UF alumnus promotes grassroots advocacy to fight against violation of human rights
By Roberta O. Roberts
After reading about a gross violation of the human rights of an American citizen held prisoner in North Korea last year, Michael Cavendish (JD 98) knew he had to take action, even though he was more than 7,000 miles away from the crisis.
Cavendish began an international letter-writing campaign to leading newspapers urging freedom for Aijalon Gomes, an American English teacher in South Korea who was arrested when he crossed the border from China into North Korea.
Gomes, whose entry across an unfenced border was peaceable and for humanitarian purposes, had just been sentenced to eight years of hard labor and a fine of $700,000.
But that wasn’t the only thing that compelled Cavendish to work daily on an Amnesty-style human rights campaign for almost five months until Gomes was released.
“What bothered me the most was the way the North Koreans behaved,” Cavendish said. “My conscious was shocked. (His story) grabbed hold of me and didn’t let go.”
According to Cavendish, the North Korean government gave Gomes a sentence that was grossly disproportionate and cruel. They made what would have been a civil infraction in the United States (entry without a visa) into a heavily punished criminal offense.
“And at one point, the North Koreans asked the American government to pay $50 trillion for the Korean War as a further condition to Aijalon’s release,” Cavendish said. “North Korea behaved very erratically and very cruelly. For a long time it looked like his prospects were getting worse and not better.”
A few months after his sentencing, the North Korean government threatened to kill Gomes in a public press release.
“This was the regime’s worst human rights offense of all,” Cavendish said. Professor Jon Mills, director of the Center for Governmental Responsibility and UF Law dean emeritus, said that in the last couple of decades, “it is pretty clear that Americans abroad are in some greater peril because of the U.S.’s current place in the world. Americans are symbolically used by others to convey their message.”
In this case, Cavendish suggested that part of the message is religious intolerance.
“They seemed to amplify or worsen his punishment because he may have been there to spread Christianity,” Cavendish said. “They punished him merely for maintaining a religious belief.”
According to Cavendish, “North Korea is infamous for persecuting its own practicing Christian citizens.”
Cavendish said that the entry was Gomes’ way of making a “Gandhi-like statement, communicating to a very violent and cruel and oppressive regime with an act of nonviolence. (He was) a gentle evangelist, someone who just wanted to make friends and talk about living peacefully.”
But regardless of whom Gomes was or what he was trying to do, the violation of his human rights was still an issue that Cavendish wanted to address.
Cavendish started the letter-writing campaign so that opinion leaders and decision-makers would “start talking about rights as ideas and so that pressure would begin to build in the forum of public opinion.”
According to Mills, grassroots advocacy like Cavendish’s campaign is effective and important.
“Individuals have to be persistent and willing to express their views to make democracy work effectively,” Mills said. “(Petitioning our government) is one of our basic rights. It is fundamentally what democracy is based on when we want change or need our rights protected.”
Cavendish said the importance of grassroots advocacy is that it “increases the value our government assigns to each of us as individuals.”
He cites the U.S. military slogan “no one gets left behind” and suggests that American civilians should receive this same depth of governmental protection as do our soldiers, since Americans abroad are increasingly subject to detention based on geopolitics and because civilians are far less prepared than soldiers to endure detention and torture. Cavendish completed his almost five-month campaign when Gomes was escorted home by former President Jimmy Carter at the end of August.
But this wasn’t Cavendish’s first time advocating for someone’s human rights.
Although he is a commercial trial lawyer for a private firm in Jacksonville, Cavendish started doing human rights work pro bono once he became “senior enough.”
“Whether it is full-time or just as a volunteer part-time pro bono, (students can) incorporate (human rights) as part of their life as an American lawyer,” he said.
Lawyers should especially pay attention to human rights because “lawyers see the (violation of) rights more vividly than others do,” Cavendish said. “A legal education makes it hard to fool you on fundamental issues. You might end up being a family lawyer or a government lawyer and you may have forgotten most of what you learned in law school but when you’re confronted with an injustice…you’re not fooled. That legal training that you had gives you the spine — if you will — to advocate for others.”
Mills said that Cavendish’s efforts “show a real commitment to higher principles and values.”
“Frequently, lawyers are in a better position or better able to be advocates for individuals and their rights, so lawyers should take initiative, and if they see something being done wrong, they should do something about it,” Mills said. “(Cavendish) is a perfect example of using skills and ability to help other people.”