The Columbia Law School Human Rights Clinic Supports NGO Partners in Pursuit of Human Rights Accountability at the United Nations
New York, November 30, 2018 -- Eight students from the Human Rights Clinic worked with NGO partners this semester to ensure that the views of local and national human rights organizations are taken into account in UN reviews of the human rights records of Saudi Arabia and the Central African Republic (CAR).
“Direct access to international actors and the opportunity to leverage international advocacy spaces are essential to our partners’ pursuit of human rights and real, lifesaving change on the ground,” said Carolina Gonzalez JD ’20, a student in the Clinic. “Too often, local NGOs face obstacles in accessing UN mechanisms, and their expertise can be left out of UN reviews. Our colleagues from Yemen and the CAR traveled to the UN to ensure that the reviews of the CAR and Saudi Arabia are based on accurate information from the ground.”
Saudi Arabia is involved in a disastrous war in Yemen, and has carried out airstrikes and shut down humanitarian and commercial access to Yemen, leading to the deaths of many civilians. In the CAR, civilians suffer from an ongoing civil war, and face frequent violations of their civil, political, and socio- economic rights.
Ahead of the UN reviews, students worked with the NGOs to prepare submissions to the UN on the human rights records of the governments of Saudi Arabia and the CAR. In Geneva, the clinic teams conducted advocacy meetings alongside their NGO partners to inform the work of diplomats, who issue reports on the human rights records of each state. Columbia students Brittany Davis JD ’19, Daniel Newton LLM ’19, Libby McAvoy JD ’20, Carolina Gonzalez JD ’20, Sibel Uranues LLM ’19, Darshana Mitra LLM ’19, Emanuel Ghebregergis LLM ’19, and Michael Altman-Lupu JD ’20, along with Clinic director Professor Sarah Knuckey and Clinic instructors Anjli Parrin and Alex Moorehead, participated in these efforts.
“There is a man-made humanitarian disaster in Yemen. We went to the UN to make sure that it is not ignored,” said Radyha Al-Mutawakel, a human rights advocate and Chairperson of Mwatana Organization for Human Rights, which recently won the Roger N. Baldwin Medal for its innovative human rights work. “The recommendations made at the UN will help to push Saudi Arabia to take responsibility for their harmful actions in Yemen.”
“This was the first human rights review of Saudi Arabia since they entered the conflict in Yemen in 2015, and our advocacy at the UN had real impact,” said Michael Altman-Lupu JD ’20. “We made sure that the international community could not ignore Saudi Arabia’s abuses in Yemen, and, after our advocacy, numerous countries made reference to Yemen in their assessment of Saudi Arabia’s record.”
The Clinic also worked with three organizations from the CAR. The Association des Femmes Juristes de Centrafrique, the Collectif des Étudiants Musulmans Centrafricains, the Coordination des Organisations Musulmanes de Centrafrique, Jeunesse Unie pour la Protection de l’Environnement et le Développement Communautaire all raised important human rights issues in advocacy meetings, including gender-based violence, humanitarian access, and discrimination faced by Muslim students in the education system. In the past, Central African NGOs were unable to participate in these UN meetings.
“Seeing this review process firsthand, it was all the more evident that international accountability mechanisms too often function without real input from those most impacted by the conversations,” said Libby McAvoy JD ‘20. “Our NGO partners ensured this did not happen.”
The Clinic advocacy was a part of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), a mechanism of the United Nations Human Rights Council in which each state’s entire human rights record is reviewed every five years by other states. It is a state-driven and cooperative mechanism in which the state under review itself reports on its human rights situation, civil society then reports on the state’s human rights situation, and, finally, all participating UN Member States ask questions and make recommendations for improvements to the state under review. Civil society organizations are an important part of the process, as they bring detailed and on the ground information to states to take into account when conducting reviews. Clinic student Emanuel Ghebregergis LLM ’19 said: “It was an invaluable experience to participate in the process of diplomacy and see the limits and possibilities of the UPR as a mechanism for human rights protection. We also learned how these mechanisms can be leveraged by civil society organizations to hold states accountable.”
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