About Vienna Colucci

Vienna Colucci is Director of Policy at Amnesty International USA. Vienna has been a member of AIUSA's staff since 1992. In that time, she has served as the Director of AIUSA's Program for International Justice and Accountability, which involved building grassroots support for the establishment of the International Criminal Court (ICC), the exercise of universal jurisdiction to hold perpetrators of human rights abuses accountable in domestic courts; and respect for fair trials and the rule of law in combating terrorism. She organized AIUSA's campaign for U.S. signature of the ICC treaty, and researched and helped to draft AIUSA's USA: Safe Haven for Torturers report. Prior to that, Vienna was Director of AIUSA’s Membership Networks Program, responsible for advocacy, training and outreach related to the legal protection of human rights, health and human rights, children's rights, and religion and human rights. Vienna has served on AIUSA's crisis teams formed in response to the attacks of September 11 and the conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Haiti, Sudan, Israel and the Occupied Territories. She has for a number of years been involved in AIUSA’s Committee on Mission, Research and Action, which educates and advises members and staff about policy issues of concern to the AI movement, and chaired the interdepartmental staff working group responsible for building movement capacity to campaign on economic, social and cultural rights.
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What Does Your Cell Phone Have to Do with Armed Conflict?

The Democratic Republic of Congo’s long war, which has claimed an estimated three million lives as a result of fighting or disease and malnutrition, was fuelled by the regions vast mineral wealth (Photo Credit: Kuni Takahashi/Getty Images).

The Democratic Republic of Congo’s long war, which has claimed an estimated three million lives as a result of fighting or disease and malnutrition, was fueled by the regions vast mineral wealth (Photo Credit: Kuni Takahashi/Getty Images).

You know that phone you’re texting on? Do you know how its microchips are made?

Thanks to work by Amnesty International and partner organizations, companies that rely on certain minerals from the Democratic Republic of Congo or neighboring countries now have to investigate and report on whether those minerals fund armed groups.

And it’s about more than just smartphones – conflict minerals” (tin, tantalum, tungsten, and gold) are used in products like your laptop and even your car. Public disclosure of companies’ sourcing practices can have a real impact on entire industries, pushing companies to take human rights into account as they do business. Can you hear me now?


Amnesty Makes It 60

My life’s work has always been human rights, but I’m also a strong supporter of animal protection. So I was especially heartened by our recent decision to join 59 other organizations – ranging from the Humane Society to the ACLU to the Sierra Club to the United Farmworkers – to oppose what are known as “ag-gag” bills.

These bills aim to silence and thwart whistle-blowers who would expose animal cruelty, poor working conditions, food or environmental safety issues, and more by, for example, making it a crime for an investigator to get a job on a factory farm, banning taking a photo or video without permission, and requiring mandatory reporting under timelines that are so short as to make it virtually impossible to document patterns of abuse.

What at first might appear to be exclusively an animal abuse issue is, on closer inspection, clearly also a freedom of expression issue, a workers’ rights issue, an environmental issue and a public health issue.  And this is why such a diverse coalition has come together to oppose “ag-gag” bills.


Will U.S. Give Survivors Their Day In Court?

 Esther Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Shell Petroleum

Members of the Ogoni community outside of the Supreme Court, February 28, 2012. Esther Kiobel, center. (Photo by Erica Razook)

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Kiobel vs. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co., a corporate accountability case that could have far-reaching implications for future efforts by survivors of human rights abuses committed in other countries to sue those responsible in U.S courts.  The case is close to my heart, but its outcome is one that all human rights activists should be invested in.

Earlier this week, in the course of sorting through years of accumulated documents in preparation for our impending office move, I found the four overstuffed binders I created over a decade ago while researching cases for Amnesty’s 2002 report, United States of America: A Safe Haven for Torturers.  The report examined the U.S. government’s failure to fulfill its obligation to investigate and prosecute individuals found in the U.S. who are accused of torture committed in other countries, and to ensure that survivors can obtain reparation in U.S. courts.


We Get It

amnesty bus shelter afghan women

Amnesty Ad in Chicago

As the NATO summit gets underway tomorrow in Chicago, Amnesty International USA will host a “Shadow Summit”with leading Afghan women’s rights activists to remind NATO of the conversation it should be having on Afghan women’s human rights.

The shadow summit poster, which features the words “Human Rights for Women and Girls in Afghanistan” and “NATO: Keep the Progress Going!” has generated some controversy over the last few days.  You can guess which sentence triggered the controversy.

Some are asking, is Amnesty now a cheerleader for NATO?  Does Amnesty support the war?  What was Amnesty thinking?!

The shadow summit — and the poster — is directed at NATO, not to praise it, but to remind the leaders who will be discussing Afghanistan’s future this weekend about what is really at stake if women’s rights to security, political participation and justice are traded away or compromised.


Congress Blocks Prosecution of Gitmo Detainees in Federal Courts

Amnesty International denounces the passage of the Defense Authorization Act (H.R. 6523) by the U.S. Senate and House prohibiting prosecution of Guantanamo detainees in Federal Courts.

Today’s vote will only serve to further erode the U.S. government’s human rights record and hamper the administration’s ability to bring terrorism suspects to justice.

U.S. federal courts have and can continue to handle the prosecution of terrorism suspects, through fair trials that protect public safety and promote public confidence.

This law will also effectively prevent the closure of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, prolonging a human rights scandal whose closure national security and foreign policy experts agree is essential to improve U.S. counterterrorism efforts and mend the international standing of the United States.

The United States should hold fair trials in U.S. federal courts for Guantanamo detainees charged with crimes and release the others.

Rounded Up and Raped in the Congo

A woman sits in a tent in a camp for the internally displaced after she was allegedly raped. AFP/GETTY IMAGES

During four terrible days in July and August, armed groups raped more than 300 women, girls, men and boys in the Walikale territory of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The perpetrators moved through 13 villages, looting, raping and abducting the local population. The rapes were planned and organized: victims were rounded up and prevented from fleeing before being raped by armed men acting under the orders of their commanding officers.

Even though United Nations peacekeepers were stationed nearby, they failed to protect these communities.

What happened in Walikale demonstrates the utter failure of both the DRC government and the United Nations to protect civilians from violence.

We can do something about this. In just two weeks, the United States will assume the presidency of the UN Security Council for the month of December– giving Secretary of State Hillary Clinton the opportunity to demand strong measures to protect civilians in the DRC from sexual violence.

We need you to let Secretary Clinton know that concerned citizens want the U.S. to take a strong stand in the Council to fully protect civilians in the DRC.

The suffering endured by the survivors in Walikale is, tragically, only one example of what the Congolese people have to endure. Sexual violence in the DRC has sometimes been referred to as “the war within the war”.

Last year alone, 15,000 cases of rape were reported. The actual figure is likely much higher, as many survivors do not report rape out of fear of being stigmatized within their communities.

Secretary Clinton has witnessed first-hand the extent of sexual violence in the DRC. In September 2009, following her mission to the DRC, she told the UN Security Council that “it is time for us…to go beyond condemning this behavior, to taking concrete steps to end it.

She also pushed the Council to adopt the concrete measures necessary to bring perpetrators of this violence to justice.

Now that the United States has another opportunity to lead the UN Security Council in taking action to protect civilians in the DRC, we can’t afford to sit quietly!

Congress: Pass the 9/11 Health & Compensation Act

The 9/11 Heath & Compensation Act would ensure medical treatment and compensation for 9/11 responders and other survivors.

The James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act of 2010 (H.R.847) — named for a 9/11 responder whose death has been attributed to exposure to toxic dust and debris at the Ground Zero site — will help ensure medical treatment and compensation for 9/11 responders and other survivors, including firefighters, police officers and clean-up workers, as well as area residents and workers adversely affected by the attacks.

The New York Times reported that Detective Zadroga’s father, Joseph Zadroga, said he was pleased the bill was named after his son. “It’s an important issue because of the first responders,” he said. “They’re not getting the proper care that they should be getting.”

The bill was defeated earlier this year when some Representatives complained that it would create a new entitlement program and waste taxpayer dollars, and objected to the inclusion of undocumented workers who helped respond to and clean up 9/11 sites.

However, the bill will be voted on again soon, possibly even this week , so we need you to email your Representative, urging her/him to support it.

Under international human rights laws and standards, victims of crimes such as the attacks of September 11have a right to reparations, including medical care and compensation. Passing H.R. 847 would be a crucial step toward fulfilling this right.

It is shocking that U.S. government representatives would turn their backs on the very people who put their lives on the line to be involved in rescue, recovery and clean up efforts.  It amounts to nothing less than revictimizing people already traumatized by the attacks.  Nine years later, it is long past time to move beyond the rhetoric of being in  “solidarity” with victims, and actually pass the laws and adequately fund the programs that victims not only need, but have a right to.

Tune in to PBS tonight to watch a great documentary about justice

Tonight, PBS will premiere The Reckoning: The Battle for the International Criminal Court. This documentary film was produced by Skylight Pictures, an outstanding team of filmmakers who collaborated with AIUSA on our 2007 documentary Justice Without Borders.  Click here for local listings, as times vary.

The broadcast date is significant, in that it marks the week eleven years ago that more than 160 governments came together to negotiate the treaty creating the International Criminal Court (ICC).

The Reckoning follows the ICC’s Prosecutor as he and his team confront the most challenging of armed conflict situations, compiling evidence of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide in order to build cases against leaders of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, militia leaders in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the President of Sudan.

I’ve had the privilege of viewing and commenting on various stages of the film as it was being developed.  It’s a great piece of work.  With each viewing, something new strikes me.  I wanted to share with you some of the themes in the film that resonate with me today.

First, The Reckoning builds to what feels like a “Law and Order: War Crimes”- style finale, with the Prosecutor and his team closing in on a target — a sitting head of state — considered by many to be out of reach.   The crime thriller analogy is actually very appropriate, because some of the footage we see in the film is, when you think about it, crime scene footage.  It’s easy to forget that.  Mass rapes, murders, mutilations and starvation are often treated as the tragic and inevitable consequences of war, instead of as crimes which are planned — which actually require planning to implement on a mass scale — and for which specific individuals are responsible and can be held accountable.

Secondly, The Reckoning is very much a “David and Goliath” story.  Critics of the ICC’s work try to portray the Court as a big, Western-dominated bully out to get Africa.  I think you will come away from The Reckoning struck by how small the Prosecutor’s team really is in comparison with the massive crimes they are confronting.  I think you will also be struck by how relentless they are in pursuing justice for the victims, who they stress are the millions of Africans subjected to human rights abuses, instead of the few who try to obscure their culpability by hiding behind the mantle of nationalism.

Finally, The Reckoning tells the story of what is essentially an unfinished revolution.  The film explores both the breakthroughs in the advancement of human rights and the rule of law that made the ICC possible, as well as the lack of political to make enforcement a reality.  Former Nuremberg prosecutor (and one of my heroes) Benjamin Ferencz recalls how the entire body of human rights law that we take for granted today came to be in his lifetime, demonstrating how much is possible in what is essentially a blink of the eye in historical time.  Yet most of the world’s governments — some of whose representatives we see celebrating the ICC treaty at the start of the film — continue to fail to give any meaningful support the ICC in apprehending indicted war criminals.  We may still have a long way to go, but it’s possible to get there.

I encourage you to tune into PBS tonight, and if you’re as moved as I was, please take action.  Write to Secretary of State Clinton and U.N. Ambassador Rice and urge them to support the ICC’s work on Darfur.

"A victory for the whole world"

A few years ago, thanks to a grant from the former JEHT Foundation, I began working with the great Skylight Pictures on a short documentary film for Amnesty members.  The film was envisioned as a tool to help our members better understand international justice through the stories of the survivors and human rights defenders who are pursuing such cases.

Thanks to their work on the internationally acclaimed State of Fear, Skylight had developed strong relationships with families and activists in Peru involved in the case against former President Alberto Fujimori, and so suggested that we feature the campaign to bring Fujimori to justice as one of the film’s three story segments.

I was hesitant at first: I wanted “hot”, current stories, and Fujimori’s then still-alleged crimes were well over a decade old.  His wasn’t “technically” an international justice case because Peru wanted to prosecute.  And the case didn’t appear to be making much headway, with Fujimori traveling from one country to the other apparently unfazed by the warrant Interpol issued for his arrest.  But director Pam and editor Peter prevailed, and when I saw the rough cut of the segment they created on Fujimori, I knew why.

The segment follows Gisela Ortiz and Raída Condór, whose brother and son, respectively, were among the students disappeared from La Cantuta University in 1992 and later killed by a paramilitary group operating under Fujimori’s effective command.  Gisela and Raida, still devastated and still so angry after some fifteen years, never stopped demanding answers about what happened to their loved ones.  They were relentless about exposing Fujimori as a murderer who had masqueraded as a head of state.  When he moved to Chile from where he had been living in exile in Japan, Gisela traveled to Chile and demonstrated outside his house, demanding to know why the police where hassling the protesters instead of the suspect inside.

When Chile’s Supreme Court decided that Fujimori could be extradited back to Peru for trial, Gisela sent a note that read “I believe that this is a victory for the whole world, recognizing that human rights abusers have little room to hide, and wherever they are, justice much reach them to restore dignity to the victims.”

Today is Gisela’s and Raida’s day, because, in the end, justice is not about the perpetrators of abuses, but about the victims and the survivors.  It’s such an important lesson that we need to keep learning over and over again, and so relevant today.

When, for example, we hear Sudan’s indicted president al-Bashir and his allies accuse the International Criminal Court of being anti-African, as though he is somehow more African or more important an African than the millions of Darfuris who have suffered because of his actions.  In Darfur, as in Peru, as in so many other places where grave abuses have been committed, we sometimes have to work to hear the voices of the victims above the spin of the perpetrators and the powerful and compilict allies who would like nothing better than to wait us out until we move on to the next story and let them off the hook.  We need to wait them out instead, just as Gisela and Raida did.

You can watch Gisela and Raida tell their story in our Justice Without Borders documentary.

AIDS is a Human Rights Issue

Today is twenthieth anniversary of the first World AIDS Day, established to commemorate those who have died of the disease and marshal attention to address the epidemic.   The World AIDS Campaign has declared “Lead-Empower-Deliver” to be the theme for this year. 

For the last several years, AI has been zeroing in on the message that AIDS is a human rights issue.   Human rights abuses place people at greater risk of contracting HIV, and, all too often, those living with HIV and AIDS are subjected to human rights abuses. 

Check out Amnesty’s special web feature in honor of World AIDS Day.

Nowhere is the link between human rights abuses and HIV and AIDS clearer than in South Africa, where women, particularly those living in rural areas, face not only high HIV prevalence and high levels of sexual violence, but also widespread poverty.  AI’s report, I am at the lowest end of all, draws on the stories of women who, having contracted HIV as a result of violence, must now overcome extreme poverty and disrcimination in order to obtain treatement.

Circling back to this year’s theme of leadership, Amnesty wants to know how governments measure up to our 10-point plan of action on HIV and AIDS and human rights.  How is the U.S. doing?  What changes would you like President-elect Obama to make to U.S. policy on HIV and AIDS when he takes office?