30 years of working for dignity and justice


Thirty years ago, Sam Heins gathered a group of lawyers for a lunch meeting at Windows on Minnesota, the restaurant that then sat on the top floor of the IDS, and asked them, “Is there something that we can do as lawyers, here in Minnesota, to further the cause of human rights both here and overseas?”

Barb Frey had just returned from living in Pinochet’s Chile, and I had recently hitch-hiked through apartheid South Africa. We both reported that we had contacts with reform-minded people in both of those countries. Mayor Don Fraser noted that, if we were interested in doing international human rights work, Chile and South Africa were two good places to start. Perhaps drawing on the spirit of social justice that is part of our community’s culture, we then answered Sam’s question with a determined “yes.” And so, as the result of that meeting and that answer, the organization now known as The Advocates for Human Rights came into being.

Our first name was the Minnesota Lawyers International Human Rights Committee. In those early years, we had a small budget and an even smaller staff. We were largely a board-driven organization, and we took on projects as we came across them. For instance, we deputized a volunteer traveling to Argentina for his honeymoon to meet with “the grandmothers of the disappeared.” Formally known as the Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo, these Argentine women demanded that the government account for their missing sons and daughters, who had been killed by government agents, as well as re-unite them with their grandchildren, who had been adopted and raised by members of the ruling class following the murders of their parents.

In the 1980’s we also supported the work of mothers in Guatemala who had lost family members during that country’s prolonged “dirty war.” As the result of our work there, we published a report entitled “Expectations Denied: Habeas Corpus and the Search for Guatemala’s Disappeared.” In 1987, we honored these brave women from both Guatemala and Argentina at our annual dinner. As a result of our work on projects like these, for many years Abogados de Minnesota was better known in many foreign countries than it was here in Minnesota.

During our first decade, we used Don Fraser’s matchless contacts as catalysts for fact-finding trips to Central America and the Philippines. We developed an expertise in doing human rights research in “mystery” countries such as Albania and North Korea. Sam Heins’ trial observation mission in Romania and John Borman’s report on human rights in Tunisia also grew out of opportunities that came to our door.

The biggest global events involving human rights over the past 30 years were: (1) the fall of the Soviet Union, which freed the eastern bloc countries and ended the Cold War; (2) the proliferation of democracies in southeast Asia, Africa, and South America, enabled in part by the end of the Cold War) and (3) more recently, the Arab Spring, the outcome of which is still being written. At the same time, the United Nations has continued to adopt and promulgate human rights treaties, and, as of 2006, all of its members undergo a Universal Periodic Review involving a peer review process focused on human rights compliance every four years.

As human rights advocates, we celebrated each of these developments. While they have far to go, the governments of the world, as a group, are slowly and inexorably meeting the mandate of human rights treaties to “respect, protect, and fulfill” human rights obligations.

While a volunteer organization at its inception, today The Advocates for Human Rights is staff-driven and tenacious. Our programs and activities are consistent from year to year, and those programs are phenomenal. In recent years:

  • Our Women’s Program has aided groups in efforts to draft and enact legislation to protect against domestic violence in at least 30 countries.
  • Our Refugee and Immigrant Program has provided legal assistance in over 500 immigration cases annually, and the cases frequently involve clients who need to escape persecution in their home countries.
  • Our Advocacy Program shepherded the Safe Harbor Act through the Minnesota legislature. The Safe Harbor Act ensures that children caught in the sex industry are treated as victims, not criminals. The Advocates is currently championing No Wrong Door bills through the Minnesota legislature. No Wrong Door puts Safe Harbor into action by funding and requiring safe housing, medical and mental health care, and other support for children who are victims of sex trafficking.
  • Our International Justice Program coordinated the research and writing of a report to the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission containing the stories and experiences of Liberia’s diaspora community.
  • Our Education Program has developed cutting edge curricula on a range of human rights topics, and they recently went to Seychelles and trained a group of Ugandan parliamentarians in human rights in general and in human rights treaty monitoring and reporting in particular.

Most importantly, by all measures—the size and professionalism of our staff; the breadth and depth of volunteer engagement and support; our local, national and international reputation; our interaction and collaboration with foreign NGOs; and our financial strength and stability—the organization has never been stronger.

During his welcoming remarks at the 2011 Annual Human Rights Award Dinner, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak explained that Minnesotans’ concern for international human rights is part of our heritage. Given the ongoing and deep community support for the work of The Advocates, determined and creative protection of human rights is also our destiny.

Jim Dorsey is a board member, former board chair, and co-founder of The Advocates for Human Rights. He is an active pro bono volunteer and practices law with Fredrikson & Byron, P.A.