health care services provided to prisoners are “horrendously inadequate”. One of the key problems, as Borden explained, is the privatization of healthcare in the prison system. Since the private health care providers are allocated a set amount of funding per person, they have an incentive to keep their costs low by using fewer resources.

Borden also shared the extreme conditions that prisoners who are not in solitary confinement routinely face. “Most facilities house 150-200% of the number of people for which they are designed.” These overcrowded conditions are worsened by staffing shortages, with some prisons having less than 40% of the recommended prison staff.  In addition, prisons in Alabama are old, with dilapidated structures.  Borden shared an account where a prisoner died in his cell after his neighboring cellmate reported his unresponsiveness. Due to the prison’s malfunctioning electronic locking system, the officers were not able to reach him until 30 minutes after they were notified.

This event highlighted the human rights violations faced by people sentenced to death, as well as by other detained individuals, in the United States. To learn more about living conditions on death row around the world, see http://www.worldcoalition.org/worldday.html

By Elshaday Yilma, Lutheran Volunteer Corps member and The Advocates’ International Justice Program Assistant

United States General Assembly. (2016). United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the Nelson Mandela Rules). Retrieved from https://www.unodc.org/documents/justice-and-prison-reform/GA-RESOLUTION/E_ebook.pdf

United States Department of Justice. (2017). Review of the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ Use of Restrictive Housing for Inmates with Mental Illness. Retrieved from https://oig.justice.gov/reports/2017/e1705.pdf

University of Texas School of Law Human Rights Clinic. (2017). Designed to Break You: Human Rights Violations on Texas’ Death Row. Retrieved from https://law.utexas.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/11/2017/04/2017-HRC-DesignedToBreakYou-Report.pdf

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Remembering and Honoring Our Remarkable Friend and Advocate, Marlene Kayser

Marlene Kayser

 

 

“My travels with The Advocates began with a trip to Beijing, China, in 1995, for the United Nations’ Fourth World Conference on Women. Experiencing the hope, beauty, determination, and power of the women there inspired me. I came home committed to work even harder for women’s rights.” – Marlene Kayser

 

 

 

 

We have lost an amazing Advocates’ family member, Marlene Kayser. Marlene served on the board, co-chaired our Women’s Program advisory committee, and volunteered for more than 20 years. Volunteers are the lifeblood of the organization and no one exemplified this value more than Marlene. Starting with our delegation to the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China, Marlene set the gold standard for volunteers. That event was an extraordinary gathering of women from every corner of the world. One of our goals was to learn as much as we could about the global women’s human rights movement. Marlene was a master connector and networker. She helped us establish and foster relationships that are still an important part of our work today.

Marlene was a tireless advocate. She rolled up her sleeves and got the work done at the same time inspiring the rest of us to keep going. Marlene worked in countries transitioning to democracy after the fall of communism in Central and Eastern Europe. She worked with us in Bulgaria to document sexual harassment and workplace discrimination. On another trip we documented domestic violence and the government’s response in Macedonia. The resulting reports from this research were used in advocacy to pass important new laws and policies protecting women in both of these countries.

Marlene was masterful in sharing her own experience with advocacy, organizing and fundraising. She also shared creative ideas with the rest of us that improved all our training skills. She was part of laying the groundwork for the amazing network of activists in the region today.

For more than 20 years, Marlene has helped steer our fundraising efforts at The Advocates. No job was too big or too small. She modeled the successful house party organizing that we now use with all of our programs.

Marlene took on making the silent auction at our annual awards dinner world class. She had the unique gift of knowing exactly what will appeal to people of all ages. It came to be known that “Marlene is always right.” Her baskets and item selections always got the most or highest bids.

It is not enough to work hard, but as Marlene taught us, we have a lot to learn from those who have more experience and we need to respect that expertise.

We will miss Marlene dearly.

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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.