Latest Blog Entries

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

The Day the United States was a No-Show at a Human Rights Hearing

Shelbi Smith, Class of 2018
as featured in The Huffington Post
May 1, 2017

On March 21, I traveled with a fellow student and faculty of the International Human Rights Clinic at the University of Chicago to Washington D.C. to attend the hearings of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to hear the Trump Administration defend the human rights implications of the then-recent Executive Orders on migrants and immigration. As it turned out, the defense would be quick – in fact, there wouldn’t be one at all.

That morning, however, the other student, my professor and I entered the hearing room in anticipation of exciting and important debates. The day’s schedule listing was heavily focused on the U.S.:

8:30AM: Case 12:545 – Isamu Carlos Shibayama and Others, United States (Merits).

10:15AM: Impact of Executive Orders “Border Security and Immigration Enforcements Improvements;” “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist entry into the United States;” “Expediting Environmental Reviews an Approval for High Priority Infrastructure Projects” on Human Rights in the United States (Ex-officio).

11:30AM: Policies that Prevents Access to Asylum in the United States.

As we sat down, however, we quickly joined others in the room in staring with disbelief at the striking row of empty chairs directly across from the panel of lawyers and advocates who had worked tirelessly to prepare their arguments in defense of immigrants and asylum seekers. The United States – for the first time in the history of the Inter-American Commission – had simply failed to attend any of the three hearings in which its actions were at issue.

As I sat throughout the morning listening to advocates and stared at the U.S. representatives’ empty chairs, I thought about the videos I had seen of jeering crowds of anti-immigrant protestors in Murrieta, California, chanting, “Go home!” and “We don’t want you!” in the summer of 2014. The protestors succeeded in turning back DHS buses transporting undocumented women and children from Central America from overcrowded facilities along the Texas-Mexico border. I remembered the deep sense of shame I had felt as I watched the protestors waive American flags. That day at the Commission, I felt far greater shame knowing that the same hate I had seen in Murrieta was now literally written into Executive Orders issued by the President of the United States. A president who hadn’t seen fit to show up to defend his actions to his neighboring countries.

Jamil Dakwar, Director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Human Rights Program, said it best following his testimony at the hearing—this was a new low.

Does it Really Matter if the U.S. Fails to Attend Human Rights Hearings?

You may be thinking this really shouldn’t matter. You might even be asking yourself whether this is really a surprise given the current political climate. After all, Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, did not even attend the NATO summit in April (the last time a Secretary of State skipped a NATO foreign ministerial meeting was in 2003). However, it should be surprising; it should be concerning; it should be worrisome. The Organization of American States (OAS) was created by the States of the Americas, including the United States, to protect regional peace and solidarity. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights is the principal organ of the OAS that protects human rights in the Americas and the only regional human rights mechanism with jurisdiction over the U.S.

Such behavior by the U.S. State Department must not be normalized when the human rights of vulnerable people in this country are at stake. We must not tolerate our government simply opting out of international meetings, disregarding its treaty obligations and diminishing the importance of international organizations established to maintain peace, human rights and global cooperation. As a member of the OAS, the United States should have been present to hear the Commission’s concerns, explain its actions and potentially work with the Commission to ensure its policies respect the human rights of those impacted.

Instead, before the row of empty chairs, advocates listed their concerns about the consequences of the expansion of the geographic scope of expedited removal; the increase in discretion available to immigration officers without review; the granting of authority to local and state police to enforce federal immigration laws; and the hiring of additional ICE and CBP agents. The list of concerns was vast. The potential for human rights abuses was immense.

Where do we go from here? 

Most media attention since January has been on the so-called Muslim Ban. However, President Trump has issued multiple Executive Orders that pose a tremendous threat to the lives and the well-being of immigrants and asylum seekers, particularly those from Central and South America. We must remain as vigilant of the rights of those seeking refuge at our southern border as we are to those being targeted by Trump’s discriminatory Muslim ban.

It is exactly for this reason that the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights exists. Like other international and regional human rights mechanisms, the Commission is meant to hold member States accountable for compliance with human rights treaties and declarations.

It is only a matter of time until the Commission issues its statement following the hearing. In all likelihood, the Commission will condemn the aspects of the Orders that have violated the rights of undocumented immigrants and U.S. citizens alike. Advocates have and will continue to demand the U.S. abide by its commitments and respect the human rights of anyone within its borders.

In the meantime, the truth is that it is up to all of us to fight these Orders at the federal, state and local level.

Educate yourself by reading the Executive Orders, make phone calls to your Senators and Representatives, contact local and national NGOs, like the National Immigrant Justice Center, and ask how you can help. Most importantly, strive every day to educate yourself and others and to combat the ignorance and hate that has brought us to these dire circumstances in the first place.

Protecting Unsympathetic Defendants, from the United States to Pakistan

Alli Hugi, Class of 2018
as featured in The Huffington Post
April 17, 2017

Following a brutal gang rape in New Delhi in 2012, there were calls in India to punish rape with a mandatory death sentence, starting with the perpetrators of that crime (one of whom was seventeen years old).

In contrast, when Qandeel Baloch, a Pakistani woman famous for posting “provocative” selfies online, was killed by her brother in 2016 for bringing shame to their family, some felt that justice had been served.

As a law student in the University of Chicago Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic, I have been struggling to balance these divergent reactions to violence against women. On the one hand, those calling for harsh sentences and processes that invariably result in convictions seem willing to weaken the safeguards their justice system has created for the accused. American colleges, for example, have sometimes reacted to high-profile sexual assaults on campuses by adopting internal processes that don’t allow accused parties to have lawyers argue on their behalf, access the evidence against them, or cross-examine witnesses.

On the other hand, the reactions to Baloch’s murder clearly demonstrate that, in many regions, progress is yet to be made before violence against women is treated as it should be.

This tension has been illustrated to me by a project I am currently working on in the Clinic with the Punjab government in Pakistan to support implementation of the state’s Protection of Women Against Violence Act. The Act, which was passed last year, is an ambitious, progressive law that sets up one-stop centers to provide women who have experienced violence with legal, medical, and counseling resources. I am working with an inspiring group of psychologists, prosecutors, police officers, and policy makers in Pakistan committed to fully investigating and prosecuting violence against women and providing these women with the services they need. The first center opened last month.

One of the many goals of our work has been to make sure that thorough prosecution of instances of domestic violence—a central goal of the Act—does not lead to the erosion of protections for the accused that serve as the backbone of a modern criminal justice system and effective rule of law.

Protecting the rights of those accused of violence against women in Pakistan takes place against a bleak backdrop for women’s rights. Almost nine in ten Pakistani women have faced domestic violence in their lifetime. 2014 saw over 10,000 reported cases of violence against women, including 1,000 “honor killings,” like Baloch’s. Domestic violence has historically been considered a private, family matter in the country. Sections of the influential religious community have derided the Punjab Act, claiming it will destroy the family by increasing divorce rates and changing power dynamics between men and women.

Dangers of Solitary Confinement, by Angel Bohannon (Fourth Year, BA)

In the United States, solitary confinement used as a form of incarceration drastically increased in the 1980s. The increase was due in large part to an attempt to control prisoners and reduce violence in overcrowded prisons. Supermax or super-maximum security prisons rely heavily on solitary confinement to house and punish the most dangerous criminals. However, solitary confinement of over 15 days adversely affects mental health in prisoners and it has not been shown to have an effect on levels of prisoner violence or recidivism rates. The practice also violates the UN Convention on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading Treatment or Punishment and the 8th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Extended solitary confinement for over 15 days should therefore be banned.

Solitary confinement isolates prisoners in a small concrete cell for about 23 hours a day. Food slides through a slot in the door and is eaten alone. Exercise consists of pacing in the small cell. The extreme mental and physical isolation of solitary confinement leads to a significant deterioration of mental health among prisoners, especially those with pre-existing mental conditions. A literature review of four decades of published studies on extended solitary confinement by Professor Craig Haney shows negative mental effects, such as panic, rage, paranoia, self-mutilations, and insomnia.[1] A study by the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene shows that solitary confinement increases the propensity to self-harm. Fifty-three percent of the 2182 acts of self-harm in the New York City jail system from 2010 to 2013 were done by prisoners in solitary confinement, even though they only represented 7.3% of the general prison population.[2] Furthermore, a study of Danish prisons shows that prisoners subject to solitary confinement for longer than four weeks were 20 times more likely to be put in the hospital for psychiatric reasons.[3]

These negative mental health effects are particularly damaging to those with pre-existing mental illnesses. Prisoners with pre-existing mental health problems are four times more likely to be held in solitary confinement, according to a Washington State study. The ACLU’s National Prison Project shows that, given the especially severe effects of solitary confinement on the mentally ill, every claim in federal court made by mentally ill prisoners who have been held in solitary confinement has been found valid.

In addition to having negative mental health effects, solitary confinement does not achieve its intended goals of reducing violence among prisoners or decreasing recidivism. The opening of supermax prisons that rely heavily on solitary confinement, like Tamms in Illinois, did not decrease inmate-on-inmate violence and achieved mixed results with prisoners-on-staff violence. Furthermore, the reduction in size of supermax prisons in Colorado, Maine, and Mississippi did not result in an increase in prison violence. In fact, solitary confinement may give rise to violent tendencies because it causes prisoners to feel mistreated and has negative mental health effects. In the United States, where two-thirds of 700,000 prisoners released every year are rearrested in three years, solitary confinement only perpetuates recidivism. A study of Florida prisons showed that prisoners who had undergone solitary confinement had a 24.2% chance of being reconvicted of a violent crime, compared to 20.5% of general prisoners.[4]

International human rights authorities oppose extended solitary confinement. In 2011, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment reached the conclusion that solitary confinement must be limited to 15 days or less because it violates the Convention on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT). Article 1 of 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 . . . punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed.” Solitary confinement intentionally deprives meaningful social contact, thereby inflicting severe mental pain on prisoners and exacerbating mental illness. Accordingly, solitary confinement constitutes torture.

Despite recent advances in state courts, such as New York, and the push by international human rights advocates, U.S. federal courts have not taken the necessary final step. Solitary confinement should be considered "cruel and usual punishment" under the 8th Amendment to the Constitution because psychological damage caused by solitary confinement can prevent a prisoner from properly functioning in society and can endanger his physical state through self-harm. This should be considered in light of the fact that solitary confinement does not achieve its intended benefits of reducing levels of prisoner violence and recidivism. Federal courts should thus rule that extended solitary confinement violates the 8th Amendment and the practice of solitary confinement over 15 days should no longer be allowed in prisons.

[1] Craig Haney, Mental Health Issues in Long-Term Solitary and "Supermax" Confinement (Crime and Deliquency, 2003).

[2] Homer Venters et al, Solitary Confinement and Risk of Self-Harm among Jail Inmates (American Journal of Health, 2014).

[3] DM Sestoft et al, Impact of Solitary Confinement on Hospitalization Among Danish Prisoners in Custody (International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, 1998).

[4] E. Shira Gordon, Solitary Confinement, Public Safety, and Recidivism (University of Michigan Law Reform, 2014).