Serious Concerns About Lack of Access to Counsel for Asylum Seekers

Child from Honduras

U.S. Senator Al Franken has called on Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson to ensure access to counsel for asylum seekers held in family detention centers. Joined by 18 Senate colleagues, Sen. Franken raises serious concerns regarding reports that U.S. Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) is interfering with the ability of asylum-seeking mothers and children to access legal representation. Recently, individual volunteer attorneys, who had travelled to the privately-owned prison in Dilley, Texas where approximately 2000 Central American refugee women and children are detained,were barred from entering to provide  pro bono representation.

Access to counsel can be the difference between life and death for asylum seekers in the United States. Asylum seekers who have lawyers are more than three times as likely to be granted asylum as those who do not.  Having an attorney is “the single most important factor” affecting the outcome of the case. Yet individuals in immigration detention face the biggest challenge in obtaining legal representation.  The American Bar Association estimates that a whopping 84% of immigration detainees nationwide were unrepresented in their removal proceedings.

At the international level, The Advocates for Human Rights drew attention to the appalling lack of access to counsel for asylum seekers during the UN reviews for U.S. compliance with its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review, and the Convention Against Torture.  Most recently, The Advocates raised the continuing failure of the U.S. to recognize asylum seekers from Central America’s northern triangle in its statement to the UN Human Rights Council during a September 28 interactive dialogue on the impact of the world drug problem on the enjoyment of human rights:

As an NGO that provides free legal services to asylum seekers in the United States, we would particularly like to draw attention to an issue that we see on a daily basis: the impact that violent transnational criminal gangs in Central America, fueled by profits from the trade in illegal drugs, have on the lives Central Americans, forcing thousands of women and children to flee and seek safety in the U.S.

Transnational gangs extort, threaten, and forcibly recruit people living in strategic drug trafficking corridors. States in the region are ill-equipped to deal with crimes by these gangs, leaving victims unprotected from serious harm, including torture, disappearance, sexual violence, and murder. And the violence continues to grow, as gangs seek to solidify their control over valuable drug trafficking routes.

For example, gang members threatened to kill one of our clients, who I’ll call “Teresa”, after her family could no longer afford to pay protection money for the family business. Armed gang members abducted her, threw her into a truck, and took her to the leader’s house, where he beat and raped her. Left with no choice but to flee, she sought asylum in the U.S.

Yet the U.S. violates the fundamental rights of asylum seekers like Teresa by failing to recognize victims of transnational criminal gangs as refugees, even when such gangs operate as quasi-state actors that routinely torture, rape, and kill those who resist support or recruitment.

Asylum seekers face other violations, including arbitrary detention and prosecution for illegal entry. Mothers and their children are detained in difficult conditions pending preliminary credible fear determinations in two privately-owned prisons where attorneys have been denied access to clients and even summarily barred from the facilities.

The Advocates for Human Rights calls upon:

  • the Human Rights Council to include this issue in the discussion about the impact of the world drug problem on human rights;

  • the United Nations member States to ensure that their national drug policies consider the impact on the human rights of affected individuals and their countries; and

  • the U.S. to end family immigration detention and expedited removal procedures and to treat all asylum seekers in accordance with international standards.

See The Advocates’ volunteer Dr. Bill Lohman deliver the oral statement to the Human Rights Council:

In July, The Advocates launched a bilingual National Asylum Help Line to connect families released from U.S. immigration detention centers like the one in Dilley with free legal services. Migrants are encouraged to call the Help Line at 612-746-4674 to receive basic legal screening, information about the legal process, and referrals to agencies in areas in which they live.

By Michele Garnett MacKenzie, The Advocates for Human Rights’ Director of Advocacy, and Deputy Director Jennifer Prestholdt

Originally published at theadvocatespost.org on October 29, 2015.

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News You May Have Missed (8-14 February 2015)

A weekly roundup of the human rights news items that I’m following that I think deserve some more attention.

Image: http://treechangedolls.tumblr.com/
Image: http://treechangedolls.tumblr.com/
SONIA SINGH, a mom in TASMANIA, has been buying Bratz dolls at secondhand shops and giving them “makeunders” with beautiful results.  She calls them “Tree Change Dolls because “These lil fashion dolls have opted for a “tree change”, swapping high-maintenance glitz ‘n’ glamour for down-to-earth style.” Sonia finds dolls at secondhand stores (“tip shops”, repaints their faces, restyles their hair, and gives them new feet. Her mum makes them new clothes.  You can see her creations on her website Tree Change Dolls.  Tree Change Dolls went viral this week and her new etsy shop was sold out immediately. Watch the video of Sonia describing her process here.

NEPAL could become the first Asian country to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples if the government accepts the recommendations of a committee that studied the issue. Nepal’s Supreme Court ruled in December 2007 that the country’s new government must provide legal protections to LGBT Nepalese citizens and amend laws that discriminated against them. In 2008, the same court ordered the creation committee to study the possibility of same-sex marriage in the Asian country.  It may be a while before Nepal’s government is able to take action (they have been trying to adopt a new constitution for more than six years) but most see this as a promising step and credit it to the advocacy efforts of the Blue Diamond Society organization.

Former military chiefs and politicians implicated in the deaths of thousands through Operation Condor will finally face justice in ITALY. After decades of impunity, those responsible for the wave of political violence that swept Latin America under the dictatorships of 1970s and 1980s will be tried in court this week in Rome, Italy. Thirty-three people have been formally charged for their links to the operation, which left 50,000 people dead, 30,000 disappeared, and 400,000 jailed. Among those killed were 23 Italian citizens, which is why Italy’s justice system is now ruling on the case, opened in 1999.

 

A gathering to promote the rights of girls and education for all in Barrod village of Rajasthan’s Alwar district. Photo: UN Women/Gaganjit Singh ChandokA gathering to promote the rights of girls and education for all in Barrod village of Rajasthan’s Alwar district. Photo: UN Women/Gaganjit Singh Chandok

A new UNITED Nations human rights report analyzing the problem of attacks against girls trying to access education found that schools in at least 70 different countries were attacked in between 2009 and 2014, with many attacks specifically targeting girls, parents and teachers advocating for gender equality in education. “The educational rights of girls and women are often targeted due to the fact that they represent a challenge to existing gender and age-based systems of oppression.”

 MENG LIM took the bench as superior court judge for the Tallapoosa judicial circuit, becoming the first Asian American elected as superior court judge in GEORGIA, UNITED STATES.  Lim escaped atrocities in his homeland of CAMBODIA as a child and overcame challenges of being refugee in rural Georgia to become a successful lawyer and judge.

The Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) celebrated WORLD RADIO DAY  on February 13 to highlight the main role this media plays in the whole American hemisphere as a vehicle for freedom of expression and information, and as a source of information for the peoples and the communities.

In the UNITED STATES, February is Black History Month.  While I believe that Black History IS American History, this annual observance of the contributions of African-Americans to our nation always provides an opportunity for me to learn more about people and events in our past.  Here are some of the things I have learned so far this month:

On June 30, 1974, ALBERTA WILLIAMS KING was was shot and killed while she was playing the organ at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia.  She was the mother of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., so the story of her assassination has been overshadowed by her son’s legacy.  Read more about Alberta Williams King here.

ELLA FITZGERALD, one of our nation’s greatest jazz icons, was confined as an orphaned teenager for more than a year in a reformatory called the New York State Training School for Girls.  She and the other girls were treated harshly; “she had been held in the basement of one of the cottages once and all but tortured”.  While there was an excellent music program and choir at the institution, Ella Fitzgerald was not allowed to sing in it – the choir was all white.  Read more about this chapter of Ella Fitzgerald’s life here and here.

 

Image from: http://mic.com/articles/109642/historic-poc-is-the-powerful-illustration-of-black-history-month-everyone-needs-to-see
Image from: http://mic.com/articles/109642/historic-poc-is-the-powerful-illustration-of-black-history-month-everyone-needs-to-see

MIKKI KENDALL started  a new crowdsourced project to prove that people of color are part of history.  She created the hashtag #HistoricPOC and turned to social media.  “I encouraged fellow users to post pictures of people of color (POC) throughout history. Whether they posted family photos or links to famous images, I wanted there to be an easily accessible visual historic record.”  People began posting family photos, photos of  heroes, photos of events – the resulting tapestry of personal narratives is both beautiful and inspirational.  #HistoricPOC shows the interconnected reality of our history that everyone needs to see.  I hope it endures well beyond this February!   Read more about #HistoricPOC here and here.

 

News You May Have Missed (17-23 January)

A student at the Hamar Jajab School in Mogadishu holds a peace-themed comic book for children produced by UNSOM during the commemoration of Somalia’s ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child on 20 January 2015. UN Photo/Ilyas Ahmed
A student at the Hamar Jajab School in Mogadishu holds a peace-themed comic book for children produced by UNSOM during the commemoration of Somalia’s ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child on 20 January 2015. UN Photo/Ilyas Ahmed

There was some good news about human rights around the world this week.  

SOMALIA has become the 195th state party to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). A ceremony was held to mark the ratification at a local school in the Somali capital of Mogadishu.  In agreeing to be bound by the treaty, the government of Somalia is obligating itself to take steps to improve the lives of its youngest citizens.   The CRC is the most widely ratified human rights treaty in existence.  Once Somalia’s ratification is officially deposited with the UN, the United States and South Sudan will be the only countries in the world that have not yet ratified the CRC.  (The US has signed but not ratified the CRC and South Sudan – the world’s newest country, established in 2011 – has taken no action on the CRC yet.  If you are wondering why the US hasn’t ratified the CRC, you can read more here.)

In SAUDI ARABIA, the public flogging of blogger Raif Badawi has been postponed for a second consecutive week.  As I previously reported, Raif Badawi, founder of Free Saudi Liberals blog, was brought to a public square in Jeddahon on January 9 and flogged 50 times before hundreds of spectators – the first of 20 weeks of punishment with 50 lashes.  Protests and vigils have been held in public places and outside Saudi embassies across the world, keeping up the momentum after a medical committee said last week that he should not undergo a second round of 50 lashes on health grounds.  There is widespread belief that the postponements are not based solely on medical assessments, but also reflect increasing pressure on the Saudi government from the international community.  

In GUATEMALA,  a former police chief has been sentenced to 40 years in prison for his role in the 1980 deadly raid on the Spanish embassy in Guatemala City. A group of indigenous rights activists had occupied the embassy to draw attention to government repression during Guatemala’s civil war. (According to United Nations estimates, almost a quarter of a million people, mostly indigenous and rural, were killed or forcibly disappeared during the 36-year-long conflict.) Thirty-seven people burned to death in a fire triggered by the police when they stormed the embassy; Vicente Menchu, the father of indigenous rights activist and Noble Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu, was one of those killed in the fire.  Pedro Garcia Arredondo was found guilty this week of ordering officers to keep anyone from leaving the building as it burned. Indigenous rights activists and relatives of the victims, who have been waiting more than 3 decades for justice, celebrated a sentencing.

Indigenous activists and relatives of the victims welcomed the sentence. Photo (c) REUTERS
Indigenous activists and relatives of the victims welcomed the sentence. Photo (c) REUTERS

U.N. peacekeepers in the CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC have arrested Rodrigue Ngaibona, (known as Andilo), a senior leader of the anti-balaka militia, wanted for crimes including murder, rebellion, rape and looting.  In 2013,  the mostly Muslim Seleka rebels seized power in the majority Christian CAR.  Their brief rule spawned a backlash from the Christian and animist anti-balaka militia.  The U.N. has documented that the anti-balaka used ethnic cleansing in their attacks on the Muslim minority, and reported that “Andilo is currently the most enigmatic, feared and powerful military commander of the anti-balaka.”  Andilo could potentially be tried at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, which is investigating the violence in Central African Republic.

One piece of negative human rights news that has not received much mainstream media attention:  BAHRAIN sentenced Nabeel Rajab, one of the highest-profile democracy campaigners in the Arab world, to six months in jail on Tuesday over remarks critical of the government.  The founder of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, Rajab took a leading role in Shi’ite-led demonstrations in Bahrain in 2011 that demanded reforms in the Sunni-ruled Gulf Arab Kingdom.  

I noted a couple of items of good news on LGBT rights this week:

  1. In CHILE, the House of Representatives on Tuesday approved a bill that would allow same-sex couples to enter into civil unions.  The bill passed by a wide margin with 86-23 vote with two abstentions. The Chilean Senate last October advanced the measure, known by the Spanish acronym AVP that roughly translates into “life partner agreement” in English. –President Michelle Bachelet has said she will sign the civil unions bill into law.
  2. In the UNITED STATES, President Obama made history by using the terms “lesbian”, “transgender” and “bisexual” for the first time in a State of the Union address. President Obama was the second US president to use the word “gay” (somewhat generically) in the 2010 State of the Union address; President Clinton was the first.

Finally, I read an inspiring story this week about teens in BANGLADESH called “Golden Girls” who are volunteering their time to ensure that Bangladeshi women have access to maternal health care.  Bangladesh has been working to reduce maternal mortality by training government female health workers as highly skilled birth attendants, but only 27 percent of pregnant women have access to these birth attendants. To fill the gap, the Community Health Foundation, a nonprofit based in Dhaka, educates nearly 300 girls in grades 9 to 12 about pregnancy and childbirth and then links them to pregnant women in their community through the government birth attendants.  

The Golden Girl Project volunteers help increase awareness among pregnant women and facilitate access to skilled birth attendants, bringing down maternal mortality risks.  Their efforts are proving critical in a country where 7,000 women die of pregnancy-related causes every year. For example, when a woman in her village went into labor in the middle of the night her panicked family turned to 14-year-old Khatun, a grade 10 student who lived nearby and was able to arrange for the community’s skilled birth attendant to come in time, saving the lives of the mother and newborn. In addition to their training in reproductive and sexual health, the Golden Girls themselves also commit to completing high school and campaigning to end early marriage and delaying motherhood. Volunteers’ parents consent to the training and affirm their daughters will not be married before graduation. This contributes to reducing dropouts as well as early marriage. You can read more about the Golden Girls here

I’ll close with a powerful advertisement from AUSTRALIA called “The Invisible Discriminator” which reminds us that subtle or ‘casual’ racism can be just as harmful as more overt forms. #StopThinkRespect encourages everyone in Australia to check their behaviour.

Human Rights News You May Have Missed (10 – 16 January)

 Participants march towards Mnazi Mmoja grounds during Tanzania Albino Day celebrations in Dar es Salaam.  Photo Credit: Voice of America
Participants march towards Mnazi Mmoja grounds during Tanzania Albino Day celebrations in Dar es Salaam. Photo Credit: Voice of America

A roundup of some of the human rights news stories (both good and bad) that I am following this week.

TANZANIA declared a ban on witchcraft in an effort to halt deadly attacks on albinos. The move follows mounting pressure on the government to protect albinos, who lack pigment in their skin and hair, and whose body parts are used by witch doctors in so-called magic potions thought to bring power and wealth.  The U.N. human rights agency says more than 70 people with albinism have been killed for body parts in Tanzania since 2000. Minister for Home Affairs Mathias Chikawe said on January 13 that the government has formed a task force that will investigate killings and review court cases for accused attackers, some of whom have gone free. Ernest Kimayo, chairman of the Tanzania Albino Society, welcomed the government’s actions, saying it will improve life for his community.

Also in TANZANIA, some 800 school girls returned home on Monday, January 12 after escaping female genital mutilation (FGM) by spending three months hiding in safe houses.  FGM is traditionally carried out on girls between October and December. Run by charities and church organisations, the shelters offer protection (including police protection at some) to ensure the girls remain safe. FGM was outlawed in Tanzania in 1998 and carries a punishment of up to 15 years in prison, but is still regularly carried out, especially in northern and central regions of Tanzania.http://allafrica.com/stories/201501050530.html

CANADA:  The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) issued a report on the disappearances and murders of indigenous women in British Columbia, finding it part of a “broader pattern” of violence and discrimination against aboriginal women   Aboriginal women are significantly over-represented as victims of homicide in Canada; The Royal Canadian Mounted Police has reported that about 1,200 aboriginal women and girls were murdered or went missing in Canada between 1980 and 2012.) The IACHR called on the Canadian government to institute a national inquiry into the issue and to develop a coordinated national response that addresses the root causes of the violence, including Canada’s history of colonization, inequality and economic and social marginalization.)

 fierce winter storm swept through the Middle East this week bringing icy temperatures, high winds and heavy snow. In Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, more than 400,000 refugees have been enduring freezing conditions since snow levels not seen in many years arrived. Photo ©UNHCR/A.McConnell. Retrieved from UNHCR.org.
A fierce winter storm swept through the Middle East this week bringing icy temperatures, high winds and heavy snow. In Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, more than 400,000 refugees have been enduring freezing conditions since snow levels not seen in many years arrived. Photo ©UNHCR/A.McConnell. Retrieved from UNHCR.org.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees issued its Mid-Year Trends 2014 report on global formed displacement in first six months of 2014.  Armed conflicts displaced an estimated 5.5 million people, with 1.4 million of those fleeing to other countries, says a report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Syrians have become the largest group of displaced people within UNHCR’s mandate, overtaking Afghans who held that position for three decades. 

NIGERIA:  International coverage of the tremendous human rights tragedy in Baga, Nigeria has finally picked up, but there has been less coverage of Boko Haram’s use of children as suicide bombers. The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has expressed concern about what it called “escalating violence against children in northern Nigeria.”  The statement came after two explosions ripped through a market in northeastern Nigeria Sunday killing at least five people, including the two bombers. Twenty-one others were wounded.   The attacks were said to be carried out by two young girls. Sunday’s explosions came after a bomb strapped to a girl exploded in Maiduguri killing at least 19 people.  “We are seeing a new trend of using girls and women, and now of children, as suicide bombers. This is something that is new to this conflict. So, this trend is very worrying to us because this is something that is very difficult to find [a] solution to.”

CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC:  A spokesman for the Ugandan army announced that on January 14 Lord’s Resistance Army rebel commander Dominic Ongwen was handed over to Ugandan troops that are part of an African Union force in the Central African Republic.  He will be flown to The Hague to stand trial at the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity.   He was indicted by the ICC almost a decade ago, but only surrendered  last week and was taken into the custody of US special forces.   One issue that is sure to come up during the ICC trial: Ongwen is the only one among the five LRA indictees who was abducted as a child and forcibly conscripted into the LRA.

TAJIKISTAN:  Prominent human rights lawyer Shukhrat Kudratov was sentenced on January 13, 2015, to nine years in prison following what Human Rights Watch describes as a “politically motivated trial” that struck a blow to freedom of expression and the independence of the legal profession in Tajikistan.  A court in Dushanbe found Kudratov, who is also deputy head of the opposition Social Democratic party, guilty on criminal charges of fraud and bribery. Kudratov is known for taking on politically sensitive cases, including representing victims of police torture and those accused of “religious extremism.”

EGYPT:  The acquittal in Egypt on January 12, 2015, of 26 men accused of “practicing debauchery” is a rare success in protecting the rights to privacy and nondiscrimination against LGBTI persons. The men were arrested at a hammam or bathhouse in Cairo on December 7, 2014.  Government prosecutors have appealed the decision, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), a nongovernmental group, reported, but authorities released all 26 men. It is the first time since 2011 that a trial court is known to have handed down a total acquittal in a “debauchery” case. Rights activists say 2014 was the worst year in a decade for Egypt’s gay community, with at least 150 men arrested or put on trial.    Because there are no laws criminalizing homosexuality in Egypt, a decades’ old law criminalizing prostitution is often used in penalizing the gay community. The trial opened unusually quickly – only two weeks after the raid on the bathhouse — amidst biased media coverage that “convicted the defendants before they even set foot in court”.

Jorge Sánchez, son of the missing journalist Moisés Sánchez Cerezo demands his father’s release outside the municipal building of Medellín de Bravo, Veracruz, Mexico. Photograph: IMG Veracruz/Demotix/Corbis.  Retrieved from TheGuardian.com
Jorge Sánchez, son of the missing journalist Moisés Sánchez Cerezo demands his father’s release outside the municipal building of Medellín de Bravo, Veracruz, Mexico. Photograph: IMG Veracruz/Demotix/Corbis. Retrieved from TheGuardian.com

MEXICO: State prosecutors have detained the town of Medellín de Bravo’s entire police force following the disappearance of journalist Moisés Sánchez Cerezo in Mexico’s southern state of Veracruz.    A group of nine armed men took Sánchez from his home earlier this month along with his computer, camera and telephones.  Sánchez publishes a local weekly La Union where he wrote about local government corruption and violent deaths, as well as publishing citizen complaints. Some of his journalism was aimed at Medellín de Bravo’s mayor, Omar Cruz.   Thirty-six members of the  police department were brought in to give statements in the investigation. 

In other news related to Mexico‘s serious problem with local corruption and disappearances and extrajudicial killing, the Mexican attorney general’s office this week obtained arrest warrants for kidnapping against the former mayor José Luis Abarca and 44 others implicated in the case of 43 students who went missing in September 2014 after being attacked by municipal police allegedly working with a local drug cartel.

GERMANY:  Dresden police have launched a murder investigation into the death of Eritrean refugee Khaled Idris Bahray.  On Tuesday morning, Bahray was found stabbed to death in an inner courtyard at the housing complex where he lived.  According to his flatmates, he had left the flat late the night before to go out to a shop but never returned.  Dresden has been making headlines recently for its anti-immigrant rallies, which, on the night of Bahray’s death, attracted a record number of 25,000 supporters. Tensions in the city have been high in the 12 weeks since the rallies began, with a reported increase in racist attacks. While the motive for Bahray’s killing and the identity of his killer remain unknown, a Swastiska was found daubed on the 2nd floor flat where Bahray lived with 7 other Eritrean refugees just three days before he was killed. It was accompanied by the threat, “We’ll get you all”.

CAMBODIA: Self-exiled Cambodian-American dissident Serey Ratha was sentenced in absentia yesterday at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court to seven years’ imprisonment and fined 25 million riel ($6,250) under the charges of treason, obstructing electoral procedures in 2013 and inciting to overthrow Cambodia’s government related to a Facebook post prior to the 2013 election. Three other men (Serey Bunlong, Sen Someng and Oum Phirum) were each sentenced to six years in prison and fined 5 million riel ($1,230) for treason and obstructing electoral procedures after they reportedly distributed T-shirts with slogans admonishing citizens to abstain from voting in the last national election.

Finally, some brilliant teenagers in the UNITED STATES inspired me this week with their spoken word poem Somewhere In America. 

That’s it for this week.  Please feel free to add other human rights news in the comments.

As always, feedback on this new weekly feature is appreciated!

Human Rights News You May Have Missed (1 – 9 January, 2015)

Mahdu Bai Kinner, India's first openly transgender mayor, was elected on January 4
Mahdu Bai Kinner, India’s first openly transgender mayor, was elected on January 4. Photo (c) M. Krishnan retrieved from starobserver.com.au

It probably won’t surprise you one bit that there is a lot of human rights news that is not covered by the US and other Western media.  Or sometimes it IS covered, but given only a few lines or buried so deep that you can’t help but miss it.  Because of my job as a human rights lawyer, I follow multiple international media outlets and subscribe to numerous listserves.  It is frustrating to me that human rights crises can go on for weeks or months before anyone in the mainstream media takes notice.

I have a couple of thoughts about this. Obviously, there have been changes in US media over the past decade that have resulted in decimated coverage of pretty much all news coverage.  But I also I don’t think that as many people care about celebrity gossip as much as the media appears to think that we do.  In addition, I strongly believe that the first step towards change is knowledge.  But without information, how can we know what is happening in other parts of the world?  If people who actually care about human rights do not know about human rights abuses as they occur, how can we have empathy with the people whose lives are impacted?  How can we take action? How can we work together across borders to make real change?

Based on these theories, when I taught International Human Rights Law I gave my students a weekly assignment to watch the news for human rights stories.  I challenged them to look for things they might have missed before.  I asked them to look for one news item on an international issue, one on a national issue, and one on a local issue.  At least one of these news items had to be good news.

So I’m going to try something new in 2015. I’m going to try to do a roundup each week of some of the things that happened that did not get the coverage that I think they deserved.  I realize that some of you may find this exercise somewhat depressing, but I will be looking for GOOD human rights news as well as bad.  Believe me, while it often doesn’t feel like it on a macro level, there is indeed progress happening on human rights all over the world.  You just need to look for it.

The Human Rights News You May Have Missed weekly roundup is definitely not intended to be exhaustive. It is simply a summary of some of the news items that I followed this week that I thought did not get enough attention, along with links so that you can read more.  Please feel free to add a link to a news item that I missed in the comments section.

So here we go!  Here are a few news items that should have received more attention during the first week or so of January 2015:

Policemen hold a photo of one of the victims of a car bomb attack outside the police college in Sanaa January 7, 2015. (c) REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah
Policemen hold a photo of one of the victims of a car bomb attack outside the police college in Sanaa January 7, 2015. (c) REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

In an apparent attack by Islamic militants in Yemen, a mini-bus full of explosives was rammed into recruits outside a police academy in the heart of Yemen’s capital of Sanaa on Wednesday, killing at least 37 people and injuring more than 66.  It was the second bombing in Yemen to cause multiple casualties in a week, following a suicide attack that killed 26 people at a cultural centre in Ibb city.  Violence has soared in Yemen since Shiite rebels, known as Houthis, captured Sanaa and other cities last year.  “Tribal leaders and Yemeni officials have said the rising power of the Houthis, their advance into Sunni areas and the backlash over drone strikes has caused al-Qaida to surge in strength and find new recruits.”

There was definitely also good news this week. Here are a few stories about some of the positive developments that you may have missed:

Today – January 11 – is National Human Trafficking Awareness Day in the United States. Human trafficking is a criminal enterprise, a multi-billion dollar industry where perpetrators profit from the control and exploitation of others. The International Labour Organization estimates that there are 21 million victims of human trafficking worldwide. Find out what you can do to raise awareness about the issue and help victims of human trafficking find the support they need to reclaim their lives here.  

Location of potential human trafficking cases reported to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (2007-2012)
Location of potential human trafficking cases reported to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (2007-2012) Find out more here.

I hope you found something to interest and/or inspire you.   Please do let me know what you think about this new feature on The Human Rights Warrior blog.  See you next week!

End Child Labor: An Estimated 215 Million Children Still Need Alternatives

September:  Interviewing students at the Sankhu-Palubari Community School in Nepal
September: Interviewing students at the Sankhu-Palubari Community School in Nepal

What do you say to a child who has experienced child labor? I found myself in this position in Nepal recently. I was interviewing a teenager, who I will call Shree.  He described how as a little boy he had worked with his parents in the brick factories of Bhaktapur, rising at 1 a.m. to carry mud and mix bricks. Luckily, when he was 7, a school opened in in his community to provide Shree and other children at risk of child labor a free education, as well as the chance for a childhood and a promising future.

The Sankhu-Palubari Community School (SPCS) was launched in 1999 by The Advocates for Human Rights, a nonprofit organization based in the Twin Cities, to provide an alternative to child labor. Now, 14 years later, about 350 students are enrolled in grades pre-K through 10 at the school, which is located about an hour from the capital city of Kathmandu. Many of the students are from families that are low-caste, indigenous, or other marginalized groups.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that 215 million girls and boys around the world are swept up into child labor, some into human trafficking. Children, like Shree, are engaged in work that not only deprives them of their rights and an adequate education, but also is hazardous to their health and commits them to a life of poverty.

The ILO launched the first World Day Against Child Labour in 2002 to highlight the plight of these children. Observed on June 12, the day works as a catalyst for the growing worldwide movement against child labor.

When in his final year at Sankhu-Palubari, Shree, one of the best students in the area, passed his 10th grade School Leaving Certificate exam with distinction. When I met him recently, he was in his his last year of high school.  He likes to write poetry and listen to music. In the afternoons, he volunteers at SPCS, the school that changed the course of his life and where his two younger brothers now study instead of working in the brick factories. He helps the teachers in the classroom and encourages the students to study hard. When they get discouraged, he tells them, “Choose the road that makes your future very bright.”

The bright future Shree envisions for himself is to continue his education after high school and become a math and science teacher to work in rural Nepal with children who, without a school and teachers, would most likely work instead of learn.

So, what do you say to the young girl beading blouses with tiny fingers in a suffocating textile sweatshop in India? What do you say to the little boy in Gambia working in an auto-repair garage or selling items on the street? What do you say to the young girl who is working as a petite bonne (domestic servant) in Morocco?  To the child  sold into human trafficking?

Through his deeds and goals, Shree is telling these children that he is working to break this cycle of abuse.

For you and me, I say that we speak with a loud, unified voice today and proclaim, “We are committed to protecting you, the world’s children, by ending child labor.”

Then, we put our words into action.

Originally published in MinnPost on June 12, 2013.

Marriage Equality, Through the Eyes of a 10-Year-Old

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With the Supreme Court hearing arguments in two cases related to same-sex marriage, much has been written – and said and thought – this week about marriage equality in the United States. No matter how these particular nine justices rule (and there is speculation that, unlike the Warren Court which in 1967 issued a sweeping ruling on the unconstitutionality of state bans on interracial marriage, this court might actually punt), I am convinced that it is only a matter of time before same-sex marriage is a recognized as a right in this country.

This week, I re-read Hockey Moms, a post I wrote last summer about my 10-year-old son and his discussions with his hockey team about marriage equality. It was a lesson to me at the time about the importance of engaging people in the conversation about same-sex marriage. In re-reading it, however, I am struck by how much forward movement there has been in just the past six months. Not only was the proposed amendment (which would have defined marriage as between one man and one woman in the Minnesota state constitution) that Simon was lobbying against defeated last November, but it was defeated handily. In fact, it went down in flames. Even my 98 year-old grandmother voted NO! In a huge reversal, this year there is a real chance that our Minnesota state legislature will pass legislation legalizing same-sex marriage. The number of states with same-sex marriage jumped on election day in November when three states – Maryland, Maine and Washington – legalized same-sex marriage through popular vote. Recently, it seems like politicians have been “coming out” in favor of marriage equality on a daily basis.

The momentum in favor of same-sex marriage appears to be increasingly rapidly and there are signs that the trend will not be reversed. I asked my 13-year-old what he thought about the recent ABC/Washington Post poll that found that 81% of Americans aged 18-29 supported legal same-sex marriage, he said, “Well ,that makes sense. Although I am disappointed in the 20%. At my school, there are only two kids who oppose same-sex marriage.” They didn’t poll Americans under the age of 18, but anecdotally at least, support for marriage equality may be even higher among his peer group.

My kids are part of a generation which, although it doesn’t have an official name yet, is already saying, “Of course same-sex marriage should be legal. Why was this even an issue?” They have grown up with favorite teachers, beloved camp counselors, trusted neighbors, friends and classmates who are openly LGBT. They go to school and church with kids from families with parents who are in same-sex relationships, some but not all legally sanctioned by state law. Men kissing men, men kissing women, women kissing women – my kids don’t care. Frankly, it is disgusting to them when ANY adults kiss!

I’m sharing an excerpt from Hockey Moms to illustrate my kids’ perspective on marriage equality, a peek into the future.

***

My 10-year-old son comes out of the ice arena, swaggering despite the heavy hockey bag that he carries like a giant backpack. His hockey stick and water bottle he wields before him like a rod and staff. I’m sitting on a picnic table in the sun and, yes, I am facebooking on my iPhone. His cheeks are flushed, his bright ginger hair is damp-dark with sweat. He has an announcement to make.

“I’ve got everyone but one kid on my team to be in favor of same-sex marriage.

AND two of the coaches.”

He beams at me. I can feel my jaw as it drops.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a terrible hockey mom. I hate almost everything about the sport. I’ve got two sons who play, so I did put a decent amount of effort into learning the basic rules and terminology. My biggest problem is that I grew up in the Deep South, so my natural impulse when winter strikes is to hibernate. The whole concept of driving (in the cold) to sit (in the cold) to watch a sport played (on ice, in the cold) boggles my mind.

Going inside to watch hockey on a cold winter day is one thing. Going inside to watch hockey on a beautiful summer day is completely inconceivable to me. But here in Minnesota, hockey is a year round sport. Serious players play AAA from March to September and, unlike the regular season, players are not required to play where they live. There are kids on my 10-year-old’s team from throughout the Twin Cities Metro and even some kids who travel here for the weekend practices and tournaments from as far away as Florida and Texas.

But my two sons are way, way into hockey. They LOVE this sport! I respect that, so I suck it up and wash their stinky gear and drive them to the rink.

Until last winter, I went into the locker room when I took my boys to hockey – even though I have been banned from years from tying their skates because I (quote, unquote) “don’t do it right.” When my oldest son moved up to PeeWees, however, there was an unfortunate incident. I burst into the locker room, my 6-year-old daughter (wearing a pink jacket and sparkle ballet flats) in tow, only to find a gaggle of 12 year-olds in their underwear listening to loud music and talking trash. “Mom!” my son hissed. “I’m good.”

Given my locker room banishment, I was completely floored to hear that the hockey team was having a discussion about same-sex marriage while putting on their pads and breezers. Here is the story, from the perspective of my 10 year old: “One kid brought it up. He said it was gross, a man with a man or a woman with a woman.” So I said,

“ARE YOU CRAZY? That’s their choice who they love. It doesn’t affect you. Why does it matter to you? No one can tell you who to love.”

That launched the discussion which later led to the purported locker room conversions. It is a timely discussion in Minnesota, where there is a proposed constitutional amendment on the November ballot: “Shall the Minnesota Constitution be amended to provide that only a union of one man and one woman shall be valid or recognized as marriage in Minnesota?” VOTE NO signs have sprouted throughout our neighborhood; they line the roads on the way to the hockey rink.

Simon had been late getting to practice (my fault – more evidence for the Worst Hockey Mom title). A coach came in to hurry along the stragglers and Simon asked, “You’re voting NO on the marriage amendment, right?” “I don’t know yet,” he admitted. Simon laid out his arguments again, to which the coach responded, “You make a good point. I think I probably will vote No. Now get out on the ice.”

My son can be like a dog with a bone, so he brought it up again at the next practice. This time he was on time, so when he brought it up in the locker room, everyone on the team was there. One kid, a player who Simon describes as a “tough guy” got really upset when the other kid described same-sex marriage as “gross”. He stood up, half his gear on, and said,

“That’s my family you are talking about! I have two moms and they are married. It hurts my feelings when you say that my family is gross!”

Well, that sure got the team’s attention. According to Simon, he was too emotional to say much more but Simon was able to pick up where he left off.

See? He’s got two moms. So what? Why should his family be treated any differently than yours?

***

The US Supreme Court justices, who appear to be gnashing their teeth about the appropriate timing of a ruling on marriage equality, could benefit from the point of view of my 10 year-old.

People are just people; we are all equal. People love each other and benefit from loving, committed relationships.

We should all be able to marry who we love. Families should all be treated the same.

Marriage equality, through the eyes of a 10-year-old, is just not complicated.

Love

As the United States Supreme Court considers cases related marriage equality, you can read more – including the Top 100 Marriage Equality Blogs – here.