Today, news broke that the Trump administration is withdrawing from the United Nations Human Rights Council. This decision further confirms that leadership on—and support for—human rights issues critical to millions across the globe will not come from the United States under this administration. The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) is deeply disappointed by the President’s shortsighted move, which will only serve to further isolate the United States and limit our country’s ability to engage in diplomacy in support of human rights.
Since President Trump’s inauguration, we, along with our allies and partners, have voiced concerns that leadership on issues that directly impact the lives of so many—climate change, refugee and migrant protections, and human rights overall—has not been a priority of this White House.
In fact, the United States has itself come under fire for its human rights violations. Earlier this year, Philip Alston, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, published a “damning report” on poverty in the United States, condemning the Trump administration for exacerbating inequality between the rich and poor. Just this week both Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, UN high commissioner for human rights, and the UN Secretary-General António Guterres called for the immediate halt of Trump’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy, which has resulted in the separation of more than 2,300 migrant children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border since early May.
In remarks late Tuesday, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley criticized the body for “political bias.” However, the Council scrutinizes all countries’ human rights records, pushing them to do better and hold one another accountable. As Alston noted in a recent interview, “whether you like the UN, whether you like its Human Rights Council or not, there are no other forums that bring together all of the relevant states and where pressure can be applied for more decent standards of rights.” Critiques of the United States or lack of support for its resolutions does not justify abandoning the forum altogether.
Given the U.S. President’s divisive and nationalist agenda, we are unsurprised by the decision to withdraw from an organization whose stated purpose is, “the promotion and protection of all human rights around the globe.” The irony of the United States claiming a sincere interest in human rights in this moment is not lost—moving forward the country will have significant work to do to re-establish itself as a credible partner in advancing human rights.
UUSC’s work is guided by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the treaties and instruments that have further expanded and defined the United Nations’ Charter. We will continue to work to advance the rights enumerated within these documents and are not deterred by the abdication of leadership and responsibility the Trump administration has shown. We maintain our faith in institutions like the UN Human Rights Council and will work to see they outlast the whims of those who would see them fail.
The Border Security and Immigration Reform Act of 2018 would further militarize the border, continue to restrict lawful immigration, and close avenues for asylum-seekers to seek protection, while failing to end the policies that drive the separation of families. Last week, House Majority leadership unveiled draft legislation that supposedly provides a legislative “fix” for family separation and the end of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. In reality, the draft legislation does not address the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy of criminally prosecuting all migrants and asylum seekers for unauthorized border crossing, which is a major source of the current wave of family separations. As experts have pointed out, this means that the family separation policy could easily continue under this bill.
“This bill is out of the same extortionist playbook as the other immigration proposals this White House has endorsed,” said Rachel Gore Freed, UUSC’s vice president and chief program officer. “The administration never had to end DACA, just as they never had to separate parents and kids. They start a fire and then refuse to put it out until the country accepts their extreme demands.
“We have to harness this moment of awareness to ensure that it becomes awareness of the whole and of what people deserve. The goal remains in establishing a fair access to receive asylum and ending our destabilizing force in Central America so people can stay home. Period.”
The draft legislation, expected to come up for a vote in the House later this week, proposes $25 billion to fund a border wall, new restrictions on family-based migration, and an end to the Diversity Visa. These last two programs are crucial pathways for non-European immigrants to reach the United States and have played a major role in building a more diverse society in recent decades.
The bill would also eliminate certain protections for unaccompanied children and families and deter asylum-seekers. It erases protections under current U.S. law which ensure unaccompanied minors from countries not bordering the United States have a chance to present their case to an immigration judge. This change would expose more children to the danger of “expedited removal” to countries where they are at risk.
“It is a cruel twist to end the appalling practice of separating families and lock them up instead,” continued Freed. “And even then, there’s nothing in this draft law to keep parents and kids together. The administration has no moral authority and continues to grasp for the legal right to restrict pathways for immigration and roll back protections for people fleeing danger. UUSC will continue to work against these and other anti-immigrant policy proposals.”
The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) is outraged by Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ decision to refuse asylum to survivors of domestic abuse and gang violence.
In a 30-page ruling issued Monday, June 11 in the Matter of A-B-, Sessions revoked a previous grant of asylum to a Salvadoran survivor of domestic violence, overthrowing years of legal precedent recognizing intimate partner violence as potential grounds for asylum. In sweeping terms, Sessions declared, “claims by aliens pertaining to domestic violence or gang violence perpetrated by non-governmental actors will not qualify for asylum.”
This deplorable ruling means that untold numbers of individuals fleeing spousal abuse, criminal networks, or armed groups are now at greater risk of being returned to the hands of their persecutors. Indeed, the ruling is so broad it could be used to exclude victims of virtually any sort of persecution carried out by non-state actors.
Sessions’ decision displays a willful ignorance of the reasons people flee their home countries. Survivors of domestic abuse and gang violence are often left with no choice but to flee when the state has proven unable or unwilling to protect them from persecution and harm. This past year, UUSC’s partner in El Salvador, Fundación Cristosal, filed six cases on behalf of 60 individuals with the Salvadoran Supreme Court, arguing the government had failed in its duty to protect their constitutional rights when they faced violence at the hands of non-state actors. Cristosal has spent years documenting the Salvadoran government’s systemic failure to protect victims of internal displacement by violence.
For UUSC’s partners throughout Central America who work with people forcibly displaced by criminal networks and domestic violence, Sessions’ decision is a major barrier to their ability to seek protection.
Last week, U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen met with the President of Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernandez. They discussed – in the words of the official press release – Nielsen’s “support for Honduran efforts to increase security and prosperity in their country,” and “tangible ways to improve citizen security and enhance the rule of law in Honduras.”
On our recent visit to Honduras, my colleagues and I met with people who have witnessed the effects of U.S.-backed “efforts to increase security and prosperity” first-hand. The reality they described is far from the official press statements.
As part of an accompaniment delegation organized by the SHARE Foundation and our partners at Radio Progreso, our team met with seven Honduran political prisoners in Pimienta. During protests in the wake of the disputed November 2017 election in the town, four police officers were assaulted and a police station burned down. The government appears to have used these incidents as a pretext to crack down broadly on the rights of dissenters.
On December 26, 2017, the people we spoke with were arrested in a targeted sweep. All were Pimienta residents or lived nearby, men and women, between 20 and 30 years of age. Several gave accounts of being roused from their beds in the middle of the night and taken without explanation. Below are excerpts from their stories.
Jonathan Ricardo Perla López told us:
The day they arrested me, they came into my house at two in the morning without any arrest warrant. They turned my house upside down. I turned on the light and opened the door, knowing that they could do something. I was scared… I was outside in the rain until six in the morning.
According to the testimony of Wilfredo Cáceres Sagastume:
I was arrested at four in the morning…My wife had only just gotten home, we had a ten-day old infant. I was nude in my bed, they threw me to the floor, they took me naked outside the house with my children and my ten-day old son. It was raining. I said to them let my children go in; they can do anything to me but let them go back inside. They beat me because of what I was asking.
All the individuals we spoke with denied any involvement in the burning of the police station. While some had exercised their human rights by joining peaceful protests against the government, others insisted they were total bystanders targeted by police seemingly at random or as punishment for their political views.
From the testimony of Lourdes Johana Gómez Nuñez:
We decided to separate from the group when we realized there were people we didn’t know and that they were planning to burn the police station. When it actually happened we were in the house, but you could tell it was an atmosphere of fear. We realized that they were going to involve us because we’d been involved in protesting. That pattern happened… The police have been beating young people. They’ve been taking the kids other places and beating them, wanting them to say things that never happened.
José Orlando Santos Ordóñez added:
The difference with me is that me and my brother Daniel were not involved in protests… The police said we’re not looking for who’s guilty, we’re looking for people to pay the penalty for the damage that was done.
Many were held in isolation for 16 days in inhumane conditions. People described being tortured, threatened, and coerced into signing false confessions.
From the testimony of Francisco Miguel Gómez Ortega:
They took our clothes off, cut our hair, shaved our heads, placed us into solitary confinement…In cells meant for one person, they put seven people. We didn’t have any light for 16 days. We couldn’t see the light of day. We couldn’t shower. It was very cold, and we were sleeping on the floor, no blanket or mattress. They were trying to get to us mentally, psychologically every day. Because we could not see the light of day in the morning, the guards would say “good evening,” and in the night they would say “good morning.”
Roque Jacinto Alvarenga Corea gave one of the fullest and most disturbing accounts of torture and ill-treatment we heard:
They forced me to sign a paper. They read me my rights while beating me at the same time with the butt of a gun. They beat my hands. They said they would throw me in jail for 30 years because I had committed the crime of “terrorism” and “kidnapping” and “attempt to kill a police officer.” And of course I never did any of those things… We were segregated in a punishment cell for 16 days. They didn’t give us access to showers. Nothing in terms of personal hygiene…And they would threaten us that they would kill us. They would spray pepper spray into the cell. They would give us electric shocks. They said we were the scourge of society and we didn’t deserve to live.
Another person described being served rice and beans that turned out to be full of rocks and rat feces.
These extreme human rights violations are not the isolated work of the Honduran security forces. This violence and abuse are made possible by the actions of the U.S. government. Over the past few years, millions of dollars of U.S. aid has flowed to the Honduran police. The United States has also trained special units of the Honduran security forces and maintains a military presence in Honduras at the Soto Cano air base. Both the Obama and Trump administrations have cemented this alliance with the Honduran government, despite a 2009 coup that overthrew the elected president and the recent wave of political violence that began last year.
U.S. officials like to claim that their training makes foreign security forces less likely to commit human rights violations. Frank Mora, a former deputy assistant secretary at the Department of Defense during the Obama administration, suggested to Univision that U.S. training may have been a factor in some Honduran police units’ refusal to take action against protesters during the government’s post-election crackdown.
But the stories we heard gave us no reason to think this is true. The people we spoke with identified the Honduran National Police, the “Cobras,” and an elite special force, the “Tigres,” as involved in their arrests. All three receive U.S. funding – and in some cases, military training as well.
Gómez Nuñez explained:
They arrested every one of the 11 members at exactly the same day and the same time, so it was clearly coordinated. They were members of the military police, National Police, DPI [Dirección Policial de Investigación – a special investigative unit of the Honduran police started by the Hernandez government], and Cobras.
Roque Jacinto Alvarenga Corea also identified the military police, the National Police, the Cobras and the Tigres as among the security forces who beat and tortured him during his arrest and detention.
As delegates from the United States, it was horrifying to hear first-hand what U.S. tax dollars are supporting in Central America.
Our knowledge was made all the harder to bear given the cruelty Central American migrants face at the U.S.-Mexico border, seeking safety from the exact persecution we learned about. While we were in Honduras we heard stories of parents and children being forcibly separated – a practice that legal and psychiatric experts argue is tantamount to torture. We learned that U.S. Customs and Border Patrol shot and killed 19-year-old Maya woman, Claudia Gómez González, and that a 33-year-old transgender woman, Roxsana Hernandez, died in U.S. custody after surviving a harrowing journey to seek asylum as part of a refugee caravan that crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in April.
Stories like these have only multiplied since our return. It is becoming clear that people are escaping torture and death in Central America only to be met with both at the hands of the U.S. government.
These horrors and injustices are not all we saw or heard in our conversations, however. What lingers with me as well is the basic decency that the political prisoners showed, even in the face of intolerable injustice. Though they had been subjected to inhuman violence, they held on to human values of compassion and mercy. One man told us that he would not wish what happened to him in prison on his worst enemy. Roque Jacinto Alvarenga Corea added:
The prisons aren’t what we thought they were. They are killing people inside little by little. I’m sure there are people there who have made mistakes. But they shouldn’t treat them like that. They too are humans just like us.
After hearing these stories, the words of Archbishop Oscar Romero reverberated in my mind. Romero was a Salvadoran human rights defender who spoke out against U.S. military aid to the government of El Salvador in the 1980s and was ultimately assassinated for his work. He remains a source of inspiration for the human rights movement in Central America, and a large portrait of Romero hangs in the common room at the office of our partners, Radio Progreso. In 1977, he wrote: There is no dichotomy between humanity and God’s image. Whoever tortures a human being, whoever abuses a human being, whoever outrages a human being, abuses God’s image.
In the face of these seven individuals who were tortured by their government, in the face of all migrants who are abused and disappeared, is the face that Romero described as the image of God. It is the face of our shared humanity.
“As women are defending the earth and the land, we also have to defend the territories of our own bodies.” This is how Noemí Dubón described her work, seated next to Carolina Sierra and Andrea Paz. The three women are leaders in the Honduran women’s organization Foro de Mujeres Por la Vida (“Foro”), which has partnered with UUSC for the past two years.
They welcomed my Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) colleagues and me to their office in San Pedro Sula on Monday, May 21. There, we joined their staff around an altar dedicated to martyrs of women’s and human rights movements in Honduras, including Berta Cáceres and Margarita Murillo – two women murdered while leading struggles to protect the lands of indigenous people and small farmers (photo courtesy of Mark Coplan). Over the next hour, Noemí, Carolina, and Andrea informed us about the perils of being a human rights defender in Honduras, as well as the solidarity with other women that gives them strength to keep working for justice.
Because of the dangers facing human rights defenders in Honduras—including specific threats against our partners—it was crucial that U.S.-based supporters like UUSC join Radio Progreso on their return. Once in Honduras, we met with other human rights leaders, like Foro. In all cases, we wanted to convey a message to the Honduran and U.S. governments: We are with our friends and we will know if you allow harm to befall them.
During our meeting with Foro, their leaders told us about the reality of systemic violence facing women and human rights defenders in Honduras. They informed us that as many as 96% of crimes committed against women are never penalized and that their own colleagues and friends have been murdered or disappeared.
In one especially disturbing case, Norma Yolanda, a leader in one of Foro’s member organizations, was abducted while nursing her infant child at home in 2010. The men who took her were dressed as security forces, and identifying themselves as Honduran government authorities. Despite working for eight years to find answers about her disappearance, Foro still doesn’t know where Norma was taken or whether she is alive.
The dangers that women and human rights defenders face in Honduras are inseparable from the violation of ancestral and indigenous land rights—in many cases linked to U.S.-backed development projects. In another meeting convened by the SHARE delegation, we heard from leaders in two Garifuna (Afro-Honduran) communities who are fighting eviction and dispossession of their traditional lands to make way for tourist resorts. One of the Garifuna-led organizations we met with, Mariposas Libres, is a member of the Foro network. The women of Mariposas Libres described to us how the development of a new beach-front hotel has deprived them of access to the coast and degraded the natural environments that are essential to their livelihoods.
For Foro de Mujeres and their allies, the women’s struggle is always two-fold: defending the land and the integrity of their own bodies.
This struggle continues in the face of patriarchy reinforced by the power of the state. Foro staff described how, when confronted with reports of femicide (the killing of women because they are women) or other human rights violations, authorities often reply that the women ought to have stayed at home with their children. They described how police and military officers have used sexual violence as a weapon of war against female protesters and rights defenders and how women who have been sexually assaulted by security forces sometimes go to report the crime and find the perpetrator at the police station. They added that they have been slandered as “murderers” for speaking out against the criminalization of women who seek abortions, which is completely banned in Honduras without exception.
Even as sexist violence and speech are ingrained in the power structures of Honduras, the human rights movement offers a very different vision of women’s roles. Women’s leadership is central to the whole social movement in Honduras, across its many sectors. Leaders and martyrs like Caceres and Murillo are looked to and honored as defenders not only of women, but of entire communities and ways of life that are menaced by the twin forces of militarism and neocolonialism.
As Foro’s Executive Coordinator Carolina Sierra told us during our meeting, “What we do is we love each other and we take care of each other. We grow together. We hold in our minds those who have been murdered and disappeared because they give us the example of their struggle and their sacrifice, their martyrdom inspires us to continue so they will not be forgotten.”
In these moments and throughout our time in Honduras, the words of Sweet Remember, a poem by Carmen Tafolla echoed in my mind. After describing extreme torture Central American women experienced during the death squads of the 1980s, she ends with the following lines:
this is why I do not ask my child to cry to sit sweet helpless and be cute to always need a male escort to think that only he protects, not she, herself, and not she, him to think herself so delicate so weak … But I will teach her quite instead that she is her own brave life till dead and that there are no guarantees in life nor rights but those that we invent and that the bravest thing of all to think, to feel, to care, and to recall is to be human and to be complete
On behalf of the Board of Trustees, I am delighted to introduce Rev. Mary Katherine Morn as the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee’s new president and chief executive officer, beginning in mid-June.
Mary Katherine is a true leader and visionary who will take us forward during this extraordinary time. She has been one of our most respected and admired parish ministers with a long history of growing congregations and increasing institutional impact.
Since 2014, Mary Katherine has done an extraordinary job as chief development officer at the Unitarian Universalist Association. She is a leader who listens, who reaches out, who acts. She has a warmth and collaborative style that touches all who know her.
Mary Katherine said she is inspired by the history, vision, and talented leadership at the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee:
“This is a great honor and great privilege, and a challenge I relish at a time when human rights, human dignity and human lives are at risk around the world. We have much to accomplish at UUSC, in cooperation with our grassroots partners, and I am confident we will continue to advance the social justice causes that are so critical to our values.”
Mary Katherine was chosen after a several month search process, headed by former UUSC board chair, Martha Easter-Wells. Martha shared that the search committee was blessed with a large number of extraordinarily qualified candidates whose commitment to the UUSC human rights mission and respective life experiences were heartening.
Mary Katherine comes to the UUSC from thirty years of serving progressive values and working for justice through her leadership in Unitarian Universalist congregations, community organizations, and for the last four years with the Unitarian Universalist Association. She served congregations and communities in Georgia, Tennessee, and Virginia before becoming the director of stewardship and development and special advisor to the president of the Unitarian Universalist Association in 2014.
Her leadership has been anchored in our commitment to the work of justice and focused on building teams and resourcing a transformative mission through partnerships.