International Committee Newsletter, February 1999

% Steven Goldberg, Chairperson
1020 SW Taylor, Suite 530
Portland, Oregon 97205
Phone: (503) 224-2372
Fax: (503) 224-1123


International Committee Seminar a Success

At the October 1998 Guild Convention in Detroit, the Guild’s International Committee for the first time sponsored a seminar on the integration of international human and labor rights instruments in our everyday law practices. We have all been inundated with news about the globalization of the world economy. We know that human rights activists have incorporated international conventions and treaties into their challenges to human rights abuses. But many progressive lawyers --whether working on cases involving labor law, discrimination, civil rights, torts, workers’ compensation --have no idea how to incorporate international human and labor rights instruments into our everyday law practices. This seminar was a first attempt to educate ourselves and develop strategies to accomplish this goal.

Ann Ginger began the seminar with an overview of international treaties and conventions, and their reporting requirements. Some of these treaties --for example, the United Nations Charter, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the Convention Against Torture --have been ratified by the Senate and are not " international" law, but rather the law of this country as much as any statute passed by Congress. At the same time, these laws are not self-executing and it is doubtful that they will in fact be enforced by federal or state courts. Yet Ann exhorted us to enforce these laws by continually asserting and publicizing their principles through what she termed "a mobilization of shame."

Guild National Vice President Will Harrell discussed his involvement with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, established by the Organization of American States "to promote the observance and protection of human rights." For example, in early 1998, the Commission, sitting in Washington D.C., found the United States in violation of a number of international human rights norms in the trial, sentencing and review of the capital murder conviction of William Andrews, an African-American executed in Utah in 1992. Again the Commission is not a court and has limited enforcement powers. But increasingly cases are being brought before the Commission concerning challenges to the death penalty, the treatment of INS detainees, police brutality and potentially the rights of migrant farmworkers --which bring international legal credence to the claims of many of the oppressed clients we represent, and which may ultimately result in remedies which could prove enforceable in this country.

Jennie Green of the Center for Constitutional Rights next discussed the use of the Alien Tort Claims Act (28 USCS Sections 1338-1390) in lawsuits by victims of international human rights violations to sue in U.S. Courts and obtain money judgments. Although in most of these cases the defendants flee the United States so that the judgments are not collectable, the court decisions serve many purposes. They vindicate demands for justice, force violators to answer for their crimes, and affirm that responsibility for torture cannot be evaded by seeking refuge in the U.S. Jennie talked about expanding the use of the Act in lawsuits by individuals against the INS, and against corporations such as Texaco for environmental violations.

Further discussion of the uses of international law --primarily as a mechanism for bringing pressure for violations of international treaties and standards -- was led by Cathy Albisa, an adjunct professor at CUNY law school. Cathy affirmed the limits of international law in that treaties are ratified, but always in a manner than no enforcement mechanisms are provided. But such laws can be relied on as additional claims in many of the state and federal court civil rights claims we bring, and as interpretive tools. Cathy also discussed her representation of the Kensington Welfare rights Union which has used an international human rights legal framework to organize against and protest welfare reform as a violation of the economic human rights of the poor and homeless.

The afternoon session of the seminar focused in part on the Teamsters’ experience with the enforcement of international labor standards through the labor side agreement to NAFTA, both in the U.S. and Canada. (Guild attorney Robin Alexander’s work on behalf of the United Electrical Workers union and the FAT --an independent federation of Mexican labor unions and workers-- also utilizes NAFTA to challenge anti-workers practices in Mexico). Betty Grdina, Associate General Counsel of the Teamsters, and Leo McGrady, a labor law attorney in Vancouver, British Columbia discussed a series of cases which had been brought, generally concluding that the NAFTA mechanism was legally ineffectual. However, Leo in particular discussed both the purist position toward NAFTA (ignore it) and what he described as the "sell-out" or "revisionist" position (continue to seek strong labor clauses in the trade agreement). Although initially favoring the purist position, he has come to the view that there is merit in the utilization of NAFTA for specific, limited purposes, in particular publicizing of working conditions that fall short of generally accepted labor standards.

The seminar concluded with the presentation by Jeanne Mirer of four hypotheticals. The seminar participants divided into four groups to discuss cases involving sexual discrimination and challenges to affirmative action, and how the various international law principles discussed at the seminar could be utilized as part of the legal strategies of those cases.

As a first attempt by the Guild to educate around international legal principles, those of us involved in planning for and participating in the seminar agreed it was valuable, and important in helping to define the Guild’s and its members roles in expanding what we described as being the next civil rights frontier. Attorneys continue to attempt to incorporate international law into their work. In Oregon, for example, the attorneys defending Kip Kinkel (the 15 year old accused of aggravated murder in the fatal shootings of his parents and high school shooting which left two students dead and more than 22 wounded) have challenged the application of Oregon’s aggravated murder statute based on the International Convention on the Rights of Children. The International Committee is discussing repeating the seminar at this year’s convention in San Francisco, hopefully expanding the number of organizations involved in the planning and presentation.


For the past 2 years, the Guild and the National Conference of Black Lawyers have been sponsoring a project monitoring the work of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. Nearly 100 monitors -- lawyers, students, legal workers --have had amazing experiences attending hearings of the Commission. A report of the project’s work is being compiled by Eric Sirotkin and Judy Scully and will hopefully be completed this spring. Our hope is to present it to Archbishop Tutu, who has been supportive of the project, while he is teaching in Atlanta. The report will provide independent analysis of the work of the Commission: the fairness of amnesty, the nature of reconciliation, and the importance of getting at the truth regarding South Africa’s history under apartheid. We will be evaluating the Commission’s work through international human rights standards as well as through concepts of conflict resolution. For further information about the report, contact Eric Sirotkin at

Eric created and served as chair of the South Africa Sub-Committee since its inception. He’s moved on to other issues; the new chair is Virginia Davis Nordin, a professor at the University of Kentucky. She can be reached at

ANC Leader to Visit U.S. in July

At the invitation of the Houston chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, Thenjiwe Mtintso, the African National Congress Deputy Secretary and highest ranking woman, will be visiting the U.S. from July 8 through July 17, 1999. Besides sharing with us intimate knowledge of South Africa’s upcoming elections, Thenjiwe will tell us of continuing reform efforts as a member of the commission overseeing changes in the military. In addition to talks with local activists and prisoners, she will be seeing first-hand the increasing militarization along the Texas-Mexican border. Thenjiwe will also be visiting San Francisco and hopefully other U.S. cities as well. For information, contact Nora Dwyer at


For several years, Guild members have been involved in the struggle of Mexican workers to organize. In particular, the United Electrical Radio and Machine Workers of American (UE) has formed a strong alliance with the Authentic Workers Front (FAT) --an independent federation of Mexican labor unions, worker-owned cooperatives, farm workers and community organizations-- in furthering Mexican workers’ rights. Under the labor side agreement of NAFTA, complaints regarding violations of Mexican labor laws can be filed with the National Administrative Offices in the U.S. and Canada.

The first complaint aired in Canada resulted from a complaint filed by the United Steelworkers, together with numerous other labor and human rights organizations, against the ITAPSA brake plant near Mexico City. ITAPSA is now owed by multinational Dana Corporation (a transnational auto parts manufacturer), following a merger with Echlin Industries. In the events cited in the complaint, workers eligible to vote when a new union attempted to gain bargaining rights for employees at the plant were barred from the plant. Other workers were held captive by more than 100 armed thugs bused in to the workplace by the government controlled union.

The Canadian NAO held two days of hearings, with testimony from fired workers and the FAT, as well as from the company. The panel found that Mexico appeared to have failed in its obligations under NAFTA to provide for a high standard of protection for workers involved in organizing campaigns and for a fair vote. Mexico also failed to enforce laws which would have provided a safe voting location and protected union members from discriminatory firings. What now follows are discussions between the Canadian Labor Minister and her Mexican counterpart to review and hopefully deal with these violations.

There are many more actions in Mexico which provide models for challenging the globalization of capital, and which demand our support. Get more information about these struggles by contacting the UE’s Director of International Labor Affairs, long-time Guild member Robin Alexander at ""


Increasingly, human rights organizations such as Global Exchange and Pastors for Peace which have arranged for delegations to visit and study in Cuba are under attack. In September 1998, Global Exchange received a "cease and desist" order from the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) at the Treasury Department, ordering the organization to stop organizing travel to Cuba for U.S. Citizens and to provide the names of all participants on trips since March 1996. The Guild was one of the organizations which signed on to a letter sent to Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin protesting the order, and urging the administration to work with Congress to lift all restrictions on travel by U.S. citizens as soon as possible.

To deal with these and other issues concerning the U.S.’s archaic and inhumane policies towards Cuba, the Cuba Subcommittee is being reactivated. We plan to publish an email network and newsletter to educate, publicize and organize around current developments.

Please join with us. Annual dues are $10. For more information, contact Art Heitzer at or call Art at 414-273-1040.


At the time of printing of the newsletter, the House of Lords had still not issued its decision on whether or not former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet’s should be extradited to Spain to face charges of crimes against humanity. Much of the legal work in England is being done by Amnesty International and the Redress Trust

Despite the murders in Washington D.C. of the Chilean Orlando Letelier and the American Ronnie Moffitt in the early 1970s, the U.S. has not supported Chile’s action. 

Nonetheless, attorneys for Letelier and Moffitt’s families have successfully worked for declassification of many of the state department documents linking Pinochet’s government to human rights abuses, and are continuing to pressure the U.S. Department of Justice to indict Pinochet in this country, and at a minimum offer maximum cooperation to Spain.

Several Guild chapters have organized demonstrations in support of Pinochet’s extradition. At a demonstration last November in Chicago, Guild chapter president Jim Fennerty noted that "[a]t the very least, charges should be brought against Pinochet by our own government for the murder of American nationals."

This is obviously an issue with far-reaching implications. Many of the documents which have been released are available on the National Security Agency’s web site. Other sources of information are: Amnesty International, USA;

Human Rights Watch;

Institute for Policy Studies;

Michael Ratner with the Center for Constitutional Rights has written a paper which advocates a more active policy on the prosecution of international criminals. The brief will soon be available at


At the last Guild convention in Detroit, one of the speakers on a panel on the struggle of the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico was Tom Hansen. Tom is the National Coordinator of the Mexico Solidarity Network. Over  two years ago, he traveled to Mexico as an official international observer of the peace talks between the government and Zapatistas, and has continued to be an activist on this issue in Mexico and the U.S.

On February 18, 1998, Tom was expelled from Mexico. This action by immigration authorities was clearly illegal under Mexican law, and a federal district judge in Mexico City overturned the expulsion in August 1998. In a 19 page decision, the judge cited the fact that an arrest warrant had never been issued for Hansen, and that he was expelled for "observation," an act which is not illegal under Mexican law. The Zedillo administration immediately appealed, and a final ruling is expected soon. One of the three judges that make up the appeals panel has already stated that she is opposed to the initial decision.

This is the first in a series of nearly 200 expulsions of human rights observers in Mexico to reach this point in the judicial process. The outcome will have an impact on all future cases. Tom suggests the following actions:

--Organize a delegation of community leaders to visit your local Mexican consulate;

--If you can’t organize a delegation, call your local Mexican consulate with the same demand;

--If you don’t have a Mexican consulate, call the Embassy in Washington, D.C. at 202-728-1600.

For more information, contact the Mexico Solidarity Network at

The National Lawyers Guild and its members have been active in international legal issues since the Guild’s inception. As you can tell from these articles, which are only a sampling of the work of Guild members, international work continues to be a focus of our organization. We are part of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers; this past year we have issued protests and press releases regarding the illegal bombing  of Iraq; we have formed a Tibet subcommittee and are planning a delegation to that country in 2000; we plan to send observers to El Salvador for the upcoming elections, and are actively involved in several issues in Peru; the LA chapter has been instrumental in getting the City Council to consider an ordinance forbidding the City from doing business with corporations doing work in Burma.

If you have any interest in supporting or getting involved in this work, please join the International Committee (annual membership dues are a mere $15). For more information, just call or write or email the committee.