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Friday, May 31, 2013

Update from 2012 Scribe for Human Rights Fellow Kathleen Johnston

kate.jpg As I write this, I'm still coming down from the adrenaline rush of defending my MFA thesis, a book-length essay about the connections between spiritual contemplative practice and the evolution of solitary confinement in American prisons. Looking back, it's difficult for me to imagine what my thesis would have looked like had I not received support from the Human Rights Program through the Scribes for Human Rights Fellowship last summer. The financial support, contacts, and expertise I gained as a Fellow helped me to grasp the terrifying reality of solitary confinement through the impact it has on individual lives.

Over the summer, I made several trips to Illinois in order to investigate the controversy surrounding Tamms Correctional Facility, a super-maximum security prison where all inmates were held in isolation. In Chicago, I met with survivors of solitary confinement at Tamms, as well as with family members of current prisoners and other advocates and activists working to close the prison. I also travelled to Tamms, IL, a small town at the far southern tip of the state, where I spoke with community members who had come to depend on the super-max for economic stability. This research has become an important through-line in my manuscript.
The Scribes Fellowship allowed me to immerse my self in research at a critical time for efforts to end solitary confinement. Shortly before my fellowship began, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture defined prolonged isolation as a form of torture. Mid-summer, Illinois Senator Dick Durbin chaired the first-ever Congressional hearing reassessing the practice. Perhaps most exciting to me, however, was the opportunity to witness the grassroots organizing success of the survivors and family members I met in Illinois--the super-max in Tamms did shut its doors this January. Working with the HRP helped me to understand the significance of each of these milestones.
I have spent much of the past academic year processing my Scribes research and integrating it with my explorations of solitude as a spiritual practice and the historical links between monasticism and incarceration. During this time, I've been lucky enough to continue working with Patricia Hampl as an advisor. Her encouragement and wisdom have been invaluable throughout the writing process. Staying involved with the HRP and the Midwest Coalition for Human Rights has been another great boon to my project, and to me. Thank you, Barb, Claire, Rochelle, and Whitney! I am so fortunate to have kept in touch with the movement to end solitary confinement while working on this book.
My thesis is not a final draft, but it is a critical step in that direction. I hope (and plan) to keep in touch with the HRP as I continue shaping the manuscript. In the meantime, I feel confident in saying that the Scribes for Human Rights Fellowship has made my project possible. I am extremely grateful.
To read more about Kathleen Johnston's work as Human Rights Scribe, click here.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Justice Postponed in Guatemala

In a conviction that initially reassured observers around the world, former Guatemalan dictator José Efraín Ríos Montt, was found guilty on May 10 of genocide and crimes against humanity. He was the first head of state held to account for such atrocities in a national tribunal. Continue reading Lauren Carasik's coverage of the Ríos Montt trial at the Boston Review.

Photos: Women and girls who've changed their world

Through his exhibition "Stirring the Fire," photographer Phil Borges is shedding light on gender issues worldwide and celebrating women and girls who have become catalysts for change in their communities. Many had to break through the same kind of barriers to achieve social and economic justice. Click here to view CNN's coverage of Phil Bordges's photography.

Mark Lee advocates for asylum seekers: Minnesota Sounds and Voices

Hundreds of people who live in Minnesota are here because they fear persecution, even death, in their home countries. "They're held in jail and they're treated horribly," says Mark Lee, a lawyer who helps refugees win asylum here. "They're beaten and abused in ways that is hard to imagine." Continue reading MPR's profile of Make Lee.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Director Frey Reflects on Spring Semester Sabbatical in Mexico

Barb.jpgFor the first five months of 2013, thanks to a Fulbright-García Robles award, I have had the pleasure and challenge of teaching and researching about human rights in Mexico. My experience here has been among the most rewarding of my career. I have been based in Mexico City, which is the most stimulating place I have ever lived, with its crush of people, traffic, street life, culture and politics.

In contrast with the frenetic energy of the city is the quiet green oasis provided by my academic hosts at the Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales (FLACSO-México), who not only have given me a space to work, but have been generous with their time and contacts to ensure that my sabbatical is successful. My colleague, Dr. Karina Ansolabehere, was instrumental in supporting my work in Mexico, which has been just another step in the critical transnational academic relationship between FLACSO-Mexico and the University of Minnesota.
The Fulbright-García Robles award (García-Robles was a Mexican diplomat who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1982 for creating a nuclear-free zone in Latin America and the Caribbean) supported my two primary activities related to human rights during my time in Mexico: teaching a class and researching the human rights movement. The class was a ten-week seminar on human rights advocacy, adapted from the graduate seminar I teach regularly at the University of Minnesota. I had about 20 students in the class, including mid-career professionals in government and non-profit organizations as well as graduate students from several local institutions. I taught the class at the Mexico City Human Rights Commission, a public human rights institution that collaborates with all sectors of civil society to increase the visibility and protection of rights in the Federal District.
The class was of mutual benefit to my students and me, pushing us to explain to each other the many similarities and differences in human rights practice in Mexico and the United States. The students were engaged and honest about the challenges of bringing about actual changes in the lives of Mexicans given the intensity of poverty facing the community, as well as the failures of the education system and the criminal justice system, among others, to offer fair and equal opportunities for individuals to improve their own circumstances.
In the class we considered how and why organizations define themselves as "human rights organizations," as well as the roles of civil society versus the government in creating normative change. We compared methodologies used to impact human rights practices in different cultures and movements. We undertook an interesting case study on violations resulting from the segregation of persons with mental disabilities in Mexico, which included a visit by staff members from the Mexico City Office of Disability Rights International. In the end, the students presented proposals on three projects: protection of journalists, protection of migrants, and the right to sustainable and healthy food.
In addition to the class, I used my time here to begin to meet my desire to learn about the history, philosophies and practice of the human rights movement in Mexico. In the past twenty years, since the 1994 Zapatista revolution, Mexico has become a site of intense transnational advocacy regarding human rights. Mexico's human rights practices have been the subject of growing scrutiny by the international community, especially with regard to the issues of indigenous rights, "feminicide," the treatment of migrants, the use of torture by military and police, and the extreme levels of fear and violence associated with drug trafficking. My stay in Mexico gave me the opportunity to interview many human rights leaders in an effort to try to understand how priorities get framed, how organizations relate to each other and what methodologies are used, and not used, in an effort to promote human rights. I am working on an article from my interviews, to explain several key factors that shape human rights discourse and practice in Mexico.
Besides gathering information, I have tried to share my own ideas and expertise with human rights organizations through various workshops and presentations. One of the most compelling experiences in this regard was the three days I spent with an NGO called "CADHAC" (Citizens in Support of Human Rights), which works in the city of Monterrey in the state of Nuevo León, Mexico. In the past three years, Nuevo León, once a thriving economic center connecting the U.S. and Mexico, has faced an intense spike in violence related to in-fighting among narco-traffickers and the extreme response (over-reaction) of law enforcement. One of the manifestations of this violence is the gruesome increase in the crime of "disappearance" in Nuevo León among other states. According to Mexico's Ministry of the Interior and the Federal Prosecutor's Office, the country saw more than 25,000 disappearances during the 6-year term of President Felipe Calderon, from 2006 to 2012, including 636 disappearances in Nuevo Leon.
In the face of this violence, CADHAC is representing the families of the disappeared in Nuevo León in their search for truth and justice. Sister Consuelo Morales, a charismatic and irrepressible force for justice in the region, provides a safe space at CADHAC where families can gather to grieve, to organize and to act together to demand the full investigation of the disappearances of their loved ones.
In February, I gave a two-day workshop to human rights advocates working in Nuevo León. Using the materials of the New Tactics Project of the Center for Victims of Torture, we engaged in strategic mapping of the problem of disappearances, and worked to consider new approaches to advocacy in the socio-political context of Monterrey. Talking privately with family members after this workshop, in a situation where they could share personal stories of their missing sons, daughters, brothers and sisters (all about the same ages as my own children), had to be the most difficult and most rewarding experience in my time in Mexico. Despite receiving no word from their loved ones for up to two years, none of these family members has been able to accept that they are dead; to do so would feel like an act of disloyalty or surrender. Thus, the indescribable personal suffering brought about by this crime of disappearance, experienced time and time again in Latin America over the past decades, continues in the hearts of these families in Monterrey.
I know that the many stories I have heard, the wonderful people I have come to know, and the beauty and pain of this wonderful country will stay with me long after my brief sabbatical here. I am grateful to CLA, the Institute for Global Studies, and my staff at the Human Rights Program, for providing me with the time and space apart. I hope that my experiences here will make me a better teacher and mentor for my students, and will lead to many further opportunities for collaboration in human rights with my talented colleagues in Mexico.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Lloyd Axworthy Visits the U of M, Shares Vision of the Future of Humanitarian Intervention

Axworthy.jpgThe Honorable Lloyd Axworthy, distinguished Canadian politician and current president of the University of Winnipeg, envisioned the future of humanitarian intervention before a crowd of students and community members on Tuesday, May 21. Axworthy's experience in the Canadian Foreign Ministry in the 1990s allowed him the opportunity to contribute invaluably the creation of the Mine Ban Treaty, the establishment of the International Criminal Court, and the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine--the subject of Tuesday afternoon's talk.

Axworthy likened serving in the Foreign Ministry to working as a plumber: if you fix a leak time and again, yet it keeps coming back, the problem must be structural. Having addressed grave human rights violations on an ad hoc basis for decades, Axworthy and others decided it was time to assess the structural conditions that gave rise to such abuses. The International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty's report on humanitarian intervention and the responsibility to protect does just that, offering directives for different types of interventions, from diplomacy to military intervention. Those promulgating the idea of humanitarian intervention challenge the conventional wisdom of international politics, giving primacy to human security rather than national security.
For Axworthy, R2P offers the chance to redefine the struggle for justice on the international level as well as to redefine global responses to crises, ranging from state terror and repression to drought and starvation. Blind adherence to a 360-year-old conception of state sovereignty has hindered the ability of the international community to respond effectively to the most pressing global challenges. A new framework based on R2P and human security would challenge politicians and diplomats to envision themselves as global citizens and reduce barriers to international involvement in times of need.
Following his presentation on the future of the responsibility to protect, Axworthy fielded audience questions on topics as diverse as the Keystone pipeline, the intervention in Libya, and the use of drones. Axworthy anticipates the next biggest challenges for human security in the 21st century to be the refugee crisis, climate change, and the prevalence of small arms and drones. Ending on a high note, Axworthy offered three hopes for the future: that a small standby force would be created for humanitarian intervention, that the United Nations would undergo further reforms, including a restriction of the veto, and that digital media would inspire the growth of world citizenship and global consciousness within members of the younger generation.
The Minnesota International Center sponsored Axworthy's visit as part of their series on Canada. Event co-sponsors included the Human Rights Program, the Interdisciplinary Center for Global Change, the Center for Victims of Torture, the Advocates for Human Rights, Nonviolent Peaceforce, and World Without Genocide. Earlier this week, Axworthy wrote an op-ed piece for the Star Tribune on Syria and R2P, which is available here.
Written by Whitney Taylor.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Whitney Taylor and Katie Menke Receive Human Rights Awards

Inna.jpgThe Human Rights Program and the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies are thrilled to present Whitney Taylor and Katie Menke, both graduating seniors, as the recipients of the 3rd annual human rights awards. Whitney Taylor received the Sullivan Ballou award, and Katie Menke received the Inna Meiman Award. These two exemplary students have demonstrated incredible aptitude, commitment, and passion in their service of others throughout their time at the University of Minnesota, and we are proud to recognize their outstanding accomplishments this coming Friday, May 3rd. We hope you will join us in the celebration! Lunch and cake will be provided.

Whitney Taylor, the recipient of the Sullivan Ballou Award, is certainly an exceptional emerging human rights activist, whose dedication is beyond admirable. In her many human rights classes, her travels, her experience in assisting and conducting human rights research, and her work with the Human Rights Program, Whitney has exhibited incredible energy, dedication, and intellect that never fails to inspire and mobilize those around her. Whitney has contributed expertise and intellect in editing and assisting various human rights research projects and publications, and has conducted some of her own human rights research. Whitney has also contributed to the promotion of human rights through her travels to South Africa during the summer of 2011, where she worked to empower individuals as a research intern for the Southern African Media and Gender Institute. While in Cape Town, Whitney worked to bring meaningful change and to give a voice to those who might otherwise not have been heard through facilitating empowerment workshops in women's prisons.
As an employee at the Human Rights Program, Whitney has assisted in successfully carrying out countless human rights events, which have served to raise awareness on many different critical human rights issues. Without a doubt, these events have inspired many students to become more involved in the promotion and protection of human rights--inspiration made possible through Whitney. Whitney's contribution to the human rights program has enhanced the program's ability to reach out to the student body and to provide these students with diverse opportunities in human rights advocacy. Acting as an extension of the program, Whitney has incorporated many new students into the human rights field and has served as a stellar example for these students to follow. According to the nomination letter submitted on her behalf, Whitney "has an unfailing aptitude for influencing lives in a positive way" and "never turns down an opportunity to help others, often dropping what she is doing in order to lend a hand or volunteer". We think Whitney is a most deserving recipient of the Sullivan Ballou Award, and are honored to announce her as such.
Katie Menke, recipient of the Inna Meiman Award, has devoted herself to human rights scholarship. Her summa thesis examines the work of a Salvadorian organization, Pro-Busqueda, to reunite families with children who were kidnapped during the country's civil war. In addition to her academic attention to issues of human rights and social justice, Katie has given freely and extensively of herself to advocating on behalf of human rights, particularly in relation to youth, homelessness and inequality. This past winter, Katie took the initiative to spread information about resources for the homeless in Minneapolis, including a program established by St. Stephen's Outreach that would provide free transportation to shelters for homeless individuals. The call center at St. Stephen's quickly became overloaded, rendering the transportation services inaccessible. Confronted with a situation in which she tried to help but was stymied for reasons out of her control, Katie thought creatively about what she could possibly do to improve the situation. In this case, that was buying and distributing hats, gloves, and socks to the homeless people she encountered and simply spending time with them throughout the day. Few people give of their time so readily.
During the fall/winter of 2010-11, Katie volunteered with the Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha (CTUL), working throughout the Twin Cities specifically on their retail cleaning campaign, which focused on bringing attention the poor working conditions of retail cleaners. The extraordinary part of this example is that, months later, Katie followed up on her experience volunteering with CTUL. She independently organized a group of students to engage in a flash mob at Cub and pass out information about the unethical working conditions faced by cleaners who worked for Cub. Katie's creativity, enthusiasm and compassion are hard to beat, and through these characteristics she serves as an inspiration to all those around her. According to her nomination letter, Katie "is incredibly generous with her time and energy, and fundamentally devoted to the spirit of human rights. Every day, Katie brightens the lives of those around her, doing whatever she can with a positive and joyful attitude." It is moving to see such a bright and heartfelt individual devoting herself to the service of others, and the Human Rights Program and Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies could not be more pleased to celebrate her achievements with her.
Both Whitney and Katie are highly deserving of this award and recognition for their work in the human rights field. We congratulate these two passionate activists, wishing them all the best as they continue their work of advancing human rights.
The Awards
The Inna Meiman Award is given in recognition of the friendship between Inna Meiman, a Soviet era Jewish refusenik who was repeatedly denied a visa to seek medical treatment, and Lisa Paul, a graduate of the University of Minnesota, who fought tirelessly on her behalf, including a 25-day hunger strike that galvanized a movement for Inna's freedom. The friendship between Paul and Meiman is memorialized in the book, Swimming in the Daylight: An American Student, a Soviet-Jewish Dissident, and the Gift of Hope.
The Sullivan Ballou Award is named after Major Sullivan Ballou, an Army soldier killed at the First Battle of Bull Run in 1861. Ballou became the inspiration for this award because of the heartfelt commitment he expressed in a letter to his wife before the battle. The award carries on Ballou's spirit by honoring a student who acts from the heart and devotes heartfelt energy to those around them.
The celebration is hosted by the Human Rights Program in the Institute for Global Studies and the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Minnesota.