Thursday, October 31, 2013

Kenyan LGBT Activist Visits Global Rights

In Kenya, a man who has sex with another man can face up to 14 years in prison. The Kenyan Penal Code describes such a crime as “against the order of nature,” and Kenyan society reinforces this message, with schools, churches and government officials branding Kenyan LGBT persons as outcasts and stains on Kenyan society.

Eric Gitari, an LGBT activist and lawyer, described the deplorable conditions for LGBT persons in Kenya at a recent talk at Global Rights' office in Washington:

"As someone who has a lived experience of being queer in Kenya, growing up in the rural village, and going to public schools which are funded by churches, you're taught every day that you don't belong, that you're shameful, that you're a stigma, that you're not part of the society, that something is wrong with you. And what that does to you, especially at an early age, is that it destroys your dignity, it stains you, with so many questions of your respectability, desirability and your thriving in society."

To learn more about LGBT persons in Kenya and their fight for equality, take a look at the following short video, where Mr. Gitari talks about everything from the changes in sexual norms following the British colonization of Kenya in 1895 to cases involving LGBT rights that are currently before the High Court of Kenya.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Global Rights Executive Director Visits Afghanistan

Global Rights Executive Director Susan Farnsworth returned this week from a 10-day trip to Afghanistan, where she met with local Global Rights staff, international funders, and the many Afghan lawyers, law students and everyday Afghan people who benefit from Global Rights’ legal services and education initiatives.

On October 8, Susan visited one of our Legal Advice Bureaus in Kabul. The Bureaus were established in 2009 to help marginalized Afghans, particularly women, gain free access to lawyers who help them understand, and sometimes defend in court, their legal rights. Since 2009, about 5,000 individuals have benefited from legal services received at one of the four Bureaus that Global Rights’ partner organizations operate in the provinces of Kabul, Herat, Nangarhar, and Balkh. The partner organization that runs the Kabul Bureau is Justice for All.

Afghanistan Picture1
A client (left) works with a Legal Advice Bureau lawyer in Kabul to secure alimony for her and her two children.
Afghanistan Picture 2
Global Rights Executive Director Susan Farsnworth speaks with Mahfuza Folad, Executive Director of Justice For all

Below are some of Susan’s impressions a day after visiting the Kabul Legal Advice Bureau on October 8:
“Yesterday, I visited the Legal Advice Bureau (LAB) in Kabul, where part of our work focuses on increasing access to justice for poor and vulnerable populations.  The LAB is located in the government complex, where people come to deal with a myriad of legal papers: licenses, registrations, claims, etc.  It is well known that engagement with the various parts of the justice system often requires additional expenses to have one’s case heard and to push the paperwork through for a decision. The LAB offers a pro bono service to the poor, ensuring that they can participate in the justice system at no additional cost.  During my visit, I met with the four defense lawyers who staff the Bureau, three women and one man. I also met one of the clients, a young woman wearing a burka that had been thrown back across her head. She was seeking alimony and child support from her husband for herself and her two daughters.  The client’s grasp of the law and her rights was inspiring. Not only was she determined to move the case forward so that she could receive the alimony due her under law, but through the work with the LAB lawyer, she had strong knowledge of her rights and how the law should work to protect those rights. It was clear that the lawyers go the extra mile to educate their clients, and in doing so, they are educating many others and breaking down real and perceived barriers to the justice system.  The client’s case is dragging through the system, but she and her lawyer are determined to push and push until it is resolved.  Seeing their determination gives me hope that she will receive her alimony and that her case will demonstrate to others that Global Rights’ work in providing legal advice for the poor opens up a door previously closed.”

Susan also chatted with one of Global Rights Legal Fellows, a select group of promising graduates from our Young Lawyers in Training Program (YLTP). Fellows are chosen to work in Afghanistan’s justice sector and in local human rights and justice non-governmental organizations (NGOs.) Global Rights established the YLTP in 2005 to supplement universities’ Sharia and law school curricula with educational content related to human and women’s rights, topics that were not covered in the traditional curricula. The program also provides practical training in civil and criminal procedure, which adds a new dimension to the students’ mostly theory-based pedagogy.  So far, more than 2,700 young men and women have successfully graduated from the program.  Mohammed, who met with Susan on her recent trip, is a graduate of the YLTP and a current Legal Fellow. The fellowship provides Mohammad and his recent graduate peers with a unique opportunity to begin working immediately on legal cases under the supervision of practicing lawyers, judges and human rights activists.

After spending some time with Mohammed, Susan was impressed by his conviction and passion for women’s rights:
“The other day I met Mohammed, who is now working as a Legal Fellow to promote gender equality in the Ministry of the Interior. He was presenting his experiences to the new class of Fellows, and his enthusiasm and excitement was catching. I wanted to further understand his passion for gender and equal rights.  He explained to me that his understanding of the importance of treating men and women equally is grounded in the life of the Prophet, who treated each of his wives equally and with respect. His support and understanding of Afghanistan’s decree to eliminate violence against women is grounded in this deep moral conviction.  He also explained to me how the articles contained in the Afghanistan decree to eliminate violence against women are derived from the Koran.   Meeting Mohammed and understanding his commitment to gender equality and the passion with which he purses this in his work at the Ministry reconfirmed my belief that our work is indeed building the next generation of legal practitioners who will promote rights and equality for all Afghans.”

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Global Rights Reports from Colombia at UN Summit on Business-Related Human Rights Issues

A few weeks ago in Colombia, the United Nations convened its first-ever regional gathering to address business-related human rights issues. More than 400 people participated in the event, including representatives from businesses, governments, grassroots and non-governmental organizations. Also in attendance was Lien De Brouckere, Global Rights’ Director of Natural Resources and Human Rights.

The forum was organized by the United Nations Working Group on Business & Human Rights, which is charged with implementing the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, a landmark set of global standards ratified by the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2011 that clarified the respective roles of governments and companies to help ensure that companies respect human rights while they operate.  This was the first-ever regional forum and was held in Colombia’s second largest city, Medellín. The results of the forum will feed into the second global forum that the Working Group is organizing in Geneva in December 2013.

After participating in the plenary sessions, Lien said that it was encouraging to hear representatives from companies and governments speak about “human rights” in relation to business activities, which marks progress in the attention companies now give to these issues.  
“To have governments and companies use this language of ‘human rights,’ and to develop policies and speak on public panels to address these issues is definitely a positive development that would not have happened at this scale a few years ago,” she said.
At the same time, she was deeply concerned that the forum failed to capture the realities on the ground for individuals and communities, and that the panels painted a misleading picture that obscured the main goal of protecting human rights for vulnerable and marginalized groups.  None of the panel discussions addressed the fundamental challenges of protecting affected communities’ rights, which include significant asymmetries of power, information and resources between companies and communities.  There was also little participation of affected communities (especially indigenous communities), grassroots organizations, or unions. 

On the third day, however, community groups finally took center stage during a session organized by ACCESS Facility, Futuro Sostenible and Fundacion Cambio Democratico, which addressed the question “What is effective remedy?” During that session, participants from community organizations shared their many (many!) repeated attempts at seeking remedy for human rights abuses, and Lien heard familiar stories from across the continent of the grievances suffered by communities.  At the Tintaya mine in Peru, for example, communities faced land expropriation without compensation, harmful environmental impacts, dangerous company infrastructure, and a lack of benefit sharing by the company with the communities.  At the Marlin mine in Guatemala, communities were not properly consulted about the mine project and were largely opposed to the mine’s operation due to  grave concerns about dangerous metals in the water that could harm the communities’ health and ecosystem.  At Chevron’s oil operations in Ecuador, toxic substances released into the water harmed community health and traditional life, and at Cerrejón’s operations in the village of Tabaco, Colombia, Afro-Colombian communities suffered violent expropriation from their lands. 

Gatherings such as the one in Medellín a few weeks ago have the potential to bear witness to the impacts, harms, and abuses, challenges in the region, in addition to providing a space for participatory dialogue that critically examines issues facing communities and how business and government can prevent those harms.  Lien felt that realizing such potential—whether of bearing witness or engaging in meaningful dialogue—would require some changes, such as bringing more voices into the room, adjusting the format of the sessions, and encouraging companies to view affected communities not as objects but as human beings deserved of respect and dignity.