Salle XXII is the huge meeting room in the UN where the US delegation answered the questions of other UN member countries about how it is meeting its human rights treaty obligations. NEIU students were able to witness the US government’s testimony from the floor, and follow along completely by accessing the UN’s simultaneous translation services.

Professors Cris Toffolo, Nancy Matthews and Shelley Bannister of the Justice Studies Department took eight students to Geneva, Switzerland May 7-15, 2015 to learn about the United Nations (UN) system, particularly its role in trying to improve human rights. The occasion for the trip was the United States going through its second-ever “Universal Periodic Review” (UPR). Since 2005, all 193 member countries of the UN are reviewed every four years by other UN members on their human rights record. May 11th was the U.S.’s turn.

One-hundred twenty countries from around the world questioned the U.S. government about its human rights record. Thematic concerns that emerged included the continued use of the death penalty federally and in many states; excessive racist police violence, especially the killings of black people that have been high publicized in the last year; why Guantanamo is still in operation and the lack of prosecution of those who authorized torture by the CIA; the use of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons; and the failure of the U.S. to ratify many basic human rights treaties, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child (the U.S. is the ONLY country in the whole world that has not done so!), and the Convention on the Elimination of forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan with the NEIU group. From second on the left to right: Dr. Shelley Bannister, Dr. Cris Toffolo, Mark Hanna, Attorney General Madigan, Stephan Torres, Sonia Saucedo, Jack Garrity, Stephanie Ortiz Torres, Miguel Nuñez, Caitlyn Edwards, and Dr. Nancy Matthews.
Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan with the NEIU group. From second on the left to right: Dr. Shelley Bannister, Dr. Cris Toffolo, Mark Hanna, Attorney General Madigan, Stephan Torres, Sonia Saucedo, Jack Garrity, Stephanie Ortiz Torres, Miguel Nuñez, Caitlyn Edwards, and Dr. Nancy Matthews.

“One thing that stood out to me,” said Jack Garrity, “was the concern of nations like Moldova, Austria, and Benin about our juvenile justice system. They called on the U.S. to end placing American juvenile offenders in adult facilities and to ban the sentence of life without parole. It was the Juvenile Justice System class I took with Professor Jackie Campbell that originally sparked my interest in these topics and seeing them discussed at a live UN meeting was an unbelievable experience.”

The U.S. government’s delegation included Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan. She was the only non-federal government official included, and she was chosen to highlight the great strides in human rights that Illinois has made in the past four years by ending the death penalty, closing the TAMMS Supermax facility (and hence decreasing the use of solitary confinement in Illinois, which is terrible form of torture), and the recent actions of Chicago’s City Council in agreeing to pay reparations to the torture victims of former Chicago police sergeant John Burge in the 1970s and 1980s.

As a part of the USHRN post-UPR meeting, community groups listen to the U.S. government respond to questions. The NEIU group listens to the USHRN meeting proceedings. From left to right: Stephan Torres, Sonia Saucedo, Stephanie Ortiz Torres, Dr. Cris Toffolo, unnamed attendee, Jack Garrity, and Miguel Nuñez.

The NEIU group participated in the UPR process by joining with the U.S. Human Rights Network (USHRN), which is a national U.S. network of some 200 community groups that work on various human rights issues around the country. Because of this connection, NEIU students were able to be present in the briefing room for the U.S.’s UPR meeting, and to be included in the special consultation the USHRN had set up with the U.S. government delegation after the UPR process to further question the federal government about its human rights record.

It was at that same event our students had an opportunity to meet Attorney General Madigan, as well as mingle with many members of the U.S. government delegation.

But the learning didn’t stop there! The rest of the week was filled with talks and tours of UN agencies, including the United Nations International Children’s Fund (UNICEF), UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNOHC), and the International Labor Organization (ILO). Miguel Nuñez said of the ILO visit, “I had no idea that there are so many international treaties to regulate labor – about 160! But the U.S. has only ratified a couple of them, which is shocking because the U.S. portrays itself as the beacon of human rights!”

NEIU listed on the official ICRC daily schedule screen. Drs. Shelley Bannister, Nancy Matthews and Cris Toffolo, with Justice Studies major Miguel Nuñez, in the grand entrance hall of the ILO.

In addition, the students learned about international humanitarian law at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Of this experience, Jack Garrity said, “The presentation on international humanitarian law was very informative. It was nice to be able to participate and give feedback. It was also great to meet another group of students from Kent State!”

Nor was the history of this important city neglected either, for the students also visited the cathedral where John Calvin preached and worked out the tenets of Calvinism, which they learned about in more detail by visiting the Museum of the Reformation. They also visited Chateau Chillon and an archeological dig site, learning about the history of the region that dates back to about 300 B.C.

Reformer John Calvin preached at this cathedral in the 16th Century A.D. Chateau Chillon, a 13th Century castle first used by the Duke of Savoy, and made famous by Lord Byron in his poem, “The Prisoner of Chillon.” Caitlyn Edwards relaxes after a long day exploring Chateau Chillon.

And of course, no one can leave Switzerland without tasting the local culture – hence, a farewell fondue dinner in Lausanne!

Perhaps it was Stephany Ortiz Torres who best summarized the week: “Amazing Trip! A Life Changing Experience!”

Farewell dinner at Le Café du Vieil Ouchy in Laussane. From left to right: Dr. Cris Toffolo, Caitlyn Edwards, Dr. Shelley Bannister, Mark Hanna, Stephan Torres, Miguel Nuñez, Stephanie Ortiz Torres, Sonia Saucedo, and on the end, Jack Garrity.
Farewell dinner at Le Café du Vieil Ouchy in Laussane. From left to right: Dr. Cris Toffolo, Caitlyn Edwards, Dr. Shelley Bannister, Mark Hanna, Stephan Torres, Miguel Nuñez, Stephanie Ortiz Torres, Sonia Saucedo, and on the end, Jack Garrity.