The Human Rights Warrior

"There is some good in this world…and it's worth fighting for."


Swayambhunath: Nepal’s Monkey Temple

Swayambhunath Temple

The stupa at Swayambhunath seemed aglow on the rainy afternoon that I visited in September 2012.

Located at the top of a hill overlooking the city of Kathmandu, Swayambhunath (स्वयम्भूनाथ स्तुप) is among the oldest and most important religious sites in Nepal. The Swayambhunath complex consists of a domed stupa and a variety of shrines and temples that date back to the 5th century.  Each temple is extremely ornate and richly decorated with gold.  The complex also includes a Tibetan monastery, museum, library, and hostels for religious pilgrims.

Prayer flags flutter in the breeze, while prayer wheels in graduated sizes turn almost silently as pilgrims circle the stupa in prayer.


This sacred pilgrimage site is also known as the Monkey Temple because it is home to HUNDREDS (maybe thousands!) of monkeys. According to legend, Manjushree, the bodhisattva of wisdom, was in the process of raising the temple hill when he let his short hair grow out and he got lice.  The lice in his hair transformed into these monkeys.

Looking down on Kathmandu, Nepla

Although it is primarily an important Buddhist site, Swayambhunath (which means “Self-Created” or “Self-Arisen”) is also considered important to Hindus.  To get to the main site of Swaymbhunath, you have to climb a looooong stairway – 365 steps!  Pratap Malla, the powerful Hindu king of Kathmandu, was responsible for the construction of this eastern stairway in the 17th century

It is definitely worth the climb, however.  Swayambhunath is perhaps the oldest Buddhist monument and well worth the trip!

This post is a response to the Weekly Photo Challenge: Monument.




Weekly Photo Challenge: Street Life


Street scene in a town near Yaounde in Cameroon

For more responses to the Weekly Photo Challenge: Street Life, click here.



Get Ready For International Happiness Day!


Happiness in Nepal

Wondering why there are so many videos of people singing Pharrell Williams’   “Happy”  going viral this week?  Here’s the answer:

March 20 is the second annual International Day of Happiness!

The United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution in 2012 recognizing March 20 as a day to acknowledge that “the pursuit of happiness is a fundamental human goal” and recognize “the need for a more inclusive, equitable and balanced approach to economic growth that promotes sustainable development, poverty eradication, happiness and the well-being of all peoples”. This year, the United Nations Foundation and Pharrell Williams are teaming up to encourage people to support the United Nations’ efforts  to create a happier world for people everywhere.

Some people are already asking why in the world we need a day to celebrate happiness.  What could an international day and a celebrity singing an upbeat song possibly do to make an impact on serious global problems?

Personally, however, I am looking forward to International Happiness Day.  The way I see it, we already have more than enough aspects of our human nature to divide us.  When people focus on what makes us different – our religion, our ethnicity, our skin color -  it  often leads to violence and conflict. Lives are shattered in big ways and small.  But every human has a very basic need, not to mention a strong desire, for something very simple.  We all want to be happy. We all want to see that our children and the others who who we care about have the opportunity that they deserve to be happy.

Our human capacity to feel happiness is a basic characteristic that we all share, regardless of our differences. 

In my line of work, I deal with a lot of human unhappiness.  So I think about these things all the time.  You would expect that it would make me cynical about people in general  - and particularly about something like an international day of happiness, complete with a celebrity  and an upbeat hit song.

But I strongly believe that our human capacity for happiness is a strength, and one that should be nurtured and celebrated in the midst of all that is dark and dangerous and painful in our world.

I took the photo above the last time I was in Nepal.  I keep it as my screensaver to remind me every day of the simple fact that we humans all have the potential to experience intense joy.  It makes me believe that our human capacity for happiness must one day trump our human proclivity to hurt each one another.  And this photo reminds me every day that everyone – every single person, regardless of who they are or where they live in world – should have the opportunity to feel happiness in the way that these kids in Nepal were so clearly feeling it.

International Happy Day is also a call to action.  It is a reminder that there is more that each of us can do to ensure that everyone is able to live their lives to their fullest human potential  in safety, dignity, freedom, and equality.   For all of us, these are the basic human prerequisites to happiness.  We need to keep moving towards the concept that none of us can be truly happy, until all of us have an equally fair shot at being happy.

There are a few things in this world that are truly global: One of them is that people want to be happy. Thursday, March 20 is the International Day of Happiness, and the United Nations Foundation and Grammy Award-winning musician Pharrell Williams have teamed up to encourage people to take action to support the UN and to create a happier world for people everywhere. – See more at:
hursday, March 20 is the International Day of Happiness, and the United Nations Foundation and Grammy Award-winning musician Pharrell Williams have teamed up to encourage people to take action to support the UN and to create a happier world for people everywhere. – See more at:

So go ahead and celebrate International Happiness Day.  In the United States, you don’t even have to wait until March 20.  Thanks to the international time difference, #Happy Day starts in just a few hours.   (And #HappyDay is already going strong on Twitter!) You can catch it all on the website 24 Hours of   Since March 10, people around the world have been posting YouTube videos of themselves “demonstrating their happiness” to Pharrell William’s track with the hashtag #HAPPYDAY and submitting it to the website.   On March 20th, Pharrell will spotlight the best submissions at noon in each time zone.

Here is the first one – from New Zealand!

See additional ways to participate here.   And whatever else you do on March 20, be sure to have a

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Paving Pathways for Justice & Accountability: New Tools for Diaspora Communities

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This post originally appeared on The Advocates Post.

Human rights advocacy takes many forms, and human rights activists can be found in every corner of the world.  Tremendous advancements in technology and communication have allowed activists to form strong international networks and to share emerging information about human rights abuses almost as soon as they happen.  These advancements have fundamentally changed the way human rights organizations work, including how they engage in human rights advocacy with broader communities beyond a country’s borders.

Yet the unique role diaspora communities can play in improving human rights around the world has largely been overlooked in the human rights field. It’s time for that to change.  

Diaspora: The Migration Policy Institute defines the term “diaspora” as “emigrants and their descendants who live outside the country of their birth or ancestry . . . yet still maintain . . . ties to their countries of origin.”

Members of diaspora communities play an increasingly important global role and can be a bridge between individuals, governments, and international legal and political mechanisms.  Diaspora communities are a critical link in changing social institutions and structures to hold governments accountable.   Many migrants – refugees and asylum seekers in particular – leave their homes because of human rights abuses.  Many were political and human rights activists in their home countries and they bring their experiences with them.  In some countries with repressive governments, security concerns mean that diasporans must take the lead in speaking out.  From their new home base, they can bring change in their countries of origin.

Members of diaspora communities agree.  Chanravy Proeung, a member of the Cambodian diaspora and Co-Director of the Providence Youth Student Movement, said:

“We have the privilege to see those countries from a different perspective. We need to have the people who are the most marginalized and affected by issues at the forefront of creating change not only here in the United States, but having influence in their countries of origin, too.”

For more than 30 years, The Advocates for Human Rights has witnessed the powerful role that diaspora civil society organizations play in documenting human rights abuses, influencing policy, and advocating on behalf of victims of human rights violations in their countries of origin.

As a legal service provider, The Advocates is often the first connection that asylum seekers have to their new community in the United States.  Because of this special relationship, diasporans from dozens of countries have requested assistance from The Advocates in documenting human rights violations “back home.”  With diaspora communities, The Advocates has conducted groundbreaking work, such as the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission Diaspora Project, ensuring that public hearing testimony and the statements of 1,200 Liberians living outside of Liberia were included in the formal history of the conflict.

The report,  Human Rights in Ethiopia: Through the Eyes of the Oromo Diasporaproved the significance of involving individuals who have left a country in work to hold governments accountable and affect human rights in their home countries.  The Advocates has also collaborated with the Indian American Muslim Council on advocacy on issues concerning religious minorities at the both the U.S. Congress and the United Nations, demonstrating that diaspora voices can have an impact on human rights in India.

The Advocates recently completed a two-year project to identify needs and create tools to help tap the underexplored resources of diaspora involvement in human rights.  The result is a groundbreaking resource called Paving Pathways for Justice & Accountability: Human Rights Tools for Diaspora Communities.


This manual, available for download at no cost, provides a full menu strategies and resources designed to empower diaspora communities to be more effective advocates for human rights in their countries of origin.

With practical tools and step-by-step guidance shaped by input from multiple diaspora communities, Paving Pathways can be used to help individuals and organizations to:

  • monitor and document human rights abuses;
  • advocate for change in their country of origin and country of residence, as well as at international and regional human rights mechanisms;
  • address impunity and hold governments accountable using national and international law; and
  • build their capacity to improve human rights conditions.

While the tools and resources presented in this manual were specifically created for use by diaspora communities, this manual can also benefit and be used by human rights defenders and civil society organizations throughout the world.

The international community needs to do more to recognize the unique contributions that diaspora communities can make to building respect for human rights around the world.  Rather than treating diasporans solely as economic sources of remittances,  investment, and philanthropy, countries of origin and countries of residence should  facilitate engagement in long-term social change.  With this new resource, The Advocates is taking an important step in supporting diaspora communities in their efforts to improve human rights around the world.

Download your free copy at:  

Individual chapters can also be downloaded for free.

Don’t know where to start?Quick Reference Guide cropped

Use our Quick Reference Guide!


[1] International Organization for Migration and Migration Policy Institute, Developing a Roadmap for Engaging Diasporas in Development (Washington DC and Geneva: IOM and MPI, 2012), 15. Also available online at

By:  Jennifer Prestholdt, Deputy Director and Director of  the International Justice Program at The Advocates for Human Rights



Inside the Apostle Islands Ice Caves


My oldest son went on a school trip a few weeks ago.  The main purpose was to participate in the Barnebirkie, the children’s version of the largest cross-country ski race in North America.  It takes place in northern Wisconsin every February.   This is the twentieth year that the school has done this trip with middle grade students, so they have become experts at making it an enriching experience.  In addition to skiing in the race with more than 1,000 other kids, they spend some time doing joint educational programming at the local middle school (this year, there was some kind of amazing science theme) and have a traditional meal with a Native American tribe.  They also somehow fit swimming at the local community center into the packed agenda.

A week before the trip, a note came home in my son’s backpack that there would be a slight alternation to the schedule.  The group would be able to visit the ice caves on Lake Superior’s Apostle Islands.  For those not familiar with the Upper Midwest, the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in northern Wisconsin is a true gem of a national park.   There are 21 islands, windswept beaches, rocky cliffs, and lighthouses.  In the summer, you can hike the 12 miles of lakeshore wilderness and paddle or boat around the islands. You can even camp on 18 of the islands, which are only accessible by water.    You can even explore by kayak the  amazing sea caves at the western end of the mainland part of the park.

In winter, the sea caves become ice caves.  And in extremely cold winters, when Lake Superior freezes over, the national park service allows people to walk out over the ice and experience the ice caves from the inside.


As I have never been to the Apostle Island ice caves, I was excited that my son had this opportunity to visit them.   It has been five years since the ice caves were last open to the public.  One of the impacts of climate change has been that Lake Superior hasn’t been frozen enough to make access possible.   Since the ice caves opened to the public on January 15, more than 125,000 people have made the two mile roundtrip trek over frozen Lake Superior to experience the  ice caves.

My son sent took these pictures of his visit and texted them to me.


It’s an odd feeling – usually I’m the one who is traveling and sending the pictures back home to the rest of the family. But I really appreciated his willingness to share the experience of being inside the Apostle Islands ice caves with me.


With warmer weather, the ice is degrading and it is becoming unsafe to be on the lake.   The National Park Service plans to close the Apostle Island ice caves to the public by 12:01 am on Monday, March 17.



With special thanks to my son Sevrin for the photos!

For more responses to the Weekly Photo Challenge: Inside, click here.


International Women’s Day 2014


I have a complicated relationship with International Women’s Day (IWD).  On the one hand, it vexes me greatly that we have only one day a year – designated by the United Nations General Assembly in 1977 as March 8 – to celebrate the many contributions of women around the world.  On the other hand, we still need to focus attention on the fact that women, who make up half of the world’s population, still face almost incomprehensible inequality in societies throughout the world.  Not just inequality, but inexcusable pain and violence.

One in three women in the world still experience violence (including rape and marital rape, spousal abuse, and child abuse) in their lifetime.  The numbers are closer to one in four in the West – numbers that are still shockingly high.

Even before birth, preference for male children leads to feticide and infanticide in many parts of the world. Millions of girls and women around the world face obstacles to education, access to health, freedom of choice in marriage and divorce, land ownership and political participation. Even in the West, women continue to face inequality, including professional obstacles.

The UN theme for IWD 2014 is “equality for women is progress for all”.  And there is no question that that statement is true.  As UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a statement for IWD 2014:

“Countries with more gender equality have better economic growth. Companies with more women leaders perform better. Peace agreements that include women are more durable. Parliaments with more women enact more legislation on key social issues such as health, education, anti-discrimination and child support. The evidence is clear: equality for women means progress for all.”

IWD means different things to different people around the world.  For some, it is a day to celebrate the strength of personal relationships with mothers, grandmothers, daughters and friends.  Some choose to celebrate the overall contributions of women; in 2014, I noticed a particular interest in celebrating the “bad ass” women in our collective history (which I do applaud).  For others, it is the opportunity to highlight all that still remains to be done.

For me, IWD is all these things.  It is also about wanting a world where my daughter and my sons are treated equally without thought or legal requirement.  It is about teaching them that this is what they – both boys and girl – should expect in their future. But it is also about celebrating the strong community of women that has brought us this far.

I took this photo of a painting that hung in the stairwell of a hotel I stayed in last year in Yaounde.  It was dark in the stairwell, but I paused every time I passed it.  The painting appeared original, but there was no name given to it.  No artist was listed.   But for me, it captures the spirit of International Women’s Day.  We still have a ways to go, but we are together in this effort.  We learn from each other and we support each other.  Here is my perspective on International Women’s Day 2014:

It may take us time, but when women work together, nothing can stop us.



Abandoned Buildings in Post-Conflict West Africa

hotel africaHotel Africa in Virginia, Liberia

The Hotel Africa, built in a beach resort area north of Monrovia, was once a 5-star grand hotel.  It was built to impress  as the location of the 1979  Organisation of African Unity  summit.  (The pool was made in the shape of the African continent.)  Just a few months after the Hotel Africa hosted the OAU, however,  Liberia’s President William R. Tolbert, Jr. was overthrown by  Samuel Doe.  From 1979 to 2003, Liberia was engulfed in violent conflict too complicated to detail here.

Stories about the historic Hotel Africa abound; many of them parallel the violence that was happening in the country at large.  For example, the hotel’s owner  was kidnapped in 1990 by the rebel Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia. They allegedly murdered him by throwing him off the fourth floor balcony.

By the time I visited the Hotel Africa in 2008, it had been bombed, burned, and stripped bare of everything that could possibly have a value.


burned building Sierra LeoneKono District, Sierra Leone

This is a photo of the remains of a building in the Kono district that was burned by the rebel Revolutionary United Front during the conflict in Sierra Leone. I’ve heard so many personal stories of escape and of loss that I assume this was once the private home of a family with means.  But it could just as easily have been a government building.

The conflict in Sierra Leone left so many destroyed buildings. Not to mention lives.

gas stationMonrovia, Liberia

In Monrovia, buildings destroyed in the conflict loom gloomily as people go about the process of rebuilding their lives in the midst of the rubble. This photo was taken at a gas station.  Like many resourceful Liberians, they were also selling “pure and safe drinking water”.  But the thing I like about this photo is this – if you look closely at the larger building above, you can see laundry hanging out to dry. Life springs up inexorably, like blades of grass in the spring.

In post-conflict West Africa, the abandoned buildings hold more than just memories.

Weekly Photo Challenge:  Abandoned

Weekly Writing Challenge: Threes


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