Posted by: Castan Centre | May 17, 2017

Humans and Rights

By Nicola Silbert

Following an intense month at the Human Right Council, life at the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) continues. This post will discuss the Universal Periodic Review and an example of ISHR’s advocacy work for human rights defenders in China.

Universal Periodic Review

The Universal Period Review (UPR) is a review of the human rights situation in all of the UN member States. A review of the human rights records of basically the entire world is not for the faint-hearted, and there is no other universal mechanism of this kind. A State, known as the State under Review (SuR) will cycle through for review every five years. The SuR will present a national report and then other States have the opportunity to make recommendations to improve its human rights situation. It is reminiscent of a TV talent show with 192 judges and significantly more tears.

The UPR culminates in an “outcome report” listing the recommendations the SuR will have to implement before the next review. Think it sounds like a great idea? You are in good company, former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon described the UPR as having “great potential to promote and protect human rights in the darkest corners of the world.” ISHR engages with the UPR by submitting briefing papers about the situation of human rights defenders in the SuR; supporting human rights defenders to interact with the UPR; and advocating for the strengthening of the UPR as a mechanism.

Humans and human rights

In the bland light of Room XX where the UPR is held, I struggled to conceptualise the meaning of words behind country reports. I was reminded of the following analogy:

“If someone tries to browbeat a farmer to sell his eggs at a moderate price, the farmer can say “I have the right to keep my eggs if I don’t get a good enough price.” But if a young girl is being forced into a brothel she will not talk about her rights. In such a situation the word would sounds ludicrously inadequate.” Simone Weil, Human Personality (1943)

In her criticism of human rights, Weil argues that the concept of rights is unable to portray the suffering of the girl in the above example. What would she think of the UPR and HRC? For me, the formulaic and disconnected atmosphere means that I struggle to understand the human rights violations which are described in the UPR. Of course, my individual experience of humanity also limits my understanding of how another’s humanity is violated. I can only imagine that the delegations involved in the UPR feel similarly.

Yet Weil was writing before the development of human rights as a legal tool. Human rights is not only a method through which we can express violations of our human dignity, but it is a legal system. As a legal culture, it is natural that the UPR and other human rights mechanisms do not go into issues of justification. In the UPR, the humans behind the human rights seem less important than the effectiveness of the mechanism. Yet implementation of UPR recommendations relies on political will, so perhaps it is important to have some deeper understanding of the humans who hold the rights. The pre-sessions to the UPR provide such a platform.

The pre-party

UPR pre-sessions are organised by the non-governmental organisation UPR Info. The pre-sessions are panels of human rights defenders and national organisations who provide first-hand testimonies and information. The room is filled with reviewing States, who use this information to make recommendations to the SuR. Listening to the lived experiences of human rights violations, State representatives are more likely to fully comprehend the situation in a country. The pre-sessions are clearly powerful, leading to some States preventing panellists from speaking – a human rights defender in Bahrain who was meant to speak on the panel was apprehended on their way to Geneva and another declined to speak for fear of reprisal. Providing a platform for people on the ground to engage with States ensures that the UPR remains effective and relevant to the humans whose rights are being discussed.

Advocacy at work

Another example of ISHR’s nudging the UN to focus mechanisms on defending the rights of people is through advocacy work. In July 2015, more than 300 human rights lawyers and defenders were arrested in China in what is known as the “709 Crackdown.” Two lawyers arrested in these attacks were Li Heping and Xie Yang. Last week, Li Heping was sentenced during a secret trial while Xie Yang’s trial was indefinitely postponed. There are allegations that both have been tortured while in detention. Meanwhile, Li’s wife, Wang Qiaoling was harassed by State security who asked her to come with them for a ‘reunion’ with her husband, a euphemism for what is essentially a house arrest.

What has been the UN response to the 709 Crackdown so far? In February 2016, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights released a statement expressing concern over China’s clampdown on lawyers and activists, including Li Heping. A group of twelve States, including Australia, also delivered a joint statement at the Human Rights Council. However, over the past year there has been little response to the ongoing human rights violations and clampdown on civil society.

So, how do international NGOs like ISHR push the UN to hold the Chinese government accountable? I was lucky enough to see the advocates at work. During the HRC in March, I watched civil society organisations strategize and meet with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). This was followed by a flurry of letter writing from ISHR and other organisations. We wrote to the OHCHR; to States who spoke out about China at the HRC; and to those who should have spoken out about China but did not (Australia being in this category). During the week that Li Heping and Xie Yang had (or rather, didn’t have) their trials, I gave my rusty Chinese skills a work-out, contributing to the following article.

The tangible effects of meetings, letters and articles are difficult to quantify. However, on Friday, the OHCHR released this statement on human rights lawyers in China, including Li Heping and Xie Yang. The Chinese government has been sensitive to this kind of international scrutiny in the past, making the statement a small success. ISHR’s pushes might have just tipped the OHCHR into making the statement, demonstrating the effect of their work. This advocacy is yet another example of how ISHR works within the UN systems to advocate for both humans and their rights.

Posted by: Castan Centre | May 8, 2017

Hello from Geneva!

By Madelaine King

I feel I should make a full disclosure before reading on: I am not a law student, nor have I formally studied international politics in any shape or form. This blog will chronicle my experience as a non-law/politics student interning with the Australian Permanent Mission to the United Nations for the 34th session of the Human Rights Council and the 2017 Bennelong Indigenous intern for the Castan Centre for Human Rights. As such, expect plain language and simplified explanations, free of technical terms and jargon – something I’ll pretend is a skillset I’ve acquired throughout my medical training, and not due to being in over my head.

UN Geneva

As a final year medical student, I applied for this internship with the hope of expanding my knowledge of how political and government systems interact within the United Nations and in a human rights framework. As has been echoed many times throughout the preceding weeks of council, knowledge and education is power and I had hopes that this opportunity would better equip me to become a leader and advocate for human rights at home.

Human Rights Council 101

Four weeks into my internship, I have essentially undergone a crash course in international politics, international and human rights law and diplomacy. I won’t go into detail about how the council operates, but there are essential three main components:

  1. The main plenary in Room XX (the room with the fancy ceiling*), where the formal items of the council take place. This includes addresses from the High Commissioner, general debates, panel discussions, reports from Special Rapporteurs and Independent Experts and the Universal Periodic Reviews.
  2. Informal negotiations, which is where resolutions that have been drafted by states are reviewed and critiqued by the other states in an informal and ‘friendly’ round-table kind of way. Consider your thesis being broken down line-by-line and the wording, language, punctuation and references being torn to shreds.
  3. Side events, which are put on by missions, non-government organisations (NGOs) or national human rights institutes (NHRIs) and usually take the form of an expert panel presentation with space for open discussion from the floor. Side event topics range from the protection of human rights defenders and the importance of providing reformed sexuality education to women and girls, to the human rights situation in Sri Lanka and using Universal Jurisdiction to end impunity for war crimes committed in Syria.

 

On a day to day basis, my schedule will consist of a three-hour shift in the main plenary and then a mixture of informal negotiations and side events. There is a lot going on and the council moves very fast. In a single day I may have covered the panel discussion on climate change and the rights of the child, an informal negotiation on the right to privacy in the digital age and a side event on the human rights situation in Myanmar. It often feels like there is little time to fully digest and reflect on the serious, urgent and awful current affairs being discussed. What has truly been a blessing has been connecting with the community of international interns and professionals here in Geneva; a wonderfully diverse group of intelligent, passionate and like-minded individuals, always up for a debrief and discussion over a glass of wine and copious amounts of Swiss cheese. I feel incredibly privileged to be able to engage with such brilliant, forward thinking minds and it gives me hope for the future in the current global climate of rising xenophobia and intolerance.

 

Candidate for the UN Human Rights Council 2018-2020

It has been an interesting time to commence an internship at the Australian Mission due to Australia’s ongoing 2018-2020 campaign for council membership. Since the announcement by Julie Bishop in 2015 we’ve all read the opinion pieces, heard the criticisms and engaged in debates surrounding Australia’s bid.

My fellow interns and I arrived as the campaign was peaking; the pinnacle being an event entitled Future Dreaming: a celebration of Indigenous Australian culture and Australian food and wine and the showcase was to include a performance by the Bangarra Dance Theatre and an Indigenous art exhibition.

Having just arrived from Australia, at first I found this concept quite jarring; it appeared the Australian government wished to project an image to the international community that is far from the reality of the rights of Indigenous people on the ground, and throughout that first week I struggled to shake the uncomfortable feeling that Indigenous Australian culture was being appropriated to serve a political agenda.

It was unclear if a single Indigenous person, other than the Bangarra Theatre, were consulted or involved in the organising of the event. It was also unclear if these were questions that were okay to be asked. After raising these concerns however, I was reassured that there had in fact been a great deal of input from Indigenous partners in Australia and a significant amount of work had been invested in building a foundation of trust in these relationships. It was also conveyed to me that by putting Indigenous rights at the forefront of their campaign, the Australian government was attempting to take ownership of the past, acknowledge their failings and not shy away from the challenges they still face. As an intern I was pleasantly surprised to have my concerns taken seriously and to be given the opportunity to engage in a constructive conversation.

When the night arrived, I think the event was executed in a culturally sensitive manner and it really was an evening of celebration of Indigenous Australian culture. The Bangarra dancers were breath-taking and received a well-deserved standing ovation. The issues surrounding Indigenous rights are incredibly complex and there are no easy solutions, but I do believe that partnerships and collaborations with Indigenous Australians like this, are of upmost importance if we are to heal and move forwards as a united community.

No state has a perfect human rights record and it’s clear you don’t need one to serve on the council; current members include Egypt, China and Saudi Arabia. As Philippe Magid, the executive director of Bangarra Dance Theatre said in his address, Australia still has a long way to go regarding recognition of the rights of Indigenous Australians but he hoped that Australia’s bid for a seat on the council was a step in the right direction and would make them more accountable of human rights violations of Indigenous people. I can only hope he’s right and that meaningful policy shift that results in positive change on the ground will follow. In the meantime, I will utilise this opportunity to learn as much as I can to better advocate, protect and promote the human rights of all, especially our Indigenous people.

 

*so it’s actually called Miquel Barcelo’s Dome, there you go.

Posted by: Castan Centre | March 30, 2017

Hello, and welcome to the Human Rights Council!

By Nicola Silbert

It is my privilege to be writing to you from the International Service for Human Rights in Geneva, where I am interning for four months.  The International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) is an NGO which promotes human rights by supporting human rights defenders and strengthening human rights systems. I’ve spent the last few weeks attending the Human Rights Council of the United Nations, so this post will focus on some aspects of NGO life in the UN human rights system.

 

The Human Rights Council (HRC) is the United Nations body which is responsible for promoting, protecting and fulfilling human rights around the world. The HRC is an intergovernmental body with 47 member states that are elected for three year terms. HRC member states commit to upholding human rights domestically, and can even be suspended from the HRC if they fail to do so – although membership tends to be overwhelming political and some HRC members have rather cavalier attitudes towards human rights.

 

Where words are louder than actions

It is a common criticism that the paper-shuffling and word-twisting of the HRC does not have any real impact on peoples’ lives. The work of the HRC in Geneva consists only of words, so can they make a difference to the rights of real people? Over the past few years, we have seen the extreme power of words and narrative. We have seen how a story of victimisation and identity can elect a US President,[1] and how a narrative of human control can cause climate change.[2]

 

So how do words in the HRC impact reality? One of the most Orwellian examples is when States use language to delegitimise the human rights system. When States complain that human rights are being ‘politicised,’[3] lament the ‘selectivity’ of the HRC[4] or stress that States have the primary responsibility over the human rights of their citizens,[5] they are in fact enacting a specific agenda.  The complaint that human rights are selective, politicised, or infringe on sovereignty generally follows when a State has been singled out for condemnation for human rights violations.

 

As ISHR interns, we are assigned to areas of concern, one of mine being China. This State is an example of one of the more powerful States impacting the narrative of the HRC. From catchy phrases like the Chinese dream (中国梦) to the complete defining of “Chinese culture”, the Chinese government is known for its use of words. This State is one of the most influential using strategic language to cover over human rights violations.

 

The problem is that this use of these narratives is more than merely a denial of human rights violations by an individual State, it is aimed delegitimising the UN human rights system itself. This narrative denies the principle of universality of human rights, a foundation of human rights law. The response of other member States is too often to ignore the core of these States’ intentions in using language that denies the universality of human rights in order to justify human rights abuses. And it is at this point that the mere words used during the HRC paint a false picture of the on the ground reality in a State. When real facts of the human rights situation are obscured by narratives aimed at delegitimising the UN human rights system, the desired positive impact on the lives of people cannot be achieved.

 

But what about the people?

Media, politics and university classes generally focus on the role of States in the HRC. One of my biggest lessons in the past few weeks has been discovering just how important NGOs are in the UN human rights system. Even some of the most democratic of States often do not always represent the most basic interests of their own citizens, and there are many more States who directly oppose the interests of their people.

 

That is where NGOs come in. A rabble which sits at the back of the Council, they clamour for their speaking time to address the Council. The room often empties at this point as member States, having espoused the benefits of civil society only minutes before, leave the room. But it is at this moment where some semblance of reality enters the HRC. NGOs that speak directly to the very people affected by human rights abuse provide an opportunity for their voices to be heard in the HRC. ISHR works with human rights defenders and provides space for them to engage with UN human rights mechanisms. It is here where the real people, through civil society organisations, are able to reclaim the HRC.

 

What we do when our beds are burning

Finally, I want to share one of the more surreal experiences of my life. Last week I crossed the square full of protesters in front of the UN building on my way to attend a “multicultural day event”. The UN cafeteria was packed with hundreds of delegates, diplomats and NGO representatives showing off their dance moves. Cameras and press were not allowed, lest they expose the party habits of some poor delegate. Dancing to American pop music, with the sounds of sirens and gunshots mixed over the music, these strangest mix of people took to the dancefloor. Although there were some notable absences of States, I couldn’t help but think that this might just be where the real constructive conversations occur.

 

[1] Reicher, Stephen, and S. Alexander Haslam. “The Politics of Hope: Donald Trump as an Entrepreneur of Identity.” Why Irrational Politics Appeals: Understanding the Allure of Trump (2017): 25.

[2] Klein, Naomi. This changes everything: Capitalism vs. the climate. Simon and Schuster, 2015.

[3] Egypt, High Level Segment of the 34th Session of the Human Rights Council.

[4] Cuba , High Level Segment of the 34th Session of the Human Rights Council.

[5] Iran, Item 3 of the 34th Session of the Human Rights Council.

Posted by: jessicaleefitzgerald | March 8, 2017

Happy International Women’s Day!

Happy International Women’s day to you all! This International Women’s Day I want to highlight the achievements of the male and female lawyers I am surrounded by daily who fight to make the legal system in Africa fairer and more protective of women.

Being at the Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC) has been the most interesting and personally enriching experience of my life. It has been astounding to learn about the sheer breadth of work that the office of only nine lawyers undertakes. All of the lawyers at SALC work across women’s rights in some way, because women’s rights intersect into all areas of human rights work, such as health rights, prisoner’s rights, LBGTI rights, property rights, sexual and reproductive rights, and labour rights.

The purpose of this post is to highlight the amazing work of the lawyers I get the pleasure to work with each day, who are empowering women and providing them stronger, more stable legal protections, so that they can live lives free from fear and abuse, so that they can be healthy, and so that they have access to education, opportunities and choice.

Ending Child Marriage in Tanzania

A male lawyer at SALC recently won a case which means that it is now illegal for girls to be married at 14 years of age in Tanzania. The case mentioned instances where a 70 year old man had married a 15 year old girl, and where women under 18 years old were being forced to have sex, but were not able to report the rape, because it occurred within a marriage. Women are now required to give their own consent to a marriage only after they are 18 years old – their parents and the Courts can no longer consent to a marriage on their behalf. This also enables women to complete school, and prevents girls as young as 14 from being subjected to sexual and domestic abuse from their husbands, who are usually much older.

Ensuring the safety of women engaged in sex-work in Malawi

A male lawyer at SALC recently won a case which challenged laws that Police were using to arbitrarily arrest and detain sex-workers in Malawi, in order to harass or intimidate them. These women were often asked for bribes or sexual favours in exchange for their release. As a result of this case, women in Malawi can no longer be arbitrarily arrested under these laws, and the case has prompted an education campaign for Police on the limits to their powers of arrest.

Challenging the automatic dismissal of women who are pregnant

Myself and another female lawyer at SALC are currently assisting on a case which challenges the unfair dismissal of three women from the Defence Force for falling pregnant. There was a policy which outlined that women who fall pregnant within their first years of service will be automatically discharged, as they became permanently unfit for service. All three women are from very poor families, and the money they earned in the army supported themselves, their husbands and their broader families (mothers, fathers, brothers, aunties, uncles, and extended cousins). We are working to get them compensated and reinstated, now that they are no longer pregnant, so that they can continue work and provide for their families, and so that they do not become destitute and fall below the poverty line, as a result of an unfair and illogical policy.

Why we do it

Every case, every campaign brings us closer to a world where women are treated with respect and dignity, where they don’t fear domestic abuse or mutilation, where they have equal access to education, where they are able to drive, to own property, to make choices about how they wish to live their lives, and where they have access to basic medical services to ensure their health and those of their families.

Women’s rights are not only a women’s issue, which is why I highlighted that two of the three cases were won by male lawyers. Women’s rights are realised when both men and women work to ensure their realisation – women are only one half of the equation.

It is an amazing privilege to be surrounded by, and be working with, such talented lawyers to advance the rights of women in Africa – an opportunity which I am genuinely grateful for, every day.

Posted by: Castan Centre | February 22, 2017

“You picked an interesting time to visit the United States!”

By Gemma Hallett

That remark has become the hallmark of my time here in New York, as a Castan Centre intern at Human Rights First. It’s certainly been an interesting, challenging time to be here – I arrived about four weeks after the election, and six weeks before the inauguration. The resulting atmosphere in New York has been one of nervousness and disquiet, hanging in the air like storm clouds in a city descending into a winter both literal and uncomfortably symbolic. I quickly realised that time itself was redefined on November 8, and our world is now split into eras Before Donald and After Donald.

As a first-time visitor to the United States, it’s been a steep learning curve navigating a culture that is vastly more complex and different to mine than I ever expected. A perfect introduction to this was my first day at Human Rights First. My induction started off by watching a video summing up the American values and ideals upon which Human Rights First bases its advocacy. “Freedom is American,” the video declared in its first screen. Then, Martin Luther King Jr.’s voice proclaimed his “desire to see our beloved country stand as the moral example of the world”. The video concludes on a note intended to feel optimistic and aspirational: “The world needs American leadership.” Now, in the post-election era – After Donald – these sentiments made me feel sick. The irony of working in a human rights organisation in the U.S. at a time like this started to sink in, and still hits me every day when I sit down at my desk and review our daily press briefing, which increasingly profiles a country rocketing backwards at a vertiginous pace.

Against this increasingly dark political backdrop, it’s felt like even more of an honour to become part of the Refugee Representation team at Human Rights First. I come to work every day surrounded by driven, multilingual and over-worked young lawyers – mostly women, as is the norm in many social justice organisations – who work on behalf of refugee and asylum seeker clients to assist them in navigating the complex U.S. immigration system and obtaining legal representation. As well as client casework, Human Rights First also engages in fearless political advocacy, lobbying the government to improve its immigration policy and stop detaining asylum seeker families.

Since the new administration took power just three weeks ago, the feeling in the office has sometimes been devastating – urgent emails pouring in from John F. Kennedy Airport, reporting detention and deportation as the travel ban kicked in. It’s been disorienting, hearing yet another colleague object to the latest report of Trump’s executive orders – “isn’t that illegal?” – and being met with a mournful, unprecedented silence. But most importantly, this office has also been a steadfast bastion of hope and resistance every single day. All of my colleagues are now working overtime, not only as immigration lawyers, but also as shoulders for clients to cry on; as makeshift taxi services when detained refugees are released without warning into the cold New Jersey streets after sixteen months imprisoned; as impromptu interpreters of Arabic-speaking clients making emergency phone calls to us from airports in the seven banned countries.

Every day, I’m being reminded that human rights law is not a career for the faint-hearted, or the easily discouraged. But I’m also learning that it’s a space in which you can act as a dream-bearer, a crisis manager, a social worker and a life planner for those in dire need of someone to trust. And I’m also learning to appreciate the silver linings, as rare as they are, and even rarer as they will continue to be. For example, the day after New York lit up with protests against the Muslim travel ban, I was dreading going to work and discussing the tragic fallout for thousands of families worldwide. What I wasn’t expecting was to arrive to several emails of thanks from former and current HRF clients. They’d written to us to thank us for protesting, and to say how much it meant to see streets full of supporters who welcome refugees and immigrants with open arms. Although legal casework is often frustrating in that you can only help so many people at a time, it’s moments like this that remind us that our work is more important and far-reaching than we often think.

As we head deeper into the After Donald era, I’m clinging to moments like these. I’m also trying to spend my time as an intern learning as much as I can about the world we live in, to equip myself to become a better part of the resistance that’s already unfolding. I’m looking forward to bringing these lessons back home in time for the end of my studies and the start of my career – and hoping we never face as grave a threat to human rights in Australia as the United States is facing now.

Posted by: Castan Centre | February 15, 2017

NYPD accountability? Part 2

By Amy Myers

Five years ago last week NYPD officer Richard Haste killed 18-year-old Ramarley Graham in his Bronx home. The five-day departmental trial of Officer Haste wrapped up on the 23rd of January, and the presiding departmental judge is expected to give her recommendation to NYPD Commissioner O’Neill by 3rd February. Commissioner O’Neill is under no obligation to follow it or publicly reveal what his decision is because of existing legislation which permits secrecy in departmental trials.

There was a lot wrong with Haste’s week-long “trial.” The absence of any civilian witness testimony undermined the legitimacy of the court. At no point was Ramarley’s grandmother, Patricia Hartley, or the ground floor resident who allegedly consented to Haste and his partner McLaughlin entering the apartment building, given the chance to testify. Ramarley’s grandmother was not only present when Ramarley was killed, she was also threatened by Haste after he killed Ramarley. The departmental trial was limited to the “technical” question of determining whether Haste’s actions were proper, and therefore no civilian testimony was deemed necessary. But how can a decision maker determine whether the urgency, danger, and stressfulness of the circumstances were in fact real and the officer’s actions justified without impartial outside testimony? When a court does away with this principal it becomes an illegitimate court.

Haste and McLaughlin emphasized how quickly everything happened. They consistently referred to Ramarley as the “perp” and “suspect” and Ramarley’s possession of “the gun,” as if its presence was an accepted fact. But no gun was ever recovered in or around the property. Criminalizing Ramarley through this choice of language during the trial was not met by any objections by the departmental advocates prosecuting Haste, the people charged with ensuring the facts were clarified and Ramarley was accurately depicted.

It is true that the events on February 2, 2012, happened quickly, but not for the reasons the NYPD officers claimed. From the time Ramarley walked calmly into his house and shut the door to the time the police hastily removed his body after shooting him, hardly 15 minutes had passed. Having noticed Ramarley “walking with a purpose” with his hand allegedly in the waistband of his pants, the Bronx Special Narcotics Enforcement Unit decided to follow him. This was hardly a “hot pursuit” as characterised by the NYPD officers present. The NYPD bust into his home in a cavalier and reckless manner. They kicked in the front door with no warning or request for it to be opened. They failed to call in backup or the highly specialised Emergency Services Unit, who generally engage “barricaded perps” verbally to deescalate situations. Haste and his team also failed to clear the area, a standard procedures for apprehending a suspect when real danger is perceived. It is highly unusual for a body to be removed this quickly following a fatal shooting. Not surprisingly, there were discrepancies in accounts of where Ramarely’s body was when he was shot. During testimony during the trial the police officers involved also made the extraordinary inference that, because the scene was not secured, the gun Ramarley allegedly had must have been removed. Neither of these things would have been in issue if the incident had been handled professionally by an external investigator.

During the trial, Ramarley’s mother, Constance Malcolm, attended with Gwen Carr, Eric Garner’s mother. They both say that the “true facts of the story aren’t being told.” Constance held a press conference to set the record straight. She played the complete video footage from the cameras outside the apartment building which clearly contradicted the NYPD narrative. Confirming the above tactical violations, it depicted the officers taking over three minutes to enter the premises, turning their backs multiple times to the entrance to the property, failing to clear the area and pressing their faces to the doorway glass to try and see through – actions that Inspector Sheehan, the Commanding Officer for the Special Training Section of the NYPD, told the court were indicative of egregiously poor tactical judgment. These actions go further and reveal the degree of fabrication involved in the official NYPD story that they “feared for their lives.” The erasure of civilian testimony and the curation of the video footage showing in the courtroom were two legal tactics which were used by the NYPD to create an alternative narrative and assist in shielding Haste.

The full video also tragically depicted Ramarley’s then-six-year-old brother, Chinnor Campbell, being led out of the apartment into the freezing cold, crying hysterically, and dressed in only a t-shirt. Separated from his grandmother, traumatised from seeing his brother being shot, he was passed between officers, none of whom offered him a coat or other covering in the frigid February cold. This is despite Haste remarking on the stand that he was driven to act quickly by the interest in protecting any children in the building. Soon afterwards, the video shows Ramarley’s bloodied body being carried out and carelessly slung onto a gurney. At the press conference, Constance revealed that the police also later lost Ramarley’s body for days. The treatment of Ramarley’s body, both at the scene and afterwards, coupled with the absence of any consequences for the officers, reveals the NYPD’s complete failure to live up to its mandate of courtesy, professionalism and respect when it came to Ramarley as an 18-year-old Black teenager in the Bronx.

Ramarley’s mother, Constance Malcolm, considers it a personal slap in the face that “Haste refused to apologise in court. That was his opportunity and instead he chose to justify himself.” She told me, “I fight not just for Ramarley but also for Chinnor…I have to raise a Black boy in this country, this is why I fight so hard to get things done and changed. I don’t want to bury another child.” Trials such as this create further division between the police and the communities they purport to serve and undermine comments by Mayor De Blasio about bridging that gap.

               Ramarley Graham rally

Constance said, “This trial raises the question of whether the NYPD is seeking to root out bad officers or covering up for them…We are skeptical and the public should be too.” Constance had an op-ed published in the New York Times on the anniversary emphasising these points. The key provision that Constance would like to see changed is New York Civil Rights Law § 50-a. This section excludes from public access “all personnel records used to evaluate performance toward continued employment” relating to police and corrections officers unless mandated by a lawful court order. The Committee on Open Government within the New York Department of State has recommended that this exemption be removed to increase transparency and accountability.

As we peer into the terrifying abyss of the Trump presidency, and begin to make out the shape of what is to come, it is difficult to hope that transparency or accountability will improve. “Does anyone really remember the details of a course from training they received years before?” asked Haste’s defence attorney, Stuart London. London also chillingly stated, “Police work should not be judged by the end result…or second guessed.” Justice for Ramarley Graham is far from served: officers have avoided accountability and been rewarded with promotions. This is unacceptable.

This was originally published on the CCR blog.

Attachments area
Posted by: Castan Centre | February 2, 2017

What I did on Inauguration Day

By Amy Myers

It’s difficult not to feel like the whole world has gone to hell over the last two weeks. I feel deeply affected by the inauguration and the terrible executive orders signed by Trump over the last week. I don’t feel optimistic about things getting better in the short term. In fact it looks like they will get a whole lot worse before they get better. Sometimes showing up is your only option.  On Friday 20th January a friend from CCR and I attended the protests in Washington D.C.  We also stayed for the Women’s March the next day and were part of the enormous throng of people expressing their disgust and protest.

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While walking down to the official anti-inauguration march on Friday, we encountered the ‘Antifa March.’ A crowd of people mostly dressed in black with covered faces were chanting and yelling, and had been ‘kettled’ by the police on a street corner. Tear gas bombs and concussion grenades had left people scattered on the ground, other protesters tipped milk into their eyes to neutralise the chemicals.  There were four or five police vans with approximately 50 people arrested and detained inside, including photographers and journalists. This number later swelled to a couple of hundred. People reported being detained without explanation for many hours. The defence attorney for the DisruptJ20 Protests has already launched a class action lawsuit.

SuddenlyVermin Supreme, the iconic anarchist activist arrived.  He stormed across the park, towards the corner occupied by the police, with a large black gumboot on his head, with a guitarist and a person wearing a yellow Lycra onesie with radioactive symbol on it in tow. Vermin climbed a traffic light pole on the corner and yelled into his megaphone, “I am Vermin Supreme. Today is my inauguration. I will make a speech at lunchtime. But right now I come as an amateur hostage negotiator. You are holding these people against their will. I demand you release them. Who is in control of this sh*t show?” The crowd laughed, as did the arrestees in the back of the police vans I later learned.  Political theatre is a powerful tool. It was one of many different types of useful forms of protest on display over that weekend. Sometimes you do a dance, sometimes you show up en masse, sometimes you rally and sometimes you just cover your face with a mask and smash up a Starbucks.  At this point no action seems entirely unwarranted.

As the afternoon progressed, we found ourselves marching alongside people walking on stilts, a trio of lamas, and people from all walks of life. We ended up at a park where a hard core band was playing. Seth Tobocman strolled past giving out free zines about protest and civil disobedience, a native woman whose name I didn’t catch spoke passionately about the North Dakota Access Pipeline,  and the Radioactive person who we saw earlier with Vermin Supreme appeared and did a chaotic interpretive dance. And then out of nowhere Elvis himself appeared!  There were a few red hat wearing people standing around making people feel a little less safe (emblazoned with the aggressive and retrospective slogan, “Make America Great Again”). And then, when I thought we had reached a type of ridiculous surrealist zenith, a limousine parked out the front of the Washington Post offices opposite the park was smashed up and set alight. Smoke plumed across the park.  What could be a better symbol of dissent against the state and capitalism itself than a burning limousine?

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As the sun set and the smell of tear gas and smoke dissipated, we zigzagged through the park and the middle of the street dodging upended rubbish bins.   We were horrified that Trump had been sworn in as the 45th President but also satisfied that proceedings had been disrupted.

Things I learned on Inauguration Day and at the Women’s March:

  • Making fun of Melania, and holding banners saying “#freeMalania” and “Melania Blink Twice if you Need Help” is not funny because it trivialises domestic violence against women;
  • Yes, abortion is a man’s issue too but today we were showing solidarity for women’s struggles;
  • The name ‘Women’s March’ suggests there are two genders (and that gender is a fixed notion) which is stupid and untrue;
  • Police cornering groups of people often precedes a mass arrest;
  • Sometimes 600,000 grannies and parents with kids in tow can peacefully create more chaos and traffic disorder than you would think possible, and that’s pretty cool; and
  • The time to be radical is now.

 

Posted by: Castan Centre | January 11, 2017

NYPD accountability?

By Amy Myers

ramarley

On Thursday 15th December I went into the belly of the beast, the internal police accountability court at 1 Police Plaza in Manhattan. Myself and some staff from CCR were there, alongside Communities United for Police Reform (CPR) and Standing up for Racial Justice (SURJ). We wanted to pack the court room to seek justice for Ramarley Graham and to stand in solidarity with his family. February 2nd will mark 5 years since NYPD officer Richard Haste stormed into 18 year old Ramarley’s home and shot him him in the chest in front of his grandmother and 6 year old brother. Ramarley was unarmed.  Haste will not face criminal charges.

A CCR staff member that I attended with told me they had never been to a hearing at the internal departmental court before because they are usually conducted without public notice.  Any accountability mechanism of an institution as powerful as the NYPD that is not held publicly with due notice is obviously highly suspect.

The hearing itself was to set a trial date and to determine whether the sergeants and other officers should be tried at the same time as Haste. The defence attorney, Stuart London, was very keen for the cases to be heard together, probably because it would create bureaucratic hold ups thereby delaying the trial further. London told the judge that cases like this are always tried together. She gently corrected him, stating she herself had tried several cases recently where this was not the case. Then while correcting this misrepresentation, he interrupted her to make a separate point. Usually misstatements and interruptions represent gross disrespect of the court. But this is not a normal court. The judge’s failure to admonish London speaks to the collegiality and bias between the internal NYPD judges and the defence teams that represent deviant NYPD officers.

The full court room sent a clear message to the NYPD that the public is interested in the outcome of this case and that it will be watching the trial set for January 17th-25th very closely.  Unfortunately that trial is not even a murder trial, as you might expect, but rather a trial to determine if Richard Haste should be stripped of his job. In the 5 years since the incident Haste has received a pay increase. The disrespect this represents for the Graham family is immense. The lack of police accountability in this country is astonishing.  Though of course in Australia the police are equally untouchable.

Standing with Ramarley’s sister Leona Virgo at the press conference afterwards was heart wrenching but also galvanising. I took strength from seeing her commitment to fighting institutional complacency and corruption on behalf of her brother. I will be observing the trial from the 17th of January. This coincides with Trump’s inauguration, so it will most certainly be entirely eclipsed in the media, further reinforcing how little the NYPD cares about holding its officers accountable.

As we head into the trial next week there are still questions lingering, such as what exactly are the specific charges against Haste and the other two officers who were in the house? Why has there been little push for civilian witnesses, such as Ramarley’s grandmother and the landlords’s son? And why did a police officer take a list of  the names of myself and all of the members of the public attending court that day, against their regular procedure?

Posted by: Castan Centre | December 21, 2016

Standing up for Standing Rock

By Amy Myers

Two weeks ago, I went to Standing Rock in North Dakota. As it would turn out, this was the day before the Army Corps of Engineers announced they would not grant the easement. There is a Lakota prophesy that describes a giant black snake that will run across the land and wreak great destruction. Many members of the Lakota Nation consider the snake to be the almost 1900 kilometer pipeline which has been partly constructed. As an Australian, I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have witnessed the dedicated work of the Water Protectors, and to have learned about the long history of indigenous resistance to U.S. colonization from those who had experienced it firsthand. At Standing Rock, the Lakota were joined by over 100 other tribes to protect their land from the pipeline.

I encountered two hurdles on my journey there. First, I learned before I flew out that my car rental booking had been inexplicably cancelled, and there were no other cars available anywhere near Bismarck, my original destination. My only option was to reroute my flight to Minneapolis and drive the eight hours through the night from there. Then, when I finally neared Cannon Ball, ND, I discovered the police had blocked the quicker, more direct route on Highway 1806, and so I took a further detour that added another 45 minutes to the journey.

When I arrived, the sun was barely up and the countryside was covered in snow; despite this, several people at Sacred Stone camp were already getting the day started. The camp felt still and prayerful. Later that morning, in flagrant disregard of the no-fly zone above the camps, a light plane and a DAPL helicopter circled the broader protest encampments. Their presence shattered the calm and I feared they were there for surveillance. Several people at the camp told me to put my phone in airplane mode to avoid potentially having my data collected.

Having seen the media accounts of water cannons, vicious police dog attacks on protesters, chemical warfare being used against unarmed protesters in the form of tear gas and police shooting people with rubber bullets and concussion grenades, I arrived anticipating trouble. One woman I spoke with that weekend warned me to make sure I was wearing thermals because police were taking protesters’ outer clothes from them and leaving people in small pens, sometimes for up to two days; she added that “police are harsher if you look native.” My first day, on two hours’ sleep, I helped dig a latrine hole and sorted some donations. I felt such profound gratitude for the indigenous Water Protectors who had been there for months before me; I was glad to help, even in some small way.

On Saturday afternoon, U.S. veterans began to arrive en masse. I could feel the excitement building throughout the camps. It was moving to see all of that support from members of the military, who planned to form a human shield around the Water Protectors. Some 200 people attended Sunday morning’s Direct Action Meeting. We prayed. We were reminded this was a peaceful protest and we must not allow the police to antagonise us. We signed Jail Release Forms, deciding whether we would prefer to be bailed out immediately or wait with those we were arrested with. We were reminded not to waive our right to remain silent and that we should not expect the police to obey the law. Toward the end of the meeting, a veteran got up and said he had been used as a pawn in the past, sent to a foreign country to fight another battle over natural resources. He said he killed people while abroad and suffers daily because of it. He told the group he came to Standing Rock seeking forgiveness and atonement, so that he could move on from his past actions. I cried when he said that. I would also cry a few hours later, when I learned that the Army Corps announced they were denying the easement needed to complete construction.

I have never experienced anything near the depth of solidarity and resilience of this movement as I did during my two days at Standing Rock. The conditions out there are truly extreme. Every day now I check the weather in Bismarck and think of the 1,000 or more people still there. Today it is mostly sunny and -2 degrees Celsius.

After having witnessed it, I now understand that Standing Rock is not primarily an environmental issue, as some have whitewashed into being. It is principally about indigenous sovereignty, founded on spiritual and cultural rights. Seeing all of the various stakeholders come together in solidarity is a significant moment in history, though of course it is those who live on the land threatened by the pipeline who will have to primarily bear the impact of the consequences if the project continues.

The awe-inspiring work of the indigenous and tribal groups that led the fight against the pipeline has no doubt helped elevate the movement’s visibility. The intersections and teamwork of the myriad groups and communities who have joined them – environmental, racial justice, faith-based, and government accountability organizations – has helped as well. Some of the indigenous people I spoke with, however, attributed the success to the realization of a generations-old prophesy that predicted people will come together on this land to lead an uprising against a common enemy. A Water Protector told me she had asked a police officer on the bridge “What side would you have been on in Selma?” He didn’t have a response.

Am amended version of this was originally published on the Center for Constitutional Rights blog.

Posted by: Castan Centre | December 13, 2016

On the right side of history

By Amy Myers

I am a final year JD law student completing an internship at The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR).  This is a blog about my twelve week internship as part of the Castan Centre for Human Rights Global Internship Program.

CCR quite functions differently to other law offices.   The office has a community needs-based model, which involves encouraging the marginalised groups they serve to lead the way in their own legal representation.  Lawyers tend to have activist backgrounds. Empowering people through partnership and elevating the voices of the people directly impacted makes CCR’s clients the heroes of the story, rather than the lawyers.

CCR makes fearless political statements through the cases they pursue and for half a century they has been prepared to take principled stands against contentious and unpopular issues.  Though they often lose their cases, CCR has consistently been on the right side of history. At a time when no one had the inclination to represent Guantanamo detainees for fear of facing treason charges to the long term support of the Palestinian liberation movement, CCR courageously and firmly says ‘no’ to all forms of oppression.

I started here the week after Trump was elected and the sense of collective devastation at the news has been at times overwhelming. The potential effect of his administration on almost all areas of CCR’s work will likely be catastrophic. CCR may have to re-litigate issues they thought they were done with. This may involve wasting precious resources to re-establish obvious principles of international law, such as that torture is – to put it simply – wrong. From the winding back of rights and clearances obtained for detainees in Guantanamo, Trump’s vaguely proposed “Muslim registry,” mass deportations of undocumented people, reestablishing indefinite solitary confinement, and failing to enforce the already frail police accountability mechanisms – this presidency has the potential to undermine and challenge much of progress CCR has worked so hard for.  At this point CCR can only assume the worst and prepare themselves to fight those battles.  There has been discussions on how to practically ensure similar organisations are not doubling up on litigation issues to maximise the effective use of resources but beyond that the cases and appeals will roll along.

On my first weekend in New York City I attended a large anti-Trump rally which marched all the way from Union Square to Trump Tower.  Over 8,000 people attended. Though this election represents a giant national step backwards, it may ultimately be the push needed for much greater and deeper systemic change and political engagement. Some people I know have attended their first protest in the last three weeks, waking up from their apathy.  A senior staff attorney at CCR pointed out that we need to take the 20 year view of the struggle for equality and human rights.  Although this is true, it is frightening to consider the ways peoples’ quality of life can be undermined in the shorter term and what this new America will actually look like.

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