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.

Displaying nope.jpg

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?

Displaying elvis.jpg

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


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.

In the thick of it: a UN resolution to protect and promote civil society space

By Sam Dipnall

I’ve just returned from a wonderful experience contributing to the brilliant team at the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) in Geneva, Switzerland.

The 32nd session of the UN Human Rights Council in June proved a fantastically engaging and challenging crescendo to my internship, with ample scope to really get into the thick of human rights advocacy.

Last year’s Global Intern here, Joel Lazar, provided a great insight into the vastness, scale, and intensity demanded by the Council’s incredibly dense programme of work when it convenes in March, June and September each year. This, my final piece, tries to complement that perspective and shed some light on a single, but significant, aspect of ISHR’s advocacy I was involved in – the new UN resolution on civil society space.


Just a few starting point concepts

When the UN Human Rights Council adopts a ‘resolution’ it issues a strong pronouncement on the human rights matter contained within it. It is also a statement expressing of the political will of its constituent 47 Member States. Resolutions can range in type, be they procedural: concerning appointing or renewing of special procedures mandate holders; country-specific: responding to reports of grave human rights violations, or even; thematic: to protect and develop human rights and freedoms – as is the case with the civil society space resolution, just one of many considered as part of the 32nd session I attended.

Resolutions are normally adopted by the Council through consensus. However, if contentious, a State can call for the Council to take a vote on its adoption. States voting ‘yes’, endorse the content of that resolution, whereas States who vote ‘no’ clearly do not. Its also open to States to elect not take a position and vote ‘abstention.’ States are not bound to incorporate Council resolutions into their domestic law, and retain their sovereignty to choose their own policy direction. That said, resolutions remain a very significant international statement by the peak UN human rights institution, directing States attention towards current human rights issues of global concern, as well as the core values, issues and problems for States to address.

This practical guide is a great resource to learn more about UN resolutions.

Civil society space: towards a new UN resolution

Earlier this year, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights published a report containing practical recommendations on the essential ingredients for the creation of a safe and enabling environment for the healthy contribution of civil society. It said,

“Civil society engagement can be viewed as a threshold issue: if space exists for civil society to engage, there is a greater likelihood that all rights will be better protected. Conversely, the closing of civil society space, and threats and reprisals against civil society activists, are early warning signs of instability. Over time, policies that delegitimize, isolate and repress people calling for different approaches or legitimately claiming their rights can exacerbate frustrations and lead to instability or even conflict.”

The report laid the groundwork for a revitalised resolution at the upcoming Council session to internationally promulgate better practices to protect and enhance civil society space. In June, a cross regional core group of five States took up that call. Chile, Ireland, Japan, Sierra Leone and Tunisia proposed a draft resolution building on the previous 2014 resolution. This draft offered high-level principles as well as detailed operative elements, to drive home the importance of States taking steps to better protect civil society space, not shut it down.

To give you a better feel for what I’m talking about, take a look at this paragraph below taken from the text of the resolution. It reads,

“5.         Emphasizes the importance of civil society space for empowering persons belonging to minorities and vulnerable groups, as well as persons espousing minority or dissenting views or beliefs, and in that regard calls upon States to ensure that legislation, policies and practices do not undermine the enjoyment by such persons of their human rights or the activities of civil society in defending their rights;”

When I first read this passage, it reminded me of Michael Kirby’s comments about dissent, albeit in a judicial context. He observed that ‘[a] dissent, expressing disagreement over the outcome of a case, is an appeal to the future.’ He also later reflected on the wider nature and utility of judicial dissent in our legal system,

“… amongst its greatest strengths is the role it gives to judges to state their honest opinions. As citizens, we can agree or disagree with those opinions. But we must vigilantly protect, and cherish, these open procedures. And that includes the expression of disagreement, where it exists.”

In that moment, a contextualising spark linking the resolution to our own Australian legal landscape really drove home for me the cascading long-term effect that this international instrument could contribute towards ensuring that all people across the globe, can take up civil society space to voice disagreement, and to legitimately ask for changes and improvement from their governments.

Above: Calm before and after. Some informal negotiation spaces at the UN.

Getting involved: successful UN advocacy in action

Before States would decide on the fate of this resolution in Room XX of the Council chamber, its text would be honed via what is known as the ‘informal negotiation’ process. Like some UN nomenclature, this term probably belies its true nature. Chaired by the core group of States, the informal process is in facts a highly formalised, and rigorous diplomatic event. It involves States delegations publicly discussing issue-by-issue, and at times, line-by-line the resolution’s content. Here, civil society organisations can also advance their perspectives and ideas as well.

Over five consecutive working days, many States and several civil society organisations, including ISHR, contributed to this informal negotiation of the civil society space resolution. This was a heavily contested arena at times, with the debate drilling down into the precise terminology and substance of the text. This led to some States voicing their disapproval for the text as a whole, and later signaling an intention to table amendments and call for a vote.

Concerned that any proposed amendments could remove key components and substantially weaken the text’s substance, ISHR prepared an open letter to the 47 Member States of the Council. The letter explained the strengths of the text as tabled, and spelt out diminishing effect the proposed amendments could have, if supported. With much outreach and effort, a diverse coalition of 246 civil society organisations from over 90 countries spanning all global regions, co-signed this letter in solidarity.

In the final days (and nights) of the 32nd session of the Council, the resolution on civil society space was indeed challenged and a vote was called on. After much debate and comment, the resolution … passed with 31 States voting ‘yes’, 7 States voting ‘no’, and 9 ‘abstentions.’ Importantly, the majority of States also rejected all of the 13 amendments tabled and individually voted on.

The result of the vote is below, and if you want to know more about the impact of this achievement, ISHR explains it best.

2016-07-02 04.23.18

Conclusion: the next journey awaits

Advocating for human rights abroad will grant you new perspectives and ideas. That was the message my friends, family and colleagues imparted on me when I left Melbourne back in February this year. They were right. What I didn’t anticipate was the profound amplifying effect that interacting with the UN Human Rights Council can have. For me, it proved to be a deeply enriching insight what’s actually going on in the world of human rights, almost everywhere across the globe, with first hand accounts, reports and information from the widest range of participants.

More significantly my internship unveiled for me the potential of the Council to be a highly effective learning institution for States and civil society alike, to both contribute and draw from, and ultimately, improve their own human rights future. But for this for happen, the oft-stated clarion call to international action rings true. That is, all participants, regardless of status, role or title cannot simply just show up at the Palais des Nations and expect good things to happen. It does take meaningful and long-term commitment to engagement, demonstrated implementation at home, and reporting back to share human rights achievements with the global community.

I’d like to express my gratitude towards the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law, its supporters and funders of the Global Internship Program, and ISHR for this great experience. I also want to extend special thanks to former Global Intern, and long lost cousin, Kylie Pearce for her kindness and support she offered during my time in Geneva. Finally, my thanks my family for their endless support and belief in my ability.

Best wishes everyone.

Human rights advocacy: enhanced vision and newfound optics

By Sam Dipnall

One of the first French terms I learnt in my travels abroad is avocat. Its one of the translations available for “a lawyer.” Despite my command of French growing slowly, like my front lawn in the heat of summer, a newfound love for this language has also brought with it some new thoughts as well. I’ve recently wondered whether, casting those entry, professional and regulatory differences aside, is there any practical distinction between the role of a lawyer and that of an advocate when it comes to taking up the challenge of human rights work? After some reflection, I think there is, but there is also nothing stopping someone furthering their desire to be both.

This piece then is about identifying some of the hallmarks of effective human rights advocacy I’ve learnt, seen and applied in my time so far at International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) here in Geneva, Switzerland.

Human rights lawyer. Human rights advocate. Is there space to be both?

For me, the position of a lawyer connotes a distinguished set of technical competencies finely applied to utilise the law to give practical and useful legal advice for clients. As students of the law, we spend many hours at university taking in, and learning the principles underpinning this knowledge. Even then, honing the practise of the law to reach a level of great effectiveness remains an ongoing and long-term commitment. Surely, this is a great set of skills to have – but developing the craft of effectively advocating for reform or change on issues impacting human rights is also similarly worthy of close attention as well.

I’m increasingly of the view that through human rights advocacy there is a wider band of opportunity to advance the case and cause of those who cannot do it alone. Yes, lawyers can, for example, be a legal advocate for a client in a negotiation, a tribunal or a court, but thinking beyond the bounds of the traditional lawyer/client relationship, if matched with an inner desire to protect and promote the underpinning principles such as those contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a lawyer can also potentially transcend from helping their individual clients, into also finding ways to help groups of people who collectively encounter difficulties fulfilling their own potential for want of the thoughtless or unnecessary exercise of authority in ways other than class action litigation. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights touches on the nature of this dual idea in discussing the work of human rights defenders, where it says that:

Many professional activities do not involve human rights work all of the time but can have occasional links with human rights. For example, lawyers working on commercial law issues may not often address human rights concerns and cannot automatically be described as human rights defenders. They can nevertheless act as defenders on some occasions by working on cases through which they contribute to the promotion or protection of human rights.

Engaging in human rights advocacy then, opens up the spectrum to drive wider long-term legal, social, economic and cultural reform and change now, and for years to come, because in doing so, the chance to apply human rights norms and approaches can more likely be mainstreamed into everyday work and community life.

In truth, it’s likely that the two roles, both the lawyer, and the advocate, actually benefit and reinforce each other, particularly in the human rights field. We see this through intelligent mixed leveraging of these skill sets in some Australian specialist community legal centres, as well as the increasing development of sophisticated pro bono practices in Australian and international law firms who often have great lawyers and significant resources available. Allied to a genuine collective desire to advance human rights and access to justice, when lawyers and advocates come together the gains can be multiplied and significant. I’m a great believer in pro bono; it ignited my desire to shape my career towards human rights advocacy.

However, what about the practice of effective human rights advocacy? The remainder of this piece will try to offer some useful thought on this.


Providing an enhanced vision through human rights advocacy

The soon approaching 32nd session of the UN Human Rights Council in June will mark its 10th anniversary, and also provide a timely moment for pause and consideration of what can be done to improve its significant capacity to set the standard of human rights worldwide. Because it is a primary international forum to pursue the top-down implementation of international human rights law to advance and benefit future generations to come, it means that developing the Council into a more effective, protective and accessible venue is critical if the Council is to remain a viable and approachable human rights platform for advocates, human rights defenders and representative NGOs to engage with it. This is what a group of twenty NGOs, including ISHR, have called for in the recently published joint civil society paper Strengthening the Human Rights Council at 10 which I’ve been assisting with last month.

I want to profile this paper because it presents an excellent series of ideas for reform, both short and medium term, that are both achievable and could have noticeable impact and benefit. Many of the reforms proposed in this paper could enhance the efficiency and output of this key UN human rights pillar. Although there is no perfect template for framing reform submissions or proposals, I found the method adopted in this paper a source of inspiration for taking a practical and usable approach to advancing structural and institutional reforms in human rights advocacy work.

Opportunities to knock, but on which human rights advocacy door?

At first sight, the UN human rights system might not appear to be all that accessible to local, rural or remote humanitarian fieldwork advocates or human rights defenders to advance their ideas for systemic changes that could benefit vulnerable groups they represent. Approaching the UN system for the first time could well be daunting for someone without access to training, experience, guidance or support. After all, we all can relate to our own desire to knock on the right advocacy door the first time to pursue the best outcome.

In spite of this need however, there may well be a scarcity of specific training, similar to a law degree course, in the vital area of international human rights advocacy work. ISHR’s Human Rights Defenders Advocacy Programme is one great example which I’m now helping prepare for 20 human rights defenders to commence next month, however it increasingly seems to me that many key aspects of human rights advocacy skills are developed primarily through time and experience. Some of these experiences could include consistent engagement and volunteering with an NGO or a local community based group, seeking out the widest variety of project-based experience, getting involved in campaigns and initiatives across the widest spectrum of affected individuals and groups whose human rights are under threat. Actively pursuing this, the door of potential learning about the tools and practise of human rights advocacy comes ajar.

Open letters addressed to states and UN human rights mechanisms, producing discussion papers with ideas for reform and development, writing opinion pieces, offering media statements and comment, using social media, drafting written statements, preparing discussion or talking points, hosting information events, briefings and information events, seeking out opportunities for bilateral informal discussions, assisting the delivery of training sessions – are just a snapshot of the wide range of human rights advocacy projects I’ve contributed to recently.

More importantly, my internship at ISHR has provided me with a rich and diverse range of insights about the practice of planning and carrying out strategic human rights advocacy work, including:

  • Planning and collaboration. Open and free-flowing internal debate about the best approach to advocate for change that will deliver the maximum impact for the concerned or affected group.
  • Time, timing and timeliness. Consideration of the best moment to activate advocacy efforts aligning with various UN institutional timelines is crucial, together with working ahead of known external deadlines.
  • Clarity and precision. The written or spoken message conveyed must have a logical narrative, be correctly legally founded, and propose a workable roadmap towards the desired outcome.
  • Adaptation and reflexes. Human rights advocacy is a dynamic and fluid working environment, things change fast, necessitating an ability to adapt your strategy to the given needs of the moment.
  • Follow-up and reflection. Fostering great working relationships with stakeholders, especially after a push for change is made, is key, as is making the space for reflection on what occurred, why, and how a strategy can be improved.


I visited the wonderful European Court of Human Rights and European Parliament in Strasbourg, France

Human rights advocacy viewed with newfound optics

Kate Gilmore is the current UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights. She recently pointed out in an NGO briefing session I attended that as human rights advocates we can collectively achieve an awful lot without a lot of resources. Her point is unfortunately correct. Unfortunate – in that states funding commitment to making human rights progress is sadly not often reflected with the needs on the ground, but also correct – in that we all need to take an optimistic view that acting as human rights advocates, and defenders, we can all make significant inroads into challenging bad practices and laying out a pathway for improvement. Please take a look at the just released ISHR 2016 Annual Report and see what this great organisation can do with few staff, time and resources, but by fully leveraging the sum of its collective knowledge, skills and abilities in a deliberate, progressive and strategic way.

In trying to answer my own question, this blog has probably rather illustrated that doing human rights advocacy is no simple thing, but that by investing and learning about new methods and approaches, it is one valuable way to contribute to advancing both international and national human rights law and policy. Perhaps, this is actually the key lesson that I will take away from my most recent month at ISHR, it certainly has been a very productive time recently indeed.

Wishing everyone all the very best back home.


Posted by: Castan Centre | May 10, 2016

Third Month at CCR

By Sarah Sacher

One of the most interesting experiences I had at CCR was my visit to the UN NGO committee. Since 2013 CCR has attempted to gain consultative status with the Economic and Social Council. This would allow CCR to have greater participation with ECOSOC and have a platform with the UN to express their views, provide expert reports, and updates to the UN. Attending the NGO committee sessions appears to have become something of a rite of passage for interns, with the previous Castan Intern Katherine Brown attending in 2015, and perhaps the 2017 intern attending next year. This is because every time CCR has applied for consultative status, the application has been deferred.

The process of applying for consultative status requires the NGO committee to ‘recommend’ the application to ECOSOC. When the committee is in session (for a period of two weeks twice a year) it considers new applications for a one hour period each day. Organisations are informed on the day if there application is being looked at on that particular day. A representative of the NGO is required to be there to answer questions by member states before the committee. If no questions are posed about the organisation during that session, the application will be approved by the committee. If questions are posed and answered adequately during the short time frame, the application will be approved by the committee.  However, if there are multiple questions asked, and the questions are not all answered by the end of time period, the application will be deferred. On the times that CCR has been given the opportunity to come before the committee, the latter scenario has occurred.


Now CCR is an NGO that is 50 years old with a stalwart reputation in the United States, so what is the reason for its continued inability to gain observer status on the committee? The answer, unfortunately, is due to the politics at play within the committee, combined with clumsy procedure. When I sat in on the session I was taken aback by the nature of the questions asked of the organisations. Member States continuously asked questions with thinly veiled political undercurrents – when a particular State has an issue with the work of an organisation, it is able to derail that organisation’s application virtually single-handedly, by asking multiple, often irrelevant questions until the time limit is up and the application invariably deferred. The question and answer sessions also often devolve into debate between member-states over the nature of the questions themselves. At the session I attended, I watched my supervisor answer increasingly inane questions on behalf of CCR, until the time on the clock ran out and the application was yet again rolled over.  Unfortunately, the experience of CCR is not unique, and the NGO committee has been criticised on multiple occasions for its politicised approach to NGO gate-keeping.

While the particular experience I had at the NGO session was tainted by the frustrating application process, my overall impression while visiting the UN was one of awe.  I was given a UN pass which made me feel pretty legit and is probably my favourite souvenir from my time in New York (despite the terrible photo of me on the front).  I was able to wonder around the halls, take a look at the General Assembly and the various exhibitions in the building. I sat alongside the diplomats chilling in the cafes, speaking every language imaginable and soaked up the atmosphere. The grandeur of the building itself imbues everything with a sense of gravitas and inspiration. The experience overall was an absolute highlight of the internship.

Before I wrap up, I want to say a few things about the day-to-day environment at CCR. My home throughout the three months was the Ella Baker room, a spacious area filled with computers that housed the interns. My first couple weeks at the organisation coincided with college winter break, after which I was joined by other interns from various parts of the country. The interns and I spent many a day psychoanalysing Donald Trump, breaking down Seinfeld episodes and sharing in the interesting aspects of each other’s work. Beyond the office we spent weekends visiting museums and brunching together in Manhattan. Some of my best memories of my time at CCR involve laughing with the other interns in the Ella Baker room, and I am grateful for the friends I was able to make in addition to all the wonderful work I was a part of.

* These are my own views and not the views of the Center for Constitutional Rights

Older Posts »