For more than three decades, Human Rights First has been a clarion voice in defense of human dignity and the rights and freedom of people everywhere.
” — Susan E. Rice, Former U.S. National Security Advisor
American Ideals. Universal Values.
On human rights, the United States must be a beacon. Activists fighting for freedom around the globe continue to look to our country for inspiration and count on us for support. Upholding human rights is not only a moral obligation; it’s a vital national interest: America is strongest when our policies and actions match our values.
Human Rights First is an independent advocacy and action organization that challenges America to live up to its ideals.
We believe American leadership is essential in the global struggle for human rights, so we press the U.S. government and private companies to respect human rights and the rule of law. When they fail, we step in to demand reform, accountability and justice.
Around the world, we work where we can best harness American influence to secure core freedoms.
We know it is not enough to expose and protest injustice, so we create the political environment and policy solutions necessary to ensure consistent respect for human rights.
Whether we are protecting refugees, combating torture, or defending persecuted minorities, we focus not on making a point, but on making a difference.
For almost 40 years, we’ve built bipartisan coalitions and teamed up with frontline activists and lawyers to tackle global challenges that demand American leadership.
Human Rights First is a non-profit, nonpartisan international human rights organization based in New York, Washington D.C., and Los Angeles.
Protecting our Allies
Over the last fifteen years, thousands of Afghans—working primarily as interpreters and translators—have provided crucial support to the U.S. military. Because of their affiliation with the United States, they have faced vicious persecution and violence from the Taliban.
It became clear that the U.S. government needed a program designed to bring these allies to safety. This was a matter of keeping faith with both these Afghan allies, who had risked their lives to work with the United States, and U.S. troops, who had made an implicit promise to protect them.
To help them was to live up to our country’s commitment to the persecuted. It was also in the strategic interest of the United States. If the U.S. military didn’t keep its promises to these Afghans, who would ever trust it again?
So with broad bipartisan support Congress passed the Afghan Allies Protection Act of 2009, which provided Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs). The program has been a lifeline for thousands of Afghans and their families.
But in 2016 misplaced budgetary concerns and animus toward Muslims and refugees put this important program on the chopping block. So our new initiative Veterans for American Ideals made saving the program its top priority.
Already with thousands of members across the country, Veterans for American Ideals generated support for the program both at grassroots and on Capitol Hill. For them, this issue was personal. Many had worked with Afghans or Iraqis during overseas deployments; all believe the United States should be a safe haven.
We won. Even in the midst of a presidential election that featured anti-Muslim rhetoric, we secured Congressional reauthorization for this essential program.
Protecting the World’s Persecuted
n 2014-15, tens of thousands of people—many of them children—fled brutal gang and domestic violence in Central America and sought protection in the United States.
Instead, they were met with swift deportation or prolonged detention, as our government sought to deter other desperate people from coming.
Human Rights First responded by providing pro bono legal representation and pressing the U.S. government to treat refugees fairly and humanely, in accordance with international law and American ideals.
At the center of the government’s strategy for addressing this vulnerable population is a policy of “family detention”—
locking up families with young children. Unprecedented in modern U.S. history, wide-scale family detention is devastating to children and incompatible with international law. We documented poor conditions
and barriers to legal counsel at these facilities and pressed the United States to end this cruel and unnecessary policy.
In July, a federal judge agreed, ordering the government to release children and mothers on grounds that their detention violated a 1997 court settlement.
But the victory was short-lived; the Obama Administration appealed the ruling and continued its policy.
In the meantime, we decided to pursue a local remedy. We knew that the Department of Homeland Security was holding families at the Berks County Residential Center in Leesport,
Pennsylvania. Working with pediatricians, we published a report showing that even short-term detention threatens the physical and emotional health of child refugees. We pressed Pennsylvania’s Department of Human Services to withhold the license for Berks.
We won. Pennsylvania denied the Berks facility a license—a victory for refugees that sent an important message to other states: detention is no place for children.
At the same time, we made progress securing reforms that will alleviate the suffering of refugees and help them get protection. Congress funded an additional 55 judges who will reduce the backlog in immigration courts,
the Department of Homeland Security issued new rules limiting the time families spend in detention, and more refugees were allowed to pass through the “credible fear” screening process to access the asylum system.
We’re keeping up the fight against family detention, part of our multifaceted effort to ensure the United States fulfills its rightful role as a safe haven.
Indeed, Russia’s egregious human rights violations extend beyond its borders, and you have rightly condemned the Kremlin’s complicity in the Assad regime’s brutal violations against its own citizens. In Syria, Russia,
and around the world, we have witnessed the evident link between violent repression and instability.
The protection of the most vulnerable is key to advancing human rights for all citizens, and to securing stability, peace, and prosperity.
A comprehensive international response to the situation in Chechnya is crucial to asserting the international community’s values and advancing human rights.
I strongly support your initiative to use the U.S. presidency of the U.N. Security Council to advance international thinking on the clear links between upholding universal values and the maintenance of international peace and security,
and hope that you will use this effort to call attention to an ongoing outrage that has no place in the modern world.
I thank you for your consideration, and I look forward to engaging further as you grapple with today’s most pressing global issues.
As we challenge the United States to respect its ideals, our goal is not to make a point but to make a difference—to get concrete results that have a tangible impact on people’s lives.
To that end, we conduct campaigns in pursuit of specific goals. And we urge you to participate in our campaigns so that policy makers in Washington hear from citizen-champions of human rights.
Keeping the Door Closed on Torture
Immediately after the election, we mobilized our long-time partners: the coalition of retired military leaders, who over the years have helped us change the debate—and U.S. policy—on torture.
The group we assembled for this mission—176 retired flag officers, including 33 four-star generals and Admirals—had more than 6,000 years of combined experience, and a clear message for Mr. Trump: The United States would not return to “the dark side.”
In a letter to the president-elect, they said, “Our greatest strength is our commitment to the rule of law and to the principles embedded in our Constitution. Our servicemen and women need to know that our leaders do not condone torture or detainee abuse of any kind.”
We worked behind the scenes to provide that letter to the president-elect, his cabinet nominees and top aides, and congressional leaders. Our strategy was to ensure that to win confirmation, cabinet nominees would have to reject torture unconditionally.
We succeeded. All five national security nominees— for CIA Director, Attorney General and Secretary of Defense, State, and Homeland Security—
stated during their confirmation hearings that so-called “enhanced interrogation” techniques are illegal and unacceptable. CIA Director nominee Mike Pompeo, previously a supporter of the torture program, went so far as to say that if the president ordered him to restart it, he would refuse.
Later, when a leaked draft Executive Order showed that President Trump intended to bring back torture, there was a bipartisan outcry.
In declaring their opposition, several senators cited the 2015 McCain-Feinstein amendment, which we spearheaded. Supported by 87 Senators and signed by President Obama, that bill bolstered the ban on torture and rebuilt the bipartisan consensus against it.
The law grew out of another of our advocacy efforts: securing declassification and release of the key parts of the Senate intelligence committee’s landmark report on the CIA torture program.
We were able to quash President Trump’s attempt to bring back torture because we had been leading on this issue for years.
Releasing the Senate Torture Report
In 2004, we assembled a groundbreaking coalition of retired military generals and admirals who know firsthand that American ideals are a national security asset.
They worked with Senator McCain in 2005 to pass a global ban on cruel treatment of detainees, and stood behind President Obama in the Oval office in 2009 when he signed an executive order banning torture.
But most of the information about U.S. torture after 9/11 was still classified, allowing torture proponents to spin falsehoods and denying the country the public reckoning it needed.
So we pushed for release of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report on the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” program. The report, released in December 2014,
reveals that the CIA’s torture was far more brutal and prevalent than previously disclosed and that it was ineffective as an intelligence-gathering technique.
We were instrumental in the report’s release. Working alongside the coalition of retired military leaders and a group of professional interrogators,
we pressed Senators on the committee, secured support for release from Vice President Joe Biden and other influential figures, mobilized citizen activists, and launched a truth-telling campaign that included op-eds, letters-to-the-editor, blueprints, fact-sheets, and video, and print ads.
The report’s release, one of 2014’s biggest national security news stories, is part of our effort to rebuild a strong national consensus against torture. Now we’re continuing the fight by pursuing legislation that solidifies the ban against torture.
Ensuring the International Olympic Committee Respects Equality
As Russia prepared to host the 2014 Winter Olympics, Human Rights First made sure the world knew about the country’s anti-gay propaganda law.
The odious law threatened the fundamental rights of LGBT Russians and created an atmosphere of fear and hatred that sowed the seeds for many acts of violence and intimidation.
We worked with Russian activists to spotlight the law, brought Olympic diving champion Greg Louganis to Washington to brief Congressional leaders, and traveled to Sochi with former Olympian David Pichler, who proved a powerful on-the-ground voice for equality.
After the games we pressed the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to include sexual orientation in its charter’s nondiscrimination clause,
Principle 6. In June 2014, the IOC voted to adopt Principle 6 into their contract with host countries, and in December it unanimously approved explicitly adding in the term “sexual orientation.”
The victory should help deter potential host countries from enacting anti-LGBT laws or otherwise persecuting LGBT people.
Letter: To Ambassador Haley on Crackdown in Chechnya
Dear Ambassador Haley:
I am writing to express alarm over the ongoing persecution of gay men in Chechnya, Russia, and to call for U.S. leadership at the United Nations in pressing for accountability for these egregious violations of human rights.
I urge you to work with U.S. allies at the United Nations to develop a comprehensive response, and engage with your Russian counterparts to ensure a thorough investigation of the acts and justice for the victims.
Independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta recently reported the detention of more than one hundred gay men by Chechen authorities “in connection with their nontraditional sexual orientation, or suspicion of such.”
The newspaper reported that three of the men detained have since been killed, and that the death toll may be even higher.
Additional reports have confirmed these basic facts. Survivors reported enduring beatings and torture, as well as being forced to disclose the names of other gay men in the region.
To date, the violence and persecution continues, and LGBT organizations on the ground are working tirelessly to evacuate victims and call for accountability.
A spokesperson for Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya’s brutal leader and a man known as “Putin’s dragon,” described the reports of detention and abuse as “absolute lies and disinformation.”
He denied the existence of LGBT people in the region and alluded to so-called “honor killings” of LGBT people, saying,
“if such people existed in Chechnya, law enforcement would not have to worry about them, as their own relatives would have sent them to where they could never return.”
President Putin’s spokesperson questioned the veracity of the reports, describing them as “a question for law enforcement” and “not on the Kremlin’s agenda.”
I commend the strong repudiation of these acts by the U.S. Department of State, which categorically condemned “the persecution of individuals based on their sexual orientation or any other basis.”
During your confirmation hearing, you similarly affirmed that “every person deserves decency and respect,” and stated your commitment to fighting discrimination. Just last month, you highlighted the need to integrate human rights issues into the agenda of the U.N.
Security Council, recognizing that “peace and security cannot be achieved in isolation from human rights.” I could not agree more.