Make Schools & Playgrounds Safe

Our Rebuilding Alliance commitment to rebuild war-torn communities includes the requirement to make them safe. When we set out to create our Abir’s Garden playgrounds  in memory of Abir Aramin, we thought long and hard about how to achieve this goal. Yesh Din attorney Michael Sfard summed it up best when he said, “If you do nothing, human rights violations do not go away; instead they get worse.”

We hope to see the day when soldiers stay far away from schools and schoolyards. With this in mind, the Rebuilding Alliance brought the Aramin family, including Abir’s sister Areen, who was an eye-witness to the incident, and Israeli Combatant for Peace Yonatan Shapira, to the State Department to testify. As a result, an entry about Abir Aramin was included in the 2007, 2008, and the 2009 U.S. Human Rights Report on Israel and the Occupied Territories updated with each passing year. We believe the Israeli courts are the right place to seek justice and we believe the U.S. Leahy Laws are a vital way to assure due process.

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As the Leahy Laws state, when there has been a gross violation of human rights, the United States must cut off aid and training to that unit involved (at the smallest level) until the perpetrators are brought to justice. This requires the State Department to investigate human rights abuses by any member of a foreign security force which receives military aid and training from the U.S. When the Leahy Amendment is invoked in response to a gross violation of human rights, the very act of notification precipitates a change in the behavior, mentality and personnel of the unit involved. This simple action can save lives.

Here is an Open Letter to the Department of State, Regarding the U.S. Human Rights Report by Donna Baranski-Walker, Published in the Huffington Post, March 17 2011.

Here is the status of the Civil and Criminal cases before the Israeli High Court

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Rebuilding Alliance Recognized at the U.N. Human Rights Council

November 24, 2010

Dear Friends,

I have good news.  This month, the Rebuilding Alliance was able to realize a significant goal at the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva.

In 2007, when we began working with the Aramin family and Combatants for Peace to build playgrounds in memory of a little girl named Abir Aramin, we knew this was more than a playground project. “It is about justice prevailing over revenge, genuine partners for peace, and a precedent-setting case to prevent violence,” said Zohar Shapira, the project’s first coordinator for Abir’s Garden: a Safe Place to Grow and a co-founder of Combatants for Peace.  Zohar formerly served for more than 15 years in Israel’s elite unit of “Sayert Matkal,” as a combatant and as a commander. “At its heart, we are working together to build a beautiful place where children can be children, where they can go to be safe, to step out of the Occupation into a world of play and creativity, and begin to heal.”

At the Rebuilding Alliance, in addition to our speaking tours and fund raising to build the playgrounds, nearly a dozen unpaid interns worked in a three year relay to invoke a set of U.S. human rights laws called the Leahy Laws that could safeguard Palestinian children in the playgrounds we are constructing.   These laws should be models  for the world, but the State Department failed to acknowledge our formal request to invoke these laws on behalf of Abir Aramin’s family.  That led us to Geneva where Michael Posner, Assistant Secretary, Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. State Department, presented the United States Human Rights Report to the United Nations.  Through the help of the Government of Norway, the Rebuilding Alliance was recognized by name and our recommendation was noted in both oral remarks and the written report of the U.N. Human Rights Council, to which the U.S. must respond.  I’ve asked volunteer Katherine Carlin, JD, Legal and Policy Analyst at the Rebuilding Alliance, to describe what this means and outline the work ahead.

Katie’s visit to the U.N. and her warm reception there could only have only have happened through the diligent work of our dozen unpaid interns and the insight of a team of remarkable advisers throughout the U.S., Israeli, and Palestinian human rights community.  I am deeply thankful.  Please have a very Happy Thanksgiving and warm celebrations of the holidays to come!

In Rebuilding Peace,
Donna Baranski-Walker
Founder and Executive Director

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Message from Katherine Carlin, JD, Legal and Policy Analyst, Rebuilding Alliance

I’m writing today to let you know that The Rebuilding Alliance achieved a wonderful accomplishment this month with the help of the Norwegian government.  Through international diplomatic efforts, we were able to secure the assistance of Norway’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations in urging the United States to rigorously and consistently apply an essential human rights law that we believe will keep our rebuilding projects safer for the children and families in East Jerusalem, Gaza, the West Bank, and Israel.  Most importantly, our recommendation provides a way to strengthen adherence to U.S. human rights law in all countries where the U.S. provides security assistance.

The November 5, 2010 Universal Periodic Review (“UPR”) of the United States at the United Nations gave the international community – for the first time  – a forum for dialog with the U.S. about our human rights record.  The team at the Rebuilding Alliance engaged with the UPR process for two reasons: 1) we felt that a comprehensive review of the United States’ human rights record could not be complete without a discussion of the U.S. initiative in and compliance with the Leahy Laws; and 2) we were deeply frustrated with the State Department’s lack of response to our detailed request to invoke the Leahy Amendment on behalf of one specific case, that of Abir Aramin.  For two years our requests to the State Department on behalf of Abir Aramin went unanswered.

Abir was a 10 year old Palestinian girl who was senselessly shot and killed by an Israeli soldier’s rubber-coated steel bullet while she stood outside her school with her sister and two friends in 2007.  When we began working with Combatants for Peace to build playgrounds in her memory, we promised to work just as hard to assure the safety of children in those playgrounds.  To this end, the Rebuilding Alliance brought Abir’s family to testify at the State Department and that testimony was entered into the State Department’s annual Human Rights Report of Israel and the Occupied Territories.  When, despite 14 eyewitnesses and an independent autopsy, the investigation was closed, we painstakingly translated all the case documents from Hebrew to English.  At our request, Israeli human rights attorney Michael Sfard joined us in presenting the case history to the State Department with our formal request to invoke the Leahy Amendment in response to Abir’s killing.

The Leahy Laws require the State Department to investigate human rights abuses by any member of a foreign security force which receives military aid and training from the U.S. Where there are credible allegations of human rights violations, the Leahy Laws require the United States to withhold aid and training from that specific unit – at its smallest grouping – until the perpetrators are brought to justice.  When the Leahy Amendment is invoked in response to a gross violation of human rights, the very act of notification precipitates a change in the behavior, mentality and personnel of the unit involved.   This simple action can save lives.

At the end of September, I was presented with a surprise opportunity to travel to Europe.  With only one week to prepare, we were able to arrange meetings with the Norwegian, Chilean, Argentine and British Permanent Missions to the U.N..  The Polish Mission could not meet with me, so Donna and I asked for their help by phone upon my return.  At each meeting I explained the position of the Rebuilding Alliance.  I told the delegations why we cared so much about this law, and how we felt that it could help prevent the deaths of more children in the Occupied Territories.  Everyone I spoke with was supportive of our efforts, and – while careful to not make any promises – they all assured me that they would consider our request.

On October 29th, Mr. Geir Sjøberg, Counselor for the the Norwegian Permanent Mission to the United Nations, sent word to the Rebuilding Alliance that Norway had submitted the following “Advance Question” to the United States:
“The Rebuilding Alliance has brought to our attention the model framework expressed by the Leahy Laws. What steps are taken to ensure that these are applied with respect to all countries receiving US’ security assistance? To what extent are the human rights records of all units receiving such assistance documented, evaluated, made available and followed up upon in cases of abuses?”

Of course, we were thrilled!  Still, the best news was yet to come.

On November 5th, Counselor Sjøberg informed us that with Norway’s precious three minutes allotted to speak on the record during the UPR, he delivered in part the following remarks:
“Norway commends the US for the model legal framework expressed by the Leahy Laws. We recommend that these laws be applied with respect to all countries receiving US’ security assistance, and that the human rights records of all units receiving such assistance be documented, evaluated, made available and followed up upon in cases of abuse.”

The Norwegian Counselor’s remarks were addressed directly to the 33 member US delegation led by Department of State Legal Advisor Harold Koh and Assistant Secretary, Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Michael Posner!  Norway’s written recommendations are included in the U.N. Human Rights Council’s Outcome of the Review, Draft Report.   Click here to read the proceedings and recommendations, and watch the video testimony.

We hope that the integrity of Abir’s parents, the adults and children who were eye witnesses the day she was killed, the Combatants for Peace network, the Israeli and Palestinian Human Rights community and the many people in the Israeli legal system working to see justice served will give the State Department the reassurance it needs to invoke the Leahy Amendment now.  If this happens,  the State Department will notify the West Bank Unit of the Israeli Border Police that its actions are under review and urge remedial action to prevent further instances of human rights violations.  If the U.S. review confirms a gross violation of human rights without due process, no further U.S. military aid to that unit will be forthcoming.

Of course the diplomatic victory at the UN is not the end of our work towards broader implementation of the Leahy Laws, but it is progress!  Having the support of a progressive government like Norway tells us that we are moving in the right direction and helps sustain our spirits.   Norway compliments us on our commitment and asks what steps we will take next.

Among our next steps will be a letter to Michael Posner, Assistant Secretary, Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, Department of State, requesting the status of the Leahy process in Abir Aramin’s case and offering specific recommendations for more effective implementation of the Leahy Laws based on our experience, including a more transparent process and rigorous, consistent administration of the Leahy Laws in all instances of gross violations of human rights.   We want to continue our own research work and meet with the Department of Defense as well as the State Department.  Donna and I would also like to publish articles in both the legal and popular press.  We’ve been advised to bring our efforts forward to our senators and representatives through a nation-wide campaign to strengthen the implementation of the Leahy Laws overall.  We hope to find funding for such a campaign.

We need your help to continue.  Please support the humanitarian work we do on behalf of children and families in Palestine and Israel, and in war-torn communities everywhere.  Thank you for your donations; they make all the difference in the world.

Sincerely,
Katherine Carlin, JD
Legal and Policy Analyst

P.S.  To date, the Rebuilding Alliance has developed this Leahy Campaign without outside funding and with entirely pro-bono assistance from a talented team of unpaid interns.  Please consider becoming one of our Bedrock Donors; we build on your strength.