“There are both human rights and human responsibilities. Ideally, we would raise our children to know that they have the right to an entire constellation of rights, but that they also have the responsibility to ensure that everyone has access to those rights. The first step is just getting people to care about world issues, and the easiest way to do that is to tell personal stories,” said Jennifer Prestholdt. As deputy director of Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights, Prestholdt’s many responsibilities often involve gathering these stories from around the world and presenting them in global and local forums as a method of education and social change.
Prestholdt has been integrating human rights advocacy and international relations since her time at the Fletcher School of Diplomacy at Tufts University in Massachusetts. After receiving her Masters Degree in Diplomacy, Prestholdt decided that a law education would be crucial to the human rights policy work she was interested in pursuing. “I chose the University of Minnesota because of its strong human rights curriculum,” recalled Prestholdt.
Through courses taught by Professor David Weissbrodt, Prestholdt learned of the law school’s Human Rights Center and of the Upper Midwest Fellowship Program. Weissbrodt suggested Prestholdt apply for a Fellowship to work as an assistant to Linda Chavez, who was then a member of the United Nations Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities in Geneva, Switzerland. “I had done an independent study with Prof. Weissbrodt preparing the information that Linda would present to the Sub-Commission. During my four weeks in Geneva, I attended all open Sub-Commission sessions and took notes. When Linda wanted to make an intervention, it was also my job to do the research and draft a resolution for her to work with,” recalled Prestholdt. “It was a great chance to get some experience with the U.N. Human Rights Mechanism, and that knowledge has been very helpful in my work at Minnesota Advocates.”
Prestholdt started volunteering at Minnesota Advocates during her final year in law school. After graduating in 1996, she accepted a full-time position at the local organization: “I started working with the Refugee and Asylum Project, recruiting attorneys to do pro bono representation for these asylum seekers. Two years ago, Robin Phillips was named executive director of Minnesota Advocates, and I became deputy director. I’ve been doing more general human rights work since then.”
One of Prestholdt’s major focuses has been a Human Rights Monitoring project, concentrating specifically on transitional justice issues in Peru and Sierra Leone. In November 2002, a team of Minnesota Advocates volunteers traveled to Peru to conduct fact finding interviews and make suggestions to the Committee for Truth and Justice: “We recommended legal and institutional reforms to correct human rights abuses in Peru’s past. I received a grant from the United States Institute for Peace to develop this methodology. Now, we’re stepping back into the role of a traditional Western Human Rights group, which is to pressure the Peruvian government to consider the true facts and do something about the suggestions we have made, to do something about prosecuting the perpetrators of these abuses.”
The next step of this transitional justice project was to test this same methodology in a second country. Minnesota Advocates sent a similar group of volunteers to Sierra Leone, a country still reeling from the effects of a civil war that ended two years ago. “Sierra Leone is the first nation to hold an international war crimes tribunal in the nation where the human rights abuses took place since the Nuremburg Trials of World War II. It’s a very interesting place to be working, and we hope to have our report published by the end of the year,” Prestholdt said.
She went on to explain that the projects in Peru and Sierra Leone are designed to benefit not only the people of those nations, but educate both the international human rights community and the local Minnesota population: “In the past two years, we have prepared both written and oral statements on our work in Peru and Sierra Leone to be presented before the U.N. Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities. We’re able to do this because Minnesota Advocates has special consultative status with the U.N., allowing us to raise issues that are of concern before the Sub-Commission. We’ve also developed a curriculum on transitional justice for grades eight through twelve in the local community using our work in Peru and Sierra Leone as case studies, and we’ve talked with hundreds of people in the local community about our experiences in Peru.”
This synthesis between international policy work and local advocacy is typical of Minnesota Advocates’ projects. It is also a facet of the group’s work that has been altered significantly by the events of September 11, 2001: “Immediately after 9/11, the FBI started calling immigrants and refugees for involuntary interviews, and we set up a panel of immigration attorneys and criminal attorneys as advisors to those parties. The immigration law reforms that followed 9/11 have brought about a slough of issues for immigrants that we weren’t dealing with before. The biggest impact has been a general feeling of fear among these people. They are afraid to go to the INS and the government because they don’t know their rights.”
In a post- 9/11 American society, Prestholdt knows that the key to progress lies in education and awareness: “I think the Minnesota community is more aware of international issues than most Americans, but even so there is a basic lack of awareness about what’s going on. When we speak to people, we emphasize that the first thing they need to do is educate themselves. The more people in countries like the United States who are aware of what’s happening in the world, the less likely it is that human rights abuses will happen.”
Minnesota Advocates is committed to increasing that national level of awareness, and of spreading the stories of the people of nations such as Peru and Sierra Leone. Prestholdt continues to incorporate her experience at the Sub-Commission into her work, and hopes to return as a delegate in the near future. She will also be teaching a class on International Human Rights Law at the University of St. Thomas Law School this fall, where her experience with United Nations procedure will be an integral part of her teaching approach.