Rededicating Ourselves to the Unfinished Task Which Lies Before Us

by Anthony D. Romero, Executive Director, American Civil Liberties Union

On December 9, 1948, Eleanor Roosevelt stood before the United Nations General Assembly in Paris, France, to argue forcefully for the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in reply to Soviet resistance. As chairperson of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, Roosevelt played a pivotal role in the drafting of the document she hoped would become “the international Magna Carta of all men everywhere” after the horrors of the Second World War. Roosevelt’s hard work paid off. At 3 a.m. on December 10, the Declaration was adopted.

During her speech earlier in the night, Roosevelt did something important. She called forth the moral power of America to champion the Declaration and create an international system where basic human rights were respected. “Taken as a whole,” she said, “the Delegation of the United States believes that this is a good document — even a great document — and we propose to give it our full support.”

Nearly seven decades later, American support has crumbled.

Today the United States is governed by an administration that has contempt for the values the Declaration enshrined as the natural rights of humanity. Instead of “freedom, justice, and peace,” President Donald Trump has made fear, injustice, and a systematic retreat on civil rights his administration’s guiding principles. At this very moment on International Human Rights Day, the Trump administration is in gross violation of the Declaration’s human rights standards as well as core American ideals that influenced the document.

Nowhere is this more evident than in President Trump’s refugee restrictions.

According to Article 14 of the Declaration, “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” The Trump administration, however, has flagrantly ignored this key tenet. Since coming into office, President Trump has taken a hard line against refugee resettlement, overwhelmingly of Muslims, in the United States.

For example, Trump’s first Muslim ban directed the government to stop all refugee entries for 120 days, barred Syrian refugees indefinitely, and cut the number of refugees the U.S. would accept this fiscal year from 110,000 to 50,000. In late June, the Supreme Court let the administration’s 120-day refugee ban go into effect. When it finally ended in October, the administration couldn’t let well enough alone. Instead, it cruelly extended it for citizens from 11 countries, citing national security concerns. Nine of the countries, not surprisingly, are majority Muslim. This move came on top of the Trump administration’s decision in September to cut refugee admissions to less than half — 45,000 people to be precise — of what the Obama administration had proposed for the coming year.

We all know what this means. Men, women, and children, who could be saved, will die.

The Trump administration is also resurrecting the Bush administration’s unlawful program of secret detention without charge or trial. In September, Syrian forces transferred to the U.S. military an American citizen accused of fighting for ISIS. The military has held the man ever since without revealing his identity, charging him with a crime, or giving him access to a lawyer as required by the U.S. Constitution and human rights law. This secret detention implicates multiple protections of the Declaration. The U.S. government is effectively depriving one of its own citizens of fundamental rights, like access to counsel, the right to challenge detention, and “a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal.” As we know all too well, secret and incommunicado detention without access to a court creates conditions in which torture and other cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment prohibited by Article 5 of the Declaration can flourish. While there’s no evidence the Trump administration has revived the Bush administration’s torture program, the human rights community must remain vigilant.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump declared that “torture works,” boasted of how he loved waterboarding, and how he would “absolutely authorize something beyond waterboarding.” And just last month, Trump met with Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte, who has been accused of using death squads to murder drug suspects. That doesn’t seem to bother President Trump, who said he has a “great relationship” with Duterte. After a joint appearance in Manila, Trump ignored reporters’ questions about human rights. He has rarely spoken about human rights on any of his international trips.

Eleanor Roosevelt would be ashamed that this is the America Trump presents to the world. She believed the U.S. had a responsibility to be a global force for human freedom and dignity. Instead, the Trump administration is sabotaging the U.S.’s commitment to human rights while giving aid and comfort to authoritarian regimes.

Still, even in these dark times, I believe Eleanor Roosevelt offers an example of how to keep the flame for human rights burning bright in America. During the end of her speech to the U.N. General Assembly in December 1948, she told the delegates that it was essential to “rededicate ourselves to the unfinished task” of living up to the values enshrined in the Declaration. Almost 70 years later, Roosevelt’s torch has passed to us, and I see it everywhere. I saw it at the Women’s March. I saw it in the thousands of people who descended on our nation’s airports to protest the Muslim ban as it went into effect. And I saw it in professional football stadiums and high school gymnasiums across America as people took a knee to protest racial injustice.

Our duty now is to keep that torch lit and make sure that it once again finds a home in the White House.


Anthony D. Romero is the Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union, the nation's premier defender of liberty and individual freedom. An attorney with a history of public-interest activism, Romero has presided over the most successful membership growth in the ACLU's history and a large increase in national and affiliate staff. This extraordinary growth has allowed the ACLU to expand its nationwide litigation, lobbying, advocacy, and public education programs. Full bio >>

Human Rights in Today's World

by Randy Newcomb, President and CEO, Humanity United

For the last 10 years, I’ve had the privilege of leading Humanity United (HU), an organization dedicated to bringing people together to address some of humankind’s toughest problems. Over this period, we’ve seen the ways that division and dehumanization contribute to problems like violent conflict and human exploitation around the world. We’ve also witnessed the better nature of humanity when people join together to advance the ideals of dignity and mutual respect.

These ideals were codified by the United Nations on December 10, 1948 in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a cornerstone of the modern human rights movement that proclaimed the inherent dignity and equal and inalienable rights of every human being - regardless of race, color, religion, sex, language, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.

Although our focus at HU has traditionally been global, as a U.S.-based organization with offices in San Francisco and Washington, DC, it is impossible to ignore the challenges to these ideals that have emerged here at home.

The diversity of backgrounds, beliefs, and perspectives in our country – which have for so long been recognized and celebrated as our strength – are now being used to polarize and divide people along political, socioeconomic, religious and racial lines. These divisions have been enabled by a number of factors – a failure to listen, to connect, to tap into basic empathy for our fellow human beings, and yes, a failure of leadership.

And in this place, I’m faced with one thought and one question: First, Humanity United’s mission has never been more relevant. And, second, how I can lead an organization named “Humanity United” to advance human dignity around the world when the principles on which we are founded are being challenged right here at home?

To be sure, political perspectives and ideals are important, and differences can actually help us examine our beliefs and find new solutions. Religious convictions are core to many of our neighbors and should be respected and celebrated. Whether one believes the U.S. is stronger in a globalized world or with a more introspective national focus is important, but in my mind secondary to the question of why we are allowing these different perspectives to replace the values that make us human. In today’s cultural landscape, too often we have chosen to suspend empathy, compassion, and understanding – some of humanity’s greatest strengths. And when we do this, we are missing out on that which makes us most human, our ability to love and connect.

I believe we are at a critical moment, as a people, where we must decide the kind of country we want to be, what values do we hold most dear, and what kind of world we want to live in. If, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice, then I am hopeful that we will emerge from this era of polarization and fear into a new era of optimism.

With renewed purpose, we at Humanity United will continue to support the ability of all of us to be treated justly, both globally and right here at home. We will continue to choose empathy over hate, unity over division, and dignity over disparagement. And as we consider the ideals articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and celebrate its anniversary, I hope others will join us in this stand.


Randy Newcomb is the President and CEO of Humanity United. He leads all aspects of Humanity United’s strategic planning, development, and operations. He works closely with the organization’s founders and Board of Trustees to ensure that HU achieves its long-term mission and strategic objectives. Prior to joining HU, Randy was a Vice President of Omidyar Network, a philanthropic investment firm, where he focused on developing global partnerships and investments across a variety of sectors. Full bio >>

One Year Later, The Resistance Looks Ahead

by Leah Greenberg, Co-Executive Director, Indivisible

After the 2016 election, my husband Ezra and I gathered a group of friends in our living room and asked: what do we do now?

At the time, we were focused on the making it through the first days of the Trump administration. We knew Trump’s worst threats could pose imminent danger on vulnerable communities. We weren’t imagining grand new possibilities for our democracy. We were thinking in days, not years.

We’d worked on Capitol Hill in the early Obama years, and watched in horror as the Tea Party movement rose across the country and reshaped what was politically possible. We disagreed with their ideology and their resorts to violent intimidation, but we thought they had a core strategic insight: local, defensive congressional advocacy worked. And at the end of the day, the success of President Trump’s agenda wouldn’t depend on Trump. It would depend on whether members of Congress chose to go along with it or not.

So we drafted a guide to local congressional advocacy, in which we demystified congress and gave people the practical information they needed to resist effectively, taking control of their home turf. We thought we were writing a casual reference book for our friends to share with their families. We were stunned when the document, the Indivisible Guide, went viral across the country and burgeoned into the Indivisible Movement championed by thousands of local chapters throughout the country.

What we didn’t understand when we wrote the guide was the power of building volunteer communities dedicated to action. Building progressive constituent power in every community in the country, these local Indivisible chapters became the “wild card” in the resistance against the Muslim travel ban, defunding of Planned Parenthood, DACA repeal, Affordable Care Act repeal and the latest tax scam. Through local rallies, town halls and protests infused with passion and creativity, they reshaped the national conversation by playing defense and fighting on issue advocacy in 435 districts. They demonstrated the extraordinary potential of constituent power in American democracy.

As we come up on the one year anniversary of the Resistance movement and of Indivisible, we have an opportunity to look around at the amazing, dedicated new leaders who have emerged across the country and the organizations they have created.  

In Virginia, Indivisible 757 showed up at their Republican congressman’s town halls in force. Then they supported their founder as she put her name on the ballot for state delegate, in a district where Democrats hadn’t even fielded a candidate in years. In Illinois, Indivisible Chicago created a system of phone banks to help alert progressives in red states to take action on health care. They also got engaged in fighting the deeply problematic Interstate Cross-Check voting program, and uncovered game-changing evidence about its security flaws that made national headlines. In California, Indivisible Yolo helped stiffen Senator Feinstein’s spine to resist the Trump agenda with calls and town halls, while also mounting a successful campaign to get an unaccompanied child from Honduras out of a local detention center and into a loving foster home.

Over and over, we’ve seen Indivisible groups build structures designed to act as bulwarks for resisting the Trump agenda at the congressional level, and then use those structures as platforms to support change in their communities and beyond. Now, the task for us is twofold – ensuring these structures are going to last, and turning our advocacy power into electoral power.

Indivisible groups saw their electoral strength at play this November with the sweeping progressive victories nationwide. Over 180 active Indivisible groups in Virginia engaged in this election through phone banking, texting, and canvassing for our delegate targets. They helped flip several seats from red to blue and elect progressive candidates who ran for previously uncontested seats or represent a more inclusive pool of candidates, such as Danica Roem as the state’s first openly transgender lawmaker, Elizabeth Guzman and Hala Ayala the first two Latina delegates, and Kathy Tran the first Asian-American woman delegate.

This year’s victories won by constituent power have proved that grassroots organizing works. And the pivot to electoral work has shown that people who organize to show up at town halls will organize to get out the vote – and they’ll win.

Democracy is not a spectator sport. If you want to see real change, you have to stand up, show up, or even run for office – even, and especially, when the odds are stacked against you. The movement is still in the making – and we can only begin to imagine the things we will do.


Leah Greenberg is Co-Executive Director of the Indivisible Project and co-author of Indivisible: A Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump Agenda. She previously served as Policy Director for the Tom Perriello for Governor of Virginia campaign, managed a public-private partnership on human trafficking, served as an Advisor to the State Department’s Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, coordinated interagency engagement for the State Department's Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, and worked on the Hill for Congressman Tom Perriello.

Let the Sun Shine on Democracy

by Desmond Meade, President, Florida Rights Restoration Coalition

The current grassroots effort to restore the ability to vote to over 1.68 million Floridians grew out of Florida’s failure to remove the remaining elements of Jim Crow policies.

Florida has disfranchised more than 1.68 million Floridians. With the distinction of being the worst state in the country as it pertains to restoring civil rights, Florida requires an individual to wait either five or seven years. In addition, Floridians are burdened with an approximately six-year application processing time that virtually extends the time frame to 11 to 13 years. To make matters worse, during the four years prior to the current administration coming into office, the average amount of individuals whose rights were restored slowly trickled to a measly 48,000. And during Florida Governor Rick Scott’s first year, the number of individuals whose rights were restored numbered a paltry 52. Indeed, it comes as no surprise — though it nevertheless should remain a shock to our conscience — that Florida’s disfranchisement policies remain the harshest and most anti-democratic in the country. The projected progress of Virginia, therefore, calls on us to reflect upon the lack of progress in Florida and why automatic rights restoration should be a paramount priority in our “sunshine” state.

While there are many reasons to support automatic civil rights restoration, I want to focus on two. First, civil rights restoration plays a vital role in ensuring successful re-entry back into society by encouraging formerly incarcerated individuals to become healthy citizens who make positive contributions in our communities; in the process, public safety is also greatly enhanced. But don’t take my word for it. In 2013 Virginia’s own Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli echoed the findings of former Florida Governor Jeb Bush’s Re-Entry Task Force in stating that “about 95 percent of those who go to prison come back out into our communities,” and just like the task force recognized, Cuccinelli agrees that civil rights restoration “benefits society as a whole by potentially reducing recidivism.” Florida Parole Commission’s own study revealed that Florida’s recidivism rate was reduced from 33.1 percent to 11.1 percent among those whose civil rights were restored.

Second, automatic civil rights restoration reflects the spiritual basis of redemption and forgiveness, which we should strive to preserve at the core of our humanity and society. Too often our policies are misinformed by knee-jerk condemnations of and callousness toward individuals with prior felony convictions, without considering that individuals — after making mistakes and serving their sentence — can change for the better. The reluctance or inability to adequately factor redemption and forgiveness into policies has unfortunately led to grossly disproportionate punishments by unfairly conferring upon formerly incarcerated individuals a permanent criminal status, a form of stigmatization that degrades not only such individuals but also the communities in which they live and our nation as a whole. Consider for a moment that, in Florida, almost 70 percent of incarcerated individuals were convicted for nonviolent offenses. Consider that, in Florida, our government routinely strips away rights even for offenses such as driving with a suspended license, disturbing the nest eggs of turtles, burning a tire in public, catching a lobster whose tail is too short, and most recently, for releasing heart-shaped helium filled balloons in an attempt to show affection for a loved one.

As a Christian I am reminded of when Jesus was on the cross and the thief asked for forgiveness. Jesus Christ did not tell the thief that he had to wait five or seven years before being able to enter heaven. Jesus Christ said, “This day! you shall enter heaven.” As Christians, we did not have to wait a probationary period before being forgiven. How then can we justify making an American citizen who made a mistake, and serve their time, wait more than a decade before being allowed an opportunity to have the right to vote restored, or a fair opportunity to provide for their family? How can we expect forgiveness for our sins if we are not willing to forgive others? Like former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, I too believe that when someone commits a crime they must be punished, but, echoing his expressed sentiments, I also believe that those who have completed the sentence for their crimes “deserve a second chance to fully rejoin society and exercise their civil and constitutional rights.”

The right of an American citizen to exercise arguably the most critical expression of citizenship should not be denied. Nor should the decision on whether an American citizen regains the rights to vote be left in the hands of a select few politicians whose decisions are often arbitrary and motivated by partisan politics and corporate interests. Over a century ago, the Framers of Florida’s Constitution drew a conceptual line in defense of individual rights, saying to arbitrary and autocratic power that, from whatever official quarter it may advance to invade vital rights of American Citizens, “thus far shalt thou come, but no further.” Traylor v. State, 596 So. 2d 957 (Fla. 1992).

Today, the time to draw a definitive line in Florida has come. Automatic rights restoration enhances our public safety, affirms our humanity, and promotes democracy. Standing by disfranchisement, standing on the sidelines, ignoring cries for democracy, and delaying restoration of rights will only serve to further entrench injustice. Instead, let’s stand together on the side of justice and make sure that when the sun shines in Florida it beams democracy on all its citizens.

Follow me on Twitter @DesmondMeade


Desmond Meade is a formerly homeless returning citizen who overcame many obstacles to eventually become the current State Director for Florida Live Free Campaign, President of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC), Chair of Floridians for a Fair Democracy, Chair of the Florida Coalition on Black Civic Participation’s Black Men’s Roundtable, and a graduate of Florida International University College of Law. Full bio >>

The Case for Community

by Leah Hunt-Hendrix, Co-Founder and Executive Director, Solidaire

When we think of “human rights” we often think about the rights of an individual, up against a community, a government, or a corporation who might seek to violate those rights. These rights are something we say we deserve, simply because we are human. But to truly address our individual rights we need to also think about the health of our communities.
Over the past five years, I have spent my time raising awareness and resources for organizations that are trying to transform the fabric of society.  When Alexis de Tocqueville traveled around the US in the 1830s he commented on the thick webs of communities and civic organizations. But today, as Robert Putnam notes in Bowling Alone, our society has become increasingly fragmented. We are more and more characterized by an individualism that leaves each of us to fend for ourselves. Our country is increasingly polarized. It’s hard to imagine an America more divided than we are in this moment.
The task today is to reconstitute a sense of the common good. But to do so, we must examine the structures that hold injustice in place, and think about communities as the site of power to challenge those structures. Community is the space in which we create agreements, laws, and consequences; it is the space in which we can take collective action to shift policies and norms. Individual flourishing and community flourishing are bound together, inextricably interwoven.
At this current juncture, I believe restoring a sense of community or the common good will require at least three things: First, we have to fight for greater economic equality. Ganesh Sitaraman writes in The Crisis of the Middle Class Constitution that the founders of our republic believed that we would be a country of relative equality. They didn’t need to address class warfare in the constitution because they assumed that we wouldn’t have starkly opposed classes, as existed in the old world. But today, the contrast is astounding. The top one percent controls 38% of the nation’s wealth. While some have billions, others are working three minimum wage jobs to get by. In this context, Nick Hanauer worries that “the pitchforks are coming.” We are at risk of social collapse under the weight of this inequality and we must take significant action if we are to avert this crisis.
Second, an “all boats rise” strategy is not enough. We know that systemic racism pervades our society and it must be dealt with directly. In Dog Whistle Politics, Ian Haney Lopez shows how racism is used as a wedge, to divide those with shared interests. Seizing on the tendency towards white supremacy, the ruling class has sown antagonism between low income people in a way that has allowed those in power to roll back regulations on corporations, cut the tax rate, and allow for an unprecedented state of corporate control. Lopez argues that we will not be able to truly address today’s inequality without addressing the role of racism. We have to tackle our prejudice head on, understanding the fears that might motivate it, but unwilling to allow those fears to prevail.
Finally, to address these first two structural problems, we need empowered communities. There is a tendency, at least in philanthropy, to try to solve problems through technocratic solutions. But most of the issues regarding the abuse of human rights involve unjust power differentials. Whether it’s sexual assault and harassment, or rights to privacy, or economic rights, we will not rectify inequities without organized constituencies that are demanding change. As the saying goes, power does not give itself up willingly. “Inside-the-beltway” strategies, which focus solely on policy or high-level diplomacy, will fail unless there is sufficient community-based power holding decision makers accountable. To truly change oppressive structures, we need to build mass movements with a vision of a more just society for all. 
It is a sad and scary moment in our history. Threats abound: from climate change, to political upheaval, to our fragile economy. The only way through this is together.  


Leah Hunt-Hendrix is the co-founder and Executive Director of Solidaire, a donor community dedicated to funding progressive social movements. She has her PhD from Princeton University, where she studied political theory and philosophy, and wrote a dissertation on the concept of solidarity. The focus of her work is on progressive political power, economic justice and racial justice. She is from New York, and has lived around the world, including in Egypt, Syria, and the West Bank. She currently lives in San Francisco.  


Barefoot Lawyers, Communities, and the Earth: Legal Empowerment and the Struggle for Stewardship

By Vivek Maru, CEO, Namati

The global human rights movement has made extraordinary progress, at least by the letter of the law. Many countries now enshrine basic rights in national legislation. But people continue to struggle to exercise those rights in practice. The UN estimated that four billion people worldwide live outside of the law's protection. For them, the law is an abstraction, or worse, a threat. They can be driven from their land, extorted by officials, and intimidated by violence.

This profound global rights gap is nowhere more urgent than in the realm of environmental and climate justice. Research demonstrates that secure community land rights are a necessary precursor to successfully addressing deforestation, food insecurity, and poverty. Time and again, we see that when communities have secure governance over their lands, they choose to conserve and wisely steward their resources – creating a bulwark against the destabilization of key resources like water, soil, and agricultural crops due to rising temperatures.

Yet nearly half of the world’s people do not have secure rights to govern their lands. Meanwhile, these same lands are vulnerable to increasing foreign investment interest and speculation by national elites. As demand for (cheap, unregulated) land increases while climate stability decreases, rural communities around the world face imminent threats to their homes, lives, and livelihoods.

These external destabilizing influences often set off a cascade of multiple and overlapping intra-community challenges. Often the divisive tactics of investors create community divisions, while infrastructure development degrades livelihoods. Elites may make back-room deals with local leaders, undermining community trust of those leaders.

It is only when local communities are empowered to claim their rights – both customary rights and those enshrined in national law – and fully participate in decision-making about their customary lands, that we find positive outcomes for sustainable resource stewardship and community resilience in the face of climate change.

To help achieve these outcomes worldwide, Namati champions an approach—grassroots legal advocates, sometimes known as barefoot lawyers or community paralegals—for placing the power of law in the hands of people. The advocates are trained in basic law and in skills like mediation, organizing, education, and advocacy. Paralegals help people to understand, use, and ultimately shape the law.

For example, in 2015, paralegals in Sierra Leone worked with ten communities in the north of the country to secure a more equitable lease agreement between the communities and a logging company. They successfully negotiated provisions for the protection of traditional or sacred grounds, profit sharing with communities, and protection from environmental harm.

In Myanmar, paralegals work with farmers who have suffered land-grabbing by the military under decades of dictatorship, offering practical advice on land laws to a much larger group of people than could be assisted by lawyers alone. Since 2013, Namati and several grassroots groups have helped nearly 10,000 farmers across seven states to protect their land rights under new Burmese law. Thousands of farmers have received land use certificates, and thousands of hectares of grabbed land have been returned to small-hold farmers.

Paralegal casework can also inform lasting policy change. In India, intensive paralegal efforts on several mining cases – resulting in valuable evidence about how the laws work in practice – gave advocates the information they needed to call for strengthened federal mining regulations. As a result, the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change included the paralegals’ proposed changes in an amendment to the relevant law.

Paralegals offer a practical, effective method for enabling communities to assume their rightful roles as primary stewards of their lands and resources. And paralegal experience in pursuing land and environmental justice can inform regional, national and even global advocacy on environmental protection. In the context of increasing resource scarcity and a shifting climate, respecting the rights of people closest to the land is essential to preserving our most precious shared resources. It is also what justice demands.

 To learn more about Namati’s impact click here.

Vivek Maru is the CEO of Namati. Namati and its partners deploy grassroots legal advocates to take on some of the greatest challenges of our times including protecting community lands, seeking environmental justice, securing citizenship rights and realizing the right to health. Just this year Vivek and Namati received the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship. Watch his acceptance speech here. Previously, Vivek co-founded and co-directed the Sierra Leonean organization Timap for Justice, which has been recognized by the International Crisis Group, Transparency International, and President Jimmy Carter as a pioneering model for delivering justice services in the context of a weak state and a plural legal system. He also served as senior counsel in the Justice Reform Group of the World Bank. His work focused on rule of law reform and governance, primarily in West Africa and South Asia.

From Global Warming to Genocide Warning: Climate Change and Mass Atrocities

by Dr. Simon Adams, Executive Director, Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect

In the winter of 2006 Syria experienced the beginning of the most crippling drought in its recorded history. By 2009 key crops had declined by more than half, plunging almost a million people into food insecurity. In the northeast of the country farmers lost 85% of their livestock as wells dried up and farm animals died. About 10% of the population saw their livelihoods wiped out. During the three-year drought, more than 1.5 million Syrians fled from their farms, migrating to Aleppo, Damascus, Homs and other urban centers.

Rising temperatures and declining rainfall afflicted the entire Fertile Crescent, where agriculture was first born about 11,000 years ago, but fell particularly severely upon Syria. The ruling Assad family didn’t create the drought, but decades of dictatorship and dysfunctional policies around water management and unsustainable agriculture exacerbated its consequences. Facing poverty, hunger and water scarcity, resentments accumulated on the periphery of Syria’s cities and in the countryside. Then came the “Arab Spring.”

The confluence of these events has caused some to draw a causal link between them. In the words of US Secretary of State John Kerry, “It’s not a coincidence that immediately prior to the civil war in Syria, the country experienced its worst drought on record.” Environmental disaster intensified the “political unrest that was just beginning to roil and boil in the region,” adding stress on cities plagued by crumbling infrastructure, social inequality, overcrowding and corruption. In this scenario, climate change helped ignite the most bitter and bloody civil war of our times, providing a disturbing portent of our potential future.

Threat Multiplier

Kerry is not alone in identifying a disturbing credible connection between climate change and deadly conflict. Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan argued in his Millennium Report that climate change “may increase social and political tensions in unpredictable and potentially dangerous ways.” In 2014 the US Department of Defense described climate change as a “threat multiplier,” noting that a rise in global temperatures may “intensify the challenges of global instability, hunger, poverty, and conflict,” posing a particular threat to already fractured societies.

These challenges may also increase the possibility of mass atrocity crimes – genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. Although the UN’s Framework of Analysis for Atrocity Crimes does not specifically address global warming, there are two risk factors that are directly relevant: motives or incentives, and triggering factors. Triggering factors could include environmental changes that drastically affect entire societies, including severe drought or natural disaster. Motives or incentives could potentially include a dramatic widening of inequality because of climate change, including food and water scarcity, environmental degradation, and the political manipulation of access to precious resources. But does the existing evidence support this grim prognosis?

In 2007 UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon linked climate change to the outbreak of deadly conflict in Darfur, arguing that a harsh drought had resulted in armed hostilities between settled farmers and nomadic herders. In 2012 deadly inter-communal clashes between Orma and Pokomo communities in Kenya’s Tana River Delta were perceived as being primarily driven by tribal animosities and political rivalries. However, the two ethnic communities were actually fighting over water access, scarce grazing land and tensions arising from land development.

Fighting between semi-nomadic herders and settled farmers has also occurred in Ethiopia, Central African Republic and elsewhere, sometimes escalating to the level of mass atrocity crimes. For example, in Nigeria rising temperatures and drought have caused Fulani herdsmen to migrate further south than ever before. In doing so, they have clashed with established agricultural communities. The fact that the Fulani herdsmen are mainly Muslim and the communities they are battling are predominately Christian has deepened animosities in a country that is already experiencing deadly conflict. While Boko Haram’s atrocities have attracted international headlines, there have been at least 6500 deaths resulting from violence between the Fulani and other communities in Nigeria since 2010.

Extended dry seasons, caused by climate change, could have a similar effect on ethnic conflict in South Sudan, where traditions of cattle raiding between competing communities of Neur, Murle and Dinka have increased in longevity and violent intensity over the last decade. Meanwhile in Yemen, growing water scarcity has had a direct impact on the conduct of the country’s civil war. Armed forces on both sides have deliberately targeted infrastructure in order to deprive rival civilian populations of access to water, effectively weaponising climate change.

Where governance is weak, the threat posed by climate change looms largest. There are predictions that accelerating climate change could potentially displace between 50 and 250 million people globally. It will also increase global hunger and the regularity of catastrophic environmental events. The resulting pressures may limit the capacity of some governments in the developing world to fulfill their basic functions.

We have already experienced this firsthand in relation to the 2014-2015 Ebola epidemic in West Africa. Understandably, the governments of Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone prioritized the health emergency over programs to consolidate the rule of law, dealing with past conflicts, and strengthening human rights institutions. Similar re-prioritization may occur in the face of expanded environmental crises with a long-term impact on political stability and economic development.

In 2010 the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law released a study of African governments’ institutional resilience to potential challenges presented by climate change. Of the 53 African states studied, the ten most fragile were (in descending order) Cote d’ Ivoire, Guinea-Bissau, Burundi, Zimbabwe, Comoros, Chad, Central African Republic, Sudan, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Somalia. Seven of those have already endured mass atrocities in their recent history, or are experiencing them now. This is the context in which climate change could reignite old conflicts or create conditions for new predatory politics.

2° Temperature Rise = Genocide?

Nevertheless, it is important not to conflate climate change, conflict and the risk of mass atrocities. At least one study has used historical data regarding temperature variation in Africa to argue that “a 1˚ C increase in temperature” leads to “a 4.5% increase in civil war.” But predictive modeling developed from such studies runs the risk of being wildly misleading. There is certainly no evidence that a one or two degree increase in global temperatures will automatically increase the likelihood of genocide in Africa or anywhere else.

I come from a “sunburnt country” and have personally experienced extended drought. But water scarcity in Western Australia has never resulted in civil war or a refugee exodus as it has in Syria. Similarly, no one is trying to bomb Southern California’s depleted water reservoirs like they are in Yemen. And herdsmen are not migrating south from Oregon to kill people and secure access to fertile grazing lands in Silicon Valley.

This should remind us that political history and economic development play an indispensable role in all of this. Indeed, even in areas most vulnerable to climate change and extreme conflict, the results are not universally negative. Water management in the Lake Chad Basin and the threat posed by Boko Haram has actually enhanced cross-border cooperation between Nigeria, Chad, Niger and Cameroon. Climate change undoubtedly threatens the future of our planet, but it might also enhance diplomatic collaboration.

Mass atrocities are the result of a convergence of vulnerabilities, of which climate change is just one. In the future ethnic warlords, authoritarian rulers and aspiring demagogues will undoubtedly use the consequences of climate change to mobilize support. But to quote Vesselin Popovski of United Nations University, “what will drive their fight is not the rain, the temperature, or the sea level.” The primary causes of conflict will remain raw politics and naked economics.

Precisely because climate change is a global problem, it provokes us to think beyond borders. From the Paris Agreement and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, to upholding our international responsibility to protect, the solution lies in severing the link between climate and survival for those people and places that are most susceptible to the ruinous effects of climate change. This should give us hope. Mass atrocity crimes are incited, organized and perpetrated by human beings. That means that like climate change, they can still be prevented by human beings.

Dr. Simon Adams, Executive Director of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, has worked extensively with governments and civil society organizations in South Africa, East Timor, Rwanda, and elsewhere. Between 1994 and 2002 Dr. Adams worked with Sinn Féin and former IRA prisoners in support of the Northern Ireland peace process. He is also a former anti-apartheid activist and member of the African National Congress in South Africa.

Making History at Standing Rock: Tribes Are Leading Action to Preserve the Planet

by Trip Van Noppen, President, Earthjustice

In North Dakota, thousands of people are now encamped on the banks of the Cannonball River to oppose the Dakota Access pipeline with the Standing Rock Sioux.  Routed through sacred sites, the $3.8 billion pipeline would transport Bakken oil under the Missouri River, where a break or leak would poison water for Standing Rock and potentially millions of people downstream.  Members of at least 280 tribes and First Nations have come from around the U.S. and Canada to peacefully demonstrate, making this the largest gathering of tribes in generations.  Delegations of indigenous peoples have come from as far away as New Zealand and the Ecuadoran Amazon, and more people arrive every day. “It’s powerful. It’s one of the most beautiful things that I’m fortunate to witness,” says David Archambault II, Chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.   

It’s a historic moment and one that matters to the climate movement.  Beyond the massive Dakota Access pipeline, the Standing Rock Sioux have joined 49 other tribes and First Nations to create a united front against the full suite of new pipelines and other proposed infrastructure projects that would entrench dependence on oil.  This leadership offers new hope for keeping oil unburned.  But it is reductive to call Dakota Access the “next Keystone” as many commentators have done.  Above all, this is a fight for justice, tribal sovereignty, and fundamental rights to protect land and water, to keep culture and “survive as distinct peoples,” as Leonard Peltier recently put it.    

For my organization, Earthjustice, it is an extraordinary privilege to represent the Tribe in a lawsuit challenging the federal government’s deeply flawed process for permitting the pipeline.  This 1,200 mile-long project is going forward without any comprehensive environmental review or meaningful consultation with the Tribe, as Dakota Access secured the necessary approvals from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers using a self-service permitting scheme that is urgently in need of reform.  While the Corps has insisted that the Tribe’s concerns about threats to water are unwarranted, the pipeline’s original route was shifted toward Standing Rock when it became clear that a leak or a spill would contaminate drinking water in the relatively prosperous, overwhelmingly white city of Bismarck.  The Tribe did not have any meaningful say in that decision, and now the Tribe bears the risk of poisoned water.  Meanwhile, the companies building the pipeline have rushed to bulldoze and destroy ancestral burial grounds that lie in the route’s new path.  

For the Sioux, it’s a painfully familiar story.  As Chairman Archambault wrote in a recent op-ed that ran in The New York Times:

This is the third time that the Sioux Nation’s lands and resources have been taken without regard for tribal interests. The Sioux peoples signed treaties in 1851 and 1868. The government broke them before the ink was dry. When the Army Corps of Engineers dammed the Missouri River in 1958, it took our riverfront forests, fruit orchards and most fertile farmland to create Lake Oahe. Now the Corps is taking our clean water and sacred places by approving this river crossing. Whether it’s gold from the Black Hills or hydropower from the Missouri or oil pipelines that threaten our ancestral inheritance, the tribes have always paid the price for America’s prosperity.

To say that America’s prosperity comes at the tribes’ expense is a gentle critique given the history.  Fossil fuel development and its flip side, climate change, represent a new assault on the tribes, and that injustice resonates around the world.

Indigenous people including the Standing Rock Sioux are unifying in an unprecedented way to combat that injustice, and they are enjoying tremendous success.  This past spring, the Lummi Nation successfully enforced their treaty-protected fishing rights to block the largest coal port proposed in North America.  Shortly before that, the Lax Kw’alaams First Nation in British Columbia turned down $1.5 billion from the oil giant Petronas, blocking a massive liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant in fragile salmon habitat.  And these inspiring efforts are not exclusive to North America.  Invoking their traditional land rights, the Wangan and Jagalingou peoples of Australia are standing between India’s Adani Group and what would be the world’s biggest coal mine (and another blow to the Great Barrier Reef).  Meanwhile, in India, tribal protests are blocking an extraordinary number of new coal mines—at great personal risk to the protesters involved.  These are just a few examples among many.

The common thread is that indigenous peoples around the world are leading essential action to preserve the planet.  To quote Rebecca Adamson, the founder of First Peoples Worldwide, “It is not a coincidence that 80 per cent of the world’s remaining biodiversity is to be found on indigenous lands.” 

With the gathering of so many indigenous leaders at Standing Rock, there is an unprecedented opportunity —and pressing need —to support their efforts in a sustained way that honors their priorities.  Adamson makes the point that “less than one tenth of a percent of the hundreds of millions of aid and philanthropic dollars going to prevent, mitigate and adapt to climate change goes directly to indigenous peoples.”  Even putting aside the unfairness of that allocation, it is out of step with the outsize contribution that indigenous leaders are making.

Which brings us full circle to progress in the Dakota Access fight.  On September 9, a federal district court denied the Tribe’s request for a court order blocking further construction, but minutes after the opinion issued, the Justice Department and the Army Corps issued a joint statement announcing their desire to revisit approvals for the project in light of the Tribe’s concerns.  The Corps has deferred the grant of final approvals needed to route the line under the Missouri River, and the agencies have promised to initiate “a formal, government-to-government consultation,” stating that “this case has highlighted the need for a serious discussion on whether there should be nationwide reform with respect to considering tribes’ views on these types of infrastructure projects.”  While the future of the Dakota Access pipeline is still very much in question, this remarkable announcement represents a dramatic shift in position and tone by the U.S. federal government.  That shift is a testament to the power of the movement that is growing in North Dakota. Now is the time to help it grow.

Earthjustice wields the power of law and the strength of partnership to protect people’s health; to preserve magnificent places and wildlife; to advance clean energy; and to combat climate change.  We provide free legal representation, communications and other support to a broad array of clients including tribes and indigenous peoples throughout the U.S. and around the world. 

Trip Van Noppen serves Earthjustice as its President, leading the organization's staff, board, and supporters to advance its mission of using the courts to protect our environment and people's health. After earning degrees from Yale and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Trip clerked for a federal district judge from 1980–82. He then practiced law in Raleigh, NC, from 1982 until 1997, in a litigation practice emphasizing civil rights, employment, environmental, and toxic tort cases. In 1998, Trip joined the Southern Environmental Law Center and became director of that organization’s Carolinas Office. Both in private practice and at SELC, Trip has handled a variety of environmental cases and cases involving access to the courts. He was named North Carolina’s “Air Conservationist of the Year” in 1996 and has taught environmental justice as a visiting scholar at Duke University.

Imagining Freedom

By Caitlin Heising, Philanthropy Research Associate, Article 3 Advisors.

I couldn’t believe that only six months ago, the man in a suit standing onstage at SFJAZZ telling us about his three wives (Halle Berry, Sandra Bullock, and – “would you believe it” – Kim Kardashian) had been in prison. In fact, this charming man, Anthony Ray Hinton, had spent the last 30 years on Alabama’s death row, most of the time in solitary confinement, for a crime he did not commit. So, of course, Mr. Hinton had not actually married these three beautiful women. He let his colorful imagination come up with love stories and world travels to escape the daily prison monotony and occasional smells of burning flesh coming from the nearby electric chair.

Mr. Hinton is not alone in this inhumane circumstance, though he was fortunate to have Bryan Stevenson, the Founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, as his lawyer. In addition to exonerating innocent death row prisoners, Mr. Stevenson puts forth a powerful argument that in our country, slavery did not end, but rather evolved. Generations later, its legacy is continuing racism in a society where a black person is six times more likely than a white person to go to prison for the same crime.

The failure to face our history and reform abusive policies and practices has served to reinforce a corrosive legacy affecting our country’s legitimacy around human rights. The U.S. now has the largest incarceration rate in the world with 2.3 million people imprisoned along with 7 million on probation or parole. Out of the 9.3 million people in the correctional system, 1 in 3 are African-American.

Currently, the prison system makes $74 billion in profit, the gross domestic product of 133 nations. There is something fundamentally wrong with this situation, which should be recognized as an unacceptable human rights abuse that also weakens America’s moral authority around the world. If we systematically disregard the rights and dignity of people within our borders, how can we expect to have a say in, let alone positively influence, the advancement of international human rights norms abroad?

Considering the extent of this broken system, Article 3 Advisors, the human rights philanthropy consultancy led by The Philanthropy Workshop board members Darian Swig (TPW 2005-2006) and David Keller (TPW 2001-2002), chose to focus on U.S. criminal justice reform for its annual event commemorating International Human Rights Day on December 10th. A3A Human Rights Day brought together advocates, philanthropists, and politicians to hear firsthand from Mr. Hinton, Mr. Stevenson, and other experts and practitioners in the U.S. criminal justice system. With more than 100 people in the room listening raptly to Mr. Hinton’s story and hearing from visionaries such as Van Jones and George Gascón about what needs to be done, we joined an important conversation with humanity, dignity, and freedom at its core.

The proximity was powerful, almost palpable, as many people were brought to tears hearing how Mr. Hinton was kept locked up even after solid evidence of his innocence emerged 16 years before he was finally released. The system in which he found himself did not have to listen to him, his lawyers, or even concrete facts. The powerful players involved could – and still can – choose to look away, or forget, or villainize innocent people for being poor and black.

What’s badly needed, according to Mr. Stevenson, is a change in the narrative we collectively tell ourselves. We need to start actively remembering our country’s history of slavery, lynching, resistance to the civil rights movement, and Jim Crow segregation, rather than continuing to try to move on by burying it in the depths of history books. Our culture attempts to suggest that slavery is a thing of the past when really it has evolved into a legacy of racial inequality. As we can tell from today’s systemic poverty, endemic institutional discrimination, police brutality, and skyrocketing incarceration levels, our current incognizance of the deep ties between slavery and mass incarceration has not served to realize “a more perfect union.”

In a significant first step to this end, Mr. Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative are embarking on a capital campaign this year to build the Montgomery Memorial to Peace and Justice, which will memorialize lives lost to lynching in towns throughout the South. To achieve real change, we need to identify and challenge some of the stories our culture tries to tell.

In another life, Mr. Hinton could have been a comedian, politician, professor – he has the type of charisma that keeps you hanging on every word. Our unfair criminal justice system denied him the opportunity to live free and realize his potential. Yet he said he has no anger or regrets; he forgives the individuals involved in his unjust ordeal. He is clearly living his purpose now, sharing his story around the country to humanize our incarcerated masses and bring about systemic change. I can say that everyone at A3A Human Rights Day was inspired by his openness, resilience, and hope. Let’s act now, following Mr. Hinton’s lead, to make our country one that truly creates opportunity and freedom for all.

To learn more about the history of racial injustice in America from slavery to mass incarceration, click here to view an animated film from Equal Justice Initiative.

The Man on Death Row Who Changed Me

Today, on International Human Rights Day, we are closing out our U.S. criminal justice reform blog series with a post by Bryan Stevenson, Founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative. His post is an essay adapted from his best selling book, Just Mercy. In it, he reflects on an experience from his law school days and the impact it had on the trajectory of his career. To view the entire blog series, click here.

We’ve chosen to focus on U.S. criminal justice reform on International Human Rights Day because we believe that the failure to face our history and reform abusive policies and practices reinforces a corrosive legacy affecting domestic legitimacy; and thus, our ability to advance international human rights norms abroad.  It is our hope that by putting the U.S. criminal justice system in the spotlight, we join an important conversation with humanity, human dignity and freedom at its core.


The Man on Death Row Who Changed Me

The visitation room was 100 feet square, with a few stools bolted to the floor and wire mesh running across the room. For family visits, inmates and visitors had to be on opposite sides of the mesh. Legal visits, on the other hand, were “contact visits” — the two of us would be on the same side of the room to permit more privacy. I began worrying about my lack of preparation. I had scheduled to meet with the client for one hour, but I wasn’t sure how I would fill even 15 minutes with what I knew. I sat down on a stool and waited until I heard the clanging of chains on the other side of the door.

The man who walked in seemed even more nervous than I was. He glanced at me and quickly averted his gaze when I looked back. He was a young, neatly groomed African-American man with short hair — clean-shaven, medium build — wearing bright, clean prison whites. He looked immediately familiar, like everyone I grew up with, friends from school, people I played sports or music with, someone I’d talk to on the street. As the guard left, the metal door banged loudly behind him.

I walked over and offered my hand. The man, who had been convicted of murder, shook it cautiously. We sat down.

“I’m very sorry,” I blurted out. “I’m really sorry, I’m really sorry, uh, O.K., I don’t really know, uh, I’m just a law student, I’m not a real lawyer.” Despite all my preparations and rehearsed remarks, I couldn’t stop myself from apologizing repeatedly. “I’m so sorry I can’t tell you very much, but I don’t know very much.”

He looked at me, worried. “Is everything all right with my case?”

“Oh, yes, sir. The lawyers at S.P.D.C. sent me down to tell you that they don’t have a lawyer yet,” I said. “But you’re not at risk of execution anytime in the next year. We’re working on finding you a lawyer, a real lawyer.”

He interrupted my chatter by grabbing my hands. “I’m not going to have an execution date anytime in the next year?”

“No, sir. They said it would be at least a year.” Those words didn’t sound very comforting to me. But he just squeezed my hands tighter.

“Thank you, man,” he said. “I mean, really, thank you! I’ve been talking to my wife on the phone, but I haven’t wanted her to come and visit me or bring the kids because I was afraid they’d show up and I’d have an execution date. Now I’m going to tell them they can come and visit. Thank you!”

I was astonished. We began to talk. It turned out that he and I were exactly the same age. He told me about his family and his trial. He asked me about law school and my family. We talked about music and about prison. We kept talking and talking, and it was only when I heard a loud bang on the door that I realized I had stayed long past my allotted time. I looked at my watch. I had been there three hours.

The guard came in and began handcuffing him; I could see the prisoner grimacing. “I think those cuffs are on too tight,” I said.

“It’s O.K., Bryan,” he said. “Don’t worry about this. Just come back and see me again, O.K.?”

I struggled to say something appropriate, something reassuring. He looked at me and smiled. Then he did something completely unexpected. He closed his eyes and tilted his head back. I was confused, but then he opened his mouth, and I understood. He had a tremendous baritone that was strong and clear.

Lord, lift me up and let me stand,
By faith, on heaven’s tableland;
A higher plane than I have found,
Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.

It was an old hymn they used to sing all the time in church where I grew up. I hadn’t heard it in years. Because his ankles were shackled and his hands were locked behind his back, he almost stumbled when the guard shoved him forward. But he kept on singing.

His voice was filled with desire. I had come into the prison with such anxiety and fear about his willingness to tolerate my inadequacy. I didn’t expect him to be compassionate or generous. I had no right to expect anything from a condemned man on death row. But that day, I could hear him as he went down the hall, until the echo of his earnest, soaring voice faded. When it had gone, the still silence of that space sounded different from when I entered. Even today, after 30 years of defending death-row prisoners, I still hear him.

Bryan Stevenson is the Founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama. Mr. Stevenson is a widely acclaimed public interest lawyer who has dedicated his career to helping the poor, the incarcerated and the condemned. Under his leadership, EJI has won major legal challenges eliminating excessive and unfair sentencing, exonerating innocent death row prisoners, confronting abuse of the incarcerated and the mentally ill and aiding children prosecuted as adults. Mr. Stevenson has successfully argued several cases in the United States Supreme Court and recently won an historic ruling in the U.S. Supreme Court banning mandatory life-without-parole sentences for all children 17 or younger are unconstitutional. Read more >>