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Celebrating United Nations Day 2020

The Advocates’ staff and volunteers at The United Nations in Geneva

October 24, 2020, marks the 75th anniversary of the entry into force of the United Nations Charter, the document that remains the foundation for the United Nations system. On this United Nations Day, The Advocates for Human Rights rededicates itself to leveraging the strength of the United Nations to work toward a world where every person can live with dignity, freedom, equality, justice, and peace.

The Advocates uses the United Nations to further its mission

The Advocates’ mission is to implement international human rights standards to promote civil society and reinforce the rule of law. We engage with the UN to amplify the voices of our clients and partners to bring the authority of the UN to bear on governments, pushing them to uphold their responsibility to respect, protect, and fulfill human rights. Click here for a training video that provides an overview of advocacy with the UN’s human rights system.

Our clients and partners equip the UN with a vital tool: first-hand information about pressing human rights concerns. The UN, in turn, uses this information to hold governments accountable. The UN gives them a platform to speak truth to power.

We build our partners’ capacity to engage with the UN

The Advocates works with diverse partners in UN advocacy:

Joachim from Alternatives Cameroon lobbies a delegate to the Human Rights Council in Geneva

This advocacy goes beyond collecting information and submitting written reports. We work alongside our partners to brief UN treaty bodies, lobby delegates to the Human Rights Council, host panel discussions for UN audiences, and lodge formal complaints.

We need your help

As the world celebrates United Nations Day, you can get involved, too! From November 2-10, the United Nations will review the human rights records of several countries where The Advocates has targeted its advocacy: Belarus, Bulgaria, Croatia, Honduras, Liberia, and the United States. At this link you can discover how to get involved by learning more about the process, studying the issues at stake, and following the UN reviews as they happen.

But we also need your help during those two weeks to engage with us on social media. We’ll be live-tweeting the reviews, and you can help us amplify our clients’ and partners’ voices by replying to tweets you like to thank governments that make strong recommendations. Then join us on Facebook live as we debrief with our partners and volunteers after each review.

Amy Bergquist is Senior Staff Attorney with the International Justice Program at The Advocates for Human Rights.

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Justice for George Floyd: UN Human Rights Council Shines Spotlight on Systemic Racism and Police Brutality

The March session of the UN Human Rights Council was put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But on Monday morning, that session resumed in Geneva with a dramatic opening. The President of the Human Rights Council gave the floor to Dieudonné W. Désiré Sougouri, Permanent Representative of Burkina Faso to the Council and coordinator of the body’s African Group:

Dieudonné W. Désiré Sougouri, Permanent Representative of Burkina Faso

“The tragic events of 25 May 2020 in Minneapolis in the US which led to the death of George Floyd led to protests throughout the world against injustice and police brutality that persons of African descent face on a daily basis in many regions of the world. The death of George Floyd unfortunately is not an isolated incident. Many other cases of persons of African descent having faced the same fate because of their origin and police violence exist. After the widespread indignation over this situation, it would be inconceivable that the Human Rights Council not deal with these questions which are very relevant in accordance with this mandate. This is why the African Group calls upon the Human Rights Council to organize an urgent debate on current violations of human rights that are based on racism, systemic racism, police brutality against persons of African descent, and violence against peaceful demonstrations, to call for an end to be put to these injustices.”  

Without objection, the Human Rights Council President then scheduled an unprecedented urgent debate for Wednesday, June 17: 

It was all over in less than 3 minutes, but it reflected countless hours of worldwide advocacy. The Advocates joined forces with over 600 organizations in 60 countries, in an effort endorsed by family members of George Floyd, Philando Castile, Jordan Davis, Breonna Taylor, and Michael Brown, to push the Council to dedicate a special session to racial justice in the United States 

What to expect? 

Tomorrow at 3:00 pm Geneva time (8:00 am Minneapolis time), the Council President will gavel open an urgent debate on “current racially inspired human rights violations, systemic racism, police brutality against people of African descent and violence against peaceful protests.” You can join me to watch the session livefollow The Advocates on Twitter for livetweetsor catch it later on the UN Web TV archivesThe debate may continue Thursday morning at 10:00 am Geneva time (3:00 am Minneapolis time). 

Like any debate at the Human Rights Council, you can expect a lot of polite formalities. The Council is a political body, with diplomats representing the interests of their own governments in the context of human rights. But you can also expect that every speaker will have watched the devastating and infuriating video of the police killing of George Floyd. Many of these high-level diplomats will say his name, as well as the names of other Black people who have been killed at the hands of law enforcement in the United States. It is possible that the Council will invite a member of Mr. Floyd’s family to address the body via video link.  

Monday’s strong words from Burkina Faso, calling for “an end to be put to these injustices,” may be a sign of what’s to come. It’s hard to gauge whether the debate will include any defense of the impunity that law enforcement officials in the United States usually enjoy. Since the United States resigned its seat on the Council in 2018, it has not attended Council sessions, but it is possible a U.S. delegate will attend the urgent debate and offer up some defense 

Accountability and impunity will be words to listen for. A core component of human rights is that when the government commits a human rights violation, the responsible parties must be held accountable. With qualified immunity as an entrenched judicial doctrine serving as a barrier to accountability, our system falls short.  

As the Council wraps up its March session, resolutions will be top of mind. Burkina Faso has prepared a resolution for the Council to consider later this week. It calls for:

An independent international commission of inquiry, to be appointed by the President of the Human Rights Council to establish facts and circumstances related to the systemic racism, alleged violations of International Human Rights Law and abuses against Africans and of People of African Descent in the United States of America and other parts of the world recently affected,  by law enforcement agencies, especially those incidents that resulted in the deaths of Africans and of People of African Descent; with a view to bringing perpetrators to justice

Ordinarily, resolutions are weeks in the making, but because of the urgent debate, the Council will have the opportunity to move relatively quickly to take action—if it has the political will. We’ll be able to follow debate and voting on the resolution later this week and next Monday. 

If the resolution passes, this commission of inquiry would conduct an investigation and provide a series of reports to the Council at its sessions in September, March 2021, and June 2021. The Council would then have the opportunity to take additional steps based on the commission’s final report. Those steps could include renewing the commission’s mandate or taking other steps to ensure accountability for human rights violations committed against people of African descent in the United States. 

Our efforts 

As soon as the Council announced the urgent debate, we sprang into action. The critical actors in this debate will be the 47 members of the Human Rights Council, who will be able to vote on resolutions later this week, and again in early July. But all UN Member States, as well as observers such as the European Union, the Holy See, and the State of Palestine will also be able to take the floor during the debate.  

We identified UN Member States that are particularly vocal on issues of racism, racial discrimination, and minority rights, like Honduras and Sierra Leone, adding 20 countries to the original 47.  

After years of lobbying delegates to the Human Rights Council for the Universal Periodic Review, we have a great set of contacts for most of the delegations in Geneva. So we reached out to familiar names, letting them know about the written statement we submitted to the Council last week on systemic racism in the United States.  

We had heard that U.S. officials have been working behind the scenes to try to make sure that the United States wasn’t singled out in Wednesday’s urgent debate. So we wrote to delegates to ask them to ensure that the debate would indeed shine a spotlight on the United States. More important, we asked them to commit to measures that would hold the United States accountable for these ongoing and systemic human rights violations. We urged them to support a resolution to mandate the creation of an independent, international accountability mechanism to document and investigate extrajudicial killings of unarmed Black people.  

Other UN bodies speak out 

Photo credit: UN Photo/Loey Felipe

Professor E. Tendayi Achiume, UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, along with the UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, is making a similar request that the Council establish an international commission of inquiry to investigate systemic racism in law enforcement in the United States 

Last Friday, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination invoked its early warning and urgent action mechanism, called on the United States “to increase the oversight of police misconduct, and to ensure that each allegation of excessive use of force by law enforcement officials . . . is promptly and effectively investigated irrespective of race, colour, descent, national or ethnic origin and that the alleged perpetrators are prosecuted and, if convicted, punished with appropriate sanctions.” The Committee also emphasized that “systemic and structural discrimination permeates State institutions and disproportionately promotes racial disparities against African Americans, notably in the enjoyment of the rights to equal treatment before tribunals, [and] security of person and protection by the State against violence or bodily harm.” 

Next steps 

With decades of experience collaborating with partners around the world on UN advocacy, we know that sharp criticism from the United Nations is no quick fix. Efforts to dismantle systemic racism and end impunity require both external pressure from bodies like the Council and as well as grass roots mobilization from activists on the ground. Together, we can leverage that pressure from all directions to create a system that respects human rights.  

Click here to learn more about how to advocate for human rights at the United Nations. 

Amy Bergquist is a Senior Staff Attorney with The Advocates’ International Justice Program. 

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Remote Volunteers Help NGOs Engage with the United Nations

Civil society organizations play a crucial role in human rights monitoring at the United Nations. The mission of the United Nations – to monitor, protect, and advance human rights around the world – is best carried out when civil society actively participates. Non-governmental organizations, activists, and academics provide valuable information about human rights violations that governments miss or cover up. For instance, they can submit written information in the form of a “shadow” or “alternative” report. These reports give activists an opportunity to share local human rights violations directly with the international community and, ultimately, to change laws and policies.

While the United Nations welcomes civil society participation, the opportunities and deadlines for participation are not so easy to track down. Each mechanism has a different system, which is why we need volunteers to become experts on each one and compile the information into one easy-to-use database.

Flag of the United Nations

Thanks to a team of nine paralegal volunteers and twelve other remote volunteers, The Advocates facilitates civil society engagement with United Nations and Regional Human Rights mechanisms through an online deadline database. The database is searchable by country and provides up-to-date, accurate information about reporting opportunities all in one place. Without this team of volunteers, non-governmental organizations may be left in the dark about opportunities to engage with the United Nations.

As someone who personally works with our volunteers on a regular basis, I can attest to their enthusiasm and discipline. I am always impressed with how eager they are to know all the ins and outs of the United Nations monitoring process, even though they don’t need to know all the specifics for this work. It is a steep learning curve, yet they are always up to the challenge. I also appreciate how responsive they are to my many emails about updating the database when unexpected changes arise.

The global pandemic has not stopped them from continuing their work, even when many of their own workloads have increased. One volunteer recently told me she was going to check on the deadlines weekly as opposed to bi-weekly, just so she could make sure she caught all the updates due to COVID-19. Many other volunteers worked to quickly turn around new deadlines that changed due to COVID-19 so that our international partners at the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty could stay up to date.

When I asked our volunteers why they took on this work, here is how they responded. I hope you can see for yourself that something as simple as a database can have a big impact.

“The Advocates for Human Rights does important work and I’m grateful to have the opportunity to contribute my time to such a cause.” – Paralegal Volunteer

“I have been overwhelmed by the changes in policy toward immigrants and anyone in the world really who needs help. The first work I did for Advocates was on an asylum case. Even though we were not successful, the appreciation shown to me, by the wife and children of the man who was eventually deported, made me realize that I needed desperately to fill a hole in my life. When our pro bono director reached out to me on entering deadlines for treaty bodies, I jumped at the opportunity.  There are still many things out there that make me sad, but doing this work, as minimal as it is, helps fill the “hole”.” – Paralegal Volunteer

“I took it on because it sounded terribly interesting and I wanted to contribute (albeit in a VERY small way) to making the world (not just my little suburban corner of it) a better place. I like to think that it enables someone (individuals or groups) to make a case to protect and improve the lives of those who cannot (or are not able) to do so themselves.” – Paralegal Volunteer

“Something that has always been important to me, is to ensure I put aside time to give back to the community, and beyond. Advocating for human rights is so crucial to promote equality within the community, society and all over the world. For me, volunteering my time to The Advocates of Human Rights, and having any part in facilitating their mission, is a real honor.” – Paralegal Volunteer

By Elizabeth Lacy, Program Assistant for Women’s Human Rights and International Justice Programs at The Advocates For Human Rights

The Advocates for Human Rights is a nonprofit organization dedicated to implementing international human rights standards to promote civil society and reinforce the rule of law. The Advocates represents more than 1000 asylum seekers, victims of trafficking, and immigrants in detention through a network of hundreds of pro bono legal professionals.