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 .
Marijana Savic is the Director of ATINA - Citizens Association for Combating Trafficking in Human Beings and All Forms of Gender-Based Violence. ATINA promotes women’s and children’s rights within the developing social and political environment of Serbia, specifically advocating for victims of trafficking, sexual abuse, labor exploitation, discrimination, and violence. As the Director, Savic is responsible for providing overall organizational leadership, engaging with new partners and grassroots organizations, and monitoring ATINA’s programs. In addition to her work with ATINA, Marijana has served as a consultant for international NGOs and state governments advocating for the inclusion of marginalized trafficking victims in human rights policy.
Savic received her law degree from the University of Podgorica.
Co-chair, Ukrainian LGBT Association LIGA
Semenova is the co-chair of the Ukrainian LGBT organization LIGA, which seeks to promote the interests of LGBTQ individuals, promote healthy lifestyles and diversity, and develop partnerships with state and civil bodies. One of LIGA-Ukraine's biggest achievements has been the creation of the Resource Center, designed to be a hub for young LGBT groups and organizations. Another core focus of LIGA-Ukraine is LGBTQ health, which includes HIV prevention programs for LGB, lesbian health programs, transgender health issues, and a network of friendly doctors. LIGA created the Public Centre on Monitoring of Human Rights Observation in Mykolaiv for monitoring crimes based on LGBTI-phobia. Semenova is a specialist in Public Relations from Kyiv National University of Culture and Arts and a general practitioner from National Medical University in Kyiv.
El Salvador, 2016
President, Salvadorian Association for Survivors of Torture
Santos is the founder and president of the Salvadorian Association for Survivors of Torture, an association that gives psychological care to survivors of torture and their families and investigates various human rights abuses. He is the creator of a webpage called the Yellow Book, which documents the names of victims of injustice and abuse by the state. Santos has a degree in literature from the Autonomous University of Mexico. Through Scholars at Risk, he studied international law and human right law at the University of York in 2013.
The Whitney M. Young, Jr. Memorial Fund sponsored the participation of Santos in the 2016 HRAP.
Program Manager, Just Nepal Foundation
Chhing is a founding member and Program Manager of Just Nepal Foundation, an organization that promotes education, social justice, and human rights by working within the rural mountain communities of Nepal. Chhing has been working to empower women and extremely marginalized groups in Nepal for the past 30 years. She is one of the founding members, chair, and current advisor of Mountain Spirit, another indigenous people’s organization. She has been active in relief efforts after the earthquake in Nepal. Chhing earned a bachelor’s degree in Economics, Culture and Literature from Padma Kanya University in 1988, a Post Graduate Diploma in Rural Extension & Women from University of Reading in 1991, and a master’s degree in Rural Development in 2016.
National Adviser, Conflict Early arning, Early Response, Peace and Development Network Trust (PeaceNet Kenya)
Before the 2007 elections in Kenya, Shalakha conducted interviews countrywide for a research firm.While out in the field in the weeks leading up to the elections, one of Shalakha’s colleagues asked him to interview a group of young people that had refused to speak with her. The youth informed him they would not speak with his colleague because she was a member of the Kikuyu ethnic group. Shalakha says, “It was then that I realized the extent to which the youth were being poisoned by the ethnic divisions being promoted during that election season. I realized I needed to speak with youth to try to change their perspective to one of respecting those from different communities. ”Another incident confirmed his realization that he needed to affect positive change among the youth. He says, “After the election violence had broken out, a person was pulled from a matatu (mini-bus) and killed. He looked just like my brother – he wasn’t, but he could have been. He was some-one’s brother. I realized then that I needed to feel that I was making a difference. ” Shalakha began traveling out of Nairobi to speak with youth groups around the country. This led him to volunteer with PeaceNet Kenya, which later hired him to work on HIV/AIDS awareness and outreach in remote communities. His next assignment with PeaceNet Kenya involved collaborating with other organizations on UWIANO, the monitoring and response system that brought together peace actors to respond to reports of violence and hate speech during the 2013 elections. Reflecting on his time in the HRA program, Shalakha says: “It was an experience like none other. This gave me an enormous opportunity to network with different organizations that are doing different things or the same things in different ways. It has been quite helpful see-ing how they work. The fundraising workshop was an essential one for me. I also learned the importance within the human rights community of sharing one’s work—unless you share what you do, no one knows about it or can help. Back home, speaking about these things might be considered ‘blowing your own horn,’ but in HRAP I learned that it is so important to talk to each other and share our work. This has been one of the biggest things I learned.” Shalakha plans to continue his out-reach to communities about their rights under Kenya’s new Constitution and the need to hold the country’s leaders accountable. Shalakha shares, “The leaders we put in place through our ethnic sentiments and biases are now showing their true colors. This is seen through the controversial legislations being passed in Parliament for selfish reasons, and poor leadership at the county level. This will be a good opportunity to educate communities on good leadership and holding leaders accountable.”
Community Advocate Team Leader, medica mondiale Liberia
As a child growing up in a loving family in Liberia, Swen witnessed how other girls in her community were treated. She noticed that they had to take on a large share of the cooking and cleaning and were frequently subjected to beatings. She heard stories of girls being sexually abused by their family members. When she asked questions about the abuse of girls in her community, her father replied that it was none of her business.
As she grew, Swen observed that this injustice was faced by women and girls across her country. She decided to make this injustice her business. After the Liberian civil war, she joined the police force and worked in the juvenile protection division. Swen observed that while police stations had special units and procedures for working with juveniles, women who were reporting gender-based violence didn’t receive specialized treatment. Swen and others successfully lobbied for the creation of dedicated reporting areas for gender-based violence, with gender-sensitive procedures and specially-trained staff. Swen then asked herself, “If in this central city women are treated poorly, what about women in rural areas where the services are even worse?”
Over time, Swen began to feel that her ability to create change was limited due to the corruption within the police system. Swen shares, “I was limited when I investigated a case. Let’s say, for example, there was a case of a minister abusing his wife or sexually abusing a child, and it [was] brought to the police for investigation.
Before any progress could be made, you would see ‘invisible hands’ enter the investigation – a police director or other top brass would call me and tell me to forget about that case. So I was completely limited, I couldn’t do anything and was told ‘Duty before complaint.’ I had women coming to me looking for help, feeling empowered by seeing me behind the desk, my presence making them comfortable. Yet I knew that their cases wouldn’t be resolved. I couldn’t work in that type of environment. I needed to work somewhere I could make real change.” In 2006, Swen left the police force to join the organization medica mondiale Liberia where she continues to work today.
Reflecting on HRAP, Swen said she enjoyed the courses at Columbia University, especially a course on rural development that addressed topics of vital importance for Liberia’s future such as infrastructure, food production and sustainability issues. Swen was also very inspired by a visit to the Columbia Health Sexual Violence Response. She hopes to adapt this type of sexual violence response program to the school systems of Liberia, especially at the university level where she reports sexual exploitation by teachers is rampant.
Executive Member, Naga Peoples Movement for Human Rights
Athili Anthony Sapriina is a member of the Naga, who live in the far northeast of India and in Myanmar’s northwestern division. In India, where he resides, Sapriina says he is easily recognized as Naga and is thereby racially abused. “India looks at us [the Naga] not as Indian, but as Chinese,” he explains, and he has struggled with his identity himself. “My relatives wanted me to join the civil service, but I felt there was no future with India,” he says. The home of the Naga people in northeast India has been the scene of a long internal struggle between India and the Naga, who have been seeking independence since the flight of the British from India after World War II. “India’s economic growth is attacking our existence,” Sapriina says. “While the guns have fallen silent [for now], rivers are being dammed and forests destroyed in the name of security.” Sapriina has also been acting to combat a psychological war against the Naga people. “Media is used to stifle the Naga movement,” he explains. Working as a journalist since 2003, he has also witnessed the influx of non-Naga elements in Naga youth networks on Facebook, intended to confuse the youth about their identity. “I want to expose this,” he announces, “but to do so is to risk my life.”
Emboldened by the struggle of the Naga and discrimination he has faced, Sapriina has become an advocate for the rights of indigenous peoples. He has been serving with the NGO Naga Peoples Movement for Human Rights since 1995, seeking to defend the rights of the Naga to live as a free people. Adhering to the UN Declaration on Rights of the Indigenous Peoples, which grants the right of self-determination “is one of the surest ways to peace,” he affirms. “This is what I want for the Naga.”
United States, 2010
Carl Wilkens Fellows, Genocide Intervention Network
Azra Smailkadic-Brkic, a 2010 graduate of the Human Rights Advocates Program, has continued her work on genocide education and prevention. A former Carl Wilkens fellow with the DC-based Genocide Intervention Network, she has since been working as a journalist in New York City, including a role as a correspondent for the magazine Novo Vrijeme from 2012-2013. Smailkadi-Brkic is proud of her role as the initiator and coordinator of the Srebrenica Genocide Commemoration in July 2011, which was held at Columbia University, Rutgers University, and the Turkish Cultural Center. She writes: “The project aimed to raise awareness about the worst case of genocide in Europe since World War II that took place in Srebrenica, the world’s first United Nations ‘safe area,’ as well as wider Bosnia and Herzegovina from 1992-1995. July 11, 2011 commemorated the 16th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre in which more than 8,000 innocent Bosniak civilians were summarily executed and 30,000 were expelled from their homes. This anniversary raises awareness of the tragic suffering of the Bosnian and Herzegovinian people and honors and remembers those who died as a result of the policies of ethnic cleansing and aggression.” The Srebrenica Genocide Commemoration included several screenings of films that dealt with the topics of justice, war, and genocide in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The films included: “The Angel of Srebrenica” by Ado Hasanović, “Statement 710399” by Refik Hodžić and “Mother” by Elmir Jukić. Each screening also featured a display of the Srebrenica Memorial Quilt made by widows from Srebrenica, who are members of The Association Bosnian Family - BOSFAM, a non-governmental organization which aims to help war-affected women in Bosnia and Herzegovina cope with psycho-emotional traumas and poverty. In addition, there were two photography exhibits titled “The Shadows of Srebrenica” by Andy Spyra, and the “Mass Graves in Bosnia and Herzegovina.” Smailkadi-Brkic reflects on the greatest benefits of HRAP as being “the people that I have met and knowledge that I have gained,” also noting the value of establishing firm connections during this time with several organizations. She also writes that HRAP: “Opened up my mind and helped me with crossing the bridge between theoretical knowledge, which I gained while attending the MA program in Human Rights at the University of Sarajevo-University of Bologna, and practice.” One of her favorite memories from the program is the project she participated in in the History & Reconciliation class. She writes: “I was part of a project (together with several other classmates, mainly from former Yugoslavia) where our task was to explore ‘The Role of Chetniks in the Second World War.’ I understood that until that point I only had folk knowledge about this topic. This class and this particular project helped me to approach this topic more academically and it was definitely an eye opening experience. This journey that I took with several other classmates in order to try to come to the shared narrative among different stakeholders is simple unforgettable.” -Article composed by Caroline Doenmez
Program Coordinator, Broad Initiatives for Negros Development (BIND)
Benedicto Sánchez is a 2005 graduate of the Human Rights Advocates Program from the Philippines. Presently, he is the Program Coordinator of the Broad Initiatives for Negros Development (BIND), a local NGO based in Negros Occidental, Philippines, a court annexed mediator at the Philippine Supreme Court and a columnist of the syndicated community newspaper Sun Star Bacolod.
As Program Coordinator for BIND, Sánchez helps mountain communities advocate for their land and tenurial rights. He works on sustainable mountain development projects that are recommended by the United Nation’s Rio Agenda 21. In addition, he acts as the Southeast geographical representative of the global mountain partnership for sustainable development, a voluntarily alliance of global partners dedicated to improving the well-being, livelihoods and opportunities of mountain people and the protection of mountain environments around the world.
When describing the benefits of HRAP, Sánchez writes, “It opened my eyes to new methodologies and strategies for human rights advocacy. The rights-based approach to development taught me how to apply pressure on State development rights obligations and non-state actors such as multinational corporations to enact better corporate social responsibility practices.” The combination of trainings, workshops, courses and networking opportunities helped him understand how to effectively advocate for economic, social and cultural rights, which are seldom tackled by Philippine’s human rights organizations.
During his time at HRAP, Sánchez formed valuable relationships with professors at Columbia University. Professor J. Paul Martin provided him with an opportunity to share his work. Sánchez co-authored “Collective security: a village-eye view” in United Nations Reform and the New Collective Security with Dr. Joseph Paul Martin. Additionally, Sánchez’s paper, “Does the Food Sovereignty Movement Exist in Negros: The BIND and ONOPRA Experiences on the compendium Food Sovereignty in Southeast Asia” was published in Kasarinlan, the Philippines Journal of Third World Studies.
Sánchez remains in touch with fellow HRAP participants. He writes that the global network of human rights advocates has been an overwhelming source of information and support. He adds, “As I move on to tackle more work along international concerns from the grassroots, I’m confident I can draw on the support of the HRAP community to help out regardless if the arena of action is in the Asia-Pacific, North America, Latin America, Europe and Africa.”
—Article composed by Allison Tamer, Program Assistant, April 2013
South Africa, 1999
Senior Manager - Skills Implementation and Monitoring, Safety and Security Sectoral Education and Training Authority
1999 Advocate Makubetse Sekhonyane is currently serving as Director of Strategic Planning Management and Monitoring in South Africa’s Department of Correctional Services. Sekhonyane is responsible for planning, monitoring, and evaluation and reporting.
After attending HRAP, he was strongly motivated to complete his master’s degree in Public and Development Management and pursue his Ph.D. in Monitoring and Evaluation from Wits University in Johannesbsurg. He adds, “I wrote articles for a number of publications as a result of networking from HRAP. I was also invited to West Papua by fellow 1999 Advocate John Rumbiak (deceased) to talk about my human rights experience in South Africa.” His latest article, “Human Rights and Restorative Justice”, which was published in Handbook of Restorative Justice (2007), explores in detail the fundamental question of how the risks that restorative interventions might pose to human rights can be managed.
When asked about the benefits of participating in HRAP, he replies: “I could improve the advocacy and advancement of human rights. I was hoping to do my master’s degree in Human Rights, which I couldn’t. However, HRAP provided an academic cornerstone to abridge my graduate studies to the field of human rights. As a result, my current studies are still in the right direction.”
—Article composed by Junghwa Lee, Program Coordinator, June 2011
January 2014 update: Sekhonyane is currently a Senior Manager at Safety and Security Sectoral Education and Training Authority in South Africa.
Secretary, National Women's Committee, Hind Mazdoor Sabha
1999 Advocate Maya Sharma currently serves as a program director for an India-based community organization known as Vikalp Women’s Group. Working in the most impoverished areas of rural and urban Baroda Gujarat, Sharma focuses on improving the livelihoods of women through addressing issues of labor, sexuality and women’s inequality. When asked to speak about how HRAP has improved her human rights advocacy skills, Sharma shares that besides allowing her the “grand opportunity to get away and simply be,” the program has given her an “overview of the international human rights available at the global level and on the ground--the gaps/connections often fragile sometimes not even visible. My participation in HRAP brought home these crucial connections and a perspective that is incredibly useful.”
The capacity building program offers advocates the opportunity to network with various organizations, providing a platform for them to engage a larger audience of activists and share their message. Sharma says she remembers “networking with different stake holders for getting our voices heard, giving ‘a women’s direction to campaigns, picking on detailed and correct information to show the injustice and where and how it can be remedied.”
Sharma highlights the greatest benefit of her participation in HRAP simply as the exposure it afforded her. She recalls, “Being in the university, imbibing and absorbing, all that learning that solidifies years after the interlude, the friends I made, my teachers, the films, the talks, the libraries.” She fondly says, “Scattered as my learning is, it goes on through the relationships and the evocative associations that came through the smells like the coffee when we opened the cold door handle of SIPA.”
Sharma shares that since her participation in HRAP, one of her personal accomplishments is the improvement in her writings on human rights. As she reflects on the benefits of being in the program, she states, “Getting a free space there was material to read and fantastic classes/lectures to attend by professors, and to hear the students debate - there my perspective on sexuality matured.” Since returning from her time in HRAP, Sharma has written a book entitled, Loving Women: Being Lesbian in Unprivileged India, New Delhi: Yoda Press, soon expected to be released in its second edition.
—Article composed by Tiffany Wheatland, Program Coordinator, July 2010
January 2014 update: Sharma is currently the Secretary, National Women's Committee at Hind Mazdoor Sabha.
Ombudsman, Republic of Indonesia
Budi Santoso is a graduate of the Human Rights Advocates Program from Indonesia in 1998. After finishing the program, Santoso returned to his home country of Indonesia to continue his work as the Director of the Legal Institute (LBH) in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. In 2001, he was appointed the Director of the Independent Legal Aid Institute (ILAI) and head of the People Services Division of the Indonesian Bar Association. In May of 2002, he left Indonesia to study international human rights law at Northwestern University on a prestigious Fulbright fellowship. He returned in 2003 and continued managing the Independent Legal Aid Institute, a position that he held until 2011.
HRAP is a four-month intensive human rights training program that provides participants with a broad overview of the international human rights system through a series of seminars, trainings and courses. In addition to academic coursework on human rights, HRAP provides Advocates with networking opportunities in both New York City and Washington D.C. to meet with human rights organizations to strengthen their networks. Fifteen years later, Santoso fondly reflects on his experience as a HRAP participant. He writes, “The ability to meet with several human rights organization greatly expanded my network for years to come.”
Presently, Santoso is a member of the Ombudsman of the Republic of Indonesia in Jakarta. On Saturdays, he teaches at his alma mater, Islamic University of Indonesia in Yogyakarta.
Palestinian Authority, 1990
Co-Founder and Executive Director, Palestinian Centre for Human Rights
Raji Sourani, a 1990 graduate of the Human Rights Advocates Program, writes, “My life would have been very different without my experience at HRAP.”
Since he finished the program, Sourani, a human rights lawyer has gone on to achieve notable professional accomplishments. In 1995, Sourani co-founded the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR), a non-profit organization based in Gaza dedicated to protecting human rights, promoting the rule of law and upholding democratic principles in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. Since then, PCHR has become the leading human rights organization in the Gaza Strip, serving as an independent legal body in Gaza that documents and investigates human rights abuses and provides legal aid and counseling to victims.
Sourani has received several awards for his work in Gaza, including the Bruno Kreisky Prize for Human Rights in 2002, the International Service Human Rights Award in 2002, the Human Rights Prize awarded by the Republic of France in 1996 and the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award with Israeli lawyer, Avigdor Feldman in 1991.
The Human Rights Advocate Program at Columbia University provides Advocates with unique access to a range of human rights organizations, institutions and policy makers that are based in New York City. Sourani cites that these networking opportunities greatly enhanced his work at PCHR, he writes, “The professional and personal relationships that I developed during my time at HRAP have lasted until today, remain ever present, and are of invaluable importance in the work of PCHR.”
When reflecting on his experience in HRAP and its impact on his current work, Sourani concludes, “My participation in HRAP has significantly helped my work in human rights advocacy and litigation. My time at Columbia University was an eye opening experience and provided me with access to an international legal network, and especially within the New York human rights community. It has expanded the reach of my work and that of PCHR immensely.”
January 2014 update: Sourani received the 2013 Right Livelihood Award for his work defending and promoting human rights for all in Palestine and the Arab World for 35 years. Please read more here.