ABA Human Rights Lobby Day: SIL Speaks Out

Vol. 42 No. 4

By

Becky Farrar (rfarrar88@gmail.com) is legislative coordinator for Amnesty International USA and co-chair of the International Human Rights Committee of the ABA Section of International Law.

On June 14, 2013, a small group of ABA members headed to Capitol Hill to lobby their lawmakers about human rights in a first-ever ABA Human Rights Lobby Day. This event, organized by the Section of International Law’s International Human Rights Committee (IHRC), also included social media outreach and online actions for ABA members who couldn’t lobby in person in Washington, D.C. The goal for all was the same: to speak to our members of Congress in the Senate and House of Representatives and ask them to take some specific actions on human rights.

We made three focused requests of members of Congress.

CEDAW, the UN Treaty on Women’s Rights

Since only senators can vote on treaties, senators were asked to support ratification of CEDAW (the UN Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women). This treaty, also known as the “women’s treaty,” has been in effect since 1979. The United States is one of only a handful of nations that have not ratified the treaty. CEDAW provides a nearly universally agreed-upon framework for defining basic human rights for women and girls, including equal access to education, health care, employment, ownership of property, and participation in all aspects of civil and political life. The ABA has a long history of promoting women’s rights, both in the United States and abroad, and it strongly supports U.S. ratification of CEDAW.

The International Criminal Court

Both senators and House representatives were asked to amend legislation that prohibits the United States from providing any funding to the International Criminal Court (ICC). The ICC is the world’s only permanent international criminal tribunal created to end impunity for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. With 122 states parties and growing, the ICC is an independent court of last resort, only intervening when domestic jurisdictions are “unable or unwilling” to investigate and prosecute mass atrocities such as those that were perpetrated on the killing fields in Cambodia or the massacres now occurring in Syria.

Currently, legislation prevents the United States from providing any financial support to the ICC. The ABA would like to see this legislation amended so that the United States can provide financial support (institutionally and/or on specific cases) when it finds doing so is in its national security, foreign policy, or strategic interest to do so. The ABA has long supported the ICC and, most recently, passed policy measures encouraging the United States to engage with the ICC more robustly. In furtherance of these policies, the ABA provides legal trainings to the ICC, creates forums where American and international stakeholders in the ICC can discuss relevant issues, and develops advocacy and educational initiatives about the ICC at home and abroad.

The Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission

House representatives were encouraged to join the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission (there is no equivalent entity in the Senate). The mission of the Commission is to promote, defend, and advocate internationally recognized human rights norms in a nonpartisan manner, both within and outside of Congress, as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other relevant human rights instruments. Commission members sponsor hearings, initiate letters related to specific human rights issues, and sponsor resolutions.

Meetings on the Hill

There was an enthusiastic response within the International Human Rights Committee to the experience of lobbying members of Congress. Those who visited the Hill had a brief training at the ABA’s D.C. office with coaching from Kristi Gaines of ABA’s Government Affairs Office and myself as co-chair of the International Human Rights Committee. Also provided were informational briefings on CEDAW from Penny Wakefield and on the ICC from Kip Hale of the ABA Center for Human Rights. Then I and IHRC members Gonzalo Ferrer, Catherine Vernon, Sophia Thelusma, Ken Lemberg, Will Pons, and Ryan McClure headed to Capitol Hill to visit the offices of 13 senators and five House representatives from seven states: California, Maryland, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, and Virginia. Kip Hale joined some of these delegations as an ABA in-house expert on the ICC, along with ABA staffers Jonathan Lewis, Ted Carroll, and Bianca Zhang.

Simultaneously, other IHRC members visited with or called their members of Congress. IHRC member Greg McKenzie visited with his senators in New Mexico.

Social Media Actions

In addition to the in-person lobbying effort, IHRC worked with others in the ABA to set up ways for those who couldn’t come to D.C. in person to reach out to their members of Congress. Stephanie Williams of IMPOWR (International Models Project on Women’s Rights) set up a social media campaign about CEDAW on Twitter and Facebook, IHRC’s Heather Hodges posted to IHRC’s Facebook page throughout the day, and ABA’s Grassroots staff set up two online actions so that ABA members could send letters to their members of Congress. Several SIL committees sent information on these electronic outreach options to all the members on their listservs. As of the writing of this article, metrics were still being gathered on exactly how many actions were taken via all these additional methods.

Plans for the Future

IHRC submitted a report to the leadership of the Section of International Law detailing lessons learned and a strong recommendation that the ABA engage in future Human Rights Lobby Days. IHRC member Will Pons summed up our perspective when he said, “It was a great experience, and I am looking forward to the next opportunity to lobby for international human rights. Additionally, I am excited to become more active and participate a great deal more with the International Human Rights Committee.”

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