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Human Rights Program

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  • Human Rights Program Celebrates its Three-Year Partnership with Schools in Antioquia, Colombia

    On 30 June 2015, the Human Rights Program recognized the closing of the first chapter of what will hopefully be a long-lasting partnership with schools in the Department of Antioquia, Colombia.  The Minnesota-Antioquia Human Rights Law Partnership, funded by USAID and the Higher Education for Development (HED), provided a space for students, faculty, staff, and schools to come together to broaden their skills and experience in the field and study of human rights—all the while building a network of life-long friendships and partners through mutual respect and empowerment. 



    Beginning in October 2012, the Partnership, commonly referred to as the “Alianza,” developed among five schools: the University of Minnesota; and, in Antioquia, the Universidad Católica del Oriente, the Universidad de Medellín, the Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana, and the Universidad de Antioquia. The Alianza was conceived with the overall mission of being an interdisciplinary, team-based program working to strengthen the capacity of all partner schools in the teaching, research, and practice of human rights. From this general guideline, three primary goals for the promotion of the Partnership quickly developed: 


    Develop faculty expertise in human rights and the rule of law

    Strengthen the capacities of the Antioquia law schools to better serve vulnerable populations in the areas of legal services and human rights litigation
    Enable students in the partner schools to be better prepared to protect human right in Colombia

    The Alianza carried out a wide range of activities designed to accomplish these goals including enhancing Spanish-language human rights materials on line; providing courses on  human rights by various professors and practitioners; connecting with transnational human rights organizations and experts; providing a scholarship for four faculty members to receive a Master’s degree in human rights; providing exchange programs for faculty and students to observe classes and take part in internships; and applying the knowledge and skills developed through the partnership to human rights situations, issues, and cases. 


    After UMN was selected to coordinate the Antioquia Partnership, the challenge lay in creating a collaborative relationship among the schools to carry out these activities.  Because of the large number of actors involved in the UMN-Antioquia Partnership, a democratic decision-making process was needed to set the Partnership’s priorities, select recipients for externships, design strategic initiatives on issues, and distribute responsibilities.  The Antioquia partner schools, which varied significantly in size and mission, established a consortium for this purpose. Composed of two representatives of each school’s legal clinics, the consortium met regularly in consultation with UMN to make collective decisions about the direction and implementation of the Alianza’s goals and objectives.  The transparency and representative nature of this consortium allowed the voices of each of these distinctive partners to be heard, and served as a model of an iterative and democratic process that added legitimacy to the decisions and actions of the Partnership.


    To support the needs of this large and diverse Partnership, UMN hired a staff of three Colombia-based lawyers, who provided a broad array of services in Antioquia, including coordination of events, meetings, and collaborative legal activities, as well as support for curriculum development, training and human rights expertise.  Over the three years of HED-funded activity, the Partnership benefited from this Antioquia-based team of committed and talented human rights lawyers, which included a General Coordinator, a Legal Clinic Coordinator and a Human Rights Lawyer. The UMN-based staff, including the Partnership directors and Minnesota-based coordinators, met weekly via Google Hangout with the Antioquia-based staff to ensure that activities were proceeding in a timely and effective manner.


    Using this process, characterized by mutual respect and empowerment, the Alianza of the five partner schools developed into an effective and sophisticated human rights program with its own institutional identity, which was in the position to respond in a timely and strategic manner to the pressing human rights issues in the various communities. Working together to create educational programs and advocacy opportunities that promoted human rights in Colombia, the Alianza built synergies among faculty and student groups, legal clinics, national and international NGOs, international organizations and experts, and like-minded government actors.  


    In Minnesota, the most visible presence of the Partnership was from the frequent visits of Colombian law students over the last two years.  The UMN hosted student externs over four semesters in 2013-2015, nine students in total. This experiential learning opportunity was a competitive process for students in the partner schools. The University of Minnesota engaged the prospective externs ahead of their visits, to design meaningful learning opportunities specific to the students’ stated interests and personal/professional goals. Students who were interested in a broad array of topics, such as business and human rights, LGBTQA+ rights, and children’s rights, met with faculty and experts in the Twin Cities who specialize in a these issues.

    The nine student interns included:

    Juliana Vélez, Universidad de Medellín
    Martin Palacios, Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana
    Sara Mejía, Universidad de Antioquia
    Leidy Baena, Universidad Católica de Oriente
    John Marin, Universidad Católica de Oriente
    Carolina Londoño, Universidad de Medellín
    Verónica Cadavid, Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana
    Miguel Arias, Universidad de Antioquia
    Dani Castaño, Universidad Católica de Oriente

    During their time in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul students had the opportunity to observe classes at both the University of Minnesota's College of Liberal Arts and the Law School. They met with faculty and staff at UMN and various other universities, took learning field trips, and worked with the human rights clinics at the UMN Law School.  Each visiting student was required to carry out a 20 hour per week internship with a human rights organization based in Minnesota. Organizations that sponsored the student externs included: The Volunteer Lawyers Network, Immigrant Law Center, The Advocates for Human Rights, and The Prison Nursery Project. These internships helped shape the students’ perspectives and professional capabilities.



    Tying education to advocacy, the Partnership was able to grow through its system of support and collaboration over the years into an effective and sophisticated human rights program with its own institutional identity as a champion of the practical promotion and protection of human rights at the local, national, and international level. In Antioquia, human rights clinics in the partner schools made great strides toward becoming spaces of experiential learning, where students were encouraged to work hand-in-hand with community groups to develop and implement strategic advocacy on pressing issues. This was visible in the work of clinical faculty and students with residents of “La Playita,” a neighborhood deeply affected by flooding and other environmental risks; as well as with residents of “La Argentina” and “El Arrayan” in the community of Nariño, Colombia who, since their forced displacement in 2006, were still residing in informal emergency settlements without basic public services. 

    The work of the Partnership was able to utilize the human rights framework to advocate strategically with various communities for lasting solutions to their human rights challenges. Using this strategic approach, the Partnership communicated its concerns in two important international fora. In 2014, it presented its findings to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child (“CRC”) with regard to issues facing Antioquia’s children, such as illegal mining work, lack of access to healthcare, environmental pollution, and lack of regulation and oversight in the adoption process. The UN Committee included the Partnership’s concerns in its concluding observations, and, as a follow up, one of the expert members of the CRC visited Antioquia in April 2015 to present her findings in person to a public audience organized by the Partnership. 


    Over the last three years, the Partnership was able to promote the rights of children internationally by appearing twice before the CRC in Geneva, Switzerland. In June 2014, representatives of the Partnership presented their recommendations for ways in which the Colombian government can advance children’s rights in a pre-sessional meeting of the CRC’s members, and in January 2015, two more representatives participated in the CRC’s review of Colombia’s compliance with the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Partnership was the only academic-based group presenting at the CRC review, working alongside other NGO coalitions to provide continued dedication to the support for international human rights. 


    The Partnership was quite active in promoting human rights on the regional level as well. In March 2014, representatives of the Partnership were able to travel to Washington DC to meet with human rights organizations, congressional offices, and media to raise awareness for the rights of workers. The following March, the Partnership was granted a public hearing before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to explain the problems of communities facing harm in resettlement processes related to displacement from violent conflict, urban development, or high risk living situations. At the hearing the Partnership targeted the Colombian State's failure to adopt legislative and administrative measures aimed at protecting the rights of those affected by resettlement. Representatives of the Colombian Government also presented evidence to the IACHR at the hearing. A final report is expected within the coming months from the IACHR, and the Partnership will continue to monitor the IACHR’s recommendations and advocate for their implementation.


    At the end of the three-year chapter of the Partnership, the Human Rights Program and the schools in Antioquia can claim several long¬-lasting contributions to protection of human rights in Antioquia and elsewhere, including the formation of human rights leaders and advocates, new and strengthened legal clinics which can carry out effective collaborative casework, and access to resources for teaching, research and advocacy. In addition to these lasting contributions, the partners anticipate an ongoing and productive relationship. The schools and programs are already planning for the future of the Partnership, which includes:


    Joint research initiatives between faculty members underway on domestic violence and the tutelage process in Colombia;

    Collaboration among the partners and NGOs in monitoring the Colombian government’s actions to implement the recommendations of the CRC and the IACHR;
    Invitations to faculty at the University of Minnesota to present on their research; and
    The development of institutional agreements among the partner schools to support faculty and student exchanges


    The Partnership will be shifting its immediate focus as it looks ahead. In the near future, the partners in Antioquia will continue to be committed to working together to implement the recommendations that were drafted with regard to human rights in Colombia. In the long term, the Partnership intends to expand to include faculty and staff from legal clinics in other law schools in the area, bringing together a more robust network of advocates and scholars of human rights, a key aspect of maintaining and growing a successful partnership across continents. 

    We would like to thank all the individuals who have contributed to such a successful beginning of this partnership. Over the years, the Human Rights Program was able to build tremendous relationships, partake in unique experiences, and reach achievements only possible through the support and respect of individuals united in the goal of studying and promoting human rights. As we look forward, we are excited for the many opportunities to come to the Program and our partners in Colombia!


    (Continue Reading)
  • The View from Faribault Prison: Human Rights Scribe 2015


    Each week for the last two months, I’ve had the pleasure to teach creative writing to fourteen men incarcerated at Faribault State Correctional Facility, a medium security prison about an hour south of the Twin Cities. As with the other classes I’ve taught in prison, it’s been an incredible experience to work with a group of writers who are so committed to their work and so eager to learn and discuss elements of craft.

    This class was a little different from the ones I’ve taught in the past, primarily because it was focused on more experienced writers, several of whom have many years of writing experience. While I continued to choose our readings and give personalized feedback on student work, the fact that several of the students have been writing for a long time has changed the classroom dynamic somewhat, in that I felt more comfortable ceding some of the responsibility for facilitating the class to the students themselves. One of the best parts of this experience was watching them supporting one another, praising and critiquing each others’ work. I was constantly learning from them, as well: every classroom discussion of a story or essay or poem brought to light something that I had never noticed or appreciated before.

    The dialogue between students was especially fruitful because this class did not focus on one particular genre, but touched on elements of poetry, fiction, and creative non-fiction. Some students worked entirely in a single genre, but many branched out and tried something new. One student, who focuses primarily on song-writing and slam poetry, wrote and revised a beautiful short story; another student, who is working on a memoir, turned his attention to poetry for a few weeks before combining elements of both genres in a moving and thoughtful lyric essay. The students said that this “cross-pollination,” as they put it, gave them a greater appreciation for work in other genres and added some zest to the conversation.

    Last week, on the last day of class, each writer stood in front of the room and read aloud from a polished piece that he had been working on. It was a powerful experience to listen to them present writing that they had labored over and of which they felt proud.

    Many people in our country, including President Obama, are beginning to pay more attention to issues of mass incarceration and to point out that the way we treat people who are incarcerated is often profoundly dehumanizing. I’ve never been more convinced about the value of working in prison and attempting to counteract their dehumanizing influence through artistic self-expression. After the final class at Faribault, we shook hands and said our goodbyes. Many of them thanked me for coming into the prison to teach. I thanked them, as well, because I’m sure I learned as much as any of the students did and because the experience of teaching in prison is humanizing for me, too.

    I’m very grateful to the Human Rights Program for providing the support that made these classes possible. Now that I’ve finished with the teaching portion of my fellowship, I will turn my attention to writing. I’m happy to have another month before classes begin to work on an essay about my experiences and the importance of arts education in prison more generally. I will also be helping to organize a public reading of student work, which will take place at the end of October.
    -By Mike Alberti, 2015 Human Rights Scribe
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  • Director Barbara Frey Speaks to Prospective CLA Students

    As a part of the Sneak Preview program for prospective 2016 freshmen, Human-Rights-Program-Director Barbara Frey presented a seminar engaging students interested in the University of Minnesota's College of Liberal Arts with and introduce them to the study and field of human rights. 

    In a day of campus activities, information sessions, and tours, a group of high school juniors and seniors were able to take a moment and listen to Director Barbara Frey speak on the opportunities on campus and within the community surrounding human rights--as well as its contemporary history. In her seminar, Frey was able to touch on the various opportunities on campus and around the community for students to be involved in the human right discipline: in the Global Studies major, in the Human Rights Program, and in various human rights organizations around the Twin Cities. To provide context to the work being done in human rights, she continued with an outline of the various mechanisms and characteristics of human rights in international law and politics, engaging students with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights booklet, the development of the relationship of human rights between and among state and non-state actors, and the characteristics of classifying "human" rights. To close, the seminar was opened up for discussion, allowing for interested students to connect with others and have any specific questions regarding the program or study and promotion of human rights answered.
    (Continue Reading)

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Human Rights Beat

  • Chicago police detain Americans at abuse-laden 'black site'

    The Chicago police department operates an off-the-books interrogation compound, rendering Americans unable to be found by family or attorneys while locked inside what lawyers say is the domestic equivalent of a CIA black site. The facility, a nondescript warehouse on Chicago's west side known as Homan Square, has long been the scene of secretive work by special police units. Interviews with local attorneys and one protester who spent the better part of a day shackled in Homan Square describe operations that deny access to basic constitutional rights. Continue reading on The Guardian's website.

    March 6th, 2015
  • Amnesty International requests letter signing for Syrian asylum seekers pressured to return

    Reports in the media show that staff at the Manus Island, Papua New Guinea detention centre, run by the Australian Government, are pressuring Syrian asylum seekers to return to Syria where they will be in extreme danger. Read more on the Amnesty International website.

    June 10th, 2014
  • The ICRC releases video on Colombian human rights situation

    It's a crucial time for Colombia with presidential elections slated for this Sunday and ongoing peace talks between the government and FARC guerrillas continuing in Havana, Cuba. In a new Intercross video, the head of the ICRC's delegation in Bogotá, Jordi Raich, says Colombia is at a crossroads -- poised on the verge of economic growth, shrinking poverty, and the potential to put an end to half a century of war. Watch the video on the Intercross website.

    May 28th, 2014
  • US: A Nation Behind Bars

    Far too many US laws violate basic principles of justice by requiring disproportionately severe punishment, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The 36-page report, "Nation Behind Bars: A Human Rights Solution," notes that laws requiring penalties that are far longer than necessary to meet the purposes of punishment have given the United States the world's highest reported rate of incarceration. These laws have spawned widespread and well-founded public doubts about the fairness of the US criminal justice system. Continue reading on the Human Rights Watch website.

    May 7th, 2014