Advocates for Human Rights honors Page as it marks milestone
Advocates for Human Rights honors Page as it marks milestone
The Advocates for Human Rights — a Minnesota-based organization with national and international impact — is celebrating 40 years of defending human rights. As part of the celebration, the organization will present the Don & Arvonne Fraser Human Rights Award to former Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Alan Page at its Human Rights Awards Dinner on June 15.
The organization got its start in the 1980s, when a group of lawyers started the organization to, according to the organization’s history, “leverage Minnesota’s unique spirit of social justice to promote human rights worldwide.” From those humble beginnings, it has expanded into an organization that has trained human rights groups, engaged policymakers, and directly impacted people’s lives.
“In the early 1980s, we launched an initiative to provide pro bono representation to people seeking asylum that started with just three cases,” said Michele Garnett McKenzie, deputy director of The Advocates for Human Rights. Over the past four decades, the number and types of issues that the organization handles has exploded. Just last year, the organization handled over 3,000 humanitarian immigration cases throughout the Upper Midwest.
The organization relies on pro bono and volunteer work. “This extraordinary contribution to human rights means The Advocates’ impact is much bigger than our budget. In the past five years, The Advocates has accomplished more than $60 million in human rights work on a cash budget of about $2 million per year,” McKenzie reports.
Looking back on the organization’s largest accomplishments, McKenzie cites the focus on women’s rights.
“One of our biggest accomplishments was envisioning a new approach for Minnesota’s response to human trafficking, which resulted in the Safe Harbor for Sexually Exploited Youth Act,” McKenzie says. “We were ahead of the game when it came to recognizing women’s rights as human rights.
“Starting in the early 1990s, we partnered with women’s rights defenders in Central and Eastern Europe to document violence against women as a human rights violation which governments had an obligation to end. Today, we continue to work with many of those partners, and we apply those same standards here in Minnesota.”
Another focus has been the abolition of the death penalty, something the organization has advocated over the last few decades. “Today we are seeing global momentum for abolition taking hold, with 70% of countries now no longer using capital punishment,” McKenzie notes. “And there’s no greater individual impact than that made by our volunteer teams who won exoneration for their death row clients.”
The organization has also focused on efforts at home. “Here at home, we’re coordinating legal help for the 1,400 Afghan evacuees to our region, which, thanks to Congress’ failure to date to pass the Afghan Adjustment Act, is a massive task,” McKenzie asserts. “And we’re trying to address a huge access to justice failure for the more than 2,700 unaccompanied immigrant children who’ve moved to Minnesota in just the last few years — with no court-appointed counsel in the immigration system, most of these kids are facing complicated immigration proceedings on their own. Alongside historic backlogs in the asylum adjudication process, access to immigration justice is under strain.”
“We continue to monitor cases of violence against women and trafficking in Minnesota district courts and immigration proceedings in federal immigration court. Bringing the public into the courts draws on the international human rights practice of trial monitoring to bring visibility to and demand accountability from our court systems,” McKenzie says.
Another area of emphasis has been on greater transparency in the legal system. “Early on, The Advocates worked with legal and forensics experts to develop a tool for investigating state-involved killings,” McKenzie explains. “Known worldwide as the Minnesota Protocol, it remains a vital tool in holding human rights violators accountable. As Minnesota continues to confront and combat racism in our legal system, Minnesota law needs to meet international standards around transparency and accountability.”
As the organization celebrates its first 40 years, it honors Page as its the Don & Arvonne Fraser Human Rights Award recipient.
“Justice Page is being honored for his lifelong commitment to human rights,” McKenzie avows. “He has actively advocated for human rights, equality, and social justice throughout his career as a Supreme Court justice, attorney, and professional athlete.”
Page was a defensive tackle for the Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Bears who then became a lawyer. He served as an associate justice on the Minnesota Supreme Court from 1993 until 2015.
In 1988, Page and his wife founded the Page Education Foundation, an organization that supports young people of color in Minnesota. “Through the Page Education Foundation, Justice Page has put his values into action, providing scholarships to students of color for post-secondary education,” McKenzie says. “He also recognizes the importance of everyone being part of the solution and requires all scholarship recipients work with young children in kindergarten through eighth grade. As mentors, the scholarship recipients encourage younger students to see education as giving them the power of choice.”
Page is also being honored for his commitment to equality in the legal system. “He has provided strong leadership on criminal justice issues, such the need to reduce racial disparities in sentencing and address systemic inequalities in the legal system,” McKenzie says. “He has been very vocal about the obligation of judges to ensure fairness for everyone.”
Other honorees include:
Volunteer Awards: Christin Eaton and Linda Svitak, for their work on a cookbook featuring recipes by members of the immigrant community; attorney Amy Fiterman for conducting dozens of interviews to document possible war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide; and Brittany Knutson, for her work monitoring court proceedings for victims of gender-based violence.
Human Rights Defender Award: Greater Caribbean for Life.
The event will be at 5:30 p.m. June 15 at The Depot in Minneapolis. Ticket information is available at https://www.theadvocatesforhumanrights.org/Events/HRAD23.