U.S. Government Sued Over Illegally Turning Away Asylum Seekers

Today several groups filed suit against the U.S. government’s Department of Homeland Security and the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency for turning away asylum seekers, contrary to domestic and international law.

Along the U.S.-Mexico border, asylum seekers arrived from all over the world to present themselves to CBP to ask for protection. The right to seek asylum is enshrined in Article 33 of the United Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees, which came into being in 1951 and was expanded by the 1967 Protocol. The United States signed the Protocol in 1968, enacting domestic law to implement the international agreement in 1980.  The U.S. is thus bound by the terms of the Protocol and the Convention itself, including, critically, the principle of non-refoulement — non-return of individuals to a place where they would  face persecution on account of one of the five protected grounds.

In recent years, however, CBP has been routinely turning away vulnerable asylum seekers, forcing them to return to Mexico without allowing them to pursue their right to claim asylum.  This illegal practice has worsened as CBP officers became emboldened following the election and inauguration of Donald Trump as U.S. President. Indeed, in January 2017, several groups filed a complaint with the Department of Homeland Security’s Offices of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties and Inspector General, alleging systemic abuses at the border. In March, the U.S. government failed to even show up to defend their practices before the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights, a session which included testimony from multiple groups on the illegal turning away of asylum seekers at the border.

To challenge the unlawful practice of turning away asylum seekers, today the American Immigration Council, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and Latham & Watkins LLP filed suit in federal court in California’s Central District. The plaintiffs are Al Otro Lado, a “national, direct legal services organization serving indigent deportees, migrants, and refugees in Tijuana, Mexico” and six of their clients. The lawsuit alleges that DHS and CBP have violated asylum seeker’s rights to seek protection, along with their due process rights under the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and violations of international law.

The plaintiffs’ stories are all too familiar to asylum lawyers based in the U.S. Personally, I Co-Direct the Immigration and Human Rights Clinic at the University of the District of Columbia’s David A. Clarke School of Law. Our current clients include several mothers fleeing violence in Central America who eventually made it into the U.S. after being illegally turned away. We work with survivors of extreme domestic violence and persecution at the hands of transnational criminal organizations, known as “maras,” were turned away at the border by officials with statements such as “There’s no asylum for people from Honduras…” or “You can’t get asylum because you’re scared of your husband.” These statements are patently false, of course, and the precedential Board of Immigration Appeals decision, Matter of A-R-C-G-made clear that individuals fleeing domestic abuse can meet the asylum definition.

As Karolina Walters of the American Immigration Council summarizes from the Complaint today, on their blog, “[o]ther examples of the tactics used by CBP officers against asylum seekers, include:

  • Misrepresenting that visas are required to cross at a POE or that asylum seekers must obtain a “ticket” from a Mexican government agency before they will be allowed to enter the United States to seek asylum;
  • Yelling profanities at an asylum-seeking mother and her 5-year-old son, throwing her to the ground, and forcefully pressing her cheek into the pavement; and
  • Coercing asylum seekers into recanting their fear on video and into withdrawing their applications for admission to the United States.”

The Washington Post quotes legal fellow, Katie Shepherd, also with the American Immigration Council  “‘[CBP officers are] getting very creative; we keep hearing new ways they’re turning people away. . . ‘If a single asylum seeker is denied in a day, that’s one too many.’”

It is, of course, a sad state of affairs that a lawsuit to protect the rights of asylum seekers is necessary. We can only hope that the Court will hold the government to account and the government will honor their legal obligations to protect refugees.

 

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Write On! The Palgrave Handbook of Critical Menstrual Studies

backlit_keyboardThis installment of Write On!, our periodic compilation of calls for papers, includes a call for suggestions as follows:

The Palgrave Handbook of Critical Menstrual Studies, is an ambitious endeavor undertaken by Chris Bobel, Breanne Fahs and Katie Ann Hanson, among others in the United States. The focus is to “establish[] a field of ‘critical menstrual studies’ as a coherent and multi-dimensional transdisciplinary subject of inquiry and advocacy.” Suggestions for chapters by potential authors and other possible lines of inquiry are welcomed and encouraged. Deadline is June 20, 2017.


Why Wonder Woman matters

WW courage

What, you may wonder, is a blog about a super hero film doing on IntLawGrrls? Well beyond my own personal excitement about the newly released Wonder Woman film, I think there’s an important symbolism that anyone committed to the Women, Peace and Security agenda of UN SC Resolution 1325 will appreciate. And a narrative that anyone committed to raising the profile of women’s voices in international law and international security will value. The film did a superb job of presenting the 75 year old comic book character the way she was intended by her creator William Moulton Marston, as a champion for peace, truth and equality at a time of conflict. He invented her during the Second World War, based on his belief that we need heroes in times of instability and conflict, and the retelling in the DC movie released just this weekend not only stays true to her origins, but reminds us that we all have capacity for war and for love within us.

In the height of the Second World War, Marvel Comics had just created a new character to raise the spirit of a fighting nation, Captain Marvel. He was dressed in the American flag and was a super soldier, and his comics were an immediate hit. Desperate to compete, DC Comics approached Marston, a psychologist who had been writing about why we need heroes in times of war;

Wonder Woman Sensation Comics Issue no. 1

as symbols to galvanise our beliefs. They asked him to create a character that would sell as well as Captain America, and he answered that what they needed was a female superhero. Marston was a staunch feminist, and believed that if women were in positions of leadership there would be more diplomacy and less war. Though many of us today would question this essentialism, there is no doubt that having more women at the decision-making table makes a difference to pre- and post-conflict negotiations, and that women are disproportionately affected by armed conflict.

Marston wove the story of Wonder Woman around his classical education, drawing from Greek mythology stories of the Amazon warriors, who in his origin story were entrusted by the gods to protect Pandora’s Box and keep peace in the world. When “the world of men” finds itself caught up in a world war, Wonder Woman is sent as their champion to teach men the ways of peace and justice. She is incredibly strong, but she fights only to defend, never to attack, and she carries the Lasso of Truth, which forces anyone she ensnares to tell the truth. Marston is credited with also having invented the lie detector, so Wonder Woman was a multi-layered creation of his commitments. He even created an alter-ego for her as a military intelligence officer, granting her a status higher than the inevitable title of “secretary”.

In the film, director Patty Jenkins (who may just have broken the Hollywood glass ceiling for female directors with the sweeping box office success of Wonder Woman’s opening weekend) presents the origin story true to Marston’s values, with one small difference that it is set during the First World War, the War to End All Wars. This allowed for interesting commentary about women being completely politically disempowered at the time, still fighting for the vote, and being hustled out of any room where political negotiations were taking place. Placed in a period of history when we knew women were politically disenfranchised, it’s easier to understand, but it’s a mirror of the way women are still absent and underrepresented at the most powerful tables in the world today. The impact of the mass weaponry of the First World War was also the perfectly devastating background for depicting  how civilians are targeted and affected by war. Women and children are highlighted as the innocent victims, and an entire village is decimated by a deadly gas. One is reminded painfully of Syria today. As she begins to understand how power relations play out, Wonder Woman becomes the voice of the civilians, and fights for what she believes in: the possibility of peace. She is the representation of women in leadership positions, and the importance of women’s participation in decision-making.

The complexity of her character is beautifully portrayed. She is shocked at the corruptibility of humans, at our capacity to destroy each other, but she learns that it is not a simple question good versus bad people. Instead she sees that we are all just as capable of warring (as we know from non-state armed groups, from civilian participation in conflict, and from horrific war crimes and crimes of torture perpetrated by highly trained members of the military) as we are of love. She comes to the conclusion that she cannot save the world, but she can continue to bring love, peace, justice and equality to everything she does. That is her mission as Wonder Woman.

Although I was a fan of the 1970s series with Lynda Carter, which was fun and campy, it was a hyper-sexualised representation, and a long way off the character Marston intended her to be. WW Lynda Carter

In the film she is played by Gal Gadot, an Israeli woman who has trained in the armed forces and understands the warrior mentality just as well as she understands the feminine mother energy of the character she plays. (Stunningly, Gadot was 5 months pregnant during final shooting of the film, and they used digital effects to edit out her rounded belly. I have to admit I was moved to even greater excitement to learn that Wonder Woman was carrying life while fighting the god of war!) WW Gal Gadot

The film also does a great job of referencing the classical education which informed her creation, and the feminist role she was created to play. Gadot’s Wonder Woman speaks hundreds of languages, ancient and modern, and when confronting the German General Ludendorff, she cites Thucydides – in such a way that reminds us of today’s competing powers.  She refuses to have men of high rank tell her what to do, even her love interest Steve Trevor, and when she questions the assumptions about obedience in marriage, she cites Sappho, reversing the wartime assumption that women’s bodies are for men’s pleasure: rather, men are necessary for reproduction, but when it comes to pleasure, unnecessary. (Let’s not debate the truth of that statement! The point was her challenge to the mainstream assumption.) Marston himself was polyamorous, living with two women, who stayed together as partners after his death. He believed marriage was a patriarchal institution which subordinated women and treated them as property. His comic book character defied men’s superiority but still sought partnership between the sexes, which is a subtlety maintained in her film portrayal.

Wonder Woman is unafraid to use force when that is necessary, but she believes in the possibility of all of us being released from “the grip of Ares, god of war“. In the comics she used to go to great efforts to turn Nazi characters – particularly, but not only, the women – back towards good, and would release them rather than kill them if she saw a possibility of remorse. Marston reminded us that women also play the role of perpetrator in many conflicts, and one of his female villains, Dr Poison, has a key role in the film, inventing the chemical weapons used against civilians. Yet even when Wonder Woman has the chance to kill her, she sees the humanity of Isabel Moru behind the mask of Dr Poison, and decides to let her go, rather than be corrupted herself by the desire to destroy. At the same time, Wonder Woman is not naive: there are times when force is called for, as long as it is proportionate and there is a distinction between lawful and unlawful targets.

Which is why Marston was so committed to us understanding the importance of super heroes. It’s not that we should look to these non-existent fantasy figures who have indestructible (and highly sexualised) bodies as models, it’s that we need something to believe in when the world becomes politically unstable, unpredictable and violent. And given his commitment to women’s political participation, and his understanding of the complexity of human nature regardless of gender, anno 2017, Wonder Woman is a hero for our times.

Launching the Spring Issue of the Transitional Justice Institute Research Paper Series on SSRN

Catherine O’Rourke and Elise Ketelaars

We are pleased to announce the publication of a new issue of the Ulster University Transitional Justice Institute Research Paper Series on the Social Sciences Research Network. This exciting new issue engages both with highly-topical contemporary questions, as well as long-standing challenges in international law, peace, human rights and gender equality. First off, Thomas Obel Hansen considers the Policy Paper of the ICC on preliminary examinations and its potential to advance ‘positive complementarity’ between the operation of the court and the domestic pursuit of justice for conflict victims. At a time of apparent crisis for the court, scholarship such as Hansen’s that addresses this critical relationship between its operation and broader domestic impacts is critical. Aisling Swaine, the leading global expert in National Action Plans (NAPs) for Women, Peace and Security, examines relevant practice to date in the Asia-Pacific region. She demonstrates an exciting new methodology for gender-responsive planning, which has relevance well beyond the specifics of Asia Pacific, namely the ‘Gender Needs Analysis Tool’. Likewise, the findings, conclusions and recommendations offer immediate policy relevance to the current 63 UN member states with NAPs on Women, Peace and Security, as well as those currently developing or reviewing NAPs.

Contributions by Catherine O’Rourke and the joint article by Anne Smith, Monica McWilliams and Priyamvada Yarnell both address the question of international human rights obligations and their current and potential impact on Northern Ireland. Catherine O’Rourke, in research from the DFID-funded Political Settlements Research Programme, considers the recent report of the UN Special Rapporteur on Truth, Justice, Reparations and Guarantees of Non-recurrence on his country visit to Northern Ireland. She identifies the potential for the report to positively re-shape both the diagnostic (defining the problem) and prognostic (identifying the solutions) framing of the vexed issue of how to deliver accountability for past conflict killings and harms in Northern Ireland. Finally, Anne Smith, Monica McWilliams and Priyamvada Yarnell engage with the highly topical challenges of protecting human rights in Northern Ireland as the UK advances its withdrawal from the European Union. In a timely and important contribution, the authors consider how the long-promised Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland might finally be advanced as part of broader efforts to ensure continued human rights protections in the midst of Brexit.

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Looking for women experts? Don’t make it a beauty pageant

Final Phase Digital

1946 – Birth of the UN Commission on the Status of Women, photo credit: UN Photo

This post was co-authored by Almut Rochowanski

Earlier this month, the BBC held its BBC Expert Women’s Day, bringing together “female experts who’d like to appear on air as contributors to BBC programmes”. The event gathered a group of 24 professionals, which included lawyers, scientists, political analysts, entrepreneurs, coders, cultural leaders and sex educators, selected from a pool of 450 applicants for a ‘media familiarisation day”. They were given tips on how to sound natural on air and given the opportunity to experience appearing on camera in a BBC news studio.

Seemingly, this is a well-intentioned effort to diversify sources. However, the way the BBC is going about it makes it seem more like a beauty contest.

This is the latest edition of a programme the BBC launched in 2013. At first glance, it might look like an earnest attempt to overcome the notorious “all-male panel” problem, something the BBC should be applauded for having acknowledged and taking steps to address (even if, in 2012, it was the only major UK broadcaster to refuse signing a pledge to get more women on screen). But, on closer inspection, there are a number of deeply problematic aspects to the initiative. In fact, it is a spot-on illustration of why media organizations suffer from the all-male panel problem to begin with.

The BBC Academy’s call for applications asked women experts to send in their CV, a letter explaining their interest in being on air and a two-minute video of themselves talking about their area of expertise. By having women experts compete to be acknowledged for what they are – experts – this “TV expert” competition puts the onus on women to correct and overcome the discrimination that holds them back. Once again, women are expected to jump through extra hoops to prove that they are good enough to do what men routinely get to do with no questions asked. Women need to not only have the talent and put in the work to become experts on topics like Brexit, terrorism or classical music, but must also submit to a screen test and mentoring in order to be recognized as authoritative voices in their field of expertise.

The screen test that forms part of the application is particularly troubling. Somehow, it doesn’t seem likely that the BBC requires screen tests of the male climate scientists, business experts or lawyers they invite on their programs.  And while the instructions for the video do not mention looks, women are judged on their appearance much more than men, and nowhere more so than in the media. Imagine a female expert on development aid or the music industry considering even for a split second whether she should put on lipstick before recording her video, and it immediately becomes clear how this initiative perpetuates gender discrimination and is self-defeating in its stated purpose.

The competition is based on the lazy and ignorant assumption that women are underrepresented as experts in broadcast media because they have not tried hard enough or because they just do not shine as brightly as their male colleagues whom the media somehow manage to find without them having to answer to a casting call. The same argument is routinely employed to rationalize the low numbers of women on corporate boards, among tenured professors or in government. And yet we know that women are underrepresented in roles of power and prestige because they are overlookeddismissedignoredexcluded and discriminated against.

Our critique isn’t directed at the women who took part in this year’s BBC Expert Women’s Day, or the many more who applied and were not invited. Quite the contrary. These women are obviously very good at what they do, and the fact that they’re ready to put in the extra work and face new challenges illustrates why they have become leaders in their fields. Our point is that they shouldn’t have had to go through a competition like this to be recognised for their expertise and to get a chance to contribute to public discourse.

If the BBC concludes that they have too few female experts on the air, they ought to first take a good, hard look at themselves and figure out where they went wrong. Have they sufficiently questioned their own habits and assumptions? Have they probed their organization’s practices for hidden biases and discrimination? Do terrorism experts always look male in the imagination of the editorial staff? Have they given proper research a try?

Because, really, it is not difficult to find women experts out there. We are literally everywhere. We are at universitieshospitals, research centers and think tanks. We publish booksblog post and articles, we are on LinkedIn and social media, we win prizes and fellowships, we are part of professional networks. In addition, numerous databases have been set up to assist researchers who might be at a loss in identifying women experts for their news coverage. There is The Women’s RoomSheSource, Women Also Know Stuff and The OpEd Project, to name but a few. Having women compete to have their voices heard in a space where their opinions should be sought out as often as those of their male counterparts is not a solution. Rather, by failing to acknowledge and reject the systematic inequalities that women face, this casting call for women experts perpetuates the problem it ostensibly tries to solve.

Almut Rochowanski is a co-founder and coordinator of the Chechnya Advocacy Network. Nani Jansen Reventlow is a human rights lawyer with Doughty Street Chambers and a fellow at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University.

This post has been cross-posted on Medium.

Victims’ interminable wait for justice in Sri Lanka

On 23 March 2017, the Human Rights Council (HRC) passed Resolution 34/1 on promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka – the latest in a series of resolutions addressing the aftermath of the ethnic conflict between the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). It follows Resolution 30/1 of October 2015 that provides a roadmap for judicial and non-judicial measures to promote post-conflict accountability and reconciliation in Sri Lanka. The first to be co-sponsored by Sri Lanka, Resolution 30/1 was heralded as an opportunity for Sri Lanka to reset its human rights record and embark on a post-conflict journey towards justice, reconciliation and non-recurrence.

Resolution 30/1 sought to implement the recommendations set out in the 2015 report of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights Investigation on Sri Lanka (OISL), which documented the “horrific level of violations and abuses” in the Sri Lankan civil war. (See my previous blogs “The Long Journey to Justice for Sri Lanka’s Victims” Part I and Part II for a discussion on the OISL report and Resolution 30/1 respectively). Resolution 34/1 rolls over Resolution 30/1 due to the lack of progress in fulfilling the latter.

Where do we stand, seventeen months after Resolution 30/1 and almost eight years after the official end to the conflict? In March 2017, reporting back to the HRC on the implementation of Resolution 30/1, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein noted that the GoSL has been “worryingly slow” in fulfilling its transitional justice commitments and that “the structures set up and measures taken during the period under review were inadequate to ensure real progress.” For instance, in August 2016, Parliament adopted legislation for the establishment of an Office of Missing Persons to investigate the tens of thousands of missing persons – a key transitional justice measure given that Sri Lanka records one of the highest rates of disappearances in the world. However, the legislation is yet to be operationalised.

Another key recommendation – establishing a “Sri Lankan judicial mechanism” with international actors – has been ignored despite being a cornerstone of Resolution 30/1 in securing accountability and justice for victims. International presence in an accountability process was intended to mitigate deep-seated mistrust in purely domestic mechanisms by providing impartiality and credibility. As noted by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in 2015, there has been “a total failure of domestic mechanisms to conduct credible investigations, clarify the truth of past events, ensure accountability and provide redress to victims.” Despite the GoSL’s commitments, President Sirisena, in January 2016, excluded any foreign involvement in an accountability mechanism – a position that has been maintained by other senior government officials including the Prime Minister.

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Award-winning Akayesu documentary to be screened at ASIL Annual Meeting

“The Uncondemned”, an award winning documentary about the first prosecution of rape as a war crime, will be screened at the Annual Meeting of the American Society of International Law on Friday, April 14 at 7:30pm in the Regency Ballroom A of the Capitol Hill Hyatt in Washington, D.C. The world premiere of the film occurred at the United Nations in October.

Several of the lawyers whose work on the case is featured in the documentary will be in attendance for the screening, including Patricia Sellers, then Gender Officer for ICTR and ICTFY, Pierre-Richard Prosper, lead trial attorney in the Akayesu case, and Lisa R. Pruitt, then gender consultant to ICTR. Executive Director Michele Mitchell will also be present for Q&A after the film.

“The Uncondemned” tells the story of the case against Jean-Paul Akayesu, the mayor of Taba commune. Akayesu was convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity in 1997. While rape has been “on the books” as a war crime for nearly a century, it had never been prosecuted until this case. The film follows the lawyers and activists working to investigate, indict and convict Akayesu, not only on the basis of killings but also sexual assaults. The even more compelling story of the Rwandan witnesses is a focus of the film as well. Despite being initially skeptical of the United Nations and ICTR, these witnesses ended up coming forward to testify about the atrocities they saw and experienced during the genocide.

Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan observation that “The Uncondemned” is “the story of how history is made in small, at times uncertain, steps” is exemplified by the sexual assault charges eventually brought against Akayesu. Originally, the indictment included only charges based on killing, despite the documentation of sexual assaults by human rights NGOs. During the case, however, evidence of sexual assaults surfaced, leading to suspension of the trial until the matter could be investigated further. In the end, the indictment was amended and Akayesue was convicted not only of killings but also in connection to sexual assaults.

As a UC Davis law student interested in international human rights, I had the opportunity to attend a screening of this inspiring film at my law school a few months ago. As an aspiring lawyer, I found the documentary inspiring and uplifting. Documentaries about the Rwandan genocide tend to be uninspiring and focused on the lack of intervention of the international community. However, “The Uncondemned” tells a different story. It illustrates the extraordinary resilience of and solidarity among the Taba women who witnessed and experienced genocidal atrocities. A New York Times reviewer felt the same about the film, writing that the “most extraordinary are the interviews with the women…their integrity and tenacity, and their loyalty to one another are enough to bring you to tears.”

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