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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

United Nations Expert Hears Moving Testimony from Hmong Families on Grave Desecrations in Thailand

After listening to four hours of testimony describing the Hmong grave exhumations at Wat Tham Krabok in Thailand, United Nations Special Rapporteur James Anaya addressed several hundred people gathered at the hearing, stating, “What I have heard are accounts that are very serious -- accounts of assault to culture, assault to a people.� Anaya is independent expert on the human rights of indigenous people. He visited Minnesota on December 10 at the invitation of the University of Minnesota’s Human Rights Program to learn more about the desecration of an estimated 900 graves in Thailand. At the end of the hearing, Professor Anaya committed to raise further concerns about the diggings with the Thai Government and then “to formulate an opinion, views, and communicate those views to the government and to the Human Rights Council in a report that will be made public and available for you.�
U.N. ConsultationMs. PaChia Yang and witnesses, Mr. Lee Thao and Mr.Kao Xiong, testifies at U.N. Consultation on the desecration of Hmong graves. Photo courtesy of University of Minnesota.

The consultation with the UN expert was the culmination of years of work by the University’s Human Rights Program, Minnesota public officials, and community activists. According to the Human Rights Program’s Director, Professor Barbara Frey, “Professor Anaya’s visit gave us the chance to pull together all the research and fact-finding that has been done and to present it as a full case for the United Nations’ consideration.� The hearing featured a dozen witnesses, including family members, Hmong shaman, and community representatives who had been involved in investigating the case and advocating for a satisfactory resolution with the leadership of the monastery and the Thai Government. More than 200 Hmong community members attended the hearing, along with human rights advocates and students.
The hearing was introduced by Professor Frey and Professor David Wippman, Dean of the University of Minnesota Law School, who noted, “Our collective work will leave the law clearer and more enforceable, will add to the protection of the cultural and religious rituals of indigenous groups, and will leave our students better prepared to take on the challenges facing our global community.�
Minnesota State Senator Mee Moua gave a welcome by video, as she was out of the country at the time of the hearing. Senator Moua asked the UN expert to “help us to recognize the wrong that has been perpetrated…Let this be the last time any people should ever have to witness their loved ones violated in this manner.�
After a general overview of the case from Hmong activist Yee Chang and Mr. Vang Xiong X. Toyed, of the National Hmong Grave Desecration Committee, the UN Special Rapporteur heard from traditional Hmong funeral expert, Shong Ger Thao, who testified that “the desecration of Hmong graves is the most fundamental and deeply painful violation of all violations against the Hmong…because it violates not only tradition, but history of an entire people.� Asked by the UN Expert if anything could be done to heal the spiritual damage brought about by the exhumations, Nhia Yer Yang, responded that there were no known healing ceremonies to restore the spirit of the deceased in this situation, in which the grave site is entirely demolished and the body removed.
Affected family members gave gripping testimony about the shock of witnessing the exhumations, the ongoing spiritual and psychological consequences of the exhumations and their fear of further harm.
Lee Yang spoke about his concerns for his family and children as they are constantly falling ill because of the desecration of his parents’ graves.
“Alive or dead, I will always be upset,� said Lia Thao, as she described her feelings on the digging of her husband’s grave.
Pa Ze Xiong told the U.N expert that “we’re not here to ask for a sum of money. We’re here to ask the international community to secure our right as a people to never be violated ever again.�
Chue Thao spoke to the UN expert asserting his fear that the “Thai authorities will remove or desecrate� his father’s grave that is still intact at the burial site of temple Wat Tham Krabok.
University of Minnesota law students, Katie Devlaminck and Kevin Morrison, summarized the legal arguments on behalf of the Hmong people, based on violations of their rights to non-discrimination and to practice their cultural and religious beliefs. The students asked the UN expert to “recognize these violations against the Hmong people and demand that the Government of Thailand ensure no further Hmong grave exhumations take place at Wat Tham Krabok or anywhere else in the country without the express consent of family members.�
The United Nations expert was clearly moved by the testimony which he called “disturbing� while quickly adding that it was at “the same time encouraging to see the courage and the determination by the people to have their rights respected and the violation of their rights vindicated.� Anaya pledged to the community that “I will take measures that will help restore some level of dignity and some level of trust and perhaps some level of understanding, mutual understanding, between the Hmong people and the rest of the Thai society…this is a matter of concern that you can rest assure that I will address.�
Professor Anaya was welcomed to the Twin Cities the night before the hearing at a reception at the University of Minnesota featuring elected officials, Hmong community leaders and human rights advocates. Mayor Chris Coleman welcomed the UN expert to the community, noting that the suffering in the Hmong community, and especially for the City’s newest immigrants from Wat Tham Krabok, had led him and the St. Paul City Council to take various steps to try to resolve the crisis. Other public officials speaking at the event included Minnesota State Representative Cy Thao, Northfield Commissioner of Human Rights, Judy Dirks. Singer-songwriters Tou SaiKo Lee and Logan Moua of The New Sky Development provided entertainment.
Carleton College graduate, PaChia Yang, was presented with the Sullivan Ballou Foundation’s award for her work in interviewing families of the victims and writing up an extensive analysis of the human rights violations in the grave desecration case. The award was presented to PaChia Yang by the Foundation’s board members, Judge Bruce Peterson and Elissa Peterson.
U.N. HearingVictim family members and witnesses at the U.N. Hearing on the desecration of Hmong graves pose with U.N. Special Rapporteur James Anaya during welcoming reception at the University of Minnesota on December 9, 2008. L-R: Chue Thao, Lee Thao, Lee Yang, Professor James Anaya, Kao Xiong, Pa Ze Xiong, and Soua Dao Thao. Not pictured is Lia Thao.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Wal-Mart has perfected the art of union-busting, researcher says


By Barb Kucera, Workday editor
26 October 2008

MINNEAPOLIS - Want to understand why so many American workers find it so hard to organize unions in their workplaces? Look no further than Wal-Mart, a researcher for Human Rights Watch says.

Wal-Mart is a case study "of the abysmal workers' rights regime we have here in the United States," said Carol Pier, senior researcher on labor rights and trade for Human Rights Watch, an independent, nongovernmental organization that investigates human rights violations around the world.

In a speech last week at the University of Minnesota, Pier described her two-and-one-half-year study of Wal-Mart's labor-management record, which culminated in a 210-page report, issued in 2007, titled "Discounting Rights: Wal-Mart's Violation of U.S. Workers' Right to Freedom of Association."

The report found that while many American companies use weak U.S. laws to stop workers from organizing, the retail giant stands out for the sheer magnitude and aggressiveness of its anti-union apparatus. Many of its anti-union tactics are lawful in the United States, though they combine to undermine workers' rights. Others run afoul of soft U.S. laws.
"I like to think about it as a 'death by small cuts' strategy," Pier told the audience gathered at the University of Minnesota Law School. "And the effect is devastating."
In the course of her research, Pier interviewed dozens of current and former Wal-Mart "associates" (the term the company uses for its employees) and supervisors in six states and pored through thousands of pages of material from the National Labor Relations Board, the federal agency that enforces U.S. labor law.
Wal-Mart uses a subtle form of union-busting that starts with new employee orientation, where training includes watching an anti-union video, Pier said. The corporation has a 24-hour hotline for managers to report any signs of union organizing activity and a "labor relations team" is quickly dispatched to assess the situation.
Depending on the level of union activity, workers may be subjected to mandatory "captive audience" meetings where they are lectured on the evils of unionism. In some stores, Wal-Mart has crossed the line from subtle to heavy-handed by conducting surveillance on employees, disciplining and firing some.
When those actions are taken – clearly in violation of U.S. labor law – the failings of the system become clear, Pier said. Wal-Mart takes advantage of the exceedingly slow NLRB process to draw out cases for years. When a worker finally wins a case, the company faces no penalty – other than the requirement to reinstate the worker with back pay (minus anything he or she earned in other employment) and to post a notice saying "they won't do it again."
With nearly 1 million employees in the United States, Wal-Mart is the country's largest private employer. Yet none of these workers belongs to a union. Employees at two stores in Quebec, Canada, finally won union representation, but both stores have been closed – the second one earlier this month.
The International Labor Organization has cited the lack of penalties – and the fact that workers can be "permanently replaced" if they strike – as reasons that U.S. labor law fails to meet international human rights standards, Pier said.
The proposed Employee Free Choice Act – supported by Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama and many Congressional Democrats – would address some of the shortcomings in U.S. labor law by levying fines of up to $20,000 for each violation and permitting workers to choose union representation by signing cards, bypassing the drawn-out NLRB election process during which many employer violations occur.
Still, Pier worries the new law would not be effective without a broader campaign to improve people's knowledge of unions. Companies like Wal-Mart could still continue the kind of early union-busting – such as showing videos during employee orientation – that create a chilling climate for organizing.
"EFCA will help," Pier said of the proposed legislation. "EFCA's necessary. I don't think it's the fix."
Pier's talk was sponsored by The Institute for Global Studies and the University of
Minnesota's Human Rights Program and co-sponsored by the Labor Education Service, publisher of Workday Minnesota.
For more information
Read Pier's report, "Discounting Rights: Wal-Mart's Violation of U.S. Workers' Right to Freedom of Association," http://hrw.org/reports/2007/us0507/
This article was taken from Workday Minnesota

Friday, October 31, 2008

Frey Reminds UN First Committee Delegates that Human Rights are Core Obligations regarding Arms Transfers

Because the promotion of human rights is one of the central purposes of the United Nations, UN Members must consider the human rights consequences of their arms exports, testified Barbara Frey in a recent side meeting of the UN General Assembly’s First Committee.The First Committee, charged with considering security issues at the UN, is working toward drafting an Arms Trade Treaty to control the export of arms used to commit atrocities.

Frey at UN.JPG

On Thursday October 16 Human Rights Program Director Barbara Frey joined a panel of experts to discuss the legal issues involved in the proposed Arms Trade Treaty being considered by the General Assembly of the United Nations (UN Professor Frey has worked extensively on the issue of small arms control and is the former UN Special Rapporteur on the Prevention of Human Rights Violations Committed with Small Arms and Lights Weapons. More information on Small Arms and Light Weapons is available on the Human Rights Program’s website, accessible by clicking here.
The UN panel was sponsored by Amnesty International as an effort to understand the issues involved in drafting a treaty to establish common international criteria for arms exports. Since 2003 Amnesty International, Oxfam, and International Action Network have spearheaded the Control Arms Campaign, an international movement in support of the Arms Trade Treaty.
The Control Arms Campaign states that its ultimate goal is to reduce the human causalities associated with the proliferation of small arms. The proposed Arms Trade Treaty looks to create international standards on the use, management, and transfer of arms, based on the following “5 Golden Rules:� “States shall not authorize international transfers of conventional arms or ammunition where they will:
(i) be used or are likely to be used for gross violations of international human rights law or serious violations of international human rights law.
(ii) have an impact that would clearly undermine sustainable development or involve corrupt practices;
(iii) provoke or exacerbate armed conflict in violation of their obligations under the UN Charter and existing treaties.
(iv) contribute to an existing pattern of violent crime.
(v) risk being diverted for one of the above outcomes or for acts of terrorism.�
Barbara Frey was joined on the panel by Clare de Silva, a lawyer from Amnesty International, and Robert M Young from the International Committee of the Red Cross. Professor Frey’s briefing focused on the human rights obligations of states who export arms into situations where there is a high probability that they will be used to commit atrocities.
Currently, the Arms Trade Treaty is gaining traction in the General Assembly. Several countries have recently finished drafting an Arms Trade Treaty resolution, which includes the mandate for an Open Ended Working Group that will meet in 2009 to discuss how to best formulate and implement an arms control treaty in the framework of the UN. For further information about the Control Arms Campaign and the Arms Trade Treaty visit their website.

Friday, September 26, 2008

September 22, 2008 - International Criminal Court Prosecution

September 22, 2008 (NEW YORK) — Sudanese Vice President called upon the African Union Peace and Security Council today to take a strong stance for the suspension of the indictment of the Sudanese President by the International Criminal Court Prosecutor.

sudan vp
Sudan’s Vice President Ali Osman Taha speaks in parliament in the capital Khartoum on July 14 2008 (AFP)
In a meeting held Monday evening on the sideline of the United Nations Assembly General meeting, Taha urged the regional body to strongly request the UN Security Council to defer the prosecution and the investigation by the ICC.
"We hope that your meeting today comes out with strong and clear request to the Security Council to rectify the situation and overcome the request of the International Criminal Court Chief Prosecutor" Taha said today in New York.
"We also hope that the meeting of the General Assembly provides an opportunity for the Council to coordinate in this regard with all regional and international organizations that rejected the ICC prosecutor move, to work with it and the African countries members of the Security Council to achieve what is requested according to a clear mechanism and timeframe for action." Taha stressed.
The African Union had asked the U.N. Security Council to invoke article 16 of Rome Statue and suspend any indictment of Sudan’s head of state.
Libya and South Africa sought to force a suspension in the UNAMID extension resolution adopted on July 31 but failed to get the required number of votes and instead accepted a watered down paragraph taking note of the African Union (AU) concern regarding the ICC move.
Since the issue was not raised by any delegation.
Hopes for the introduction of an Article 16 resolution appear to be fading primarily due to the stances of the veto wielding Western members of the UNSC namely US, UK and France.
UK and France diplomats hinted to their desire to see concessions from Sudan before they would consider supporting such a resolution.
But the US, which had long standing opposition to the ICC, appeared uncompromising on bringing war crimes perpetrators to justice. Washington abstained from voting on the UNAMID extension resolution over the text which included reference to the AU concern over Bashir’s indictment.
Taha also urged the AU peace and Security Council to ensure the collaboration of "all the concerned parties" to bring rebels to the table of negotiations, saying government efforts to end the crisis could not be successful without reaching a peaceful solution with them.
He also spoke about Khartoum efforts to implement Abuja peace agreement particularly the deal reached with the former rebel leader who returned to Darfur to protest the ill implementation of the 2006 peace deal.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

The Story Behind the Stories...

Friends of the Human Rights Program (HRP) and the Creative Writing Program in the Department of English gathered at the Weismann Art Museum on May 30 to listen to acclaimed writers Patricia Hampl and James Dawes discuss writing about human rights. The event was a celebration of the University's "Scribes for Human Rights Fellowship." an initiative created in 2006 to support a Master of Fine Arts student to work with the HRP as a writer-in-residence. The Scribe serves as a storyteller - one who can transmit the deeply personal stories in human rights cases to a broader audience. Dawes and Hampl small.JPG
James Dawes and Patricia Hampl

Dawes, professor of U.S. and Comparative Literature at Macalester College and author of That the World May Know: Bearing Witness to Atrocity, and Hampl, a creative writing professor in the Department of English at the University of Minnesota and author of the memoir, The Florist's Daughter, among several other award-winning books, engaged in a thoughtful discussion about exposing human rights abuses using the written word.
According to Dawes, "human rights work is fundamentally a matter of storytelling." But, this storytelling, not just using words, but also images, can sometimes have unintended consequences. Dawes relayed once such instance that took place in Dakha, Bangladesh. A group of prisoners were massacred in front of a group of photographers in Dakha during the 1971 War of Independence from Pakistan. Two photographers, who did not intervene in the violence choosing rather to document the killings on film, were given Pulitzer Prizes for using their photography to get the stories out to the rest of the world. It could be argued that getting the story out, in this case, was a kind of complicity with the violence - that the presence of the cameras actually incited the soldiers to greater violence to create a spectacle for the rest of the world. Ultimately, it was the photos, when viewed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, that spurred the Indian Government to take action to stop the violence and future killings. However, as evidenced in this case, telling the story can sometimes be a part of the tragedy itself.
Emily Bright, the 2007-08 Scribe, contributed to the evening by reading from her writing on the student-led movement to stop child abductions in South Sudan. For several months, Emily followed the work of a group of students committed to addressing the abduction of one of the students' two young nieces. Emily spoke eloquently about observing the students doing their work, while acknowledging her own feelings regarding the abducted children, and the challenges faced as she tracked the project's progress.
Our newest Scribe, Katie Leo, is currently conducting research, volunteering, and engaging communities in dialogue to learn more about various human rights issues. Katie has spoken with local Hmong-American artists and community members regarding the desecration of Hmong burial sites in Thailand and has volunteered at the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission's public hearings in St. Paul in June. Her experience thus far has informed her about the process of community reconciliation and the importance of creating a shared group narrative. Katie is particularly interested in the power that shaping language has over human rights work, as discussed in the Dawes book. Katie will continue to write and research around these issues as a key part of her Scribes Fellowship.
As we proceed with the Scribes project we are gently reminded that there is always a story behind the stories. In exposing and reporting on human rights abuses, the writer has to come to terms with the moral and ethical questions that often arise. If the story is exposed, will people be in danger because of it? How many people are endangered if the story is not exposed? Whose story is it? Is it a writer's duty to tell the story? We are thankful to James Dawes and Patricia Hampl for allowing us to sit in on their dialogue on these very tough questions.

Save Yar Campaign Holds Congressional Briefing; Spawns New Nonprofit

To many who have followed the work of the Save Yar Campaign, it has become a familiar narrative: In October 2007, two young girls, Yar and Ajak Mading were abducted from the home of their grandmother in rural South Sudan. The abduction was violent and disturbing but strikingly similar to many hundreds of other abductions in the area in recent years. Yet, there was one major difference. The abducted girls had an uncle, Gabriel Kou Solomon, who was an American citizen already learning how to advocate for human rights. Congressional hearing (small) 2008-07-28.JPGDaniel Bernard, Gabriel Kou Solomon, Eric Bernal, and Tracy Baumgardt testifying before Congressional hearing.

Since its inception in October, the Save Yar Campaign, with support from the Human Rights Program, has made strides in raising awareness about intertribal child abduction in South Sudan and influencing action by South Sudanese and U.S. officials. Much work remains in untangling the many social and economic problems that contribute to child abduction.
After a March fact-finding trip to Juba, South Sudan, Campaign members Robyn Skrebes and Kaitlin Dougherty returned to the U.S., while Kou Solomon remained. Kou met with dozens of governmental and nongovernmental officials, and pressed leaders to examine the underlying causes of violations of children's rights and to seek possible solutions. Notably, Solomon met with two top presidential advisers and held multiple interviews with Governor Juuk of Jonglei state, the epicenter of this intertribal child abduction. In conversations with Solomon, the Governor emphasized the challenges facing law enforcement and the urgent need for paved roads and walkie talkies which would make policing the area easier. The Campaign carried forward these requests, balanced with a call for development aid targeting the poverty and illness that fuel the conflicts behind child abduction.
Campaign members continue to pressure elected representative and other leaders in the U.S. to address child abduction. In June, campaign members Tracy Baumgardt and Madeline Thaden traveled to Washington, D.C. to meet with international experts regarding the efforts of the Save Yar Campaign. Late in July, Daniel Lynx Bernard, traveled with Baumgardt and Solomon to D.C. for a congressional briefing sponsored by Congresswoman Betty McCollum. Joining the trio in providing statements was Eric G. Berman, managing director of the Geneva-based think tank, the Small Arms Survey. The group drew attention to the relatively unknown patterns of child abduction in South Sudan and emphasized the unique affront to human rights and the destabilizing ripple effects upon the region.
In April, Save Yar Campaign members took the next step to form an umbrella organization to carry on the initial campaign and apply its lessons to other under-examined patterns of child abduction around the world. Members are working to formalize Child Protection International (CPI), an independent nongovernmental organization. In June, CPI announced its first Steering Committee which includes HRP Director Barbara Frey, and long-time Save Yar Campaign members Bernard, Thaden, Baumgardt, and Amelia Corl. Skrebes, an Upper Midwest Human Rights Fellow with CPI, is serving as Executive Director. CPI will hold its first annual meeting in August.