Stopping private prison profiteering in Minnesota

Child or woman's hand in jail

They are not building these prisons to stay empty,” Reverend Ovester Armstrong, Jr. told protesters at the Minnesota State Office Building on March 22. “They are building these prisons to fill them up.” Inside, the House Public Safety Committee held hearings on re-opening a private prison in Appleton. The private prison is owned by the Correctional Corporation of America (CCA), the largest prison company in the United States.

“We should help people, not make money off of them,” said Reverend Armstrong. “We should not let someone’s life be held hostage to a dollar bill.”

Bad for prisoners, bad for the rest of us
Private prisons are for-profit operations. They make money by minimizing services.

Joe Broge, a correctional officer at Stillwater, said at the protest rally that he worked at Stillwater when the CCA prison in Appleton was open before, and heard stories from the inmates who were placed there. “There are reasons why per diem in private prisons is lower,” he said, “and none of those reasons are good ones.”

Private prisons skim the “easiest” prisoners from the public institutions, then skimp on rehabilitation and medical services. They pay employees less than those working in state prisons, and provide far less training and supervision, resulting in unsafe conditions, and putting prisoners, staff and the public at risk.

In the hearing, Professor Nekima Levy-Pounds, president of the Minneapolis NAACP, testified that “Who we do business with is just as important as the business we do. Doing business with the CCA is like doing business with the devil, because their practices are diabolical.”

Big bucks in for-profit prisons
The private prison industry is huge. CCA is the biggest player, with $1.7 billion in income in 2011. Its CEO was paid $3.7 million in 2011. CCA spent $17.4 million on lobbying from 2003-2012 and $1.9 million in political contributions.

About 131,000 prisoners were held by private prisons in 2014, according to the U.S. government’s Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS).

Race is in the equation
Across the country, the justice system disproportionately imprisons black men. BJS reports, “In 2014, 6% of all black males ages 30 to 39 were in prison, compared to 2% of Hispanic and 1% of white males in the same age group.”

Protesters called prisons “a new wave of slavery.” They pointed to the need for more social programs rather than more prisons. Minnesota’s racial disparities in housing, income, health and education extend to the state’s prison system:

  • “Black people make up less than 6 percent of Minnesota’s population, according to 2013 census estimates, but made up 35 percent of the prison population as of January 2015.
  • “Native Americans comprise about 1 percent of Minnesotans, but accounted for about 10 percent of the state’s prisoners.
  • “White people make up the vast majority of the state population — 86 percent — but only 53 percent of the inmate population.”

Putting more people in prison
Overall, Minnesota keeps too many people in prison for too long. According to the Star Tribune,

” Over the past 25 years, the state’s incarceration rate has soared by 150 percent, and Minnesota’s prisons are bloated beyond capacity and burdened by runaway costs. The majority of that growth can be attributed to harsher penalties and other changes to the state’s criminal code passed by state lawmakers.”

Much of that increase comes from war-on-drugs legislation which greatly increased the penalties for drug offenses. As a result, reports the Star Tribune, “From 1998 to 2005, the state’s drug-crime inmate population more than tripled from 700 to nearly 2,200.”

Private prisons contribute to filling the prisons: contracts frequently require governments to keep the for-profit prison full or at 90 percent of capacity.

In its 2014 annual report, CCA warned stockholders that “The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing practices or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by our criminal laws.”

Do private prisons save money?
Profit drives private prisons. The original rationalization for the government to contract with them was saving money. That hasn’t worked out so well.

The Arizona Republic fact-checked claims, and found that

“There is no universally accepted method when comparing private and state-run prison costs. However, the most recent Corrections Department study that attempts to compare prison types on a level playing field concluded that per inmate costs were cheaper in state-run prisons than in private prisons.”

According to a study from the University of Wisconsin, “inmates in private prisons are likely to serve as many as two to three more months behind bars than those assigned to public prisons and are equally likely to commit more crimes after release, despite industry claims to lower recidivism rates.” Keeping people in prison longer, the study notes, means more income for the for-profit prisons.

What’s next?
While the House Public Safety Committee voted 10-7 along party lines to approve the prison proposal, the proposal is not likely to go anywhere this session. (Sally Jo Sorenson has been reporting extensively on the story at Bluestem Prairie. Subscribe to her blog for continuing updates.)

Though the Republican committee vote sent the bill to the Ways and Means committee, the DFL-majority Senate is unlikely to consider the measure. Governor Mark Dayton has already rejected reopening the Appleton prison. The Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission has proposed reducing sentences for many drug offenders rather than opening new prisons. Department of Corrections Commissioner Tom Roy testified that expanding prisons is not on the DOC agenda.

Even if this private prison proposal does not move forward, other creeping prison privatization continues in areas from medical care to phone service to in-prison employment and post-prison release services. But that’s a matter for another day.

For more information:

mary-turck-photoBy: Guest blogger Mary Turck, a freelance writer and editor who teaches writing and journalism at Metropolitan State University and Macalester College.

She is also the former editor of the TC Daily Planet and of the award-winning Connection to the Americas and AMERICAS.ORG, a recovering attorney, and the author of many books for young people (and a few for adults), mostly focusing on historical and social issues. Her career in journalism began when she was in high school, writing a weekly column for the Litchfield Independent Review. The column began with a multi-part investigative journalism series on the county school system, which she still considers among her best work.

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My run-in with hate speech at a Minnesota Vikings game

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The following opinion editorial written by The Advocates for Human Rights’ Refugee and Immigrant Program Director Deepinder Mayell was published in the December 9 Star Tribune.

 

 

It was my first Minnesota Vikings game and my first NFL game. I am not new to football, though. As an undergrad at Boston College, I went to many Eagles games, and I played junior varsity football. I knew what to expect on the field. I was excited, and, as I found my seat, I thought about bringing my family to a game in the new stadium.

What I didn’t expect was for a man to push aside other people and point his finger in my face, demanding to know if I was a refugee. He needed to make sure I wasn’t a refugee, he said. There was anger in his face and vehemence in his accusation.

I was stunned. He didn’t know anything about me. We were complete strangers. But somewhere in his mind, all he saw was a terrorist, based on nothing more than the color of my skin. He was white, and I wasn’t. He didn’t see anything else.

He didn’t know that I have lived in Minnesota for the past four years, that I was born and raised in New York and that the words “Never Forget” may mean more to me than to him. He didn’t know that when I went home and my children jumped on top of me and asked “How was the game?” that I’d be holding back tears as I told them about racism instead of touchdowns. He didn’t know that I am an attorney and the director of the Refugee and Immigrant Program at the Advocates for Human Rights.

It was also abundantly clear that he didn’t know about refugees, dignity or freedom. He didn’t know that if he were speaking to a refugee, he’d be speaking to someone who feared persecution due to their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or social group. He didn’t know that many refugees are victims of some of the worst human-rights abuses occurring on the planet, ranging from being sold into sexual slavery to being killed in mass executions. He didn’t know that being a refugee is a badge of resilience and honor, not danger.

In that moment, I was terrified. But what scared me the most was the silence surrounding me. As I looked around, I didn’t know who was an ally or an enemy. In those hushed whispers, I felt like I was alone, unsafe and surrounded. It was the type of silence that emboldens a man to play inquisitor. I thought about our national climate, in which some presidential candidates spew demagoguery and lies while others play politics and offer soft rebukes. It is the same species of silence that emboldened white supremacists to shoot five unarmed protesters recently in Minneapolis.

The man eventually moved on. I found security staff, and with a guard and friend at my side, I confronted the man on the concessions level. I told him that what he said was racist and that what he did scared me. I told him that I was afraid to return to my seat and that I was afraid that people were going to hurt me. I told him that what he did makes me afraid for my children.

Somewhere during that second confrontation there was a change. Maybe some humanity crept inside him. Maybe he felt the presence of the security guard. While he said he was sorry, his apology was uttered in an adolescent way that demonstrated that he felt entitled to reconciliation as much as he felt entitled to hurl hatred. He wanted to move on and enjoy the game. I told him that I didn’t want his apology. Rather, I wanted him ejected from the stadium because he made me feel unsafe.

The security staff talked with him privately. I don’t know what was said. He was not removed. Apparently, the Vikings do not think that hate speech and racism are removable offenses. My gameday experience was ruined. I tried to focus on the players, but I continued to take glances at the man who sat just a few yards away. I couldn’t help looking over my shoulder, wondering if he had inspired someone else. It was clear that I would not be bringing my family to a Vikings game.

I am deeply troubled by what happened to me. Hate speech is a warning for us all. It is like smoke. Imagine your office, church or stadium filling with smoke, while everyone acted like nothing was wrong. That smoke eventually becomes an unstoppable fire, the type of fire that has consumed people around the world to commit horrendous crimes, the type of fire that can bring down the entire building. As President Obama stated in his address from the Oval Office on Sunday evening: “[I]t is the responsibility of all Americans — of every faith — to reject discrimination.” It is up to us all, from individual bystanders to institutions as big as the Vikings, to respond to and to stop the spread of racism and hate.

 Deepinder Mayell is an attorney and director of The Advocates for Human Rights’ Refugee and Immigrant Program.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Death penalty

Transparency on lethal injection drugs

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

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

Moratorium

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

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

Racial bias and wrongful convictions

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

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

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

Immigrant detention

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

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

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

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

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

Rights of migrants

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s next?

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

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

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

Oromo Protests One Year On: Looking Back; Looking Forward

Minnesota Oromos and allies rally at the Minnesota State Capitol on May 9
Minnesota Oromos and allies rally at the Minnesota State Capitol on May 9, 2014

Oromos and others in the Ethiopian diaspora are on the edge of their seats. Not only are general elections in Ethiopia scheduled for Sunday, but today the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child is reviewing Ethiopia’s human rights record.

Ethiopia under review at the UN

Today, May 22nd, the United Nations’ Committee on the Rights of the Child is reviewing Ethiopia’s human rights record in light of its commitments under the Convention on the Rights of the Child. This treaty describes the civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights of children. Ethiopia became a party to the Convention in 1991. Ethiopia has undergone three previous reviews with the Committee, and tomorrow’s session will consolidate the country’s fourth and fifth periodic reviews. The Committee’s review has a number of objectives. The Committee will review Ethiopia’s progress on the Committee’s previous recommendations, assess the current state of Ethiopia’s commitments, and–we hope–address some relevant issues civil society organizations like The Advocates for Human Rights and the the International Oromo Youth Association (IOYA) raised in a report to the Committee in July 2014.

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

The Advocates and IOYA met with Committee members in Geneva last September to assist them in preparing their list of issues to focus on during tomorrow’s review. The report describes numerous violations of children’s rights in Ethiopia, and it also focuses on ethnic discrimination faced by the Oromo people–the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia. It emphasizes legal provisions that hinder civil society organizations from being able to carry out effective child rights work in Ethiopia. The report also outlines various government violations affecting children, including violations of civil rights and freedoms, family environment, basic health and welfare, and education. The Advocates’ report especially emphasizes the violations carried out by the Ethiopian government against minors in relation to last year’s Oromo student protests. Read on for some initial coverage of how the Committee has been using this report during today’s review.

What happens at the Committee’s review?

The Committee’s review takes place over two sessions. The first session starts with representatives of the Ethiopian Government presenting a brief overview on the current state of Ethiopia’s commitments under the Convention on the Rights of the Child–typically a brief summary of the State’s report to the Committee and a response to the Committee’s list of specific issues to which Ethiopia was previously asked to reply. Then there is a first round of questions and responses from the government delegation. During the second session, government representatives will have a chance to answer additional questions from the Committee, responding with more detail to address the Committee’s concerns.

The review takes place in Geneva, Switzerland with the first session from 10am–1pm, and the second from 3pm–6pm. The sessions are broadcast on the UN’s live treaty body webcast, and will later be archived and available online.

Quick recap

This morning, the Committee raised concerns about the government’s response to the Oromo student protests in 2014. The Ethiopian delegation’s response was as predictable as it was disappointing. The Ethiopian government said the students were not peaceful but rather were “promoting a terrorist agenda.” The Committee members expressed displeasure with the government’s classification of children as “terrorists,” prompting the Ethiopian Ambassador to the UN Office in Geneva to assert to the Committee that the students were probably “convinced by a totally unacceptable ideology.” The ambassador reserved judgment on whether the rights of students had been violated, but conceded that the delegation had heard the Committee’s concerns.

The Committee raised many other issues highlighted in our report, including sexual assault of students by teachers, FGM, discrimination against children with disabilities, and child domestic workers. For more details about today’s review, follow tweets at @alb68.

In just a few weeks, the Committee will issue its Concluding Observations and Recommendations from today’s review.

Concerns surrounding Ethiopia’s general elections

Ethiopia will also hold its parliamentary elections on Sunday, May 24th. According to Ethiopia’s Fana Broadcasting Corporate, about 36.8 million people have voting cards, and the nation has set up 45,000 polling stations across the country.

Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, who is running for re-election, has never run for the post of prime minister before. He took over leadership of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) after the death of the former Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi. The EPRDF, the current ruling party, has won four consecutive elections in Ethiopia, winning the 2010 elections with 99.6% of the vote. Several opposition groups fear this election will have the same result.

Oromo groups, in particular, have been campaigning against the EPRDF, but according to an Al Jazeera report, this campaigning has prompted the government to place an even stronger grip on its citizens, increasing repression of their basic political liberties. Since 2010, the government has shut down the majority of independent media sources in Ethiopia, and so the Ethiopian media itself does not provide much coverage of election issues. Many sources that provide information to media and human rights groups are often targeted by the Ethiopian government, and many diaspora websites are blocked. At the same time, citizens fear the consequences of voting for an opposition party, worried that it will lead to even more repression.

Looking back on the past year

With all that’s taking place in Ethiopia over the next few days, it’s an important time to look back and reflect on what’s happened and the advocacy The Advocates has been engaging in with the diaspora over the past year:

(1) Oromo student protests

Oromo students protesting in Burayu. Image courtesy of Gadaa.com. http://gadaa.com/oduu/25775/2014/05/02/breaking-news-oromoprotests-buraayyuu-oromiyaa/
Oromo students protesting in Burayu. Image courtesy of Gadaa.com. http://gadaa.com/oduu/25775/2014/05/02/breaking-news-oromoprotests-buraayyuu-oromiyaa/

We’re now one year on from the Oromo student protests, highlighted by a blog series at The Advocates Post last year. Human rights organizations and Oromo diaspora groups, while outraged by the events in Ethiopia, have been unable to intervene directly due to the government’s strict limitations on independent human rights work within the country. Instead, the Oromo diaspora began awareness-raising movements here in Minnesota and around the world, using the #OromoProtests hashtag, and inviting others to join the movement. The Oromo diaspora organized several programs and made use of various tactics from The Advocates’ Paving Pathways appendix on “Using Popular Social Media Platforms for Effective Human Rights Advocacy.”

 (2) Ethiopia’s turn in the Universal Periodic Review

The Ethiopian Government's delegation to the Universal Periodic Review on May 6, 2014, chaired by State Minister of Foreign Affairs Berhane Gebre-Christos
The Ethiopian Government’s delegation to the Universal Periodic Review on May 6, 2014, chaired by State Minister of Foreign Affairs Berhane Gebre-Christos

At the time of the protests, Ethiopia was up for review as part of the United Nations’ Universal Periodic Review (UPR). The Advocates, along with members of the Oromo diaspora in Minnesota, prepared a stakeholder report for Ethiopia’s review. We lobbied the Geneva missions of several foreign governments, urging them to raise issues surrounding discrimination targeting Oromos and the student protests to Ethiopia’s government.

In September, the UN Human Rights Council formally adopted the outcome of the UPR of Ethiopia. As we reported at the time, there were some fireworks as civil society organizations challenged the Ethiopian government’s repressive policies.

At the adoption of the UPR outcome, the Ethiopian government made several commitments to improve its human rights record, including accepting a recommendation from the United Kingdom to “[t]ake concrete steps to ensure the 2015 national elections are more representative and participative than those in 2010, especially around freedom of assembly and encouraging debate among political parties.” Initial reports suggest that the Ethiopian government has not honored its word. But people in the diaspora can work with people on the ground in Ethiopia to document these ongoing human rights violations and to prepare reports to use in future advocacy.

(4) Meeting with the Committee on the Rights of the Child

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

In September 2014, The Advocates and IOYA traveled to Geneva to meet with the Committee on the Rights of the Child as it prepared its list of issues that would guide its review of Ethiopia’s human rights record. We also had the opportunity to meet with the staff of some of the UN special procedures to discuss other opportunities for raising human rights concerns at the United Nations.

(5) The African Human Rights Commission reviews Ethiopia’s human rights record

African Commission on Human and People's RightsAlso in September 2014, The Advocates and IOYA submitted a lengthy alternative report to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, responding to the Ethiopian Government’s report. The in-person review, originally scheduled for October, was delayed due to the Ebola crisis. But the review finally happened just last month, and the African Commission’s concluding observations on Ethiopia’s human rights record should be published in the next few months.

(6) More to come

The Advocates has a few other projects in the works with diaspora communities from Ethiopia. We’ll keep you posted as those efforts progress.

Hope for the upcoming days

As we’ve said before, making progress on human rights is like a marathon, not a sprint. Ethiopia is a case in point. But neither The Advocates nor the diaspora will turn its back on the Ethiopian government’s human rights violations. We’ll continue to monitor the situation in the country and pursue strategies to pressure the government to honor its human rights commitments. Our toolkit, Paving Pathways for Justice and Accountability: Human Rights Tools for Diaspora Communities, is over 400 pages long, and there are still a lot of strategies that need to be developed and still a lot of work that remains to be done in the fight for human rights in Ethiopia.

Are you, or do you know, a member of a diaspora community? What can you do to be an advocate for human rights from afar?

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

Read more about diaspora engagement and human rights in Ethiopia:

Advocating for the Rights of Children in Ethiopia

Building Momentum in Geneva with the Oromo Diaspora

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

Oromo Diaspora Mobilizes to Shine Spotlight on Student Protests in Ethiopia

Ethiopian Government Faces Grilling at UN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Memoriam: Sharon Rice Vaughn

Sharon Rice Vaughan Photo: Lisa Miller, U of M
Sharon Rice Vaughan
Photo: Lisa Miller, U of M

Dear Friends,

What a great privilege to have known Sharon Rice Vaughan. She was an amazing teacher, and one of the greatest examples of a servant leader I have ever met. Sharon was the first expert to consult with us at The Advocates for Human Rights when, more than 20 years ago, we started our Women’s Program. I remember listening to her story and thinking how amazing it would be for her to share that story with women around the world.

Sharon was part of our delegation to the UN Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China in 1995. I witnessed how easily she connected with women from every corner of the globe and how her story touched them in profound ways. The following year she traveled with us to Tirana, Albania, and shared her story again with women from nine countries in the Balkans. Sharon mesmerized the entire room with her story of how the seeds of the first shelter were planted by welcoming battered women into her own home in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and how she and other amazing women built the first shelter. She inspired these women who were in the earliest stages of organizing after the fall of communism; through her example, she showed them that with passion, commitment, and creativity, they too could start a movement.

I am grateful for the ways Sharon changed my life, and I am inspired by the ways she changed the world.

Sincerely,

Robin Phillips, Executive Director
The Advocates for Human Rights

Sharon Rice Vaughan was a national pioneer in providing safe havens to abused women. Her life ended this week, as a result of a car accident in Cuba. Learn more about Ms. Rice Vaughn.

Driver’s Licenses for All

MN with Road
The Minnesota legislature is set to consider a proposal that would decouple immigration status from driver’s license eligibility. This important proposal restores Minnesota law to its pre-2003 state and returns the driver’s license to its original purpose of ensuring that drivers on Minnesota roads have demonstrated that they know how to drive.

The bills, HF 97 (Hamilton) and HF 98 (Clark) in the House and SF 224 (Champion), each would allow Minnesota to accept a valid, unexpired passport and certified birth certificate as an acceptable form of proof of identity. The bills would also repeal the Minnesota rules that require driver’s license applicants to submit proof of current authorized legal presence in the United States.

In 2003 Minnesota amended its regulations to require that applicants for driver’s licenses must present proof of residency and “demonstrate proof of either lawful short-term admission to the United States, permanent United States resident status, indefinite authorized presence status, or United States citizenship.” Minn. Rules. 7410.0410, subpart 1.

The Advocates for Human Rights opposed the 2003 rules change, noting that they were likely to “result in discriminatory and potentially unconstitutional practices, will decrease public safety, and will fail to advance the purpose of the rule.” We cited concerns about the erosion of immigrant community trust in police and decreased willingness to cooperate with police in the investigation of crime. We also noted that the rules may lead to unconstitutional actions, including unconstitutional stops, arrests, and detention incident to traffic stops made solely on the basis of perceived immigration status.

Those concerns were born out in the findings of The Advocates’ 2014 report Moving from Exclusion to Belonging: Immigrant Rights in Minnesota Today, where immigrant crime victims reported that fear of deportation stands in the way of calling the police. Advocates reported incidents of law enforcement routinely running license plates of Latino drivers, jailing people for failure to have a driver’s license, and calling federal immigration officials during the course of traffic stops.

In 2003, we also raised the concern that “due to extensive delays in application processing, many immigrants and lawful nonimmigrants will be unable to present documentation of their status” despite being lawfully present.

The Advocates represents asylum seekers – people who have fled their countries out of fear of persecution, torture, and death. Asylum seekers may struggle through years of bureaucratic delays before their applications are approved. They are lawfully present in this country under federal law and international treaty, but the only proof of their authorized stay acceptable under Minnesota Rule 7410.0410 is the work permit issued to asylum seekers in one-year increments. Asylum seekers are issued Minnesota driver’s licenses marked with the words STATUS CHECK and the expiration date of their work permit. Unfortunately, US Citizenship and Immigration Services, the federal agency which issues employment authorization documents, is plagued by bureaucratic backlogs which often result in delays of weeks or even months in work permit renewals. In these situations, even though the asylum seeker remains lawfully present in the United States, their driver’s license is cancelled and, when the new work permit finally arrives, the asylum seeker must pay a renewal fee for a new license to be issued. They cannot drive while they wait for their immigration paperwork.

Asylum seekers in our community have endured persecution in their home countries and trauma in flight to safety. Minnesota law should ensure that, when they arrive in our state seeking to rebuild their lives in safety, they are met with welcome and given access to the tools they need to move forward. Returning Minnesota’s driver’s license law to its pre-2003 status is the right thing to do.

By: Michele Garnett McKenzie, The Advocates for Human Rights’ director of advocacy.

Building Momentum in Geneva with the Oromo Diaspora

Building Momentum in Geneva with the Oromo Diaspora
H.E. Mr. Minelik Alemu Getahun, Ambassador Extraordinary & Plenipotentiary and Permanent Representative of Ethiopia to the United Nations Office in Geneva
H.E. Mr. Minelik Alemu Getahun (left), Ambassador Extraordinary & Plenipotentiary and Permanent Representative of Ethiopia to the United Nations Office in Geneva

This fall was a busy time for advocacy at the United Nations on human rights in Ethiopia. It was also a great time to see The Advocates for Human Rights’ new toolkit, Paving Pathways for Justice and Accountability: Human Rights Tools for Diaspora Communities, in action.

Universal Periodic Review Concludes with Some Fireworks
In a one-hour session on September 19, the UN Human Rights Council adopted the outcome of its second Universal Periodic Review of Ethiopia. You can watch the video of the session here.

I’ve blogged about the UPR of Ethiopia before, and the adoption of the outcome is the last step in the process. The adoption of the outcome is also the only opportunity civil society organizations have to speak during the UPR process.

The Advocates for Human Rights is based in Minnesota, not Geneva, so we don’t generally get a chance to address the Human Rights Council during the UPR process. But I often watch the live webcasts, and this time I got up early to livetweet.

Ms Renate Bloem from Civicus World Alliance for Citizenship Participation addresses the Human Rights Council
Ms Renate Bloem from Civicus World Alliance for Citizenship Participation addresses the Human Rights Council

Several non-governmental organizations took the floor and raised concerns about the human rights situation on the ground in Ethiopia. Civicus World Alliance for Citizenship Participation, for example, expressed concern about Ethiopia’s refusal to accept recommendations to remove draconian restrictions on free expression. Renate Bloem (left), speaking for Civicus, added:

While relying on international funding to supplement 50-60 percent of its national budget, the government has simultaneously criminalized most foreign funding for human rights groups in the country. These restrictions have precipitated the near complete cessation of independent human rights monitoring in the country. It is therefore deeply alarming that Ethiopia has explicitly refused to implement recommendations put forward by nearly 15 governments during its UPR examination to create an enabling environment for civil society.

The Ethiopian Ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Minelik Alemu Getahun (top), lashed out at the NGOs that commented, particularly Civicus:

I regret the language used by some of the NGO representatives and particularly the call for action some of them made against Ethiopia in the Council for alleged isolated acts. Some of the language used in the allegations, particularly the remarks by CIVICUS on our budget is outrageous and incorrect. I can assure the Council that Ethiopia relies on its peoples and their resources, which is not unusual supplemented by international support.

The Human Rights Council then adopted the outcome of the second UPR of Ethiopia. The recommendations Ethiopia accepted are contained in the Report of the Working Group and an addendum, available here. Some of the more promising recommendations that Ethiopia accepted in September are:

  • Implement fully its 1995 Constitution, including the freedoms of association, expression and assembly for independent political parties, ethnic and religious groups and non-government organisations (Australia).
  • Take concrete steps to ensure the 2015 national elections are more representative and participative than those in 2010, especially around freedom of assembly and encouraging debate among political parties (United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland).
  • Consider implementing the pertinent recommendations from the Independent Expert on Minorities, with a view to guaranteeing equal treatment of all ethnic groups in the country (Cape Verde).
  • Monitor the implementation of the anti-terrorism law in order to identify any act of repression which affects freedom of association and expression and possible cases of arbitrary detention. In addition, develop activities necessary to eliminate any excesses by the authorities in its application (Mexico).

Now it’s up to people on the ground in Ethiopia, as well as people outside of Ethiopia like the Oromo diaspora, to lobby the Ethiopian Government to implement the recommendations it accepted and to monitor whether the government is keeping its word.

The next UPR cycle for Ethiopia will begin in about 4 years, when NGOs will have a chance to submit new stakeholder reports demonstrating whether Ethiopia has implemented the recommendations it accepted,  pointing out any developments on the ground since the last review, and advocating for new recommendations that will improve human rights in Ethiopia. Learn more about how you can get involved in the UPR process of Ethiopia (or any other country) on pages 200-210 of Paving Pathways.

Opportunities Ahead for Voices to be Heard
African Commission on Human and People's RightsThere’s much more to be done in the effort to build respect for human rights in Ethiopia. In addition to the next steps mentioned above, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights will be reviewing Ethiopia’s human rights record in its December 2014 session. In September, the Advocates and the International Oromo Youth Association submitted a lengthy alternative report to the African Commission, responding to the Ethiopian Government’s report. The African Commission will conduct an examination of the Ethiopian Government and then will issue Concluding Observations and Recommendations. You can read the African Commission’s Concluding Observations from its first review of Ethiopia, in 2010, here. To learn more about advocacy with the African Commission, read pages 268-280 of Paving Pathways.

On Wednesday, November 19, Amane Badhasso and I will have a talk with the Amnesty International chapter of the University of Minnesota Law School. The students are eager to learn more about human rights in Ethiopia, and they want to participate in a collective activity to show their support. There’s been a lot of attention lately to a report Amnesty just released on human rights violations against the Oromo people.

Organizations like The Advocates for Human Rights and Amnesty will be ineffective if they work on their own. The Oromo diaspora, as well as other diaspora communities from Ethiopia, have a critical role to play in leading the way to promoting human rights, justice, and accountability in Ethiopia. The Advocates for Human Rights hopes that Paving Pathways will lay the groundwork for many more fruitful collaborations.

Are you a member of a diaspora community? Do you know people who are living in the diaspora? What steps can the diasporans you know take to improve human rights and accountability in their countries of origin or ancestry? How could Paving Pathways and The Advocates for Human Rights assist them?

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

More posts about the crisis in Ethiopia:

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

Oromo Diaspora Mobilizes to Shine Spotlight on Student Protests in Ethiopia

Ethiopian Government Faces Grilling at UN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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