Meeting human rights defenders: when one falls, ten will rise

By Natalia Koper

Winter in Lima is a multisensory experience. The streets are dusty and polluted, and the chilly humidity is difficult to get used to. The hustle and bustle of traffic and street vendors continues long after dusk and resumes at full volume from the early morning hours. The sky is murky every day, giving the city a feel of suspense and unease. It’s been over a month since Lima welcomed me and crossing a busy street is still an adventure. Here, the green light is merely a suggestion – never a guarantee. Instead, drivers approach honking, announcing their presence in defiance of traffic norms.

It was a pleasure to hang out with Emilie de Haas, a former IDEHPUCP intern from McGill, while she was visiting her friends in Peru.

Despite its tense and mysterious side, Lima is also lively and passionate. I wake up every day listening to the sweet tweet of the birds. Every household in my neighbourhood has a colourful garden of tropical flowers and plants. And then there’s soccer: I didn’t need to watch Copa América (the South American soccer championship) to know the current score whenever Peru was playing, as the entire city would hold their breaths and then cheer wildly into the streets every time their compatriots scored a goal.

If Lima were a person, she would be a moody rule-breaker, but also creative and spirited.

My amazing colleagues from the Institute. Thank you for being so welcoming!

This is the setting of the Institute for Democracy and Human Rights (IDEHPUCP in Spanish), a leading Latin American research facility, and it is where I’m spending my summer. The Institute, born in 2004 from the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (CVR), continues to examine the causes and implications of the internal armed conflict, which raged in Peru for two decades between 1980 and 2000. The work of the Institute goes beyond this mandate, by striving to build a stronger civil society through research, publications, and education programmes. I’ve been so grateful for the opportunity to participate in the very diverse initiatives that the Institute is undertaking.

Last week, I attended workshops organized by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). Together with the only other foreign intern Weronika (who is a third-year political science student at Yale and coincidentally Polish, like me), we reported on the events taking place throughout the week. There were 60 human rights defenders from twenty Latin American states, selected from almost 3000 applications. On the first day, everyone introduced themselves and briefly described their line of work. Among different dimensions of human rights work, the defenders discussed women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, Indigenous and Afro-descendant rights, environmental rights, migration rights, rights of prisoners, freedom of expression, and rights of victims of armed conflicts. I felt honoured to be in the presence of this diverse group of extraordinary individuals who put their lives at risk to defend values and causes worth fighting for. Spending an entire week with them was truly a humbling and inspiring experience.

At the beginning of the IACHR course, participants identified key challenges for the human rights field in Latin America.

I had the pleasure of speaking to a few of these activists, one of whom monitors prison conditions in Venezuela. As she described, prisoners in Venezuela are dying from a lack of the most basic medical care – anything from tuberculosis to ear infections. They are also subjected to torture, with cases of deaths registered as suicides. Prisons are so overcrowded that some people stay in tiny custody cells at police stations for months after being convicted. This phenomenon has led prisoners to establish a rotation system for who will get to sleep on a particular day.

I also met an immigration lawyer from Guadalajara, Mexico who recounted challenges faced by stateless immigrants trying to register their children in Mexico. Some people who arrive in Mexico from rural areas of Central America do not have any documents, no birth certificate, nothing. When they turn to the Mexican authorities for registering their children’s birth certificates, the immigration authorities refuse to process the documentation, which means further marginalization and limited access to public services. This is why Luis’s FM4 Paso Libre is committed to providing comprehensive assistance to those in need, including shelter, psychological help, and social reintegration, and legal advice.

The main objective of the course was to train human rights defenders in accessing the inter-American human rights system, composed of the IACHR (same guys who organized the course) – whose doors you can on knock first if you’d like to denounce human rights violations in an OAS country – and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights – the main organ of the inter-American system (where Kelly O’Connor is completing her internship placement right now). The participants engaged in a series of interactive lectures and mock hearings led by the IACHR staff (and recently appointed Commissioner Julissa Mantilla, who is a law professor of some of my colleagues at the Institute). At the end of the course, they were committed to imparting what they learned in their organizations and communities.

The participants tried out different roles during a mock IACHR hearing. The fact pattern concerned the urgency of granting adequate protection measures to the wife of an Indigenous community leader.

A recurring theme of the week was the safety of human rights defenders. Three out of four murders of human rights defenders occur in Latin America, as was emphasized by Commissioner Francisco José Eguiguren during a conference that inaugurated the week. In 2018, Colombia and Mexico alone accounted for 54% of the total killings, according to Front Line Defenders’ report. In addition, the activists face threats, criminalization, harassment, stigmatization, and arbitrary detentions. Some of the participants have already experienced violence or are beneficiaries of precautionary measures, which are granted by IACHR in serious and urgent situations in order to prevent irreparable harm.

Human rights defenders play a critical role in protecting the rights and wellbeing of their communities. Their voice holds governments and businesses accountable to the international community and the public in general. As such, it is disheartening to hear about activists labelled as ‘terrorists’ and peaceful protests equated with ‘inciting rebellion.’ Arguably, it’s in everyone’s interest to keep rights-upholders safe. Am I naïve to think that everyone wins if rights pertaining to each and every one of us are recognized and respected? For some reason, the dynamic of human rights defence has always been binary and adversarial: activists versus the government; the community versus the corporation etc. As a result, the mistaken pursuit of power and wealth has led many private actors to believe that human rights pose a limitation to business. But the way I look at it, businesses thrive where rights are respected because they operate more efficiently in an environment of political and economic stability, transparency, and accountability.

On the last day of the IACHR course, everyone had a chance to reflect on the past few days and to celebrate its diversity of perspectives and cosmovisions. There were many tears and expressions of gratitude for being heard by the IACHR. Within one week, these people exchanged accounts of violence and other challenges they face daily, realizing to their surprise that they shared many of the same experiences. It was very powerful because, simply put, it meant that they were not alone in their fight and that they could look for support among each other. In the end, a participant from Chile shared with the group a Mapudungun message of hope: when one falls, ten will rise.

On the weekends, I try to travel as much as possible. I’ve never been to Peru before and there is so much to see!

A condor at Colca Canyon.

Here, Paracas National Reserve, home to Humboldt penguins, sea lions, and breathtaking landscapes.

The said penguins at Islas Ballestas, in Paracas National Reserve.

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