Local attorneys report government rights violations to UN

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Minneapolis attorneys representing Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights were in Geneva, Switzerland last month to brief the United Nations Human Rights Committee on the U.S. government’s compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The presentation has impacted the committee’s concluding observations on the United States government’s adherence to its obligation to guarantee the rights of refugees, asylum seekers and other aliens in need of special protections.

Mark Girouard and Sandra Jezierski were the two presenters in Geneva. Beginning last April, the firm agreed to a pro bono project with Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights, a non-governmental organization dedicated to the promotion and protection of internationally recognized human rights.

The occasion for the presentation was the routine four-year review cycle of countries that have ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights – one of two treaties that together are equivalent to an international “Bill of Rights.” The U.S. signed and ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1992.

The U.S. review submitted to the committee by the State Department last October was more than seven years late. Sandra Jezierski says the government claims that complications with compiling data caused the delays. Another report to Convention Against Torture is also four years late.

The U.S. delegation was lead by Mathew Waxman and included members of the U.S. State Department, Homeland Security and other agencies.

Girouard and Jezierski, along with Amanda Cialkowski, Susan MacMenamin, Joe Van Sloan and Steve Warch, all attorneys with Halleland Lewis Nilan & Johnson, P.A. in Minneapolis, helped to prepare a 30-page report discussing U.S. accountability for non-citizens and problems with the government’s compliance with its obligations. The report highlights how legislative and regulatory changes have limited access to due process for non-citizens and will examine how restricted access to counsel has occurred as a result of new policies and practices added since 9/11.

The Minnesota advocates joined a coalition of 142 U.S.-based nonprofits and non government organizations (NGOs) and 32 individuals to participate in the preparation of the most comprehensive review of human rights violations in the United States ever compiled. The Minnesota advocates portion was part of that larger, 465-page “shadow report” assembled for the Human Rights Committee.

“This report is a result of a strong collaboration by Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights and other various not-for-profit organizations to compile specific strategies to help the U.S. better adhere to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,” said Girouard, in a prepared statement. “Together we were able to identify key issues and outline specific recommendations for improving access to legal counsel, providing meaningful judicial review and protecting the rights of juveniles.”

The report and presentation to the United Nations Human Rights Committee has influence their own report, which criticizes the U.S. for turning away legitimate asylum-seekers if they had been forced, even under threat of violence, to provide “material support” to armed rebels defined by the U.S. as terrorist groups. The committee also expressed its disapproval of the post-September 11 round-ups and prolonged detention in the United States of immigrants and persons suspected of ties to terrorism. The report details many human rights issues.

“What we found was that the U.S. government report provided a legal framework that talked about various laws that are in place, but it didn’t talk about the application of those laws, and it didn’t talk about the individual states and their treatment of individuals,” said Jezierski in a phone interview. “The government report basically said we have these laws in place and that should be enough,” she added. “The shadow reports point out that these laws may be in existence but the application of these laws show that we are not actually complying with the treaty or the covenant.”

The U.N. Human Rights Committee on July 28 considered the U.S. report and that of the special advocates report along with other information in it summary. They noted a number of U.S. Supreme Court decisions and U.S. military justice codes in “welcoming” U.S. laws that protected and guaranteed human rights.

However, the Committee was concerned by “credible and uncontested information” that the U.S. has violated its own laws with regard to Department of Homeland Security detainees. The Committee also mentioned concern with the U.S. Patriot Act, unauthorized monitoring of citizens and non-citizens within and outside of its borders, and the appearance of unequal treatment of Hurricane Katrina victims.

Jezierski explained the the U.S. Government interpreted the U.N. Covenant as not applying to U.S. law outside of its own borders. This was the justification for extra territorial detentions and sending, suspected terrorists to third countries without the appropriate safeguards against prohibited treatment.

The proposed immigration reform legislation, both the House and Senate versions that is currently being worked into a compromised form, is also a concern to rights advocates, as it reinforces the more stringent trends.

“With respect to immigration we have seen changes since 2001 that has seen government chipping away at the protections of refugees and asylum seekers,” said Jezierski, who explained that legislative and regulatory changes limit the ability to seek safety under the U.S. Patriot Act provision that says anyone helps a terrorist denied asylum.

“I understand the national security interests, but we also need to comply with the Covenant and the Constitution when it comes to the treatment of individual people,” she added.