Monday, December 9, 2019

Human Rights Awards Interview with Ambassador Suzan Johnson Cook

Ambassador Suzan Johnson Cook
F. Allen "Tex" Harris Human Rights Diplomacy Award

Interviewer: Beth Akiyama, UNA NCA Human Rights Committee Secretary

Suzan Johnson Cook has represented the United States in 28 countries and more than 100 diplomatic engagements, bringing faith leaders and women to the Religious Freedom table. Additionally, she has been the faith advisor to two U.S. Presidents, three cabinet secretaries, as well as political and celebrity leaders.  On the front lines of 9/ll, she helped New York and our nation through traumatic times, and become known as “America’s Chaplain”. She served Harvard’s Divinity School as an Associate Dean, and Faculty member for three years, as a President’s Administrative Fellow. Her alma mater, Union theological Seminary, awarded her with the UNITAS and Trailblazing awards, as well as the Activist Scholar Fellowship for two years. She also was a Fellow at Catholic University of America, where she concentrated on women and Peace Building.  Ambassador Johnson Cook’s passions are education, desiring to shape a generation of 21st century scholars, and enhancing the role women play as leaders, both domestically and internationally.  Her Pro-Voice /Pro Voz Movement is in direct response to seeing first-hand the lack of access, and the lack of women at corporate, political and diplomatic tables worldwide. Her movement helps Black, Latina and Asian women become both a political and economic force, through  connections, celebrations and conversations, and mentoring them into key leadership positions.

UNA-NCA:  Can you tell us about yourself and what lead you to get involved in human rights work? 

SJC: First I want to say I am very grateful and honored because Tex Harris is such an icon and I appreciate his work so much.

I was born into a civil rights family, I’m what you call a “Civil Rights Baby”.  Certainly “civil rights” is “human rights”.  

My parents were Southerners, born in the Deep South during Jim Crow segregation.  They moved to the North and had us, but we went South every summer. You know you connect to your roots, particularly your maternal roots.  You lived on the farm with your relatives. Rich, rich time, but you were in the midst of the segregated South. I remember as a kid being stopped all the time.  We’d go down and they’d see these Northern license plates. We’d stop and I remember not being able to eat at certain counters when we would go shopping downtown on Main Street with my grandmother.  I was small but I remember it because it was just so prevalent. So I was born into a consciousness of things not being right. My parents as well as their friends who were Black and primarily Jewish in New York, were very involved in the Martin Luther King Civil Rights Movement and the Civil Rights March.  And I remember being a little girl and sitting in the basement of Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem while our parents all took these buses to the March on Washington. I was about 5 or 6. It was 1963. They didn’t take the kids, but we were taught the Freedom songs and why our parents were going. And so on black and white TV we’d look for our parents in the mass of about 100,000 people.  So I knew that things were not right, but I knew my parents and their extended family were fighting for things to be right. So I took on that mantle. You couldn’t escape it, it was part of the fabric of our life. In our homes we talked about it, in our churches we talked about it. So I was very moved as I entered my teenage years and then when I entered the ministry with a consciousness that we are supposed to live out the dream.  We are supposed to have rights for children, for teens, for adults, no matter what their skin color.

At 14 I went to Spain on a semester abroad.  When I came back it was really the beginning of the Latinization of America.  My neighborhood in the Bronx was becoming heavily Puerto Rican at the time. You had Blacks you had whites you had Puerto Ricans. Now I’m bilingual in Spanish and English coming back and so I’m able to translate for my playmates and parents.  I just understood that you have to be global, the rights are for everybody. I would defend my friends, because usually there were just one or two Puerto Ricans in my class. We had been the minority before, so I was like, “You can’t treat people like that, you know.”  That first generation. So I always was kind of like a Freedom Fighter. 

I didn’t know how it was going to play out, but I knew it was going to be global after that trip to Spain. I knew I was going to be a Freedom FIghter in some respect and I knew what I wanted for our family had to be for everyone else.  So it’s great to be “privileged” in the sense of having privileges, but then everyone should have the same access and rights to that. So that’s what started my journey.

UNA-NCA:  Has there been an event or experience that has had a continuing impact on your life? 

SJC:  Faith has been the common denominator throughout my life.  It was my faith community that has sustained me, that has encouraged me.  As a kid, they were like “Where are you going to college?” And I was like, “I’m just reading Dr. Seuss books!” And they were, “OK. And where are you going to college?” So they helped me keep focused.  They helped me be encouraged. They celebrated when different occurrences happened in my life. So it was the faith community that has been the common thread all the way through my ambassadorship.  

We were part of the churches of Harlem and there was a church on every block. It was a very united community. The Church was a very integral part of the community.  We would have intergenerational parties, so our pastor, our parents and the kids would be at the same table.  We learned how to socialize in a clean, good way. Our standards were always high. We would look for good men like our fathers, because we were always around strong men.  Families were intact and they cared about their kids, it wasn’t like we were to the side we were always involved. So the faith community was critically important throughout my life, to this day.  

UNA-NCA:  What are you most proud of in regards to human rights in your service as an ambassador? 

SJC: It was not just about success, but about a word I call “significance” that I was able to make an impact in many places for many people.  Sometimes your “presence” is the greatest “present”. I remember being in Saudi Arabia and the diplomatic table was all men, except me, and then there was a second ring of chairs around that table, against the wall and the women had to sit on the outer circle.  The women had their hijabs on and you could only see their eyes, but they looked at me and they were smiling. Afterwards they passed me their card. That’s when Pro Voice started for me: “You have to amplify our voice for us when we can’t do it.” So I am most proud that I was able to get to the table.  So my thing is, I’ve been the first, but I hope I am the first of many.  That’s really what I wanted to be, the door opener, and that’s what I think I am most proud of.  

UNA NCA: Do you have any heroes or role models that you’d like to share with us? 

SJC: Certainly Rosa Parks.  Martin Luther King, Coretta Scott King.  I always zero in on the women! I am the god daughter of Coretta Scott King and I would always sit with her and just admire her.  She didn’t have to be up front, but she had a major role and a major impact. Not only on Dr. King, but on the Movement. It’s that quiet strength that I like.  It doesn’t always have to be up in your face. She was this quiet, brilliant, beautiful strength. I really admired Coretta Scott King.  

Then, she wasn’t famous, but my mother was just the bomb!  She had the package: She was elegant, she was fiscally fit, physically fit, she was a ladies lady.  She wielded power. My parents collectively employed a lot of people in the Bronx when employment wasn’t plentiful for people.  They believed that if you were going to do right by people, particularly for the fathers in those days, you had to help them put food on their table.  Because if a man can’t go home at the end of the week and feed his family, then nothing else is right. Their human rights was not always marching, and there was a need for that, but there is also a need for people when the march is over to help the people who are still there, still poor, still broke, still their spirits are in poverty and that’s what my parents did.  And I think I got a lot of that. 

UNA-NCA:  What are some of the ways you can suggest which people who are in human rights can make an impact? 

SJC:  Volunteer. During crisis times and also not during crisis times.  In this globe that we’re in, there’s a crisis somewhere every day in the world.  So volunteering, but I would say organized volunteering. Not just to show up and be another body, but if there is training involved, trauma training, whether its training to serve 5000 people food, but to prepare yourself before. But to show up and volunteer.  Find an issue that’s important to you and to serve there. 

The second is to mentor, because if you’ve already done it and you have life experience then passing that on to another generation is critical so that can continue.  That’s what I feel legacy is, so that after you go, it can still continue otherwise every generation has to start all over again.

The third thing is, if you can’t show up physically, then you can write a check.  That’s what Giving Tuesday was all about. Remember that there are some of us out there are some of us out there doing it every single day.  So you can fund the project. You can fund human rights. 

I would say those are some of the ways I would encourage people to get involved.

UNA NCA:  Regarding the position of Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, what do you think was, and continues to be, the importance of that ambassadorship?

SJC: There has to be a voice in the globe that cries out.  The holy scriptures talk about “a voice crying in the wilderness”.  There has to be a voice that speaks and amplifies the voices of those who are voiceless. Religious persecution is real and unless someone speaks up for you or impacts governments to treat you correctly, then it’s not going to happen.  So it has to be intentional. The creation of this position was the intentionality of the U.S. saying, “We want to do something about it.” 

It’s not the headlines kind of ambassadorship, like if you’re an ambassador to Spain or the Bahamas, but this is 199 countries and many times you cannot be in the headlines, because you’re trying to save the life of a family, of an individual, of a tribe, ,of the Kurds, of the Shias - of people who are being persecuted for their beliefs.  So you have to do the opposite kind of thinking for this. You can’t be the one that’s looking for glory and glamour, because it’s really not about you. You have to work within the vision and the parameters of the Secretary of State and the President of the United States. Again, if you’re coming from a place where you’ve been the leader and you’ve been in charge.  You have to realize that “at-large” is different than “in-charge”. You are there to serve the President, the Secretary and the American people and represent them. It’s not about your opinion, it’s about “How do I join the team to help human rights become effective globally?” 

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Human Rights Awards Interview with Nate Mook, Executive Director of World Central Kitchen

World Central Kitchen
UNA-NCA Community Human Rights Award

Interviewer: Nicolas Wicaksono, UNA-NCA Member

In anticipation of the United Nations Association – National Capital Area’s Human Rights Award ceremony, the association interviewed awardee World Central Kitchen (WCK). In 2018, WCK worked in 13 natural or man-made disasters across Africa, the Americas, and Africa, serving warm nutritious meals to vulnerable populations, helping them develop ‘clean cooking’ skills, and building their resilience against disasters. Below is a profile of the WCK’s work, as informed by an interview with executive director Nate Mook, who will be receiving the award on behalf of the organization.


When a devastating 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck Haiti in 2010, the international community responded swiftly by providing humanitarian aid worth tens of millions of dollars. Despite this encouraging display of goodwill, José Andrés, founder of World Central Kitchen, noticed a troubling trend: local producers of rice and other food products were rapidly losing their businesses as the US flooded the country with free or subsidized food aid.

The harm of good intentions offered a sobering lesson on the importance of empowering communities to take ownership over recovery efforts. For Nate Mook, who was supporting Andrés in Haiti at that time, helping local communities develop their own ability and systems for cooking nutritious foods is key.

By 27th birthday, Mook had already founded or co-founded three technology-based companies. His tech-savviness and proficiency with media eventually helped him transition to a career in storytelling, where he produced numerous video projects throughout the world, including in humanitarian crises in Iraq, Haiti, and Somalia. Besides the general shortages of food in many of these contexts, Mook began observing a profound irony: cooking and food were poisoning people when they should really be nourishing people and supporting vibrant livelihoods. Billions of people globally lack food security, and many cook in ways that create harmful side effects, such as toxins produced by burning charcoal or environmental harms from cutting trees down for wood. 

In Mook’s view, food security is a linchpin for the many human rights issues that the international community cares about. Nutrition and health can themselves be considered human rights, but food insecurity can also have knock-on effects that impede on other rights. “Cooking touches everything,” Mook emphatically asserts. For example, “cooking is education because if girls have to go out and collect firewood everyday … so the mom can cook over a wood fire, then they’re not going to school. If trees are cut down to make [firewood], then food is [harming] the environment.”

Indeed, Mook notes that the natural disaster itself is often not the most lethal part of a humanitarian crisis. Rather, as communities seek to survive and recover from the damage, deep inequities in their abilities to access essential resources like food are often revealed. Existing problems with how resources are managed, such as the presence of food deserts, are often the main culprits behind casualties. Mook therefore sees providing food security to the most vulnerable populations as supporting both people’s immediate survival and broader socio-economic equality.

At the same time, essential to a person’s dignity is the understanding that they, too, have their own aspirations, needs, and agency. Thus, critical to World Central Kitchen’s work is building local communities’ own long-run resilience and ability to find solutions to the challenges they face. For example, as water and electricity began returning to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, WCK began winding down their provision of meals. Instead, WCK began distributing monetary grants to help local producers sell their products and to support the development of domestic markets.  After a recent hurricane devastated Moore’s Island in the Bahamas, WCK worked with local community leaders to identify the main barrier to food security: a lack of functioning docks. In addition to distributing meals, WCK worked to import supplies of lumber and helped rebuild several docks, allowing the island’s own food supplies to flow more effectively.

Of course, as an organization working to respond rapidly to humanitarian disasters, WCK also has an extensive infrastructure to provide short-term palliative aid. Even so, WCK innovates on traditional humanitarian aid models by providing nutritious cooked meals. As Mook explains, typical humanitarian responses to food crises often involves the mass distribution of generic pre-package food stuffs which often amount to little more than “junk foods.” On the other hand, in every disaster, WCK’s staff, including a nutritionist on staff, carefully identify local cultural norms to ensure that the food they cook are appropriate for local communities. Additionally, WCK chefs have mastery over a broad range of recipes given that the locally-available ingredients vary greatly by location. This model, Mook argues, ought to be the new standard.

WCK’s method of supporting food security is not without challenges. Because of the organization’s focus on specific local contexts, each disaster WCK’s addresses will be unique, and there are few models that can be readily transferred from one context to another. This means that WCK often has to learn “on the go” when a disaster strikes. Additionally, the new model of food aid will take time to become normalized and scaled among more established actors working in this field. Nonetheless, Mook believes that WCK’s work will in time become more widely-known and adopted. Indeed, there is cause for optimism, as Mook has observed some progress on this in the past two years.

Human Rights Awards Interview with Professor Katherine Marshall

Professor Katherine Marshall
Louis B. Sohn Human Rights Award

Interviewers: Edward Elmendorf, UNA-NCA Past President and Micayla Costa, UNA-NCA Member 

Katherine Marshall is a senior fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. She leads the Center's work on religion and global development, and serves as a professor of the practice of development, conflict, and religion in the Walsh School of Foreign Service. She helped to create and now serves as the Executive Director of the World Faiths Development Dialogue. Marshall worked at the World Bank from 1971 to 2006. She has nearly four decades of experience on development issues in Africa, Latin America, East Asia, and the Middle East, particularly problems facing the world’s poorest countries. She led the World Bank’s faith and ethics initiative between 2000 and 2006.
Marshall serves on the boards of several NGOs. She spent several years as a core group member of the Council of 100, a World Economic Forum initiative to advance understanding between the Islamic world and the West. Marshall is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and was previously a trustee of Princeton University.[1] 

Interviewer: What inspired you to become a human rights advocate and eventually a leader in the field?

KM: I have a history of service in my family. With my father, I lived in Nigeria and later did research there. How did work with the World Bank take me to human rights?  From early in my career in the Bank, I had an interest in justice versus injustice, and democracy versus autocracy, which inevitably came up in World Bank’s work. In the early days we rarely spoke about human rights explicitly, including corruption, which was always a preoccupation even though Bank lawyers were uneasy about the topic. During the Southeast Asia financial crisis of the 1990's talk of corruption and politics became much more explicit. We discussed links between gender issues and human rights, and, later, human rights was very much part of the exploration of religion and development. The issues were implicitly involved as the Bank began to consider women for leadership positions. The early women leaders at the Bank knew each other well and decided to work together to confront gender inequity within the Bank as well as in country contexts.   
Interviewer: Why is the work of the United Nations important in human rights?

KM: The UN is a secular organization and human rights is in many respects considered its religion. Negatively, that can imply a rigid theology that is not open to question. Positively, human rights framing and the SDG's are important contributions from the UN. Questions that spark active discussion about the UN and human rights include: victor justice after WWII, and religious communities’ debates about women’s rights to their own bodies.  The UN’s independent human rights experts and special rapporteurs play important roles in various situations. They report not just on human rights per se in countries such as Sierra Leone or Cambodia, but also, on poverty in the United States. However, there is also some cynicism about the UN’s stance on human rights that can mask lack of real support. An example are tensions around child rights (the US hasn’t even ratified the UN’s child rights convention). The Cold War separated civil and political from economic, social and cultural rights, yet the two areas are tightly interlinked.

Interviewer: Are there things in your history that made you a human rights advocate? What recommendations would you have for young professionals, whether domestically or internationally?

KM: Seeing injustices, and governments taking wrong paths during my work at the World Bank, drove home the significance and priority of issues around rights. A college I know gives the UN Universal Declaration to every graduate - this is an important reminder because young people need to think about ethical issues in meaningful ways. Where do they compromise and where do they keep to basic principles? What is their theory of change as they advocate for human rights and social change? They should reflect on the human rights positions implicit in the World Bank and other institutions. Take female genital cutting (FGC) or child marriage as examples; supporting change requires nuanced thought to recognize local laws and values: How should the UN act to combat it, and how do local authorities and institutions react to outside pressure? I would recommend that young people be encouraged to think deeply about what human rights involve, savoring and living by the underlying principles involved but at the same time working to understand why there are different perspectives.



Human Rights Awards Interview with The Honorable Vivian Lowery Derryck

The Honorable Vivian Lowery Derryck
Perdita Huston Human Rights Award

Interviewer: Karen Mulhauser, UNA-NCA Past President

The Honorable Vivian Lowery Derryck is a powerful leader in global efforts to support democracy, development and gender equity. When Vivian was asked if she could tell us how she knew Perdita Huston and how her work is aligned with Perdita’s vision and work, she highlighted many parallel paths. But first she reflected on how her work benefited from engagement with Perdita and the work and visions of many other wonderful women leaders such as Gerry Ferraro, Arvonne Fraser, Bella Abzug, Dorothy Height, Madeleine Albright, Wangari Maathai, and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. She also reflected on how she learned from Native Americans about the importance of storytelling. Vivian’s life story is vivid with experiences related to democracy and the important role of civil society in maintaining democracy; development; the empowerment of girls and women and the imperative of girls’ education to achieve true development and democracy. Her commitment to supporting democracy began with reflections on how her ancestors “resisted slavery, survived reconstruction and established” successful lives.

Vivian Lowery Derryck knew Perdita Huston well and indicated that their work aligned especially well with regards to empowering women and girls. Receiving this award is “the culmination of everything I’ve worked for all these years”. 

Her lifetime of experiences working for equity began in 1965 with Operation Crossroads Africa in Cote d’Ivoire where she saw first-hand how girls did not have access to education as they worked in the fields while boys went to school. She knew then that she wanted to correct this inequity and throughout her amazing life, she has been addressing the need for girls to receive education to improve their lives and their communities. 

Girls’ and women’s efforts were highlighted during the 1980 UN World Conference for Women: Equality, Development and Peace in Copenhagen, Denmark. As the Director of the U.S. Secretariat established for Copenhagen preparations, Vivian worked with Sarah Weddington from the Carter administration who co-led the U.S. delegation with U.S. Ambassador to the UN Don McHenry, and Perdita was an adviser to the Delegation.
Vivian had a Personal Service Contract with Arvonne Fraser in the Women in Development Office of USAID. She prepared an important study on the Comparative Functionality of Formal and Non-formal Education for Girls and Women. The study documents how it is obvious that women can’t make fully informed decisions if they can’t read. The study showed every development indicator improved as girls are educated. It was exciting to be part of the WID office, highlighting how communities improve as girls and women are empowered. She then became a Deputy Assistant Secretary at the Department of State and continued to work for gender equity. 

After experience inside government, in 1982 Vivian became Executive Vice President and the Director of the International Division at the National Council of Negro Women with a focus on girls and women. Then she worked at Meridian House and at National Democratic Institute, African American Institute, and later was Senior VP and Director of Public-Private Partnerships at the former AED [2001-09]. While at AED, she continued to work on women’s leadership  in Africa, especially in Cote d’Ivoire and Liberia. In interviews she would ask, “When was the first time you knew you were a leader?”  She said, “I used to get such fascinating answers – so many women talked about their fathers’ influence and support. They didn’t talk about their mothers in leadership.” She hopes that is changing.

In 2008, she saw a brochure about a new Harvard program that said, ‘Looking for a few great leaders’. “It was time for me to leave AED, so this seemed a good next step – The Advanced Leadership Initiative was a program mature leaders willing to use their accumulated experience to make the world a better place. I was a Public Service Fellow at this new program... It was a fantastic year. I learned about social enterprise…I set up the Bridges Institute as a nonprofit with the mission of strengthening African governance and democracy. I invited members from my Harvard program to join the Bridges board.Four board members from my ALIclass have been on the board since the beginning, offering financial and substantive support. After a year at Harvard I came home with this new nonprofit and in 2010 I started ‘Cote d’Ivoire Watch’ an initiative that included NGOs, private sector, nationals of the country and U.S. government representatives... The ‘Watches’ last until democracy is restored. Cote d’Ivoire Watch was over in 2012”. Mali Watch lasted longer. It started in 2012 and continues today as the Mali Affinity Group as a part of the Alliance for Peace-building.

When asked about working both inside and outside of government, if she preferred one over the other. and how she defines the value of each, she referred to her early awareness of the importance of governments’ roles in setting and implementing policy. However, later she was also aware that civil society and advocacy have a strong role in defining what those policies will be. If we want to affect change, we must focus on policies and policymakers. Both government and non-government have their roles. Regarding which has the most impact, she said that it’s a mix of both. 

When asked about closing thoughts and what she is most proud of, she said one result of her women leadership work today is, “I am delighted to see this next generation of competent, confident young women  leaders – such as the young-- 35-years-old  female Foreign Minister  of Mali that I have worked with since the 1990's.  I see  these young woman in [US] Congressional offices, really dedicated and so smart, influencing policy in major ways. Women in their 30's and 40's-- strong, confident, knowledgeable. And the young African women, reaching out to senior African women, saying that they need to be included. And these mature African women leaders hear the young voices and embrace them..  Plus we have YALI, the Young African Leaders Program, a U.S. program that’s building a reservoir of accomplished young African leadership.   So that’s what I’m happiest about – the work will be carried on... it’s a result of partnerships.”

“The best thing that’s happened to me – literally - is this award. Perdita was such a compelling visionary on women’s rights and challenges and a spiritual presence as well. She really was an icon for the women-in-development field. I met her in 1977, when my family and I returned to the U.S. after living in Liberia for four years. I said I wanted to meet her because she had written books about empowering women and I could see the impact of her writing in the field. She came to dinner and we talked, we bonded on women’s equity, and became great friends. The award is an annual refreshing of her extraordinary spirit."

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Powerful, Peace-Building Latin American Women Take the Podium

By: Abby Bowman, Program Assistant, Fall 2019

In late September, the already-dim lights of wooded Gaston Hall flickered along with the excited buzz of a room full of Georgetown students, professors, Ambassadors, and family members who had traversed seas and countries to see their loved ones receive an award. This journey was more than justified; their mothers, spouses, and sisters were not simply receiving a trophy, but were being honored with a 2019 Hillary Rodham Clinton Award for Advancing Women in Peace and Security.

The Honorable Michelle Bachelet, Virginia Martes Velásquez, and Rosa Anaya were the recipients of this year’s awards, and while the crowd certainly rose to their feet on several occasions throughout the morning as these women took the stage, the applause and energy that echoed through the hall when The Honorable Hillary Rodham Clinton herself approached the podium was without doubt exceptional.

The morning began with introductory remarks from John DeGioia, long-time President of Georgetown University. DeGioia applauded Clinton’s career-long commitment to women, and thanked her for the manner in which she has contributed to Georgetown University’s Institute for Women, Peace and Security (GIWPS).

The event’s eponymous icon then took the stage, energizing the young, female-heavy crowd in the most “Hillary Clinton” of ways. She strung together the common theme of the international empowerment of women, particularly highlighting Eleanor Roosevelt’s unparalleled achievements involving the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Greta Thunberg’s now-iconic, “How dare you?,” from the UN Climate Action Summit in September, and of course, Nancy Pelosi’s recent country-shaking call-to-action to impeach the President.

As Clinton moved out of the spotlight, Melanne Verveer, Executive Director of the GIWPS, and former U.S. Ambassador for Global Women’s Issues, began the presentation of the awards. In introducing Bachelet, she emphasized the two-term President of Chile’s close ties to human rights abuses. Although her intense and descriptive repetition of the personal traumas that Bachelet endured under the Pinochet regime was a bit strange (and caused visible discomfort for most in the room – including Bachelet), Verveer’s point was clear. It would surely be difficult to find someone more qualified for – on top of being more personally connected to – what can be considered the most esteemed position in the international sphere for the defense of human rights.

Bachelet assumed her role as the seventh United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on September 1, 2018, mere months after concluding her second term as the Republic of Chile’s first female President – and her accolades do not stop there. She also served as Chile’s (and Latin America’s) first female Defense Minister, after serving as the country’s Health Minister. Beyond her country’s borders, her accomplishments are truly reaching, including notable experiences with the ILO, WHO, and EWEC, as well as serving as the first Director of UN Women. Her dedication to human rights, memory, and gender equality within her country are evident, but her impact has more than certainly reached the world stage as well; perhaps most powerfully after her UN appointment last year.

While Hillary Clinton and Michelle Bachelet are major household names for anyone with any awareness of international affairs, the world may not be so familiar with Virginia Martes Velásquez and Rosa Anaya. However, these women are doing critical work to promote women, peace, and security in their home countries, and the ripple-effects have been, and will be, felt across borders.

Virginia Martes Velásquez (lovingly, “Marta”) works in Choloma, Honduras; arguably the most dangerous city in one of the most dangerous countries in the world. Velásquez has been organizing and empowering women since her early 20s; now, 50 years later, she heads an organization that legally and psychologically supports women who have survived violence in varying aspects. Specifically, the work she has done since 1990 with her group, MOMUCLAA (Movimiento de Mujeres de la Colonia López Arellano, or Women’s Movement of the López Arellano Area), has made measurable local and national changes, and the perseverance and courage she must demonstrate on a daily basis is truly unfathomable.

The final award recipient of the morning was Rosa Anaya, who has been advocating peace in El Salvador for the past two decades. She currently heads Segundas Oportunidades (Second Chances), which rehabilitates inmates in prisons across El Salvador. Her history with peace and justice is also quite personal; she is the daughter of two Salvadoran champions for human rights, and she shared the story of her immigration as a child to Canada, and then to the United States. Today, Anaya and her team create workshops that target the breaking down of toxic masculinity, and promote positive, productive futures for inmates. Anaya and Segundas Oportunidades have assuredly achieved their goal of creating communities that foster citizens who are “promotores de paz” (“promoters of peace”).

The event closed with a panel discussion moderated by Verveer, which included the three awardees and Clinton. Verveer directed one pre-selected student question to each woman, with topics ranging from the specifics of the Afghan peace process to the generalities of how to best approach each day knowing the great breadth of the struggles that still lie ahead for women’s progress.

A sense of both urgency and despair was woven throughout all of the questions: I know that paying attention to women is a great key to improving the world, and I want to help.  What now?

Let us strive to live by High Commissioner Bachelet’s concise charge: “We need to mobilize, hold firm, and advance”.

-         Abby Bowman, Georgetown University M.A. Latin American Studies ‘20

Program Assistant, United Nations Association of the National Capital Area

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Restrictions on Asylum Seekers at the Border are Ineffective, Harmful

By: Sean Coffey, Development and Advocacy Program Assistant, Summer 2019

In 1939, the Saint Louis ship sailed across the Atlantic Ocean, along with the hopes and dreams of over 900 Jewish refugees to escape the horrors brewing across Western Europe. The boat, scheduled to dock in Cuba, was re-routed to the shores of Florida after government officials in Havana revoked their necessary transit visas. The refugees could see the shimmering lights of Miami on the horizon, and many believed a new life was upon them. However, the United States decided to close its doors on these Jewish refugees, forcing the Saint Louis to return to a perilous and war-battered Europe. Nearly a third of the passengers would be later found murdered during the Holocaust. This would mark one of the darkest moments in this nation’s history.

Shortly thereafter, the United States made a promise to “Never Again” repeat this grave mistake and to welcome those fleeing persecution and mass violence. The US would not let those on the Saint Louis be forgotten, ever again. Nearly a century later, another group of people are pounding on America’s front door with similar fears and echoing stories.

Over the past year, Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) have apprehended nearly 363,300 migrant family members from the US-Mexico border. Many are leaving behind family members and friends to escape rampant gang violence and political persecution. Yael Schacher from Refugees International, a refugee advocacy organization based in Washington DC, highlighted the case of an indigenous woman from the Central American country of Honduras. She, along with her son, had witnessed the brutal murder of her husband right in front of them, as he was targeted for being a community leader. Honduras has seen a dramatic spike of violence over the past few decades; so much so, that “The Telegraph” named it the most dangerous country on the planet back in 2014.

The woman and her child fled their village on foot and travelled hundreds of miles across the Mexican desert with the goal of reaching America. Her father, a Temporary Protected Status holder, lives in Houston, and she was determined to reunite with him. After weeks trekking through sandy deserts in scorching heat, the pair finally reached the Mexico-US border. Yet, once they reached the El-Paso city limits, they were instructed by Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) to return to Juarez, Mexico, as a part of the “Remain in Mexico” policy.

Remain in Mexico was imposed by the Trump administration in January of 2019 in order to have asylum applications processed and court dates established while the migrants wait in Mexico. Despite initial hesitations, the woman cooperated with CBP and patiently waited for the opportunity of a brighter future in America. However, she proceeded with caution as Juarez is known for its high crime, particularly directed towards asylum seekers. Many migrants facing immigration court in El Paso, Texas, have described being raped, assaulted, and mistreated by locals while remaining in Mexico for their asylum application to be processed. Her greatest fears would quickly turn to reality. While waiting in Juarez, the woman’s son was nearly kidnapped—a grim reminder that her chance at the American dream was submerged under a pile of bureaucracy and strict immigration laws.

The experience of the Honduran woman is one of countless tales shared by refugees and asylum seekers across Central America. As of April 2019, more than 8,000 migrants have been sent back to Juarez after approaching the US border. Remain in Mexico is simply part of a greater trend aimed at curbing the numbers asylum seekers approaching the southern border, such as the zero-tolerance policy which separated thousands of apprehended parents from their children. These restrictions aim to deter fraudulent cases; when in reality, all cases are being affected, including ones with legitimate asylum claims.

What many people fail to fully realize is these people are forced to flee. Those seeking asylum will continue to surpass obstacles presented their way—even if it requires traveling thousands of miles or jumping through a series of hoops—because the livelihoods of themselves and their families are at stake. The US-Mexico border clearly exemplifies this by the demographics of the migrants. Last year, nearly 3,000 African migrants were detained in Mexico alone to seek asylum in the United States. Many of the migrants cited concerns over European nations closing their borders as their main reason for traveling thousands of miles across the Atlantic to seek asylum in America. As Schracher mentions, “the [US-Mexico border] is becoming a microcosm of what we are seeing around the world”.

The United Nations has been incredibly outspoken in their disdain for these asylum restrictions such as Zero Tolerance and Remain in Mexico. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet called many of these regulations ‘undignified and damaging’ and perhaps even a violation of international law. Bachelet does claim that while the UN supports independent nations having the sovereignty to control their borders, they must operate within the framework of international human rights.

Schracher also points out that these limits on claiming asylum impact local communities already in the United States. Similar to the woman from Honduras, many of the migrants wishing to seek asylum already have family and friends on the other side of the border. Forcing these migrants to wait in Mexico requires the people already in the United States to send out remittances to their connections at the border for food, shelter, and other living expenses. This can often cause large economic strains on both parties, as well as take a massive psychological toll for those apart from their loved ones.

Exactly 80 years have passed since the Saint Louis was forced to revert course and return to Europe. For some aboard the ship, it was the beginning of troubling and traumatizing period of extended suffering. For others, it was a death sentence. As Schracher explains, “the heavy hand by which the federal government is pressing upon to reduce refugee admissions place the most vulnerable communities in greater risk.” We are doomed to repeat the blemishes of the past unless we realize that this trend of implementing ineffective and, even, dangerous regulations to deter asylum seekers will not reduce the flows of people but impose further harm on those most defenseless.