Boarding School Tribunal, Oneida, Wisconsin – Day 2

The second day of the Boarding School Tribunal was an emotional one. Boarding school survivors and the children of survivors testified about their and their families’ experiences of extreme abuse at the hands of school officials, aculturation, and inter-generational trauma. Survivors spoke of the loss of language and traditions, the breaking apart of families, and the lasting personal impacts of boarding school experiences.

The Human Rights Center staff and 2014-15 Humphrey Fellows Athar Waheed (Pakistan), Aneeta Aahooja (Pakistan), Fasoha (Maldives), Abalo Assih (Togo), and Shiran Gooneratne (Sri Lanka) feel extraordinarily honored to participate in this tribunal.

You can read a re-cap of the second day of testimony and watch a livestream of the proceedings via Censored News.

Boarding School Tribunal

International Fulbright Humphrey Fellows in Law and Human Rights, Athar Waheed (Pakistan), Faso (Maldives), Aneeta Aahooja (Pakistan), Abalo Assih (Togo), and Shiran Gooneratne (Sri Lanka) traveled today to Green Bay, Wisconsin for the Boarding School Tribunal, an effort to begin addressing the harm done to native peoples through the boarding school system instituted in the US in the late 1800s.
A short documentary on boarding schools can be viewed at:

Human Rights Fellowship Stories: Minne Bosma – South Asian Institute of Advanced Legal and Human Rights Studies

Over the last two months, I have been working at South Asian Institute of Advanced Legal and Human Rights Studies (SAILS) in Dhaka, Bangladesh. So far the fellowship has been an interesting and valuable experience. It has allowed me to have the unique experience of living in a less developed state, but more important, to contribute to the improvement of human rights in Bangladesh.

Former Hubert Humphrey Fellow Dr. Uttam Kumar Das has brought the idea of the establishment of a Human Rights Law Clinic (HRLC) back from the University of Minnesota Law School to Bangladesh, after completion of his fellowship. SAILS currently has the only HRLC in the whole country, and consists of volunteers from all law schools in Dhaka. In this context, I have developed and taught lectures, and led learning session for the volunteers of the clinic. For example on: European Human Rights Law, International Humanitarian Law, LGBT rights etc. The main purpose of these sessions is to encourage the volunteers to become human rights activists themselves, and to strengthen their practical skills in this regard. The learning experience was clearly not a one-way thing, as all the questions, comments, and discussions sharpened my mind and thoughts on human rights issues as well. I have also worked on an assessment for a new governance project called “Legal Empowerment of the Poor” from BRAC, which will be implemented by SAILS in the near future. Legal empowerment is relatively new phenomenon in the development sector. In Bangladesh, BRAC has legal aids clinic that legally empowers women on their family rights. However, this program does not reach other vulnerable persons in Bangladesh. The new program will be complementary to the existing legal aid programs, and will for example also focus on poor entrepreneurs, children or poor city dwellers.

Besides my work for SAILS, I have met incredible people in Bangladesh. It’s amazing and also confronting to see the happiness of people with so less opportunities and material belongings and to reflect that on our own “rich and developed” lives. Dhaka is a bit dirty compared to our standards, but the city is so vibrant and there is a positive abundance of young people who want to work and change the world they live in. I made many Bangladeshi friends, tasted local foods, enjoyed religious and cultural festivals, have seen the beautiful countryside, and met more hospital and friendly Bangladeshis. I am certain I will miss Bangladesh when I take off in within two months.

I am very grateful for the financial support the Human Rights Fellowship provided me. The fellowship strengthened my wish to work professionally in the field of human rights or development in the near future. I have seen with my own eyes how small changes can make big impacts on the lives of underprivileged people. I hope my work here contributed to (small) changes as well and will lead to big impacts for the people involved.

The views expressed in this article represent those of the author and not necessarily those of the University of Minnesota Human Rights Center.  As a forum for dialogue and education, and an acknowledgment of the contentious nature of human rights issues, some views expressed on this blog may not necessarily be those of the Human Rights Center as an institution.

Human Rights Fellowship Stories: Danielle Meinhardt – Sierra Club Environmental Law Program

The photo shows five Sierra Club Environmental Law Program legal interns—including me—enjoying a backpacking trip at Point Reyes National Seashore just north of San Francisco, California. The trail skirts precipitous cliffs over the Pacific, passes lakes and marshes, and allows one to see wildlife up close while getting away from paved roads and traffic. For anyone familiar with the Sierra Club, this photo illustrates what many perceive as the core of the organization’s work: protecting wild and scenic places for the enjoyment of all. In fact, that does form the historic core of Sierra Club advocacy. John Muir founded the Club in 1892 with the mission to explore, enjoy, and protect the natural character of Western mountain regions. In 1962 the Sierra Club helped establish Point Reyes as a national seashore, which is why I was able to enjoy public access to it over 50 years later.

Protecting wild places continues to be part of the Sierra Club’s mission. But since its founding, its work has expanded to reach issues that affect people’s everyday lives in more direct, palpable ways. The Club cooperated with others to strengthen the Clean Air Act in the late 1970s and protect it from dilution in the 1980s. Provisions of the Clean Air Act restrict emissions of toxic air pollutants that degrade urban air quality and harm human health. In the 1980s, the Sierra Club supported Congress in strengthening the Clean Water Act and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (also referred to as “Superfund”). Among other things, the Clean Water Act is intended to improve water quality and ensure that wetlands—which perform invaluable services in the hydrologic cycle—are protected. Congress created the Superfund to address releases of hazardous substances and clean up abandoned hazardous waste sites.

As a complement to its work fighting for healthy air and clean water, the Sierra Club is now actively working to halt carbon pollution and ensure a secure climate future. Rising sea levels, extreme weather events, harm to agriculture and fisheries, and displacement of people are all consequences associated with climate disruption. Avoiding these harms has become central to the Sierra Club’s work. The organization targets fossil fuels (and their associated greenhouse gas emissions) to keep them in the ground, while supporting a full transition to a clean energy economy. The Club seeks to “create a clean energy revolution where all people have access to sustainable energy, including local solar, energy storage, and sustainably sited large-scale renewable energy projects.”1 Clear water, air, and energy are an interwoven set of goods to which everyone should have access.

As a Sierra Club Environmental Law Program legal intern, I had the privilege of working on projects that touched on all of these issues. Some of my work involved threats to human health in local communities, while other projects involved regulations that facilitate harmful fossil fuel use at regional and continental scales. And some work involved threats to the fundamental building blocks of ecosystems that in turn support human livelihoods. It was exciting to work on matters in active litigation, and it was gratifying to know that Environmental Law Program attorneys needed and appreciated my assistance. There is so much to be done in this field, with far too few resources. The experience confirmed and deepened my commitment to public interest environmental work. I am thankful that the Human Rights Fellowship Program and its supporters made my experience possible.



The views expressed in this article represent those of the author and not necessarily those of the University of Minnesota Human Rights Center.  As a forum for dialogue and education, and an acknowledgment of the contentious nature of human rights issues, some views expressed on this blog may not necessarily be those of the Human Rights Center as an institution.

Human Rights Fellowship Stories: Leah Tabbert – Gender Justice

When I started work at Gender Justice, a non-profit law firm dedicated to combating gender discrimination, I came in as the organization was riding a policy advocacy high. The Women’s Economic Security Act (WESA) had just passed in the legislature, and Governor Dayton had signed it into law on Mother’s Day, May 11, 2014.

Ever since the House indicated its intent to pass an economic justice package for women in the year 2014, Gender Justice was at the forefront of a coalition of women’s organizations working to make a change that could make Minnesota a leader in economic equality. The coalition synthesized decades of research and a mountain of ideas into a package of laws that aimed to broaden economic protection, and economic opportunity, for all women. Some of the provisions of WESA include:

• Raising the minimum wage to $9.50/hour by 2016

• Requiring employers to provide reasonable accommodations (such as periods of sitting,

• Requiring employers to allow nursing mothers to take breaks to express milk

• Rewarding employers who recruit, prepare, place, and retain women in non-traditional limits to heavy lifting, food and water) for pregnant employees occupations and apprenticeships, especially low income and older women

• Requiring large state contractors to attest that its male and female workers receive equal

• Protecting an employee’s right to share his or her wage information with co-workers

• Expanding protections for employees with caregiver obligations

• Permitting employees to use accrued sick leave for safety leave associated with sexual pay for equal work assault, domestic violence, or stalking

WESA was a tremendous success, passing by a generous margin after a vigorous fight in committees. But after the Mother’s Day photo op on the steps of the Capitol, there was plenty of work yet to be done. Gender Justice wanted to be a part of the implementation of WESA as well.

A law is only as successful as its implementation, so policy advocacy cannot end when the bill becomes law. Gender Justice made itself a resource for the community, and especially for employers, who were responsible for bringing the protections of WESA to their employees. And by observing the implementation process, Gender Justice learned more about the way the legislature shapes real lives, making it a better advocacy organization in the process.

As a part of my work at Gender Justice, I fielded questions from employers striving to correctly incorporate WESA into their policies and practices. Employers asked questions like, “I have only nine Minnesota employees, am I subject to any WESA provisions?” and “How does leave under the Minnesota Parental Leave Act interact with leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act?” Using the resources provided by state offices like the Minnesota Department of Human Rights and the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry, I helped usher these employers towards effective application of the new laws. I began to see WESA as a long-term cooperation of government agencies, employers, and advocacy groups, rather than a discrete event that occurred on Mother’s Day of this year. And I have Gender Justice to thank for a deeper understanding of the legislative process and what follows it.

For more about the WESA campaign, visit

For more about Gender Justice, visit

The views expressed in this article represent those of the author and not necessarily those of the University of Minnesota Human Rights Center.  As a forum for dialogue and education, and an acknowledgment of the contentious nature of human rights issues, some views expressed on this blog may not necessarily be those of the Human Rights Center as an institution.

Human Rights Fellowship Stories: Nick Bednar – Advocates of Human Rights

Several weeks ago Jon Stewart joked that it seemed entirely reasonable for unaccompanied minors to traverse the complex network of the United States asylum process without legal representation. Stewart began rambling off forms N-400, I-130, and I-140 (none of which will grant you asylum) as routes to obtain different immigration statuses. Stewart quipped, “If they didn’t fill out the forms, can’t we just deport them?” And to the heartless adults willing to ask that question, I say, “Try doing it yourself.”

For the past three months I have worked at the Advocates of Human Rights assisting with “barebones” Asylum applications. The applications I file are nowhere near complete. They lack sufficient country reports, affidavits, and other evidence necessary to make a compelling asylum case. It is simply a means to ensure that the client meets their one-year filing deadline. Even though these applications are far from complete, the shortest one I have assembled has been just shy of three hundred pages. Assembling an asylum application is more than just filling out some biographical information and mailing it to the Nebraska Service Center. It is more comparable to writing a casebook than filing a 1040ez.

Prior to July, most of my clients were former attorneys, scientists, and financial advisors; highly sophisticated individuals who still needed legal assistance to ensure all of the paperwork was properly filed. The first child I assisted, I approached in exactly the same manner as all of my other clients. I began with an explanation of the legal process and what they could expect. I used acronyms for agencies, jargon for grounds, and form numbers instead of explanations. Forty-five minutes into the conversation, the child sheepishly told the interpreter, “No entiendo.”

I was at a loss for words. I tried using simpler terms, but was unable to condense a multi-year, multi-agency process into child-friendly concepts. I had become so immersed in the bureaucratic nature of the United States immigration system that it seemed second nature to me. In the end, I do not think he ever fully understood what it is that he filed. To him, it was just a chance that he may be able to stay in the United States. But to think that people are telling kids to “just fill out the forms,” in a language that they do not understand, for a form of relief they do not understand, is ludicrous. I am ashamed to watch our country respond to a refugee crisis by telling kids, too young to reach the kitchen cabinets, to engage in years of complex litigation without the assistance of an attorney.

Over the course of this summer, I have never once met an asylum seeker who I felt would not be harmed returning to their country. I have sat in interviews listening to people tell me about being tortured, raped, and abused. These people are stronger than anyone I have ever met. It takes a lot more strength to endure beatings, ride on top of trains, and finally admit that you need help than it does to stand at our border and shout “Not our kids, not our problem.”

The views expressed in this article represent those of the author and not necessarily those of the University of Minnesota Human Rights Center.  As a forum for dialogue and education, and an acknowledgment of the contentious nature of human rights issues, some views expressed on this blog may not necessarily be those of the Human Rights Center as an institution.

Human Rights Fellowship Stories: Adam Kohnstamm – Department of Justice

My summer got off to a slow start. Bogged down by three security background checks, I didn’t start my summer internship at the Department of Justice office at the U.S. Embassy in Rome until June. Luckily, once I started, I was able to hit the ground running.

My work at DOJ was fascinating. The office in Rome is a branch of the Office of International Affairs, which is nested under the DOJ Criminal Division. The office here typically focus on two general practice areas: evidence requests between the United States and Italy, also known as Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty (MLAT) requests, and extraditions. This introduced me to a diverse array of cases ranging from international art thefts, musical instrument counterfeiters, Sicilian mobsters, and computer hackers as well as human smugglers and traffickers.

One highlight of my work with DOJ was the day I was given a tour of the Italian Supreme Court, known as the Court of Cassation, by one of their Supreme Court justices. There are many differences between the two courts. For starters, instead of nine justices, they have several hundred. Instead of one singular higher court, they have over a dozen courts for final civil and criminal appeals. Your crime determines the court your appeal is heard in. The justice was very patient to showing me around the various courts, introducing me to several justices and attorneys, and answering all of my questions about this foreign court and its beguiling procedures.

One reason I accepted the summer internship at the embassy in Rome was both to work for DOJ but also to gain access to the various offices nested at the embassy that work on human rights and international development. My unique status as the only legal intern at the embassy this summer helped me contribute to several projects outside my internship with DOJ.

Aside from my work with DOJ, I helped the US Agency for International Development (USAID) office draft a contract for a Moroccan cold port so Moroccan farmers can get their crops to market more quickly and in better condition. I also spent time with the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Service (USCIS) regional office that focuses much of their efforts on refugee work.

The highlight of my work with USCIS was accompanying them on one of their quarterly refugee intake trips to Malta in early August. This was a fascinating trip to a country I knew hardly anything about. From a refugee perspective, Malta receives most of their refugees by boat from North Africa. All of the refugees we interviewed were from Somalia. Many had traveled through Kenya, Uganda, Sudan, through the Sahara with the help of a smuggler, and then to Libya where they boarded rafts for the treacherous voyage to Malta. Over the course of my two days there, we interviewed six refugee applicants who shared harrowing tales of persecution, abuse, violence, and in some cases, murder. In addition to observing these interviews, I was also able to interact with the NGO staff that was tasked with doing preliminary intake in the refugee applicants.

One afternoon in Malta after observing the refugee interviews, I arranged a meeting at the U.S. Embassy in Malta with a refugee specialist. What impressed me most about this conversation was how active the U.S. has been in resettling the vast majority of the refugees that land in Malta. Statically speaking, the U.S. takes many more refugees from Malta than all the other EU counties combined. It was fascinating to hear the State Department perspective on the refugee situation in Malta coming from a staffer that was a native of Malta. In sum, my trip to Malta was a once in a lifetime opportunity to observe American refugee resettlement policy in action. Furthermore, given that Minneapolis has the largest Somali population in the country, I couldn’t help but think I might actually run into one of the applicants in Minneapolis one day.

Without question, the highlight of my time in Rome was an unannounced visit to the embassy by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. It turns out that she was vacationing in Italy and was invited by the ambassador stop by the embassy to speak with the staff. She spent about an hour with a crowd of less than 100 people. She delivered brief extemporaneous remarks to the gathered staff and took questions. She started her remarks with a brief statement about public service; thanking the staff for their service and reflecting on hers. I was fortunate enough to ask a question about what drove her to a career in public service at such a young age (I had read she was 9 when she decided she wanted to be a judge). Turns out she was a juvenile diabetic so she was unable to become her first dream job of detective. It was around this time that she started to watch Perry Mason. During one episode, Perry Mason made a motion to have a case dismissed and the judge agreed. This is when Justice Sotomayor realized that judges had all the power in the courtroom. I asked a follow up question about what I could do to motivate my peers to consider a career in public service. She felt that in many ways, a lawyer’s job is a service job though some lawyer’s service to the community is greater than others. Stressing the importance of pro-bono work, she also thought that law schools should do more to encourage graduates to be active community members, regardless of what their day job is.

Following remarks and questions, she took time to meet with anyone who wanted to chat with her and take a photo. Then she was off to explore Rome just like the rest of the tourist that visit Rome in July. Meeting Justice Sotomayor was a thrilling, once in a lifetime experience; One that I will never forget and would not have had but for this fellowship. Attached are several photos I took throughout my fellowship in Rome. They include photos taken from Malta, U.S. Embassies in Malta and Rome, the Ambassadors July 4th celebration, the steps of the Italian Court of Cassation, and of course me with Justice Sotomayor.

Adam Kohnstamm


The views expressed in this article represent those of the author and not necessarily those of the University of Minnesota Human Rights Center.  As a forum for dialogue and education, and an acknowledgment of the contentious nature of human rights issues, some views expressed on this blog may not necessarily be those of the Human Rights Center as an institution.