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BARB FREY: We selected four groups from around the Midwest who exemplify the principles that are in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
KEITH PORTER: This week on Common Ground, human rights heroes from the American Midwest.
GAIL BOHR: Children’s rights throughout the world are universal. They have a right to not be, go to bed hungry at night, to have shelter, to have clothing, and to be safe. And that’s universal, that’s what every child wants.
MARICELA GARCIA: The experience of refugees and immigrants have to do with international matters. That they come to the United States with experiences that have made who they are from their countries of origin. So for example, refugees have a deep understanding of human rights because of the, what they have witnessed in the wars and oppressive governments that they have left.
PORTER: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It’s produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Keith Porter.
Activism and interest in human rights is clearly on the rise. Much of that interest has been sparked by the recent celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. One surprising hotbed of this rising awareness is the American Midwest. Barb Frey is an international human rights lawyer and a professor at the University of Minnesota. She’s also one of the founders of the Midwest Coalition for Human Rights. I asked her if her colleagues across the country and around the world are sometimes surprised to find so much human rights interest in the Midwest.
BARBARA FREY: Well, generally those people come from the coasts. The international community is not surprised because they’ve been the recipients of a lot of good networking, a lot of cooperative work that has produced protection and prevented serious human rights violations. The people in the Midwest certainly know that they’re doing good work but what is helpful to us is to know what each other is doing so that when we’re called upon for areas of expertise that are not in our organization that we can contact the people right in our backyard who are working on those issues. And even in organizing this conference I’ve been really overwhelmed at how much excellent work is being done by so many organizations that I wasn’t even aware of. So you find out that there are projects that are being done to establish legal institutions in Bosnia, for instance. There are a lot of groups that are trying to connect grassroots issues, like access for people with disabilities, to the international human rights standards. So what we’re trying to do is to help people understand that they have been human rights advocates for a long time, they just might not have seen themselves in the larger context of international human rights activist.
PORTER: The conference that Professor Frey just mentioned was a recent Chicago gathering of the Midwest Coalition for Human Rights.
FREY: We’re celebrating and commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is the, one of the cornerstones of the international legal norms that protect individuals all over the world. And what we are aware of us as US citizens is that this document as well known as it should be in the United States because we presume that our rights are protected by our own national laws, whereas it’s very well known around the world. So what we decided to do is instead of each holding separate events to commemorate this important anniversary that we would do something jointly and again try to boost public recognition of the importance of the Universal Declaration and to use it as a springboard for future action.
We decided that one way we could make the work of Midwest advocates known was to recognize some of the heroes who are in our midst. People who have been working in the trenches on human rights for a long time, might not even perceive themselves as international human rights advocates, but who we take inspiration from. And so we selected four groups from around the Midwest who exemplify the principles that are in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
PORTER: Barb Frey tells us that one of the award recipients is the Northwest Indiana Coalition to Abolish Control Unit Prisons.
FREY: It’s based in Gary, Indiana, and it’s a coalition again of religious and non-profit groups who have a concern about the kinds of human rights violations that are taking place in a new type of prison that’s being built in the United States, which is for maximum control. Which are designed and built and run to basically deprive people of almost human contact, to reduce their lives to basic existence, and we find them to be a new form of cruel and unusual punishment. This has been a total grassroots effort, again to effect change in the policies at the state of Indiana level and also the federal level to humanize these prisons a little bit more so that people aren’t completely subjected to cruel and inhuman punishment.
GARTH MEINTJES: In my experience human rights violations occur against the most vulnerable and weak in our society. And in protecting them we protect the rest of us.
PORTER: This is Garth Meintjes. He’s Associate Director of the Center for Civil and Human Rights at the University of Notre Dame Law School, and he’s a member of the Coalition.
MEINTJES: I think if there’s one group in the United States who’s particularly vulnerable, who is most at-risk, it is prisoners, because they are completely in the hands of the state without outside scrutiny and accountability. Because we have established very little public oversight and therefore it’s and extremely vulnerable group. And if we can protect their rights we’ll probably do very well protecting everyone else’s rights as well.
PORTER: Tell us something about the successes that this Coalition has had.
MEINTJES: The main success that they’ve had is to raise the issue and to bring it to the attention of the Indiana Legislature. And to particularly bring it to the attention of the Commission on Courts which frankly was disturbed by the testimony presented at a hearing and as a result requested a response from the DOC—Department of Corrections—and they were not satisfied with the responses. This resulted in them requiring a further follow-up meeting with the Commissioner of Corrections and after that they required that the Coalition meet with the Commissioner to thrash out some agreement on changes that could be made to improve the situation. And that agreement is now being implemented. These are not radical changes, they will certainly not abolish control unit prisons but they have helped to alleviate some of the worst aspects.
The other aspect of this is that the Commissioner is now required to meet every six months with the, with the Indiana, Northwest Indiana Coalition, and at each of these meetings the Coalition raises its concerns and he—in relative good faith, I believe—has responded and has answered the concerns raised. And I think that’s a helpful process, if we can meet every six months from now on we can establish a sense of public accountability which will hopefully change the behavior and the attitudes of the correctional system in general.
PORTER: Professor Frey, from the Midwest Coalition for Human Rights, joins us again to tell us about the second group receiving the Human Rights Hero Award.
FREY: The Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights is a coalition of immigrant groups and immigrant action groups. So in other words they’re groups that represents the nationals themselves, so Filipinos or Haitians or Mexicans or Guatemalans, who have joined together in coalition to monitor state and federal activities that affect the interests of immigrants in the United States. This has been a very effective coalition which points out the hypocrisies in the policies that have been developed over the past few years that negatively impact immigrants’ lives at the same as immigrants are very positively contributing to our communities.
PORTER: Maricela Garcia is the Executive Director of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.
MARICELA GARCIA: The Coalition is a membership organization of about 90 members who are organizations that serve immigrants and refugees in different communities, including the Polish community, Russian Jews, Mexicans, Southeast Asians, Africans, Caribbeans—anyone that comes as an immigrant or refugee to the Illinois, the state of Illinois, most likely becomes part of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.
PORTER: What do you think are some of the biggest successes of the Coalition?
GARCIA: Well, I think that there are several. The, one of the most important I think that it is able to maintain a group of extremely diverse ethnic groups together, talking to each other, creating the strategies together, because it’s like having the United Nations convening a meeting. People with all kinds of protocols and different languages of origin and expectations, and yet willing to create alliances in order to keep going with pursuing the pro-immigrant agenda in the state. So, but, in other areas we have been able for two years to advocate for the allocation of $10 million from the State for services for immigrants and refugees. And through our advocacy last year we were able to—in alliance with many other national organizations, be able to have the federal government restore federal services such as food stamps for immigrants that had lost those benefits through welfare reform two years ago.
PORTER: How hard is it to educate people about the contributions that immigrants make?
GARCIA: I think that we have been misinformed about what immigrants, the role, the economic role, that immigrants play in this country because if you look at the federal government immigrants pay twice as much in taxes that they use in services. And that is a tremendous discrepancy. And not only that but immigrants work very, very—in many jobs immigrants have the lowest wages. And immigrants, many business owners indicate that they are the loyal workers, reliable workers, hard workers, because mostly you cannot go back to your country. And you made a commitment to remain here and so there commitment is to work. People come here to work, not to use services. So the usage of services is very, very low in the immigrant and refugee community. Primarily in the immigrant community. As opposed to what we hear in the media about the abuse of using the systems and resources of this country.
And this country I believe it remains competitive in many areas of the economy because of immigrants. And not only that but they revive neighborhoods; they have a strong sense of family orientation, as you can see; develop strong neighborhoods with many small businesses; and their sense of commitment to the institutions is very clear. And so it’s different completely from what we hear the misperception of who immigrants are.
PORTER: I’m sure that many of our listeners may not know the connection between the Midwest and international affairs and the human rights, and may not think that there’s any concern about human rights or international affairs in the Midwest. But certainly you see a different picture.
GARCIA: Oh, absolutely. Because the experience of refugees and immigrants have to do with international matters. That they come to the United States with experiences that have made who they are from their countries of origin. So for example, refugees have a deep understanding of human rights because of the, what they have witnessed in the wars and oppressive governments that they have left. So when they come to the our country they do have a tremendous impact in how they see the world and how they shape the foreign policy advocacy as well as the domestic advocacy policies because of the deep understanding of international matters. And also because I think that as we are becoming more borderless through global economics we need to understand globally—have a global understanding and analysis and then to act effectively locally. So the Illinois and the Midwest in general has to do with how the world is carrying out or developing at this point, mostly in terms of global economics. We will see many changes in terms of employment, immigration, even wars, and the fall of economies in other parts of the world, which will have a tremendous impact in our country. Therefore it requires that we are very savvy about international matters.
PORTER: In a moment we’ll hear about the two other winners of the first ever Midwest Human Rights Heroes award.
BURNS WESTON: To discover that a group of my peers thinks well enough of what we’ve done here to give us an award was very, very satisfying indeed.
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PORTER: Barb Frey is one of the founders of the Midwest Coalition for Human Rights. She tells us about the third award-winning group.
FREY: The Children’s Law Center of Minnesota is a non-profit organization that started about three years ago and is working to represent the human rights of children in the justice systems and welfare systems in the state of Minnesota. I think what Children’s Law Center has most significantly done is to make people aware of the fact that children are unrepresented in the very decisions that have severe consequences over their lives. Whether it be custody battles, child protection rulings, or just day-to-day decisions regarding foster care. And we find it a travesty that children’s best interests are not represented independently in the process. That it ends up being a negotiation between adverse parties but the child’s interests are left out. So the Children’s Rights Center has really, it trains volunteer lawyers to represent children in those processes.
GAIL BOHR: Children’s rights throughout the world are universal.
PORTER: Gail Bohr is Executive Director of the Children’s Law Center.
BOHR: They have a right to not be, go to bed hungry at night, to have shelter, to have clothing, and to be safe. And that’s universal that’s what every child wants. That’s true for the kind of situations that we see our children facing. And which brings us into what the Convention on the Rights of the Child promotes. One of the things to think about also from my perspective is when we’re representing children it’s Article IX of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which says the child has a right to have his opinion be heard. And that brings us into how does that happen. Where do you get that information that, to get, not only the child’s opinions and views, but to make it count, to make it matter. And that child very often has to depend on other people to effectuate that right. In our situation it’s lawyers who are doing that for the child.
PORTER: In your opinion what are some of the biggest successes of the Children’s Law Center?
BOHR: In my opinion the biggest successes are to get pro bono attorneys involved and encouraged and right in there helping us to represent these children. And we have over 80 attorneys who are doing that right now.
I tend to think of us as, a child is in the middle and all that child’s needs and support is around him. And the spokes for this child has to go out to the other circles so that we have a full wheel that supports this child in the middle. So in order to do that we felt that having a holistic view of the child, a whole picture, is important. And we bring, we get to that by having social workers and psychologists working with us as we do the legal representation. Extremely important in understanding developmental age of the child, how you communicate with children, what are those issues when you need to understand that the child telling you to go away doesn’t necessarily mean they want you to do that.
PORTER: Is there anything in particular in your background that prepared you for this kind of work?
BOHR: I have a 20-year career as a social worker. I’m a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker. I’ve worked with children and families for most of my social work career. And I have, then I went to law school because I felt that children were not—you reach a point where you just know you have to do something more for children. And then I went to law school. I worked in a big law firm, which sort of helps when you’re recruiting pro bono attorneys. And I clerked for the Chief Justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court. And that sort of helps me too in terms of thinking about how the law gets shaped and developed. And when we’re on amicus briefs to sort of figure out how the court’s going to work.
PORTER: Gail Bohr is particularly concerned that the United States has not joined the rest of the world in supporting the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
BOHR: We definitely need to do that from the United States’ perspective. We’re the only country in, besides Somalia—which has not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The 10th anniversary is coming up November of 1999. And it’s a philosophical, it’s a leadership position the United States needs to take in this regard.
Internationally, those countries that have ratified the conventional also need to put teeth into it and make it happen for the children. That it’s not just another empty promise for children. We need to make sure that every piece of that Convention means something. And actually is a document for action.
PORTER: And finally we return again to Professor Frey, who tells us about the fourth organization recognized as a Human Rights Hero.
FREY: Global Focus: Human Rights ’98 is a program based at The University of Iowa, which has been a year-long celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It’s been an education project geared towards the students and the community in the state of Iowa and has brought an extraordinary array of individuals and human rights legends into Iowa, including several Nobel Peace Prize winners—Rigoberto Menchu, Elie Wiesel—it’s just been an astounding list of people and we think that, we expect to see a very big increase in the number of human rights professionals coming out of Iowa just based on their, how their lives have been affected by this series.
BURNS WESTON: When I became aware of the fact that the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was going to take place—this is now a couple of years ago—I had spoken with our International Law Journal students here and suggested that maybe they do an issue devoted to the Universal Declaration and to human rights in general.
PORTER: The Chair of the Global Focus: Human Rights ’98 group is University of Iowa Professor Burns Weston.
WESTON: And then the more I got to thinking about it I thought, "Well that’s really not enough. This is probably one of the most important instruments in the second half of the 20th Century and should we do more?" So I then went to the Dean and said, "Can we do something more?" And I said, "Can you give me some money?" And he said, "Well I don’t know. What do you got in mind?" And the next thing I knew we had Global Focus: Human Rights ’98. We assembled a multidisciplinary team of people from across campus and gradually put together a multitude of different activities. The centerpiece of which has been this Global Focus: Human Rights lecture series that consists of, I think, by the time it’s all over it will be 25 or 26 people coming from outside the university and from all over the world to talk about various issues regarding human rights. Particularly with a focus on the future and how to promote and protect human rights better worldwide.
PORTER: Do you have any idea of the kind of response that you’ve received from the community? I mean in numbers? I mean, you’ve obviously you’ve had thousands of people coming through to all these events and to the speaker series as well.
WESTON: One way to answer that is by saying that with perhaps one or two exceptions every lecture that has been attended has been attended by more people than I expected would attend. And in some instances we’ve had attendance, like for example at Elie Wiesel lecture back last I think it was in October, we set a new record for Hancher Auditorium in term of people attending any given event in that auditorium. It was an overflow crowd that spilled out into the lobby and even beyond. I think there was as many as 4,000 people that showed up to a hall that only I think capacity is around 2,500 seats.
And then we had Bishop Tutu. It was such a large crowd we had to hold it in our, in the Carver Hawkeye basketball arena. And there I think something like 6,000 or 7,000 people showed up. Now of course that’s not true of all the lectures. These are very well known celebrities, but even for the, some of the lesser well-known people we had a goodly number of people attending and often, typically would exceed 150-200 people in an audience. One or two exceptions where that didn’t happen.
Another way of indicating the response is we have a web site. And that web site, which, about which I can say more later, carried all kinds of information about what we were doing and provided people with research opportunities and so forth. And as I understand it, we’ve had, you know, hits, up to close to 100,000 hits from all over the world in the last year. Which is I think saying something.
PORTER: On the lecture series, the sort of the keystone here, the centerpiece of this, you mentioned Elie Wiesel and Desmond Tutu. Give us some other highlights. Who are the people that you’ve been most impressed by that have come through during this lecture series?
WESTON: I’ve been impressed by all of them. It’s hard to pick one. Elie Wiesel was outstanding because he spoke from the heart and he spoke in a manner to the audience that made them feel that he was carrying on a dialogue with them. It wasn’t just an ordinary speech. He’s a very gifted communicator.
But I’ve been impressed by many of the other people who’ve come through. We had the former, recent past President of the American Bar Association Jerry Shistak??, was here, gave an excellent speech that engaged people very significantly. We had Hillary Charlesworth from the Australia National University talking about women and human rights, who spoke eloquently albeit with an Australian accent. And that certainly captivated the attention of a lot of people and of course women on campus. It’s hard to say. I really don’t’ know that I can say that there was one more outstanding than the other with the possible exception of Elie Wiesel who was just truly magnificent.
PORTER: Is there some element of this, some part of this that will go on beyond this one-year event?
WESTON: Well, I’m glad you asked that question because the answer is I hope yes. One thing that definitely will go on is that the web site that we have for this is going to be made into a permanent human rights web site for the University that will be integrated into part of our Global Studies program. We’re also, there’s also an initiative afoot to try to create a human rights center on campus that among other things would provide for collaborative research, would host speakers and panels and discussions. But also would be quite literally a refuge for intellectuals from countries that are war-torn and where there have been serious human rights violations, to come and reconstitute their lives in much the same manner that many Jewish intellectuals during and after World War II came to this country as a result of the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany and elsewhere.
PORTER: We mentioned earlier that the Midwest Human Rights Coalition gave this award to your organization and to three other ones. Any comment about that, about the Human Rights Coalition or about the process of getting that award.
WESTON: Well, I was one of the co-founders of the Midwest Coalition for Human Rights. And then to discover that a group of my peers thinks well enough of what we’ve done here to give us an award was very, very satisfying indeed. Of course, I don’t see this as an award to me personally. It wasn’t that. It was an award to the Global Focus: Human Rights ’98 initiative that I’ve been sort of in charge of. But it’s nice to have that kind of recognition from the outside because sometimes you begin to wonder whether you’re really reaching people in the way you like to, and this is certainly a demonstration that we were making some impact beyond our own borders here.
PORTER: That is Professor Burns Weston. He’s Chair of the Global Focus: Human Rights ’98 at The University of Iowa. Our other guests, all winners of the Midwest Human Rights Heroes Award, were Gail Bohr of the Children’s Law Center, Garth Meintjes of the Northwest Coalition to Abolish Control Unit Prisons, and Maricela Garcia, of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. Special thanks to Professor Barb Frey, one of the founders of the Midwest Coalition for Human Rights. For Common Ground, I’m Keith Porter.
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