Rights Wire

The Human Rights Blog of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice


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Placing women’s rights issues in Burma on the UPR agenda in November

By Jennifer Li

The rules for the Spaghetti Tower Challenge are simple and, as far as ice-breakers go, an interesting way to start off a three-day workshop with women’s rights NGOs in Burma. Take 20 strands of dried pasta, a few marshmallows, some Scotch tape, and build the highest tower you can. Just don’t tape the pasta to the floor.

The array of architectural innovation was impressive – though the engineering was, admittedly, less sound. Cell phone towers and leaning towers of pasta scattered across the floor space of our hotel conference room in Pyin Oo Lwin, Myanmar [Burma], about an hour’s car ride east of Mandalay. Bobble a marshmallow at the top, and suddenly it’s Jenga.

It is an improbable, ridiculous, but nevertheless accurate metaphor for Burma’s human rights situation. In January 2015, a team from the Asia Law and Justice Program at the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice – represented by Professors Elisabeth Wickeri and Joey Lee, along with 3L Fordham law students Dana Swanson and Jennifer Li – traveled with members of the New York-based Global Justice Center to Pyin Oo Lwin. The New York team met with over two-dozen members of the Women’s League of Burma (WLB) – a coalition of community-based women’s rights organizations – to introduce the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) as an additional tool to bring women’s rights issues to the attention of the international community. The three-day workshop, consisting of an introduction to the UPR process and the drafting of a research work plan on designated thematic issue areas, culminated in a commitment by all participants to work collectively on a stakeholder submission in advance of Burma’s next UPR in November 2015.

In the four years since Burma’s democratic transition began in 2011, the country has made notable strides forward in human rights reforms, including establishing a National Human Rights Commission and releasing scores of political prisoners. Burma’s human rights record, however, continues to be marked by political and ethnic tensions that serve as flashpoints for communal violence – not only between the Buddhist majority and Muslim minority, as widely reported in the international press, but also against local Christian minorities. Clashes between the national army and non-state groups have contributed to the forced relocation of hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) to southeast Burma, in addition to the nearly half a million refugees that continue to live in temporary camps in Thailand. Calls for constitutional and electoral reforms have rung hollow.

Serious and persistent violations against the most vulnerable populations are rampant, including violence against women and girls. Burma’s protracted internal armed conflict, spurred by ethnic and political divisions, have had a disproportionate impact on women and girls. A recent WLB report documented over 100 cases of systemic, state-sponsored sexual violence in ethnic communities – a conservative estimate of the number of actual violations when considering the volume of unreported incidents. Even as evidence suggests that the use of sexual violence has been used as a strategy and tool by the military regime, impunity provisions in the constitution prevent bringing the perpetrators to justice.

It was against this backdrop that Burma participated in its first UPR in January 2011. The UPR, then a relatively new UN mechanism whereby the General Assembly reviews each country’s human rights record on a four-year cycle, was a chance for Burma to present on the international stage its commitment to human rights reforms, and to engage in an interactive dialogue with other nations on a wide range of human rights issues. Not surprisingly, the Burmese delegation failed to provide meaningful responses in many issue areas, including judicial reform and ending military impunity. As Human Rights Watch reported at the time, even as the Burmese delegation was dispatched to Geneva for the UPR, the government army was forcing hundreds of prisoners to serve as porters for army units in combat areas in Karen State – in clear violation of international humanitarian law proscribing forced labor.

As with UN treaty body reviews, NGOs have the opportunity to help shape the conversation during UPR dialogues, both through written submissions as well as in-person lobbying at the review in Geneva. The lack of commentary in 2011 on the pervasive violations against women was a reflection of not only Burma’s fledgling engagement with democratic institutions, but also the lack of participation – whether due to limited opportunities or resources – by women’s rights NGOs.

Given that Burma has yet to accede to six of the nine core international human rights treaties, NGO participation in Burma’s UPR is particularly critical. Unlike treaty-body reviews, the UPR is unique precisely because it provides members of the international community a platform to review each country’s full spectrum of human rights conditions, not just those rights that the country under review is obligated by treaty to uphold. Yet despite Burma having acceded to the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 1997, of the nearly 200 human rights recommendations Burma received in 2011, only six related to women’s rights issues. This may be explained by the fact that, of the 25 joint and independent NGO reports that were submitted to the UPR Working Group prior to the review, only one submission was authored by Burmese women’s rights groups. The lack of participation by women’s rights NGOs during Burma’s first cycle UPR was a significant missed opportunity—one that should not be repeated now.

Before the end of the year, Burmese delegates will meet once again with other UN Member States in an interactive dialogue for its second cycle review before the UPR Working Group. As part of its mandate, the Working Group will examine strides the government has made in response to recommendations from the first cycle. Incidentally, in the same way that Burma’s first UPR coincided with the beginning of political reform in 2011, its second cycle UPR will occur within days of the forthcoming general elections in November. Four years after Burma’s first review, it remains to be seen whether the Burmese government will cooperate in providing a meaningful assessment of its human rights record – including an acknowledgment of its shortcomings in women’s rights – or continue to stonewall international demands for reform. Regardless, now is the moment for NGOs to pressure both the international community and the Burmese government to adopt a critical assessment of women’s rights in Burma.

Jennifer Li is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire. She also participated in the Asia Law and Justice Program’s training on the UPR process with women’s rights groups in Burma in January 2015.


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Human rights defender training in South Africa helps empower LGBTI refugees

By Hailey Flynn, Takahisa Juba and Urooj Rahman

When we began our human rights defender training in South Africa by asking participants to give examples of discrimination they faced as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) refugees, we didn’t expect many people to share. What we heard, however, was an outpouring of tragic events. Participants openly discussed how their partner or friend had been killed and how they had lost their livelihood and homes because of their sexual identity. Some even bore the scars of recent physical assault. We were there to work together to overcome this endemic abuse, and were inspired by their courage because, even in the face of such tragedy, they chose to empower themselves and others.

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Student Hailey Flynn works with a small group of trainees.

A few stories come to mind as we remember the dozens of stories of tragedy and resilience. One participant discussed how she was repeatedly raped and sexually assaulted by her landlord who would threaten to evict her if she didn’t comply with his demands. However, this individual took matters into her own hands and decided to go to the police in order to put a stop to the abuse she was facing. Her efforts to end the abuse paid off and the police finally arrested the landlord. However, many of the other participants did not have such triumphant conclusions to their stories; all of the participants still endure ongoing abuse as a result of their sexual orientation, gender identity and nationality.

Facing persecution in their home countries because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, many LGBTI refugees have fled to South Africa in search of a safe haven. Since South Africa’s constitution and domestic laws are liberal and progressive, they believed that these legal protections would provide them with safety from discrimination based on their sexual orientation and ethnic origin. Rather than finding a safe, supportive environment, however, these individuals continue to face discrimination and violence because of their sexual orientation or gender identity and their nationality.

In spite of the overwhelming challenges in South Africa, including physical assault, difficulty in finding housing and work, harassment from both private and public actors, and from living in a foreign country, many LGBTI refugees wanted to empower themselves by learning how they could advocate for their rights and the rights of others in the LGBTI refugee community. In November 2014, the Walter Leitner International Human Rights Clinic partnered with People Against Suffering Oppression and Poverty (PASSOP), a South African non-profit organization that advocates for refugees and asylum seekers, to conduct a 3-day human rights defender training for LGBTI refugees in Cape Town, South Africa. Supervised by Clinic Director, Professor Chi Mgbako, five students developed a training manual that defined the human rights violations that the South African LGBTI refugee community faces and identified the relevant international, regional and domestic mechanisms to redress these human rights abuses. The manual also includes instructions on how to submit shadow reports or complaints to the relevant human rights mechanisms.

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Student Takahisa Juba discusses human rights mechanisms during the training.

This training enabled the participants to garner practical knowledge about the human rights framework and to understand how to effectively fight for their own rights as well as the rights of their fellow LGBTI refugees. Since all of the trainees had personally experienced human rights violations, these injustices motivated them to participate in the training and work to ensure rights for all. The advocacy skills that the training focused on not only empowered them to fight for their own rights, but also encouraged them to defend the rights of other survivors of human rights abuses.

It was an energy-filled three days of training and the participants’ enthusiasm was overwhelming. The first day kicked off with an overview of the human rights legal framework. Then, we dove into the relevant rights that protect LGBTI refugees specifically and covered what international, regional and domestic laws enumerate those rights. To test their knowledge on the material, quizzes and interactive activities were included throughout the training. Participation in these games not only reinforced the trainees’ comprehension of the material, but also fostered a competitive and enthusiastic atmosphere.

Despite having rights, these participants knew all too well that many people and institutions often fail to hold perpetrators responsible for human rights violations. As a result, documentation of abuses and demanding accountability are crucial to redressing human rights abuses. A significant portion of the training was dedicated to reconciling what rights LGBTI refugees actually have with the reality of how to enforce those rights when they are violated. We explained how various human rights monitoring mechanisms—including the Human Rights Committee, African Commission, South African Commission on Human Rights, Committee Against Torture, Human Rights Council (the Universal Periodic Review Process and Special Procedures), the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the South African Human Rights Commission—can be used to enforce the relevant rights and how each of these mechanisms can be used most effectively. Showing that there are available remedies and methods of accountability gave the participants the tools to change their circumstances and empower themselves. We also devoted a session on fact-finding through interviewing and non-interviewing methods, which is an essential skill-set for documenting abuses and seeking accountability.

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Student Urooj Rahman gives a presentation as part of the human rights defender training.

With new knowledge and tools in hand, the participants concluded the training by envisioning a brighter future. Trainees broke into several groups and designed strategic plans to hold the South African government accountable for protecting LGBTI refugee rights. These plans laid out a framework for addressing specific rights violations through engaging a particular human rights monitoring mechanism. Moreover, they paved a path forward for participants to continue to fight for their own rights and for those of their fellow LGBTI refugees.

The trainees left feeling empowered and optimistic, as they were now better aware of their rights and how to protect them. The training also made us realize the importance of human rights work and having the tools to advocate for and with marginalized members of society. It was a moving experience for us to see that the knowledge we shared allowed many of the trainees to feel invigorated to advocate for the LGBTI refugee community. We feel fortunate to have had this opportunity to work with these courageous participants who have had the resilience to stand up for the rights they deserve. Our hope is that our training imparted useful information for their advocacy work, which will allow them to live safer, better lives. We are hopeful that the trainees will utilize the vast amount of information they learned and demand that their guaranteed rights under South African, regional and international law are respected, protected and fulfilled.

Hailey Flynn, Takahisa Juba and Urooj Rahman are a 2L student, alumnus and 3L student, respectively. They participated in the Walter Leitner International Human Rights Clinic.


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Pushing back against oppression and finding inspiration at a LGBTI rights training in South Africa

By Tessa Juste

When Beatrice* got up to speak, I had no idea what to expect. She was soft-spoken, and admittedly terrified to speak in front of the group of conference attendees. But for the sound of her voice, the small room packed with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Intersex (“LGBTI”) rights advocates and activists was silent.

“Torture is our living reality,” she said. “Uganda’s Parliament passed the anti-homosexuality act earlier this year. It has since been nullified by the courts, but there is still so much abuse from both state and non-state actors. Government hospitals refuse to offer services the minute they identify you as an LGBTI person. It becomes humiliating when they call a whole bunch of people over to see the homosexual. The LGBTI community right now would rather stay home than seek services from these hostile service providers.”

And this was just one of many heart-wrenching anecdotes shared at the Conference on the Rights of LGBTI Persons under International and Regional Law in Pretoria, South Africa. Uganda is not unique as an African country in terms of its state-sanctioned mistreatment of LGTBI persons. LGBTI individuals, their families, and their allies are at extreme risk of physical harm, social denigration, and being barred from government protections and services because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. These challenges are precisely why the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice’s International Law and Development in Africa Clinic organized the conference in partnership with AIDs Rights South Africa (“ARASA”) and the UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (“OHCHR”). The conference was held in the first week of November at the University of Pretoria’s law school facility.

I first became involved with this project during my 2L spring semester as a student in the Walter Leitner International Human Rights Clinic. Under the supervision of the Leitner Center’s Director of Special Projects in Africa, Professor Jeanmarie Fenrich, and Crowley Fellow in International Human Rights Zach Hudson, two other students and I helped draft a training manual in collaboration with the United Nations on the rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Intersex (“LGBTI”) persons under international law, and how these rights can be promoted and protected using the international and regional human rights systems. During my 3L fall semester—this time through the International Law and Development in Africa Clinic—it was decided that we would conduct a training on LGBTI rights based on the manual in South Africa with LGBTI rights activists from all across Africa. My fellow 3Ls, Alexandria Strauss and Vincent D’Aquila, joined the team and we spent several months refining and editing the training manual to apply specifically to protecting and promoting LGBTI rights in sub-Saharan Africa using the international and African regional human rights systems. Then, since each of us students would be responsible for teaching a portion of the training manual at the conference, we practiced as often as possible and in front of as many students we could entice with the promise of free pizza.

My primary role at the conference was to teach the introductory section on international treaty law. Even though I was familiar with the training materials after so many months working on this project, I was fairly nervous about presenting in the days leading up to the training. Apart from typical public speaking jitters, I was simply in awe of the people attending the training. They were all members of organizations working courageously to further the rights of LGBTI individuals in their respective countries, and I wondered whether I would be enough of an ‘authoritative’ speaker to effectively convey information that I believed could be very helpful in their future work. As it turned out, this was one of the warmest, most receptive groups of people I have ever come across.

Several LGBTI advocacy organizations from across sub-Saharan Africa sent representatives to attend the training conference. These representatives hailed from Botswana, Cameroon, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Nigeria, Uganda, South Africa, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. The activists all had varying levels of experience in utilizing the international and African regional human rights systems, and this created quite a beautiful patchwork of diverse opinions. The three days of the conference were peppered with many thought provoking questions as well as powerful anecdotes of the training participants’ work as LGBTI rights advocates.

Beyond the technical successes of the conference, it was a joy to see friendships forged, and in some cases, rekindled, between everyone there, including the training participants, those of us representing Fordham and the Leitner Center, and our partners from ARASA and the UN OHCHR. We did more than learn together; we ate all our meals together, spent downtime together, and one night after training, a few of the participants even organized an ad hoc breakout session for queer and trans women at the conference. This was a genuine success of human connection over a heartfelt common cause on both the professional and personal levels, and it was privilege to share in that experience.

I am so grateful for having been afforded the opportunity to be a part of a project that offered an additional set of tools that these activists might use in the struggle to ensure that the rights of LGBTI persons are protected in each of their respective countries and regions. In a time when it seems that the only news that makes it out of Africa on the subject of LGBTI individuals is news about persecution and fear, it was inspiring be reminded that the dominant narrative that denigrates sexual orientation and gender identity minorities has a steadfast opposition—opposition like Beatrice.

You could have heard a pin drop as she wrapped up her remarks to the group. And before she opened the floor to questions, her final words reverberated throughout the room. “We are faced with the fact that people in positions of power advocate for LGBTI individuals to be put in positions where they’re tormented and humiliated constantly. It’s very demeaning to be constantly referred to as the scum of the community, or un-African beings of our society. Every other day since the law was passed you hear about an LGBTI person who was attacked, and what were once safe spaces are targeted.”

There are amazing people on the front lines of this fight to live and love in peace, and they are doing remarkably brave work to push back against oppressive forces in the face of daunting obstacles. I believe it is incumbent upon us as allies in the fight for all human rights to provide them support in any way that we can.

*Please note this name has been changed for safety reasons.

Tessa Juste is a 3L student at Fordham Law School, where she participated in the Walter Leitner International Human Rights Clinic and the International Law and Development Clinic in Africa.