Between 1989 and 2017, a total of 324 human rights advocates from 90 countries attended HRAP. In recent years, advocates have ranged from early career advocates who have cut their teeth in very urgent human rights situations to mid-career advocates who have founded organizations.
Below are the biographies of current Advocates and descriptions by select alumni as to why they became human rights advocates.
To see a list of additional past Advocates click here.
To read about more about the work of our Advocates click here .
Founder, Healing and Rebuilding Our Communities
I am from a country that has been characterized by a history of violence, human rights violations and genocide. Growing up in such a country, I personally experienced and witnessed a lot of human rights abuses. These experiences made me want to contribute to human rights advocacy and peace building, hoping to diminish and/or prevent human rights violations and violent conflict from happening again.
What I loved most about HRAP are the workshops and networking meetings that I attended. Attending these workshops with the other Advocates helped me understand human rights issues with a broader view. For example, hearing from my fellow Advocates and visiting organizations that support LGBT and indigenous peoples’ rights inspired me and helped me start thinking about how I can expand my work to include these groups. Also visiting potential funding organizations helped me learn that human rights and peace building work is not just one organization’s work--there can always be a way of partnering and complementing each other.
Through the HRAP workshops I learned a lot of skills and new ideas from both my colleagues and trainers. I have been in this work for the last 10 years, and I have always been giving myself to others and ignoring my own well-being. Through the Stress, Trauma and Resilience in Human Rights Work workshop, I was again reminded of the importance of taking care of myself before I take care of others. Once I get back home, I am going to develop a regular routine that will help me make my work less stressful. I visited many organizations, and I met with many important people who might be potential partners to work with in the future. I am going to try to keep the connections going. I plan to use the skills I learned from both the trainings and classes to improve my work. For example, I’m going to use Google Calendar [which HRAP uses to organize the schedules of participants] to organize my daily work. I plan to teach it to my co-workers and other friends who do not know about it because I think it’s a very important tool. The fundraising skills I learned will help me write clear proposals based on what interests the donor. Before, I didn't know that it’s very important to know what the interests of the donor are before writing a proposal. I also learned the importance of doing research, writing, and reporting about issues before you start doing anything, so as I think of expanding my work to other groups, I’m going to do a lot of research to know exactly what the problem is, and what are the solutions and actions that should be taken. I am not going to keep all these new skills to myself. As soon as I get back home, I will start sharing all the skills with my co-workers and other organizations that do similar work as well because I believe that there should be no competition in human rights and peace building work. We should collaborate and support each other.
Theo was the Whitney M. Young, Jr. Memorial Fund Advocate in the 2014 HRAP.
South Sudan, 2013
Executive Director, South Sudan Human Rights Society for Advocacy
In addition to maintaining his role as Executive Director of the South Sudan Human Rights Society for Advocacy (SSHURSA), 2013 HRAP alum Biel Boutros Biel recently received his Master of Laws Degree (LLM) from the University of Pretoria, South Africa. He wrote his thesis on Transitional Justice, a concentration which stemmed directly from his studies with Professor Graeme Simpson at Columbia Law during his participation in HRAP. He writes that Mr. Simpson’s course on Transitional Justice “has changed my outlook for good. It has now turned into one of my subjects of expertise.”
Biel founded SSHURSA with his colleagues at the Makerere Law Development Centre (LDC), Kampala, Uganda in 2007. They began operating out of South Sudan in 2009. The organization works to ‘monitor, document and publish human rights status in South Sudan and to train general public on importance of human rights, fundamental freedoms of an individual, rule of law, transitional justice and democracy. All meant to creating an informed, responsible, justice and good governance oriented nation.” Their target beneficiaries include IDPS and refugees, women’s groups, youth, traditional authorities, and persons with disabilities.
Reflecting on his participation in HRAP, Biel notes that the program helped him to gain skills in research, advocacy strategies and dealing with the media, as well as important methods for stress management. He also values staying in touch with his friends from the program. Although Biel has faced daunting challenges in his advocacy work, he remains steadfastly committed to his organization and its mandate: “Though I am now in exile in East Africa after the current South Sudan government destroyed my home and sent me into exile, still I have my heart in human rights. We set up a SSHURSA office in East Africa and now conducting community dialogues on Transitional Justice, constitution, rule of law and human rights among the South Sudanese refugees.”
-Article composed by Caroline Doenmez
President, Initiatives for Peace and Human Rights
“I experienced discrimination on a low scale within my own family,” he says. “My father, who was a polygamist, needed to separate from my mother when I was 10 years old simply because having a Rwandese wife could not serve his political ambitions. I was therefore raised by my stepmother, who had her own kids. In such a situation, it was hard to expect equal treatment.” The discrimination he experienced as a Rwandan knew no borders. Simply because his name does not sound Rwandese, Elvis always needed to provide details on his family to get services provided to Rwandans even though he holds a state-issued ID from Rwanda. He was denied a passport by the Rwanda immigration office due to his father’s Congolese name. “This was the law in 2005,” he explains, “for children born of a father who was a foreigner. I was not considered a citizen with the same rights.”
During his troubles at the immigration office, Elvis discovered that there were many other people in similar situations and decided to do something about it. “Together we wrote a letter to the minister of justice denouncing the law,” he recounts. This advocacy effort succeeded as the law was finally changed in 2008 to grant full citizenship to children born to at least one parent who was a citizen. Meanwhile, Elvis came to a strong realization: “The event triggered in me the thought that others in different situations may be victims of other kinds of discrimination, too, so I should do human rights advocacy.”
In 1997, he helped to form the organization, Assez!, which advocated for the rights of children, especially those experiencing domestic abuse. With other young people facing similar discrimination and exclusion in Rwanda, Elvis co-founded a platform called Forum d’Echanges pour la Cohésion Sociale to offer all persons facing identity issues due to having parents from different countries an opportunity to share their frustration and experiences as a way to find personal relief and mutual support. He also served for three years as the Deputy Coordinator of the Access to Justice and Human Rights Education Project at another organization that he co-founded, Initiatives for Peace and Human Rights, before becoming the organization’s President in August 2011.
For Elvis, human rights is not an abstract topic, but a powerful force that can change the world. “Human rights are like drugs,” he says. “The more you work in it, the more you get addicted. People may know human rights exist, but change can only happen when human rights are lived and promoted.”
February 2017 Update: Elvis received a PhD in Law from Utrecht University in 2015.
In 2011, 2007 Advocate Priscila C. Rodriguez Bribiesca co-founded Strategic Defense and Communication for Change (SAKBE) a Mexican-US NGO with offices in Mexico and Washington, D.C.
Priscila reports: “SAKBE´s mission is achieving social change through the promotion of human and environmental rights by using litigation and communication strategies. Sakbe works both nationally and internationally towards improving the quality of life of vulnerable groups through the promotion of development agendas for local communities and indigenous groups in public policies, development projects and conflicts.”
SAKBE’s first grant came from the Bank of Information Center to promote transparency policies and practices in the implementation of Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) projects in Mexico. Priscila reports that SAKBE is also working with the Siemenpuu Foundation, based in Finland, on obtaining a grant to continue with the legal defense work for the Triqui indigenous community before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).
Priscila elaborates: “I am responsible for the documentation process of the REDD projects in Mexico--getting the relevant information from the World Bank and Mexico´s governmental authorities to give communities the possibility to participate in this process which will be implemented in indigenous and rural communities. One goal is bringing their concerns to the World Bank.”
Priscila recognizes HRAP’s impact on her work. “Before this program,” she says, “I was not aware of the importance of making strategies at the international level. All the site visits 9to the different foundations and organizations) gave me the big picture of the role of advocacy. Furthermore, HRAP gave me a more general comprehension of the different tools and strategies that I can use to be more effective.” She said some of the contacts she made through HRAP are now her allies. They include the Indian Law Resource Center, Amazon Watch, the Center of International and Environmental Law and the Center for Justice and Inter-American Law. SAKBE’s fundraising successes to date are also linked the fundraising classes that are part of HRAP. Priscila explains: “The fundraising workshops greatly strengthened my knowledge of the many steps of this process, from writing a letter of inquiry to cultivating a profesional relationship with foundation staff. After HRAP, I got a generous grant from Hewlett Foundation.”
She adds, “The experience from my internship at the Center for Justice and International Law and my contacts and studies [through HRAP] allowed me to start representing the Precautionary Measure Process in favor of the Community of San Juan Copala in Oaxaca, Mexico. We are getting support from international organizations, including the Washington Office of Latin America and Amnesty International, on this case--particularly to make the Mexican government accountable for protecting the Triqui Community and safely returning them to their territory and bringing justice to the victims of the massacre.”
She has also been instrumental in having public hearings at IACHR on issues affecting different indigenous communities and the situation of environmental defenders in Mexico and Central America.
She has been recognized with many honors and awards including an award to participate in “Woman in Management” at CEDPA in 2008 and a full scholarship from American University to attend the International Environmental Law Summer Program and the Seminar on Trade and Environment. She received a full scholarship to attend the LLM Program in International Human Rights Law at Notre Dame. She graduated in May 2012. From July to December 2012, she will intern at IACHR.
She concludes. “I can surely say without exaggeration, HRAP changed my life. Before my participation in the Program, my work as an advocate was limited to the local systems of justice. I did not know anything about the international bodies of justice and accountability mechanisms. I also did not have the contacts and knowledge needed to start working on at the international level, such as the processes before the IACHR and the World Bank. Moreover even if I had some idea about these processes, I could hardly contact member of these bodies directly because of the geographic and language obstacles, which now no longer exist thanks to HRAP.”
Professor of Law, Syiah Kuala University in Banda Aceh
Saifuddin Bantasyam left war-torn Aceh, Indonesia to participate in the Human Rights Advocates Program in 2002. He writes, “It was difficult to leave Aceh because there was so much human rights work to do.” Before participating in HRAP, Saifuddin co-founded and served as the Executive Director of Care Human Rights Foundation (CHRF), a non-governmental organization that documented human rights abuses and provided social tolerance trainings to the youth in Aceh, Indonesia.
The Human Rights Advocates Program is a four-month capacity-building program based in New York City. HRAP provides courses and trainings to provide advocates with an advanced knowledge in human rights as well as practical skills. HRAP builds on the skills of experienced human rights advocates that grapple with complex human rights issues. In reflecting on his experience at HRAP, Saifuddin writes, “HRAP provided me with the knowledge and tools to advance my human rights work at the CHRF and beyond.”
After graduating from HRAP in 2002, Saifuddin was eager to continue his work at Care Human Rights Foundation (CHRF). Within 9 months of his return, the Indonesian government under President Megawati Sukarnoputri declared a state of emergency and martial law in Aceh. Under the declared state of emergency, CHRF was forced to put a hold on its projects in the Aceh region. Then, the tsunami hit Aceh in December of 2004. Saifuddin and his family survived, but were left with nothing. A close colleague at CHRF and his wife and children were missing. A year after the devastating Tsunami, he and his colleagues established the Aceh Recovery Forum to advocate for disaster survivors and help recover and rebuild communities in Aceh.
In 2005, things began to improve in the region as a peace deal between the Government of Indonesia and Free Aceh Movement was brokered. In August, the two factions signed the Aceh peace agreement “Memorandum of Understanding” in Helsinki, Finland. Saifuddin took on an important role in improving the relations between the two groups and helping the country to move forward. He was appointed as Vice Dean for Cooperation Affairs at Syiah Kuala University. In this role, he led a team of Professors that drafted the new governing law of Aceh. Additionally, he served as an expert to the Provincial Parliament, overseeing the final draft of the Law of Governance and helping draft a provision on human rights. The Indonesian parliament passed the new Aceh governing law, giving the province greater autonomy and control over its resources, along with the much desired permission to form provincial political parties.
Presently, Saifuddin is a law professor at Syiah Kuala University in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, teaching international human rights law. In 2011, he became the Director of Center for Peace and Conflict Resolution Studies of University of Syiah Kuala in Banda Aceh. As Director, he is responsible for managing the Center and overseeing the department’s thematic research as well as organizing academic workshops, seminars and courses. In 2008, he helped facilitated a student exchange program with Osaka University, Hiroshima University, Meio University, and Nagasaki University in Japan. In 2012, the Center started an exchange student program in the area of peace and human security.
—Article composed by Allison Tamer, Program Assistant, April 2013
Presiding Judge, Municipal Trial Court of Sariaya
2002 Advocate Francelyn G. Begonia is Presiding Judge of the Municipal Trial Court of Sariaya in Quezon Province in the Philippines.
She reflects that HRAP workshops provided an opportunity to broaden her perspectives on human rights issues by exploring diverse cases of human rights violations. She states, “Opportunities to apply my HRAP training in my current work are very limited because I preside over a first-level court which has no jurisdiction over most human rights… However, I was a government prosecutor for almost four years prior to my judicial appointment and I investigated, filed and prosecuted criminal indictments for human trafficking, child and spousal abuse. What I took from HRAP was a specialized training that forced me to go beyond my traditional training as a lawyer when investigating cases, assessing evidence and arguing cases.”
HRAP program provides various academic resources such as reading materials, books, and articles reinforcing advocates’ motivation for human rights issues. Begonia states, “I took home so many reading materials that I would not have had access to because of limitations in my country. I still use the red book, 25 Human Rights Documents, when I lecture on human rights. Some of these materials became a part of the library of our NGO and were very useful resources in our policy research.”
After HRAP, Begonia returned to her home non-profit organization, the Legal Rights and Natural Resources Center, Inc., and utilized the network of contacts she gained through HRAP for fundraising, advocacy and campaign work. She also earned the Master of Laws degree in Public Service Law from the New York University School of Law in 2003. She says that HRAP taught her inter-personal communication and negotiation skills by giving her the space to discuss human rights issues with other advocates coming from different cultures and belief systems.
“Advocates must not only have the heart for human rights; more basic is having the heart for another advocate. Although the HRAP schedule was brutal, every moment was worth it.”
—Article composed by Junghwa Lee, Program Coordinator, June 2011
Masters in Sociology of Law Candidate, International Institute of Sociology of Law
In 2013, 1996 Advocate Chitra Balakrishnan received a Masters in the Sociology of Law from the International Institute for the Sociology of Law in Onati, Spain. She serves as a consultant on human rights issues to numerous non-governmental organizations and academic institutions.
After HRAP, Chitra co-founded the Alternative Law Forum, a pro-bono human rights law practice based in Bangalore with a group of lawyers to respond to issues of social and economic injustice.
Shortly after, she was named a “Scholar of Peace fellow” by the Women in Security Conflict Management and Peace (WISCOMP). This prestigious fellowship encourages innovative research on gender, security and conflict issues. The Foundation of Universal Responsibility of His Holiness the Dalai Lama provided her with financial support to publish a monograph entitled, “Research to Evolve Gender-Sensitive and Culture-Specific Models of Alternative Dispute Resolution” in the WISCOMP Perspectives in 2003.
In 2004, she was named a mid-career Chevening scholar in Peace and Conflict Studies by the British Council at the University in Ulster in Northern Ireland.
She writes that the opportunity to meet a diverse group of committed individuals in the field of human rights is one of the greatest benefits of HRAP. Chitra still remains in touch with her fellow advocates in the program such as Dr. Aurora Parong, Philippines, Maria Beatriz Sinisgalli, Brazil, Shiva Hari Dahal, Nepal.
February 2017 Update: Chitra is currently working with the Centre for Social Justice in Ahmedabad.
Interim Manager of the Gender Justice Program, Oxfam Novib
1995 HRAP participant Carmen Reinoso Becerra currently serves as the Program Coordinator for Knowledge and Innovation Management and Organisational Learning (KIM-OL) at OXFAM Novib, a Dutch organization for international aid and development. Carmen is responsible for providing strategic development and implementation of the KIM-OL framework.
Carmen began working in human rights in Peru, where she advocated for gender justice and human rights. She reflects that HRAP “gave [her] the opportunity to broaden [her] vision and to understand the complex, multilayered context in which human rights practitioners must work.” The training she received in the program gave her the tools to take a rights-based approach in the design and implementation of organizational and policies and strategies.
HRAP allowed her to expand her perspective, gaining the experience and knowledge of other advocates from around the world. It also gave her, she said, “the sense of belonging to a broader community that despite difference on languages and cultures, share a common vision of respect to humanity and protection to fundamental human rights.”
After completing HRAP, Carmen received a Master’s in International and Public Affairs from Columbia’s SIPA in 2000.
—Written by Alexandra Watson