Vance Center Human Rights Program Reflects on 2019 Achievements and 2020 Plans

January 2020

(Presentation of the Women in Prison: Africa Regional Initiative report | Photo Credit: Marie-Claude Jean-Baptiste) 

In a year of many challenges for human rights and the rule of law around the world, the Vance Center partnered with clients from Latin America, Africa, and Asia to promote the rights of vulnerable groups and hold governments to account.

Launch of Research Project in Sierra Leone on Women’s Incarceration

In May, a Vance Center team traveled to Freetown, Sierra Leone, to kick off a research project on women’s imprisonment in Sierra Leone, which the Vance Center is implementing jointly with NGO Advocaid of Sierra Leone. The research is part of a global initiative addressing the knowledge gap on the causes, conditions, and consequences of women’s incarceration. As part of this initiative, the Vance Center established an international network of organizations working on women’s incarceration and convened a conference in Bogota in September 2018.  Based on the consensus at the conference, the Vance Center is pursuing this demonstration project in Sierra Leone, studying comprehensively the issues of women’s incarceration which all network participants can follow and replicate. The research is due to be completed in the summer of 2020. The Vance Center and Advocaid are planning a series of advocacy and awareness-raising activities in Sierra Leone and beyond around the report.

Vance Center Takes Case against Venezuela to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights

The Vance Center assisted the Venezuelan human rights organization Observatorio Venezolano de Prisiones in bringing a case before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights against the state of Venezuela for the death of five teenagers in a 2005 fire at the Monseñor Juan José Bernal prison in the state of Bolívar. The case alleges that Venezuela has violated the rights to life and personal integrity of those who died in the fire and identifies systemic failures to prevent dangerous conditions at the prison.

Now at the merits phase at the Court, the case is expected to conclude later this year. The Vance Center hopes that the Court’s binding decision will contribute to much needed change in Venezuela’s prison system, one of the worst in the region.

Addressing Women in Prison at the African Commission

The Vance Center presented a report and hosted a discussion on “Women in Prison: Africa Regional Initiative” focusing on what currently is known, and remains to be learned, about women’s incarceration across sub-Saharan Africa and how NGOs can work together to address these gaps. The discussion and report were organized jointly with five African NGOs from the Gambia, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, and Tanzania. Law firms from these countries also contributed to the report.

The initiative sought to generate visibility of the issue of women in prison within the African human rights system and to inform the broader human rights community and the African legal profession of the particular legal and policy challenges posed by this issue. The Vance Center, together with its partners in Africa, plans to continue to engage with the African Commission on the issue of women in prison on the continent in 2020, including a formal presentation to the Commission of the results of its research on women’s incarceration in Sierra Leone.

Launch of the New York City Bar Association Business and Human Rights Working Group

The Vance Center supported the launch of the New York City Bar Association’s Working Group on Business and Human Rights, which was commissioned by City Bar President Roger Maldonado, at the suggestion of the Vance Center, in response to the growing debate on the role of businesses in respecting human rights. The Working Group, which met first in December 2019, will recommend (1) whether the City Bar should endorse the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs); and (2) if the City Bar does endorse the UNGPs, what strategy it should implement to educate and engage the legal community and the broader public with regard to business and human rights.

This initiative follows on the Vance Center’s past and ongoing activities to promote BHR principles. In 2015, the Vance Center launched a Business and Human Rights Initiative, which has drawn on the expertise of law firms in the United States and abroad to contribute to the continuing development of best practices in this area. As part of this initiative, the Program has advised international NGOs and organized conferences on these issues.

Vance Center Work Contributes to Policy Change in Favor of Sex Workers’ Rights in China

Vance Center assisted long-term client Asia Catalyst with critical research to support the organization’s advocacy against the arbitrary detention of sex workers in Asia. In the vast majority of countries in Asia and across the globe, sex work is criminalized, leading to abuse and other harsh treatment of sex workers, including by law enforcement officials. One such abuse is the regular and repeated illegal and arbitrary detention of sex workers, which constitutes or results in human rights violations.

In December of last year, China announced that it will end the policy of detaining sex workers. This policy change is a major step in securing recognition and respect for the human rights of sex workers. The Vance Center is proud to have contributed to Asia Catalyst’ critical work which, along with that of many other advocates, has led to this historic change. It is hoped that other countries in the region will follow China’s lead and end their policy of arbitrary detention of sex workers.