Leymah Gbowee: We’re Hiding Our Humanity behind Our Fear

By: Nicole Hicks, PHRGE Program Intern and NU Human Services Student

NU Interfaith Keynote 2016 (2)[2]On February 11th, Northeastern’s Center for Spirituality, Dialogue and Service and a host of other campus organization presented Nobel Peace Prize laureate Leymah Gbowee to an overflow crowd at Blackman Auditorium. Ms. Gbowee answered many of the audience’s implicit questions. How does someone look at the way another person is dressed and decide they are a threat? How can someone read a last name or passport cover and decide to hate the individual it belongs to? Watching the world news can leave anyone asking, “how does this happen?”

“Fear,” says Gbowee. Every fear, assumption, or stereotype you have heard builds a thin wall between you and that person or group. Every time you act on the fear, another wall is built, further inhibiting your ability to see that person, and their humanity. “Eventually you do not see the indi­vidual; you see a thing. And because you are looking at a thing you are able to harm them and treat them in what­ever way you want,” she told the audience.

Gbowee worked to mobilize Christian and Muslim women in Liberia during the country’s second civil war. With Liberia at war and her community divided, she could not think about human rights without finding a path to peace. Her first challenge was to break down the barrier between women; who came to regard their difference in religion as an impenetrable wall.  Gbowee asked the women if the pain a Christian mother feels when she loses a child is different than the pain a Muslim mother feels. If a rebel walked into their meeting and started shooting, would the bullets know to avoid the Christian women, or Muslim women? Slowly, the women began to talk, and were eventually able to look at each other as fellow Liberians united in their cry for peace.

The overwhelming theme of Gbowee’s talk was how fear has begun to limit our lives in new ways each day. We continue to allow metaphorical walls to create boundaries where there are none, avoiding certain places or becoming wary of certain people. We live in constant fear because we refuse to listen; to see the humanity in others the way we do in ourselves.


Proud of her heritage and accomplishments, Gbowee made many references to her family and Liberian culture, but acknowledged that her coalition, Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peacewas being used as a model to teach peace-building around the world, in places like the U.S. and Sweden. It would seem that she has no intention of limiting her reach to Liberia, and understands the global implications of her work.

Gbowee’s parting wisdom included the observation that American women tend to get angry politely, while African women get angry loudly. Perhaps this was her way of subtly imparting her passion and fiery intellect to the many young people sitting in the audience, hoping to “light the spark” in them and inspire social change around the world.

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My Voice and Human Rights Advocacy

By: George Amos, PHRGE Fellow at the Center for Environment, Human Rights and Development (CEHRD)

No one can tell my story better than I. Img0545Sometimes, I may not have the means or the capacity to tell my story, but even then, the help that I may need should be such that will enable me to tell my story. The empowerment I need should be such that enables me to give a narrative that is a true reflection of my situation, condition, experience, and history. Empowering others to find their voice, I believe, should be the framework for those of us who have an interest and passion to fight for human rights, especially in those communities and regions where human rights abuses exist.

My interest in human rights is prompted by the desire to serve others not the way I would want it, but the way those I intend to serve want it. The world is getting smaller, not by physical distance, or by a common understanding, but by the manner and way information is accessible via the Internet. The people we talk or write about are real people, with real history and culture, and concrete experiences. Therefore, no matter how we claim to own information about such people through the internet or printed materials, experiencing such people and assisting them to tell their story by themselves is more empowering than talking or writing on their behalf.


My decision to work with the Niger Delta people of Nigeria within the human rights parameter will not be effective if I do not encounter these people with the eye of a human rights advocate. Even though I am from this area, it makes a great difference, with my theoretical knowledge of the human rights legal framework, if I experience these people who have suffered so many human rights violations as a result of crude oil and gas exploitation.

The Program on Human Rights and the Global Economy (PHRGE) fellowship, and the Center for Environment, Human Rights and Development (CEHRD) now affords me the opportunity to make such an encounter possible. As a PHRGE fellow, I am able to do my co-op with CEHRD, which is an NGO working in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria with a special interest in human rights, the environment and development. It is a research and advocacy organization, which works to hold oil companies accountable for their operations, educate the people on their rights, and empower them to take steps to enforce their rights. It is also involved in conflict resolution and peace building within the region, bearing in mind that there could be no meaningful development without peace.

During my co-op in CEHRD, I was privileged to be part of a team that planned and participated in a Media-Civil Society and Citizens Forum designed to ‘feel the pulse of the communities.’ The program, which was part of an ongoing intervention project on human rights and corporate accountability in Nigeria and funded by the Dutch Embassy in Nigeria, was to create the forum to hear the voice and the narrative of oil producing communities in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria. The theme of the forum was “Feeling the Pulse of Communities: Oil Corporations and Human Rights Violations in the Niger Delta.” It brought together civil society organizations, the media, and some members of selected communities to essentially hear the voice of these communities on their experiences with oil companies doing business in their communities. From questions around the business and human rights domain, especially as it concerns their economic, social and environmental rights, the communities narrated their experiences vis-à-vis oil exploitation activities in their communities over the years.

It was a refreshing, informative, and an expository experience for me as we listened to them, and hearing the media making a commitment to publicize their voice. This experience is central to human rights work. Following that forum, I began working with the Governance Team of CEHRD to document the outcomes of the discussion in a policy document that will provide public sensitization and information on the human rights challenges facing communities in the Niger Delta. The policy paper will also provide an avenue for institutional engagement and dialogues with policy makers, regulatory agencies and oil corporations on how to ameliorate the suffering of communities impacted by oil exploration in Nigeria.

Encountering and engaging victims of human rights violations is at the core of whatever success human rights activists and advocates hope to achieve. The human rights movement should not and is not intended to be self-serving and pushing a particular agenda of states or individual organizations. Human rights advocacy is to eradicate human rights abuses wherever they may exist, and against whoever may be the victim. Donor agencies and individuals must also know that whereas human rights are indivisible and are of equal value, hearing the voice of victims of abuse is equally essential. Hearing the voice of such victims will help in a great way to ascertain the priority of the people or communities so as to avoid the suspicion of carrying out an agenda that is foreign culturally and socially to the people they seek to assist.

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Child Marriage in India: How Far Have We Come?

Many countries, including India, suffer from high rates of child marriage. According to a 2012 UNICEF report, India is home to one third of child brides worldwide.  One in two women in India is married before the age of 18.  During my time as a PHRGE Fellow at the Human Rights Law Network, (HRLN), I was given the opportunity to travel around India and conduct field research on child marriage and its pervasiveness throughout communities.   Generally, we found situations in line with such statistics, and that rates of child marriage vary greatly depending on social traditions of a given area.  Unfortunately, in many of these states with deeply-entrenched social traditions, there is a lack of uniform enforcement of law against child marriage. As a result, child marriage only decreases at a rate of 1%, while the population of India increases at a rate of 8% each year.

It wasn’t until 2006 that India passed the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act.  The Act is designed to curb the prevalence of child marriage throughout the country and articulates that it is indeed illegal for children to get married.   Under the Act, females may not legally marry under the age of 18 and males may not legally marry if under the age of 21.   These ages correspond to “healthy” times for each gender to be married and have children.   The inherent gender inequality is seldom discussed. The Court has the authority to void child marriage where they do occur, or place an injunction on a pending marriage.  Those who promote the marriage are subject to fines and imprisonment. According the Act, each district and each state must have a Child Marriage Prohibition Officer, who is responsible for a range of activities, including voiding child marriages, sensitizing the community to the malignant effects of child marriage, and creating awareness of child marriage laws.

While progress has indeed been made in the last ten years to stop child marriage, the question remains: is it enough?  After researching the topic, and conducting interviews with victims, hospital workers, government officials and social activists, I have concluded that it is absolutely not enough.

In many areas throughout India, there is no enforcement of child marriage laws.  Some districts have indeed decreased child marriage rates, and these statistics are widely celebrated.  However, other states and districts have done little to curb child marriage see no government repercussion and no movement toward change.  For example, we conducted interviews throughout remote villages in the Ganjam District which is on the south-eastern Coast of India in the state of Orissa.  We interviewed female victims, village leaders, health workers, hospital workers and social activists.  In each of the five villages we visited, the average age of marriage for boys was 22-23.  The average age of marriage for girls was 15.  Social pressures force these female victims to drop out of school when they are married.  They are then expected to move in with their new in-laws and do daily household labor for the family.  Further, tradition expects the girls to immediately seek to become pregnant, which ultimately increases health risks related to adolescent pregnancy.

None of the community members knew about the child marriage laws, understood the negative effects of child marriage, or could recall being visited by any government officials on the status of child marriage.   Throughout India, you will find entire districts, or even entire states, that share similar child marriage traditions to these villages.  Despite it being well known that child marriage is pervasive in these areas, many state and local governments are doing little to create awareness about law, enforce the law and ultimately stop child marriages.

Child marriage will remain pervasive in India until laws are uniformly and rigorously enforced.  Until then, there will be wide discrepancies in child marriage rates, which will result in a perpetuation of gender inequality and poverty.   Until these marriages are stopped, child victims will be forced to abandon education, career opportunities and face increased health risks.  As my time in India comes to an end, I hope that organizations like HRLN continue to fight to turn well-intended laws into reality.  I can hope that with zealous activism, governments and local communities will start to feel the pressure to change and begin to uncompromisingly enforce the law and in turn, create brighter futures for the children of India.

– Anna Holding

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Experiencing the Power of International Law in Human Rights and Public Health

By: Juliana Shulman, PHRGE Fellow at UNAIDS

When beginning law school, rarely do you imagine that in your second year you will find yourself in a room full of dozens of countries’ human rights leaders as they review and discuss a document that you helped draft. Let alone a document that – eventually – may improve or save the lives of millions of people living with HIV or at risk of becoming infected with HIV. Yet, that is exactly where I found myself earlier this month, in the fall of my 2L year. Shulman photo

As a PHRGE fellow co-oping in Geneva with UNAIDS (the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS), I have had the rare opportunity to see firsthand the power and politics of human rights, law, and public health, intersecting on the global stage. As a member of UNAIDS’ Human Rights and Law team, I have now worked with an international team of human rights lawyers to draft amicus briefs for ongoing litigation about the reproductive rights of women living with HIV. I have explored the ways that criminalization and punitive laws (targeting sex workers, same-sex relations, and drug users) hinder public-health efforts. And I have drafted reports on ensuring zero discrimination against people living with HIV in health-care settings.

But in addition to the work that I have helped advance, perhaps most remarkably, to me, is that I have had the opportunity to witness firsthand how international agencies work.

Like many who go to law school, I came to Northeastern filled with passion for social change and grasping for the tools necessary to make a meaningful difference. Countless times throughout my undergraduate, graduate, and legal training and as an organizer at an international advocacy organization, I have turned to reports, treaties, resolutions, and charters drafted by UNAIDS and other international agencies. I had looked up to these agencies and their immense power with curiosity and a bit of awe.

And yet – almost immediately upon my arrival in Geneva – I was recruited by a colleague to help draft one of these very documents. In particular, I helped research and draft a U.N. Human Rights Council resolution to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the International Guidelines on HIV/AIDS and Human Rights with a high-level panel on the current status of human rights and HIV.

The Guidelines were a groundbreaking document when they were introduced; twenty years after their original introduction, the HIV epidemic, global public health, and the human-rights perspectives have changed immensely. While the resolution and the resulting panel seemed fairly trivial at first, they lay the necessary groundwork to have a much deeper global discussion of the current human rights issues at the core of HIV prevention, testing, and treatment, particularly for key populations impacted by HIV around the world.

Suddenly, I was not simply researching U.N. resolutions from a law school library. Now I was on the other side of the table, providing technical assistance and strategizing for political support as UNAIDS helped quickly usher the resolution from a mere idea to a meaningful vote. I was answering emails from countries’ representatives to the Human Rights Council, and helping to provide the legal and public-health background to advance this issue. I was watching as countries formed small alliances on particular issues contained within the resolution, standing together to voice their support for or their desire to omit specific words, sentences, and ideas.

This is how I found myself – mere weeks into my internship – in a room of dozens of languages and backgrounds watching the United Nations Human Rights Council unanimously agree to adopt a resolution that I helped craft, research, and revise, after having witnessed seemingly endless political – and sometimes heated – discussions about everything from LGBTQ rights to the rights to comprehensive sexual education. I watched as international politics merged with the linguistic powers of the law, on something that, ultimately, may have a substantive impact on individuals’ experiences and public health.

While the mysterious world of international law is, admittedly, still quite a mystery, it is all becoming a bit more clear. The veil surrounding international agencies has been just a little bit lifted to reveal the complicated and frankly, sometimes dreary, world of politics that lays underneath.  As I prepare to return to law school next month, I look forward to bringing these experiences into the classroom and into my sprouting career in public health law.

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Bringing Privacy Protections into the Digital Age, One (Big) State at a Time

Bringing Privacy Protections into the Digital Age, One (Big) State at a Time

By: Mike Godbe, PHRGE Fellow at Electronic Frontier Foundation

Original Mural located in EFF’s San Francisco office by EFF Art Director, Hugh D'Andrade

Original Mural located in EFF’s San Francisco office by EFF Art Director, Hugh D’Andrade

Earlier this month, the Governor of California signed the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (CalECPA), which requires that police in California get a warrant before they can search an electronic device, obtain digital records like emails and text messages, or obtain a user’s past or future location information.

Most importantly, evidence obtained in violation of CalECPA is inadmissible in criminal cases.

California is only the third state to have so far offered protections for both electronic content as well as location information (along with Maine and Utah), but with a population larger than Canada’s that encompasses about 12% of the total U.S. population, this is no small deal.

Attorneys at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), the ACLU of Northern California, and the California Newspaper Publishers Association worked together to write and sponsor the bill. Lead by activists at the EFF, a campaign to build support among a wide array of groups was key the bill’s ultimate success. Moreover, this campaign got the state’s most influential law enforcement organizations – the state’s District Attorney, Police Chiefs, Sheriffs’, and Law Enforcement Associations – to all drop their opposition to CalECPA.

Writing good law is one thing, but organizing a campaign to build support is another. Without the efforts of activists at the EFF, it is highly unlikely that the bill would have passed, let alone with two-thirds support from both houses of congress.  And as it turns out, getting that two-thirds’ support was extremely important.

Without a supermajority, criminal defendants would not be able to suppress evidence collected in violation of CalECPA, which would have meant these new laws would have merely created nominal rights without actual remedies.  Luckily, thanks to the efforts of a diverse coalition, CalECPA did pass with a supermajority and does include suppression.

In order to see why CalECPA’s supermajority was so critical, it is important to understand a bit about the ‘fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine’ and the California ballot initiative process.

The ‘fruit of the poisonous tree’ doctrine embodies a straightforward and principled idea: that law enforcement officers cannot use illegally obtained evidence against criminal defendants. Without it, police would be incentivized to break the law to gather incriminating evidence (e.g. warrantless searches, compelled confessions, etc).  In essence, the doctrine says that police cannot break the law to make their case (i.e., cannot yield fruit from a poisonous tree).

However, when common law rules and statutes contradict each other, the statute generally prevails. California has a ballot initiative process by which citizens can bypass the legislature and enact statutes by way of popular vote, and in 1982 Californians chopped down the ‘fruit of the poisonous tree’ doctrine with the passage of Prop. 8 (this is an earlier Prop. 8 than the famed 2008 law that rendered same-sex marriage in the state illegal).

The 1982 proposition was a ‘tough-on-crime’ initiative that added a new section to the state constitution, which included a deceptively named “Right to Truth-in-Evidence.”  This “right” stated that all “relevant evidence shall not be excluded in any criminal proceeding” unless “by a two-thirds vote of the membership in each house of the legislature.”  Essentially, this means that any evidence that is “relevant” is admissible – even if the police violated the law to obtain it – unless the law the police violated passed with a supermajority in both houses of congress

States cannot diminish rights guaranteed by the federal constitution, so in practice the “truth in evidence” law only applies to state-specific protections that go above and beyond those guaranteed by the federal constitution.  So, police in California cannot use evidence against criminal defendants obtained pursuant to a warrantless home invasion or some other search or seizure that violates the federal constitution.  However, the Supreme Court of California has found additional protections to be guaranteed by the state constitution, which go above and beyond those provided by the federal constitution. For example, the California constitution has stronger privacy protections than the Fourth Amendment when it comes to one’s expectation of privacy in phone records, bank records, garbage left for pickup, and overhead aerial surveillance.  Because of Prop. 8, a criminal defendant cannot suppress relevant evidence collected in violation of Thus, these protections are essentially meaningless if you are a criminal defendant whose rights have been violated.

Since there are pretty much[1] no federal laws or broad Supreme Court decisions mandating warrants for searches of electronic communications or location information, CalECPA has created privacy rights that go above and beyond those currently guaranteed by the 4th Amendment. Thus, it was imperative that CalECPA passed with a supermajority, and it is cause for genuine celebration that it did.

While gaining these protections in California is a momentous achievement, law enforcement should be required to get a warrant to read anyone’s emails or track his or her location.  The last federal laws that provided standards for collection of electronic communications were passed before the internet was a thing and before people carried tiny computers full of their most personal communications in their pockets.  If you support these protections on a national level, contact your congresspersons to tell them to bring our privacy protections into the digital age: http://www.digital4th.org/

[1] The Secured Communications Act does require a warrant for the content of electronic storage is less than 180 days old (e.g., emails from within the past six months).  Given many people’s habit of storing years worth of text messages and emails on third party servers (e.g., those of your cell phone companies and Google), this 180-day warrant requirement is a temporary and limited solution at best.



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Summer in the Southwest: An Exploration of the Legal Challenges faced by the Local Native American Communities

Widespread unemployment, drug and substance abuse, suicide, lack of quality education—these are just a few examples of the social and systemic challenges faced by those living within the Navajo Nation. They are the same problems experienced by a majority, if not all, Native American communities in the United States. Yet there are only a limited number of nonprofit legal aid organizations that provide free legal services primarily to Native Americans residing on reservations, one being DNA-People’s Legal Services, where I worked as a PHRGE Fellow last summer.

Chaco Culture National Historic Park, New Mexico

Chaco Culture National Historic Park, New Mexico

What is remarkable about DNA-People’s Legal Services is not only its mission to provide civil legal services to those in need, but perhaps more importantly, to promote tribal sovereignty and respect the diverse cultures of the organization’s various clients. During my fellowship, I not only had the privilege of working on matters with licensed attorneys in New Mexico courts, but I also completed tasks for licensed attorneys and tribal advocates within the Jicarilla-Apache and Navajo Nation.

One issue that immediately came to my attention from the first week of the fellowship and recurred throughout the remainder of my summer was the predatory practices of lenders and dealerships situated among the border-towns of the Navajo Nation. A main target of these predatory schemes were elderly, non-English speaking Navajos. As part of my experience with DNA, I had the opportunity to meet with one such victim at her rural residence on the Navajo Nation outside of Farmington, New Mexico. A widowed woman of about eighty years of age, fluent in Navajo and non-English speaking, related her story of the predatory acts taken by a local car dealership.

Though her husband had cancer caused by working at a uranium mine, which would otherwise entitle her to benefits, the mine’s staff are unresponsive to requests for compensation, leaving the widow to subsist on a meager income. A higher income was falsely reported on a credit application used to get the widow a new truck so that her son could transport the firewood needed to heat her home for the winter. Moreover, it was an income that any reasonable care salesman would know that the woman could not afford. Yet the salesman promised that the woman could afford the truck, despite her severely limited income. It was a truck sold to a woman who had never obtained a driver’s license and whose driving experience was limited to operating a truck in a sheep camp on the Navajo Nation in her late teens and early twenties.

Though we were fortunately able to alleviate her legal issues with regards to the predatory lending practices, this story is not anomaly. The prevalence of such businesses near the Navajo Nation exemplify that predatory schemes are an implicit norm. A norm that magnifies the challenges faced by southwestern Native American communities and illustrates one of many modern legal and social challenges faced by the most historically oppressed, and too often forgotten, community in the United States.

-Chelsea Brisbois, JD Candidate 2016



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International Corporate Accountability

During the week of June 29 to July 3, I had the unique opportunity to be in a room full of human rights lawyers and advocates representing their respective organizations from the Global North and Global South. These brilliant and inspiring minds were brought together by an Educational Exchange Conference hosted by ProDESC. The organizations present were CAJAR, HRLN, CALS, ERI, SERI, PODER, ECCHR, and the Bertha Foundation. One by one, each organization presented its focus areas, cases, strategies, challenges, successes, and opportunities. Every presentation was followed by a question and answer session. It was during one of these sessions that the following analogy was used: The interaction between human rights defenders and corporations is like “mosquitoes biting a giant.”

This comparison was brought up when we were discussing the various strategic opportunities available for human rights defenders to challenge systems of power, specifically corporations. During the course of completing my report on the right to free, prior, and informed consultation of the indigenous Zapotec community in Juchitán, Oaxaca, where a transnational corporation aspires to build a wind energy park, I found myself coming back to one question: Who is holding this corporation accountable for their role in human rights violations? It turns out that NGOs from both the developed and developing world are asking themselves the same thing because their calls for greater accountability for human rights violations by transnational corporations are growing stronger.

As of yet, no international legally binding instrument exists to hold corporations accountable for failing to uphold human rights standards. International human rights standards have traditionally been the responsibility of governments. The first call for such an instrument began in the 1960s. Since then, the UN “Protect, Respect and Remedy” Framework and the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights have been established. Nevertheless, without an accompanying legally binding document, it is doubtful how effective these truly are. While it is unclear when or whether the demand for such a document will be met, one thing is certain: transnational corporations have and are only continuing to gain power and influence on the world economy that often negatively impact the human rights of communities where these corporations conduct operations. Without a uniform set of standards at both the national and international level, those affected by such acts, like the indigenous Zapotec people, will remain vulnerable without meaningful access to the justice they not only deserve, but to which they are entitled.

So, I leave you to ponder this question: until we have effective national and international standards to hold transnational companies accountable for human rights violations, how do we bite in the right place to get the giant to scratch? The answer we came up with during the conference seems rather simple: Follow the money.

For more information about this issue, read this article and visit the UN Human Rights website.

-Kacy Cuenta

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