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In the second of two AIPR blog posts commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, Michelle Eberhard shares insights drawn from a recent University of Minnesota conference on this tragedy’s lessons. Ms. Eberhard is a former AIPR intern who completed in December 2013 a M.A. in Human Rights Studies, with a concentration in genocide, from Columbia University. You can read her previous AIPR blog posts by clicking here.


rwanda-conference1Commemorations, Voices of Rwanda founder Taylor Krauss explained, represent a “deliberate confrontation with history.” They are an opportunity to experience an event through the eyes of the victim, to enable the voiceless to speak, and to stop the completion of the cycle of genocide by refusing to allow the present to “erase the trace of the past.”

Speaking at a University of Minnesota Institute for Global Studies conference, “Genocide and its Aftermaths: Lessons from Rwanda,” Krauss accompanied his opening address with excerpts from filmed interviews with three Rwandan rescapés who survived the genocide in 1994. Each of these individuals shared stories of fear, the loss of loved ones, and a personal journey of how they, as Krauss put it, “prevent forgetting.”

The importance of remembering was a reoccurring theme at the conference, which was held on April 16, 2014, and included panels on representation and long-term implications of the genocide in Rwanda that left upwards of 800,000 individuals dead in the span of roughly 100 days. The conference also provided an opportunity to consider not only the ramifications of this crisis in the context of contemporary conflicts like Syria and the Central African Republic, but also what the true legacy of Rwanda’s story might be.

Memory as a Political Tool

Several speakers, including Eric Schwartz and David Lippmann, Deans of the University of Minnesota’s Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs and the University of Minnesota Law School, respectively, focused on the political context of the genocide in Rwanda.

While Schwartz reasoned that “examining what we didn’t do in the past can only enhance what we do in the future,” Wippman argued that “those who remember history are condemned to mess it up.” Wippman supplemented his quip with examples of how the legacies of Vietnam and Somalia, as well as the progression from the Weinberger and Powell Doctrines to Presidential Decision Directive 25, made American action in Rwanda in 1994 conceptually unrealistic.

Wippman also shared his personal experience in the National Security Council, when he was tasked with completing research for then-President Bill Clinton, who had read a piece by Philip Gourevitch on Rwanda and jotted “is this true?” in its margins.

Though somewhat absurd now given the enormous amount of documentation that exists on the Rwandan genocide, how often do questions of this skeptical nature nonetheless continue to hamper efforts to prioritize and appropriately respond to similar crises twenty years later?

Weighing the Impact of Humanitarian and Human Rights Organizations

Another perspective that added an important dimension to the conference’s scope came from Executive Director of The Center for Victims of Torture, Curt Goering, who spoke of his experience as a staff member at Amnesty International during the Rwandan genocide. Goering expertly synthesized the transformation his organization was faced with at the time, as patterns of human rights violations shifted towards an increase in extrajudicial and mass killings, and away from large numbers of prisoners of conscience. He also noted new challenges such as the difficulty of operating in insecure environments and addressing violations committed by individuals who actually carry out peacekeeping missions.

From an operational view, Goering emphasized that Amnesty was completely underprepared to handle a crisis like the genocide. With deteriorating situations, policy restraints, and a dearth of crisis researchers due to “insufficient flexibility to shift around resources,” organizations like Amnesty were often reduced to monitoring a crisis and providing recommendations. As such, Goering concluded, the impact of humanitarian organizations was simply “not much.” But, he also cautioned against believing that the existence of appropriate mandates and policies would have “made the difference” in Rwanda.

What Justice, Whose Memory, and How?

rwanda3Of course, the task of remembering what transpired in Rwanda must certainly extend beyond a discussion of consequences for political and humanitarian actors and institutions. Indeed, issues of post-genocide justice and memory are also imperative in the aftermath of atrocity.

Speaking in his capacity as both the current Director of the University of North Dakota Center for Human Rights and Genocide Studies, and as a former Legal Officer at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), Gregory Gordon explained the impact that the ICTR has had on rebuilding Rwandan society. Noting at the outset that “it’s not a zero-sum game” and that all components matter, Gordon countered several common arguments against the work of the ICTR by highlighting what it has contributed to Rwanda’s healing process and international justice more broadly, including the precedents the Tribunal has set on genocide, hate speech, and rape and sexual violence as a component of genocide.

Yet, as those familiar with the Rwandan genocide know, a majority of justice initiatives have occurred at the local level through the implementation of gacaca courts. Drawing heavily on their recently completed fieldwork in Rwanda, Distinguished McKnight Professor of Sociology at the University of Minnesota Chris Uggen, and University of Minnesota Ph.D. Candidate in Sociology Hollie Nyseth Brehm, explained the parallels between gacaca and restorative justice.

In particular, Uggen and Nyseth Brehm identified a handful of “dualisms” in gacaca: its formal yet informal nature; the involvement of the Rwandan government, despite the courts’ operation within the local community; the mixture of traditional procedures with contemporary cases it is meant to adjudicate; as well as its combination of punitive and restorative punishments. The pair also emphasized that much more time must pass before definitive conclusions on the impact of gacaca and other justice measures in Rwanda can be fully drawn.

The most pressing matter, of course, is whether the justice prescribed has been an appropriate antidote to the poison of the genocide’s aftermath. For Dan Wildeson, Professor of Communication Studies at St. Cloud State University and Director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Education, evaluating this question necessitates a consideration of the twin issues of birth and perspective.

Simply put, while children inherit their DNA from their family, Wildeson explained, they do not also inherit their culture, stories, or family legacy from some biological origin. Perhaps, then, we need a “tectonic shift,” he reasoned – a shift in the narrative of the world we pass on to our children. This shift is naturally tied to the second issue, as contesting any narrative demands that one consider the world from another’s point of view.

Similarly, the various manners in which Rwandans choose to remember what happened during the genocide were discussed. Nicole Fox, a Ph.D. Candidate in Sociology at Brandeis University, noted that while memorials were initially viewed as an opportunity to bury the dead that lay scattered throughout the streets of the country, these spaces eventually transformed into places for survivors to grieve, thus providing a dual purpose at both the macro and micro levels.

However, the challenges for memorials are real, as it is their creators who decide what stories each space will tell – sometimes at the detriment of marginalizing particular victim groups, like those in Rwanda who experienced gender-based violence. The implication of this selectivity is that such spaces inevitably become “organizers of memory and organizers of trauma,” which in turn, have the dichotomous opportunity to either empower or stratify communities.

What Legacy?

rwanda4Repeated throughout the conference were references to Rwanda’s “unbelievable” transformation in the past twenty years, particularly in terms of economic growth. But should we truly be so astonished by Rwanda’s progress? Is Rwanda not proof of what can be done when the world responds to a problem by identifying and implementing a focused solution? If we were to be astonished by anything in the past twenty years, then, it would seem more appropriate that we become struck by the moments of opportunity we have neglected to undertake elsewhere, knowing the impact that such commitment is capable of producing.

The legacy of Rwanda, then, must not simply be the chance it provides to reexamine our strategies for handling conflict. Though the world’s response (or lack thereof) in 1994 will forever remain one of the darkest moments of modern history, Rwanda today is an example of the alternative to cynicism, to apathy, to a foregone conclusion that there is no way to influence the outcome of a problem not uniquely our own.

As Fox stated in reference to the power of memorials, “the evidence shapes the stories.” Perhaps now the evidence of Rwanda can be the hope its transformation provides for current and future decisions regarding imminent atrocity situations. Perhaps now we can “prevent forgetting” our own power to create a world different from the one in which we live today.

If we could remember that capability, just imagine the legacy for which we might someday be remembered.

“Genocide and its Aftermath: Lessons from Rwanda” was co-sponsored by several departments, boards, and associations at the University of Minnesota, including the Center for Victims of Torture, the Advocates for Human Rights, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas, St. Cloud State’s Center for Holocaust and Genocide Education, World Without Genocide, Global Solutions Minnesota, and the Minnesota International Center. A list of all conference speakers is available here. Rwanda photo credits: Adam Jones, Ph.D.

Bridging the Gap Between Words and Action: The Latin American Network for Genocide and Mass Atrocity Prevention

By: Chris Kousouros, Latin American Network for Genocide and Mass Atrocity Prevention Program Coordinator

RedIf working on the political side of genocide prevention has taught me anything, it’s that there is an immense amount of awe-inspiring ideas conceived and bravely put forth every day. Often the only thing more impressive than an idea itself is the distance that exists between its initial utterance and its realization, even in its most basic form. This distance has claimed the lives of so many wonderful ideas.

So how does one successfully begin a regional network of governments focused expressly on the implementation of public policies and mandatory training for public officials on genocide and mass atrocity prevention? It started with a good idea—backed up by commitment and action.

We had just completed our intensive six-day Raphael Lemkin Seminar for Genocide and Mass Atrocity Prevention in Auschwitz, but officials from Argentina, Chile, Panama, and Brazil wanted to take prevention one step further.

The Lemkin Seminar consists of six days of training in the Auschwitz Concentration Camp, where all participants—typically mid-to-high-level government employees from all over the world—have the opportunity to listen to and interact with some of the leading voices in genocide and mass atrocity prevention. The seminar addresses prevention from all angles: from the history of the term genocide, to specific case studies, to a theoretical analysis of R2P, to a psychological analysis of perpetrators. You name it, they learn about it. Our aim at the Auschwitz Institute is to create a community of mid-level government workers around the world who have the know-how to react appropriately to warning signs in their own countries or abroad, and to take the necessary steps towards prevention.

Not bad, right? Well apparently the participants from Argentina, Chile, Brazil, and Panama wanted more. Their vision was to create a regional network of governments focused expressly on the implementation of public policies and mandatory training for public officials on genocide and mass atrocity prevention. The idea was that if a network was created with the goal of pooling resources, expertise, and political will to create a regional network of genocide prevention sensitive states, and not just individuals, the output could become greater than the sum of its parts.

But how to bridge the gap between such a lofty idea and reality?

First, officials from the four countries mapped out what the Latin American Network for Genocide and Mass Atrocities (the Network) would look like. They took the idea of our weeklong training seminar and figured out how to amplify its reach by developing a Latin American version of our training curriculum that would not just be offered to a handful of government officials a year, but would be implemented as mandatory training in each participating Ministry. The Network would utilize our training seminars bi-annually to develop a Latin American version of this curriculum. At the same time, the people who would attend these training seminars over the next three years (set to finish at the end of 2015) will then, in turn, pave the way for instructors who administer the curriculum in their home countries. This takes the old proverb of teaching a man to fish to the next level. Our global seminar reaches 20-25 people twice a year, but they found a way to spread this education to an entire region, making it self-sustaining at the same time. Kudos to you, Latin America.

But once again, this is only a great idea, now what? A Network like this would require a regional commitment the likes of which has never been seen, ever. But how does such a commitment take shape? Surely all 18 of the Latin American member states wouldn’t wake up one morning and decide to dedicate funding and personnel to prioritize genocide prevention in their national and regional agendas. No, surely not.

To gather the proper momentum and support, we needed the right time, place, partners, and audience for the announcement of the Network. Here’s how it went down:

Time: late March 2012. In the political context of the Arab Spring, most notably the ongoing debate on the implications for R2P (a major tool of prevention) after the Libya intervention, and only weeks after the formal indictment of Efraín Ríos Montt for genocide and crimes against humanity, signaling what could be a major step in norms of transitional justice (also a major tool of prevention).

Place: Buenos Aires, Argentina. Argentina, a founding member and a driving force in the creation of the Network, is also a global and regional leader in the implementation of processes of transitional justice following the Dirty War, not to mention one of the more influential countries in Latin America both economically and politically.

Announcers: The launching of the Network was announced by representatives of the Argentinean Foreign Ministry, as well as the Secretariats of Human Rights in Brazil, with the Auschwitz Institute and the Office of the Special Advisor to the Secretary General for the Prevention of Genocide and the Responsibility to Protect serving as advisors and acting supporters. The idea was that if representatives from two of Latin America’s most politically influential powerhouses, backed by a reputable international NGO and the United Nations say that the Network is being created, representatives from the other countries would, at the very least, listen.

Audience: Latin Americans. More specifically, representatives from the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Defense, Justice, and Offices of the Ombudsmen from 18 Latin American countries. Why? Latin America is seen internationally as a leader in post conflict reconstruction and transitional justice, and is comprised of democratic states bearing the scars of past atrocities, in many cases assisted by the US during the Cold War. The founding members of the Network believed that the political will exists in this region to take the lead on genocide and mass atrocity prevention, and the initiative would be seen as internationally legitimate (not driven and/or controlled by the North), because some of the most ardent opponents of neo-colonialism are active members of the Network.

And they were right.

Today, after only 17 months since its inception, the Network has seen the successful completion of its first training seminar in Auschwitz, which was kicked off by words of wisdom from Mr. Adama Dieng, Special Advisor to the Secretary General on the Prevention of Genocide. “The achievements of the Latin American Network, after barely 15 months of existence, are already resonating worldwide,” said Dieng.

The Network currently has 11 national initiatives fully functioning, ranging from regional high-level briefings on the Network and genocide prevention, to mini-training seminars for entire governments, peace-keeping troops, national police, and diplomatic academies on genocide and mass atrocity prevention, as well as managing relations between governments and their indigenous populations. Two national mechanisms for genocide prevention have been created within the governments of Argentina and Paraguay, which act as a structural base upon which the goals of the Network are managed by the entire government and civil society, and not just an individual focal point.

What’s more, the Network has since become an example to follow throughout the world, as shown by the recently created African Network for Genocide and Mass Atrocity Prevention, modeled after its Latin American counterpart. The Latin American Network is referenced constantly by high level UN and government officials as an example of regional cooperation in mass atrocity prevention, and was recently included in the UN Secretary General Report, The Responsibility to Protect: State Responsibility and Prevention.

And this just the beginning—there is much work to be done. But through the Network, Latin America has provided a clear example of how, with the right amount of political will and determination, one can indeed bridge that seemingly insurmountable distance that exists in international politics between lofty words and effective action.

The conclusion in a series by Marissa Goldfaden as she works her way through “Introduction to minority rights, regional human rights mechanisms, and minority rights advocacy,” a new online course offered to the public free of charge by Minority Rights Group International. The course’s stated objectives are to introduce concepts of minority rights and discrimination, develop awareness and understanding of international and regional mechanisms for minority rights, and improve practical skills in lobbying and advocacy.


Topic 11: Guide to advocacy campaigns, Part 2
Section 1: Identifying target audiences

The target audiences of an advocacy campaign can be (individually or a combination of):

a. Community leaders
b. Representatives of other communities
c. Local governmentd. Non-governmental organizations

e. Authorities – such as the police

f. National government, including specific ministries

g. Parliament

h. Other countries’ governments

i. Regional bodies, such as the African Union

j. United Nations

Primary targets are the people who have the power to make the desired changes.
Secondary targets are the people who have influence on the primary targets.
Once a target audience has been chosen, the next step is to craft the messages and consider the ways in which they should be conveyed. It is important to consider what message(s) may convince the target the most, and are most likely to result in them taking action.There are three bases for minority rights messages:

  1. Legal – the country’s laws as well as international law, especially treaties that the country has ratified. Governments that respect the rule of law will listen. Others may say that international human rights standards are just ‘a Western construct’.
  • Moral – even if the government does not follow international standards, it may wish to do (or be seen to do) the right thing. There may be powerful arguments based on religious practice or tradition that may work.
  • Practical – finally, there may be very pragmatic reasons for the government to improve its record. Minority rights prevent conflict and promote stability, for example.

It is imperative to formulate a strategy to impart the campaign’s messages. An advocacy strategy should set out:

  1. The SMART goals & sub-goals (as discussed in the previous topic)
  2. An activity plan
  3. Timeline
  4. Budget

Monitoring is defined as the regular collection and analysis of information to follow the progress of a campaign’s implementation. Evaluation, which is the analysis of the effects of the campaign to assess whether it has achieved its stated goals within the given time and budget, occurs at the end of or after an advocacy campaign.


Part 12 in a series by Marissa Goldfaden as she works her way through “Introduction to minority rights, regional human rights mechanisms, and minority rights advocacy,” a new online course offered to the public free of charge by Minority Rights Group International. The course’s stated objectives are to introduce concepts of minority rights and discrimination, develop awareness and understanding of international and regional mechanisms for minority rights, and improve practical skills in lobbying and advocacy.


This is the first of two topics explaining how to carry out advocacy campaigns. The first topic introduces advocacy. It shows how to identify problems that need to be addressed through advocacy, and how to set goals for a campaign.

Topic 10: Guide to advocacy campaigns, Part 1
Section 1: What is advocacy?

Advocacy is defined as the process of changing, or trying to change or influence, laws, policies or practices.

Advocacy involves the following nine steps:

  1. Identifying the problem.
  2. Understanding one’s own organization.
  3. Understanding the environment.
  4. Devising goals.
  5. Identifying target audiences.
  6. Creating the messages.
  7. Creating the strategy.
  8. Carrying out the strategy.
  9. Measuring the outcome.

Section 2: Analysis of the problem

It is important for activists or NGOs to first understand the problem to be addressed through advocacy. Notes MRG, “At this stage, it is very important to involve the minority or indigenous community: Activists should listen to the human rights issues that community members raise and what their priorities are.”

Some considerations in understanding the nature of the problem

  • Extent of problem
  • Social attitudes
  • Level of awareness
  • Access to justice
  • Legal framework
  • Gender

Section 3: Analysis of the environment – internal and external

Having identified the problem that needs addressing through advocacy, activists and NGOs must next understand the environment in which they are going to be working. This process involves analyzing both the NGO for which the activist works, and the general situation.

Internal (i.e. organizational) analysis

This element contains two main points.

1. Mandate

What can the activist’s organization work on, and what is it not allowed to work on?

The answers to these questions will depend on:

  • The organization’s charter or constitution, if it has one
  • The organization’s board and its decisions
  • National legislation and government regulations

2. Resources, both financial and human

It will be important to establish the following:

  • What are the organization’s strengths and weaknesses?
  • Is the organization too small to carry out a large-scale campaign?
  • What is the organization’s capacity for given areas of work?

When looking at the external environment, it is important to identify the following four groups of people: stakeholders, supporters, potential allies, and obstacles.

1. Stakeholders

Stakeholders are those persons who have an interest in the advocacy campaign. They can be directly involved and/or affected by it. They may also influence the campaign and its outcomes. A clear group of stakeholders when advocating on behalf of minority rights are the members of a minority community themselves.

2. Supporters

Supporters are people who are not stakeholders but are in favor of the work. They may include members of other communities or the majority who favor the outcome being sought. Supporters may also be drawn if the campaign seeks a change in the law that will benefit another community too.

3. Allies

Allies are supporters who can influence the outcome, such as university professors, journalists, politicians, and government officials.

4. Obstacles

Obstacles are those people who will work against the campaign.

Section 4: Setting ‘SMART’ goals

Having analyzed the environment, the next step in an advocacy campaign is to choose its goals. A useful tool for identifying appropriate goals is SMART, an acronym for the following words:

Specific – it is important to be as precise as possible when identifying a goal(s).

Measurable – there must be a way of identifying how the goal has been achieved or how advancement has been made towards it.

Agreed upon – consultation is conducted with stakeholders and everyone is agreed that these goals are important.

Realistic – depending on the organization’s resources and the situation in the country, the goals should be achievable.

Time-bound – a deadline for the strategy is required.

Outputs are the activities that you do, while outcomes are the achievements that you make. Sub-goals can also be incorporated as a way of measuring success.


Part 11 in a series by Marissa Goldfaden as she works her way through “Introduction to minority rights, regional human rights mechanisms, and minority rights advocacy,” a new online course offered to the public free of charge by Minority Rights Group International. The course’s stated objectives are to introduce concepts of minority rights and discrimination, develop awareness and understanding of international and regional mechanisms for minority rights, and improve practical skills in lobbying and advocacy.

gender equalityBy MARISSA GOLDFADEN

Topic 9: Thematic focus: Multiple forms of discrimination
Section 1: Key concepts

Sex and gender defined

Sex refers to biological difference between men and women.

Gender refers to socially constructed roles, behavior, or activities that are considered appropriate for men and women.

There is little variation in aspects of sex between different human societies. However, gender roles may vary greatly. Because gender differences are based on societal attitudes of what is considered appropriate for men and women, they can and do change over time.

Section 2: Identifying discrimination on more than one ground

Discrimination: Expanding the concept

As we learned in Topic 1, direct discrimination means less favorable or detrimental treatment accorded to an individual, or group of individuals, due to their possession of one or more specific characteristics. International law specifies those protected characteristics as: race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Intersectional discrimination occurs when two or more layers of discrimination act together to double or triple the disadvantage experienced by the individual.

Section 3: Focus on minority women

The concept of gender affects both men and women. However, intersectional discrimination on the grounds of both gender and minority status frequently affects and disadvantages minority women in a different way than men. Members of minorities frequently face threats and increased discrimination from the majority when they try to defend their rights. A dominant majority usually has an interest in keeping the situation the same. When minority women assert their rights, the backlash may have a gender dimension – often sexual violence.


It is important to remember:

  • Minority women may face particular discrimination or violence because they are both members of a minority group and women.
  • No culture is homogenous.
  • All cultures are constantly adapting and changing.
  • Minority women have the same rights as other women.

Section 4: Balancing cultural rights with the individual rights of minority women

Protection of identity and restrictions

Culture and gender

For many communities, women and girls are the custodians of cultural identity. Often, cultural practices of men will change, whereas the cultural practices of women are maintained. This is one reason why, when there are tensions between the rights of a minority to protect their cultural identity and the rights of individual members of the minority, frequently, the tensions relate to cultural practices of women or those that affect women.

Cultural identity of minorities: A limited right

Writes MRG, “Members of minorities have the right to protect and promote their identity. However, this right is not unlimited. The UN Declaration on Minorities permits states to restrict cultural practices ‘where specific practices are in violation of national law and contrary to international standards’.

States may not enact laws to restrict any practice they choose, because this would make the right to protection of cultural identity meaningless. Prohibitions on cultural practices must be based on reasonable and objective grounds. States should prohibit practices that violate other human rights standards.”

International standards

International law sets out principles to which restrictions on cultural practices, including religious practices, must adhere if they are legitimate:

  • Restrictions must not be discriminatory.
  • Restrictions must be necessary to protect one of the following:
    • public safety
    • public order
    • public health, or morals
    • the fundamental rights and freedoms of others
  • The restrictions should be the minimum necessary to meet the aim for which they have been employed.

Undue influence is a legal term defining a situation whereby one person improperly exerts influence over another to act in a certain way.


The right to identity is not unlimited, and there are legitimate restrictions that governments can make on minority cultural practices. However:

  • Restrictions must not discriminate (directly or indirectly), and must conform to international standards.
  • Cooperation with affected communities is important in ensuring that already marginalized groups do not perceive restrictions to be attacks against them.
  • The opinions of diverse sections of minorities are important, since there are likely to be different views on cultural practices and restrictions within the community.


Part 10 in a series by Marissa Goldfaden as she works her way through “Introduction to minority rights, regional human rights mechanisms, and minority rights advocacy,” a new online course offered to the public free of charge by Minority Rights Group International. The course’s stated objectives are to introduce concepts of minority rights and discrimination, develop awareness and understanding of international and regional mechanisms for minority rights, and improve practical skills in lobbying and advocacy.


Topic 8: Taking up individual cases

MRG defines strategic litigation as an advocacy technique used to achieve legal, political, and social change via the judiciary. The goal of strategic litigation is to set precedents that have a broad impact beyond the individual case.

Minority rights activists can use strategic litigation to:

  • Challenge laws or policies that violate constitutional protections or human rights, and ensure that laws are interpreted and applied properly
  • Expose injustice and provide redress for victims
  • Educate the judiciary and legal community about human rights, and expose institutionalized prejudice
  • Promote government accountability by making the international community aware of a government’s actions
  • Raise public awareness and encourage public discussion about minority rights

According to MRG, a good strategic litigation case will involve a legal issue that relates to a broader social problem, so that the precedent set by the case can be used to win other cases with different facts. A precedent is a legal decision that can be used as a standard in future similar cases. Before starting a case, all potential applicants must be carefully evaluated.

Characteristics of a good applicant

  1. They must not only have strong claims, they also must be strong individuals willing to endure the scrutiny of the opponent, the court, media, and general public.
  2. Strategic litigation cases take a long time to work their way through the domestic and international legal systems. The applicant must understand that it may be years before the case is finished.
  3. Applicants should be articulate and credible, and their stories should elicit sympathy.
  4. They must understand that the case is designed to achieve a significant impact beyond their individual claim, and be willing to take a back seat to the lawyers and organizations bringing the case.

Since courts use previously decided cases in order to determine the outcome of the current case, it is helpful to have rulings from courts in the same country, other comparative jurisdictions, or international courts that support the case. The more similar the facts of the prior cases are to those of the current case, the more helpful the cases will be.

Before filing a case, it is important to gather and assess all the evidence that supports its claims. Witnesses, defined as people who saw the alleged violation or were otherwise involved in the events in the case and can testify in court about their experiences and knowledge, should be contacted and interviewed well in advance of the court case. Expert witnesses, defined as people with specialized knowledge about a particular field, such as university professors, scientists, and doctors, who can provide their opinion about the case to the court, may also be hired. When bringing a case, it is important to find a lawyer who is committed to the cause and knowledgeable about strategic litigation and the law relating to the claims.

International mechanisms can only hear cases over which they have jurisdiction (the right, power or authority to interpret and apply the law) and which meet their admissibility requirements. Anyone who believes their rights have been violated can apply to have their case heard before an international mechanism. However, the right that the victim claims has been violated must be protected by the treaty in accordance with which the mechanism operates, and the respondent state must be a party to that treaty.

Before a case can be brought, all domestic remedies must be exhausted. This means using all the procedures available to a person in their own country to seek protection of their rights or to seek justice in respect of a past violation of their rights. These procedures include taking a case to court or making a complaint to the police. One must submit their case to the international mechanism soon after exhausting local remedies.

The international mechanism will require submitting an initial document explaining the case and why the mechanism can hear it.

a) One must show that the case meets the mechanism’s admissibility requirements by detailing the facts of the violation and noting which provisions of the relevant treaty are applicable.b) It may also be helpful to cite pertinent case law and to provide evidence of the violation and one’s attempts to exhaust domestic remedies.c) One will also need to verify that their case has not already been decided by, or is currently pending before, another international mechanism.

Five UN human rights treaty bodies have a mandate to consider individual complaints:

  1. Human Rights Committee, for alleged violations of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)
  2. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, for alleged violations of the International Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW)
  3. Committee Against Torture, for alleged violations of the Convention Against Torture (CAT)
  4. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, for alleged violations of the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (ICERD)
  5. Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, for alleged violations of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD)

An individual whose rights under the relevant treaty have been violated by a state that is party to the treaty can file a complaint with a UN treaty body, so long as the state has recognized the competence of the committee to hear complaints. Third parties may complain on behalf of other individuals provided they obtain written consent.

The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) hears cases concerning alleged violations of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). Any individual or organization can bring a case against a state that is party to the ECHR alleging that the state has violated his or her rights under the Convention. The individual or organization need not be a citizen of one of the states party to the Convention, but the violation must have occurred within the jurisdiction of a state that is party to the Convention.

The African Commission on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR) hears cases concerning alleged violations of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. Any individual or organization can bring a case against a state that is party to the African Charter alleging that the state has violated his or her rights under the Charter. Third parties can bring cases on behalf of others.


Part 9 in a series by Marissa Goldfaden as she works her way through “Introduction to minority rights, regional human rights mechanisms, and minority rights advocacy,” a new online course offered to the public free of charge by Minority Rights Group International. The course’s stated objectives are to introduce concepts of minority rights and discrimination, develop awareness and understanding of international and regional mechanisms for minority rights, and improve practical skills in lobbying and advocacy.


Topic 7: Participation in international meetings

NGOs can participate in some UN bodies without any special registration, including the most relevant body for minorities – the UN Forum on Minority Issues. NGOs attending meetings of the Human Rights Council, including the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), must have consultative status with the UN Economic and Social Council, called ECOSOC status. According to MRG, “Minority NGOs have reported that obtaining ECOSOC status, although difficult, has resulted in them being taken more seriously by their Government and by international actors, and sometimes has had a positive impact on their ability to access donor funds.”

Any NGO can submit information to the treaty bodies and attend treaty body meetings to lobby committee members. They are only required to inform the secretariat in advance to arrange accreditation. Any NGO can submit information to special procedures and meet with mandate holders without ECOSOC status. Any NGO can submit information to the UPR. Attending the review in person requires a special registration; however, the debates can also be watched on the UN webcast.

Access to regional bodies


  • The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) grants observer status to NGOs, for which there is an application process.
    NGOs without observer status may attend meetings of the ACHPR but they are not allowed to speak. NGOs with observer status sometimes allow other NGOs to make statements under their name.


  • The Human Dimension Implementation Meeting of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) is Europe’s largest human rights conference. NGOs from OSCE member states can participate in the meetings. There is an online registration process where NGOs need to provide some details about their work. 


  • The Association of Southeast Asian Nationas (ASEAN) has arrangements for granting affiliation to NGOs; however few, if any, NGOs working on human rights have this affiliation.
  • There is no arrangement for NGO participation in the Summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). However, some organizations have received official recognition by the Association.

Many states are especially sensitive about minority issues. As such, minority NGOs need to understand the political realities of international bodies so that they can develop strategies to advance their issues despite the difficulties that can be encountered. At most international meetings, formalities such as formal language, protocol for speaking, and time-keeping take place.

It is important for NGOs to devise strategy that links their work at home with the setting of an international meeting. The opportunities available at these meetings generally fall under four categories:

  • Dialogue with the government
  • Media relations
  • Networking
  • Structural or institutional issues

Writes MRG, “Minority rights is frequently a marginalized issue at the international level. Many states are either indifferent or hostile to efforts to improve minority protection.

It is therefore important that minority NGOs attending international meetings are visible, to remind states of the importance of the issue. This can be done by:

  • Making statements highlighting minority concerns under different agenda items and not only under the item specifically dealing with minorities
  • Speaking to a range of different government representatives about the importance of addressing minority rights (It may be easier to speak to representatives from neighbouring countries or the region)
  • Updating MRG and other NGOs working on minority issues about the discussions that have been had to help improve overall strategy on minority rights internationally.”

In summation, planning a strategy before attending an international meeting is very important. NGOs cannot expect attendance alone to have an impact. NGOs need to take advantage of all available opportunities. These opportunities include meeting your government representative to discuss issues, meeting representatives from other governments, publicizing your issues through the international media, networking with other NGOs, and meeting with other potentially useful contacts such as UN staff. Minority issues are frequently ignored or marginalized at the international level. This means it is important for minority NGOs to participate fully and remind states of the importance of addressing minority concerns. Taking time to get involved with institutional issues such as establishment or renewal of human rights mandates may lead to new or improved opportunities in the future.


Part 8 in a series by Marissa Goldfaden as she works her way through “Introduction to minority rights, regional human rights mechanisms, and minority rights advocacy,a new online course offered to the public free of charge by Minority Rights Group International. The course’s stated objectives are to introduce concepts of minority rights and discrimination, develop awareness and understanding of international and regional mechanisms for minority rights, and improve practical skills in lobbying and advocacy.


This topic analyzes the reporting obligations of state parties to the core international human rights treaties, and the NGO’s role at all stages of the reporting process.

Section 1: Overview of state reporting obligations

In all the monitoring systems discussed to date, state parties are obliged to submit reports to the relevant body (Committees in the case of treaty bodies; the Human Rights Council for the Universal Periodic Review; the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights for the Africa regional system; and the Advisory Committee for the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities in the case of Europe).

The aim of the report is to explain how the appropriate provisions and rights are being implemented by the state party, and to set out the legal, administrative, and judicial measures taken by the state party to implement their international obligations. Reports also: compel state parties to comprehensively review the measures they have taken to implement human rights obligations; make state parties monitor their own progress in upholding their obligations; help identify problems and shortcomings; lead to the analysis of future needs and the setting up of relevant goals for a more effective implementation; and lead to the development of appropriate policies to achieve these goals.

The reporting pattern is generally the same for each mechanism:

State presentation and questioning (only relevant to UN treaty bodies and African and European regional mechanisms)


  • In examining state reports, the monitoring bodies undertake an important role in terms of advising states on how to improve compliance with the international standards to which they have subscribed.
  • The monitoring bodies are not tribunals, and the Concluding Observations are not legally binding and cannot be enforced. The Conventions, however, are binding, and states often accept advice from monitoring bodies.


  • The state report is the main document used by the committees. Governments often submit idealized descriptions of the human rights situation in their countries by avoiding disclosing problems and shortcomings.
  • To assess the accuracy of state reports, committee members can consider information from other sources.

NGOs play a strategically important role before, during, and after the monitoring process in the following ways:

  • Pressure: Reporting on time can prove to be a challenge for some state parties. NGOs play a key role in pressuring governments to submit overdue reports.
  • Consultation: NGOs can sometimes be consulted in the drafting of the state report.
  • Shadow reports: If a government is not interested in consulting NGOs, or it has not included the issues the NGOs raised, NGOs can submit written information directly to the committee in the form of a ‘shadow report’ (also referred to as ‘parallel report’ or ‘alternative report’).

Prior to the session

  • List of issues: Some UN treaty bodies prepare a ‘list of issues’ on the basis of the state party report and other information. This list is usually compiled at a session of the committee six to 12 months before the      state report will be examined. This list contains committee’s concerns and questions for the state party.
  • Information for members of monitoring bodies: The secretariat of the monitoring body compiles all documents related to the country under examination (including shadow reports from NGOs) for the members of the body to read.

During the session

  • Lobbying: NGOs can hold informal discussions with individual expert members of monitoring bodies.
  • Briefings: It is possible for NGOs to provide informal briefings to expert members of monitoring bodies. These meetings provide NGOs with the opportunity to explain issues, update members, and answer questions.

NGOs can submit information to the committees alone or as part of a coalition of NGOs.

Once a monitoring body has considered a state party report, it adopts the ‘Concluding Observations’. They are made public and can be found on the website of the relevant monitoring body.

  • Concluding Observations reflect the monitoring body’s position on the implementation of treaty provisions.
  • They refer to positive aspects on the implementation of provisions but also identify areas where further action is needed.
  • They therefore contain recommendations on the further implementation of the treaty by the state party.

Recommendations are not legally binding and cannot be enforced.


Part 7 in a series by Marissa Goldfaden as she works her way through “Introduction to minority rights, regional human rights mechanisms, and minority rights advocacy,” a new online course offered to the public free of charge by Minority Rights Group International. The course’s stated objectives are to introduce concepts of minority rights and discrimination, develop awareness and understanding of international and regional mechanisms for minority rights, and improve practical skills in lobbying and advocacy.


European human rights mechanisms

The Council of Europe, made up of 47 member states, was founded in 1949 with the aim of achieving greater unity in Europe. It passes conventions and charters that recommend actions that its members should take. In some important areas, principally human rights, the Council has legal jurisdiction.

The Council has drafted and ratified a number of important instruments for the protection of human rights and minority rights:

The Council is responsible for the institutions and monitoring committees that work to ensure state compliance with the following legal instruments:

Institution/Committee Role
European Court of Human Rights Rules on individual or state applications alleging violations of the rights set out in the European Convention on Human Rights. It is the highest European court for human rights and fundamental freedoms (see section 5).
European Committee of Social Rights Judges whether states conform, in law and in practice, with the provisions of the European Social Charter.
Advisory Committee on the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities Evaluates the implementation of the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities. The role of the Committee is to examine state reports on minorities as well as other information, and use that information to monitor the performance of state parties.
Committee of Experts of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages Monitors the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. The Committee evaluates how the Charter is applied by a state party, and, where necessary, makes recommendations for improvements in its legislation, policy and practice.

All Council of Europe member states are party to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), and new members are expected to ratify the Convention at the earliest opportunity.

The ECHR sets out the following fundamental rights and freedoms:

  • right to life
  • prohibition of torture
  • prohibition of slavery and forced labor
  • right to liberty and security
  • right to a fair trial
  • no punishment without law
  • right to respect for private and family life
  • freedom of thought, conscience and religion
  • freedom of expression
  • freedom of assembly and association
  • right to marry
  • right to an effective remedy
  • prohibition of discrimination

The Convention established the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) to ensure its observance. The Court deals with cases brought by individuals against states, as well as inter-state cases. All alleged violations of human rights are referred directly to the Court. The parties to a case must abide by the judgments of the Court and take all necessary measures to comply with them.

The European Social Charter guarantees economic and social rights, such as those pertaining to housing, health, education, employment, legal and social protection, free movement of persons and non-discrimination. The following rights are given particular weight within the Charter document:

  • right to work
  • right to organize
  • right to bargain collectively
  • right to social security
  • right to social and medical assistance
  • right to the social, legal and economic protection of the family
  • right to protection and assistance for migrant workers and their families

The Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities is a legally binding instrument that aims to protect the existence of national minorities within the territories of the parties. It seeks to promote the full and effective equality of national minorities by creating conditions that enable them to preserve and develop their culture and to retain their identity.

The Convention sets out principles relating to national minorities in public life, such as:

  • freedom of peaceful assembly
  • freedom of association
  • freedom of expression
  • freedom of thought, conscience and religion
  • access to the media

as well as in the range of freedoms relating to language and education. MRG notes that Turkey and France have not signed up to the Convention.

The European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages aims to protect and promote the regional or minority languages of Europe. It has 24 signatories. It was adopted to maintain and develop Europe’s cultural traditions and sets out the principles of a) respect for the geographical area of each language and b) the need for promotion, facilitation and/or encouragement of the use of regional or minority languages in speech and writing and in public and private life. The Charter also sets out a number of specific measures to promote the use of regional or minority languages in the fields of education, justice, administrative authorities and public services, media, cultural activities and facilities, economic and social activities, and trans-frontier exchanges.

The ECHR contains one specific reference to minorities in Article 14, which reads:

“The enjoyment of the rights and freedoms set forth in this Convention shall be secured without discrimination on any ground such as sex, race, color, language, religion, political or other option, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, birth or other status.”

Article 14 is subject to an ‘ambit requirement,’ meaning that the circumstances in which it can be applied are limited to the scope of ‘the rights and freedoms set forth in this Convention.’ Therefore, the Article can only be invoked if the situation comes under another Convention right. Protocol 12 to the ECHR extends the guarantee of non-discrimination in Article 14 to ‘any right set forth by law.’

Article 1 of Protocol 12 provides that:

(1) The enjoyment of any right set forth by law shall be secured without discrimination on any ground such as sex, race, color, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, birth or other status (emphasis added)

(2) No one shall be discriminated against by any public authority on any ground such as those mentioned in paragraph 1.

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) was set up in 1973 with the aim of improving relations between Eastern and Western Europe. Today, it has 56 participating states and is concerned with conflict prevention, crisis management, and post-conflict rehabilitation. The post of the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities is designed to identify and seek early resolution of ethnic tensions that might endanger peace, stability, or friendly relations between OSCE participating states. In formulating advice and recommendations, the High Commissioner uses international human rights standards as a basis. All OSCE participating states are also bound by the political commitments related to the protection and promotion of minority rights set out in the 1990 Document of the Copenhagen Meeting of the Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

The Warsaw-based Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) is the specialized institution of the OSCE dealing with elections, human rights, and democratization. Of particular interest is its work on Roma and Sinti issues to promote the full integration of Roma and Sinti groups into the societies in which they live.


Part 6 in a series by Marissa Goldfaden as she works her way through “Introduction to minority rights, regional human rights mechanisms, and minority rights advocacy,” a new online course offered to the public free of charge by Minority Rights Group International. The course’s stated objectives are to introduce concepts of minority rights and discrimination, develop awareness and understanding of international and regional mechanisms for minority rights, and improve practical skills in lobbying and advocacy.


Asian human rights mechanisms

The workings of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)

Founded in 1967, ASEAN is currently comprised of Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. Timor Leste has observer status. The purpose of ASEAN is to boost economic growth, social progress and cultural development in the region; and promote regional peace and stability through respect for justice and the rule of law, and adherence to the principles of the United Nations Charter. In 2007, ASEAN adopted its own charter.

Decision-making within ASEAN

Secretariat Implements policy decisions; draws up ‘plans of action’ in collaboration with Senior Officials
Ministerial meetings Amend and endorse plans of action drawn up by the Secretariat
ASEAN Summit The highest decision-making body: gives final approval to plans of action


In terms of rights, ASEAN Vision 2020 seeks to create an ASEAN Community by 2020 where “all people enjoy equitable access regardless of gender, race, religion, language or social and cultural background; where civil society is empowered and gives special attention to the disadvantaged, disabled and marginalized; where social justice and the rule of law reign.”

The ASEAN Community is composed of three pillars of cooperation:

  1. ASEAN Political-Security Community (APSC)
  2. ASEAN Economic Community (AEC)
  3. ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community (ASCC)

Asia-Pacific does not have a regional system of treaties, courts, commissions or other institutions to protect and promote human rights. As such, the organization has recently established the following three relevant mechanisms:

  • ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR)
    • Though it does not explicitly mention minorities, principle 2.2 of the AICHR’s Terms of Reference underlines respect for non-discrimination.
  • ASEAN Commission on the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Women and Children (ACWC)
  • Committee on the Implementation of the ASEAN Declaration on the Promotion and Protection of Migrant Workers (ACMW)

All ASEAN member states have ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).

ASEAN has also adopted its own declarations relating to women:

  1. Declaration on the Advancement of Women in ASEAN (1988)
  2. Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women in the ASEAN Region (2004) 
  3. ASEAN Declaration Against Trafficking in Persons Particularly Women and Children (2004)

Established in 1985, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC)’s main goal is to jointly promote social and economic development in Asia. Its current member countries are Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, and Afghanistan.

Created in January 2004, the Technical Committee on Women, Youth and Children is concerned with issues such as the trafficking of women and children within and between countries in the region; increasing women’s participation in politics; and women’s health and education. SAARC adopted a regional Convention on Combating the Crime of Trafficking in Women and Children for Prostitution in January 2002.

Established in 2004, the SAARC Social Charter “incorporates a broad range of goals in areas such as poverty eradication, population stabilization, women’s empowerment, promotion of health and nutrition, and child protection. It also requires member states to formulate a National Plan of Action, or modify any existing one, to implement the provisions of the Charter. It calls on states to enact any plan through a transparent and broad-based participatory process.”

The SAARC Charter does not list promotion of human rights as a goal. SAARC has not adopted any human rights convention or charter. It has not agreed to create any regional institution or mechanism to monitor adherence to, and implementation of, the various UN human rights conventions already signed by its member countries.


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