This summer, I traveled to Colombia as a part of the Human Rights Program's Human Rights Law Partnership, an experience made possible by the Upper Midwest Human Rights Fellowship. The Human Rights Fellowship Program provides financial support to residents of the Upper Midwest--including students, teachers, lawyers, health professionals, community leaders and others--interested in gaining practical experience with human rights organizations. Through my fellowship, I worked as student ambassador to the Human Rights Program, in its efforts to develop a comprehensive international human rights law curriculum in four Colombian universities, training law professors in the field of international human rights, fortifying and expanding available human rights resources in each university's library, and involving students in international human rights litigation and official affairs, among other efforts.
More specifically, my objective as student ambassador was to establish meaningful relationships with Colombian students in each university, further involving these students in the operations of the alliance and adding a student voice to the project-a fundamental perspective, as students are the people the project principally wishes to serve. With this aim, I traveled between the four universities, speaking with and observing students and faculty committed to human rights work, learning about their current and previous social justice efforts, and forming a deeper understanding of their experiences and aspirations in human rights.
The human rights projects and legal cases being carried out in each University are of great importance and variety, and almost all of them involve local issues that speak to the daily realities of injustice faced in the communities of the Antioquia region and throughout Colombia. In the University of Medellin, several students have taken on the ambitious case of the Picacha, a river that every year overflows its banks, devastating entire poverty-stricken barrios and occasionally taking human lives. These students struggle against powerful companies in charge of the management, protection and promotion of environmental resources in and around the city of Medellin, calling for accountability and the effective implementation of measures ensuring the safety of those living near the river.
Across the city, at the University of Antioquia (UdeA), several students are involved in very different human rights work, attending to victims of the armed conflict, who hope to find some justice and peace through reparations or the restoration of their land by the government. These students assist the victims with the formal measures necessary to be registered as victims, and with the arduous legal process of receiving reparations.
Other students at the UdeA are currently working on a case against the construction of a massive hydroelectric dam, a project that has caused the displacement of thousands of campesino families, as the government has forcibly removed them from their land and their lives. Strikingly, students throughout the university angered by this situation and in solidarity with the farmers, have called for one of the university buildings to be offered to the displaced people. Currently, over 400 people reside in an old gymnasium on the university campus, which presents not only a dependable place to live, but also has also taken on a form of nonviolent protest. It is truly moving to see this level of activism and solidarity being carried out by students, and one cannot help but to be inspired by the energy of political innovation and revolution that resonates throughout the campus.
In all of the Universities, the students I have met involved in human rights are incredibly invested and passionate about the work they do, as they fight to bring change and improvement to the lives of those living in their communities and their country. Often, their driving force is their local realities, the severe injustices that they, their families, their friends, their community members confront each day, and the degree of their diligence and dedication is truly impressive. Developing a comprehensive foundation in human rights law will be valuable for these students, who already show great potential as advocates for peace and equity. The existing international human rights institutions, treaties and discourse would greatly empower these prospective attorneys, introducing them to an extensively coded system of international standards and equipping them with powerful tools to demand that the Colombian state uphold those standards.
Not surprisingly, my conversations with these students have also led me to reflect much on my own involvement and future aspirations in human rights, and have greatly inspired me in many ways. It has been invaluable for me on a personal level to observe how human rights work is carried out on a local level in areas affected by past and current conflicts of varying degrees, struggling to find reconciliation, justice, and ultimately, peace. I look forward to the new dimension and perspective that this reflection will bring to my studies and work in the human rights field. I send my most sincere gratitude to my co-workers at the University of Minnesota Human Rights Program, the University of Minnesota Human Rights Center, and to all the donors who have made this incredible fellowship possible. It has proved an invaluable experience, one that will surely guide me in my future human rights efforts and that I will treasure throughout my life.