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  • Author: Eleanor Acer
  • Publication Date: 04-2019
  • Content Type: Working Paper
  • Institution: Human Rights First
  • Abstract: The Trump Administration has purposefully mismanaged the refugee and humanitarian challenges pushing people to flee political repression, human rights abuses, economic deprivation, and climate displacement in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. Trump Administration policies have actually made things worse, cutting programs countering displacement, turning a blind eye to human rights abuses, encouraging crossings between official ports of entry, and punishing people seeking U.S. protection through punitive and traumatizing family separations and detention. These harmful policies have aggravated humanitarian challenges—deliberately provoking disorder, chaos, and confusion. Congress must take swift action to push real solutions, and over the longer term the next administration will need to ensure these solutions are enduring. Congress should champion a new initiative to strengthen protection across the region. This initiative must truly tackle the rights abuses and deprivations pushing people to flee, greatly enhance the capacity of Mexico and other countries to provide asylum and host refugees, and set a strong example at home by upholding America’s own refugee protection commitments. Upholding human rights commitments is not only the right thing to do, it is also in the U.S. national interest. These commitments have saved millions of lives and encourage countries around the world—including front-line countries that host the vast majority of the world’s refugees—to continue hosting refugees. The heroic work of many Americans—working and volunteering with faith-based shelters, community groups, legal representation, and other organizations—should be supported. They are, and always have been, an essential part of the solution. The measures outlined below would restore order to the region and the U.S. border while upholding the United States’ legal and humanitarian commitments. Key steps include: 1. Address the actual causes of displacement in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. The United States should increase support for effective programs that counter violence, strengthen justice systems, spur economic opportunities, and safeguard communities from climate displacement, so that people do not need to flee in search of safety or survival. In addition, U.S. diplomats must press the leaders of these countries to safeguard rights, support anti-corruption efforts, and address abuses from security forces. 2. Strongly support increased asylum and refugee-hosting capacity in Mexico and other Latin American countries, so that these countries—which are already hosting growing numbers—have the ability to continue accepting refugees. Asylum filings in Mexico, for example, have increased by over 700 percent since 2014. The United States should sharply increase support for the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to increase regional capacity, to develop strong asylum and refugee protection systems, and to better integrate refugees in Mexico and the region. U.S. diplomacy, law enforcement cooperation, and rule of law assistance should be leveraged to reduce violence against refugees and migrants in Mexico. In addition, the United States should launch a regional resettlement effort, providing some refugees with routes to safety in the United States as well as other countries, and relaunch the Central American Minors (CAM) program to allow some children with family in the United States to come to our country safely. 3. Combat smuggling in the region while safeguarding access to protection. U.S. agencies must ensure anti-smuggling and anti-trafficking efforts do not block escape from dangerous countries and include measures to safeguard human rights and access to asylum. By strengthening asylum, resettlement, and work visas in the region, more refugees and migrants will have alternate routes to protection. 4. Manage U.S. asylum arrivals effectively through a genuine humanitarian response that upholds U.S. law and provides order, including: Restore timely and orderly asylum processing at ports of entry and ensure humane conditions at all Department of Homeland Security (DHS) facilities; End the Remain in Mexico scheme and “metering” policies that push people to cross between ports of entry and put the lives of asylum seekers at risk as they wait in danger in Mexico; Support and fund NGOs and shelters in the United States—including faith-based groups that have been effectively partnering with DHS in U.S. cities along the border—to address humanitarian needs, a typical and necessary move in managing refugee arrivals; and Launch a community-based case management program that supports appearance, as recommended by ICE’s own advisory group, rather than jailing asylum seekers for even longer. 5. Restore order through measures providing timely, fair, and effective U.S. adjudications, including: Increase, rather than “get rid of,” immigration judges and interpreters. In order to understand what is being said in their courtrooms and ensure due process, judges must be supported by interpreters. And, since a judge set on furthering a politicized agenda is worse than no judge at all, safeguards against politicized court hiring must be immediately restored. Additional measures to support judges include: increased recruitment of interpreters who speak indigenous dialects to assure accurate hearings and prevent continued adjournments, ensuring the time necessary to gather evidence to prove cases, and rejecting absurd schemes that would entrust protection determinations to border agents or rush cases through adjudications; Support a major legal representation initiative to ensure eligible refugees receive protection at the earliest stages of the process and institute universal legal orientation presentations (LOPs)—including for families released from DHS/Customs and Border Protection (CBP) custody—to explain appearance obligations, the legal system, and how to secure counsel; Enable more cases to be granted efficiently at the USCIS asylum office by providing initial decision-making authority to the asylum office in all asylum cases, changing policies and practices that have prompted asylum officers to refer, rather than grant, cases that meet the asylum criteria— unnecessarily adding them to the immigration court caseload—and assure the availability of an application process for “cancellation of removal” relief so these cases do not clog the asylum system; Make the immigration courts independent, as the American Bar Association recommends, to secure due process and judicial independence, ensuring that political appointees can no longer attempt to improperly influence the courts’ decisions in asylum and other cases; and Reverse Trump Administration efforts to prevent refugees from receiving asylum in the United States—including former Attorney General Sessions’ ruling attempting to deny protection to women who have fled domestic violence and families escaping from deadly gangs. The measures outlined above would restore order and bring about real and enduring solutions. As the president and top Trump Administration officials are doubling down on punitive policies and political rhetoric that fail to solve these challenges, Congress must demand effective strategies that are consistent with America’s ideals.
  • Topic: Human Rights, Prisons/Penal Systems, Border Control
  • Political Geography: United States, Central America, North America, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador
  • Publication Date: 01-2016
  • Content Type: Working Paper
  • Institution: Human Rights First
  • Abstract: On the fifth anniversary of the mass Tahrir Square protests that ousted former President Mubarak, Egyptians are suffering severe repression and political instability. As this crisis deepens, Washington continues to send troubling mixed messages about its commitment to trying to resolve it. The U.S. government should, at long last, use its considerable influence to support civil society and advance human rights in Egypt. Such an approach would both help Egyptians and serve U.S interests. This blueprint draws on dozens of interviews with Egyptian human rights defenders, civil society activists, journalists, academics, families of detainees, lawyers, government officials, and others, conducted during a research trip in January 2016. It examines conditions in Egypt, the strengths and shortcomings of the U.S. response, and potential opportunities for the U.S. government to support civil society and strengthen respect for human rights. This year will be a defining one as violent extremism, regional conflicts, and political and economic mismanagement threaten Egypt—and as President Obama shapes his legacy in the Middle East. In 2009, he delivered a message of hope in Cairo: “America does not presume to know what is best for everyone, just as we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election. But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn't steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. These are not just American ideas; they are human rights. And that is why we will support them everywhere.” Much has changed in the intervening years. In his speech to the U.N. General Assembly in September 2015, President Obama opted for analysis rather than exhortation, noting that: “repression cannot forge the social cohesion for nations to succeed. The history of the last two decades proves that in today’s world, dictatorships are unstable. The strongmen of today become the spark of revolution tomorrow.” He continued: “I believe a government that suppresses peaceful dissent is not showing strength; it is showing weakness and it is showing fear. History shows that regimes who fear their own people will eventually crumble, but strong institutions built on the consent of the governed endure long after any one individual is gone.” Yet the U.S. government’s handling of the enduring crisis in Egypt has too often failed to draw obvious conclusions from the Administration’s analysis of the detrimental impact of human rights violations on stability and progress. As a result, many Egyptians view the Obama Administration as supportive of the repressive leadership in Cairo. This support for the dictatorship will render Egypt less stable, undermine U.S. efforts to prevent violent extremism, and further damage Washington’s credibility in the region.
  • Topic: Civil Society, Human Rights, United Nations, Social Movement, Protests
  • Political Geography: Africa, United States, North Africa, Egypt, Cairo
  • Publication Date: 02-2016
  • Content Type: Working Paper
  • Institution: Human Rights First
  • Abstract: On the fifth anniversary of the mass protests in Bahrain that threatened to bring down the country’s autocratic regime, Bahrainis continue to suffer severe repression and political instability. Although the scale of mass arrests and torture the government used to suppress the uprising in March, April, and May of 2011 has diminished, and there have been some largely cosmetic reforms introduced since then, arbitrary arrests and torture in custody continue. Leading human rights activists and peaceful opposition leaders who were able to work relatively unimpeded since 2011 are now in jail, forced into exile, or facing trumped-up charges. The leading civil society and nonviolent political opposition figures arrested and tortured in 2011 remain in prison and there seems to be no prospect of any political dialogue between the government and opposition groups. The protests have not stopped, and a minority have taken on a violent edge, with over a dozen policemen killed since 2011. The country’s prisons are bulging with political detainees, many of whom were sentenced in mass trials after an unfair judicial process. This blueprint draws on dozens of interviews with Bahraini human rights defenders, civil society activists, journalists, academics, families of detainees, lawyers, U.S. government officials, and others. Despite repeated requests for permission to access Bahrain, Human Rights First has been denied entry to the country since 2012. This report examines conditions in Bahrain, the strengths and shortcomings of the U.S. response, and potential opportunities for the U.S. government to support civil society and strengthen respect for human rights. Though the smallest country in the Middle East, Bahrain exemplifies several of the major challenges for U.S. policy in the region. 2016 promises to be a defining year as a series of issues converge to threaten Bahrain, including: sectarian tensions exploited by ISIL and other Sunni extremists and by Shi’a-dominated Iran; economic vulnerability linked to sharply falling oil prices; corruption and political instability; a lack of reform leaving the root grievances of the large scale public protests unresolved; and U.S. government support for an authoritarian status quo seen as the best way of protecting major military investments—in Bahrain’s case, the U.S. Naval Fifth Fleet base. This year will also be important as President Obama shapes his legacy in the Middle East. In 2009, at the start of his presidency, he delivered a message of hope in Cairo: “America does not presume to know what is best for everyone, just as we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election. But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn't steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. These are not just American ideas; they are human rights. And that is why we will support them everywhere.” Much has changed in the intervening years. In his speech to the U.N. General Assembly in September 2015, President Obama opted for analysis rather than exhortation, noting, “repression cannot forge the social cohesion for nations to succeed. The history of the last two decades proves that in today’s world, dictatorships are unstable. The strongmen of today become the spark of revolution tomorrow.” He continued: “I believe a government that suppresses peaceful dissent is not showing strength; it is showing weakness and it is showing fear. History shows that regimes who fear their own people will eventually crumble, but strong institutions built on the consent of the governed endure long after any one individual is gone.” Yet the U.S. government’s handling of the enduring crisis in Bahrain has too often failed to draw obvious conclusions from the administration’s own analysis of the detrimental impact of human rights violations on stability and progress. As a result, in the absence of actions and policies that would suggest the contrary, many in Bahrain and across the region view the Obama Administration as supportive of the repressive leadership in Manama. This support for the dictatorship is rendering Bahrain less stable, undermining U.S. efforts to prevent violent extremism, and further damaging Washington’s credibility in the region.
  • Topic: Human Rights, Foreign Aid, Reform, Protests
  • Political Geography: United States, Middle East, Bahrain, Manama
  • Publication Date: 03-2015
  • Content Type: Working Paper
  • Institution: Human Rights First
  • Abstract: The United States is not taking Saudi Arabia’s outsized responsibility for human rights abuses within or beyond the kingdom’s borders seriously enough. President Barack Obama did not raise the issue in his meeting last year with the late King Abdullah. On his way to meet the new Saudi monarch, King Salman, in January 2015 the President remarked, “Sometimes we have to balance our need to speak to them about human rights issues with immediate concerns that we have in terms of countering terrorism or dealing with regional stability." He did not mention that Saudi Arabia’s policies (denying rights and freedoms at home while leading a vigorous, region-wide effort to push back against popular calls for better governance) have themselves contributed to regional instability and undermined counterterrorism efforts. Such policies harm U.S. interests and those of the people of Saudi Arabia and the region as a whole.
  • Topic: Human Rights, Regional Cooperation, Terrorism, Repression
  • Political Geography: United States, Middle East, Saudi Arabia
  • Author: Brian Dooley
  • Publication Date: 05-2015
  • Content Type: Working Paper
  • Institution: Human Rights First
  • Abstract: President Obama recently made a series of commendable declarations supporting civil society and affirming its importance to securing stability and fighting extremism. At the White House’s Summit on Countering Violent Extremism in February 2015 he announced, “When people are oppressed, and human rights are denied—particularly along sectarian lines or ethnic lines—when dissent is silenced, it feeds violent extremism. It creates an environment that is ripe for terrorists to exploit. When peaceful, democratic change is impossible, it feeds into the terrorist propaganda that violence is the only answer available.” The President added, “[W]e must recognize that lasting stability and real security require democracy. That means free elections where people can choose their own future, and independent judiciaries that uphold the rule of law, and police and security forces that respect human rights, and free speech and freedom for civil society groups.” That same month he said, “My argument to any partner that we have is that you are better off if you've got a strong civil society and you've got democratic legitimacy and you are respectful of human rights.” In April 2015, speaking specifically about the six U.S. allies that comprise the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)—Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)—he noted, “The biggest threats that they face may not be coming from Iran invading,” and warned of “populations that, in some cases, are alienated, youth that are underemployed, an ideology that is destructive and nihilistic, and in some cases, just a belief that there are no legitimate political outlets for grievances.” A lack of peaceful outlets for political grievances does indeed drive extremism and instability, but the Obama Administration continues to provide seemingly unconditional political and military support for GCC countries that have actually increased their repression against civil society in recent years. This contradiction at the heart of U.S. policy must be confronted and resolved, especially because it has a direct bearing on counterterrorism cooperation and U.S. national security interests. The president promised to have a “tough conversation” with the GCC leaders about their destructive policies. The \ White House and Camp David meetings with GCC leaders on May 13-14, 2015 provides the perfect opportunity to develop that conversation. Human Rights First produced blueprints in 2015 for how the United States can support civil society in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia to encourage reform and respect for human rights—advances that would help bring stability to a volatile region and align with the administration’s stated policy goals. This report extends that series to an analysis of the repression of another U.S. security partner in the Gulf: the United Arab Emirates. It examines the UAE’s relations with the United States and what Washington can do to support a besieged Emirati civil society. Strong, functioning civil societies across the world—including in the UAE—are, as President Obama rightly identified, “a matter of national security” for the United States. This report is based on research conducted during a Human Rights First fact-finding trip to the UAE in April 2015, including dozens of discussions with human rights defenders, civil society activists, journalists, academics, lawyers, independent experts, officials from the United States and other governments, and others. Local human rights activists spoke to Human Rights First on condition of anonymity out of fear for their safety. Human Rights First thanks all those who provided information for this report.
  • Topic: Civil Society, Human Rights, Terrorism, Counter-terrorism
  • Political Geography: Middle East, Abu Dhabi, UAE
  • Publication Date: 07-2015
  • Content Type: Working Paper
  • Institution: Human Rights First
  • Abstract: “First, for civil society to continue to succeed it must have open, free, democratic space. I have followed closely the ongoing debate in Kenya around civil society and its regulation…. [A]ccountability and transparency are important for civil society organizations, just as they are for all others. But there are ways to achieve accountability and transparency that do not restrict or impede the vital work of civil society.… Regulation should embrace diversity. Regulation must not be used to silence opinions or stifle views that the powerful do not share…. We carry out extensive due diligence on all the organizations we partner with, to ensure that they are not being used for illicit purposes, such as terrorist financing. We have not seen any evidence to suggest Haki Africa’s activities pose a threat to national security or jeopardize Kenya’s efforts at combating terrorism.” –U.S. Ambassador to Kenya, Robert F. Godec, June 5, 2015 The visit of President Obama to Kenya in July 2015—the first by a sitting U.S. president—is much anticipated in the country, which faces serious challenges, including poverty, terrorism, corruption, and abuses by state security forces. Kenya has yet to fully recover from large-scale violence following the 2008 election, when around 1,300 people were killed—including hundreds by the police—and half a million were displaced during a six-week period. Kenya also hosts around half a million refugees fleeing war in Somalia. The U.S. government has sought to help Kenya address its human rights problem with humanitarian, good governance, and security initiatives. Kenya is routinely among the top seven recipients of U.S. aid, getting hundreds of millions of dollars every year. Yet the United States should strengthen and sharpen its efforts to support Kenya. A reinvigorated approach, initiated by the President’s visit, would both improve the lives of Kenyans and serve U.S. interests by combating violent extremism. This report recommends actions the U.S. government should take to promote greater stability in Kenya and the region, and outlines in particular how the U.S. government should support Kenyan civil society. In 2010 Kenyan voters approved a new constitution, which contains strong human rights safeguards, protections for civil society, and judicial reforms. And it is in many ways a model of legal protection for human rights. It provides for the creation of several important bodies, including the National Gender Equality Commission—which is pushing for the implementation of article 81b of the constitution: “not more than two thirds of the members of elective public bodies shall be of the same gender”—and the Kenyan National Commission on Human Rights. Unfortunately, these and other official entities set up under the constitution to protect rights are insufficiently resourced and politically weak. The government’s implementation of the constitution has generally not matched the promise of its text. It has attacked civil society groups and attempted to muzzle dissent, often in the name of counterterrorism. The 2013 Public Benefit Organizations (PBO) Act, a law designed to regulate and protect civil society, has yet to be implemented. On the positive side, parts of the Kenyan judiciary remain defiantly independent of government interference, something President Obama should praise during his trip. The Kenya section in the U.S. State Department Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2014 states: “The most serious human rights problems were security force abuses, including alleged unlawful killings, forced disappearances, torture, and use of excessive force; interethnic violence; and widespread corruption and impunity throughout the government…. Widespread impunity at all levels of government was a serious problem, despite public statements by the president and deputy president and police and judicial reforms. The government took only limited steps to address cases of unlawful killings by security force members.” That crackdown runs counter to President Obama’s insistence that stability and security require “freedom for civil society groups.” During his visit, President Obama should discuss the crackdown on civil society along with other pressing and sensitive issues: security cooperation, corruption, refugee protection, and the human rights of LGBT people.
  • Topic: Civil Society, Human Rights, Violent Extremism, Counter-terrorism, Transparency
  • Political Geography: Kenya, Africa, United States, Nairobi, East Africa
  • Publication Date: 09-2015
  • Content Type: Working Paper
  • Institution: Human Rights First
  • Abstract: On the sidelines of the annual United Nations General Assembly meeting, the United States is sponsoring briefings and meetings with allies to develop strategies to counter the spread of violent extremism. These activities will build on the February 2015 White House Summit to Counter Violent Extremism (CVE). The CVE initiative is designed to advance a more preventive and proactive approach to countering violent extremism. It takes into account the lesson of the past decade that addressing the threat of violent extremism requires a truly comprehensive strategy that goes beyond military intelligence and law-enforcement tools. The United States government has played a leading role in moving forward a global conversation on countering violent extremism since convening the White House Summit. If this process is to yield results, the United States will have to continue to provide leadership in close coordination with the efforts of the United Nations and other multilateral organizations, notably the U.N. Secretary General’s Plan of Action on Preventing Violent Extremism to be presented to the U.N. General Assembly later this year. While sustained U.S. engagement with this multilateral process will be essential, just as important will be a clear demonstration from the United States that it is putting the principles of its CVE approach into practice. The United States must show its commitment to the principles it has been championing through its more comprehensive, preventive CVE strategy in each of its bilateral relationships, particularly those with states facing challenges from the threat of terrorism, which also engage in systematic violations of human rights. It is no accident that these two conditions often coincide. This blueprint brings together examples of existing bilateral relationships with some U.S. allies that fit this category. The material collected here illustrates the vital importance for the United States to encourage its allies to implement security policies rooted in the reality that good governance, the rule of law, and respect for human rights are essential tools in countering violent extremism. This blueprint compiles and summarizes previous Human Rights First blueprints. For more information on a specific topic or country, please refer to the following documents: How to Conduct Effective Counterterrorism that Reinforces Human Rights (December 2014); How to Bring Stability to Bahrain (December 2014); How to Prevent Egypt Slipping into a Deepening Crisis (December 2014); How to Build a More Sustainable and Mutually Beneficial Relationship with Saudi Arabia (March 2015); How to Counter Terrorism by Supporting Civil Society in the United Arab Emirates (May 2015); How the United States Can Help Counter Violent Extremism and Support Civil Society in Kenya (July 2015).
  • Topic: Human Rights, Terrorism, United Nations, Violent Extremism, Counter-terrorism
  • Political Geography: United States, Global Focus
  • Author: Amy Sobel
  • Publication Date: 12-2015
  • Content Type: Working Paper
  • Institution: Human Rights First
  • Abstract: This year marks the 150th anniversary of the ratification of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery in the United States. Yet in the world today there are an estimated 20.9 million people enslaved, and the United States is both a source and destination of victims. While the United States would have a moral responsibility to address this problem even without its history of slavery, its legacy heightens this imperative. Contemporary slavery manifests in various ways. Many trafficking victims are forced to toil in fields, factories, and fishing boats for little or no pay. Others are held captive in private homes. Forced prostitution rings imprison women, girls, and boys in brothels or force them to work in the streets under threat of abuse. What links all these forms—as well as historic American slavery—is the profit motive. Human trafficking is a lucrative criminal enterprise, generating $150 billion annually in profits worldwide. The United States should seek to reduce substantially the number of victims by implementing policies and practices that dismantle the business of trafficking. Since passage of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000—and its subsequent reauthorizations—the U.S. government has undertaken significant steps to build an anti-human trafficking infrastructure. Through annual publication of the Department of State’s (DOS) Trafficking in Persons report (TIP report), it has called worldwide attention to this blight. The DOS Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons (J/TIP) provides grants to U.S. and foreign institutions involved in prevention/awareness, protection/services, law enforcement/prosecution, research and data collection, and evaluation. J/TIP also coordinates U.S. agencies both at home and abroad, including agencies on the President’s Interagency Task Force (PITF). Despite these efforts, human trafficking continues to be a horrific human rights problem both in the United States and around the world. The 2014 DOS TIP report used law enforcement data to determine that 44,738 survivors were reported globally in 2013 —a paltry figure considering the number of victims. It is clear that far more needs to be done.
  • Topic: Human Rights, United Nations, Slavery, Human Trafficking
  • Political Geography: United States, Global Focus, Washington, D.C.
  • Publication Date: 02-2013
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: Human Rights First
  • Abstract: Successive administrations have recognized that preventing genocide and crimes against humanity is in the national interest of the United States. The Obama Administration put this rhetoric into action in 2011 by issuing Presidential Study Directive 10, which elevated mass atrocities prevention to a "core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States" and ordered the creation of a standing atrocities prevention structure in the U.S. government. With far- reaching atrocities prevention efforts now underway in the U.S. government, Human Rights First offers an additional, innovative approach that broadens the scope of current atrocities prevention efforts and opens up new avenues for tackling this persistent and complex problem.
  • Topic: Security, Crime, Genocide, Human Rights
  • Political Geography: United States
  • Publication Date: 06-2013
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: Human Rights First
  • Abstract: As part of the United States plan to begin military withdrawals from Afghanistan in 2014, the Department of Defense (DOD) contracted with the Russian state owned arms dealer, Rosoboronexport, to provide helicopters to the Afghanistan National Security Forces (ANSF). DOD has continued and expanded its purchases from Rosoboronexport even while acknowledging that the Russian arms dealer has enabled mass atrocities by supplying Syria's Bashar al-Assad with weapons that have been used to murder Syrian civilians.
  • Topic: Arms Control and Proliferation, Economics, Human Rights, Armed Struggle
  • Political Geography: Russia, Europe, Middle East, Asia