Latest Blog Entries

The IHR Clinic blog is written and edited by students and recent alums of the University of Chicago Law School. The blog examines contemporary issues in human rights, as well as social, political and cultural events viewed through the lens of human rights. 

Chicago Public School Closings and the Right to Education, by Angel Bohannon (Third Year, BA)

In 2013, the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) Board of Education closed 47 public elementary schools in the largest wave of school closures in Chicago's history. As the number of children decreased in Chicago, the CPS Administration justified the closings by citing the underutilization of schools and a one billion dollar city deficit. By concentrating limited resources in a smaller number of schools, the CPS Administration estimated that CPS would save $430 million over 10 years. The closings were controversial because they disproportionately affected minority and low-income students. In response, the International Human Rights Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School wrote a letter of allegation to the United Nations claiming a violation of human rights. Most noticeably, it examined the school closings through the lens of the right of education enshrined in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).  Given education's crucial role in accessing other human rights, I want to further consider whether the closing of 47 public schools in Chicago violated the right to education.

Article 13 of  ICESCR recognizes “the right of everyone to education” and states that, “primary education shall be compulsory and available to all." The Chicago school closings disparately impacted African-American minorities and compromised their access to primary education. The CPS Administration's school reform efforts have thus failed to respect the right to be free from discrimination, which is a fundamental component of the right to education. Article 13 also states that education "shall strengthen the respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms . . . [and] promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations and all racial, ethnic or religious groups." The discriminatory impact of the school closings also contradicts a central goal of education: promoting tolerance.

Segregation in CPS schools has increased even though the city has become less segregated as a whole. The dissimilarity index measures the percentage of black students who must change schools so that each school has the same proportion of black students as the school district overall. This index can be applied to Chicago residents as well, comparing the percentage of residents at each zip code that would have to move so that each zipcode has the same proportion of black students as the city overall. While the index fell from 90% to 80% for the city overall from 1970 to 2010, the index increased from 75% to 79% for schools. This increased segregation is due in part to discriminatory policies, such as the school closings. University of Illinois Professor Pauline Lipman’s research shows that more than 90% of the students affected by Chicago school closings since 2001 are African American, even though African Americans constitute only 42% of the city’s public school population. Analysis by the Chicago Teacher’s Union showed that schools with a majority African-American student population and staff were 10 times more likely to be closed or turned around.

As a result of the school closings, students must cross gang boundaries to attend their new schools. Parents are justifiably concerned that their children will be victimized by gang violence on the way to and from school. The physical safety of these students is thus endangered in accessing education. The CPS Administration attempted to address these concerns with a 16.1 million dollar extension of the Safe Passage Program. The program stations adults in neighborhoods to watch students walking to and from school in order to alert the police if there are any problems. However, parents doubt that the program will do enough to combat gang violence. In 2012, 1054 youth were murdered in Chicago. Half of these deaths occurred in the census tracts of closed schools. University of Illinois Professor of Criminology John Hagedorn agrees with parents. He has stated, "There's no way someone walking with [students] will protect them from a bullet.” It is still inconclusive whether the Safe Passage program will be successful, but many African-American students will have to risk their lives if it’s not.

Education creates access to opportunity by empowering individuals to transcend difficult circumstances. The right to education is necessary in realizing all other human rights and in developing an informed and engaged society. Given the right to education's pivotal role in bettering individuals and society, the CPS Administration must work to realize the right to education for all students, including minority students and those affected by the school closings.  

The Rights of Prisoners and Detainees Living with HIV and Drug Dependent Persons in Russia, by Lauren Morris (1L)

The Russian Federation, a member state of the United Nations since 1945, has committed itself to protecting and promoting human right through its ratification of the Convention against Torture (CAT) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Yet, some of the most vulnerable populations in Russia are denied the very rights these treaties aim to protect. People living with HIV are among the most vulnerable. They experience high levels of stigmatization and discrimination at the hands of both public and private institutions. And with roughly 70% of people living with HIV in Eastern Europe having contracted the disease through injecting drug use, the stigmatization and discrimination spreads to drug dependent persons as well.

Agents of the state create and perpetuate a hostile environment for people living with HIV and drug dependent persons. Testimonies from detainees, some in jail with no legal justification, detail horror stories from being denied food, water and medical attention, to physical brutality at the hands of detention officers. Such treatment is in direct violation of Russia’s obligations under international human rights law, including prisoners’ and detainees’ right to be free from torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, and their right to health. CAT defines torture as “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession.” By subjecting detainees to the physical brutality of detention officers, the state and its agents are in clear violation of the right to be free from torture. General Comment No. 14 of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (General Comment No. 14) elaborates on the content of the right to health in Article 12 of ICESCR. It establishes the obligation of States Parties to refrain from denying or limiting prisoners and detainees access to preventive, curative and palliative health services. By denying food, water, and adequate medical attention, the state fails to fulfill this obligation In addition, General Comment 14 provides that health goods and services “must be accessible to all” and within “safe physical reach for all sections of the population, especially vulnerable or marginalized groups, such as . . . persons with HIV/AIDS.” It further explains that the right to health includes the obligation to create conditions that assure the provision of essential drugs, of which antiretrovirals are included.

The Russian Federation has adopted the same view on drug dependency as the WHO, recognizing drug dependence as a chronic illness. Despite this, Russia has banned one of the most successful evidence-based treatments available for drug dependency—opiate substitution therapy (OST). OST has proven to be effective in reducing opiate addiction, including heroin addiction. Instead, Russia employs punitive measures and denies drug dependent persons access to treatment.  This, in turn, discourages those suffering from drug dependency, and people living with HIV in particular, from seeking medical assistance, due to the fear of discrimination and mistreatment at the hands of authorities.

Russia needs to change its policies, strategies, and treatments for drug dependent persons and those living with HIV to be in line with its human rights obligations and international medical standards. This includes providing adequate health care for detainees. One way to create this change is to focus efforts on training law enforcement and detention officers. Article 10 of CAT requires that States Parties include “education and information regarding the prohibition against torture . . . in the training of law enforcement personnel.” The High Commissioner for Human Rights has produced a manual for the training of law enforcement personnel. The manual lists the prohibition against torture as an essential principle of police investigations and articulates the human rights obligations of law enforcement personnel. Article 12 of CAT requires that States Parties “ensure that [their] competent authorities proceed to a prompt and impartial investigation, wherever there is reasonable ground to believe that an act of torture has been committed.” By implementing these practices and de-stigmatizing HIV and drug dependency within the prison system, appropriate medical treatment is more likely to be applied in Russia. In addition, State officials must implement proven successful, evidence-based treatment program, such as OST. Without evidence-based treatment, the relapse rate for drug dependent persons is considerably higher and the withdrawal process is painful and degrading. Toward this end, education programs should be implemented to raise awareness about drug dependency in Russia.

As it stands, Russia is in breach of its obligations under CAT and ICESCR. It must act to protect, respect and fulfill the rights of people living with HIV and drug dependent persons in prison and detention.

IHR Clinic Students Reflect on Fact-Finding Trip to Columbia

Marco Traversa, LL.M. Candidate Class of 2014

I have recently come back from a fact-finding mission in Cali, Colombia, through the International Human Rights Clinic and the RFK Center for Justice and Human Rights. During our trip, my team-partner Lindsay Short and I, together with Professor Sital Kalantry, interviewed members of the Nasa Indigenous Community.

Prior to the trip, we spent months conducting research, writing affidavits and preparing questions in order for the trip to be as profitable as possible.

Even though I have consistently worked on this project throughout the school year, it was not until I interviewed primary school students that I realized what education means to me and what education means to them.

In the “Western World,” we tend to take education for granted, we perceive costs such as pencils or notebooks as relatively minor. When we think about human rights, our immaginarium goes directly towards:  right to life, right to privacy, freedom of religion and so on so forth. Education to us is not only something that is free and available, but also something that is mandatory: we are “forced” to receive education, we do not have to fight for it.

By interviewing our “clients” and speaking to the community, I perceived “the forgotten importance of education.” The right to education is not only a basic right, it is the basic right.

This trip reminded me how, only through education, a community can fight for its other rights, such as land and physical security. And above all, only through education can the rule of law be established.

Our “clients” have to walk from 1 to 4 hours to get to school and they face all sorts of dangers. However, they still wake up every day and go to school, where, if they do not have the compulsory material, they can be forced to clean bathrooms or halls. They do so because it is fundamental for them; they want to go onto secondary school in order to improve the life of their communities.

Our trip is part of an on-going project that started a few years ago, thanks to the dedicated work of Professor Kalantry. In the previous steps, Professor Kalantry’s team managed to secure a court ruling in Colombia that held that education should be free. Our goal is to make education more accessible and to eliminate high costs, often amounting to 40% of the family budget. Substantially free education is the first step through which the indigenous communities of Colombia can fight for their rights.

Lindsay Short, J.D. Candidate Class of 2015

Diego’s family makes an all-day trek, from their remote indigenous community to the nearest large city, to purchase his school supplies each year.  Their expenses include books, notepads, lunches, and a uniform—which may not seem like much, until you realize that for children like Diego, these expenses alone equal about 30% of his family’s annual income.  If Diego, 13, cannot afford his uniform, he’ll need to clean one of his school’s bathrooms. Other students in his region have dropped out of school because they couldn’t afford one pencil.  Others walk up to four hours each way to school every day, their paths marked with armed conflict and dangerous terrain.

I learned these stories firsthand, alongside Professor Sital Kalantry and classmate Marco Traversa, during a January fact-finding trip to Cali, Colombia, through the International Human Rights Clinic (IHR Clinic) and the RFK Center for Justice and Human Rights.  In Cali, we also teamed with a local association for indigenous rights and a Colombian lawyer to manage the logistics and help us throughout the interview process.  The trip was part of a larger project to attain truly free education for indigenous Colombian primary school children and to ultimately bring a case to an international legal body by the end of this school year.

The trip is just one example of the practical, real-life work I’ve experienced in my time in the IHR Clinic.  My partner Marco and I spent much of fall quarter drafting affidavits (initially in English, then translated to Spanish), based off interview transcripts and recordings from a previous fact-finding trip.  We also spent time drafting the most comprehensive, specific interview questions possible for our trip, and learning about the current situation in Colombia and work done to date on the case.  During our four days in Colombia, we interviewed indigenous students, their parents, and two local governors to learn more about their specific education and community experiences. We subsequently constructed affidavits based on the interviews.          

Using what we learned in Colombia, my group will now spend the rest of the year analyzing educational data (ranging from costs of education to dropout rates to male-female ratios in schools), and finalizing and filing our petition.  Our ultimate goal is that neither Diego, nor any of his classmates, will ever need to worry again about cleaning bathrooms—or worse, dropping out completely—because the costs of education are too burdensome for his family.