The Minnesota Protocol: Creating Guidelines for Effective Investigations

Originally published on The Advocates PostMP Infographic Dashes Featured News

Back in the 1980s, a small group of Minnesota lawyers was concerned about the lack of accountability for the 1983 political assassination of Benigno Aquino in the Philippines and many other suspected unlawful deaths happening in the world. Effective investigation is key to establishing responsibility and holding perpetrators accountable, but no international standards existed at the time that required governments to initiate or carry out investigations of suspected unlawful deaths.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MP Infographic Website

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

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

Plans for the new version call for including the Minnesota Protocol in the official title.

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

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Activities for Human Rights Day 2015

hrd_english

This post was originally published on World Moms Blog. 

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!

My Daughter Drew Me This Picture

My 10-year-old daughter drew me this picture and slipped it into my briefcase as a surprise.

Sometimes it is children who have the  strongest sense of justice. How do we lose that as adults?

 I’m going to hang this picture in my office where I can see it every day –

a reminder to never give up!

News You May Have Missed (1 – 7 February 2015)

Here’s the weekly roundup of the human rights news items that I followed this week that I thought did not get enough attention.  

First, a little bit of good news from the United Nations. 

 The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has been collaborating with businesses and individuals to innovate better solutions to assist refugees.  The collaboration with IKEA to replace tents with flat-pack, solar-powered housing units is providing dramatically improved housing, particularly by providing safe and secure housing for women and children.  One long-term problem for UNHCR has been documentation of refugees, particularly since it involved writing things down on paper.  This week I read about a potential solution. Through a collaboration with UPS, UNHCR recently announced that it has been piloting UPS UNHCR ReliefLink a new system for storing and transmitting information about refugees based on the technology that UPS uses for tracking packages that holds huge potential.  Check out these and other innovation stories on the UNHCHR Innovation website.

Appeals judges at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former YUGOSLAVIA upheld genocide convictions of two senior Bosnian Serbs for their roles in the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, the first final judgment for genocide by the international tribunal.  Vujadin Popovic and Ljubisa Beara were high-ranking security officers with the Bosnian Serb army that overran Muslim forces and thinly armed U.N. troops in the Srebrenica enclave in July 1995 and subsequently murdered some 8,000 Muslim men and boys, Europe’s worst massacre since World War II.

In late 2013, the United Nations launched an initiative called Human Rights up Front to enhance the role of human rights in all of its work.  Through this initiative, there has been an increasing recognition that  human right violations as the first sign of conflict. This week, UN Deputy Secretary General Jan Eliasson gave a speech that very much reflects my own views on the integrated nature of development, conflict and human rights.

“There is no peace without development, and there is no development without peace, and none of the above without respect for human rights and the rule of law,” said  Eliasson.

Human rights abuses are often the early indicators of escalating conflict.  The international community usually has the information about what is happening, but is slow to respond.  So it is significant that the United Nations is acknowledging that the world should should learn from past mistakes and take preemptive action BEFORE mass atrocities take place.  I love this quote from Eliasson”

“We should act when we hear the vibrations on the ground.”

February 6 was the third annual International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation.   #endFGMFemale genital mutilation (FGM) comprises all procedures that involve altering or injuring the female genitalia for non-medical reasons.  It reflects deep-rooted inequality between the sexes and is recognized internationally as a violation of the human rights of girls and women. The UN estimates that more than 40 million girls and women alive today have undergone some form of FGM.  If current trends continue, more than 15 million girls will be cut by 2020; more than 86 million additional girls worldwide will be subjected to the practice by 2030. The UN states that, although this harmful traditional practice has persisted for over a thousand years, programmatic evidence suggests that FGM can end in one generation.

This year, the UN is focusing  is on health care workers.  Although the practice of FGM cannot be justified by medical reasons, in many countries it is executed more and more often by medical professionals. This constitutes ones of the greatest threats to the abandonment of the practice. 

Here is one good example:

(c)TARA TODRASS-WHITEHILL / REUTERS / LANDOV image retrieved from Aljazeera America
(c)TARA TODRASS-WHITEHILL / REUTERS / LANDOV image retrieved from Aljazeera America

For the first time ever, a court in EGYPT has sentenced a doctor to prison for the female genital mutilation (FGM) of a 13-year-old girl that resulted in her death.  Soheir al-Batea died in June 2013 after undergoing an FGM procedure carried out by Dr. Raslan Fadl.  A court in Mansour handed down not guilty verdicts for the doctor as well as the girl’s father for ordering the procedure in November 2014.  But Egypt’s Justice Ministry reportedly contacted the court to say it was “displeased with the judgment”, resulting in a retrial.  Fadl was sentenced at retrial to the maximum sentence of two years’ imprisonment; the father was sentence to three months’ house arrest. A ban on FGM has been in place since 2007 in Egypt,  yet this is the first time the law has been implemented. 

While FGM is most prevalent in Africa and the Middle East, it is also practiced in Asia, Latin America, Western Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand.  This week, a new report from the Population Reference Bureau came out discussing the potential risk of girls and women in the UNITED STATES for undergoing FGM.  In 2013, there were up to 507,000 U.S. women and girls who had undergone FGM or were at risk of the procedure, according to PRB’s preliminary data analysis. This figure is more than twice the number of women and girls estimated to be at risk in 2000 (228,000).

us-fgmc-map

And in the UNITED KINGDOM, the trial of a British doctor accused of performing female genital mutilation recently began in the United Kingdom’s first prosecution of an outlawed practice.  Dr. Dhanuson Dharmasena allegedly performed FGM in November 2012 on a 24-year-old woman soon after she gave birth to her first child at North London’s Whittington Hospital. The woman in the U.K. case, referred to as “AB” in court, reportedly underwent FGM as a 6-year-old in Somalia, when a section of her labia was sewn together, leaving only a small hole for menstrual blood and urine but too small for safely giving birth.  Defibulation, or re-opening the vagina, is commonly needed for FGM survivors about to give birth, and was required in AB’s case during delivery. But AB allegedly underwent re-infibulation, or sewing the labia together again after giving birth. The stitching or re-stitching together of the labia is an offense under section 1 of the United Kingdom’s Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003.

Other human rights news you may have missed this week: 

In THAILAND, more than a dozen government officials are facing prosecution on the charge of human trafficking.  According to Thailand’s junta officials, senior policemen and a navy officer are among the officials, who are detained and being prosecuted for human trafficking.  It is significant that government officials are being prosecuted as it shows the connection between corruption and human trafficking in Thailand, a country well known for it problems with trafficking.  

Single, mostly young women from CAMBODIA are increasingly being trafficked to CHINA as brides. China’s one-child policy has resulted in many more there are more single men than women, and as those men age, they seek marriageable women.  For years, traffickers met that demand with women from Vietnam. But Vietnam has recently tightened its marriage rules and waged an information campaign to combat the problem. For traffickers, Cambodia has emerged as an attractive alternative. With fewer regulations and no awareness among Cambodian women about the risks, business has been easy. The going rate for a foreign bride is between $10,000 and $15,000. 

A court in SPAIN has ruled that a deaf couple can adopt a baby who can hear, after they appealed against the decision by social services to only consider them for the adoption of a deaf child. In their review of the prospective parents’ suitability for adoption, social services said the parents were not “the best option” for a hearing child, as the child’s development would be affected. But in its ruling, the court established that the couple are indeed able to raise a child from a young age regardless of whether he or she is deaf or not, after considering research that shows how hearing children who also know sign language have greater-than-average visuospatial skills, and that “under no circumstances does learning sign language inhibit cognitive development”. Two Spanish organisations, CNSE and Fescan, which uphold the rights of deaf people welcomed “[the] landmark ruling, as it recognises the right of people with disabilities to form a family on an equal footing with other citizens,” and that “being a deaf mother or father does not hinder the education or happiness of a child, be they biological or adopted.”  

Finally, I’ve long been a believer in humor as a tool for human rights change.  So I very much enjoyed the #MugabeFalls viral memes this week.  When ZIMBABWE’s notorious authoritarian “President for Life” Robert Mugabe tripped during a public appearance, he wasn’t hurt but he denied he had fallen.   His security reportedly demanded that photographers delete the images of him falling.  Thanks to social media and the internet, it was already to late.  Internet users responded to the attempted censorship by posting parody pictures of Mugabe in different scenarios – including surfing and dancing – and by using the hashtag #MugabeFalls. The results were pure internet gold!

#mugabefalls

Humor – A powerful tool against dictatorships!  You can see many more hilarious examples in the articles below:

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/feb/05/mugabe-falls-comedy-memes-of-zimbabwes-president-viral

http://www.buzzfeed.com/hayesbrown/mugabe-got-me-straight-tripping#.smqYD2VMz

 

Human Rights Tools for a Changing World

Change the World front cover

Originally published on The Advocates Post

The Advocates for Human Rights’ Executive Director Robin Phillips is in London today speaking about The Advocates’ human rights monitoring work at the International Bar Association’s colloquium on “Rule of Law Fact-Finding by NGOs: Monitoring Standards and Maximising Impact”.

This international convening to explore the standards and impact of non-governmental organization (NGO) fact-finding on human rights violations is also an appropriate setting to introduce The Advocates’ latest publication:

        Human Rights Tools for a Changing World:  A Step-by-Step Guide to Human Rights Fact-finding, Documentation and Advocacy 

Human rights advocacy takes many forms, and human rights activists can be found in every corner of the world.  Human Rights Tools for a Changing World was created with the express purpose of providing advocates of all backgrounds and experiences a full range of tools and resources to promote human rights in a changing world.

This manual provides practical, step-by-step guidance for individuals and community groups who want to use human rights monitoring, documentation, and advocacy in their work to change policy and improve human rights conditions throughout the world. From framing an issue in terms of internationally recognized human rights standards to submitting a detailed complaint to an international human rights body, advocates can use this manual to plan and implement their work. The manual is designed to aid advocates undertaking a variety of activities—from the relatively simple to the more complex. With background information, key questions to consider, case examples, and practitioner’s tips, this manual provides tools to combat human rights abuses and change social institutions and structures to promote the full realization of human rights.

The practice-oriented sections help advocates to do the following:

  • Monitor: identify ongoing human rights abuses and collect the information advocates need about these issues;
  • Document: analyze, present that information, and make recommendations within the framework of international human rights standards;
  • Advocate: choose and implement a strategy to bring the lived reality closer to the ideals proclaimed by international human rights treaties, including through advocacy at international and regional human rights mechanisms;
  • Address Impunity and Accountability: identify strategies and legal mechanisms i for holding perpetrators and governments accountable for human rights violations; and
  • Build Capacity to Improve Human Rights: develop a better understanding of the international human rights system, identify strategies for applying a human rights framework, and develop competence in setting up and effectively running an organization in safety and security.

The Advocates for Human Rights  is uniquely qualified to present the human rights tools in this manual. Human Rights Tools for a Changing World is grounded in the The Advocates’ daily work in human rights fact-finding, documentation and advocacy.  For more than 30 years, The Advocates has adapted traditional human rights methodologies to conduct innovative research and generate human rights reports and educational trainings designed to bring laws, policies, and practice into compliance with international human rights standards. The Advocates has monitored human rights conditions and produced more than 75 reports documenting human rights practices in dozens of countries around the world on a wide range of human rights issues.

The contents of this manual were also shaped by the requests for assistance and guidance that The Advocates routinely receives from human rights defenders and others seeking to change human rights conditions in their communities throughout the world. Partnership on projects identified and led by local organizations is a powerful means to effectively implement human rights work in the field. At The Advocates, we view our constituencies as partners and form enduring working relationships with organizations and community groups in the U.S. and around the world.

The Advocates’ participatory model of working with in-country civil society organizations to document human rights abuses and coordinate advocacy for change has also demonstrated to us the critical importance of having access to a wide range of human rights tools.  Flexibility is key; there is no “one size fits all” human rights methodology.  Activists need a full menu of strategies and resources so they can choose the ones that will work best in each specific context. With the right tools, real human rights improvements are eminently possible.

We hope that that Human Rights Tools for a Changing World will benefit and be used by human rights defenders and civil society organizations throughout the world. Because every person matters.

Download your free copy at:  TheAdvocatesForHumanRights.org/Change

Individual chapters and appendices can also be downloaded individually.

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

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!