UUSC’s Rights at Risk Program responds quickly to emerging human rights crises and protects a range of rights most at risk due to those catastrophes. This includes advancing the rights of people who are most overlooked or discriminated against in the midst of humanitarian crises such as forced migration, large-scale conflicts, genocide, and natural disasters.
January 20 marks the one-year anniversary of President Trump’s inauguration. For human rights advocates, the past 365 days have been marked by daily efforts to resist actions from our nation’s highest office that propagate racism, hate, fear, ignorance, and greed. Right now, we are fighting for a clean Dream Act even as dysfunction in Washington holds up these efforts.
However, reflecting on the past year, and the work of our partners and staff in action, gives us hope—this work tells a story that is much more about courage and perseverance than one of despair.
Our shared vision of a world free from oppression provides fuel in the fight to advance human rights. Working together, with our partners and allies, we have activated strategies that confront unjust power structures and challenge oppressive policies.
Here are just a few moments from the past year that motivate us for the work that lies ahead.
This year, sustained by the passion of our community and supporters, we will continue to focus on strategies for protecting families fleeing violence in Central America, fighting for an end to ethnic cleansing in Burma, and responding to the front lines of climate change and ready to respond to natural disasters.
Carly Cronon spoke with Rachel Freed about her past work in human rights, what drew her to UUSC, and her most memorable moments with the organization thus far.
When and why did you first become involved in human rights work?
I grew up in a multicultural family and spent a lot of time visiting relatives in Southeast Asia, where I witnessed persistent inequalities and the dehumanization that went with it. It made me eager to develop my own understanding of how different political, social, economic and cultural forces shaped how and why people had certain rights over others.
Years later, a pivotal moment occurred during my junior semester abroad in India. I visited a rural fishing community that had been subject to fly ash pollution from a neighboring Exxon plant. Villagers in the community were mostly illiterate and had been told by the company that the fly ash was not harmful. In response to their concerns, the company-sponsored health clinics told villagers they were fine. This continued until a local nongovernmental organization working with a community member tested the water and found strains of harmful chemicals in the fish and streams.
Through outreach and education, the villagers organized the entire community, mobilized, and successfully demanded accountability. This experience helped me to understand the power of local communities and NGOs to catalyze vibrant and democratic social change movements.
What drew you to UUSC’s human rights work in particular?
My journey to UUSC was inspired by working with a UU congregation and community in a great struggle against injustice. When I graduated from law school, I worked for a civil rights firm in New York City, where the lead attorney humored my request to do pro bono work by connecting me to his UU congregation in Ridgewood, NJ. It was there that I met four passionate women who chose to spend their free time visiting detained asylum-seekers in detention centers. I offered to take one case, but then I started to get calls from the detention center on a daily basis.
There was one rather stark case I can remember – that of a Liberian refugee who escaped rebel forces during the reign of Charles Taylor, the former President and now convicted war criminal. After witnessing her siblings’ deaths, she fled the country and came to the United States. She lived here for almost seven years – just shy of the residency requirement to become a U.S. citizen – when a minor shoplifting incident landed her in detention, facing deportation. She had no representation, she suffered from severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and her kids had been taken into child protective services. My UU friends began to visit her each week to connect with her children’s government rep, and to help piece together the documents in her case. Next began our three-year journey together. It was quite a trek from Brooklyn to the middle of New Jersey, but my UU friends never failed to ferry me from the commuter rail, or deliver documents and do a visitation when needed. Eventually, we found the psychologist who had treated this woman in detention; he testified about her PTSD, and we were able to win the case. She was released and reunited with her children after nearly four years of living in the detention center.
I share this story because it is about a few caring individuals and what they accomplished by offering their time and generosity and by organizing their community for a specific cause. This is what drew me, and continues to draw me, to UUSC – it is our collective approach and struggle for justice in this world—as inspired by our founders and continued onwards through the years.
What do you like most about your job?
At UUSC, we are lucky to work with some of the most remarkable human rights activists around the world – people who wake each day not quite sure of what their efforts may bring for their communities, but who continue on anyway because of their deep belief in love, equality, and humanity. We are able to draw tremendous strength and courage from our partners. I also feel incredibly fortunate to work with such talented, passionate, and committed colleagues – I learn so much from all of our staff on a daily basis.
What is one of your most cherished UUSC memories or success stories?
One of my most cherished moments occurred during my trip to Nepal a few months after the 2015 earthquake, while meeting with one of our partners focused on trauma resiliency. They were helping to train a cadre of local teachers working with rural Dalit youth who had received very little support since the earthquake. We were in a small classroom when one of the children began to break down – she had lost her mother during the earthquake and was struggling to take care of her little brother. One of the trainers immediately calmed her down, and they sat for a while, talking and focusing on her breathing and the present moment. She managed to calm down, stop crying, and soon was smiling and sharing with us her dreams for her brother and telling us about her hopes for herself. It was really moving. I felt proud to know that UUSC was able to help bring trauma resiliency skills to teachers serving Dalit children in a remote area that had been overlooked by larger recovery efforts.
What do you and your team look for in finding new UUSC partners?
UUSC’s approach is unique to most Western human rights organizations because we center the voices of communities and their values in our pursuit to advance human rights and transform unjust power structures. Our model focuses not on a community’s helplessness or lack of knowledge, but rather their assets and their solutions. Therefore, we generally look to partner with smaller, lesser-known organizations doing innovative work to transform and empower marginalized populations, often in the face of extreme and adverse circumstances. The process of selecting new partners involves working with those organizations to identify how UUSC’s financial and other resources can be best leveraged to further human rights on the ground. It also includes mapping stakeholders, identifying points of power, and thinking through how UUSC’s voice and prominence as a U.S.-based human rights organization can be used to instigate systemic change.
What is an upcoming UUSC initiative that you are particularly excited about?
I’m in the middle of packing my bags for a trip to Zagreb, Croatia to participate in a convening that brings together our partners in the Balkans who are helping to serve Syrian refugees. At this convening, our partners from Hungary, Serbia, Slovenia, Macedonia, and Croatia will be coming together to exchange information, build relationships, coordinate responses and collectively strategize on how to navigate the increasingly challenging political environments in which they operate. Our Balkans partners work in counties that have become increasingly hostile towards refugees, and their organizations are facing new government restrictions on their work. I’m excited to talk with them about their experiences and strategize ways UUSC can support their collective efforts during this critical time.
L: Representatives from the Mission of Tuvalu to the UN and Palau’s Ministry of Immigration with Salote Soqo, UUSC’s Senior Program Leader R: Civil society groups meeting outside the conference venue
Delegations came together in strength and in unity to improve global governance on migration.
The stocktaking meeting for the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration which took place in Puerto Vallarta December 4-6, 2017 was “extraordinarily” positive. Extraordinary in the sense that during a time of rising nationalism and xenophobia around the world, there was great convergence amongst delegates to center the global compact on the protection of the rights of all migrants, and that the withdrawal of the United States from the compact did not seem to deter the spirit of the deliberations. What was seen instead was delegations coming together in strength and in unity to improve global governance on migration.
In addition to the unifying call for a human rights-centered compact that respects and empowers all migrants, other messages were loud and clear: the compact should be gender sensitive, respect migrant workers, protect children, counter xenophobia and the criminalization of migrants, encourage data-driven policies, ensure ethical business practices for migrants regardless of their status, uphold existing conventions and treaties, respect national sovereignty and above all else, increase the benchmark for addressing migration.
These are all overlying principles that we must support when it comes to governing all forms of migration, including climate-forced displacement. UUSC hopes that states will adopt these principles in earnest as they develop domestic and regional policies and we encourage states to combine compassion with urgency and diligence as they embark on this historic momentum.
The high number of non-state actors that turned up at the meeting and their engagement since the inception of the global compact has also been encouraging. From faith leaders to labor unions, and other civil society groups, like UUSC – our engagement with state delegations has made this process inclusive. Perhaps it was the scenery that made this meeting so pleasant or probably the fact that we were only a few weeks away from the holidays, but this is the standard that we hope the negotiations will adopt moving forward into 2018 and beyond.
This week, UUSC’s Director of Programs, Research and Partner Support, Danielle Fuller-Wimbush is in Zagreb, Croatia to hold a three-day convening of our partners and other non-governmental organizations advancing refugee and migrant rights in the region. It’s an opportunity for 15 organizations serving refugees along the migrant route that cuts through Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, and Hungary to share strategies and better coordinate their critical work across multiple borders.
Since the spring of 2015, thousands of families have risked their lives to seek refuge in European Union (EU) countries, with most traveling through the Balkans. Many are fleeing the devastation caused by the Syrian civil war, which continues today.
In 2016, less than a year after the initial wave, countries began to close their borders and institute anti-immigrant tactics, stopping thousands of asylum-seekers from continuing their journey to safety and security. Hungary responded by building a razor-wire barrier on its border with Serbia and later with Croatia. Austria erected a four-kilometer-long fence at the Slovenia border, deployed armed forces around the border, and dramatically limited asylum applications. Macedonia, Croatia, and Slovenia announced that they were no longer letting migrants and refugees through their borders with Greece. For refugees, this has meant that their movement is largely curtailed and their access to asylum services is limited.
UUSC’s response to the Syrian refugee crisis has focused on supporting critical areas along the Syrian refugee migration route, where there is a lack of international protection, cooperation, burden sharing, and respect for the human rights of displaced peoples. Partners like the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, Centre for Peace Studies, and Are You Syrious, provide essential support to ensure that these families are resettled into their new home countries, that their rights are protected, and that they have sufficient access to basic services.
Over the next few days our partners will discuss the current landscape of this crisis and how they can support one another to better serve refugees.
As conflicts throughout the world continue to fuel the largest refugee crisis since World War II, the need for convenings like these—which allow organizations on the ground to reflect, share stories, successes, and build relationships with one another—are critical. UUSC continues to find ways to respond to and address this and other humanitarian crises with compassion and genuine partnership. Read more about Danielle’s experience from Zagreb!
It is hard to visit Haiti and not feel a deep sense of shame, anger, and pain, and I’ve choked up a few times since returning home. Spending any time in Haiti’s Central Plateau, as I just have, is a gut-punch reminder of the privilege of being born with white skin; the privilege of being born in the Global North; and the privilege afforded by an uncompromising power structure that benefits the few at the great expense of the many.
The structural disadvantages facing Haiti, particularly when experienced first-hand, can feel paralyzing. As Paul Farmer of Partners In Health wondered on the eve of the election of Jean Bertrand Aristide, it’s hard to imagine “what even a government of saints and scholars could do in the face of such odds.” And yet, across the country, communities continue to find creative ways to survive and grassroots movements like UUSC’s partner, Mouvman Peyizan Papay (MPP) continue to support them and help give them hope.
Both the enormity of the struggle and the sliver of hope are on display in the EcoVillages and the EcoVillage School. On my trip, I found that Village 1, the first village supported by UUSC after the earthquake, is thriving. It has a functioning solar-powered well for drinking water, two cisterns to catch rain and irrigate the village’s gardens, and a pleasant stream nearby. The gardens produce moringa, manioc (cassava), peanuts, mangoes, and papaya. Goats, which the village owns, live in an enclosure on a hill. On the day we visited, bags of recently harvested peanuts and corn leaned against the community center’s walls, waiting to be taken to market. There are two community motorcycles for transport, an ox to help plow the larger fields, and a few houses even have electricity.
Village 5, on the other hand, continues to struggle. As with Village 2, the well has not been able to produce any water for over a year and hopes that the rainy season might sufficiently raise the water table were recently dashed. The drought may be over, but water is still absent here. Villagers who want drinking water must walk 30 minutes to Village 6, where a UUSC grant recently repaired another broken well, and then carry it back home. Every village but Village 1 also lacks electricity, the absence of which prevents anyone from doing much of anything after the vast darkness blankets the area each night.
In spite of this, there are rays of light. A recent microloan project sponsored jointly by UUSC and our partners to support income-generating projects in the villages has begun to pay small dividends. With a loan from MPP, Village 5 planted a large field of manioc and peanuts, both of which can grow in harsh conditions. Despite failing to plant the manioc properly, the village succeeded in planting a large field of peanuts, which were nearly ready to harvest at the time of our visit.
The proceeds from the sale of these crops will not, in and of themselves, bring water or electricity to Village 5, but a portion will support the EcoVillage School. Hopefully, the village can use the remaining funds to strengthen their food sovereignty and incrementally improve their lives. In other words, some hope.
Students repeatedly told us of their passion for math. A few hoped to be engineers someday.
More hopeful still is the progress made by the EcoVillage School. Two years ago, the project was at a standstill: years behind schedule, students crowding into shared classrooms, nowhere for the students to eat lunch, and gardens suffering from the epic drought. When we visited last week, the student body had grown to 172 children. Four more classrooms had been built, allowing every grade from kindergarten through sixth to have individual space to learn. The school even has a separate kitchen, cafeteria, and food storage area now. Students repeatedly told us of their passion for math. A few hoped to be engineers someday.
The vast gardens behind the school, once plagued by a protracted lack of rain, are now robust, growing moringa, pigeon beans, peanuts, and manioc. The school’s well delivers clean drinking water and virtually every student comes to school proudly wearing a bright green uniform. When we visited, Andraal, a parent living in Village 1, worked in the shade painting a new sign that would stand in front of the school, announcing the Institution Mixte Communautaire des EcoVillages de Colladere.
Of course, this being Haiti, there are still mountains left to climb. To qualify as a “government school,” thereby shifting hefty operating costs from MPP to the government, three more classrooms still need to be constructed. At least two more bathrooms must be built to accommodate the expanding student population. The school lacks a perimeter fence, which means that any equipment of value is at risk of theft. There is no system for irrigating the fields that support the school’s limited food program, and each of the food relief organizations to whom MPP has reached out for help has reported that they are too focused on hurricane relief in other parts of the country to worry about school lunches in the Central Plateau.
However, while the future of the school is still somewhat uncertain, it is surely a beacon. The community and its partners are committed to its future, and to the parents, children, and others in the Central Plateau, it represents hope. As the Haitian proverb goes, Lespwa se viv— “Hope makes one live.”
Thank you for virtually going on this journey with UUSC.
On this day in 1945, the Charter of the United Nations entered into force and with it, the world’s most meaningful and lasting opportunity to build a global democratic institution, in which all countries could have an equal voice.
Today, we celebrate this founding vision. In the midst of the largest refugee crisis on record, ethnic cleansing in Burma (Myanmar), conflict in Syria and elsewhere, and increasing global devastation due to climate change, the need to realize the United Nations’ promise is greater than ever. UUSC is calling on the U.S. government and all world nations to strengthen international democratic institutions and resist the siren call of nationalism and chauvinism which threatens our collective future.
A Shared Vision
UUSC was founded in 1939 to help refugees secretly evacuate from Europe as fascist regimes were driving millions of people into exile and laying the groundwork for the Holocaust and World War II. The founding of the United Nations in 1945 was meant to ensure that war, genocide, and forced displacement could never again take place on such a scale. UUSC has shared these values and worked with and through U.N. institutions and instruments to advance human rights ever since.
That legacy of collaboration continues today. From November 7 to 12, UUSC is traveling to Bonn, Germany for the 23rd Conference of the Parties (“COP23”). This annual convening, hosted by the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), keeps track of global progress on implementing compacts to reduce carbon emissions and mitigate climate change. The most important of these compacts is the Paris Accords, which 195 Parties to the Convention have signed and 168 have ratified, and from which the United States has disappointingly decided to withdraw.
Leveling the Playing Field
This year’s COP also marks the first time that a small Pacific Island nation, Fiji, will be presiding over the Convention. Fiji’s leadership at this meeting provides an especially important opportunity to amplify the voices of people who are experiencing the worst effects of human-induced climate change. COP23 will be a critical moment for UUSC’s partners in the Pacific and all those on the frontlines of the impact of climate change to confront the U.S. government for its ambiguous and immoral position on this critical issue.
“The people of the Pacific islands are impacted every day by the decisions that larger, industrialized nations and financial institutions make. But they have very little power and leverage when it comes to diplomatic negotiations,” says Salote Soqo, senior program leader for environmental justice and climate action. “The United Nations is one of the very few spaces where countries can enter on a somewhat level playing field, which makes Fiji’s presidency quite significant.”
When the United States fails to honor its international commitments, it abandons its democratic values. The Trump administration’s plan to exit the Paris Agreement is only one example of how the United States has worked to undermine global cooperation, especially during times of increased xenophobia and isolationist rhetoric. Last week, the administration also announced its intention to withdraw from UNESCO, the U.N. cultural heritage agency. The White House’s previous budget proposals have likewise threatened devastating cuts to core U.N. institutions. Especially egregious, the Trump administration recently slashed its refugee quota to only 45,000 – the smallest share of the international resettlement obligation the United States has shouldered since its Refugee Program began in 1980.
International democracy means being accountable to the people all over the world who are impacted by one country’s decisions, regardless of where any person resides. The United States’ obligations as a world leader include supporting the global response to the refugee crisis, ending policies that actively contribute to climate change, and supporting adaptive strategies for communities on the frontlines of these crises that honor the dignity and agency of the people involved.
Expanding the Bounds of the Possible
The promise of the United Nations was that no national or governmental self-interest would come before the shared needs of the human community. Seventy-two years later, that promise survives. While the United Nations faces many obstacles to achieving its original vision, it remains the planet’s best hope for finding shared solutions that honor the needs and capacities of all Earth’s inhabitants, not just the most powerful.
UUSC and our partners still believe in the possibility of finding those solutions. “Our partners don’t use the term ‘climate refugee,’ for instance,” says Soqo, “because they know that there is still time to change what is happening to the planet. Doing so requires fundamental transformations to neoliberalism and colonialism and the other oppressive structures in which we relate to one another. But that doesn’t make it impossible.” On United Nations Day, we honor this wider vision of the possible. And we remember that the only way to get there is together.