Human Rights Advocates: David Biggs

Lenin Statue-47David Biggs has a B.A. in English Composition and Language from the University of North Texas and worked in different professions being including as a technical writer at various companies. In his early 30s, he decided to get a J.D. at the University of Minnesota Law School. Working as a research assistant, David maintained the University of Minnesota Human Rights Library which houses one of the largest collections of more than sixty thousand core human rights documents. After a couple of years as a research assistant at the University of Minnesota Law School, David started working as a Foreign Service Officer at the U.S. Department of State. Since 2013, he has served at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, Ukraine.

David chose that particular job because he felt working in the State Department was one of the best places he could be to see why the USA gets some things wrong in international diplomacy and because he wanted to try to have a hand in making correct decisions, if possible. David desired an up close view of how policy is made and enacted, which can greatly affect the drafting and enforcement of international laws.

 Since working abroad, David has often been confronted with the power of people who stand up for human rights. Five months after he arrived in the Ukraine, hundreds of thousands of people from all walks of life were camping on Independence Square protesting first their president’s coerced decision to steer away from closer relations to the EU and then protesting the corruption and abuses that have been commonplace in Ukraine for more than 20 years. Those protests and now the war with Russia really illustrate the need for strong rule of law and transparent government actions.

 For David the term “human rights” means the rights that we are all born with, or that we all should be born with. Humans in an ideal world would act within bounds that don’t interfere in another’s fundamental rights. These are the basic constructs that should define civilization and humanity.

In Ukraine, David observes human rights violations every day. In his experience rule of law including the reliable and effective enforcement of law has to be in place to a large extent before human rights will improve. He has watched as the wealthy in Ukraine and in Russia do as they please, up to and including extra-judicial killings, safe from the law. In his future positions within the Foreign Service, he hopes to find ways to convince oligarchs and other power players in the countries where he will serve that setting up a reliable court system with consistent enforcement mechanisms is in their own best interest as well as that of the general population.

Respect for human rights and the desire to promote those rights will be with David wherever he serves and whatever he does. His next assignment will be supporting U.S. efforts at the UN in Vienna, Austria. What about the assignment after that? Who knows? He may find himself with a direct human rights portfolio, or he may have a job helping underprivileged citizens of a poor country to start businesses and help their economy. But for sure he will always look at the problems he faces with an eye toward how he can help the most people and how he can help to promote a stable and effective legal system.

David’s general advice for people who want to work in the field of human rights:

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“If you want to pursue a human rights related career, you should figure out what subjects make your heart sing. Find out what goals make you want to get out of bed in the morning. Then view those goals through the lens of the application of human rights. How can you do what you love in such a way that it transforms others, increases their dignity, gives them hope, and inspires them to also want to help? If you can get that snowball rolling, even on a small scale, you’ve done a lot.”

Human Rights Fellowship Reflection: Anne Fuchs, Fellowship Years 2010, 2011 and 2012

Anne Fuchs, Assistant Attorney General of Minnesota, began her academic career at the University of St. Thomas pursuing a degree in ‘Philosophy, History, Justice and Peace’, a decision that led her directly to the field of human rights. The knowledge she gained while at St. Thomas, coupled with the positive influence of her parents, who were actively involved in their local community, encouraged Anne to foster a life grounded in social justice activism. It was with this goal in mind that she entered law school at the University of Minnesota and forged a relationship with the Human Rights Center, where she would go on to receive three Upper Midwest Human Rights Fellowship (UMHRF) grants.

40588_622092834149_539873_nAs a student at the University of Minnesota Law School Anne was inspired by a number of her professors and peers, among them Professor David Weissbrodt, co-founder and co-director of the Law School’s Center for Human Rights. Professor Weissbrodt’s commitment to human rights and the success he achieved in making a career out of his passion greatly encouraged Anne to pursue opportunities when they arose. Following his encouragement, she applied for and was awarded her first UMHRF grant to work with the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights. The fellowship award funded her work as a legal intern in the Republic of Macedonia, where she was given the opportunity to analyze laws on human trafficking and make recommendations for the Macedonian government based on her comparative analysis. In addition Anne had the opportunity during this time to investigate local prison conditions by interviewing inmates and observing their living conditions.

Following her summer in Macedonia, in 2011 Anne again received funding to participate in the UMHRF program. This time she gained a domestic perspective on human rights issues as she worked in Montgomery, Alabama with the Southern Poverty Law Center. Through writing and research she explored juvenile justice, special education, and civil rights lawsuits. Meanwhile Anne educated and interviewed at-risk youths about civil rights and their experiences in detention centers. From these interviews Anne crafted reports aimed at calling attention to youth being kept in adult facilities.

The positive experiences Anne has gained in Macedonia and Alabama persuaded her to apply for a third UMHRF grant, with which she worked at The Hague in the Netherlands as an independent observer. During this time Anne had the opportunity to take part in the highly publicized trial of former vice-president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Jean-Pierre Bemba. This case represented the first time that the international community tried rape to be considered as a crime of war. Its impact on Anne was substantial. From this experience, coupled with her summers in Macedonia and Alabama, Anne was convinced that she could fulfill her college goal of making an impact on the world through human rights.

Her undergraduate and law school experiences showed Anne different ways she could pursue a career in human rights. Because of that Anne grew to appreciate the breadth of the human rights field, and encourages others to consider the ways in which they can make a difference. She held on to her commitment to human rights and pursued roles explicitly connected to the field.

Today Anne finds that the challenges she faces when addressing human rights issues as a law professional, though frustrating at times, both energize and encourage her. She finds that surrounding herself with like-minded people who are passionate about their cause fuels her own work and helps her during disheartening moments. Her current position working as an agent of public interest as the Assistant Attorney General of Minnesota inspires her as she sees how her work impacts the lives of people in her community. As part of her community involvement Anne advises young people who are curious about a career in human rights to find something they are passionate about.

“You can be working in a soup kitchen or writing a report on human rights abuses and both of these entirely different experiences can contribute to the human rights movement.”

If you’d like to know more about Anne, you can connect with her on LinkedIn at:

www.linkedin.com/pub/anne-fuchs/44/58a/91a

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Humphrey Fellowship Reflection: Sandhya Sitoula from Nepal, Fellowship Year 2013-2014

Sandhya Sitoula is a Program Coordinator at the Center for Legal Research and Resource Development, a national level NGO in Kathmandu, Nepal. Her responsibilities include providing capacity building training to human trafficking protection actors and encouraging stakeholders to adopt a victim-centered approach to trafficking cases. She conducts research on trafficking issues, trains organizational field staff and other concerned stakeholders, and supervises Trafficking in Person (TIP) cases. In addition, she is an Executive Member of the Human Rights Committee of the Kathmandu District Court Bar Association and also works at the South Asian Women Fund as a Legal Fellowship Program Coordinator. At the moment, Sandhya’s core job is to assist victims of human trafficking and several other kinds of gender based violence. She helps them through legal representation in courts to ensure access to justice and fair trials. One of Sandhya’s main goals is to assist Sabdhya 2women and children who have suffered from victimization. In this way she focuses on empowering women and making them able to recognize and exercise their rights. Furthermore, Sandhya is engaged in initiating rights-based advocacy in different women related issues throughout the country. Sandhya received her LL.B. in Jurisprudence and Human Rights Law from the Kathmandu School of Law and went on to receive a Master of Laws in Human Rights and Gender Justice from the same institution. Sandhya was a 2013-2014 Hubert H. Humphrey Fellow at the University of Minnesota Law School.

In Sandhya’s opinion, one of the biggest human rights issues in Nepal is gender inequality. There are still provisions that ban women who are under 30 years old to apply for foreign employment, she said. The literacy rate is very low and early age marriage is another serious challenge, which the women in Nepal have to face. Sandhya herself experienced many cases of injustice in Nepal, particularly against women and female children. Because females are considered to be worth less than males, Sandhya was confronted her whole life with discrimination. But she also recognized that discrimination against women often comes along with violence and dependency on men. Growing up under these living conditions strengthened Sandhya’s will to work in the human rights field. She applied for a Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship in order to learn more about international approaches to human rights and to get in touch with diverse human rights leaders from different countries. Sandhya attributes her fellowship year at the University of Minnesota Law School to helping her realize her own potential.

The knowledge Sandhya gained during her stay in the United States was incredibly beneficial for her career on the one hand and for her personal understanding of human rights on the other hand. Sandhya realized that she unknowingly had some bias too. But during her stay abroad, Sandhya could identify her bias. From now on she tries to see the world through “human rights lenses” and live the legacy of Hubert H. Humphrey. In theory, the concept of human rights seems to be very simple to Sandhya. It is just a bundle of rights, which people receive by being born as human beings. These rights belong to all humans. In practice, however, Sandhya understands first hand that human rights are very hard to implement into societies. Nonetheless, she keeps on working for the underprivileged in Nepal every day. If she cannot change the system from one day to the next, Sandhya at least wants to share her knowledge with people who need a helping hand.

Sandhya’s advice to future Humphrey Fellows:

I would like to tell prospective fellows that this opportunity is very precious! So plan your fellowship year in a very tactful manner. Take as much as you can from the program and try to build as many strong networks and relationships. These contacts  can be very useful in the future.

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