Chief Executive Officer | IRA - USA
What do you do as Chief Executive Officer for IRA - USA?
I have the final responsibility for the whole organization. This relies on my skills as a lawyer as well as a historian. I established IRA - USA at the request of the Mauritanian antislavery activist Biram Dah Abeid.
IRA - Mauritanie, Biram Dah Abeid’s organization, is one of our partner organizations in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, which has a very troubled history in relation to human rights. We also work with organizations such as Fatimata M’Baye’s Mauritanian Association for Human Rights (AMDH) and Aminetou Moctar Association femmes chef de famille (AFCF).
Like other Muslim societies, Mauritania is caught between an impulse to modernize their economy and to integrate into the global community, and an increasingly conservative Islamic movement. Mauritania is a neighbor of Mali which has had a violent uprising for several years now.
As the CEO of IRA - USA, I conduct strategic international legal consulting, strategic litigation, and government relations on a national and international level. This includes relations with the United Nations and various related international organizations, high level government relations, and strategic partnership building with other non-profit human rights organizations.
How is your organization funded?
We have funding from different sources: other major non-profits, some direct fundraising and government grants, such as human rights grants. We have a diverse set of funders.
What is your biggest challenge as CEO?
That's a difficult question to answer because this work is often difficult. However, as the president and CEO I always have to come back to focus on our central mission of advancing human rights and achieving positive momentum. We have an amazing international human rights legal infrastructure. If you read the letter of the law and if the world conformed to the letter of the law, we would have a wonderful world. But, of course the world doesn't conform to the letter of human rights law, not by a long shot. If you read the Mauritanian law, some of it would make you cry. So, the biggest challenge is to secure advances in the implementation of human rights law. That’s the most difficult part.
Although the United States has its own troubled relationships with human rights, we live in a different world, as it is structured by the law, than do the people of Mauritania. It’s difficult to work in Mauritania, and achieve concrete reforms. It's difficult to achieve a positive impact. There is an ongoing struggle to keep a human rights presence in the country. After Mr. Abeid asked me to set up IRA - USA, he was arrested along with other IRA activists in October of 2014.
After a trial in Rosso, most of the IRA - Mauritanie activists were freed, but Mr. Abeid and the Vice President [of IRA- Mauritanie] Brahim Bilal Ramdhane were sentenced to two years in prison. We responded to this prison sentence with a major international campaign to secure their release. They finally were released in May 2016. After their release, Mr. Abeid and Mr. Ramdhane were nominated for the US State Department Trafficking in Persons Heroes Award. The same day they were being given that award by the U.S.Secretary of State, John Kerry, at the State Department in Washington DC, the Mauritanian government began to arrest all of the high level IRA – Mauritainie activists who were in the country.
Some of the IRA - Mauritanie officers were in Washington DC for the award ceremony. Therefore, a handful of high level activists were not arrested, including Mr. Abeid and Mr. Ramdhane. The government did this huge sweep up on spurious charges, which shows that the Mauritanian Government was deeply angry that the award was being given to Mr. Abeid and Mr. Ramdhane. The government lashed out at the organization. The government attacks the antislavery organization and tolerates the people who own slaves.
Mauritania is a very hostile environment for human rights. I have another Mauritanian client named Mohamed Ould Cheikh Ould M'khaitir who is on death row for blasphemy. The Supreme Court in Mauritania is due to issue a ruling on December 20th, 2016. At his recent court hearings there have been huge crowds in the street chanting for his death. What was his crime? He wrote a blog post that was maybe four paragraph long in which he argued against racial discrimination, against the caste system and against how religion is used to enforce caste based discrimination in Mauritania. That is his crime. For that he is being sentenced to death. He is fighting that sentence but the conservative Imams are organising mass demonstrations to urge the court to enforce the death sentence. [note: the December 20th deadline passed without the court issuing a ruling. IRA - USA in-country legal counsel, Fatimata M’Baye, reports that a new justice joined the Supreme Court bench and therefore needed more time to familiarize himself with the case, thus prompting the deferral of the ruling. No new deadline has been announced.]
Mauritania has never previously condemned anyone for blasphemy. This conservative emphasis on blasphemy and the need to sentence a blasphemer to death is very much part of 21st century Islamic politics. It's not historically rooted in Mauritania at all. It's a very uphill battle to achieve positive outcomes. That's the most difficult part of running this organization.
Are you worried about what a new Trump administration might mean for you?
Since November 8th, I have been sick. I will tell you that just straight up. I am part of the Faithless Electors Campaign who believe that the best outcome of this election is that the electoral college does not vote for Trump. I have signed on as a lawyer, to two campaigns.
The Faithless Electoral Campaign believes that the electoral college should deny the validation of the vote based on constitutional principless that he is a demagogue and unqualified to assume the office of President of the United States. I also signed another petition asking the Department of Justice to secure an injunction against the election based on three factors: international interference by the Russian Government, interference by the head of the FBI James Comey, which is documented and a known violation of the Casey Act, and widespread voter suppression, which is also well documented.
We petitioned the Department of Justice to initiate an investigation into election fraud based in those three areas and to get an injunction against the election until the investigations have been completed. I don't think the Department of Justice will do that but I think they should. President Obama's point of view seems to be that the most important thing is to uphold the established democratic process, but when the democratic process has a miscarriage, that needs to be acknowledged with an appropriate response. It needs to be acknowledged that the process didn't work properly, the election should be annulled, President Obama should continue as a lame duck president until a new, untainted election can be held.
I think that President Obama is too much of an accommodationist to act on this. On Friday, he did officially ask for an investigation into the Russian interference in the election. However, he is just asking for an investigation. They are not moving for an injunction towards the election which they should. I absolutely think they should.
I'm a historian as a well as a lawyer and I started out as a European historian. Back in my undergraduate days I was a German historian and I had a fellowship to study in Germany. So, I know my history, particularly my European history. I know the history of Fascism and the co-optation of government. I know very well what an insane person can do when they are ruling a country. I really think the United States needs to act to prevent Trump from ever assuming the office. Unfortunately, my insights are not the ones that are going to control the situation.
In your work with IRA - USA, you deal with human rights abuses everyday. How do you keep fighting?
I've been asked that through my life, where does my commitment to social justice come from, and where does the fire in my belly come from? It is a process of continual awakening. There has to be a process of continual renewal. It's not something that you can do by phoning it in. You have to accept that we live in the world as it is. This is our world, with all the good, the bad, the simple and the complicated. Yet each of us has our own individual lives and we need to choose what we are going to do with that life. Our life is given to us and it is our choice what to do with it. I could have chosen to be an insurance salesperson or a doctor.
I made the choice to work for justice. Part of my commitment comes from having been the 8th of 9 children in an Irish-American family. As a very young child I learned about systematic injustice. That is part of Irish history, and part of growing up in a large family. I learned very early what the rule of the strongest means, and that it is necessary to have rules, it is necessary to have a standard of justice by which systems operate, because rule of the strongest leads to abuse very quickly.
You are a lawyer by training and you are also a historian. How do you use those academic skills in your job every day?
I was an academic historian for many years before I went to law school. I'm first a historian by training and then became a lawyer. I use both skills all the time. What do historians do? They document and tell stories. A large part of human rights work is translating the stories from Mauritania to the broader world, so that people can know what's going on and engage.
The storytelling is essential to work in human rights. In big organizations of course that's separated out. You have your communications department, you have video editors, photo contributors, etc. We are a small organization. Those roles aren't differentiated out as much as they would be in big organizations. I can do the legal consulting and I can also do the storytelling.
If some of our readers want to support IRA - USA, what can they do?
There are two different options. They can become involved. We have volunteers working for us who do any number of different things. Usually, I have a couple of legal interns. Work on that end is very important, and work on the communications end is always needed. Then of course there is always fundraising. I really feel kind of sad when the first thing an organization asks by way of help them is to donate.
It's true, and it is a great thing to do if you happen to have money available that you can donate to help our organization undertake specific initiatives. You can send a check or use our Paypal link on our website. However, working with us is also very important. People have done amazing work for IRA, we wouldn't be able to have nearly the impact we do have without volunteers in many European countries, in Canada, and in the United States. The volunteer work has been extremely important to our success, and it will continue to be extremely important.
These kinds of partnerships are one key to our success, and these partnerships grow and thrive in part through broad participation in petitions, letter writing, and donations. For example, when the IRA officers were arrested in June of 2016 and sentenced in August, we were able to mount an extremely effective campaign for their release, and we secured their release in early December. There were 13 people in jail and all but three of them are now out of jail. They had significant sentences - some of them were sentenced to 15 years in prison.
We were able to launch complaints about the torture of the prisoners through our volunteers and friends in Paris. I think that parliamentary action concerning allegations of torture is part of what caught the Mauritanian Government's attention. Also, I had previously established a working relationship with Freedom Now, a non-profit in Washington DC. Working with Freedom Now, we were able to launch petitions to the UN working group on arbitrary detention.
We had previous rulings from the working group for Mr. Abeid and Mr. Ramdhane. The rulings came out after their release in May 2016, but having them in hand and being able to say to the Mauritanian government, "Look,this UN organization knows what you are doing. You are jailing antislavery activists when you've already signed an agreement that stipulates steps to end slavery, with the UN Special Rapporteur on Slavery.” They've signed this roadmap-agreement to take steps to get rid of slavery in Mauritania. Instead of actually taking those steps and working to rid the country of slavery, we point out to the government, you are jailing your antislavery activists and subjecting them to torture while in prison.
Without the network of volunteers, including some very high level volunteers who are able to do presentations to parliamentary bodies and things like that, we wouldn't be able to have nearly the impact that we do. I credit our volunteers immensely.