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Minnesota Law Student Works with Malawi Human Rights Commission

Malawi has one of the highest rates of HIV infection in the world. As a result, it also has an exceptionally high percentage of orphaned children. As a result of being awarded an Upper Midwest Human Rights Fellowship, funded by Samual D. Heins, the Robina Foundation, and Rounds & Hiemenz, Tyler Simmons went to Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi during the summer of 2009.  While on his fellowship, Tyler advocated for the best interests of these children with the Malawi Human Rights Commission.

The Commission’s mandate, as taken from the legislation which established it, is “protection and promotion of human rights in the broadest sense possible.” As such, they have a wide variety of tasks, including educational projects, conducting investigations of potential human rights violations, and making recommendations to the legislature of Malawi based on their investigations. They also take legal action by bringing civil suits, and they coordinate with other NGOs in Malawi to fulfill their mission statement. Tyler is a second year law student at the University of Minnesota, and used his education to help the Commission do legal research, focusing especially on the international human rights document called the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

A controversy erupted in Malawi right when Tyler arrived, because Madonna, the pop superstar, was trying to adopt a child from the country. There was a debate there about whether or not Madonna should be given permission to adopt a Malawian child, and though the issue was decided in Madonna’s favor, the controversy raised awareness about some problems in the Malawian statutes that deal with adoption. It was such a high profile case in Malawi that the legislature was re-examining the Adoption of Children Act. The Human Rights Commission, with Tyler’s help, submitted a brief advocating that Malawi align its statute with international norms of human rights.

“The primary concern of the Adoption of Children Act should be the best interests of the child,” Tyler said. “The current law is too inflexible, and does not allow the necessary judicial discretion to take the best interests of the child into account.” According to Tyler, the Convention on the Rights of the Child mandates that the best interests of the child should be the over-riding concern in such a statute.

In addition to working on the Adoption memo, Tyler worked on a project that allowed him to go out to a village community called Njuli. He said that it was very dry when he went there, though this was partly because it was the dry season. Tyler explained that he went with other people from the Commission to this particular village because of their concerns that a nearby mining operation was harming the villagers. Because of constant blasting, the houses in the village are cracking, and there have been illnesses due to the dust. The runoff from the mine has also damaging the people’s crops. Tyler went to the village because he was helping to prepare a memo regarding the human rights issues and laws that were implicated by the mining operation, which will help the Commission bring suit against the mining company.



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