Archive for United Nations

UNEARTH -United Nations Exhibit Opens Door to the Past and Gives Hope to the Future

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By, Amy Sall, graduate student of human rights at Columbia University


The UNEARTH exhibit, hosted by the Gabarron Foundation, is a multimedia exhibit based on four main themes: human rights, development, humanitarian assistance, and peace and security.  The exhibit creates a dialogue centered on the humanity of people through the use of archival footage and posters that evoke the spirit of the United Nations (U.N.) reflected in the organization’s principles of promoting peace, security and the protection of human rights.  Not only does the exhibit celebrate the efforts of the U.N., but its closing in 2015 will also commemorate the 70th anniversary of the organization’s existence.

Speaking on the ethos behind the exhibit, CEO and Vice President of the Gabarron Foundation, Juan Gabarron says the exhibit is about “creating awareness through the arts.” A task that was spearheaded by Chaim Litewski, Chief of the U.N. Television Section, and Antonio da Silva, Chief of the U.N. Multimedia Unit.  Litewski and da Silva, along with a team of curators, set out on a daunting mission to “unearth” barely touched, archival footage and images from throughout the U.N.’s history.

One of the main challenges Litewski and da Silva came across was narrowing the massive amount of historical documentation down to a cohesive display of ideas.  “It was really hard for us to figure out where the focus was going to be,” says da Silva, “because the U.N. archive is 68 years of archived material.” Sorting through the archive, which holds about 800,000 photos alone, was not the only challenge.  “From the film and video aspect, there is a significant amount of films that have not been digitized, which is a huge undertaking,” says Litewski.  Despite these challenges, Litewski, da Silva and the team behind, which also included Mark Garten, the head of the U.N. Photo Unit, materialized UNEARTH in a focused and interesting manner.

On describing the nature and structure of the exhibit, Litewski says, “The photos in one way or another relate to the four themes.”  To which da Silva added, “we want people to experience each of these four themes on their own, and let people discover aspects of each through the images.” This desire was encapsulated by the title of the exhibit itself. “That’s why it’s called ‘UNEARTH’. The word ‘art’ is in there, along with ‘U.N.’,” Litewski added.

The UNEARTH exhibit is a prime example of the burgeoning role art and media play in change-making, protecting human rights and fostering global peace and development. Sharing his views on this phenomenon, da Silva says, “We think that art brings people to think about what’s happening in the world today, in relation to the past. Since we are working with an archive, it allows the opportunity to look at specific topics of development, human rights and so on, and see what has changed and what hasn’t. These images, visuals, and audio create reflection towards what is going on in the world today.” He also adds, “Using social media, and crowd-sourcing, gathering people to participate in the creative process, is in fact part of the political process.”

Litewski agreed and added, “Art reflects three things. One being the way in which an artists, in this case the United Nations, looks at a particular subject. In this exhibit, in a way you are able to see what the U.N. was thinking when it produced certain images. It’s an interesting thing to understand what was behind something created at a particular time. Secondly, art reflects society at a particular time. Thirdly, it reflects the aesthetic perception and artistic mold a time period.”

The various elements involved in UNEARTH, from multimedia, the history of the United Nations, and the spirit and resiliency of humanity, have culminated into something much larger than an art exhibit. What was produced was something that allows us to draw from the past to improve the present and the future. By bringing the U.N. archive to life Litewski, da Silva, and their team created a narrative that will continue for years to come. In order to further engage in the international discourse the exhibit represents, Litewski and da Silva left some sound advice for future agents of change: “Listen. Listen to communities. Listen to people.”


*The UNEARTH exhibit at the The Gabarron Foundation in New York is now closed, but it will be travelling around the world until 2015, and will be hosted at different galleries globally.

Please visit or contact the Gabarron Foundation for more information:(

The Gabarron Foundation

149 East 38th Street, New York, NY 10016



Amy Sall is a first year graduate student at Columbia University’s M.A. in Human Rights Program.  Her interest is in human rights in Africa, with a special focus on children’s rights and youth development on the continent.


OHCHR Global Panel: Moving Away from the Death Penalty

By Angélica Hoyos, senior in Political Science and Human Rights at Columbia University

On July 3rd the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights organized the global panel: “Moving Away from the Death Penalty.” Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon opened the discussion by declaring his commitment to end capital punishment: “The taking of life is too absolute, too irreversible, for one human being to inflict it on another, even when backed by legal process.” The goal of the discussion, which included delegates from the states parties, panelists, and members of civil society, was to set up a debate for the upcoming General Assembly in October. In 2007, The United Nations endorsed an international moratorium on capital punishment. Ever since, six nations have abolished the practice. The High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay expressed her hope for many other states to follow this trend. She reminded retentionist states that they ought to comply with Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to limit this kind of punishment to “the most serious crimes.” As the Secretary-General reported, there are still a chilling thirty-two countries that are sentencing people to death for crimes other than murder. He and Ms. Pillay called on member states to join the seventy-six nations that have signed the Optional Protocol of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

“The taking of life is too absolute, too irreversible, for one human being to inflict it on another, even when backed by legal process.”—Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon

The first panel included speakers from Guatemala, Burundi, the United States, and Spain. Mr. Federico Mayor, president of the International Committee Against the Death Penalty, spoke about the importance of working with the communities in order to come closer to abolition. However, as he and Mr. Cousin Zilala, Executive Director of Amnesty International in Zimbabwe, emphasized later in the day, “Human rights are independent of public opinion.” Representing the US was Mr. Barry C. Scheck, co-director of The Innocence Project. He spoke of the significance of the role of science and what it has meant to all the one hundred and forty people who have been exonerated from death row. He addressed the high risk of error inherent in the conviction and sentencing process: “DNA has demonstrated the failings of the justice system [in America].”  The problem, he pointed out, was the lack of resources for defendants to access this kind of evidence.

Moderated by Professor Christof Heyns, UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, the second panel focused on human right violations related to the practice of the death penalty and included representatives from Japan, Zimbabwe, the United States, Trinidad and Tobago, and Belize. The first speaker was Mr. Kirk Bloodsworth, the first person in the US to be exonerated from a capital conviction thanks to DNA testing. He spent almost a decade waiting to be executed for a crime he did not commit. “The capital punishment system in America is ineffective and it does not always get it right, I know this for a fact,” Mr. Bloodsworth told the audience. He feels blessed, as he acknowledged there have been people who have been executed regardless of the many doubts about their guilt, such as Troy Davis and Carlos DeLuna, among others. He addressed the difficulty of the access to evidence and DNA testing; only those who can afford it can access it, given that it is not part of their right to a fair trial.

The speaker from Trinidad and Tobago addressed the situation in all the countries forming the Commonwealth Caribbean, where prisoners are executed for reasons besides murder. Ms. Maiko Tagusari, Secretary-General of the Center for Prisoners’ Rights, denounced the treatment of prisoners in Japan, the lack of a mandatory appeal system, as well as the secrecy–no family members or media are informed of the executions, which occur spontaneously. Ms. Tagusari noted that although it is prohibited to execute the mentally ill, the lack of the transparency of the justice system makes advocacy very difficult for the death row prisoners.

Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Ms. Pillay expressed their concern and called on the nations retaining the death penalty to comply with the principle of non-discrimination, since usually the individuals on death row are members of minorities and lack the resources to afford private counsel. Ms. Pillay concluded by stating that, “[it’s] important for the effectiveness and transparency of such a debate to ensure that the public is provided with all sides of the arguments and with information and accurate statistics on criminality and the various effective ways to combat it, short of the death sentence.” The global panel focused on the common global trend towards “moving away from the capital punishment.” As Mr. Heyns pointed out, in 2011 only twenty countries executed prisoners and only six nations executed more than twenty people. Although these numbers support such a trend, the violations to the human rights of those prisoners in the retentionist countries continues to be a major concerned.


Angélica Hoyos is a senior at Columbia University, double majoring in Political Science and Human Rights.  She is originally from Bogotá, Colombia, and is currently serving as the Senior Class President for the School of General Studies.

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.

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.

LGBT Equality in Africa: Somewhere Over the Rainbow?

By Kristen Thompson, student at Columbia University

“We are holy, angry people, and we are singing for our lives”

Activists in NYC protest new anti-gay legislation outside the Nigerian Mission to the UN

What do you do when your government is trying to criminalize your identity?  For Nigerian LGBT rights activist Ifeanyi Orazulike, the answer is: fight back.  On Monday I joined Ifeanyi and other activists outside the Permanent Mission of Nigeria to the United Nations to protest the anti-gay “Same-Gender Marriage Bill” passed by the Nigerian Senate, which currently awaits the approval or veto of President Goodluck Jonathan.

But this bill is not really about marriage.  It broadly defines “same-sex marriage” as including all same-sex relationships, and charges people who “witness,” “aid” or “abet” such relationships with imprisonment for up to five years.  It’s a modern day witch-hunt, which puts LGBT rights activists and HIV/AIDS service providers for the LGBT population, like Ifeanyi, in particular peril. This is insult on top of severe injury – today Nigerian same-sex relationships are punished with up to 14 years in prison in some regions, and with lashing and death by stoning in others.

Ifeanyi heads the International Centre on Advocacy for the Right to Health (ICARH), which provides HIV/AIDS prevention, treatment, outreach and education services to men who have sex with men (MSM) in Nigeria. Even in the midst of this political maelstrom he told me he is eager to go back home because there is much work to do, even though he knows his life is in danger.

Today he and fellow activists solemnly sang in front of the mission and passersby: “We are holy, angry people / We are singing, singing for our lives.”

Pride and Prejudice

Nigerian LGBT rights activist Ifeanyi Orazulike

I met Ifeanyi when he spoke at a SIPA event I organized with the Human Rights Working Group, GLIPA, and others on November 22nd called Pride and Prejudice: Perspectives on Homophobia and LGBTQI Rights in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Betsy Apple, Adjunct SIPA Faculty Member started the discussion with a few sobering statistics:

  • Roughly one-third of all countries in the world criminalize homosexual conduct or identity.
  • Five countries prescribe the death penalty to same-sex sexual conduct.

She said, “Criminalization criminalizes identity; when you are an illegal person, it’s very difficult for you to do everything, from love who you choose, have access to health and education, have freedom of speech and movement and expression, be able to participate in the public life of your country, be able to protect yourself from violence and discrimination.”

The film trailer of Call Me Kuchu (trailer below) clearly illustrates this struggle unfolding for LGBT rights in Africa. It highlights Ugandan activist David Kato, who was recently brutally murdered after a Ugandan newspaper printed the names, addresses and photos of LGBT activists alongside the headline “Hang Them.”



Homophobia and the Spread of HIV/AIDS

For Ifeanyi, the words and images of Call Me Kuchu strike close to home.  He held back tears as he discussed the struggles ICARH faces in combating HIV/AIDS in Nigeria – MSM face stigma and discrimination which cause them to avoid seeking care altogether.  This is especially problematic in a country where the HIV prevalence rate among MSM is 13.5%, three times higher than the national rate.

Dr. Cheikh Traore, Senior Policy Advisor for Sexual Diversity and HIV/AIDS at the United Nations Development Programme underscored the problem of homophobia in combating HIV/AIDS, sharing the results of a  2009 study on MSM in Malawi, Namibia, and Botswana which showed MSM are more vulnerable to HIV due to human rights violations against them.  They are blackmailed by health workers after disclosing their sexual orientation and face physical violence, including by government or police officials.  All this adds up to MSM being further discouraged from seeking health care services.

From Hand-Wringing to Action

Jessica Stern, Director of Programs at the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission rounded out the panel.  As the first researcher on LGBT rights at Human Rights Watch she conducted fact-finding missions in South Africa, where she reported on the brutal murder of a 19-year old lesbian who was beaten and killed by a mob in the township of Khayelitsha near Cape Town.

Jessica noted that this happened in South Africa, a country which outlaws discrimination based on sexual orientation and is also the first African country to legalize same-sex marriage. In South Africa, transgender men and lesbians are often still targeted for violence and discrimination.

So, what can we do when law and policy only go so far in protecting LGBT rights? Jessica offered some suggestions:

  • Educate the public about their rights.  If people don’t know their rights – to HIV treatment, social services, and privacy, for example – it’s very difficult to access them.  They must also be aware of their government’s anti-LGBT policies so that they can best protect themselves.
  • Train authorities.  In many countries, police target transgender women for discrimination.  They may also refuse to take reports on crimes against LGBT people.  It’s critical to look at how laws are being implemented on the ground and have a proactive strategy for using them to affirm peoples’ rights.
  • Build stronger movements.  Lived experience is essential to any strategy, and activists working on the frontlines know what needs to be done. Jessica left us to ponder, “How can we interrogate our different places to contribute in solidarity with local struggles?”

Feel free to leave a comment below.  How can we interrogate our different places in society (school, internship, job, social network, etc.) to contribute in solidarity to local LGBT struggles?  What are your thoughts on the topic? 

Kristen is a Master of International Affairs Candidate ‘13 at Columbia University, concentrating in Human Rights.  She is the incoming President of GLIPA (SIPA’s LGBTQ group).    


Field Notes: Lebanon’s Home of Hope

My experience filming for OCHA’s Global Humanitarian Day Campaign

By Dâna Barakat, student at Columbia University

In an attempt to get some preliminary research done for my thesis, which looks at the challenges faced by street children in Lebanon, I decided to spend a few weeks there this past summer.

As soon as I arrived, I read an email that was going to change my summer. It was from David, a Public Information Officer at the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), asking me if I was interested in producing a short film for their global humanitarian day campaign. I had met David only a day earlier, through a wonderful adjunct Professor at CU, and he decided to give me a shot at this great opportunity. OCHA was looking to showcase 5 humanitarian workers from around the world who are making a significant difference in their respective communities.

After meeting with aid workers from orphanages and NGOs all over the country, I recommended Mr. John Eter who runs Home of Hope, the only organization in Lebanon that will take in non-Lebanese street children and give them a home. The small organization, which once had over 80 street children living on the premises, was forced to downsize following serious budget cuts. Yet, John refuses to close shop despite the fact that he barely has enough money to feed one small family. He takes in food, clothing and school supply donations, in addition to private contributions that he manages to find.

OCHA loved John’s story and immediately agreed to use him as part of their
campaign. As soon as I got over my excitement, I realized I had to find
equipment and a crew willing to help me for free. I quickly discovered how wonderfully hospitable the people in Lebanon are. I found a small crew that agreed to bring whatever equipment they could borrow and we spent one full day filming at Home of Hope.

OCHA was thrilled with the film and used it as part of their global campaign. After I sent the film to John, he told me that the Ministry of Social Affairs was going to use the exposure from the campaign to try and garner more financial support for Home of Hope.


Producing this piece was one of the most incredible experiences I’ve had
and I’m honored I was a part of it. As an aspiring filmmaker, I hope to produce feature length documentaries in the future.

I hope you enjoy watching it as much as I enjoyed producing it.

Dâna is a second year Human Rights Masters Student at Columbia University and an aspiring filmmaker.

Realizing Shannen’s Dream: the fight for quality education for First Nations in Canada

By Jillian Carson, Student at Columbia University

Rights violations and struggles in developed countries are regularly overlooked as human rights issues. In Canada, human rights claims are consistently re-framed as purely political or constitutional in nature, denying the violation of rights at home that would be openly criticized abroad. In response to the growing influence of human rights abroad, First Nations youth in Canada are becoming increasingly aware of the language and mechanisms of the human rights system and how this international body of rights affects their lives at home. First Nations youth have been especially active in raising awareness about education rights and the rights of the child.

In June of this year, young First Nations students, and non-Native Canadian youth from Quebec launched a report aimed at bringing attention to the lack of culturally based, equitable education for First Nations students in Canada. The report will be submitted to the Committee on the Rights of the Child along with Canada’s periodic review as a state party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. This report is indicative of a growing awareness of human rights among youth.

Shannen’s Dream

The initiative began with First Nations education youth activist Shannen Koostachin, a student from the Attawapiskat First Nation in northern Ontario and founder of the Shannen’s Dream campaign.  In 2008, fed up with the deplorable conditions of her school at Attawapiskat, Shannen helped organize the Attawapiskat School Campaign which raised awareness among Native and non-Native youth about the condition of the school on her reserve. She convened a group of students from Attawapiskat First Nation and Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nation called the ‘Dream Team’, who have helped this campaign grow to include children across Canada forced to learn in uninhabitable, underfunded and unsafe schools.

Chelsea Edwards, spokesperson for Shannen’s Dream commented that, “Shannen’s Dream is now the biggest movement for children by children in Canadian history, to ensure that equitable funding, proper resources and facilities are accessible to children, right where they are.”

Sadly, Shannen was killed in a car accident in May 2010 at age 15, but her message has reached youth across Canada. Students in Quebec, supported by the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada and the Office of the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth, have kept Shannen’s dream alive and endeavor to send her message to the United Nations.

View the clip below to learn more about Shannen and the issues she was fighting for:



Taking a dream to the United Nations

Released in June, “Our Dreams Matter Too” is an alternate report by to the Committee on the Rights of the Child on the occasion of Canada’s periodic review. Canada ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child in December of 1991. The Convention recognizes the equality of all human beings and protects against all forms of discrimination. Beyond these human rights principles, Article 3.3 ensures that institutions, services and facilities be responsible for the care and protection of children. It requires competent standards be set for health, safety, building capacity and supervision. Even more specific to the cause of First Nations in Canada, Article 28 and 29 protect the human right to education based on equality, accessibility, safety and respect for languages, cultural identity and human rights.

The Auditor General of Canada has repeatedly called for equity and improvement in education and education policy but the government’s response remains piecemeal and inadequate. In their report, First Nations youth appeal to the United Nations saying, “As children and youth, we continue to write letters to the Government but nothing changes. The discrimination and denial of our rights continues”.

Some of the policy and funding deficiencies highlighted by this report include the fact that First Nations children receive $2000 – $3000 less per child than a student at a provincial school and receive little or no funding for things like books, teachers and other essential equipment and personnel at their schools.

Executive Director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, Cindy Blackstock explains, “First Nations and non-Aboriginal children are taking action creating the largest child lead reconciliation movement in Canada that puts culturally based equity at the center.” Not only are children understanding the discrimination present in current education funding and policy; with inspiration from Shannen and their peers they are taking real action to bring attention to their rights, the rights of people across Canada and the importance of human rights awareness at home.

Jillian is a Human Rights Masters Student at Columbia University. Her Masters program concentrates on Indigenous Rights, more specifically the right to education for First Nations in Canada and reconciliation processes in settler colonial nations. Jillian is also involved in disability rights in education research and advocacy in New York City.