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24 November 2020

2020 Community Human Rights Award Conversation

In 2008, DC was declared the first human rights city in the United States. A human rights city is defined as one whose residents and local authorities, through learning about the relevance of human rights to their daily lives, join in ongoing learning, discussions, systematic analysis, and critical thinking at the community level, to pursue a creative exchange of ideas and the joint planning of actions to realize their economic, social, and cultural as well as civil and political human rights.
As this definition alludes, human rights are relevant to the daily lives of all DC residents. As Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home”.However, for many in the nation’s capital, the 25th Article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is not only relevant. It’s paramount.  
Article 25 of the UDHR reads: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing, and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”

DC’s 2020 point-in-time count found 6,380 individuals experiencing homelessness on Jan. 22, 2020. The economic fallout from COVID-19 could likely cause this number to have risen/rise. 

Robert Warren and the People for Fairness Coalition are working to make sure the human right to housing is upheld for all DC residents. Robert serves as the Director of the People for Fairness Coalition (PFFC). PFFC’s mission is to empower people to end housing instability in the Washington DC Metropolitan area through advocacy, outreach, and peer mentoring.
PFFC makes their position on housing clear in everything they do. In testimony given to the DC Council, written in Sharpie on poster boards at rallies, PFFC reiterates what the UDHR states: Housing is a human right. 

For Robert, DC’s status as a human rights city has the power to realize this right. However, while Robert is proud that DC is a human rights city, he believes there is a lot of work to be done to live up to that commitment. DC’s status as a human rights city “should mean something to [elected officials]. It should be reflected in their public policies.” 

People-For-Fairness-Coalition-2015-Vigil_Photo-by-Matailong-Du-for-Street-SenseFor PFFC, this means the development of strategies and policies that would increase access to affordable and sustainable housing for DC residents. Since 2013, PFFC has been working towards this goal through its Universal Right to Housing Campaign. When asked what policies changes would reflect DC’s commitment to the 25th article of the UDHR, Robert is not at a loss for answers: housing costs should not exceed one-third of income, elimination of the waiting list for housing assistance, availability of housing vouchers for those who qualify, diversion of tax dollars from luxury apartments to affordable housing units, safe and clean housing affordable housing, the creation of social housing.

Robert is an effective and empathetic leader of PFFC and this campaign due to his own life experiences with housing instability. Robert, as well as his family members, have experienced homelessness at different points throughout his life. Because of this, Robert understands the resounding impact of this basic need. Robert emphasizes that homelessness creates long-term problems mentally, physically, and spiritually. It traumatizes those who experience it. Stable housing goes a long way in addressing these issues. It also creates more stable communities. 

With Robert at its helm, PFFC has had a tangible impact on securing the right to housing for DC residents. Robert’s proudest accomplishments from his career are triumphs he has helped achieve for others. PFFC helped address sleep deprivation in shelters by advocating for 4 additional hours of access. They advocated for the creation of the Adams Place Day Center and PFFC members served as mentors after it opened. Robert is also especially proud of the work he and PFFC have done for homeless veterans. 

Despite these successes, the work to secure the human right to housing for all Washingtonians continues. Any article celebrating the work of Robert Warren and the People for Fairness Coalition would be remiss not to mention their ongoing dedication to their mission. 
Currently, Robert and PFFC are working towards securing homeless individuals as a protected class under the DC Human Rights Act. The Michael A. Stoops Anti-Discrimination Amendment Act of 2019 would do exactly that. This bill is currently being considered by the DC Council. 
While Robert admits the past few months have been challenging, he remains hopeful. In his words, “The revolution goes on.” 

17 November 2020

2020 Perdita Huston Honoree Conversation

This year’s Perdita Huston awardee, Professor Susan Deller Ross, has an exceptional record in advancing the rights of women and girls domestically and internationally. In a uniquely fascinating and exciting conversation with her, I was able to learn more about the evolution of women’s rights and how much of a significant role Professor Ross played in creating real change for so many women worldwide.

Prof. Susan Ross' interest in human rights and women’s rights law started early. As a young woman, she traveled extensively and quickly learned that women in different cultures and societies deal with similar issues that result from the lack of equal rights. During her time in the Peace Corps, serving in Ivory Coast, she focused on providing pregnant women and their children with better nutritional options, as protein sources such as eggs and chicken were often reserved for older men. This striking inequality painted a very clear picture of women needing to fight for equal rights.

When she came back to the US and began her studies at law school, she became deeply involved in issues that women were dealing with in the US. She focused on assisting women domestically by advocating for legislation or litigating to give women equal rights at work, protect victims of domestic violence, and achieve family and medical leave.  This work led her to become more interested in international human rights law and how it could be used to help women win equal rights in all countries. 

In the early 90s, the conversation about human rights started focusing more on women's rights, and Professor Ross felt that developing and teaching courses on international human rights law was timely and important. These classes touched on the specific issues that women deal with around the world, and she hoped that discussing these issues with her students would add to their knowledge about international and regional human rights treaties and would spark their interest in a topic that was not commonly focused on in most law schools. 

In 1998, Professor Ross established the International Women's Human Rights Clinic at Georgetown Law.  Through the Clinic, she and the Clinic’s Supervising Attorney and Teaching Fellow and their students have advocated for women's rights to equality and non-discrimination in the areas of marriage, divorce, and family; fought for equal rights to property and inheritance for marginalized rural women; defended women's and girls' rights to be free from gender-based violence and sexual abuse; and many other rights. 


The Clinic and its human rights partners in other countries have been behind major strategic litigation.  They have won cases in domestic courts and before the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women.  Some abolished the marital power of husbands over their wives.  Others struck down laws that deny women equal rights to divorce and inheritance.  Another found a violation in laws that made unwed mothers solely responsible for their children, while giving their unwed partner “optional paternity” rights.  That is, unwed fathers were free to completely ignore their children, including any obligation to provide for them.  Still another freed married women from the adultery crime that applied only to them and not to the married men who committed the same act.


The Clinic and its partners also won legislative victories.   The new statutes gave women equal rights in employment and protection against human trafficking, domestic violence, and female genital mutilation.  In all its work, the Clinic always uses ratified international and regional human rights treaties as one basis for its arguments.   It works closely with domestic human rights partners which are equally committed to the goal of domestic change in the constitutions or statutes of their countries, in order to comply with the country’s treaty obligations and protect human rights for everyone, but especially women.  Women need special attention because they are so frequently negatively affected by laws that blatantly discriminate against them or fail to protect them from egregious forms of violence and discrimination. 

Professor Ross and her colleagues and students, working in the Clinic, quickly realized that international treaties provide a powerful weapon for women in many societies, teaching them their rights and encouraging domestic and international pressure that eventually leads to substantial changes in outdated and oppressive laws. For example, one of the cases the clinic took on involved a court challenge to the customary inheritance law in Tanzania that excluded women from being able to inherit land and own property.   It also prevented them from serving as administrators of an estate.  When the courts ruled that the law was discriminatory but refused to issue a remedy, the Clinic and its partner, the Women’s Legal Aid Centre in Tanzania, took the case to the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women.  The Committee ruled that the law violated Tanzanian women’s CEDAW rights to equal treatment under the law with their husbands, and that the courts also violated their CEDAW rights by refusing to grant a remedy, as the treaty required.  Today, the Clinic is working with partners in Malawi on a proposal to grant women the right to legal and safe abortion in the first trimester.  That will save the lives of the hundreds of women who die each year in Malawi, because the criminal abortion law drives desperate women to seek unsafe and illegal abortions as the only way to get health care service they need.  While 59 percent of the world’s women have access to legal and safe abortions, thousands of women in countries that deny the right die each year as a result. 

For more information about the clinic’s work, please click here. 

Professor Ross has contributed greatly to empowering women and ensuring equal rights. She did so by encouraging her students to help women around the world fight for and achieve equal rights, she did so by working with partners in other countries to change discriminatory laws, and she did so domestically by leading the work on important legislation like the Pregnancy Discrimination Act and Family and Medical Leave Act. Her work on the Pregnancy Discrimination Act ensured that pregnant women and new mothers would have access to the same paid sick leave and health insurance as other workers receive for medical conditions, and that they are protected from being fired when pregnant. The Family and Medical Leave Act protected women’s right to parental leave, but also made sure that fathers have access to the same leave.  It also gave workers the right to a leave from work to care for sick children, spouses, and parents.  This structure ensures that both women and men can care for their families, while being employees as well.  It helps break down the old structure of women caring for the family at home, while the men were at work providing for the family.

Professor Ross demonstrates true commitment to advancing the rights of women and girls worldwide by addressing many issues that women face on a daily basis. Issues like safe abortions, divorce law, inheritance law, and protection from discriminatory policies at work are among the many issues Professor Ross worked on throughout her career. Especially impressive is her commitment to not only address domestic issues, but help women worldwide by working with domestic human rights partners in many countries and encouraging her students to focus on building alliances that can benefit women everywhere.

Professor Ross recognizes that as a global society, we have taken important steps forward and provided women with opportunities and protections when they are most vulnerable, but we have a long way to go. By encouraging her students and other young professionals to get involved and build international partnerships, Professor Ross wants to ensure that this important and labor intensive effort continues until the global community is able to fully protect the rights of women and girls everywhere. 

17 November 2020

2020 Louis B. Sohn Award Honoree Conversation

Interviewers:  Jill Christianson, Chair-Elect, UNA-NCA
Micayla Costa, Human Rights Committee, UNA-NCA


“…I believe in the power of creating opportunity for human beings through democracy, with a rich civil society, where people can express their thoughts without fear.  We need to stand behind those values.”


Dean Claudio Grossman’s leadership has advanced human rights, rule of law, and legal education with creativity and distinction.  His work has influenced both individuals and huge swaths of populations – both through 21 years at the Washington College of Law of American University and in key human rights roles within the Inter-American and United Nations systems.  He is Dean Emeritus at the Washington College of Law where he serves as the Raymond I. Geraldson Scholar for International and Humanitarian Law.


UNA-NCA: The Coronavirus pandemic has exposed great inequities – within and among nations.  We see examples not only in healthcare, but also with economic division, housing, hunger – and the increase in hate crimes based on race, immigration status, gender, and lgbt status.  What are the greatest lessons that we can take from this time?

CG:  This pandemic has made increasingly evident inequities existing among and within nations, and Covid-19 has a clearly disproportionate impact on the most vulnerable. 

The pandemic has shown us the importance of positive action by States to ensure access to health services and quality education, including health literacy. This requires the investment of resources and the mobilization of society as a whole. We must consider the most vulnerable – women facing domestic violence, people discriminated against for any reason, the elderly, minorities, immigrants and refugees, and people with disabilities, among others. Now it is undeniable that we need to include among those vulnerable populations that need special protection and consideration, those who work on the front lines endangering their lives and securing the provision of essential services and goods:  doctors, nurses, medical personnel, and those engaged in food production and distribution.  The pandemic has also shown the relevance of preventive measures (national and international), and the importance of medical and scientific organizations, as well as the role of the media in providing access to different sources of information.  Prevention becomes imperative as simply waiting for the next pandemic to impact the world is not an option we can afford.

Everyone should try to do whatever is possible in the context of her/his activities. I have presented a proposal to the International Law Commission, together with a colleague from Sierra Leone, to develop draft articles that would result in a convention to address actions to be taken in case of pandemics, including capacity building, international cooperation, and preventive measures.  We currently have a patchwork of norms that have proven to be insufficient.  There is a need for coordination, multilateral action and cooperation amongst States, with a common aim to protect everyone. 


UNA-NCA:  Prior to your experience as a political refugee at the age of 24, were there indications in your early life that human rights would be the pulse of your life’s work? 

CG:   I had taken for granted essential values such as the presumption of innocence, the prohibition of the retroactive application of criminal law, the importance of separation of powers and an independent judiciary, the value of freedom of expression and human rights in general. The military coup of 1973 revealed to me in a tragic fashion that those values cannot be taken for granted. I had sensitivity for human rights. I came from a family of immigrants to Chile. Learning about the atrocities of persecution and genocide, which were part of our family’s life and education, was very important since I was a child.  My father was a medical doctor, and my mother was a University professor. I went to a public school in Chile, which was very important to my parents.  Students came from different backgrounds, some students had holes in their shoes. There was also a tremendous pressure for all to be the same, and there were instances of discrimination and rejection for those who were different on different grounds.  The public school experience was essential for me to appreciate the whole mosaic of Chilean society and the need for its transformation, including the need to protect the most vulnerable. I was active in the student movement in the high school as President of the Federation of Students of my city, Valparaiso, and later as President of the Student Bar Association of the University of Chile, and as the Vice President of the Federation of University Students. Before the military coup, I was the Chief of Staff of the Secretary of the Government.  Undoubtedly, those experiences influenced my life, including the polarization existing in Chilean society, the destruction of democracy, and the mass and gross violations of human rights. I had to get political asylum at the embassy of The Netherlands in Santiago from where, after some time, I was allowed safe passage together with other refugees housed in their diplomatic mission to travel to their country. My experience in The Netherlands, the solidarity that many others and I received, also had a profound impact in my life, including in my commitment to human rights and international law. It is enough to say that I had a refugee passport for many years.



UNA-NCA: Within the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, you held the positions of special rapporteur on the rights of women.  As a man, how did that happen, and did it influence who you are today? 

CG:  I think that I was the first man ever to be the Rapporteur on the Rights of Women in the InterAmerican Commission on Human Rights.  When I was elected to the Commission, all seven members were men. I was sensitive to gender issues.  My wife was the director of external relations for the Pan American Health Organisation.  My two daughters were young at the time; they had a clear determination that under no circumstances are women less than men.  They had a tremendous sense of justice.

One day I came home and said, “I was elected to the Commission.”  They asked, “How many women?”  I said, “none.”  They said, “Resign!”  To keep my credibility at home, I created the position of Rapporteur on the Rights of Women.

My mother, when I was nine years old in 1965 in Chile, decided to study literature.  She wrote her doctoral thesis on the Theatre of the Absurd and became a literature professor.  Berta Guiloff was a role model, an exception to the life of women of her generation.

As you know, I work at the Washington College of Law at American University.  The law school was created by pioneer women who decided in 1896 to transform reality and act to achieve equal opportunities.  All these circumstances had a real impact in my life. I rejected early on the tremendous unfairness created by gender discrimination.  To keep my own intellectual honesty, my values, and my reputation at home, I proposed and took on this role as Rapporteur on the Rights of Women.

In the years prior to this, as I was in The Netherlands, I started with colleagues the Foundation for Legal Assistance for Chilean Political Prisoners, which we turned into the Center of Human Rights in the Netherlands that served political prisoners from every country.  The legitimacy of human rights exists regardless of the ideology of the victim or the perpetrator.  Women usually are ‘a prize’ in conflict.  In my work in the Committee Against Torture within the InterAmerican Commission, we promoted the concept that rape is torture, the rejection of marital rape and domestic violence, and highlighted the reality and impact of gender discrimination and sexual orientation discrimination.  All these issues are very important and need to be addressed by the society at large.


UNA-NCA: You serve on the UN International Law Commission and have served as Chair of the UN Committee against Torture.  Why is the human rights work of the UN critical in a time that States’ powers, as well as multinational corporates and financial powers, are so powerful?  As the UN celebrates its 75th anniversary, is the UN still relevant?

CG:  There are different forms of supervision in international law to evaluate the State’s compliance with international obligations.  The best supervision is judicial supervision, with independent judges, as is the case of the European Court, the Inter-American Court, the African Court.  The Human Rights Treaty Bodies of the United Nations are a form of semi-judicial supervision, since they resort to the law to issue interpretations of binding obligations that, at a minimum, are persuasive. Those bodies are composed by independent experts, giving legitimacy to their decisions. Needless to say, their work is very important, including the contributions of the Committee Against Torture. Lives are saved, processes leading to change are encouraged. However, there is serious resource scarcity.  Most human rights violations do not come to the United Nations level.  There are numerous instances of lack of compliance.  We have to continue to push for the realization of the goals laid out in the treaties. 

We have to continue to develop these instruments.  If they disappear, we lose the possibility of seeking and obtaining justice for people when their countries are unwilling or unable to do so.

The International Law Commission performs a different role: in a type of semi-legislative exercise, it presents to the States and the international community drafts articles, studies, and guidelines designed to codify and progressively develop international law. The Nuremberg principles, draft articles on state responsibility, and draft articles on international crimes are some of the products of the Commission’s work.

UNA-NCA:   What actions should Americans be taking to advance the United Nations and multilateralism, especially in respect to human rights?

CG:   There is always an important need for leadership; nothing happens automatically, hard work and commitment are necessary.  There is a need for the articulation of common policies and narratives to face serious challenges resulting from ideologies that reject human rights, democracy, and our common humanity. 

We see examples where international bodies elect violators of human rights from States that have committed mass and gross violations of human rights.   Our proper reaction should always be to roll up our sleeves and create a situation where this will no longer be possible. It is important to not abandon the field, but to exercise leadership in promoting the important values of human dignity.  I believe in those values. 

I don’t know if military power functions well, but I believe in the power of creating the opportunity for human beings and democracy, with a rich civil society, where people can express their thoughts without fear.  We need to stand behind those values.



UNA-NCA:  With your 21-year experience leading legal education at the Washington College of Law at American University, what is your legacy?

CG:  As Dean of the Washington College of Law, I was distinguished by having creative colleagues; together we promoted a yes culture designed to eliminate barriers that prevent creativity.  The Law School developed as an important center for international and domestic legal education.  We developed the Center for Human Rights, the Academy for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law, the War Crimes Research Office, programs in international commercial arbitration, intellectual property, business, and environmental law- to mention some. We expanded the clinics, our women, and the law program. The Law School became one of the most diverse in the country, reflecting the nation and world where we live in. We started our technological operation, including an on-line LLM.  We developed numerous student publications and LLMs and SJD programs, dual degree programs with universities abroad and specialized summer programs.  The international program began with one student from Spain and now we have 4000 graduates all around the world.  Our diverse alums contributed greatly to our expansion that allowed us to become a referent in important areas of legal education, breaking down artificial barriers that divide individuals and nations, providing superb education and building a state-of-the-art new campus.


UNA-NCA: When you think about the impact of the years of educating legal scholars and attorneys at Washington College of Law, who are now across the globe that is quite profound.


CG:  Absolutely! The Washington College of Law community are people who are addressing key issues of our time in different areas of the law, and in different countries, all sharing the important common experience of having studied in our school.


UNA-NCA:  What do you think of Chile now and the constitutional referendum?

CG:  After the restoration of democracy, Chile achieved important transformations, including the reduction of poverty from 40% to 8.6%, and the opening of the universities to the majority of the population. Rejecting prior practices of the dictatorship, the country did not have political prisoners, and there were no instances of journalists or labor leaders killed. The country reformed numerous institutions and celebrated free elections. However, serious issues remain, including access to quality education and health services, decent pensions, the need for equal opportunities, and the effective prohibition of discrimination of any kind. These issues called for a more inclusive society. A disconnect grew between the political system and the expectations and the demands of the society.  A very important pollster in Chile, Marta Lagos, wrote before the social explosion that took place a year ago that civil society was demanding with a megaphone that there was an urgent need for reform, but the political system was not listening.  The overwhelmingly majority of Chileans saw in the Constitution that originated in Pinochet the obstacle to advance in their societal demands. The Constitution required supermajorities for some transformations. 80% of Chileans have voted in the recent referendum to change the constitution and elect a constitutional assembly with parity participation by women. An existing process is now underway to build the consensus necessary to develop democratically in a more inclusive Chilean society.

UNA-NCA:  Lastly, what is your current favorite reading?

CG:  I love literature!  I have read almost every book by Haruki Murakami, a Japanese writer.  I enjoy reading Leonardo Padura, the Cuban writer of El hombre que amaba a los perros o Heretics.  Also, the novels of Russian author Vasily Grossman have a tremendous historical meaning exposing the dire consequences of dictatorial societies.  Mario Vargas Llosa said that literature is a way to “show with imagination hidden aspects of reality.”  When Kafka wrote about a man becoming an insect, perhaps he anticipated a reality that was forthcoming in Europe where human beings were treated as insects. Literature adds eyes to you.  Of course, as you can imagine, I read about law and international law in particular.

17 November 2020

2020 F. Allen "Tex" Harris Award Honorees Conversation

Human Rights Commitment Started Early,
By A. Edward Elmendorf, Past President UNA-NCA

In a wide-ranging conversation, UNA-NCA’s 2020 ‘Tex’ Harris Award recipients for human rights progress through diplomacy, Erin Barclay and Scott Busby of the U.S. Department of State, said that their development as human rights advocates began during their high school and college years.  Both were trained as lawyers but it was evident that their human rights interests, experiences, and concerns extend well beyond a traditional concern with rights as formulated in law. Our conversation showed that Barclay and Busby represent the best of what people in this country can do in public service under political leaders of widely varying views and administrations.

We spoke about how Barclay and Busby came to be human rights advocates on the global stage. Barclay’s experiences in Nicaragua and Poland, as well as addressing the topic of domestic violence, were important stimuli to her engagement in international human rights. She expressed special appreciation for the mentoring support she received from Dr. Isabel Marcus, Professor Emerita at the University of Buffalo School of Law, and Dr. Ann Snitow, formerly a professor at the New School for Social Research and a distinguished feminist and women’s rights activist. The notorious human rights abuses in Chile, Argentina, and Central America in the 1970s and 1980s helped give rise to Busby’s interest in human rights.  Lawyer and founder of Human Rights First Michael Posner was a mentor and then model for him, as was law professor Carolyn “Patty” Blum, who founded the International Human Rights Law Clinic at the UC Berkeley School of Law and worked to bring human rights abusers to justice.

For Busby, the work of ‘Tex’ Harris has also been an inspiration in Harris’ service as a U.S. diplomat in Argentina working to bring abuses to the attention of senior officials, who were working closely with the military-dominated government of the time and paid little attention to human rights problems.  He noted that Tex’s work helped to give rise to the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, where Busby currently works.  Busby also spoke of the inspiration he had received from Bayard Rustin, a 1960s African-American civil rights leader and organizer of the famous 1963 ‘March on Washington’ who later extended his work to international human rights advocacy; and Joe Eldridge, founder of the Washington Office on Latin America and long-time human rights activist on Central America.  Eldridge, it should be noted, received the UNA-NCA Sohn Award in 2007.

Both Barclay and Busby encouraged young professionals wishing to develop careers in international human rights to travel and do human rights work in other countries. For them, there’s no substitute for the ‘feel’ that people get through extended exposure to human rights and other issues, concerns, and abuses outside the United States. Barclay strongly encouraged human rights advocates to develop a large ‘toolbox’ of skills and experiences on which to draw, and not to limit themselves to one discipline, such as law or political science, or even one region of the world. Gaining experience in problem-solving could be a great help, she said.

Busby and Barclay underscored the importance of the United States domestic record on human rights as a factor in its promotion of the rights of people around the world.  Americans often fail to understand how significant the U.S. posture and problems are for other countries.  They both noted the significant impact of the civil rights and women’s rights movements on activists around the world, including in the UN.  (Acceptance of this interaction of national, global, and even local developments in the field of human rights was limited during my years of work on human rights at the U.S. Mission to the UN in New York in the 1960s. At that time the United States discouraged examination of the U.S. domestic human rights record at the UN.)

Both Barclay and Busby saw the UN’s humanitarian system and actions, through UNHCR, WFP, and beyond, as outstanding examples of UN success on human rights.  Similarly, the work leading to UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace, and Security, and especially the follow-up on the Council’s action at the country level, were UN success stories, which build on U.S. experience. The examination of countries’ human rights performance through the Universal Periodic Review was a positive development, in the view of both Busby and Barclay. They also cited the actions of UN special rapporteurs on human rights and fundamental freedoms such as freedom of expression, freedom of association and the right to peaceful assembly, and freedom of religion or belief, and, at the country level, on North Korea and Iran, as UN successes. Last and certainly not least, they mentioned also the work of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Asked what they were most proud of in their work as human rights advocates and leaders, Barclay spoke of the work of the entire team of people who contribute to what the U.S. says and does internationally on human rights.  Busby was, he said, particularly proud of his work on cases of asylum seekers, persecuted human rights activists, and political prisoners. Speaking of why the UN’s work on human rights is important to him, Busby highlighted the value of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  The Declaration, he said, has served to spread shared values throughout the world, and he observed that it probably could not be successfully negotiated today. 

Speaking of how the UN’s work on human rights could be strengthened, Busby and Barclay stressed the need for more democratic countries to become active in UN bodies seeking to advance human rights. They noted that countries standing for election to the Human Rights Council should be expected to defend their human rights record publicly, including in response to questions from diplomats and especially civil society representatives. Finally, they underscored the importance of mainstreaming human rights throughout the UN system.

12 November 2020

UN75: Past. Present. Progress.

This October, the United Nations celebrated its 75th anniversary.  Over the past year, the United Nations, United Nations Association of the USA (UNA-USA), and the United Nations Association of the National Capital Area (UNA-NCA) have both celebrated and examined the first 75 years of the organization in order to better understand what the next 75 years should look like.  One major part of this were the global consultations hosted by private citizens, civil society, and other groups, which UNA-NCA took great  part in.  As the grand finale of this monumental year, UNA-NCA hosted a series of events to further celebrate and examine the future of the UN.  These included more casual, intimate gatherings such as our annual Eleanor Roosevelt Happy Hour and a virtual edition of our Young Professional Career Series featuring Careers in the United Nations.  UNA-NCA also hosted two high profile events including our special October 15th “UN75 Coffee Chat: The Future We Want” featuring Congressman Jamie Raskin (D-MD-8).

As the zenith of our UN75 celebrations, UNA-NCA recently hosted the last installment of our celebration of United Nations Month 2020 entitled “UN at 75: Past. Present. Progress. Building The Future We Want.” The event took place virtually, featuring Keynote Remarks by Ms. Ulrika Modéer, Assistant Administrator and Director of the Bureau of External Relations and Advocacy at the United Nations Development Program. Following her remarks, Ms. Modeéer engaged in an expert discussion with Dr. Robert Orr, Dean of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, and Special Advisor to the UN Secretary-General on Climate Change, that was moderated by UNA-NCA President Paula Boland. Also included in the celebration, was the presentation of the 2020 UNA-NCA Edison Dick Advocacy Award to The Honorable Barbara Lee, Congresswoman for the 13th District of California. 

The evening began with remarks from UNA-NCA  Chair of the board Stephen F. Moseley. Moseley introduced the event and spoke on the miraculous activities that not only the United Nations has accomplished over the past 75 years and the hope that it continues, but also the amazing activities that UNA-NCA  does every day. Following Moseley’s remarks, there was a video presentation from the Secretary- General of the United Nations, António Guterres. The Secretary-General  commended all the work the United Nations Association has done and called for “International cooperation from all countries for the next 75 years.” This was followed by the presentation of the Edison W. Dick Advocacy Leadership Award to The Honorable Barbara Lee, Congresswoman for the 13th District of California. She was honored with this award for her work on H.Res. 1024, Recognizing the 75th Anniversary of the Establishment of the United Nations, and H.Con.Res. 100, Urging the Establishment of a United States Commission on Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation. Ms. Modeer gave her keynote address following Congresswoman Lee’s acceptance of the award. She spoke on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and the progress that has been made on the 2030 Agenda. She also cautioned the amount of progress left to make saying “the pandemic has been a siren call” on how much more work is needed. At this point in the event, Dr. Orr joined Ms.Odeer for a Q&A moderated by UNA-NCA President Paula Boland. They covered a wide range of topics with Orr giving a domestic view and Odeer giving a more global view. Some of the discussion included the Sustainable Development Goals and how meaningful they are for local actors here and across the world. 

Participants had the unique opportunity to engage in UN75 Consultation Report Breakout Sessions on the following topics: Global Health, Peace & Security, Gender Equity, Human Rights, Sustainable Development, and International Law.  The main discussion was focused on the climate change crisis and how it affects all of the various aspects of the world. Some other topics that were discussed include the various changing political landscapes across the world (ex. The U.S. election), how to get to the better world we all want, and how poverty can affect your point of view on various issues. The evening was wrapped up with a beautiful euphonium performance by Jordan Moore of Ferdinand David's Concertino for Trombone. Congratulations on 75 years and to the next 75!


13 October 2020

Announcing the Emerging Leaders program

UNA-NCA’s Emerging Leaders program aims to provide youth leaders with the tools and support they need to develop their advocacy skills. As an Emerging Leader, students of all ages, including middle and high school, as well as undergraduates, will have the opportunity to connect with mentors, gain professional development skills, get published on UNA-NCA Snapshots, and advance their knowledge of sustainable development and the UN agenda. Candidates will come out having a demonstrated passion for human rights and social justice.

Ready to get involved? Apply here.
Applications will be reviewed on a rolling basis.


30 September 2020

International Data Sharing and Artificial Intelligence Cooperation in Global Public Health Emergencies: A Virtual Roundtable

Report produced by the UNA-NCA Peace and Security Committee

Events presented on: Wednesdays, August 19, September 2, and September 16, 2020

The United Nations Association of the National Capital Area (UNA-NCA) along with its Peace and Security Committee hosted a series of panel discussions, entitled “International Data Sharing and Artificial Intelligence Cooperation in Global Public Health Emergencies: A Virtual Roundtable.”  The events took place virtually and welcomed panelists and participants from all around the world, including the Kingdom of Spain, France, Malta, the People's Republic of China and New Zealand.  All three panels were moderated by Mr. Patrick Realiza, Co-Chair of the UNA-NCA Peace & Security Committee The program provided a platform for discussion among global health experts, government officials, data scientists, researchers, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning practitioners and privacy advocates. The panelists all shared their perspectives on pressing issues related to Big Data and AI in the COVID era, including transnational data collaboration and data privacy.

Panel 1 - Opportunities and Challenges to International Data Cooperation in the COVID Era

The first panel discussion, entitled, “Opportunities and Challenges to International Data Cooperation in the COVID Era”, featured Mr. Hosuk Lee-Makiyama, Director of the European Centre for International Political Economy (ECIPE) and Dr. Ellie Graeden, who is the Founder and CEO of Talus Analytics and has studied the role of Big Data in global infection disease prevention. 

As moderator Mr. Realiza began the program by asking Mr. Lee-Makiyama and Dr. Graeden to define the concepts of Big Data and AI and to describe their impact on global affairs. Mr. Lee-Makiyama explained that Big Data and AI is something that we all have come in contact with in our day-to-day lives, or have already heard much about, whether it is cloud-based services such as Alexa, drones, or maybe even automated vehicles. Mr. Lee-Makiyama further explained that AI has witnessed increasing relevance on the global front, with Europe at the forefront of AI regulation. Dr. Graeden discussed how algorithms used by AI can help assist decision-makers. She explained that the core of AI involves deciphering statistics at scale and applying traditional techniques to large data sets in order to make sense of them.

Mr. Realiza then asked the panelists to discuss how governments use Big Data in addressing global pandemic needs. Dr. Graeden discussed how data has been collected globally, is shared across borders, and allows her team to understand global health conditions within multiple disciplines such as medicine, health systems, policies and economics. 

Mr. Realiza then moved onto another compelling question: How do governments place restrictions on cross border transfers of data? Mr. Lee-Makiyama delved into the consequences of digital protectionism and explained that it prevents market access and can also create market fragmentation. According to him, national governments have used creative ways to stop trade for the “public’s interest.” Mr. Lee-Makiyama also discussed how COVID-19 has amplified many problems that already existed in regards to digital sovereignty and highlighted the importance of uniform standards across data. 

Other questions that were addressed during this webinar included: What is the impact of cloud computing on international data sharing? What role can small enterprises play in COVID-19 data collection? And do international norms exist for data sharing? Both speakers brought very insightful discussions to the panel, resulting in an enlightening and thorough understanding of the questions at hand. 

Panel 2 - Data Sharing, AI Cooperation and the Transnational Response to COVID-19

The second panel was dedicated to the issue of transnational collaboration among researchers to support the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The panel featured Dr. Pascal Fung, Professor at the Department of Electronic & Computer Engineering and Department of Computer Science & Engineering at the Hong Kong University of Science & Technology (HKUST) and Dr. Miguel Luengo-Oroz, Chief Data Scientist at United Nations Global Pulse in New York City.

Dr. Luengo-Oroz opened the program by reminding the audience how AI can help combat global pandemics on three different levels. On a molecular scale, AI can help scientists identify promising coronavirus vaccine candidates. On a local scale, AI can also track outcomes for different types of patients and help hospitals decide how many intensive care unit (ICU) beds to deploy. On a societal scale, AI can also measure the efficacy of public health policies and track misinformation about the pandemic.

Professor Fung explained how Natural Language Processing (NLP) tools allowed her and other researchers to create a platform that extracts and summarizes relevant information from around 70,000 publications on the COVID-19 pandemic. She shared her optimism about the engine and emphasized that several UN member states are already using the publicly available platform to better combat the pandemic. Professor Fung echoed Dr. Luengo-Oroz’s concern about the spread of misinformation and stated that she would like to broaden the platform to analyze data beyond scientific publications. 

Mr. Realiza then asked Dr. Luengo-Oroz to describe the role of the UN Global Pulse in facilitating international data cooperation. Dr. Luengo-Oroz explained that the initiative supports all UN Agencies and emerged as a result of the 2008 global financial crisis. In his view, both the current pandemic and the financial crisis emphasize the need for international cooperation in a fast-changing world. The UN Global Pulse works towards that goal by collaborating with, and providing high-quality data to, all UN agencies. 

Both panelists also highlighted how ethical challenges are integral to the use of AI in public health research. Dr. Luengo-Oroz emphasized that the data sets used to train AI are sometimes drawn from specific categories of individuals and may also introduce algorithmic bias due to their lack of appropriate representation. Professor Fung expressed a “great concern” regarding the Chinese contact-tracing system’s combined use of personal data and geolocation.

In closing, Mr. Realiza synthesized some themes and highlights from the rich presentations and conversations. Mr. Realiza encouraged all attendees present at the virtual event to help take on the shared work. 

Panel 3 - Protecting and Advancing Data Privacy as We Battle Global Pandemics

The final panel was dedicated to the issue of health data privacy and featured four leading figures in the field of data privacy: Mr. Joseph Cannataci, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Privacy; Mr. John Edwards, New Zealand Privacy Commissioner and member of the Global Privacy Assembly Executive Committee; Ms. Sophie Kwasny, Head of the Council of Europe’s Data Protection Unit; and Ms. Katitza Rodriguez, International Rights Director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. 

Mr. Realiza began the program by asking Mr. Cannataci to discuss his mandate as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Privacy. Mr. Cannataci explained that his role was created in the aftermath of Edward Snowden’s revelations, but that he eventually created an international task force to develop guidelines on health data. The Rapporteur indicated that he had presented a series of recommendations to the UN Assembly last year and is expected to publish a report in the spring of 2021. The report will discuss data privacy in the COVID-19 era. 

Mr. Edwards described New Zealand’s contact-tracing application as a “digital diary” and emphasized the importance of evaluating the impact of contact-tracing applications scientifically. The Commissioner discussed the tradeoffs between manual contact tracing, New Zealand’s Quick Response (QR) code system, and Bluetooth handshakes enabled by Google and Apple’s application programming interfaces (APIs). Mr. Edwards concluded his initial intervention by stating that he was “pleased” with New Zealand’s “conservative approach” to contact-tracing.

Mr. Realiza then asked Ms. Kwasny to explain the role of the Council of Europe’s Data Protection Unit. Ms. Kwasny pointed out that the Council of Europe is a pan-European international organization that shares the European Union’s commitment to human rights. Unlike the European Union, the Council of Europe includes countries such as Russia and Turkey and is not based on the principle of political integration. She explained that Convention 108, and its modernized version Convention 108+, offer international standards for data protection. Ms. Kwasny also stated that Convention 108+ is an instrument of “global relevance” that it is open to ratification beyond European countries. At a national level, it helps national governments reaffirm their attachment to data protection. On a global scale, Convention 108+ establishes standards that could help facilitate better digital data flows and create a space of “trust and reciprocity.”

As International Rights Director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Ms. Rodriguez argued that all COVID-19 related technologies should provide sufficient safeguards and should be governed by the principles of necessity, legitimacy and proportionality. Ms. Rodriguez also stated that the use of contact-tracing applications should always be voluntary and argued that location tracing is not sufficiently granular to protect data privacy. Highly aggregated data on the other hand, may provide greater data privacy protections than anonymized or de-identified data. Ms. Rodriguez also explained the main differences between centralized and decentralized contact-tracing systems and ultimately argued that decentralized systems provide greater data privacy protections because they do not share personally identifiable data with government officials. 

All panelists agreed on the need for continued cooperation among data privacy experts, advocates and regulators. In her final remarks, Ms. Kwasny noted that the European Court of Justice in Luxemburg ruled that the data transfer agreement “Privacy Shield” failed to adequately protect European citizens’ data and pointed out that a certain level of protection “has to be afforded to allow [global] data flows.” She expressed her confidence about the future of data privacy and invited all UN member states to consider adopting Convention 108+ as the new international data protection standard.  

In conclusion, the virtual roundtable series collectively convened close to 100 attendees from around the globe and highlighted the importance of data sharing in the ongoing battle against COVID-19. As noted by the majority of the panelists, the challenges brought forth by the current pandemic are not entirely new to the global stage, but institutions at the local, national and international levels must strive to work more collaboratively than ever before to effectively address the impact of technologies such as AI and cloud computing. Furthermore it is important to keep in mind the necessary integrity that should be put into practice when it comes to health data privacy. There is no one size solution to this crisis and may never be one, but collaboration is still possible if countries are willing to share their respective ideas and best practices with one another. In the end, this series shed greater awareness of the continuing challenges to data security, but also gave participants hope and the chance to see the benefits of a more globalized and data driven world which could very well just be on the horizon following the conclusion of the pandemic.

24 September 2020

Mourning the Loss of a True Hero for Women Rights and Human Rights. We Must Keep Up her Fight!

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a hero in every sense of the word. Her recent loss is devastating to us all.

Justice Ginsburg led a truly remarkable life. Appointed by President Clinton in 1993, she became the second woman ever to be sworn in as a justice for the country’s highest court. 

She devoted her life to lifting up others and breaking down barriers for all people. There was no obstacle too large and no setback too great in the fight for equality and justice. She was an advocate for progress with an unwavering commitment to the Constitution and her pursuit of equality and justice for all Americans.

I came to know about Justice Ginsburg’s legacy when I was pursuing my Masters in Law degree in the United States. As I reflect on my professional journey, starting as a young female attorney working in the private and public sectors, and later through my career in nonprofit management, I am grateful for the opportunities Justice Ginsburg forged for women and for instilling the call for living a meaningful life. 

Justice Ginsburg spent her career protecting marginalized communities and lifting others up. “If you want to be a true professional, you will do something outside yourself, something to repair tears in your community, something to make life a little better for people less fortunate than you.”

As a working mom, I follow her guidance when seeking balance, finding parenting not to be an obstacle to success but rather a relief and inspiration “Each part of my life gave me respite from the other.”   

If Justice Ginsburg taught us anything, it is to keep up the fight. She showed us why we must never give up. The best way to honor such a remarkable legacy is to remain vigilant in our shared struggle for justice and equality through education and advocacy.

Paula Boland
National Council Chair, UN Association of the USA
President, UN Association of the National Capital Area

UNA-NCA is compiling an advocacy resource centered on how Justice Ginsburg’s life and legacy can continue to guide and inspire for years to come. Below are excerpts of some testimonials from UNA-NCA leaders and more to come next week!

Stephen Moseley, UNA-NCA Chairman of the Board

"Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's lifelong devotion to equitable justice and human rights for all, especially for Women and Girls and for LGBTQ rights has changed the judicial landscape and culture in America and around the world during the past four decades, since her appointment to the Supreme Court by President Clinton. More than anyone perhaps she mirrored in her life a resounding commitment to many of the principles set forth in the US constitution, but also the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is as essential today as it was when adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948..."  

Sultana Ali, UNA-NCA Vice Chair of Communications

"How do you measure a loss as wide as a nation, as deep as our collective hearts, as high as the mountain of accomplishments you have battled for, and won for us all? One person may never fill your shoes, but together, we will keep moving America down the path toward a better future that includes us all—the mighty and the weak; the rich and the poor; women, men, non-binary, nonconforming, and all the children, whomever they choose to be or love. For you showed us that there are no limits to the human heart, and no barrier is high enough to keep us from our destiny..." 

Richard Seifman, UNA-NCA Board at large member

"Notorious RBG’s tireless efforts to expand the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to cover women, men, and every sexual orientation, and her defending of the Affordable Care Act from legal attack, are of immeasurable value for all Americans. As we globally face new challenges to equal opportunity to health, housing, and employment, as well as equitable access to a vaccine in this Covid-19 pandemic period, her constant strong voice for a just society will be profoundly missed worldwide."

Karen Mulhauser, UNA-NCA Past President

"I will mourn the passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg for the remaining days of my life. In my view, the best way to celebrate her amazing legacy is with action! Action includes education and advocacy for the values that she advanced throughout her life – but it also means what I call extreme advocacy, which is supporting the candidates, the policy-makers, who support the policies that are important to me. RBG understood that if we do not use our democracy we can lose it..." 

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