Death Penalty Under Scrutiny: Is State-Sanctioned Murder Constitutional?

U.S. Supreme Court (image courtesy Wikimedia Commons)
U.S. Supreme Court (image courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

On Monday, October 10, the 14th World Day Against the Death Penalty will raise awareness of the application of the death penalty for terrorism-related offenses with the goal of reducing the use of the death penalty. The United States and 64 other countries allow people to be sentenced to death for terrorism-related offenses.

The Advocates for Human Rights, with the assistance of pro bono attorneys, collaborates with members of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty to bring death penalty issues to the attention of the United Nations to advocate for change.

Jury selection began last week in the case of Dylann Roof, the self-identified white supremacist accused of murdering nine black worshippers at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in South Carolina last year. Roof was recently denied the opportunity to plead guilty and serve a life sentence for his crimes; the Department of Justice will instead seek the death penalty. In response, Roof’s lawyers have chosen to challenge the constitutionality of capital punishment head-on. Their decision to oppose the death penalty in court, citing the punishment as “a legally prohibited, arbitrary, cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by both the Fifth and Eighth Amendments,” follows the lead of similar influential cases that have taken place across the country in the past several years.

In the United States, the federal government has not carried out a death sentence in over a decade. The Death Penalty Information Center reports 2015 as having the lowest recorded number of executions in 25 years (28 people), as well as the lowest number of death sentence convictions in over 40 years (49 people). At the same time, public opposition to the death penalty is at the highest level it has been in several decades, marking steady progress toward abolition of the death penalty.

From the grass roots to the U.S. Supreme Court, individuals have increasingly vocalized disdain for the death penalty. The Black Lives Matter movement has recognized diminished public support for capital punishment and in its policy platform is demanding immediate action toward complete abolition. In response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision allowing states to continue to use the drug midazolam in executions, Justice Stephen G. Breyer authored a 46-page dissent, arguing that “it is highly likely that the death penalty violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment].” The drug itself is linked to causing severe pain in the process of an execution, a point which prompted some Justices to question the constitutionality of the death sentence. In his dissent, Justice Breyer noted several flaws in the system of administering capital punishment: the execution of innocent people; frequently exonerations of individuals on death row; and the negative influence of politics and discrimination on the imposition of the death penalty in the criminal justice system.

Seven states have abolished the death penalty since 2007, bringing the current total to 20. (Californians will vote on November 8 to determine whether that state will join the list.) The most recent is Delaware, when its Supreme Court ruled that the state’s statute allowing judges to overrule a jury’s decision for a life sentence was a direct violation of the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution (the right to an impartial jury). In January of this year, the Supreme Court ruled similarly on Florida’s death penalty law. State by state, courts are ruling that major faults in our system of justice are in direct violation of basic rights recognized in the U.S. Constitution.

This recent trend of questioning the constitutionality of the death penalty reflects a growing awareness of defects within the criminal justice system. The system that exists today puts people with mentally illness to death, disproportionately executes black individuals convicted of murdering whites, and kills the innocent. Execution methods present a real risk of subjecting individuals to torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishment. Moreover, research demonstrates that the death penalty does not deter future murders. In the words of Delaware’s Governor Markell: “the use of capital punishment is an instrument of imperfect justice that doesn’t make us any safer.”

dp-by-the-numbersSource: The Nation

Capital punishment endures because many still assume that it is appropriate or effective. But here is what the death penalty doesn’t do:

  • preserve the constitutional rights to life and freedom from cruel and unusual punishment
  • promote a belief in rehabilitation and reconciliation
  • punish equitably, without discrimination based on race, socioeconomic status, or disability
  • punish fairly, by ensuring that no innocent person is executed and by ensuring that all defendants can fully exercise their due process rights
  • make progress toward addressing the root causes of crime in order to prevent heinous murders
  • address the ideologies and beliefs that motivate hate crimes (such Dylann Roof’s)
  • bring back victims of the crime

Dylann Roof must answer for his shocking crimes, and for the permanent damage he has inflicted on his victims and their families. We must recognize the powerful racial dynamics at work, acknowledging Roof’s racially based murders and his privileged status as a young white male in today’s criminal justice system. Yet, we should also recognize the significance of Roof’s lawyers challenging the constitutionality of the death penalty on a federal level. If the court decides that the death penalty violates the Constitution, not only will it mark significant progress toward ending state-sponsored murder, but our country may also find the motivation and political will to reform of a criminal justice system in desperate need of justice, and to bring that system in line with international human rights standards.

By Maggie Poulos, a student at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota, majoring in International Studies with a minor in political science. During the summer of 2016, she was an intern with The Advocates’ International Justice Program. She is interning with The Advocates’ Refugee & Immigrant Program during the academic year.

Click here to learn more about The Advocates for Human Rights’ work against the death penalty.

 

Modern-day slavery in the Persian Gulf

Trafficking word cloudThe Advocates for Human Rights receives a barrage of emails from across the globe, people who are looking for information and assistance in a wide variety of human rights issues. The requests for assistance are a window into the current human rights problems in the world, which oftentimes are virtually unknown outside of the country or region.

One example that I find especially heartbreaking is the modern day slavery that is happening in the Persian Gulf region. Through the Kafala system, a policy of the [Persian] Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), citizens or companies sponsor “foreign” workers in order for their work visas and residency to be valid. This means that an individual’s right to work and legal presence in a host country is dependent on his or her employer, rendering the person to exploitation. The GCC includes Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

Every year, thousands migrate from Southeast Asia to the Persian Gulf region to seek employment. With some differences, the story of these workers repeats itself; people from the poorest parts of the world are toiling in sweat and blood in the shadow of unimaginable wealth. In such conditions, however, the international community enjoys investment incentives, luxurious shopping centers, and dreams of the World Cup (many of its facilities are built by migrant workers).

They Are Entrapped

The plight of migrant workers begins in their home countries when they are deceived in the recruitment process and promised liveable wages. Migrant workers usually take out large loans to pay the fees of local recruitment agencies that arrange their work contract and travel documents. While migrant workers are heavily dependant on their salaries to survive, they should devote most of their wages to service loans.

As a common practice, sponsors confiscate workers’ passports. Even when workers have their passports, they still must have their sponsor’s permission to leave the country. Migrant workers have limited options; continue in their jobs, or quit the job and work illegally for different employers. They have reported a culture of fear and intimidation in which there is no access to justice, especially for those who work illegally.

They Are Segregated and Exploited Slaves

Most migrant workers live in substandard conditions in remote areas. In Qatar, for instance, the segregation has been built through legislation by the Central Municipal Council (CMC). With the establishment of “family zones,” migrant workers have been banned from living in Doha; and have been prevented from enjoying public areas, such as shopping centers on certain days. Such laws legitimize negative stereotypes about migrant workers and have the effect of further entrenching segregation.

The World Cup Nightmare

In response to reports of worker’s deaths (in the World Cup facilities), the Qatari government commissioned a law firm to investigate. The recommendations of this investigation about legal reforms, however, have never been followed seriously. While the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants called for Qatar to repeal its Kafala system, it seems that the Qatari government intends to rename the system without removing its exploitative provisions. According to the latest report of the International Laborer Organization (“ILO”), Qatar has failed to observe the international standards regarding migrant workers. Two years prior, the ILO asked Qatar to take meaningful actions, otherwise a United Nations inquiry would be launched in 2017 that will make possible imposing international sanctions. As Human Rights Watch reported, Qatar has promised little and has delivered far less. By continuing in this way, the International Trade Union Confederation reports that, about 4,000 workers will die before the World Cup 2022.

Any will for change?

Considering the lack of protective measures for migrant workers, host countries must make fundamental changes in the Kafala system. In addition, they have enough financial means to ensure safe work, standard living conditions, and decent wages for foreign laborers. Simultaneously, migrant workers’ countries of origin have the duty to monitor the conditions of their citizens and provide them with proper consular support. Unfortunately, it is very unlikely that international companies will acknowledge their responsibility for the miserable conditions of their migrant laborers. For this reason, human rights activists across the Persian Gulf region and beyond must shed light on the lives of migrant workers to end modern-day slavery as a common practice among nations in the region.

By Mehrnoosh Karimi Andu, a third-year J.D. student (class of 2017) at the University of Minnesota Law School. She is 2016 summer intern with The Advocates’ International Justice Program.

It’s a human right: Each of us has the right to fundamental safety & security.

Latino mother and chlid RGB

The Advocates for Human Rights mourns the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the case of United States v. Texas, which has blocked President Obama’s executive actions on immigration for nearly two years and put the lives of an estimated 5 million people and their families on hold.

International human rights standards recognize that the United States, like all nations, has the right to control its borders.

But that right is not without limits. The United States also has the obligation to ensure that every person within our borders enjoys the fundamental rights that lead to a life with dignity.

For the millions of undocumented Americans, those most basic rights are denied every day because they lack immigration status. Families are separated. Support for basic needs is denied. Fear of arrest and deportation is exploited.

The fight for administrative relief has been a painful one. Millions of families have deferred their hopes of living a stable and predictable existence, if only for a brief time, while the case wound its way through the courts. Families have been irreparably torn apart by deportations, leaving hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizen children behind.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Central American refugees have been put at risk by an administration determined to deter them from seeking safety by detaining them upon arrival and prioritizing them for deportation. These wounds can heal, but they will never be erased.

At the same time, this struggle has been a turning point for the movement, which has floundered since 1996 to read the political tea leaves and calibrate the compromises needed to pass “reform” bills that would reinforce, rather than reverse, the fundamental injustices embedded in the current system. Increasingly advocates, activists, and those affected by decades of injustice have united behind a powerful new vision.

One America’s Rich Stolz recently wrote in the Huffington Post that the President Obama’s program would allow undocumented Americans to “gain the dignity of knowing that they have place in America.

National Immigration Law Center’s Marielena Hincapié, whose team has been leading the fight in U.S. v. Texas, tweeted recently, “We believe in a world in which all people can live with dignity.”

That vision is one of human rights. It takes as its starting point a recognition that each of us has the right to fundamental safety and security of the person – including a roof over our heads, food to eat, and health care when we need it. It also means freedom from arbitrary detention, a fair day in court, and the protection of the unity of the family. It recognizes these rights for every person without discrimination and it demands that failure to protect these rights be addressed.

Today, while we mourn the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision, we do so knowing that our vision is clear – that everyone, regardless of where they were born, has the right to enjoy the fundamental building blocks needed to live with dignity.

By Michele Garnett McKenzie, The Advocates for Human Rights’ Director of Advocacy and an experienced immigration attorney.

Activities for Human Rights Day 2015

hrd_english

Each year on December 10, people all around the world celebrate Human Rights Day.  

The date was chosen to honor the United Nations General Assembly‘s adoption on 10 December 1948 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the first global statement of international human rights principles.

This year’s Human Rights Day is devoted to the launch of a year-long campaign for the 50th anniversary of the two International Covenants on Human Rights: the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which were adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 16 December 1966.

The “Our Rights. Our Freedoms. Always.” 50th anniversary campaign will highlight the theme of rights and freedoms — freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear — which underpin the International Bill of Human Rights are as relevant today as they were when the Covenants were adopted 50 years ago.

Below are some ideas for simple yet meaningful ways that families can celebrate Human Rights Day by learning about the rights and responsibilities that we all share as human beings.

For more ideas, check out my past Human Rights Day posts:

10 Things to Do With Your Kids on Human Rights Day (2011)

10 More Things to Do With Your Kids on Human Rights Day (2012)

Human Rights Activities To Do With Your Kids (2013)

Human Rights Activities For You & Your Kids (2014).

The UDHR in a word cloud. From Article 26 website.
The UDHR in a word cloud. From Article 26 website.

1. Learn about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  Download an illustrated version of the UDHR on the UN website here. You can also find a simplified version of the UDHR here.

2. Join the UNICEF Kid Power Team and work together to help end global malnutrition.Globally, one in four children is malnourished, about 159 million children worldwide. 50 million children suffer from acute malnutrition resulting in about one million children dying each year. And 16 million children suffer from the most life-threatening form of malnutrition, severe acute malnutrition (SAM), which can require specialized feeding care such as treatment with Ready-to-Use Therapeutic Food (RUTF) packets.


Families can join the UNICEF Kid Power Team by purchasing a UNICEF Kid Power Band—available at Target—and downloading the free companion UNICEF Kid Power App. Kids go on missions to learn about new cultures and earn points by getting active. Points unlock funding from partners, parents and fans, and funds are used by UNICEF to deliver lifesaving packets of therapeutic food to real, severely malnourished children around the world. In the pilot project earlier this year, more than 11,300 kids in Boston, Dallas and New York joined the UNICEF Kid Power Team and took enough steps to walk around the world more than 23 times. These kids earned enough Kid Power Points to unlock 188,850 therapeutic food packets, enough to save the lives of 1,259 children. 

3. Stand up for the rights of girls everywhere. Girl UP, the United Nations Foundation’s adolescent girl campaign, engages girls to take action. Girl UP’s current advocacy priority is improving access to quality education for girls worldwide, especially those in vulnerable settings. Worldwide, 140 million children are not in school – more than half are girls. Learn more about the impact of education of girls on society here.  Learn about ways you can advocate (no matter your age) here.

4. Sing your own song! Amandla! is a song that was a sung by Black South Africans during apartheid to give them strength. Amandla is a Zulu and Xhosa word meaning “power”. It was also the name of a documentary about the role of music in apartheid South Africa that won multiple awards at Sundance in 2003.  The chorus is:

We will fight for the right to be free
We will build our own society
And we will sing, we will sing
We will sing our own song

The band UB40, which strongly advocated against apartheid in the 1980s, did a popular cover of the song Amandla!

Amnesty International created a full lesson plan around the song.  Check out the full lesson, which encourages kids to sing along with the song.  Take out specific words and have your kids fill in the blanks.  Kids have such a great sense of justice that their words may surprise you! Then have your kids draw the images that the song evokes and present their art projects to others.

(Fun fact: Amandla Stenberg, who played Rue in The Hunger Games, was named for the word and its meaning.) 

5. Play Rights of the Child Pictionary. Based on the game Pictionary, each child sketches his or her interpretation of one article of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. When all are done, you can take turns examining the sketch and guessing the article it represents. For this and other ideas for teaching children’s rights through art, click here.

6. Play Human Rights Musical Chairs.  This lesson, developed by The Advocates for Human Rights, is a game similar to musical chairs, but with a writing twist. Select magazine and newspaper images that you feel effectively demonstrate a particular article of one of the 30 articles of the UDHR. For example, if the picture shows a scene where a group of children, boys and girls, are happy and walking with backpacks on their way to school, you could discuss Article 26 the “Right to Education” and Article 2 “Freedom from Discrimination” as both girls and boys are attending school.

Tape one image onto each chair along with one sheet of paper. Select music to indicate the starting and stopping of the writing. Tell the kids that they can write about whatever the image makes them think of. When the music starts, have the kids write the beginning of the story based on the image.  After a few minutes, stop the music and have them move to the next image. Start the music and have them write the middle of the story based on that image.  Encourage them to follow the storyline already in progress but allow them to get creative. Stop the music and have them move to the third image and write the ending. For more ideas, check out The Advocates for Human Rights’ resources for educators.

7. Learn more about famous and not-so-famous human rights heroes. There are many great biographies of famous activists (I Am Malala is one you may enjoy) but there are also many other inspiring peace and social justice activists to learn about.

Better World Heroes is an informational website which includes the biographies of 1000 heroes who have fought to build a better world.

The Giraffe Heroes project tells the stories of “Giraffe Heroes” – people who stick their necks out for the common good.

For more resources, download The Advocates for Human Rights’ Rights Sites newsletter: Human Rights Heroes edition.

8. Read Dr. Seuss’ The Sneetches as part of an anti-racism, anti-bullying activity. Teaching Tolerance has developed a great simulation activity.  The simulation exercise can help children understand the emotional impact of unfair practices. The follow-up activity on discrimination helps ensure that students understand that the goal is to change those practices, not the characteristics that make us different from one another. Check out all of Teaching Tolerance’s resources here.

9. Take a test together.  The Representation Project has developed two quizzes to examine how mainstream media shapes our beliefs and practices about women and girls, as well as what it means to be a man.  For families with preteens and teens who are interested starting a conversation about this issue, the Representation Project’s family resources can be found here.

#TheRepTest is a media literacy tool, sparking conversation about overall representation in film, television, and video games and encouraging more diversity in the entertainment industry.

The #BeyondTheMask quiz lets you grade male characters as role models.

10. Have a conversation with your family about what it means to be “free and equal”.  Watch this video with your kids and discuss their reactions.

What else does it mean to be “free and equal”? the United Nations recently launched a new campaign called “Free & Equal” for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality.  There are fact sheets, information about a film series, and much more on the Free & Equal website.  You can even check out the very first Bollywood video for gay rights.  The UN is asking that you share if you believe everyone should be welcomed into their family’s hearts, regardless of their sexual orientation.

The 2015 “Faces” video from the Free & Equal campaign celebrates the contributions that millions of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people make to families and local communities around the world. The cast features “real people” (not actors), filmed in their workplaces and homes — among them, a firefighter, a police officer, a teacher, an electrician, a doctor and a volunteer, as well as prominent straight ally and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Can you see past the label?

If you are not sure how to talk to your kids about LGBT issues, check out these Human Rights Campaign resources that provide the language and information needed to discuss lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and issues in an age appropriate way with children and youth.

I hope you and your families have a great Human Rights Day 2015!  If you have other ideas for human rights activities, please share them with us!

Jennifer Prestholdt is Deputy Director and International Justice Program Director at The Advocates for Human Rights. This post was originally published on World Moms Blog. 

Migration Not Border Security Problem; People Like Us Face Perilous Choices

Photo credit: ALJAZEERA AMERICA
Photo credit: ALJAZEERA AMERICA

The capsize of a ship overloaded with migrants seeking to cross the Mediterranean has galvanized attention on what The New York Times characterizes as a surge in refugees from throughout the Middle East and North Africa. With, as The Times reports, “about 17 times as many refugee deaths in the Mediterranean Sea from January to April compared to the same period last year,” the human tragedy unfolding is shocking, particularly to those of us who have never faced such a perilous choice.

But while calls for a naval blockade continue to be heard, a more nuanced take on Fortress Europe and the obligation to consider human dignity have surfaced. Pope Francis, who last year urged European leaders not to allow the Mediterranean to become a vast cemetery, reminded those gathered for his weekly address that the migrants whose boat had foundered are men and women like us, our brothers seeking a better life, starving, persecuted, wounded, exploited, victims of war.

Even European leaders who according to NPR’s Sylvia Poggioli have long been “pressed by anti-immigrant parties… are now facing a backlash for having neglected the humanitarian disaster taking place in the waters of the Mediterranean.” Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi struck a new note when he said: “We are asking not to be left alone. Our political priority is not just a security issue. We want to ensure the dignity of human beings and block human traffickers. The new slave traders of the 21st century must not believe that Europe considers this one of the least important issues on its agenda.”

The recognition that migration is more than a border security issue is one the United States needs to take seriously.

Several weeks ago NPR’s Steve Inskeep had a rather horrifying exchange with Simon Henshaw, the U.S. State Department deputy secretary charged with explaining how the United States’ is fulfilling its international refugee protection obligations despite its multifaceted deterrence strategy through a recently-opened process for Honduran children whose parents are permanent residents to enter the U.S. more quickly than the normal visa backlog allows:

INSKEEP: Does it bother you, though, that there may be a young person who asks
for help and then has to go away from a U.S. consulate and go back into the neighbor-
hood where their lives have been threatened?

HENSHAW: Yes, it does. But what really bothers me is the thought that that child
might take a risky journey through Mexico and come to the United States. So what
I want to do is make sure that our program addresses their situation as fast as possible.”

Yes, Mr. Henshaw, La Bestia is dangerous. But even more dangerous is abandoning the fundamental right to non-refoulement – to seek and enjoy asylum from persecution.

Last December NPR’s Robert Siegal summed up the Obama Administration’s official word: “if you, a child in Central America, try to come up North, you’ll be put in detention; you’ll be sent back; you’ll be flown back home.”

In a report released this month, Detention Watch Network traced the role of deterrence strategies in U.S. immigration policy, noting that the Obama administration’s “recent reliance on the deterrence justification to rationalize the long-term detention of asylum-seeking families marks a new level of aggressive and inappropriate use.”

The human rights violations endured by asylum-seeking families are numerous. Included in the (very long) list of violations flagged by The Advocates for Human Rights and Detention Watch Network in a joint submission to the UN last year was the growing use of detention to deter asylum seekers from seeking protection in direct contravention of international obligations.[1] We pointed to Central American mothers and children seeking asylum being subject to arbitrary detention in a stated effort by the United States to deter asylum seekers from coming to the United States.[2]

Detention and deportation to deter people from seeking asylum from persecution (in direct contravention of this fundamental human right) is not the only tactic being used by the United States. The Los Angeles Times reports that “under U.S. pressure, Mexico for the first time in many years has launched a wide crackdown on the migrants. More than 60,000 have been deported this year, as many as half in recent months, the government says.” Also on the deterrence menu: increased train speeds.

While the United States’ deterrence strategies violate international law by abrogating the right to seek asylum, the European Union’s shift toward targeting the traffickers is little better. As commentator Kenan Malik writes, replacing the border security narrative with a narrative of criminality is not the answer:

The traffickers are certainly odious figures, recklessly placing migrants in peril.
But what pushes migrants into the hands of traffickers are the European Union’s
own policies. The bloc’s approach to immigration has been to treat it as a matter
not of human need, but of criminality. It has developed a three-pronged strategy
of militarizing border controls, criminalizing migration and outsourcing controls.”

What, then, is the answer? Perhaps an immigration policy that includes the words “ensure human dignity” is a start.

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

African Commission Urges Cameroon to End LGBTI Discrimination

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)

Last month, Cameroonian human rights defender Alice Nkom traveled to London with a plea: “I need everyone because right now, I am a little isolated. It’s on occasions like this that we must show we are one, united, universal in this fight.” Nkom, who is in her 70s and was the first woman admitted to the Cameroonian bar, is one of only two lawyers in Cameroon who represents people who are charged with violating the country’s law criminalizing same-sex conduct.

The Advocates for Human Rights has been working with Nkom and other human rights defenders to advance the rights of LGBTI persons in Cameroon.  And, in part because of this collaborative advocacy, Africa’s leading human rights body has joined the fight against LGBTI discrimination in Cameroon.

The Advocates and Cameroonian partners report on LGBTI discrimination in Cameroon

Jennifer and Alice NkomIn 2013, after meeting with Nkom in Douala, The Advocates for Human Rights partnered with Nkom’s organizations, the Association for the Defence of Homosexuals (ADEFHO) and the Network of Human Rights Defenders in Central Africa (REDHAC), along with the Cameroonian Foundation for AIDS (CAMFAIDS), to submit a 45-page report to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights for its periodic review of Cameroon’s human rights record. The report details violations of rights on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in Cameroon, demonstrating how the Government of Cameroon is violating its obligations under the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

African Commission responds, urging Cameroon to protect and promote tolerance of sexual minorities

African Commission on Human and People's RightsThe African Commission on Human and People’s Rights recently published its concluding observations from its review of Cameroon. The concluding observations draw on our report, making several references to persecution of sexual minorities. The African Commission identifies several areas of concern:

“The judicial harassment, offences against life and other violations of rights of human rights defenders, in particular the rights of defenders working in the area of sexual orientation;” and

“The discrimination, stigma and violation of the right to life and physical and mental integrity of individuals based on their sexual orientation.”

The African Commission urges Cameroonian authorities to “Take 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.”

LGBTI Cameroonians and their advocates continue to face pervasive violence and discrimination

As the African Commission’s concerns suggest, people in Cameroon face pervasive violence and discrimination based on actual and perceived sexual orientation and gender identity. Discrimination extends to human rights defenders like Nkom, who work on their behalf. Nkom describes conditions as “an anti-homosexual apartheid.”

Eric Ohena LembembeAs we highlighted in our report, in 2013 CAMFAIDS founder Eric Ohena Lembembe was discovered brutally murdered in his own apartment. Authorities have conducted a lackluster investigation into the circumstances of his death, and investigators have even attempted to intimidate his friends and family.

After Ohena Lembembe’s murder, threats against other human rights defenders escalated, with some anonymous messages simply saying, “You’re next.” “It has become more difficult; I must die, and I will,” observed Nkom. “Because many died for us to be free today—free to be a woman, to be a black woman, to do what I do. So we must continue.”

In 2014, Roger Jean-Claude Mdede died in his home village under troubling circumstances. Mbede had notoriously been convicted in 2011 for sending a man a text message saying “I’ve fallen in love with you.” Nkom and Michel Togué, the other Cameroonian lawyer who takes on these cases, secured Mbede’s release.

But Mbede faced serious health problems. And the notoriety of Mbede’s case meant escalating persecution; he was physically assaulted by four unknown men near the university where he studied. Local and international efforts to get Mbede out of Cameroon failed. Mbede returned to his village in ill health, and some people close to him say that his family thought he was cursed and held him in the village against his will until he died.

Nkom takes case to Cameroon’s Supreme Court

Nkom is taking Mbede’s case to the Supreme Court of Cameroon, challenging the constitutionality of the country’s prohibition on same-sex relations. The Constitution of Cameroon includes and incorporates the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which proclaims that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” The constitution further states that “duly approved and ratified treaties and international agreements,” including the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, shall “override national laws.”

When we first met with Nkom back in 2013, we discussed ways that The Advocates and its volunteers could collaborate on Mbede’s case and in placing pressure on Cameroonian authorities to respect the rights of LGBTI people. Our report to the African Commission was one such strategy. The African Commission’s call for Cameroonian authorities to take action to end persecution and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is a positive sign of change.  Now the the Supreme Court of Cameroon must pay careful attention to the African Commission’s words when it hears Mbede’s case.  At The Advocates for Human Rights, we will be watching closely.

Because, in the words of Alice Nkom, “[W]e are one, united, universal in this fight.”

Read more about the global movement for LGBTI rights:

African Commission to Consider Violence Perpetrated Because of Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity

“Look at the details of Eric Ohena Lembembe’s life and you will understand why he died.”

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back for LGBTI Rights in Africa

Recent Anti-LGBTI Laws Violate Human Rights

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

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

 Watch the short documentary Hate Unleashed, which follows Alice Nkom as she seeks to challenge the prosecutions, and provide some care and support to those who have been incarcerated.

Amy Bergquist is a staff attorney with The Advocates’ International Justice Program.

Volunteer Relishes First-hand Experience Working at U.N.

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A volunteer for human rights, or more accurately for The Advocates for Human Rights with whom I first became acquainted in the late 90’s when I joined The Advocates to conduct domestic violence training for NGOs from Moldova, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, and Armenia. Soon after, I teamed with The Advocates’ staff and an Armenian NGO to undertake careful fact-finding with the goal of assessing the status of the rights of Armenian women to be free from intimate violence. The recommendations from the report which resulted were used to increase services for survivors and to hold more offenders accountable in Yerevan and other communities in Armenia.

Today, more than 15 years later, I am sitting with a number of The Advocates’ staff and volunteers in the Serpentine Lounge in Building E, otherwise known as the home of the Human Rights Council in the United Nations Office in Geneva, Switzerland. The Serpentine Lounge is two floors below the formal major chamber where delegates from around the world sit in an orderly fashion, each taking their turn to deliver two-minute statements or sound bites to comment and vote on proposed resolutions on issues like food, sustainability, or listen to reports from special experts or rapporteurs on the status of a state’s record on various aspects of human rights as defined by a myriad of declarations and conventions.

In contrast, the Serpentine Lounge is a hub of activity against a mellow Geneva landscape. Delegates are in earnest conversations with each other and NGOs to learn from each other and no doubt try to persuade one other. Of the many opportunities I have had here over the week “working,” the Serpentine Lounge has been one of the most energizing.

Every four and one-half years, 16 countries are scheduled to appear for their Universal Periodic Review by the Human Rights Council. Given The Advocates’ special consultative status with the United Nations, we have the ability to meet with delegates who will be submitting comments on the status of the countries up for review this May. Building on the tremendous work already completed by The Advocates, my colleagues and I are meeting with delegates from literally every part of the world. I have met with delegates from countries as diverse as Finland and Paraguay who are interested in how effectively countries to be reviewed, such as Mongolia and Croatia, are with eradicating gender-based violence. We share our findings with the delegates, and in the instance of Croatia, our Croatian colleague, Valentina Andrasek, is here to offer her NGO’s first-hand experience helping battered women. The delegates are both surprised and discouraged to learn the way in which the Croatian criminal law is being implemented. In Croatia, more than 40 percent of domestic violence cases in which arrests are made result in dual arrests, with both the victim and the offender being arrested.

Not only do we share our recommendations and hand the delegates fact-filled one-pagers, we get the chance to learn about the values and politics of countries we may never visit. My mind has been going the proverbial mile-a-minute; I have learned so much about the complexities of the UN world—an alphabet soup of shorthand—where work really gets done. I have found my co-travelers as fascinating as the delegates with whom we have met. And as one of the few non-Minnesotans in The Advocates’ delegation, I have throughly enjoyed the Midwestern grace and calm that has infused our time together.

Thank you, The Advocates for Human Rights, NGO extraordinaire.

By: Joan Kuriansky, an attorney who has been involved in women’s rights throughout her career, has experience running local and national organizations that address a range of issues, including women’s economic empowerment and violence against women. Ms. Kuriansky recently traveled to the United Nations in Geneva with The Advocates for Human Rights and other volunteers.