2014’s Lesson: Take Action. Lives Depend on It.

Painted hand for WordPressDecember has been a terrible month for human rights—from the U.S. Senate’s report confirming the use of torture, to the slaughter of Pakastani school children, to two grand jury decisions not to indict police officers for the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Overall, 2014 has been an extremely troubling year. Some human rights abuses garnered a lot of attention; many did not, taking place under the radar of the media and public conversation. Let’s consider a few examples, and let them serve as a call to action.

  1. Boko Haram militants kidnapped 276 girls from a school in Chibok, Nigeria one night in mid-April. This travesty garnered wide media attention and support from around the world, with celebrities carrying “Bring Back Our Girls” placards and rallies demanding the girls’ return. Unfortunately, 219 girls are reported to remain in captivity. Boko Haram continued its reign of terror, and is responsible for other atrocities throughout Somalia and Nigeria during 2014, including kidnappings, mass recruitment of child soldiers, and bombings of churches and public squares. Just this month news reports surfaced that Boko Haram kidnapped at least 185 women and children and killed 32 people in northeast Nigeria.
  2. Central American refugees―mostly children (and many by themselves)―are seeking asylum, after journeying across one of the world’s most dangerous migrant routes to escape horrific violence in their home countries. The crisis was brought to light and much of the nation was shocked when, in June, images of children being held by US authorities surfaced, showing children crowded in makeshift prisons, and crammed into rooms and sleeping on concrete floors. Instead of treating them as refugees and in accordance with internationally-recognized human rights standards, the U.S. has treated these children as national security threats, warehousing them in razor-wired prisons, detaining them in horrendous conditions, and subjecting them to expedited proceedings to deport them at warp speed and back to the life-threatening dangers they fled.
  3. The terrorist organization ISIL has committed gruesome acts of violence that have alarmed the world community, including murdering political opposition members in mass, enslaving and brutalizing women and girls, and forcing young boys into its ranks. An August attack by ISIL in the Sinjar region caused thousands of Shiites and Yazidis to flee; in October, ISIL abducted 5,000-7,000 Yazidi women and children and sold them into slavery, reported the UN.
  4. Grand jury decisions not to indict police officers for the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner highlighted racial profiling, police brutality, and failures of the justice system throughout the country, including a police officer shooting 12-year-old Tamir Rice to death in Cleveland, Ohio.
  5. The Ethiopian government attacked a student protest in the nation’s Oromia region in April, killing as many as 47 students, as some reports indicate. The Ethiopian government has persecuted and targeted the Oromo people for years, subjecting Oromo to abduction, mass incarceration, and extreme levels of torture, including electric shock and repeated rapes.
  6. Nearly 200,000 people have been killed and millions more took flight because of violence in Syria―the world’s largest refugee crisis resulting from a civil war that has raged in the region following popular uprising during the Arab Spring in 2011. To date, UNHCR estimates that more than 2.5 million refugees have fled the disaster, surpassing the refugee crises in Afghanistan, the Central African Republic, and Central America.
  7. Countries took huge steps backward for rights of LGBTI communities, enacting draconian laws which punish homosexuality with prison terms, torture, and death. Members of LGBTI communities in some countries are hunted down by vigilantes and are beaten or killed. In 2014, Uganda enacted one of the most notorious laws—its “Kill the Gays” law—punishing homosexuality with life in prison. The Ugandan Constitutional Court struck down law. Unfortunately, because the court ruled on procedural grounds rather than on the merits, the court’s decision does not bar parliament from adopting an identical law in the future. And homosexuality remains a criminal act in Uganda, as it was before the new law was signed.
  8. The U.S.’s use of drone strikes are a significant setback to international law, setting new precedents for use of force by nations around the world. As of November 2014, attempts to kill 41 people resulted in snuffing out the lives of an estimated 1,147 individuals, reports The Guardian. The U.S. has, to date, used drones to execute without trial some 4,700 people— including civilians and children—in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, all countries against whom the U.S. has not declared war, the organization Reprieve reports.
  9. An Egyptian court sentenced 529 people to death in a mass trial in March. The next month, a court sentenced another 680 to death in a proceeding that lasted only a few minutes. These mass executions, issued by a military government than came to power in a July 2013 coup, represent some of the largest ordered executions in the last century. Activists who supported efforts to oust former President Hosni Mubarak continue to be rounded up and targeted by the military, aiming to crush political opposition and to roll back achievements made during the Arab Spring. And in November, an Egyptian court dismissed conspiracy to kill charges against Mubarak, and he was cleared of corruption charges; he will likely be freed in a few months.
  10. Women and girls have suffered immeasurably where they should be safest, in their homes. Women aged 15-44 are more at risk from rape and domestic violence than from cancer, motor accidents, war and malaria, according to the World Bank. On average, at least one in three women is beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused by an intimate partner in the course of her lifetime. One high profile domestic violence incident this year involved NFL player Ray Rice beating his then-fiance into unconsciousness and flattening her to the floor of an elevator. As a result of the attack, Rice was suspended for two games. When TMZ posted the video of the attack for the world to see, the NFL suspended Rice indefinitely and the Baltimore Ravens pressured his victim to apologize. Ultimately, the NFL reversed its decision to suspend Rice indefinitely in late November.
  11. Harmful cultural practices violate women. Many governments “address” human rights violations—even the most cringe-worthy, stomach-churning―against women and girls by punishing the victims. Or—as in the case of women from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala seeking refuge in other countries—governments turn their heads to the violence, empowering the perpetrators and further victimizing and subjugating the women. These abuses include acid attacks, female genital mutilation, forced marriage, honor killings, bride burning, and gang rapes. Consider the death of Farzana Iqbal, 25, in May in Pakistan; her family stoned her to death outside a courthouse in Pakistan because she sought to marry without consent from her family a man she loved. Consider Hanna Lalango, 16, who died a month after she entered a public mini-bus in Ethiopia and was gang-raped by strangers for five days―a case similar to one in India two years ago, but one that did not garner the same level of attention and outrage. As an added note, Lalango’s father said he would not have made the case public if his daughter had lived because the shame would have shadowed her for the rest of her life.
  12. The U.S. Senate “torture report” released on December 9 graphically details the CIA’s use of abuse, including keeping a prisoner awake for 180 hours with his hands shackled over his head, threatening to sexually assault and cut the throat of a detainee’s mother, penetrating a detainee’s anus for “rectal feeding,” and tying a prisoner to a floor until he froze to death.
  13. Taliban militants stormed a school in Peshwar, Pakistan and killed more than 130 students in a terrorist attack on December 16 to retaliate against the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Malala Yousafzai, the young girl who caught the world’s attention for being shot for going to school. Responding to the Peshwar slaughter, Malala stated, “I, along with millions of others around the world, mourn these children, my brothers and sisters—but we will never be defeated.”
  14. Forty-three students traveling to a protest in Mexico were rounded up and “disappeared” in September. The mayor of Iguala, Mexico in concert with local gangs ordered the capture and murder of these students, reports indicate. Federal police may also have complicity in the crime. The act has garnered widespread attention in Mexico, with people questioning the legitimacy of federal and state Mexican authorities, who for years has been corrupted by the influence of narco-traffickers and gangs.
  15. More than 2,000 Gazans were killed when Israel launched a military operation in the Gaza strip in July to stop rocket attacks that followed an Israeli crackdown on Hamas in retaliation for the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers. The disproportionate level of force used by the Israeli military resulted in large number of civilian deaths. Of the 2,192 Gazans killed, about 1523 civilians (including 519 children), 66 Israeli soldiers, five Israeli civilians (including a child), and one Thai civilian were killed, reports indicate. At the end of the conflict, 110,000 people were internally displaced and 108,000 were made homeless, according to Amnesty International.

What can we do in the face of these human rights violations and the countless others that go unnoticed? Pay attention. Look behind the headlines. Make our voices heard by public officials, leaders, and the world community. Volunteer for projects that address the issues most important to us. Support organizations such as The Advocates for Human Rights which take on the larger systemic issues that allow human rights abuses to continue. We are not helpless. In 2015, we can, by working together, move closer to our vision of a world in which all people live with dignity, freedom, justice, equality, and peace . . . because every person matters.

By: The Advocates for Human Rights’ Deepinder Mayell, Robin Phillips, Jennifer Prestholdt, and Susan Banovetz

Donate now. Because every person matters.

Raising My Voice to #BringBackOurGirls

 

Jennifer Prestholdt's son at the Mother's Day march to #BringBackOurGirls
Jennifer Prestholdt’s son at the Mother’s Day march to #BringBackOurGirls

On Mother’s Day, I spoke at a local march and rally to show support for the nearly 300 school girls abducted a month ago in Nigeria. Here’s what I said:

Bring Back Our Girls Twin Cities March
May 11, 2014

“Thanks to organizers and to all of you for being here.

“I’m here as a lawyer and deputy director of The Advocates for Human Rights, a non-profit based in Minneapolis that works on human rights issues around the world.

“But I’m also here as a mother. My kids Simon and Eliza are here today as well to stand in honor of the nearly 300 girls abducted simply because they were pursuing their human right to education. I think that’s pretty much the best Mother’s Day gift they could give me.

“There are a lot of things that we don’t know about the situation in Nigeria. We don’t know where the girls are or what is happening to them. We don’t even know the exact number abducted and we only know a few of their names. We can only imagine the agony their families are going through.

“But the tragedy of the nearly 300 girls in Chibok shines a spotlight on the systemic human rights abuses against faced by women and girls worldwide.

“And there are many things we do know about violations of the rights of girls and women:

  • “We know that girls around the world lack equal access to basic education (in the NE region of Nigeria where these girls lived, girl enrollment is the lowest in the country –  only 22%). In part, they were targeted because they were seeking an education that would change their lives.
  • “Educating girls, we know, is one of the strongest ways to improve gender equality. It is also one the best ways to reduce poverty and promote economic growth and development
  • “We know that girls and women are not valued equally as boys and men in many parts of the world. The Nigerian government’s lack of action both before and after certainly makes it seem that these girls were not deemed worthy of protection.
  • “We know that when these girls are found and hopefully rescued, they will need support in the form of psychosocial and health care. Women’s access to health care is woefully limited.
  • “We know that 1 in 3 girls under age 18 are still being forced into marriage too early. By some estimates, that’s about 14 million girls a year. Too many girls still endure harmful traditional cultural practices such as FGM.
  • “We know that girls and women suffer the most in times of conflict. What these girls have experienced is likely a war crime. Trafficking remains a huge problem around the world and in our own community.
  • “We know that 1 in 3 of the world’s women experience violence, including domestic violence (The Advocates for Human Rights works on domestic violence legal reform around the world);

“And we know that these are all things that have to change.

“We need to do more to push our governments to make this change a priority. We can’t stop with just these 276 girls.

#BringBackOurGirls' Mother's Day march, held in Minneapolis, Minnesota
#BringBackOurGirls’ Mother’s Day march, held in Minneapolis, Minnesota

“Now these are human rights abuses that may seem intractable. It may seem like you are powerless to make a difference. But you can:

  • “Continue to educate yourself about girls and women’s rights. Here in the Twin Cities, there are many opportunities. Through The Advocates for Human Rights alone, you can attend the free St. Paul Public Library Women’s Rights Film series, learn more about the issues on www.StopVAW.org, or participate in our Human Rights Book Club.
  • “Support the NGOs that work on issues you care about. No amount is too small – a little money really does go a long way in this area.
  • “Write to our members of Congress and the President to encourage support for women’s rights as a critical part of our US foreign policy.
  • “For those of you with young people in your lives, teach them about the world around them so that they will grow up to continue the fight to ensure that every child, wherever he or she lives in the world, has the chance to live in safety and dignity and to achieve their greatest human potential.

“For those of you doubting whether sharing this story on social media really makes a difference, I’d like to share a message I got on my blog from a woman named Winnie in Nigeria:

“‘we here in nigeria are so angry and feel very helpless, the government and opposition leaders have politicized this, while our daughters are still in captivity. the government officials do not want to listen to ‘ordinary’ people. and word  has it that the Nigerian press have been ordered to kill the story (as the have killed other stories in the past).  pls this is a passionate plea to the international community to keep this story alive until our girls are returned home safely.’

Jennifer Prestholdt speaking at the Mother’s Day March to #BringBackOurGirls

“Here in the Twin Cities and all around the world, we are working to keep this story alive until our girls are returned home safely.

“And after our girls come home, I hope we can keep working together for a future where all girls around the world can go to school in safety and grow up to reach their full human potential.”

By: Jennifer Prestholdt is the deputy director of The Advocates for Human Rights and the director of the organization’s International Justice Program. She has a B.A. in political science from Yale and a M.A.L.D. from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, where she studied international human rights law and international refugee policy. She graduated cum laude from the University of Minnesota Law School in 1996.

Ms. Prestholdt has worked on refugee and asylum issues for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva, Switzerland. She has also interned for the Reebok Human Rights Program and the United Nations Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination Against and Protection of Minorities. Prior to becoming Deputy Director of The Advocates for Human Rights, she practiced asylum law for five years as the director of the Refugee and Immigrant Program. As The Advocates’ deputy director, she assists in fundraising for and directing organizational operations. Ms. Prestholdt also supervises the development and administration of International Justice programming. She has also taught International Human Rights Law as an adjunct faculty member at the University of St. Thomas School of Law.

 

Take Notice: Nigeria Abductions Are Not an Anomaly

Photo: Twitter.WomenGirlsLead
Photo: Twitter.WomenGirlsLead

Like many other people, I am outraged by the April 14 abduction of hundreds of young girls from their school in northeastern Nigeria by the insurgent group Boko Haram. The group attacked again on May 6, kidnapping eight more girls–this time from their homes–to prevent them from attending school. While we do not know exactly where the girls were taken or how they are being treated, it is likely that many of them will be raped and sold into sexual slavery. Some of the girls are as young as 12, and as a mother I can only imagine the nightmare the girls and their parents must be living.

I join the calls to the Nigerian government, the Obama administration, and other world leaders demanding that they do what needs to be done to free the girls and bring those responsible to justice. But bringing the girls home is only the first step in answering the contorted message the kidnappings were designed to send: that women are property and girls should not be educated.

The Catholic Archbishop of Abuja, John Cardinal Onaiyekan, who has spoken out against the kidnappings, reportedly asserted at a conference in March that the Boko Haram insurgency is an “anomaly” in the socio-religious environment of Nigeria, where Christians and Muslims live in harmony with each other and with people of other faiths. I do not dispute that position and sincerely hope that he is right. But while extremist organizations such as Boko Haram may be anomalous in Nigerian society, the assault on girls’ education globally is not.

We live in a world where, for some girls, simply learning to read is a courageous and life-threatening act of defiance.In March 2013, a principal in Karachi, Pakistan was killed when grenades were hurled into his school, which specialized in enrolling girls. A teacher in a different part of Pakistan was gunned down in front of the all-girls school where she had taught only a week earlier. In the spring and summer of 2013, over 400 girls in Afghanistan fell ill from suspected gas poisonings in at least half a dozen schools. The assassination attempt against Malala Yousafzai for promoting girls’ education in Pakistan is well-known.

The net enrollment rate in 2008 for girls in secondary school in Nigeria was just 22%. In northern Nigeria, where the kidnappings occurred, only 3% of girls finish secondary school and more than 50% are married by the age of 16.  The situation in Nigeria is sadly representative of a wider pattern. According to the World Economic Forum’s 2013 Global Gender Gap Report, girls in Pakistan had a secondary school enrollment rate of 29%, as compared to 40% for boys. Rates are even lower in Chad, where only 5% of girls received a secondary education, as compared to 16% of boys. Nor is the problem endemic only to countries with a majority Muslim population. In Nepal, school enrollment rates for boys are 14 percentage points higher than for girls. These statistics reflect a cultural undercurrent that creates powerful disincentives for girls to educate themselves, ensuring that women remain powerless, objectified, and vulnerable to forced marriages and sexual slavery.

I do not mean to suggest that we have it all figured out here in the United States. Sexual assaults on U.S. college campuses are on the rise, femicides are seventh in line as causes of early death among females in the United States, and our most recent census report confirmed that—despite decades of working for equality—women still earn just 77 cents for every dollar earned by men. But I know that I am lucky. I am a shareholder in a successful law firm that not only supports me, but has been lauded as one of the best in the nation for women attorneys. I have been successful, first and foremost, because I was born into a family that never questioned whether I would go to college; it was simply assumed.

But is it possible to change cultural norms in other countries? And even if we could, what place is it of ours? To answer the second question, we are no longer isolated on this planet. The diminution of women everywhere affects all of us, by preventing economic growth, destabilizing societies and even planting the seeds that allow terrorism to flourish. Education is a fundamental human right that belongs to everyone, boys and girls, everywhere. It is everyone’s responsibility to address harmful cultural practices that result in human rights violations. We can and should work towards universal education in all parts of the world.

NepalPics 292-c
Student of The Advocates for Human Rights’ Sankhu-Palubari Community School, near Kathmandu, Nepal

The notion that there is nothing we can really do is wrong. Since the fall of the Taliban, the enrollment of girls in primary school in Afghanistan has risen from virtually none to approximately 37%.

I know from personal experience that norms against educating girls can be changed. In 1999, the Advocates for Human Rights founded a school in a village in Nepal where education rates for children were extremely low. The school’s basic admission criteria were that the students must be low income, and the student body must be 50% girls. Parents of these children, when interviewed, expressed sincere doubts about the value of education for their children—especially the girls. Over time these views have changed dramatically. When I visited the school in 2011, the parents  no longer questioned why they should educate their children. Instead, they demanded that The Advocates expand the school to include more grades. Many of the girls who have graduated from our school are now studying at the University. It’s only a drop in the global bucket, but it’s a start.

By: Dulce Foster, attorney with Fredrikson and Byron, is a long-time volunteer and supporter of the Advocates for Human Rights. She has provided immeasurable leadership for the organization’s Nepal School Project and for the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Project.

In her legal practice with Fredrikson and Byron, Foster defends, investigates, and advises clients in criminal and civil matters involving financial fraud, healthcare fraud, corruption, FCPA, trade secrets theft, illegal immigration, False Claims Act and other regulatory concerns.

Rise for Our Sisters in Nigeria

Photo: Twitter.WomenGirlsLead
Photo: Twitter.WomenGirlsLead

On the night of April 14, dozens of armed men showed up at the dormitory of the Government Girls Secondary school in Chibok in northeastern Nigeria.  Dressed in Nigerian military uniforms, they told the girls that they were there to take them to safety and herded the girls into trucks and onto motorcycles.  At first, the girls believed them. But when the men started shooting their guns into the air and shouting, “Allahu Akbar,”  they realized that the men were militants from Boko Haram and that they were in serious danger.

As many as 276 school girls (officials now say the number is higher than the 234 initially thought) between the ages of 12 and 17 were kidnapped, disappearing into the night without a trace. Two weeks later, their parents still have no idea where they are. Last week, village elders from Chibok told reporters that they had received information that the abducted girls were taken across the borders to Chad and Cameroon and sold as brides to Islamist militants for 2,000 naira (about $12).

Stand and rise for justice for these girls, and call for global solidarity for Nigeria.

1. Sign the Petition
http://www.change.org/petitions/over-200-girls-are-missing-in-nigeria-so-why-doesn-t-anybody-care-234girls

2. #BRINGBACKOURGIRLS
Use social media to spread the word about the situation in Nigeria. Put massive pressure on the government, security forces, and the neighboring governments to spur them to action. Use the hash tag, #BRINGBACKOURGIRLS.

3. Get More Information
Read The Advocates for Human Rights post, “Nightmare for Nigeria’s School Girls,” at:
https://theadvocatespost.org/2014/04/30/nightmare-for-nigerias-school-girls/

 

Nightmare for Nigeria’s School Girls

Girls in school in Nigeria Image: Naija247News
Girls in school in Nigeria
Image: Naija247News

On the night of April 14, dozens of armed men showed up at the dormitory of the Government Girls Secondary school in Chibok in northeastern Nigeria.  Dressed in Nigerian military uniforms, they told the girls that they were there to take them to safety and herded the girls into trucks and onto motorcycles.  At first, the girls believed them. But when the men started shooting their guns into the air and shouting, “Allahu Akbar,”  they realized that the men were militants from Boko Haram and that they were in serious danger.

Forty-three girls managed to escape by running away or jumping out of the trucks. But as many as 234 school girls between the ages of 12 and 17 were kidnapped, disappearing into the night without a trace. Two weeks later, their parents still have no idea where they are. And yesterday, village elders from Chibok told reporters that they had received information that the abducted girls were taken across the borders to Chad and Cameroon and sold as brides to Islamist militants for 2,000 naira (about $12). While unconfirmed, these reports are a chilling reminder of the threat of sexual violence faced by women and girls in conflict zones. 

The girls who were abducted were targeted simply because they were exercising their right to go to school, out of the ordinary for a girl in Nigeria. Access to basic education for girls has remained low, particularly in the northern region which has the  lowest girl child enrollment in Nigeria —in 2008 the net enrollment rate for girls into secondary school was only 22 percent.  The girls (who were both Christian and Muslim) at the Government Girls Secondary School in Chibok must each have been determined to get an education in spite of tremendous odds.  The fact that these girls were also risking violence to be in school illustrates how important the right to education was to each of them.

How could this happen? And why?
Boko Haram is a violent insurgent group that has killed thousands of people since 2009, purportedly in an attempt to establish an Islamist state in northern Nigeria. Although the Nigerian government has issued a state of emergency in three northern states, attacks on villages in northern Nigeria have displaced more than 470,000 people—mostly women and children, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Since early 2014, Boko Haram’s attacks have been increasingly violent, targeting remote villages, markets, hospitals, and schools.  Boko Haramis responsible for at least 1500 deaths so far in 2014.

Boko Haram also has a history of taking hostages as “slaves.” In May 2013, Boko Haram leader Abubakar Sheku released a video saying that Boko Haram had taken women and children, including teenage girls, as hostages as part of its latest campaign. These hostages would be treated as “slaves,” he said.  This has raised concern among the family members of those abducted that “Boko Haram is adhering to the ancient Islamic belief that women captured during war are slaves with whom their ‘masters’ can have sex.  Regardless of alleged rationale, enslavement, imprisonment, forced labor, rape and sexual slavery are all serious violations of international law.  They are defined by the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court as crimes against humanity.

The group has repeatedly attacked schools in northern Nigeria. Boko Haram means “Western education is forbidden”  in the Hausa language. Boko Haram has set schools on fire and detonated bombs at university campus churches. In early February, armed gunmen abducted 20 female students at Goverment Girls Science College in the village of Konduga. On February 24, 2014, members of Boko Haram attacked and killed more than 40 male students at Federal Government College in Buni Yadi village and abducted an unknown number of female students. After these attacks, many schools in northeastern Nigeria were closed. The school where the abductions took place was closed as well, but local education officials decided to briefly reopen the Chibok school to allow the girls to take their exams.  

The mass kidnapping  in April was unprecedented and shocking. Even more shocking – after more than two weeks, the Nigerian government has done very little to find and rescue the girls.

The lack of government response has provoked outrage in Nigeria. On Wednesday, several hundred participated in a “million-woman protest march” in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital to demand that more resources be put toward finding and securing the kidnapped girls. The protesters in Nigeria are joined on Twitter with a growing movement under the hashtags #BringBackOurGirls, #BringBackOurDaughters and #234Girls.

One man, whose daughter was abducted along with his two nieces, said his wife has hardly slept since the attack. She lies awake at night “thinking about our daughter”.  As the mother of a young school girl myself, I feel deeply for her. The continuing tragedy of these young Nigerian school girls is every parent’s worst nightmare.

It’s time for world to wake up to the escalating violence in Nigeria, as well as the Nigerian government’s lack of response.

By: Jennifer Prestholdt, deputy director of The Advocates for Human Rights and the organization’s director of the International Justice Program. Ms. Prestholdt has a B.A. in political science from Yale and a M.A.L.D. from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, where she studied international human rights law and international refugee policy. She graduated cum laude from the University of Minnesota Law School.

Prestholdt has worked on refugee and asylum issues for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva, Switzerland and the United Nations Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination Against and Protection of Minorities. Prior to becoming deputy director of The Advocates for Human Rights, Prestholdt practiced asylum law for five years as the organization’s  director of the Refugee and Immigrant Program. She has also taught International Human Rights Law as an adjunct professor at the University of St. Thomas Law School. 

Moving Forward: Four Steps and Six Strategies for Promoting LGBTI Rights Around the World

Rainbow_flag_and_blue_skies

While viewers across the United States watched the Olympic closing ceremonies, Jason Collins became the first publicly gay male athlete to compete in a major North American professional sports league as he took to the basketball court in Los Angeles.

NBC’s coverage of the Olympic Games over the past two weeks dedicated less than two hours to LGBTI issues. It’s a critical moment in the fight for LGBTI rights in Russia.

But first–just for a moment–let’s talk hardware. Openly bisexual Dutch speedskater Ireen Wüst was the most decorated competitor at the Sochi Games, with two gold and three silver medals. She’s only the eighth athlete ever to win five medals at a Winter Olympics, and with plans to compete in 2018, she’s only two medals away from the career record for female competitors at the Winter Olympics. When Austrian ski jumper Daniela Iraschko-Stolz took silver, she commented, “When you are in the media, many people maybe knew my name and also knew that I am married with a woman. And now the Olympic Games are here in Russia and . . . . I hope for the future that the people now can see the sport as a chance to change something.”

Athletes spend years training, practicing, and building strength and skills before they are ready for the Olympics. In a sense, human rights work is much the same. We have to take the long view on achieving success. LGBTI activists around the world may see the recent successes in the United States and think they happened overnight. But the first U.S. lawsuit for marriage equality was filed here in Minnesota in 1970–it took 43 years for our state to recognize the right of same-sex couples to marry.

What can we do to help with Russia, and other countries that do not respect LGBTI rights? It can seem overwhelming, but there are a variety of strategies that human rights advocates can use to push for reform. And each strategy can be a piece of an overall solution. But human rights victories–like Olympic athletes–don’t happen overnight.

In the run-up to the Olympics, activists suggested a variety of strategies to promote LGBTI rights in Russia: showing solidarity with LGBTI Russians, holding perpetrators of anti-LGBTI violence accountable, challenging laws in court, engaging in advocacy at the United Nations, and pressing businesses to condemn the propaganda law and send a message of tolerance.

Which strategies are best? When The Advocates for Human Rights works on human rights issues, we use a set of steps to identify effective strategies. Let’s take a look at four of those steps, and see how six strategies measure up. (And even though this post is specific to LGBTI rights in Russia, this same analysis applies to LGBTI rights in other parts of the world, or to other human rights issues.)

Step 1: Understand the context

We need to look closely at the context in which the human rights violations occur. For example, much of the anti-gay sentiment in Russia is fueled by nationalism. So direct diplomatic advocacy from other countries may backfire. For example, journalist and free expression advocate Cathal Sheerin “interviewed a number of Russian journalists, filmmakers, writers and activists,” some of whom “suggested that protests made by cultural groups, students, artists and NGOs have much more influence than demands made by governments. This is partly because Putin switches into defensive ‘Cold War Mode’ when foreign governments criticise him. Pleas made by non-governmental groups, however, are much harder to dismiss as self-interested, political machinations. And for that reason, they have more chance of influencing the hearts and minds of Russian citizens.”

But even direct collaboration with international organizations may backfire. In October, Russian authorities bugged a private strategy meeting between Russian LGBTI activists and several international human rights organizations. The state-run television channel broadcast audio from the meeting, presenting it as an expose of western “homosexualists who attempt to infiltrate our country.”

In addition, LGBTI people in Russia are vulnerable, facing discrimination, bullying, threats, and physical attacks. The first principle of human rights work is “Do no harm.” We need to make sure that our actions don’t put LGBTI Russians in more danger.

In Russia, there are additional legal considerations. Russia’s Foreign Agents law requires groups that receive foreign funding and engage in “political activities” to register as “foreign agents.” Another law bans funding from the United States that supports “political” activity by non-governmental organizations, and bans NGOs that engage in work that is “directed against Russia’s interests.” The Russian Government also recently expanded its definition of treason to potentially criminalize participation in international human rights advocacy. So groups in Russia might not be able to collaborate directly with their counterparts in other countries. The Russian groups who were victims of bugging last year fear they may now be sanctioned under the Foreign Agents law.

Step 2: Work in partnership

The Advocates for Human Rights works to promote human rights in the United States and around the world. When we do human rights work concerning other countries, we work in partnership with either local, in-country groups or with diaspora groups that want to influence human rights in their country of origin or ancestry. These partnerships are critical, because our partners understand the local context–they have a good sense of what types of strategies would be effective, and which ones might backfire. They also have a clearer understanding of the legal context in which they operate and the types of actions that may result in fines or other penalties for violating Russian law.

Step 3: Identify goals and strategies

It is important to set goals before deciding on a human rights strategy. An over-arching human rights goal might be that all LGBTI people in Russia are safe and live with dignity. We look at a variety of strategies to achieve this goal, such as:

  • Showing sympathy and support for LGBTI Russians
  • Getting the “gay propaganda” law repealed
  • Stopping violence and persecution based on actual and perceived sexual orientation and gender identity
  • Holding perpetrators of violence and persecution accountable

Our Discover Human Rights training addresses in greater detail how to identify goals and the steps to achieve them.

Tactical map Photo credit: aniquenyc, flickr
A tactical mapping exercise
Photo credit: aniquenyc, flickr

Step 4: Use tactical mapping

In looking at these goals and strategies, we need to figure out who we need to influence, such as:

  • Concerned individuals and groups around the world
  • Russian lawmakers
  • Russian civil society
  • Russian courts
  • Russian law enforcement officials and prosecutors
  • Companies that do business in Russia

How do proposed strategies measure up?

August 2013 protest in Berlin calling for boycott of the Sochi Olympics Photo Credit Adam Groffman, flickr
August 2013 protest in Berlin calling for boycott of the Sochi Olympics
Photo Credit: Adam Groffman, flickr

When Russia passed its propaganda law last summer, some of the first responses were calls for boycotts. LGBTI activists in Russia responded with requests not to boycott the Olympic Games. In the context of the Olympics, boycotts can do more harm than good, because they cause the most harm to athletes–people who are not in a position to change a country’s laws. An effort to boycott Russian vodka had some limited success. It helped raise awareness about the propaganda law, and prompted one vodka maker to speak out against the law and donate to the cause.

Although boycotts can sometimes be powerful tools to promote human rights, but it’s important to think broadly and listen to the in-country advocates to evaluate which strategies will be most effective. Last month, The Advocates published Paving Pathways for Justice and Accountability: Human Rights Tools for Diaspora Communities. It’s a 400+ page toolkit of resources for human rights advocacy. We developed these resources in response to requests from diaspora groups, but they are equally valuable for other individuals and groups who want to be more effective advocates for human rights. Paving Pathways explores many strategies that have been proposed for promoting LGBTI rights in Russia:

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

1. Showing solidarity with LGBTI Russians: When asked what people around the world can do to support LGBTI people in Russia, Дети-404 founder Elena Klimova suggested, “we are always very pleased when we receive letters and photos from abroad . . . . Then we understand that we are not alone, and that gives us strength and hope for a better future.” You can reach the Deti-404 team at 404deti@gmail.com. You can like Дети-404 on Facebook, or set up a VK.com account and join the Дети-404 community there. If you don’t speak Russian, you can read some translated Deti-404 submissions here.

Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Openly gay Olympian Australian snowboarder Belle Brockhoff has denounced Russia’s propaganda law, and openly gay Dutch snowboarder Cheryl Maas displayed a rainbow and unicorn glove to the cameras after one of her runs in Sochi. Several athletes are part of the Principle 6 Movement, using the non-discrimination language of the Olympic Charter to show solidarity with LGBTI Russians without violating the Olympic ban on political speech.

Brian Boitano, one of the openly gay Olympians who was part of the U.S. delegation to Sochi, reported that during a press conference, “[m]ost of the questions that were posed to me were about Obama’s message” in including him in the delegation. “Everywhere we went, people knew our message, and they were congratulating us,” he continued. “It was amazing: everyone in Russia knew exactly why we were there.”

Social media can be a great advocacy tool. On Twitter, you can follow Russian LGBTI groups and individuals like RUSA LGBT, the Russian LGBT Network, Gay Russia, Rainbow Association, Straights for LGBT Equality, Elena Kostyuchenko, and Nikolai Alexeyev. And you can monitor developments on Queerussia and Gay Russia and check out Mads Nissen’s striking photo essay of LGBTI activists in Russia.

Kirill Maryin is a 17-year-old from Novosibirsk who tweets about his personal experiences as well as the Russian propaganda law and how it is being enforced:

“I wanted people who live abroad to hear the true story of life for LGBT teenagers from Russia,” Maryin told the Guardian. “I am an ordinary LGBT teenager, and in this country, that is incredibly dangerous.” You can follow Maryin on Twitter and send him a message of support.

The It Gets Better Project has a campaign to show support for LGBTI youth in Russia; people can submit their own videos and add their names to a message of support.

It’s important to understand how critical our expressions of solidarity and support can be. Over the last two weeks, eight LGBTI Ugandans have attempted suicide over that country’s harsh new law. Russia has the highest teen suicide rate in Europe.

“I don’t like being an activist,” journalist Elena Kostyuchenko told a reporter. But “[i]t’s a long time until there will be some kind of magical Russian Harvey Milk who will defend my rights. I have been waiting, but he is not coming.” If you know a human rights defender or LGBTI person in Russia like Kostyuchenko who may be at risk, show them support on social media and give them a link to our Resources for Human Rights Defenders.

2. Shutting down vigilante groups: My fourth post in this series described how vigilante groups use social media to hunt down LGBTI youth and publicize their attacks. Sometimes their activities violate the terms of service of these social media providers. After inquiries from the Guardian ealier this month, В Kонтакте (VK.com) pledged to remove violent content and delete the accounts of offenders, but five days later only one video had been removed. If you use Instagram, Youtube, Facebook, or VK, report these violations and help get the groups shut down. Instagram recently pulled the accounts of two Occupy Pedophilia leaders. One activist is asking for help to use social media to track down the identity of people involved in anti-gay violence in order to prompt Russian authorities to bring charges.

3. Accountability: Russian authorities have been slow to take on the vigilante groups that are largely responsible for violence against LGBTI Russians. But last week, a Russian court sentenced three Russian men for killing and robbing several gay men in Moscow in 2012. And authorities have brought charges against at least two participants in the Occupy Pedophilia vigilante group. Advocates can work with their Russian counterparts to determine the most effective ways to encourage further prosecutions for these crimes.

There are also opportunities to hold the U.S.-based architects of Russia’s anti-LGBTI laws accountable. As I noted last week, Scott Lively is being sued under the U.S. Alien Tort Statute for his work on anti-gay legislation in Uganda. The Center for Constitutional Rights is considering bringing a similar suit against Lively for his work in Russia.

4. Litigation: Domestic courts and regional human rights mechanisms can be effective avenues for advocacy. Russian LGBTI activists Nikolai Alexeyev and Yaroslav Yevtushenko are setting up a legal challenge to the propaganda law. They have been fined 4,000 rubles each for picketing a children’s library in Arkhangelsk while holding up banners saying, “Gay propaganda doesn’t exist. People don’t become gay, people are born gay.” “The verdicts open the way for appealing the ban on gay propaganda at Russia’s Constitutional court and later at the European Court of Human Rights,” Alexeyev told GayRussia. Russia’s courts have shown some signs of independence, throwing out charges against Deti-404‘s Klimova and rejecting some prosecutions for violations of the Foreign Agents law. But the Constitutional Court has upheld convictions of regional anti-propaganda laws, and the Russian Supreme Court has rejected similar appeals.

ch10 european courtEven though the prospects for success in Russia’s courts aren’t promising, activists first need to exhaust their remedies in their own domestic legal system before taking their case to the European Court of Human Rights. Paul Johnson at the University of York has done a thorough analysis of the prospects for a challenge to the propaganda law in the European Court of Human rights. The European Court is already considering a case challenging a local propaganda law, and the court has expressed interest in adding consideration of the newer federal law to that case.

UN flags_HighRes-25. Advocacy at the United Nations: Most of the UN human rights treaty bodies have “communications mechanisms” that individuals can use to bring a complaint alleging that their government has violated the treaty text. In 2010, Irina Fedotovna submitted a communication to the UN Human Rights Committee to challenge a local law banning “gay propaganda” in Ryazan, Russia. She had been charged under that law after displaying signs saying “Homosexuality is normal” and “I am proud of my homosexuality” near a secondary school. In 2012, the Human Rights Committee concluded that her conviction amounted to a violation of her rights under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and found that Fedotovna was entitled to compensation. Yet despite this ruling, in 2013 Russia adopted its federal propaganda law.

UN advocacy may pose risks to Russian organizations; Russian authorities have cited advocacy with the UN Committee Against Torture as evidence that the St. Petersburg anti-discrimination group Memorial is a “foreign agent.” Moreover, Russia routinely ignores the resolutions and findings of UN human rights bodies, so it’s important to weigh the potential positive effects of successful UN advocacy with potential risks and costs at the national level.

6. Corporate influence: Some Olympic sponsors have faced sharp criticism in social media for not condemning Russia’s propaganda law. Activists have generated visibility for those issues by spinning social media promotions by Olympic sponsors Coca-Cola and McDonald’s to raise visibility about human rights. Activists transformed McDonald’s #CheersToSochi campaign into a social media tool to raise awareness about the propaganda law. And these campaigns had impressive spillover effects, prompting other major companies like AT&T and Chobani to show their support for LGBTI rights. Chevrolet and Coca-Cola also committed to broadcast television advertisements during the Olympics with diverse casts, including gay families. Advertising can help shape public opinion in other countries, too. Advocacy targeting businesses is also a particularly important tool when business practices themselves are directly responsible for human rights violations.

The games are over, the fight goes on

Russia will host the FIFA World Cup in 2018. Over the next four years, we have a lot of work to do to ensure that the next major international sporting event in Russia takes place in a climate of safety and dignity for competitors, fans, and for all LGBTI Russians.

What will you do to promote LGBTI rights? Which strategies do you think would be most effective? How would you tailor strategies to combat LGBTI persecution in other parts of the world, like Cameroon, India, Jamaica, Nigeria, and Uganda? Are there in-country or diaspora partners you can work with? Will you spread the word and help build a movement to promote LGBTI rights around the world?

This post is the last in a five-part series in The Advocates Post about LGBTI rights in Russia and the Sochi Olympics. Part 1 took a look at why the Sochi Olympics in 2014 are important to LGBTI rights in Russia and the rest of the world.  Part 2  examined the provisions of Russia’s propaganda law, its effect on children, and its origins. Part 3 explored how Russian authorities are enforcing the propaganda law. Part 4 examined the societal effects of discriminatory laws such as those in Russia and other countries.

More posts in this series:

Out in the Cold: LGBT Visibility at Olympics Key to Ending Homophobia

Russia’s “Gay Propaganda” Law: How U.S. Extremists are Fueling the Fight Against LGBTI Rights

Locking the Iron Closet: Russia’s Propaganda Law Isolates Vulnerable LGBTI Youth

The Wild East: Vigilante Violence against LGBTI Russians

By: Amy Bergquist, staff attorney with the International Justice Program at The Advocates for Human Rights

Top photo courtesy Ludovic Bertron, Wikimedia Commons (modified).

Recent Anti-LGBTI Laws Violate Human Rights

Recent Anti-LGBTI Laws Violate Human Rights
An asylum seeker from Uganda covers his head with a paper bag in order to protect his identity. (Photo: Jessica Rinaldi, Reuters)
An asylum seeker from Uganda covers his head with a paper bag in order to protect his identity. (Photo: Jessica Rinaldi, Reuters)

Anti-LGBTI laws passed last week by the governments of Nigeria and Uganda threaten the lives and human rights of people living, working, and visiting those countries. Not only are the lives of LGBTI persons at stake, but their friends, family, teachers, colleagues, health practitioners, and human rights defenders could face fines or imprisonment for failure to report homosexual conduct to authorities.

The Nigerian Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Bill goes beyond banning same-sex marriage; it criminalizes LGTBI people by jailing them for public displays of affection, and it calls for imprisonment of any same-sex marriage wedding attendees. The bill also bans all LGBTI organizations, and threatens anyone advocating for LGBTI rights with jail time.

The Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Bill, which originally imposed a death sentence on LGBTI persons in some cases, calls for life imprisonment for “aggravated homosexuality.”

The recent passage of these anti-LGBTI laws reflects a broad trend across the world, including the countries of Russia, India, Cameroon, Liberia, Burundi, and South Sudan, where LGBTI persons and human rights defenders who work on their behalf increasingly face discrimination, violence, criminal prosecution, and persecution, including death.

All human beings are inherently entitled to dignity and equal enjoyment of their universally recognized human rights and freedoms; therefore, governments that pass laws that discriminate on the basis of actual and perceived sexual orientation and gender identity fail to uphold their human rights obligations with respect to sexual minorities and human rights defenders who serve and support people who are LGBTI.

The Advocates for Human Rights urges President Goodluck Jonathan to veto the Nigerian Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Bill. The bill currently awaits either a signature or veto. You can urge President Jonathan to veto the bill and uphold human rights by signing a petition here.

The Advocates for Human Rights also urges President Yoweri Museveni to veto the Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Bill. In order for the bill to become law, President Museveni must sign it within 30 days. You can urge President Museveni to veto the bill and uphold human rights by signing a petition here.

By: Ashley Monk, The Advocates’ development and communications assistant