For the past year, The Advocates for Human Rights has been a core member of the UN Gender Network. Convened by the University of Reading and Durham University, the UN Gender Network is a unique project to foster dialogue and an understanding of gender equality policies within the United Nations. We seek to investigate how it impacts UN leadership on the Sustainable Development Goals, particularly Goal 5 on Gender Equality, and other policies. To do so, the UN Gender Network has brought together civil society, academics, UN former and current staff and government representatives over the course of three workshops to discuss these issues. A fourth workshop will take place in 2018 to launch the network’s policy recommendations to the United Nations.
When I talk about the UN Gender Network, people are often surprised to learn of the need to scrutinize the UN on its own gender equality policies. But after all, if the UN is going to lead on women’s human rights, it is important that it lead by example. The UN does not have one single gender equality policy applicable to each of its multiple bodies. Instead, the development and implementation of such policies are left to the discretion of individual bodies. The result: UN entities have very disparate policies or, in some cases, no policies at all. A 2016 UN Women report found that only 89% of UN bodies have a policy on sexual harassment, assault, and exploitation. Only 70% of UN bodies have a policy on discrimination, and just 67% have policies on anti-retaliation.
To examine this further, we engaged the pro bono services of Dechert, Fredrikson & Byron, Faegre Baker Daniels, and Stinson Leonard Street to map out the gender equality policies across all of the different UN bodies. Volunteers examined the spectrum of gender equality policies, including recruitment and appointment, facilitative policies, career advancement, harassment/discrimination, and separation policies. Initial findings reveal that while some UN bodies have strong, comprehensive gender equality policies, others are in many areas lacking or, where they do exist, tend to be more aspirational than effective. In other cases, good policies are in place but are not readily utilized by staff, indicating a need for ongoing monitoring. At its third workshop at Durham University this November, the UN Gender Network reviewed the draft recommendations it will make to the UN to advance gender equality priorities.
In September, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres issued a system-wide strategy to address gender parity within the UN this fall, signaling a commitment to the issue and to achieve parity by 2028 across all levels at the UN. The strategy marks a first step toward addressing gender equality issues within the UN, but it will take ongoing commitment and multidisciplinary engagement to push through effective reforms. To join the UN Gender Network or learn more, please visit https://blogs.reading.ac.uk/united-nations-gender-network/.
The Advocates for Human Rights has Special Consultative status with the United Nations, allowing us to bring matters of concern to the attention of the UN human rights mechanisms. Volunteer Veronica Clark presented The Advocates for Human Rights’ statement on racism in the United States at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland on March 20, 2017.
Mr. Vice President:
The Advocates for Human Rights is deeply concerned about the rise in hate crimes and incidents of bias targeting racial, ethnic, and religious minorities in the United State. Hate crimes are recognized and prosecuted in the U.S.under federal and state laws. Yet 5,850 criminal incidents and 6,885 related bias offenses were reported in 2015. Fifty-nine percent of victims were targeted because of a race/ethnicity/ancestry bias.
Further, policies and practices at the federal, state, and local levels continue to disproportionately impact racial and ethnic minorities. Racial and national origin bias pervades the U.S. criminal justice system, including widespread use of racial profiling and stark racial disparities in arrests, convictions, and sentencing.
The Advocates for Human Rights encourages Member States, including the U.S., to take concrete action to:
Adopt at local, state and national levels comprehensive legislation prohibiting racial profiling;
Collect and publish statistics about police stops, searches, and abuse, to monitor trends regarding racial profiling and treatment of minorities by law enforcement;
Establish independent oversight bodies within police agencies, with real authority to conduct impartial investigations of all complaints of human rights violations;
Provide adequate resources to train law enforcement officials;
Assess the disproportionate impact of mandatory minimum sentences on racial and ethnic minorities; and
Create a national commission to examine police tactics nationwide, including the use of excessive force, militarization of local police forces and policing of protests.
The Advocates for Human Rights offers volunteers a remarkable and rewarding breadth of opportunities to effect change around the world. As an example, I recently had a chance to advocate for the rights of Iranians with disabilities when I traveled to Geneva, Switzerland with The Advocates to lobby the United Nations Human Rights Council on a variety of human rights issues.
A Persian Proverb says “A blind person who sees is better than a seeing person who is blind”: Uncovering hidden obstacles to the rights of persons with disabilities in Iran.
Iran Under Review by the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities
The Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) was considering the initial report submitted by Iran since its adoption of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2008. In its report, and its opening remarks to the Committee, Iran painted a rosy picture of its progress in removing obstacles and providing greater equality and support for persons with disabilities.
Even without digging beneath the surface, though, the language of those documents displayed a continuing view that persons with disabilities are lesser beings. The State reported as an accomplishment, for example, that premarital genetic testing is required for all couples in Iran “in order to prevent the birth of children with disabilities.”
It is difficult to assess thoroughly the status of human rights in Iran because of the lack of independent civil society or non-governmental organizations (NGOs, like The Advocates) working on the ground there. Instead, Iran has what are called “GONGOs,” for “government-organized non-governmental organizations.” GONGOs often purport to act as watchdogs, but in reality they are mechanisms of the State. Members of our group were actively pursued and questioned by an Iranian GONGO whose representatives were very interested in finding out what we planned to tell the CRPD.
Persons with Disabilities and the Death Penalty
Despite the difficulties, The Advocates were able to identify and report on several specific areas of concern. They presented to the CRPD a shadow report that addressed issues related to the justice system. Iran provides no procedural safeguards in its death penalty process for individuals with intellectual or psychosocial disabilities. Those familiar with U.S. death penalty law know that there is a significant body of case law addressing the execution of defendants with such disabilities, including a number of Supreme Court decisions. The Advocates urged the CRPD to recommend that Iran suspend its death penalty for people with these disabilities, and take steps to ensure proper safeguards in future cases. While opposing the death penalty in all instances, The Advocates sought a recommendation that the law not provide lesser punishments for crimes against victims with disabilities.
Private Briefings and Public Hearings
I attended an interesting private briefing, during which The Advocates’ Amy Bergquist provided members of the CRPD with details on Iran’s use of amputation as a punishment for certain crimes, such as theft. Examples were given of the amputation of fingers, hands or feet, and the use of chemical blinding. The defendant may not have any disabilities when the sentence is given, but is left afterward with a disability imposed by the government. Since defendants are often poor and lack education, this likely leaves them with little ability to find work. The stigma associated with this visible disability and its well-understood origin put the individual at a severe disadvantage for life.
I was also able to attend public hearings at which Iran’s delegation responded to a list of issues and concerns raised by the CRPD. Some of the questions touched on issues discussed at our earlier private briefing. Most of the answers were vague and circular, providing little in the way of actual facts and data, despite specific requests for these, or evidence of progress. There was a great deal of talk about meetings, trainings, brochures and pamphlets, and more meetings, but seemingly little in the way of concrete results. Some CRPD members pointedly remarked on the lack of answers.
Outcomes and Lessons Learned
The outcomes of the process, the CRPD’s “concluding observations” were published in April. I was pleased to see that the CRPD included concerns and recommendations on issues that had been raised by The Advocates, as well as on LGBT rights. The CRPD’s stated concerns included “the enforcement of mutilation as a form of criminal sentence, and the stigmatization against persons who have impairment as a consequence of such punishment,” as raised in our private briefing.
The CRPD also noted that “persons with disabilities, particularly persons with psychosocial and/or intellectual disabilities may be at risk of facing a greater risk of death penalty due to lack of procedural accommodations, in criminal proceedings,” as addressed in The Advocates’ shadow report.
The CRPD also expressed concern about “discrimination against persons perceived to have a disability, including on the grounds of gender identity and sexual orientation, being forced to undergo medical treatment.”
One of the lessons of this work has been the need for and value of patience. UN treaty bodies like the CRPD can’t simply order a country to change its conduct. The language of international diplomacy sometimes seems, to a newcomer like me, less strong than it ought to be. But participants in the process understand expressions of “concern” to indicate that the requirements of the convention are, in the CRPD’s opinion, not being upheld. Accompanying recommendations for resolving these concerns will be the subject of thorough review in the future, and Iran will be required to account for its implementation of, or failure to implement them.
International scrutiny, and international pressure, can change the course of a country’s conduct as the flow of water erodes rock and changes a river’s course. The change is incremental, but real and lasting.
By Lisa Borden, Birmingham-based Pro Bono Shareholder at Baker Donelson where her own pro bono legal work focuses on representation of indigent death row inmates in post-conviction proceedings. Ms. Borden volunteers with The Advocates for Human Rights’ International Justice Program and traveled to the United Nations in Geneva with The Advocates’ team in March 2017 and March 2015.
India is the world’s largest democracy and a pluralistic melting pot of different religions, cultures, and languages. Yet there has been an alarming rise in discrimination and violence against religious minorities in India. The Advocates for Human Rights, along with our partner organizations, went to the United Nations Human Rights Council to raise our concerns in advance of India’s Universal Periodic Review on May 4, 2017.
Indian human rights defender Teesta Setalvad presented this oral statement on religious minorities in India at the United Nations Human Rights Council on behalf of The Advocates for Human Rights, Citizens for Justice and Peace, Indian American Muslim Council, Jamia Teachers Solidarity Association, and the Quill Foundation. The oral statement was made on March 15, 2017 at the Human Rights Council’s Interactive Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues.
The Advocates for Human Rights, along with its partner organizations Indian American Muslim Council, Jamia Teachers Solidarity Association, Citizens for Justice and Peace, and the Quill Foundation, commend the Special Rapporteur for her report. We thank her for her work over her six-year tenure.
We recall the Special Rapporteur’s 2013 General Assembly report, and the first pillar of minority rights protection: protection of a minority’s survival by combatting violence against its members. We note the following developments in India since the 2013 report:
First, communal violence has increased. In 2013, for example, in Muzaffarnagar, Muslims were overwhelmingly targeted, resulting in over 60 deaths. Speeches by political leaders and Members of Parliament encouraged attacks on Muslims and exacerbated the violence.
Second, state governments are slow to intervene against the targeting of religious minorities accused of “improper” conversions from Hinduism.
Third, since 2015, in the wake of state laws banning the sale of beef, mobs have attacked people alleged to have beef in their possession.
Fourth, the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions reported that extrajudicial encounter killings “have become virtually a part of unofficial State policy” in India.
Fifth, the above acts often are committed with impunity, stemming in part from close alignment between the government and non-state actors.
Sixth, law enforcement agencies fabricate terrorism cases, where Muslims are often targets.
For these reasons, we agree with the Special Rapporteur that progress in minority rights protection is under threat, including by increasing hate speech, xenophobic rhetoric, and incitement to hatred against minorities. We add that such threats come, in part, from elected officials and Members of Parliament.
The Advocates for Human Rights and its partner organizations call on India to accept a visit by the Special Rapporteur. We also join the Special Rapporteur in calling on UN Member States and the Human Rights Council to recognize that States bear the primary duty to protect the security of religious minorities with positive and preventive actions, through active engagement with religious minorities.
The Advocates for Human Rights, along with partners the Indian American Muslim Council, Jamia Teachers Solidarity Association, Citizens for Justice and Peace, and the Quill Foundation, submitted a UPR stakeholder report to the UN Human Rights Council in 2016 that addresses India’s failure to comply with its international human rights obligations to protect members of minority groups. In particular, the report calls attention to serious problems with the treatment of Muslims in India. Significant human rights challenges include: extrajudicial executions committed by police and security personnel, as well as non-State actors; arbitrary and unlawful detentions; torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of terrorism suspects in police custody; discriminatory laws and practices; harassment of human rights defenders; as well as the targeting of NGOs through prohibitive legislation. Additionally, this report highlights the Indian government’s failure to adequately investigate and effectively prosecute perpetrators of these human rights violations against members of minority groups. You can read the full report here.
“The world, if left to its own devices, is balanced evenly between good and bad. Each of us has the ability to tip it.” Christof Heyns, UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions.
Especially today, with the horrific news of the Orlando mass shooting capturing people’s attention, a ray of optimism is needed. That beam of light was mighty and bright at our Human Rights Awards Dinner this month when we celebrated and honored people who are tipping the world in the right direction.
Don & Arvonne Fraser Human Rights Award
Christof Heyns, UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, received the esteemed Don & Arvonne Fraser Human Rights Award for his work investigating and exposing some of the world’s most egregious human rights violations. The Advocates’ connection to Mr. Heyns’ work as a special rapporteur began in the 1980s when The Advocates developed the groundbreaking Minnesota Protocol, the first set of international guidelines for investigating suspicious unlawful deaths. Effective investigation is key to establishing responsibility and holding perpetrators accountable, but no international standards existed at the time that required governments to initiate or carry out investigations of suspected unlawful deaths. Read some of Mr. Heyns’ remarks and about the Human Rights Awards Dinner.
The UN adopted the Minnesota Protocol in 1991 with the official title, UN Manual on the Effective Prevention of Extra-legal, Arbitrary and Summary Executions. The manual, widely known as the Minnesota Protocol, has been used in myriad investigative contexts in almost every region of the world. Last year, Mr. Heyns asked The Advocates to help update the Minnesota Protocol with forensic, medical, and other advancements since the original publication. “The need for clear international standards that encompass the realities of human rights abuses in the twenty-first century has resulted in the current revision,” said Mr. Heyns.
In addition to his UN role, Heyns is professor of human rights law and director of the Institute for International and Comparative Law in Africa at the University of Pretoria, South Africa.
Special Recognition Award
David Wippman, Dean of University of Minnesota Law School, was honored with The Advocates’ 2016 Special Recognition Award in recognition of his career-long human rights work and his stewardship in the creation of the University of Minnesota Law School’s pioneering Center for New Americans.
The only program of its kind in the United States, the Center was designed to expand urgently needed legal services for non-citizens, pursue litigation to improve our nation’s immigration laws, and educate non-citizens about their rights. The Center has already seen notable successes, including a victory at the U.S. Supreme Court. The Center is made possible through a partnership between The Law School, The Advocates, Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, and the law firms of Faegre Baker Daniels, Robins Kaplan, and Dorsey & Whitney.
“We honor Dean Wippman for changing the world and Minnesota for good and leaving our community a better place,” said Robin Phillips, The Advocates’ executive director.
Volunteer Recognition Awards
Mary Ellen Alden
Since Mary Ellen Alden began volunteering with The Advocates in 2012, she has represented 15 asylum seekers, including women fleeing domestic violence in Honduras and Ethiopia; political activists from Togo, Syria, and Ethiopia; and Oromo activists from Ethiopia. Her passion for justice for her clients is unparalleled.
For his bar mitzvah, Thomas Dickstein asked for donations to support The Advocates’ Sankhu-Palubari Community School in Nepal. When he traveled to Nepal and connected with the school’s students, he returned home fired up. Over time, Thomas led a book and backpack drive for the school, developed a PowerPoint presentation and a video to convince others about the school’s need and success. “Thomas sets a great example for all of us,” said Robin Phillips, The Advocates’ executive director. “Imagine what a world we would have if everyone followed his lead.”
Gray Plant Mooty
Led by attorneys Max Schott and Dean Eyler, the pro bono team at Gray Plant Mooty has taken on complex cases involving female genital mutilation, forced marriage, and levirate marriage (a widow forced to marry her deceased husband’s brother). Many of the cases required additional fact-finding and expert documentation to understand the nuanced nature of the harm their clients suffered and the cultural context of the country in which it occurred.
Their litigation expertise allowed them to draw out critical facts from the clients and piece together the claims in ways the court could understand. “We’re thankful for the team’s commitment, and we’re proud to count them among our volunteer award recipients,” said Sarah Brenes, director of The Advocates’ Refugee & Immigrant Program. The team includes Joy Anderson, Ashley Bailey, Sandra Bodeau, Nancy Quattlebaum Burke, Brian Dillon, Elizabeth Dillon, Dean Eyler, Hallie Goodman, Karli Hussey, Monica Kelley, Leah Leyendecker, Megan Martin, Craig Miller, Brianna Mooty, Max Schott, Amanda Sicoli, Nicole Strydom, Matthew Webster, and Scott Wick; and paralegals Jodee Marble, Tammy Mayer, and Gayle Schaub.
Henok Gabisa & Stinson Leonard Street
When Henok Gabisa asked The Advocates to submit a complaint to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, The Advocates turned for help to Theresa Hughes, of Stinson Leonard Street, who assembled a fantastic team, including Neal Griffin, Marc Goldstein, Marcia Sanford, and Andrew Scavotto.
Mr. Gabisa had approached The Advocates because of Ethiopia’s persecution of Oromos, the largest ethnic group in that country. While for decades the Ethiopian government has persecuted them, the government in 2014 used lethal force to
respond to peaceful Oromo student protests. Protesters, some young teens, were arrested, detained without charge, and labeled terrorists.
Mr. Gabsia and Stinson team members in St. Louis and Washington, D.C. interviewed witnesses in the United States and abroad, prepared affidavits, tracked down first-hand information, prepared briefs, and ensured witnesses do not face retaliation. Their work to hold the Ethopian government accountable is changing the world for good.
A team of Thomson Reuters’ employees is being recognized for its research on Human Rights Council recommendations to assist with Universal Periodic Review lobbying. Members of the Thomson Reuters team include Mark Petty, Matthew Buell, Marianne Krljic, Ethan Wood, Blake Hatling, Bryan Bearss, Chelsea Reynolds, and Benjamin Petersburg.
Lobbying the UN Human Rights council is tricky. Human rights defenders need to know which countries will be receptive to certain issues, but countries’ priorities can be opaque, ever-changing. The Advocates needed a special research team, so it turned to Thomson Reuters. With a worldwide reputation for making complex legal information understandable and accessible, it is no surprise that Thomson Reuters created an amazing volunteer team to streamline The Advocates’ UN lobbying. Three times a year, team members pore through thousands of UN statements to identify countries that may be receptive to lobbying on women’s rights, the death penalty, and LGBTI rights.
“With a few clicks of the Thomson Reuters’ spreadsheet, we identify the countries to target for lobbying,” said Jennifer Prestholdt, director of The Advocates’ International Justice Program. “Their lists are spot-on, and they are changing the world for good.”
Suzanne Turner As coordinator of Dechert’s pro bono work, Suzanne Turner is central to finding eager volunteers to help The Advocates. She even recruited her school-aged daughter to blog about women’s human rights. She also traveled with The Advocates twice to the other side of the world to conduct fact-finding and to document how to strengthen Mongolia’s response to domestic violence.
“Suzie lives our mission,” said Rose Park, Director, The Advocates’ Women’s Human Rights Program.
You may never have heard of the Oromo people, the largest single ethnic group in Ethiopia. You might be surprised to learn that if you are a U.S. taxpayer, you are subsidizing their oppression.
On Tuesday, April 19, a Congressional commission named the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission conducted a hearing on human rights conditions in Ethiopia. The Commission provides information concerning human rights to Congress, so it is particularly fitting that it should inquire into conditions in Ethiopia. That country has been a major ally of the United States and recipient of U.S. humanitarian and military aid for all of the years Ethiopia’s current regime has been in power. Since 2013, the United States has given in the range of half a billion dollars per year in foreign aid to Ethiopia, plus a much smaller amount of military aid, which means the United States is Ethiopia’s largest and most important source of foreign assistance.
In July 2015, President Obama visited Ethiopia, drawing widespread criticism from human rights groups for his warm words toward the country and his relatively milquetoast references to its abysmal human rights record. Obama said that the Prime Minister of what he referred to as the “democratically elected” Ethiopian government “would be the first to acknowledge that there is more work to be done” in the field of human rights.
Well, yes. The ruling party in Ethiopia won all 547 seats in Parliament following the elections that occurred just two months before Obama’s visit, and the “democratically elected” Prime Minister was allocated 100 percent of the vote. U.S. officials were prohibited from acting as election observers. The election featured denials of registrations for opposition candidates, while journalists were arrested and threatened. After the election, at least three opposition politicians were murdered, with no investigations conducted.
The government’s security forces employ murder and torture. In 2014, they fired into crowds of peaceful students who were protesting the government’s “land grab” for the benefit of international development interests, which would potentially displace an estimated two million Oromo. Dozens were killed. Many more were arrested and remain in prison. The killings continue. According to Human Rights Watch, relying on reports of activists, at least 75 protesters were killed by government security forces in November and December 2015, while the government only acknowledged five deaths. The actual figures are likely much greater than is known, since the government tightly restricts access to such information. There is no freedom of the press, no independent judiciary, no adherence to international human rights standards beyond lip service.
The Ethiopian government is adept at achieving the maximum oppression while drawing minimal attention to its human rights abuses. It signs onto numerous international human rights conventions, although it routinely violates them. It purports to allow local human rights organizations to exist, although its Charities and Societies Proclamation makes it largely impossible for them to operate by denying the organizations international funding.
Perhaps most impressive, the government masterfully plays the terrorism card. In 2009, it adopted the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, allowing draconian treatment of persons accused of being “terrorists,” largely an arbitrary term for those opposing actions of the Ethiopian government and wishing to bring about change. The government frequently brands protesting Oromo and others as “terrorists” to justify imprisoning or killing them.
The Tom Lantos Commission should disseminate to Congress all possible documentation of the crimes of the Ethiopian government. In turn, Congress should find ways to be sure the United States ratchets up the pressure on its strategic ally far beyond clubby acknowledgements of “more work to be done.” The spigot of international development money should not remain open without real and fundamental changes in the human rights environment in Ethiopia, beginning with an end to extrajudicial, summary and arbitrary killings; a release of political prisoners; restoration of a free press and independent judiciary; and the repeal or modification of the Charities and Societies Proclamation and the Anti-Terrorism Law.
By: James O’Neal, retired attorney and member of The Advocates for Human Rights’ board of directors, and Robin Phillips, the organization’s executive director. Deeply concerned about continuing human rights violations in Ethiopia, The Advocates has consistently raised concerns about the treatment of Oromos in Ethiopia at UN human rights bodies and with the African Commission on Human & Peoples’ Rights.
Pictured above: Amaanee Badhasso, International Oromo Youth Association’s president in 2014, accompanied The Advocates’ Amy Bergquist to Geneva that year to meet with the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child.
Read other blog posts about Ethiopia’s persecution of the Oromo by entering “Ethiopia” or “Oromo” in the blog’s search bar.