Archive for Human Rights Accountability

Roma Communities in the EU Continue to Lack Access to Equal Education Opportunities

By Claudia Kania, guest blogger from Reavis high school

The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) released a statement in 2000 that acknowledged “the place of the Roma communities among those most disadvantaged and most subject to discrimination in the contemporary world.” Such socially and institutionally-accepted xenophobia is perhaps most clearly epitomized by the European school system. Although academic institutions are often portrayed as “the great equalizers,” a system founded on the principles of ignorance and prejudice frequently separates Roma, one of the largest minority groups in Europe, from reaping the benefits of education.

The right to education is universally established as a fundamental guiding principle within international human rights discourse. It is recognized as a human right by Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as Articles 28, 29, and 40 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. To further contextualize the premise of academic equity, UNESCO put forth the 1960 Convention against Discrimination in Education, an international legislative framework adopted to promote “the ideal of equality of educational opportunity without regard to race, sex or any distinctions, economic or social.” This convention recognizes education as not only a right in and of itself, but also as an intrinsic vehicle in realizing other rights. It is an instrument vital in securing a life free of financial hardship, disenfranchisement and social exclusion.

A report released in 2016 detailed the true scope of the expulsion of Roma communities to the fringes of European society. For example, while approximately 17 percent of EU citizens are at risk of poverty, that number is more than four times higher for Romani individuals. In the month prior to the study, only about 30 percent of Romani households received paid work. The Office for National Statistics further revealed that out of 60,000 individuals who identified as Roma, 60 percent had no formal schooling. Moreover, Roma individuals are often the victims of hate crimes and police brutality.  

Interior of container school for Roma children in Slovakia // Amnesty International

Segregation remains one of the primary obstacles standing between Roma pupils and equal education opportunities. Although prejudice is sometimes blatantly propagated by biased media and political campaigns, such instances present a gateway to other less conspicuous modes of discrimination. For instance, lower expectations for Roma students subsequently led to higher dropout rates within their communities, which substantially decreases the prospects of secondary and tertiary education for Roma individuals. This, in turn, translates to higher unemployment rates and hinders the participation of Roma in the democratic process. Thus, the cycle continues.

A 2015 report by Amnesty International illustrates discriminatory placement of Romani students in remote classes separating students from their non-Roma peers. A UNICEF report, specifically noting a 2002 case in Hungary, states that, in general, all-Roma classrooms typically lack fundamental resources otherwise available to students not of the Roma ethnicity, including experienced teachers and up-to-date curricula. More recently, the European Commission specifically targeted discrimination within Hungarian schools. Although EU member states are expected to abide by equal education frameworks, legal directives such as the Racial Equality Directive and the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights oftentimes have little impact on institutionalized forms of ethnic discrimination.

In 2012, The Slovakian Regional Court condemned the segregation of Roma in its schools. Although the ruling sent a message to the Slovakian Ministry of Education regarding the country’s international obligations to provide impartial access to education, it did little to prevent ethnic-based segregation. Not only do schools continue to run all-Roma classes, but Slovakian Roma pupils are faced with the prospect of being sent to “container schools,” schools made from material resembling shipping containers, and isolated from the rest of Slovak society. When the guardians of Roma students attempt to enroll their children in non-container schools, their pleas are refused by school board officials who argue that their schools do not have the capacity to accommodate Roma pupils. The “convenient” construction of substandard learning institutions within close geographic proximity to Roma settlements is nothing other than an arm of ethnic discrimination and social exclusion, as noted by Amnesty International.

The European Roma community also faces another kind of widespread segregation: Roma pupils are frequently placed in learning disability schools, regardless of scholastic comprehension. A 2013 ruling by the European Court of Human Rights remarked that Hungary’s systematic misdiagnosis of learning disabilities violated the European Convention on Human Rights. In addition, a 2012 report by the Roma Education Fund highlights the prejudicial nature of such entrance level examinations, which focus specifically on cultural and linguistic biases.

A young student // Daniel Mihailescu/Getty

Cases of outright denial to enroll Romani children to academic institutions continue to remain prominent. The mayors of several French municipalities, for example, refused to enroll Roma children in public schools on the basis of their lack of certification. Certification, however, is not easily achieved by Roma parents, as informal settlements are almost never recognized by government officials. As identity documents remain largely inaccessible to Roma individuals, most families remain stateless. Thus, admission, in most cases, is granted only after the intervention of the French Ombudsmen. A recent article by the New York Times highlights the bureaucratic obstacles Roma students face when attempting to gain access to French schools. The country has made headlines due to the forced evacuation of hundreds of Roma families.

Former Columbia Law professor Jack Greenberg linked the Roma battle for equal education to the American Civil Rights Movement. Both groups have experienced the harrowing realities of slavery, societal disenfranchisement, and discrimination, propagated in part by stereotyping in a biased media. Schools today segregate non-Roma students from their Roma peers, providing the latter with substandard educational resources. The case of Horváth and Kiss v. Hungary bears a striking resemblance to Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. Although both rely on the concept of strategic litigation, the successful implementation of anti-discriminatory education policy is currently a far reach for contemporary Europe. It will require not only the willingness of policymakers, but also the active mobilization of Roma civil society.

Locally, individual schools should engage in active redistricting in order to achieve ethnic diversity within academic institutions, as well as incorporate Romani culture into standing curricula to promote diversity and ethnic tolerance. It is well within the means of any school within the EU to guarantee an environment based on social inclusion and academic equity. Likewise, it is crucial that international bodies, such as the European Commission and European Union,  apply political pressure on national governments to uphold international and national legislative standards of equality. The implementation of such standards and their effects on academic institutions should be monitored by national bodies, benefiting from the interests of both grassroot NGOs and international donors.

Claudia Kania is a contributing researcher for the University of Cambridge Centre for Governance and Human Rights research project, “ICTs and Human Rights,” as well as featured writer for the Oxford Human Rights Hub. Her research interests include minority rights, women’s rights, and education policy. 

“Not Just a Slogan:” An Interview with Tibi Galis, Executive Director of the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation, on Genocide Prevention

By Michelle Eberhard, graduate student of human rights at Columbia University

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Established in 2007, the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation is dedicated to the creation of an international genocide prevention network.  To fulfill its mission, the Institute has developed several education programs, most notably its Raphael Lemkin Seminar, as well as a genocide prevention network in Latin America in 2012.  Following the signing of an agreement with the African Union in February 2013, the Institute will soon be developing a similar network amongst African countries.  Below is an interview with Executive Director of the Auschwitz Institute, Tibi Galis.

 

Michelle Eberhard: How did you become interested in working in genocide prevention?

Tibi Galis: I grew up in a transition country, in Romania, so it was very interesting to experience in person the impact political change can have on society, and that is why I started being rather passionate about transition studies.  There was a very easy path from transition studies to transitional justice, which became my area of research, and from there to dealing with genocide prevention. This is very much about trying to undo the circumstances that have led to the problems that transitional justice tries to deal with.  It was both an academic and activist journey to getting to working in genocide prevention.

 

M.E.: What is the biggest challenge for an organization like the Auschwitz Institute in carrying out its mission?

T.G.: Probably the biggest challenge would be what all not-for-profits struggle with, which is the fact that we have to dedicate a lot of our work to securing the funds we need to do the work that we do. At the same time, though, it’s very surprising how the issues that people traditionally think of as challenging have not been so [difficult] in our work. Working with governments is traditionally depicted as being a very difficult process, and our experience is that there is so much interest within governments to make this issue a more effective part of their work that they are very cooperative and very [willing to] work together.

 

M.E.: In February, the Auschwitz Institute signed an agreement with the African Union to establish the African Network for Genocide and Mass Atrocity Prevention.  In light of the current continental conflicts, including those in Syria and Mali, what do you see as being the greatest obstacles for effective implementation of the initiatives outlined in this agreement?

T.G.: The international climate of conflict, and focusing on ongoing conflicts, can be very obstructive to a continent-wide initiative focusing on prevention.  We’ve seen this a lot, especially in governmental attitudes towards longer-term policies that focus on prevention as opposed to crisis management. Of course, for natural reasons, crisis management is prioritized, and the Auschwitz Institute wants countries to prioritize crisis management. At the same time, that prioritization sometimes translates into giving up on preventive policies altogether, which this program wants to make sure is not an acceptable position for its participating governments.  The greatest challenge, I believe, will be to make sure that governments understand the need for longer-term policies oriented specifically towards prevention.

 

M.E.: What is your response to individuals who say that it is impossible to prevent genocide, or who think the only way to prevent such atrocities is through military intervention?

T.G.: The response I usually offer is that genocide prevention needs to be understood not as an action, but as a process, like any other political, long-term process.  Genocide can be prevented, and we have the proof of that within societies that function and do not break down into spaces for permanent war between groups. Genocide prevention is indeed creating the environment for groups to be able to manage their political differences within an established framework. […]  Military intervention is crisis management – sometimes military intervention can play a role in preventing further atrocities, but we at the Auschwitz Institute focus on the many, many peaceful ways of engaging societies to prevent genocide, and those methods are actually a lot more successful.

 

M.E.: How have the Auschwitz Institute’s programs, particularly the Raphael Lemkin Seminar for Genocide Prevention, been successful in their mission of preventing genocide?

T.G.: What we have found is that the institutions that have been engaged with the Raphael Lemkin Seminar and with the Auschwitz Institute for a long period [of time], have actually managed to pull through and establish changes in the way they work that resulted from the knowledge imparted through the Seminar and through subsequent collaboration. Many of our participant institutions have refocused their policies to include more group-related policies [and] more assessments of risk-related situations [for minority groups] in their society, and we think that contributed to reshaping policy in those countries, towards the groups that are at risk.

 

M.E. Human rights work, and specifically work done in the realm of atrocity prevention, can oftentimes be frustrating and complicated, given the need to work with various individuals and organizations from all levels and affiliations (i.e., government, NGOs, civil society).  In spite of this, how do you remain committed to your objectives, and pursue them in a meaningful and positive way?

T.G.: It’s actually not that difficult to engage the actors that are relevant for these issues. What is difficult is to make sure that that engagement is substantive, and that requires drawing on lots of other kinds of work that is connected to research [and the] analysis of existing policies. We are very lucky at the Institute [in regards to] the readiness of NGO, academic, and research communities to share their experience with us and with our governmental partners. Again, the surprise is that both governments and civil society are very ready to work on this.

 

M.E.: Considering everything the Auschwitz Institute has contributed to the field of genocide prevention, which of its accomplishments are you most proud?

T.G.: I think what we are most proud of at the Auschwitz Institute are really our contributions to the existing trend of establishing national mechanisms for genocide prevention, similar to the Atrocities Prevention Board in the United States, the national commissions for genocide prevention in different African countries, [and] national mechanisms of genocide prevention in different Latin American countries. I think the [national-level policies] of genocide prevention is one of the big steps that humanity has taken to make “never again” a reality, and not just a slogan.

 

M.E.: What advice do you have for graduate students interested in working in human rights upon the completion of their degree?

T.G.: I would encourage human rights graduate students to be very conscious, even before the completion of their degree, that they need to engage with different organizations in order to be able to work in this field. […]  Actually getting engaged with different topics and different organizations before you graduate – through internships, through focusing your research on them, through basic socializing with an organization by attending their events – helps the chance of entering the field later on, and entering the field from a good position: one where you have realistic expectations related to the field. But beyond that, my advice is to just keep doing what you’re already doing, because once somebody makes the choice [to study] human rights and issues related to them, you are already on a great, rewarding path.

 

Michelle is a MA candidate in Human Rights Studies at Columbia University. Michelle is concentrating in genocide studies, and she worked as a communications intern with the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation.

Obama in Burma: Rewarding Cosmetic Changes?

By Hal Levy, undergraduate student at Columbia University

The White House moved with uncharacteristic speed to announce a surprising foreign policy initiative two days after President Obama’s reelection.  He was going to Burma and it was happening right now, less than two weeks after the votes were counted, and because he decided that everything would happen so quickly it was far too late to haggle over his itinerary, which by the way was already in place.  “Why scrutinize this?” was the implicit message to human rights activists, “because we don’t want your input this time.”

However, this landmark engagement with the current Burmese regime warrants scrutiny and at the very least revision if it is to go forward.  Burma is finally opening to Western investment, but Obama must not abandon America’s responsibility to protect potential Burmese workers in favor of geopolitical games and economic opportunity.  Fraudulent elections held in 2010 transferred power to a mixture of civilians and military-appointed candidates in name only, while President Thein Sein and the military establishment retained near-total control of the country.  The concern that has been reluctantly expressed by activists – including a silenced Daw Aung San Suu Kyi – is that Obama’s visit is really a cynical approach to ending successful sanctions merely in exchange for recent reforms in Burma that may be cosmetic and temporary.  While dialogue is generally good in any situation, a visit from Obama (and on the heels of the high-profile visit from Secretary Clinton in December 2011) is a rebuke to the international human rights community, and one that has startled even more “realist” domestic observers.

It is true that reformers in the Burmese government have fought military hardliners to break Burma’s long isolation from the West, and are certainly due for increased international backing.  However, the U.S. has so far managed to provide appropriately escalating support with the appointment of a new ambassador and fewer trade restrictions.  A visit from the President is a great deal stronger than the current framework of “action for action” and risks delivering a message to the Burmese government that it is safe to stop their welcome but incremental progress on reform.

Will this be seen as rewarding a democratic transition, or the mere start of a client state relationship?  White House human rights advisor Samantha Power wrote the day after news of the trip broke that it will help the administration monitor “continued progress on the road to democracy.”  Despite this, Human Rights Watch “think[s] that the visit is premature,” with their puzzled Asia director Phil Robertson quoted in a Los Angeles Times article asking, “what’s actually the rush?”

Much less information about Burma filters out to the West than that of more prominent human rights violators, and so the U.S. government is privy to more details than the public.  And the idea of Burmese engagement as a credible demonstration of Western-supported democratization for North Korea is perhaps the most appealing aspect of the trip.  Yet for Obama, it is indisputably irresponsible to engage Thein Sein without making meaningful assurances on the part of the U.S. to protect human rights in Burma.

While time may prove otherwise, it appears Obama’s visit is not the beginning of massive civic change but rather presages a freeze on rights (a conciliatory amnesty declaration in advance of Obama’s visit was revised to exclude political prisoners) and the expansion of sweatshop labor for Burma’s massive underemployed population.  At a minimum, all statements that the White House releases about President Obama’s time in Burma should make clear that the minimum standards for Burma’s development do not begin at the current point, and that the end of U.S. sanction efforts are conditioned on the continuance of reforms.

Since Obama has inexorably set himself on the path to Burma, he should at least reverse the course of his discussions there and turn his trip into a push for justice.  Commerce and shared foreign policy interests are certainly valid topics for Obama and his Burmese counterparts to address, but there is room for human rights as well…be it the need for an independent judiciary, internet access sans censorship, or to give strength to recently escalated calls to prevent the ethnic cleansing of the Muslim Rohingya minority.

The President currently has a singular chance to control the timetable of U.S. investment in Burma.  In light of little domestic opposition, he should do this by sticking to the commitments he has publicly made to begin a fair trading relationship; what Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has repeatedly referred to as “democracy friendly, human rights friendly investments.”  Burma has no shortage of human rights indicators to tie to economic cooperation.  And even when Obama leaves, stringently enforced rights-aware trade will give the international community the continued leverage to ensure Burma’s democratic transition.  The U.S. can go a long way towards funding civil society and free association in Burma, even if done indirectly through conditional approval of local business operations.

To be sure, these are bold steps.  But if Obama is comfortable with making bold steps in regard to the sensitive subject of human rights in Burma, he might as well do it in full measure.  Transitional solutions should appeal to the Burmese military, foreign investors and the President alike as paths to true stability in Burma.  A military-civilian hybrid Burma will remain just another political actor, but a grateful democratic Burma can become a new U.S. ally in the region.  (I realize this argument has been used to justify disastrous misadventures over time and in America’s recent past. However, the will of the people as evidenced by the success of the National League for Democracy, the Burmese populace’s favorable opinion of the U.S., and perhaps even lessons learned in other nation-building follies may contribute to different circumstances in this case).

The White House’s own statement on Obama’s trip mentions the relative benefits of transparency and democracy.  President Obama has recognized Burma’s problems, but has he simultaneously excused them?  It is still quite possible that this much slower approach to human rights may succeed, but Obama has historically made a mockery out of human rights trade enforcement. It is up to President Obama to demonstrate America’s lasting commitment by making the solidification of Burmese civil society the primary focus of his trip, and not merely a hollow excuse for unfair and unsustainable trade.

 

Hal Levy is a junior at Columbia University majoring in human rights.  He is the Treasurer of Columbia University Students for Human Rights.

UN Negotiations Fail to Disarm Human Rights Abusers

By Amanda Barrow, M.A. candidate in Human Rights Studies at Columbia University

Which is more heavily regulated: the global trade of bananas or AK-47s?

In late June, activists led by Amnesty International (AI) highlighted a striking reality: there are more international regulations governing the export and import of bananas than there are on the trade of arms and ammunition. This is particularly problematic when considering the fact that the easy availability of weaponry—rather than, say, bananas—is what facilitates innumerable human rights abuses throughout the world. The indiscriminate transfer of arms undermines economic development, jeopardizes stability and security, and results in hundreds of thousands of deaths every year.

You need not look further than Syria, where repressive ruler President Assad has had his will enacted through the use of heavily armed, violent force. Describing Russia’s continued arms sales to Syria in the midst of this crisis, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations (UN) Susan Rice argued,“It is not technically a violation of international law since there’s not an arms embargo, but it’s reprehensible that arms would continue to flow to a regime that is using such horrific and disproportionate force against its own people.”

Source: Amnesty International

Of course, Ambassador Rice failed to address the fact that the United States is far from innocent when it comes to arming human rights abusers. Quite to the contrary, the United States is the world’s largest conventional arms exporter, guilty of continuously supplying weapons to brutal governments. Tracing the various violent crowd control methods used against the peaceful protesters of the Arab revolutions, a recent AI report demonstrated that the U.S., Russia, and a handful of European countries supplied the majority of the weapons—ranging from sniper rifles to armored vehicles—that were used to terrorize citizens.

This should all resonate as quite duplicitous. After all, the U.S. was ardently vocal in its support for the protesters promoting democracy. Yet, it was simultaneously supplying governments with the tools to suppress these voices. Like the United States, the United Kingdom also engages in arms sales rife with hypocrisy. In 2010, the government issued its annual human rights report identifying 26 “Countries of Concern.” However, in that same year, the UK approved arms exports to 16 of these countries, including Libya, Pakistan and Israel.

This is what the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) was intended to remedy. The AI-led campaign in June aimed to affect the outcome of the United Nations Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty, held throughout the month of July.  Since 2003, civil society activists have called for a legally binding ATT to regulate transfers of conventional weapons and put an end to those deemed irresponsible. They imagined a treaty that would require governments to assess whether or not the weapons they were selling would be used to violate international humanitarian law or to commit human rights abuses. Under this framework, Russia’s arm sales to Syria would be heavily scrutinized, if not forbidden.

The United States would also be forced to justify its decision to sell arms to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where its weapons are continuously used to perpetrate gross violations of human rights, including mass scale rapes. According to a UN investigation of an early January 2011 incident, at least 47 women were subjected to sexual violence in the North Kivu province; several reported that the military fired their weapons to intimidate them before raping them. Devastatingly, this is not an isolated, extraordinary incident. As is increasingly recognized in the international community, sexual violence is often employed against civilians during armed conflict, with conventional arms often facilitating these acts.

“Nonviolence,” sculpture by Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd, UN Plaza

Friday, July 27th marked the end of the United Nations’ unprecedented—and ultimately unfulfilled—opportunity to create an international Arms Trade Treaty. The 11-page treaty text, under which governments would agree not to export weapons that would be used to facilitate the commission of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and other crimes of international law, had to be unanimously approved. As a result of powerful opposition from countries like the United States, the conference ended in failure. The strength of the arms industry, the gun lobby, and the political calculations made by individuals who had the power to reduce human suffering are to blame for a truly disappointing outcome.

Yet, the UN has pledged to resume efforts to pass an arms trade treaty, and civil society organizations continue to work tirelessly to hold the body to its charter’s arms regulation promise. With the help of Amnesty International, individual citizens can take action by showing their governments that the outcome of July’s treaty negotiation conference was unacceptable. Until a new treaty is negotiated, bananas will be subject to more international regulation than the trade of military helicopters, battleships and conventional arms.

 

Amanda Barrow is a M.A. candidate in Human Rights Studies at Columbia University. She studies the intersection of gender and transitional justice.

Will new constitutional commitments improve respect for human rights in Kyrgyzstan?

Kyrgyzstan, a small mountainous country in Central Asia, is sandwiched between China, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. In the twenty years since independence from the Soviet Union, Kyrgyzstan has seen three regimes. The first post-Soviet President, Askar Akaev, was an early reformer but, after increasing corruption and authoritarianism, was ousted during the ‘Tulip Revolution’ in March 2005. His successor, Kurmanbek Bakiev, promised to rewrite the Constitution and undo the excesses of the Akaev era, but ultimately consolidated power and resources. Bakiev was overthrown in April 2010 (see pictures), setting in motion the first effort to create a parliamentary democracy in Central Asia.

crisis in Kyrgyzstan 2010

Researching the contributions of the Kyrgyz human rights community

In summer 2011 I was lucky enough to receive a Kathryn Davis fellowship to study Russian at Middlebury College and also to receive a Harriman Institute fellowship to conduct research in Kyrgyzstan in the late summer and early fall for my Master’s thesis. My research interest was to further understand the contributions of the Kyrgyz human rights community during the constitutional reform efforts of both 2005 and 2010.

In both 2005 and 2010 the human rights community was involved in rewriting the Constitutions to include better rights provisions and state commitments. In 2005, they regulated pretrial detention and abolished the death penalty. In 2010 they improved the rights to peaceful assembly and freedom of information, and added a new right on access to the international system, among other successes.

An essential motivation behind my research was to look beyond the improvements in constitutional rights provisions on paper to ask, has the new Constitution shifted the country’s identity toward a greater respect for human rights norms?

 

Increased rights commitments are positive, but applying the Constitution is key

The lead up to the constitutional referendum was not very encouraging. The June 27, 2010 referendum took place barely two weeks after inter-ethnic violence in southern Kyrgyzstan left over 400 people dead. Some government officials and NGO activists urged that the referendum be postponed, but the interim government had tied its legitimacy to the vote and rejected any delay.

Against the inauspicious lead up to the June 27 referendum, there have been signs that the international human rights norms incorporated into the new Constitution have found a tentative foothold in Kyrgyzstan.

One encouraging sign is the recent decision by the government to establish a national mechanism for implementation of international human rights decisions. Another example is Kyrgyzstan’s recent treaty accessions (see second optional protocol to the ICCPR and Disabilities Convention).

One prominent human rights lawyer I spoke to during my research said that even though improvements to the Constitution were positive, what was needed was to apply it directly in the courts. It becomes increasingly important that people make use of it and follow through when confronted with State resistance. A medical doctor and activist who was a constitutional council member in 2005 echoed this view. She also noted that being able to cite the Constitution for authority instead of referring to an international treaty almost always strengthened her advocacy work on mental health system reform and political corruption.

Backsliding is easy, maintaining pressure is vital

As activists decide to test the limits of the Constitution, they often meet resistance. For example, one of the key successes in 2010 was an improvement in the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and the removal of penalties for not notifying authorities ahead of a protest. The constitutional change is dampened by the current draft law that restricts the right and retains onerous notification requirements on organizers.

Protests in Kyrgyzstan ahead of presidential elections, October 2011

Just as rights groups remain focused on pressuring the government to revise the draft law to be more in line with the spirit of the new Constitution, they are hopeful that ongoing monitoring,  documentation, and advocacy on a host of issues will help lead to greater human rights protection and government accountability.

Though Kyrgyzstan’s political trajectory is still unclear, my thesis research has provided an initial window into the efforts by rights groups to try and match government rhetoric to state commitments. With every small success, they help create the conditions for a rights respecting regime.

By Matthew Kennis. Matthew currently works as the Guatemala Country Specialist for Amnesty International USA. He recently received an MA in Human Rights Studies from Columbia University. He was a Kathryn Davis Fellow (Middlebury College Davis School of Russian) and also received a PepsiCo Summer Research Fellowship from the Harriman Institute at Columbia University for field research in Kyrgyzstan.

The Human Rights Council and Libya: an historic precedent and missed opportunity

By Deborah Brown, former student at Barnard College

Late last year, with little fanfare, the UN General Assembly voted to reinstate Libya’s membership to the Human Rights Council (HRC). Libya was suspended from the body last winter amid the mass killings of protestors and other egregious human rights abuses perpetrated by Muammar Qaddhafi’s regime and credible threats of continued violence.

For human rights advocates interested in reforming and improving the HRC, the way in which Libya’s membership was restored represents a lost opportunity to build the credibility of the institution by creating stronger criteria for reinstating suspended members.

Credit: UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré

Geneva Human Rights Council

An unprecedented step

On March 1, 2011, the General Assembly unanimously took the bold step of suspending Libya’s membership from the Council for committing “gross and systemic violations of human rights.” This action was historic as it marked the first time that a member state was suspended from either the HRC or its predecessor, the Human Rights Commission, for violating human rights. It also helped to boost the credibility of the Council, which is often criticized for having countries with poor human rights records among its membership.

According to the resolution establishing the HRC, “members elected to the Council shall uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights [and] shall fully cooperate with the Council.” The problem is that these criteria are aspirational and are enforced only by the voting choices made by UN member states at the General Assembly, which are supposed to take into account the human rights records and voluntary pledges of candidates in annual elections.

The reality is that because the membership criteria are not enforceable, states often vote according to political considerations, which explains how Libya (not to mention China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia) was elected to the HRC in the first place.

Credit: UN Photo/Iason Foounten

Libya’s liberation

With the fall of the Qaddhafi regime in August, and the establishment of a transitional government formed by Libyan rebels, the General Assembly had to decide whether, and under what standard, to reinstate Libya’s HRC membership. Curiously enough, while the founding resolution provided guidelines on suspending an HRC member, — a two-thirds majority vote by the General Assembly when a Council member commits “gross and systemic violations of human rights”, — it did not provide any guidelines whatsoever for restoring membership.

Restoring rights in Libya?

Logically, to have one’s membership restored, a country should have to prove that it meets the initial criteria, i.e. that it is upholding the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights and fully cooperating with the Council. Implicitly, this means that it should also be able to demonstrate that it is no longer committing gross and systemic human rights violations.

In the test case of Libya, the UN’s own human rights mechanisms didn’t inspire confidence that the transitional authorities met either benchmark.

Back in February, when the violence in Libya first broke out, the HRC established an independent commission of inquiry (COI) to investigate alleged human rights violations in Libya and to identify measures that would hold perpetrators accountable.

In the last oral update from the COI at the Council’s 18th session in September, the COI’s chair relayed a bone-chilling account of abuses that were still taking place in Libya. In addition to the cruelty perpetrated by Qaddhafi and his cohorts, which by now are well known, the COI reported that the transitional authorities may have committed a range of violations of international human rights law including extra-judicial killings, mass arrests and arbitrary detention, as well as possible violations of international humanitarian law. (The Commission’s final report is due in March 2012).

Politics trump reform

With such serious allegations, member states could have waited for the COI’s final report, or at least conditioned Libya’s HRC membership with concrete commitments from the transitional authorities. For example, they could have required that the transitional authorities carry out (or take tangible steps towards carrying out) the COI’s core recommendations from its first report. These include:  conducting “exhaustive, impartial and public investigations into all allegations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law violations with a view to: prosecutions”; “the provision of adequate reparations to victims and their families”; and “taking all appropriate measures to prevent the recurrence of such violations.”

Unacceptably, HRC member states ignored the COI’s account (ironic, considering they requested the oral report) as well as its recommendations and accepted a mere promise by Libya’s transitional authorities of “cooperation” with the HRC. In September, the HRC unanimously agreed to recommend that the General Assembly restore Libya’s membership.

Dead on arrival

By the time the issue crossed the Atlantic, few states were willing to expend any political capital on fighting for what could have been an important credibility booster for the HRC. Most countries, like the U.S., that had taken on the membership issue in the past were also supporters of the NATO intervention and have been eager to push forward with the transition in Libya. This position is rather clear from the U.S. representative’s remarks after the vote on Libya’s HRC membership in which he recognized the transitional authorities’ “clean break” from the former regime despite remaining “concerned about continuing violations of human rights occurring in Libya.”

The only countries that voted against restoring Libya’s HRC membership did so on the basis of opposing the intervention in Libya, and cited manipulation by “imperial Powers” as part of the reason for their “No” vote.

Pushing for stronger criteria would have also provoked resistance from the so-called proceduralists or spoiler states, i.e. states that seek to limit the Council’s activity by rejecting any measures that are not laid out specifically in UN resolutions. This argument has been successful in thwarting past reform efforts and it would seem that reformers did not see the importance in pressing the issue with this case.

Returning the Focus to Rights

Competing world views and political prerogatives will always temper any discussion of human rights; however in the last year there have been a few moments when the severity of a human rights issue led to robust and committed diplomacy to ensure that the substance of the issue overshadowed the politics.  This was the case when the member states acted swiftly to suspend Libya last March, triggering further international action.

Strengthening the HRC as an institution requires leadership and commitment by member states who want to see it develop into a more credible and effective body. Those states that are committed to promoting and protecting human rights through the HRC should not have let political concerns over Libya’s future distract them from the larger goal of improving the institution.

By Deborah Brown. Deborah is the first Leo Nevas Human Rights Fellow of the UNA-USA, a program of the United Nations Foundation (UNF). She advocates for and supports constructive U.S. engagement with the UN and its human rights mechanisms. Deborah graduated with a BA in political science and human rights from Barnard College in 2007 and an MA Democracy and Governance and Arab Studies from Georgetown University in 2011.

Granito: How to Nail a Dictator

An Interview with Filmmaker Pamela Yates

By Jennifer Wilmore, student at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs 

Filmmaker Pamela Yates

Pamela Yates is an American documentary filmmaker and co-founder of SkylightPictures, a company dedicated to creating films and digital media tools that advance awareness of human rights and the quest for justice.  In 1982, at the age of 24, she traveled to Guatemala to shoot footage of the hidden war unfolding there between the military government and guerrilla forces. While in Guatemala, Yates also witnessed the government’s genocidal campaign being carried out against the Mayan people mostly, in which at least 200,000 individuals were killed, “disappeared” or forced into exile.  Skylight Pictures used this footage to create a film called When the Mountains Tremble, which won the Special Jury Award at the 1984 Sundance Film Festival.

Since then, Yates has created films on a variety of issues, including poverty and homelessness in the United States, terrorism, and the International Criminal Court. Her current Sundance offering, Granito: How To Nail a Dictator, takes viewers back to Guatemala – along with Yates herself, who is the central figure of the film. Partly a political thriller and partly Yates’ memoir on filmmaking, this feature-length documentary spans four decades to take audiences through a haunting tale of genocide and justice. In the film, Yates revisits her 1982 footage to find evidence that would be entered in an international court case to prosecute those most responsible for the genocide in Guatemala.  Granito is currently up for Academy Award consideration. She also recently directed the development of Granito: Every Memory Matters, a transmedia project using mobile applications to gather testimonies from victims in Guatemala and members of the Guatemalan Diaspora in the U.S.

[vimeo]http://vimeo.com/27986215[/vimeo]

I had the opportunity to talk with Pamela at a Manhattan café during a busy week for her. She was premiering Granito in New York theaters, and then shortly after our meeting she left for Los Angeles to premiere the film there. To qualify for Oscar consideration, the film had to have a commercial run for at least one week in both locations. What follows is a glimpse into our very interesting conversation in New York.

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What do you believe documentary films uniquely contribute to human rights struggles?

I think the films and media offerings we do humanize the struggle for human rights.  You probably notice that I use a lot of close-ups of faces in my films. That’s because connecting with the eyes of another person fires something in the brain that connects us as human beings. You can have brilliant, footnoted reports.  You can have good television reports.  But long-form documentaries take you on an emotional journey to meet people you probably would never be able to meet.  It also brings the voices of the powerless and of the victims into places where they might not be invited to go.

A film that had an effect on me in terms of wanting to be a filmmaker and choosing films about human rights and the quest for justice was To Kill a Mockingbird.  I didn’t articulate it at the time, but now looking back, I realize it.  I saw it when I was the same age as Scout, and the fact that a six-year-old could actually make a difference – and also this extreme sense of injustice that she had – had a really profound effect on me.

How did you first end up coming to New York?

I ran away from home when I was 16 to the most exciting and dangerous place I’d heard about: New York City. I’m from the Appalachian Mountains in Pennsylvania, so this was like Oz. We used to listen to transistor radios under our covers at night – me and my sisters – and we would get the New York stations, and I was always like, “That’s where I’m going.”

Did you know then that you wanted to do filmmaking?

Pamela Yates in 1982

You know, I always had artistic sensibilities. I’m from a part of the Appalachian Mountains where storytelling is very big. The currency in my town was how good a story you could tell, and my father was a great storyteller. So I think filmic storytelling is just an extension of that cultural richness that I took with me from this Irish-American enclave in the mountains of Pennsylvania.

For When the Mountains Tremble, your 1982 film about Guatemala, you were able to interview some high-level people, including then-President Ríos Montt and top military officials. How did you get that kind of access?

It took a long time and a lot of persistence.  I also realized that I was at this particular moment that I could use to my advantage.  President Carter had cut off military aid to the Guatemalan military because of egregious human rights violations.  And then President Reagan was elected in 1980.  The Guatemalans wanted him to re-open military sales to expand the counter-insurgency campaign, and he was very open to that.  So they saw me and the crew as a megaphone for supporting that in the American public.

What did they think you were doing there?

Well, I never lie.  But I also don’t always tell the full story, and in that case I was concerned for my safety and the safety of the cameraperson, Tom.  Basically, we were just making a very broad statement that we wanted to tell the story of what was happening in Guatemala, and we really needed to have the military point of view.

Rigoberta Menchú, an activist who went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize, is the narrator of When the Mountains Tremble.  How did you come to know her?

Someone brought her to our studio in New York.  She was so magnificent in the way that she spoke that we decided to show her parts of the assembly of the film, because we were at this impasse, where we had all these great scenes but nothing to really hold it together as a film.  She watched the assembly, then came back and for a few days looked at everything, and she wrote her part.

When exactly did you film her?

In 1983.  She’s actually never in Guatemala, because she was in exile, but the way we filmed makes you feel like she’s a part of it. So her story is told in parallel with this story of what was going on in Guatemala.

You have said that in 2003 a lawyer asked you to look through outtakes of your 1982 footage for evidence that could be used in a genocide case in the Spanish national courts. Was it through this process of revisiting your old footage that you decided to make your newest film, Granito, partly a memoir?

Well first of all, the story was so circular about destinies.  Rigoberta was the plaintiff that brought the case.  So that was one thing.  And then when we started to look through the footage, I saw myself in the footage.  I’m in every single shot, either at the beginning or the end of the shot.  And I realized that I could actually make the film about documentary filmmaking.  I realized I could be a witness.

There’s a part in Granito where you show When the Mountains Tremble to children in the Highlands area where people were killed in the 1980s – was that the first time they had seen the film? 

They had never seen the film before.  And I got the impression from the look on a lot of the older people’s faces that they had never actually seen images like that.  The guerrilla resistance was something that everybody talked about or heard about.  But then to actually see it… they hadn’t seen images like that in a very long time.

Do you find that younger generations’ parents haven’t really been telling them these stories?

Yeah, often.  Especially in the Highlands, because they’re sheltering their kids.  They don’t want them to know about it. They don’t want them to lash out and put themselves in danger.

And then sometimes I think people who have been persecuted feel on some level like it’s their fault and don’t want to share it with anyone else.  For a long time, a lot of the villages in Guatemala thought they were the only ones attacked.  It was only many years later when they all came together that they realized it was this widespread and systemic plan.

Granito follows the process of building a genocide case in the Spanish courts against Guatemalan military forces from the 1980s.  Have people actually been arrested and convicted through this court?

No, but there’s actually this trend happening in Guatemala.  It’s what they call the “Pinochet effect,” where you start with an international court, and that makes it possible for the domestic court cases to move forward.  The fact that there was an international case in Spain emboldened judges and prosecutors in Guatemala into saying, “Now that this evidence has been uncovered in the Spanish national court, we can take that evidence and do it here.”

So on June 17th, the chief of staff under Ríos Montt was arrested and charged with genocide. No army officer in the history of Latin America has been charged with genocide, so this is a precedent. And several special forces people have been arrested and convicted.  More perpetrators of those crimes have been arrested and convicted in Guatemala in the last three months than in the past 30 years.  So we’re really seeing this tipping point for justice.

What would you tell students who might want to get involved with your production company?

Send me an email. Pamela@skylightpictures.com.

Jennifer Wilmore is pursuing a Master of International Affairs at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, with a focus on human rights and a specialization in international media, advocacy and communications.