Welcome to the 2013-2014 Humphrey Fellows

During the past few weeks, the energy around the Human Rights Center at the U of MN Law School has been increasing exponentially. All staff members are busy preparing for the arrival of the 2013-2014 Fellows, which is tomorrow! So far we have held the Host Family Orientation, to inform the Host Families on what they will be doing and how to assist their Fellows as they acclimate to Minnesota, and met with this years Research Fellows. The Research Fellows are current students at the University of Minnesota Law School who will help the Fellows with their various presentations and projects throughout the school year. We’re eager to see all the great work that they will do.

The Human Rights Center has also begun to prepare various activities for the Fellows before they begin their academic work. This includes volunteer opportunities around the Twin Cities, exploring the U of MN campus as well as the surrounding area, and fun Minneapolis things like exploring the Walker Art Center Sculpture Garden and canoeing on Lake Calhoun.

This years Fellows come from a variety of countries, mainly focused in Africa and South-East Asia. The topics that they are experts in range from sex trafficking to criminal prosecution, health care education to juvenile defendants. These Fellows have much to teach us, and hopefully we’ll be able to teach them some things as well. The careers of the Fellows involve a judge, lawyers, NGO workers, and many other valuable professions. We look forward to sharing the experiences of the 2013-2014 Humphrey Year with them, and wish the Fellows a big Minnesota welcome!


Human Rights Fellowship Reflection: Kirsten Selvig – REDRESS

KirstenThis summer, I am working with REDRESS in London, UK. This NGO does a wide range of work against torture, by pursuing both individual cases in national and international forums and in global advocacy. It’s a small group, but in the area of torture it is surprising what just a handful of lawyers can achieve.

My principal work is gathering research for the various reports that REDRESS publishes. The organization works out of a building owned by a publishing company, and there are so many reports coming out that it sometimes feels like REDRESS is another publishing company! As part of a project that will end with a report on the global state of torture, several smaller regional reports are cranking through the system. Of course, these regional reports are rather grand in their own right – Europe, Asia, the Americas and the Middle East and North Africa all have their own reports. It has been fascinating to look into the legal systems and law enforcement practices of countries all over the world, from Indonesia to Russia to the U.S. It’s been amazing to realize that, as different as circumstances and cultures are across the world, the motivations behind State torture are often quite similar. The words “national security” are thrown around a great deal, and torture to extract confessions is still prevalent across much of the world.

I’ve also learned a great deal about the value of simple perseverance when taking on tough cases. These are cases that understandably face great odds against success – no government is anxious to reveal what goes on behind closed doors. Many cases drag on for years, first through domestic courts, then through regional courts, with a possible submission to a UN body along the way. The problem of gathering evidence, when often there is only a victim’s statement, perhaps bolstered by a medical report or family testimony, is a real challenge, especially when the all the witnesses and physical evidence are located in a distant, uncooperative country. When challenging State practice or international norms, strategic thinking comes into play as well – which case has the best chance of shaping the law in a desirable direction? This kind of litigation is constantly walking the line between big picture advocacy and getting the best result for individual clients.

Living in London is a great international experience as well. Although not as exotic as many other Fellowship locations, it can really drive home the geopolitical reality of international human rights work. As I strolled down New Bond Street a few days ago, I was surprised to see that the vast majority of shoppers were Arab families, the women variously clad in burqas or hijabs, the men in sunglasses and polo shirts. Shopping bags from Louis Vuitton, Armani, Rolex, Cartier, and other luxury shops were ubiquitous. I was reminded of the point made by a woman whose husband was still locked in a Bahraini prison for being a human rights defender – it is very well for the UK government to say it disapproves of human rights abuses, but imagine the reaction if it closed its borders and the luxury stores of London were no longer open for business to those facing credible accusations of human rights violations. A small sanction perhaps (not unlike the Magnitsky Act in the US), but a small action could do more than big words.

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 Reflection: Ariel Tazkargy – Center for Reproductive Rights

ARIELThis summer, I’m working as a legal intern at the Center for Reproductive Rights in the global legal program. So far, I have had a tremendous opportunity to work on a variety of projects from all regions of the world that span the spectrum of reproductive rights. First, I researched the different ways countries in the European Union have subsidized contraception. Next, I got into the gritty details of the abortion laws in countries around the world to help update the Center’s annual publication and map, The World’s Abortion Laws. Currently, I’m writing a shadow letter on maternal mortality in a South Asian country to submit to the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

I have learned a remarkable amount so far in my one month as an intern at the Center. As someone who considered herself knowledgeable about reproductive rights laws, my time at the Center has made me realize that this is one of the most dynamic fields of law, especially in the global context, and there is always more to learn. Victories are many, but they are often small and accompanied by a sense that more can be done. Some examples from this summer alone include Ireland, where abortion is only permitted when there is a real and substantial risk to the life of the mother, and in their next session the country’s parliament will debate the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill 2013. The Bill will provide a few more women with the opportunity to end their pregnancies safely through abortion, but many women will still have to travel abroad to receive the care they need. In the United States, the Obama Administration has finally decided to comply with a court order to lift restrictions on access to emergency contraception; however, generic brands are still difficult to access for women who want and need more affordable options.

The Center has taught me to take victories and setbacks in stride. The incredibly smart and talented women and men with whom I work inspire me every day to continue to “fight the good fight” and not get discouraged when news of yet another restriction on women’s health makes headlines. The Center has also taught me that advocacy is a long process that requires many efforts. It is important for each of us,  as women , as doctors or lawyers or writers or politicians, to contribute what we can to the movement so that we may see the day where women have full and unimpeded access to all the reproductive health services and information they deserve.

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 Reflections: Nicole Kast – MAP Bolivia

IMG_2973 (2) (640x480)El Cristo de la Concordia stares down at me as I walk the few blocks between the office and the bus stop.  At just over thirty-three meters tall, it is the second largest statue of its kind in the world, larger even than the famous Cristo in Rio de Janeiro.  The outstretched arms loom over the city of Cochabamba and seem to be visible from almost any location.  Over the last two weeks it has become a habit to look up towards the Cristo on my way home.  It seems emblematic of my time here.

I discovered MAP Bolivia after receiving a report, published around six years ago, detailing MAP’s success in training and supporting community health workers in the department of Cochabamba.  The professor who shared the report with me thought that I might find it interesting that they used the same methodology I used in my work in rural areas in Mexico.  She was right.  After a few e-mail exchanges, I was hooked.

In addition to the community health worker training program, MAP Bolivia has education, community-based rehabilitation, family health promotion, and child sexual abuse prevention programs.  The main offices are located in a town outside of Cochabamba.  From the windows of the office building you can just see the snow–brushed mountains which wrap around the city.

So—back to the Cristo de la Concordia.  I see two important pillars to the work here.  One is the belief that health is beyond pathology and intricately linked to family structure, community relationships, education and social inclusion.  Initially the diversity of programs at MAP seemed overwhelming, but conversations with program coordinators and the directors of MAP Bolivia themselves revealed how linked they all are in the context of community health.  The combined efforts of different programs support the community as a whole instead of focusing on one issue or even one group.

The second pillar is undoubtedly faith.  Prior to MAP, I had never worked at a faith-based organization.  Yet I recognize that a large percentage of international aid and global public health work is performed under the umbrella of religious or faith-based institutions.  I saw this as an opportunity to see this kind of organization at work.  Every Monday morning at MAP, representatives from the different programs come together at the main offices to spend a few hours in song, prayer, reflection and planning.  The time is always set aside and the atmosphere is open and relaxed.  Those attending sit in a circle and share their thoughts on the activities of the past week, on the work in general, and sometimes on experiences not directly related to the work but somehow of importance or relevance for reflection.  The weekly space creates a sense of community within the organization but also provides an opportunity for members to discuss, to debate, and to re-clarify the mission and vision behind their work.

In Latin America, where religious imagery, beliefs and institutions permeate all aspects of social and political life and play a complex role, such reflection is critical.  Still today, religious sects divide and conquer in many rural communities, often creating conflict between families and neighbors.  When organizations like MAP arrive, they are asked to identify themselves with a particular church.  If they do, such an affiliation usually means that one segment of the population will refuse to participate in programs.  Weekly discussions help MAP staff to consider and discuss how best to approach the issue of religious affiliation without denying that the organization is fundamentally based in Christian principles.  The situation is not unlike what I witnessed in Mexico during my four years working there, but it continues to be an important reminder of how careful international aid workers, including public health professionals, must be in order to effectively create change.

Below are some pictures of Cochabamba:

IMG_3564 (640x480)IMG_3616 (640x480)

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 Reflections: Umar Zulqarnain – Childhope Asia

Umar Zulqarnain

This summer I am working at Childhope Asia in Manila, Philippines. The organization advocates for street children through various means. I will be spending some time working in all of their departments throughout this summer. For the past two weeks I have been working with their social work/child psychology department. The experience has been amazing and I can’t express how thankful I am to be given this opportunity.

The department I am currently working with has several teams that go to different cities around Manila to provide education and guidance to the children. Each team serves a single area and gets to know the local children very well.

One thing I found quite shocking was the lack of desire by the youth to get off the streets. Many of these kids were abused or neglected by their families, some of them have parents who left them – most of them have seen broken relationships throughout their lives. The kids find that sense of belonging and comfort with their fellow street youth, the kids become accustomed to living without structure or authority. The kids give up a life off the streets for a place where they feel in control, where they won’t have to feel neglected again.

Some people may say that the kids chose that life, so why help them? The reality is they have suffered so much in their lives that they choose to live on the street because that is the only place where they feel in control of the type of suffering. Such an assertion also comes with the assumption that they have many options to get off the streets. There is a lot of poverty in the city for a reason, even those who try to get off the streets find it very difficult.

Childhope Asia offers many routes to help get the kids off the streets, one of which is attempting to convince the child to live at a shelter. Since life at a shelter comes with rules and regulations, as I mentioned the children are reluctant. It takes about 6 months of coaching/therapy to convince a child to admit themselves to a shelter. Currently, one of the children is interested and we will be taking her on a tour of a shelter next week. I’m skeptical about the conditions of these shelters but I guess I will see.

As bad as the conditions are for these children, one thing I always noticed on them was a big smile. It’s amazing to see that even through all the hardship they face daily, the kids always find a reason to smile. During the classes it becomes quite apparent the love and companionship they have found in one another, the jokes and the laughter are heartwarming. In the end they are just normal kids who just weren’t given the same opportunities in life as the rest of us.

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.

Judge Philip Aguinaldo to Lecture on Anti Human Trafficking

Congratulations to Philip Aguinaldo (Philippines, 2012-13). He was recently invited by the Philippine Judicial Academy, the education arm of the Supreme Court of the Philippines to be the lecturer on Anti-Human Trafficking Advocacy on July 5, 2013 in Manila, as well as a moderator and group facilitator for the same training on July 3rd and 5th. Judges, prosecutors, public attorneys, and court personnel will participate in the training.

Human Rights Fellowship Reflections: Spencer Peck – Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

Spencer Peck, smilingI am based at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in Kigali, Rwanda. FAO is the “implementing agency” for a Global Environmental Facility funded project that addresses goals of several UN Conventions–most notably, the UN Convention to Combat Desertification. I am very surprised and excited to be working on a project that is part of a topic that I studied so recently; it almost feels like some sort of sign that I should pursue this topic professionally. In fact, I specifically chose to write about this convention last fall in the Law School’s International Environmental Law seminar, because I wanted to work in Africa on the issue of land degradation.

The project is calfled the Kagera Transboundary Agro-Ecosystems Management Project (TAMP) and seeks to reduce land degradation/desertification by introducing multifaceted sustainable agriculture focused land management practices (“integrated agro-ecosystems”) among smallholder farmers throughout Rwanda. Ultimately the project will increase food security, and the livelihoods of some of the poorest people in the world, which aligns perfectly with FAO’s overall mission. The project also complements the Nile Basin Initiative, as the Kagera River is the most remote tributary of the Nile River.

I’ve learned a surprising amount about sustainable land management technologies, Rwandan land use practices and tenure systems, the chemical and physical status of land in Rwanda, the process of international, regional, and national/local cooperation collaboration, the inner workings of the FAO, the surprising array of U.N. agencies located in Rwanda. The FAO also sponsored a booth at the Ministry of Agriculture’s 8th Annual Agriculture show. It was really interesting to see all the projects FAO has, as well as all the NGOs at work on Agriculture (and human rights) in Rwanda. In the coming weeks I will spend a large amount of time in the field observing how the project is actually being implemented and influencing land degradation and livelihoods. I am quite excited about seeing the countryside and the tangible (and intangible) outcomes of this great project!!

I think I’ve learned the most, however, about Rwandan culture thanks to the wonderful host family who generously agreed to host me. Everyday I learn something new about the history of this country and its warm, compassionate people. But more importantly I witness first-hand how dedicated the young masses are to maintaining Rwanda’s trajectory of peaceful, rapid socio-economic development. I hope the pace of this exchange continues, as it is interesting beyond description.

In my free time I mostly hang out with my host family, visiting their friends and family. But I also frequently explore Kigali. Two weeks ago, I went with a group of U.N. Volunteers and participated in “umuganda” (collective community action), preparing a tree nursery, in a rural area near Muhanga, Rwanda. You can view some pictures here (I’m wearing the straw hat in the pictures). It was great to work with a local community, to visit rural Rwanda, and to do some manual labor.

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