The Minnesota Protocol: Creating Guidelines for Effective Investigations

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Back in the 1980s, a small group of Minnesota lawyers was concerned about the lack of accountability for the 1983 political assassination of Benigno Aquino in the Philippines and many other suspected unlawful deaths happening in the world. 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.

The need for international standards and guidelines for death investigations
Clearly, there was a need for international standards regarding death investigations, as well as practical guidelines for how those investigations should be done.  In 1983, as its very first project, The Advocates for Human Rights (then known as the Minnesota Lawyers International Human Rights Committee) took action by engaging local and international experts in law and forensic science. The project’s researchers and authors―almost all volunteers―included David Weissbrodt, Sam Heins, Barbara Frey, Don Fraser, Tom Johnson, Lindsey Thomas, Garry Peterson, Jim Roth, Bob Sands, Sonia Rosen and Marie Bibus and many others.  They worked on successive drafts for several years.

In 1987, at the Spring Hill Conference Center in Wayzata, the final details of what would come to be the Minnesota Protocol were hammered out.  There were two parts: 1) international legal standards detailing the duty of governments to prevent, investigate and initiate legal proceedings after a suspicious and unlawful death; and 2) guidelines for how to conduct effective investigations, as well as model protocols for conducting autopsies and for disinterment and analysis of skeletal remains.

In 1989, the standards were incorporated into the UN Principles on the Effective Prevention and Investigation of Extra-legal, Arbitrary and Summary Executions, which was adopted by the UN Economic and Social Council and endorsed by the UN General Assembly. The UN formally adopted the guidelines in 1991 as the United Nations Manual on the Effective Prevention and  Investigation  of  Extra-Legal, Arbitrary, and Summary Executions.  For the first time, the world had a set of international standards and guidelines for effective investigation.

Despite its official UN title, however, the UN Manuel has been commonly referred to as the Minnesota Protocol.

UN-mandated Principles & Manual are key to investigations
Together, the Principles and the Manual are the key UN-mandated texts that have provided guidance for 25 years on the international duty to investigate violations of the right to life and best practices for conducting autopsies and forensic analysis of suspicious deaths in custody.

The Minnesota Protocol has been used in myriad investigative contexts in almost every region of the world. When Tom Johnson led a team of Gray Plant Mooty attorney volunteers to research the Minnesota Protocol’s impact, they found that it has been cited as the yardstick for conducting investigations by international human rights bodies, regional bodies such as the European Court of Human Rights, the Inter-American Court on Human Rights, and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, as well as national courts in India, Australia, and other countries.

Perhaps more important, however, is how the Minnesota Protocol has been used in practice. The Minnesota Protocol has guided investigations throughout the world, including in Rwanda, Bosnia, and East Timor.  St. Paul Pioneer Press columnist Ruben Rosario described in his May 15, 2013 article how using the Minnesota Protocol has led to accountability for human rights violations in Guatemala and other places in the world.

I can also tell you about the Minnesota Protocol’s impact from my personal, in-the-field experience. In Peru, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission told me proudly that they were using the Minnesota Protocol in their work exhuming mass graves.  Family members and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) bring this document to the police. I’ve been told by colleagues that the Minnesota Protocol is the most effective tool they have to remind their government of the duty to conduct an effective investigation when there is a suspected unlawful death. Forensic experts  have told me that they bring copies of the model autopsy protocol with them when conducting investigations in the field, writing their notes in it.

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Much has changed in the world since the 1980s
It goes without saying that forensic science, DNA analysis, and other technologies have advanced greatly since the original Minnesota Protocol was drafted. International law has also advanced. Now, there are clear, internationally-accepted principles as to what constitutes the legal duty to investigate―investigations must be prompt, thorough, effective, transparent, independent and impartial. The rights of victims are now acknowledged in international law, including the rights of families to know what happened to their loved ones and to reparation and other remedies. Society as a whole has a right to know the truth about what really happened in order to prevent those human rights abuses from happening again.

For years there has been discussion at the UN about updating the Minnesota Protocol for the 21st century. Christof Heyns, the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, began in 2015 to make it a reality, inviting The Advocates to be a part of the revision process. Along with University of Minnesota professor Barbara Frey―one of the original drafters of the Minnesota Protocol―and other human rights law experts, I serve on the Legal Investigations Working Group. There is also a Forensics Working Group and a larger Advisory Panel, which includes several of the original authors. As it was in the 1980s, the work involves extensive contributions by international experts in law, forensics, and crime scene investigation.

The official title of the revised version is The Minnesota Protocol on the Investigation of Potentially Unlawful Death (2016).  Download the advance edition here.

By: Jennifer Prestholdt is deputy director of The Advocates of Human Rights and  director of it International Justice Program.

Gender-based violence escalating because of conflict in Eastern Ukraine

16 Days

The Advocates for Human Rights delivered a statement on gender-based violence in Ukraine to the 30th Session of the Human Rights Council on September 29, 2015. Below is the statement’s transcript, as well as video of The Advocates’ staff attorney Theresa Dykoschak delivering the statement at the UN. #16Days #16DaysCampaign

“Mr./Madam President/Vice President,

“The Advocates for Human Rights is gravely concerned about reports of escalating gender-based violence resulting from the conflict in Eastern Ukraine.

“As the UN Economic and Social Council has observed, “the militarization process, including the ready availability of small weapons, that occurs prior to and during conflicts, as well as the process of demobilization of often frustrated and aggressive soldiers after a conflict, may . . . result in increased violence against women and girls.” Such is the case in Ukraine today.

“First, we are concerned that internally displaced persons in Ukraine, most of whom are women, are particularly vulnerable to gender-based violence. In some cases, the armed separatist forces take women hostage and repeatedly rape them. In other cases, women are abducted or arrested and threatened with sexual violence. Our partner organization, the Ukraine-based Women’s Information Consultative Center, has documented cases of sexual violence in the occupied territories of Ukraine, along with extrajudicial executions and torture.

“The most recent report of the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine confirms reports of sexual violence in the territories controlled by the armed groups. This most recent report also confirms that “[s]ervices for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence are not available in the areas controlled by the armed groups and are insufficient in the Government-controlled areas.”

“Second, we have received reports of an alarming increase in domestic violence perpetrated by soldiers who have returned from the conflict. Calls to the nationwide Ukrainian hotline for victims of domestic and gender-based violence have spiked in 2015. The United Nations Population Fund confirms that even though gender-based violence is significantly under-reported in Ukraine, the country is seeing an increase in reports of domestic violence compared with 2014.

“The Advocates for Human Rights calls on UN member states to expand support and services for victims of gender-based violence in Ukraine. We further call on the Ukrainian Government and the armed groups operating in the country to condemn all acts of gender-based violence, to ensure that all perpetrators of gender-based violence are held accountable, and to ensure that all victims of gender-based violence have access to appropriate services and support.

“Thank you.”

 

 

We Cheered for the Women of Morocco

Moroccan Woman's Eyes

Article highlights

  • The Advocates for Human Rights and its Moroccan partner, Mobilizing for Rights Associates, attended the review of Morocco in Geneva by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
  • MRA, other Moroccan NGOs, and The Advocates partnered on a report  submitted to the Committee on the treatment of women in Morocco.
  • The submission shined light on the widespread violence against women, need for domestic violence legislation, lack of access to housing, healthcare and other support for victims of domestic violence, sexual harassment, early marriage of girls, and polygamy.
  • Particularly given what we’ve learned about biology since Henry VIII, it was astonishing to hear from Morocco’s representative examples justifying polygamy.
  • The Committee adopted many of the recommendations made by the Advocates’ and MRA’s joint report, including abolishing polygamy in Morocco.

“I have a question about polygamy. If a man may
have more than one wife, why doesn’t Morocco
allow women to have two husbands?”

Ms. Heisoon Shin, one of the three women who serve as independent experts on the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, asked the Moroccan delegation this question. Sitting in the audience, our group of staff and volunteers from The Advocates for Human Rights, as well as colleagues from our Moroccan partner organization Mobilizing for Rights Associates (“MRA”), could hardly keep from cheering out loud. Yet, the government’s response, articulated by Employment Minister Abdeslam Seddiki had us smacking our foreheads and sinking in our chairs.

The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (the Committee) monitors the implementation of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in the countries who are bound by the Covenant. By ratifying, those countries have agreed, among other things, to undertake to ensure that women have equal rights to the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights. They have also agreed to regularly report on how they are complying with the Covenant, including at an in-person review at the UN in Geneva.

Morocco was up for review during our recent advocacy trip to the UN in Geneva. In collaboration with MRA and an alliance of Moroccan NGOs, The Advocates prepared a report on issues relating to the economic, social, and cultural rights of women in Morocco that it submitted to the Committee. The submission discusses widespread violence against women, the need for domestic violence legislation, lack of access to housing, healthcare and other support for victims of domestic violence, sexual harassment, early marriage of girls, and polygamy.

During the last review of Morocco in 2006, the Committee stated that “certain traditions, customs and cultural practices in Morocco continue to prevent women from fully exercising their rights under the Covenant.” In particular, the Committee noted that polygamy, which violates women’s dignity and constitutes discrimination against women, continues to be practiced in Morocco.

Morocco allows a man to take an additional wife if he proves to a judge that he has  “exceptional and objective justification” and “sufficient resources.” According to the government of Morocco, polygamy “occurs only in exceptional cases” and it is declining. However, as The Advocates and MRA explained in their report to the Committee, the 2004 Family Code continues to allow polygamy when a husband’s petition to take another wife is approved by a judge. The approval rate of petitions for authorization to take another wife is high and increasing; 43.41% of petitions for polygamy authorizations were granted in 2010, up from 40.36% in 2009.[1] Additionally, marriage registration procedures originally designed to protect women in verbal marriages are being used to circumvent polygamy restrictions.

Minister Seddiki addressed Ms. Shin’s question. In a conciliatory tone, he explained his view that:

[I]t would be reasonable for a man to take an additional wife, if for example his current wife was unable to bear children. In the case of a farmer who needed sons to work with him but whose wife failed to give birth to boys, he said, taking an additional wife would be perfectly understandable.

Particularly given what we’ve learned about biology since Henry VIII, it was astonishing to hear these examples as justification for polygamy.

Stephanie Willman, a founding partner of MRA later told Morocco World News that she was “shocked” by the Minister’s statement that it is “normal for men to want to take another wife.”  She added, “It’s normal for people to want things, but one can’t always have everything he or she wants. That’s why there are laws – to make sure that one person’s wants don’t violate the human rights of others – in this case, of women’s human rights to be treated with dignity as equal human beings.”

Sometimes people say, “Well, it’s cultural” and suggest that it may be inappropriate to “impose our values” on others. Mr. Waleed Sadi, chairperson of the CESCR had the perfect answer to this. In closing the session on Morocco he said:

Many people from all over the world spent countless hours thinking, talking, debating and considering economic, social, cultural rights and human rights. They arrived at consensus and developed the standards set forth in the Covenant. Cultural norms must conform to those standards, not the other way around.

Once again, I for one felt like cheering.

Epilogue:

In its recent Concluding Observations, the Committee adopted many of the recommendations made by the Advocates’ and MRA’s joint report, including abolishing polygamy in Morocco. The Committee urged the government of Morocco to conduct awareness campaigns to eliminate gender stereotypes and promote women’s rights; to accelerate the adoption of the bill on sexual harassment, especially in the workplace but also on sexual harassment in all its forms and in all places, including instituting penalties consistent with the seriousness of the offense.

The Committee also recommended that Morocco take steps to ensure that victims can file complaints without fear of reprisals and have access to redress and adequate compensation; adopt a comprehensive law on violence against women in accordance with international standards; and ensure its application to eliminate all forms of violence against women, including marital rape.

The Committee further recommended that Morocco take steps to investigate and prosecute offenders and allow victims of domestic violence access to effective remedies and immediate protection measures, including by establishing a sufficient number of shelters.

Finally, the Committee recommended abolishing the criminalization of illicit sexual relations; amending the law to set the minimum age for marriage at 18 and repealing Article 20 of the Family Code, which allows judges to authorize underage marriage.

By Julie Shelton, attorney and Chicago-based volunteer who The Advocates for Human Rights honored with its Volunteer Award in 2014. Ms. Shelton traveled in September to the United Nations in Geneva with The Advocates and other volunteers.

[1] Association Démocratique des Femmes du Maroc (ADFM), Rapport des ONG de défense des droits des femmes au Maroc au titre du 2e Examen Périodique Universel (EPU) (November 2011).

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

blog_un

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)

Leading by Example? The International Impact of Marriage Equality Ruling

LGBT_world*This post, written by Amy Bergquist, a staff attorney with The Advocates for Human Rights, is part of American Constitution Society’s blog’s symposium on the consolidated marriage equality cases before the Supreme Court.

A decision by the U.S. Supreme Court recognizing a right to marriage equality would make headlines around the world, but the implications for the rights of people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or intersex (LGBTI) in other countries may be complex.

The Advocates for Human Rights collaborates with partner organizations advocating for LGBTI rights in African countries like Cameroon and Tanzania, where the governments not only criminalize consensual sexual conduct between people of the same sex, but also condone or even participate in discrimination and violence targeting LGBTI people.  We know from our partners that government officials, religious leaders, celebrities and the media fuel anti-LGBTI animus by arguing that, in African culture, “homosexuality . . . is considered universally as a manifestation of moral decadence that should be fought.”

Many countries have laws on the books prohibiting sexual conduct between people of the same sex, but Cameroonian authorities aggressively enforce their country’s law; courts convict people simply for acting or dressing in a gender-non-conforming manner.  Vigilante groups in Cameroon organize patrols to round up suspected violators and hand them over to the police.  Violence and discrimination targeting LGBTI people are widespread.

The complexity of advocacy for LGBTI rights in the international context arises out of the false characterization, in some parts of the world, of LGBTI rights as a “western invention.”  In collaboration with our partners in Cameroon, we submitted a report to Africa’s leading human rights body, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, debunking this myth.  In Cameroon, as in many other African countries, criminalization of consensual same-sex sexual conduct is a legacy of the colonial era.  In our report, we quote Dr. Sylvia Tamale, law professor and former dean of the law faculty of Makere University in Kampala, who explains: “There is a long history of diverse African peoples engaging in same-sex relations. . . . Ironically, it is the dominant Judeo-Christian and Arabic religions that most African anti-homosexuality proponents rely on, that are foreign imports.”  Indeed, as I’ve argued at The Advocates Post, anti-gay extremists from the United States and Europe attempt to export their animus to Africa and the former Soviet Union.

A decision on marriage equality by the highest court in the United States could spur countries to adopt sweeping reactionary legislation similar to two laws adopted last year: Nigeria’s “Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act,” which not only imposes criminal penalties of up to 14 years imprisonment for entering into a same-sex marriage, but also criminalizes participation in “gay clubs, societies and organisations” and public displays of affection by same-sex couples; and Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act, which increased that country’s criminal penalties for crimes such as “aggravated homosexuality,” imposed a penalty of life imprisonment for any person “purport[ing] to contract a marriage with another person of the same sex,” and imposed a punishment of up to seven years imprisonment for any person or institution conducting a same-sex marriage.  (Uganda’s law was later struck down on a procedural technicality.)  Our partners in Tanzania are already reporting that their parliament is considering a law similar to Uganda’s.

When the U.S. Supreme Court rules on marriage equality, some foreign courts will, without a doubt, cite the opinion ― or the dissent ― as they address challenges to laws prohibiting marriage equality.  (Courts in countries with common-law traditions, including Fiji, Hong Kong and India, have cited Lawrence v. Texas in assessing domestic laws prohibiting same-sex sexual conduct.)

In the international context, however, marriage equality is not the end of the road but just one component of a complex set of efforts to ensure equal rights for LGBTI persons throughout the world.  In 2006, for example, South Africa became the fifth country in the world to recognize a right to marriage equality.  Yet nine years on, anti-LGBTI violence in South Africa is still common.  Photojournalist Clare Carter recently documented the practice of “corrective rape” ― oftentimes with the collusion of the victim’s family ― intended to “cure” lesbians and transgender men.  The South African government has only recently stepped up efforts to respond to widespread violence targeting LGBTI people.  To achieve lasting change, advocates for LGBTI rights around the world need to develop strategies that take into account the local context.  The Advocates recently published a toolkit of resources to help.

The African Commission, in an official concluding statement about Cameroon’s human rights record, recently urged Cameroonian authorities to “[t]ake appropriate measures to ensure the safety and physical integrity of all persons irrespective of their sexual orientation and maintain an atmosphere of tolerance towards sexual minorities in the country.”  For our partners, these words offer more promise for advancing LGBTI rights in Africa than any ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court ever could.