Monday, November 10, 2014

Human Rights at the Border: Front and Center

by Risa E. Kaufman, Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute


 In the aftermath of last week’s election, the outlook for meaningful and rights-protecting immigration reform is bleak.  Nevertheless, the past few weeks have seen significant efforts by regional and international human rights experts and advocates to promote and protect the rights of people at international borders. U.S. human rights advocates have redoubled their efforts, as well.

 On October 22, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon presented a report to the U.N. General Assembly on the promotion and protection of human rights of migrant children and human rights at international borders. The report details human rights challenges and concerns such as systematic and arbitrary detention; conditions of detention; access to the rights to education, health, and adequate housing; use of excessive force by authorities; and interception and push-back practices.

To address the violations detailed in the Secretary General’s Report, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights released “Recommended Principles and Guidelines on Human Rights at International Boarders,” setting out core obligations that already exist in international documents to guide human rights safeguards at borders.  U.S. migrants’ rights advocates have hailed the Guidelines as an important tool in the fight to address the human rights crisis at the U.S. border.

 In the week following the release of the report and guidelines, on October 27, human rights advocates held a hearing at the Inter American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to call attention to the U.S. border crisis.  The thematic hearing was requested by University of Pennsylvania’s Transnational Legal Clinic, The University of Texas School of Law’s Immigration Clinic, The ACLU, Women’s Refugee Commission, National Immigrant Justice Center, National Alliance of Latin American and Caribbean Communities, CEJIL, and the Washington Office on Latin America, and was accompanied by a request that the Commission issue precautionary measures. 

 The hearing followed on the heels of a visit by the IACHR to the southern U.S. border.  From September 29 through October 2, the Commission visited sites in Hidalgo, McAllen, Harlingen, Karnes City and San Antonio to monitor the human rights situation of unaccompanied children and families who have crossed the southern U.S. border. At the conclusion of the visit, the Commission issued a press release  noting grave concerns and urging the United States to improve conditions. The visit and press statement underscore the importance that the Inter-American human rights system is placing on the issue more generally. This summer, Inter-American Court issued an Advisory Opinion on the Rights and Guarantees of Children in the Context of Migration and/or in Need of International Protection, setting out basic obligations and guiding principles under the American Convention and the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man.

 And, of course, many of these issues and concerns will be raised this week during the U.N. Committee on Torture’s review of U.S. Compliance with the Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.  U.S. human rights advocates have put issues such as prolonged and indefinite immigration detention and non-refoulement of asylum-seekers front and center at the review, likely to result in concrete and U.S.-specific recommendations from the Committee later this fall. 

 U.S. advocates are working round the clock to urge legislative and policy reforms and litigate challenges in U.S. courts on immigration-related issues. The recent attention and concern by international and regional human rights experts to violations at the border offer a potentially powerful boost to this critical work.

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