Encounters with Human Rights Defenders
Lawyer and Doctoral Candidate in International Law, Canada
Portrait: Carolina Delgado Chaves, 2012.
February 10th, 2013
My first contact with injustice goes back a long way. I remember the summer of 1994, when I was eight years old. A senior official of the Government of Rwanda, named after the genocide and forced into exile in Canada, came one evening for dinner at my parents’ house. My little sister and I could understand that something very serious was going on. An unmarked police car was parked in front of the house to escort him and his face, like that of many other Rwandans who were present, showed an infinite gentleness hiding great sadness. This kind of event taught me early on that our world is woven of horrors, but also that all kinds of people come together, help each other, and work together to overcome them. I think that, already at that point, the desire to do the same was born.
As a teenager, my first steps in this direction had me quickly realize that fighting against injustice would be more than a job. Gradually, I was learning to share what I had received from life with those to whom it had been less generous. For everything that I gave, I felt that I received much more in return: knowledge of the world, sense of accomplishment and, more than anything else, human warmth. This is how I gradually adopted an ethic of solidarity with the victims of injustice.
In the spring of 2006, an Innu friend took me on the Quebec North Shore and made me the gift of a new perspective on the situation of Indigenous peoples in Canada. This reality, for settlers, is often accompanied by a mix of discomfort, helplessness and detachment. The unremedied historical injustice that Indigenous peoples face is represented as a problem outside our control. Rather than the stagnating deadlock that is often used to describe the “Indigenous Issue" in public debates in Quebec and around the world, I met strong and resilient individuals on the North Shore, who stood up with a vision for their future. This journey made me realize that accompanying those who need it the most throughout my life would mean collaborating with Indigenous peoples in their decolonization process.
Unlike many others, I have never been persecuted for my ethnicity, my convictions or my work. I realize how this is unfairly related to my Canadian citizenship, whereby it is not politically beneficial to intimidate or attack me. Rather than renounce this privilege, I have decided to support the vulnerable individuals and communities that I would meet along my journey. This led me several times to Latin America, including in Colombia with Lawyers Without Borders Canada in 2012. On many occasions, I witnessed with horror the vulnerability of certain individuals against the unpunished acts of State agents or third parties. In their eyes, by the insistence with which they asked how long our project would continue, I often felt the importance of international cooperation for vulnerable people. Not because it provides ready-made solutions, but because it lends support and legitimacy to crucial local processes.
I am convinced that I have received far more from the people that my human rights work has allowed me to meet that what I have given. Not fame, nor money, nor power, but a sense of humanity. Among the many moments that will forever be impressed in my memory, I remember my encounter with two Embera Indigenous leaders in northern Colombia. Although they had spent the whole day travelling the muddy waters of the Atrato River, sitting immobile in a boat under alternating heavy showers and burning sun, they assured me that they were ready to brave their exhaustion to stay up with me late into the night to answer my questions. Gorges of distance, culture and privilege made our encounter unlikely, yet just a few hours after our first contact, we were all brought together in a hotel room to work. Sitting on the bed in a strange familiarity, I scribbled furiously in my notebook as they helped one another to translate from Embera to Spanish. They took the time to explain the extent of the inequities that they fought. Beyond the information conveyed, the actions planned and everything that I learned in only a few hours, those moments still resound in me because of their deep sense of humanity and brotherhood in the face of injustice.
Such moments, received as gifts from those with whom I have worked, leave me determined to work for the promotion of human rights, even if it involves certain safety risks. Although this is not the only way to build a better world, I think that the protection of human dignity through the law allows both the closing of some wounds and the prevention of future horrors. For me, this profession involves much more than legal research, trial advocacy or elaborate judgments. It is about letting myself filled with a deep feeling of humanity that ties me in a fundamental way to anyone, anywhere in the world.