Frank C. Newman Intern Wendy Betts 3L
I entered law school with a strong passion for human rights. I was therefore incredibly excited to be selected as one of the six students who would advocate on human rights issues at the Human Rights Council (HRC) meeting in Geneva. Although the semester began with a flurry of research and writing to become fully conversant in my topic, the true import of what I had been selected to do did not strike until walking into the HRC meeting room for the first time. In taking our place among other NGO representatives with open access to state delegations, it became clear just how unique an opportunity the clinic provides.
My topic was the right to vote. Although the right is guaranteed in multiple human rights treaties, there is wide derogation in state practice, in both democratic and non-democratic countries. One prevalent type of violation, which I chose to focus on, is prisoner disenfranchisement. When a state restricts the right to vote, the restriction must be reasonable and proportional. Despite these requirements, many states retain prohibitions on prisoner voting inconsistent with the prisoner’s length of sentence or type of crime. Additionally, some states permanently disenfranchise former prisoners. In the United States, an estimated 5.3 million U.S. citizens currently cannot vote as a result of prisoner disenfranchisement laws. Approximately two million of these disenfranchised voters have fully completed their sentence. I also addressed the widespread use of violence to intimidate or coerce voters to influence the outcome of elections. Studies have shown that approximately 25 percent of elections experience election-related violence. Recent elections in Zimbabwe, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Kenya, among others, tragically erupted into violence resulting in the death and displacement of thousands of people. (See Human Rights Defenders and the Right to Vote, A/HRC/19/NGO/20.)
The right to vote, as such, has not been on the HRC agenda. HRA’s objective for the past five years has been to convince the council to address this issue explicitly, either by including it in the mandate of an existing special procedure, or, ideally, through the creation of a new special procedure to monitor allegations of voting rights violations. However, moving from absence from the council’s agenda to the creation of a new special procedure requires incremental steps.
My goal in Geneva was to promote recognition of the right by identifying a resolution in which language on the right to vote would be appropriate and convincing the delegations to include such language. A proposed Resolution on Democracy and the Rule of Law (A/HRC/19/L.27) turned out to be the vehicle. This resolution was sponsored by Romania, together with Peru, Qatar, Tunisia, and Norway. Based on Romania’s not so distant experience with democratization, the importance of voting struck a very personal chord with the delegation. In fact, the sponsoring countries already intended to include language reaffirming the right vote and were very receptive to my report. Perhaps most importantly, the resolution calls upon the High Commissioner for Human Rights to conduct a study on best practices for democracy and present the results at the council meeting next March. Now that the voting issue will be on the council’s agenda, the clinic can focus on lobbying for a new special procedure.
HRA, through the clinic, provided me an invaluable opportunity to learn skills that will use throughout my career. I learned firsthand the time, patience, and commitment that go into advocating. Additionally, watching the state delegations in action gave me a more concrete understanding of how international norms evolve in the international community. Overall, I feel tremendously fortunate to have had such an opportunity, and I would like to thank HRA for providing it.