Between 1989 and 2016, a total of 317 human rights advocates from 88 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 .
Project Coordinator, Médecins Sans Frontières/Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly
In 1977, an ultra-nationalist paramilitary group organized a bomb attack in front of the Pharmacy Faculty of Istanbul University. In this attack, seven students were murdered and more than 40 students were seriously injured. Eleven years later, Saddam Hussein committed crimes against humanity on March 16, 1988, in Helebce, northern Iraq. On that day, his warplanes bombed Helebce with chemical weapons. At least 5,000 civilians—the majority of whom were children, women, and older people—were slaughtered and an additional 7,000 people were injured. And so my story starts two years after the Helebce Massacre.
When I was a university student in Ege University based in Izmir, my friends and I organized a series of peaceful protests around Turkey on March 16, 1990. After that, I faced some difficulties in Turkey, but I continued to work for human rights in Turkey and elsewhere. I was affiliated with the Izmir War Resisters Association and supported the conscientious objectors living in Turkey. I participated in an Amnesty International Turkey initiative in 1996. As a volunteer, I was selected as the campaign coordinator of Amnesty International Turkey during its 2000-2002 campaign against torture, formally known as “Take a Step to Stamp out Torture.” As a teacher, I worked to raise awareness about human rights. Since 2012, I have been working for Syrian refugees through the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly in Istanbul. Additionally, I am a project coordinator of The Psychological Support and Primary Health Care services for Syrian Refugees living in Kilis, Turkey, which is technically and financially supported by Médecins Sans Frontières. The prevention of conflict, discrimination, and violence including torture and ill-treatment, are main issues for me.
If anyone asks me why I work for human rights, my answer is that I listen only to the voice of my conscience.
The Whitney M. Young, Jr. Memorial Fund sponsored the participation of Hakan Ataman in the 2015 HRAP.
Legal Officer, Queensland Indigenous Lawyers Association
I am a Wannyi/Kalkadoon Indigenous woman from Australia. I am involved in human rights because as an Indigenous woman, I have witnessed the struggles that Indigenous peoples are experiencing in the world. There are over 370 million Indigenous peoples in the world, yet we are amongst the poorest people and we are the invisible people.
I have always worked with Indigenous peoples, in schools and in welfare organizations. I am now an academic and legal officer and have worked in the legal arena for more than 15 years. I started as the Indigenous Community Liaison Officer with Legal Aid Queensland working with Indigenous women and children who were victims of crime. I also conducted legal information workshops and assisted in cases of racial discrimination and family law. It was during this time that I went to University to get my law degree and to educate Indigenous peoples on their rights, so that they can learn how to challenge laws and policies affecting their communities. I also believe that it is important to translate the language of law so that Indigenous peoples can understand it for their benefit.
In advocating for Indigenous women, it is important that they are always included in consultation and negotiations. When women are included, it is then a collective voice from a community group. Indigenous women also need respect for their views and opinions—for Indigenous women and children have the right to live in a safe environment and be free from any forms of violence.
One of the biggest issues that Indigenous peoples face is forced assimilation in regards to their land. Indigenous peoples are being forced off their lands by mining companies, land acquisitions by governments, internal county conflicts, and climate change to name a few. Indigenous peoples need their land because this is how their values and identities are embedded—for the land is their heritage.
Indigenous peoples are struggling to live in a world that is suppressing our culture. We will continue to lose our language, land, culture, and identity because this suppression promotes one way of living in the world. Society cannot have one way of living; we need many different languages, cultures, and identities.
If we do not receive support because no one is hearing our voices, as discrimination and the doors of opportunity continue to close, Where will we be in the future? We will be one world, one language—and the traditional knowledge of how to maintain the earth will be lost. Cultural identity is of profound importance for the diversity of the world and to maintain the earth. Indigenous peoples will not just be the invisible people—we will become a memory. This is why I am a human rights advocate.
Program Officer, Capacity Building, Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya (GALCK)
By age fifteen, I had faced the first ‘consequence’ of being a lesbian with threats of disownment from my community. At this point in my life—just like thousands of young LGBTI persons coming to terms with their sexuality in a homophobic society—I didn’t understand why people who I’d grown up with could threaten me with hate and disownment for being who I am. Not until I was a young adult in my first years at university did I start to understand what human rights were and that I am entitled to them. This was due to the lack of civic education on human rights in the primary and secondary school curriculum in Kenya.
Like thousands of other LGBTI persons in Kenya, I was discriminated against on numerous occasions because of my sexual orientation. These events brought me to a space where I felt that I had to do something, I had to learn how to counter the hate that sexual minorities face in Kenya. I realised that I had a strong passion to speak on behalf of those who were suffering in silence, and that by using human rights as my language of choice was the best tool I could use. While participating in voluntary initiatives at LGBTI grassroots organisations, I came to hear about the suffering of many sexual minorities and the need for unafraid people to stand up and amplify the voices of those suffering silently in fear. In my early days of hearing about the human rights violations in the LGBTI community, I channeled my disbelief into outrage toward the perpetrators. Why did society impel thousands of families to abandon their own children? How could those who are meant to protect all Kenyans be the perpetrators and supporters of such hate? How many human rights violations have occurred so far? These common reactions are completely justified; however, simply demanding the answers to these questions alone will neither protect the human dignity of LGBTI persons nor future victims of human rights violations. Members of society and governance at all levels must agree to a need for change, and support its enactment. This is the core principle of human rights dialogue.
All these occurrences brought me to ask myself, How can I be most useful to my society? My belief was, and still is, that human rights advocates are responsible for communicating with all members of their societies, especially the marginalized. I have since then fully committed myself to educating LGBTI persons about human rights and to amplifying their voices in spaces where change can be made with regard to law, social attitudes, and traditional values. Furthermore, I am committed to using human rights to influence equality and to end the discrimination and violence currently facing LGBTI people in Kenya.
Project Manager/Art Project Coordinator, Alliance Against LGBT Discrimination (Aleanca)
Sometime during the years of my adolescence, when trying to understand aspects of my life that Albanian society had forgotten to include in its school curricula, I was also trying to find people who were exploring the same issues.
When I met a group of young people who called themselves “The Alliance Against LGBT Discrimination,” I instantly felt that it was only natural for me to work with them since they had the same questions and they were doing something to answer them.
Now six years have passed and we have done a lot, but for some reason I cannot find a way or a strategy to summarize those achievements point by point—it has all flowed naturally. Nonetheless, it has a core set of questions really similar to the ones that we had from the beginning:
• What does it mean to be part of a community?
• What are your duties and the responsibilities when you undertake to speak for people who need to delegate their voice because of violence?
• What are the ways to give power to this voice, day by day, so that it takes shape in a way that in the end can speak for itself?
• How do you stay true to these ideals when you are surrounded by organizations that in the process of “professionalization” have lost contact with the community they are supposed to represent?
I have been criticized time after time for not speaking out about the difficulties of my community in Albania, but the answer is obvious to me: The problems of the LGBT community in Albania are similar, if not the same, as the problems that every LGBT community comes across in every corner of the world. It has a mix of socio-economic status, a backwards history, communism, liberal democracy, corruption, and ignorance.
The solutions, however, are different; they are local and each community has them. That is why these questions are so important and why they should not be taken for granted at the risk of alienating our community. It is not our duty to give voice to the LGBT community—that only opens new problems. Our only duty is to create ways and tools for the LGBT community to come together and speak. They must be able to speak clearly, loudly, freely, and intransigently.
In my context where people love to talk for and about others, working with artistic expressions has helped much more than having innumerable conferences where everybody—except the LGBT people themselves—talks about the needs of “the poor and violated” LGBT people. In the space that art creates, you can find the answers to the questions that I pose above, and in the best case you can create new questions. In my experience, the people who follow the conference circuit do not come to the art exhibitions.
Through this piece, I might be missing the opportunity to expose all “the personal achievements” of my work, but this does not matter.
The biggest achievement is being in this program, where I’ve had the time, chance, and luck to meet fearless people from all over the world with whom—maybe for the first time in my life—I understand what it means to be a citizen of the world, to transcend boundaries, come together, and try to answer these questions.
When I return to Albania I will continue to do what I have always done: To make the constant effort to stay true to my community and my principles.
Thank you, my dearest friends Anastasiya, Benson, Elina, Hakan, Gigi, Sandra, Sylvain, Swe Zin, Kyi Pyar and Yupar. A special thank you to Stephanie, Professor Sayantani Dasgupta and Professor Theodorus Sandfort.
Tutor, East Yangon University
My name is Yupar Nyi Htun and I am a member of the Department of Law at East Yangon University in Myanmar.
During life as a student, our teachers didn’t talk about human rights and they even refrained from saying the words, “human rights.” As a result, we don't know what human rights are and we don't know that we have the right to claim them. I began learning about human rights this past March when human rights education was introduced by the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University. Since then, I became interested in participating in the project to promote human rights education in Myanmar.
Human rights education is needed for our country because if the people know their rights they can take action to demand their rights. Education is the best way to give others knowledge about human rights. As human rights educators, we can teach about human rights not only to our students, but also to our community.
I have seen lots of human rights violations in my country, and I want to do something for the people suffering as a result. At the same time, I also suffered human rights violation in my life. For example, when I was a child in my school there were only three teachers for every one hundred students, and many students dropped out of school because they needed to work for their families. Many people in my community also faced discrimination for their beliefs; I wish to live free from fear and to help those in similar situations. In order to build a peaceful community, we need to make the whole community aware of human rights.
I think I should do something for my country that would try to resolve issues suffered by the people of Myanmar. So I chose to be a human rights educator and, in this way, I can teach human rights to students and my community. I am also going to share human rights education with my colleagues. I wish to teach not only the theory but also how to demand human rights practically, including through clinical education. I hope our members of the Department of Law can produce human rights lawyers for our community.
In the Human Rights Advocates Program, advocates working for human rights in their activities motivate me to work as a human rights educator. I want to defend people suffering from human rights violations and I want to educate students wanting to protect the rights of the Myanmar people.
Editor, European Radio for Belarus
I have not once asked myself why I am interested in human rights. At the beginning of my experience, I was an activist with a human rights organization in my country. Today, I am journalist. While it may seem that I am no longer involved with human rights, the media in my country does not have freedom of speech—this is a human rights violation. In Belarus, there are a number of human rights violations.
Upon reflection, I can say that my belief in religion has led me to human rights. It is not possible to remain on the sidelines when the world has injustice, inequality, humiliation, violence and the death penalty. I hold a deep conviction that the protection of human rights is a collective task. Respect for human rights is an indicator of the maturity of the state. We must search for mutual understanding and put the needs of others above our own.
Coordinator, Adivasi Women’s Network
I learned in my childhood that rights are never given. As the second of four children, I learned about survival of the fittest. I have applied this lesson to all aspects of my life.
I experienced discrimination in the family, at the community level, in religious institutions, and at the work place because of my gender, ethnicity, and class. Instead of accepting discrimination, I have always found alternatives.
From the time I became aware of these discriminatory ideologies and attitudes, I started raising my voice strategically. The first step was to seek a strong network with other women who have had similar experiences or concerns. By taking a preventive approach through various activities such as awareness raising, capacity building, and skills development, I have started to address the issues of gender-based violence faced by the Adivasi (Indigenous) women, focusing more on the strategic needs of Adivasi women to strengthen them from within. It’s with passion that I seek to empower Adivasi women because the outcome also gives me a sense of empowerment.
When I first got information about HRAP, I thought this was exactly what I needed. For me, joining HRAP was like turning the impossible into a reality because each part of the program has had a deep impact. The best element of HRAP is that it connects us with other advocates and gives opportunities to impart the knowledge and experience of diverse human rights advocacy efforts. When I return home, I’ll pass on the knowledge and information both practically and theoretically.
South Sudan, 2015
Civic Engagement Officer, Community Empowerment for Rehabilitation and Development (CEFoRD)
The dark days of the Sudan from the 1880s until 2011, when the southern part of the Sudan separated and became independent, explain why I try to provide an atmosphere that can be favorable for all citizens to freely and constructively rebuild the hopes once lost and the future that has been left bare.
It’s no wonder that among the many Sudanese people who have undergone hardships that I am among those born in the war, brought up with it, and to age with it. For the years of my life in exile (Uganda and Zaire, now the DRC) had been full of uncertainties. My career as an activist is due to what I went through and what other Sudanese at the camps went through, too. I decided not to commit suicide because it would not have benefitted anyone. As a child, I had to take a stand to address both social and economic conditions to improve my livelihood. My life as an orphan—even when I decided to go back home to South Sudan—was something that could not be imagined. I decided to think positively about my future and started to work in service for communities. I am a co-founder of Community Empowerment for Rehabilitation and Development (CEFoRD), which has the mission to create a “well-empowered, united and peaceful society” with youth as the primary target: the participatory approach we use is for both the educated and the non-educated.
Tutor, University of Yangon
Most of the people in Myanmar do not even know they have rights and do not understand the question, What is human rights? I am from a country with many human rights issues and we have yet to know the true taste of freedom. We are like fish that survive in a tiny lake not really knowing what is happening around the world. Because we don’t know how to take action to demand our rights, I want to teach these skills as a human rights educator.
Recently, I had the chance to participate in the Human Rights Advocates Program at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights and its University Human Rights Education in Myanmar project. I have gained many benefits, skills, and knowledge—not only in an academic context, but in a practical one as well. These skills will help me contribute to the development of human rights in my country. For example, the research, interviewing, and critical thinking skills I gained through workshops were very useful. In my courses, I have gained knowledge that I have never learned before, such as the activities of NGOs, and the skills to teach human rights to others.
As such, human rights education is very important because it can be used as a tool for people to make change. When people are mindful and educated about human rights, they can take action to demand their rights, changing their views, attitudes, and practices in the process. Educators can influence the country, not just within the classroom, but through their day-to-day interactions and behaviors.
When I return back home, we will keep moving in the direction of human rights. We can train people to be human rights lawyers, helping them to know how to solve problems, such as which methods to use and which ones are ineffective. In this way, we can prevent human rights violations and future conflicts.
People have different names and different ways of life, but from the perspective of human rights, they are all the same. We can’t deny someone their individual human rights—there should be no discrimination or bias against anyone.
Democratic Republic Of Congo, 2015
Director of Programs , IMPACT
I am from the South Kivu province of Uvira in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Since 2012, I have been the Program Director at IMPACT, an NGO based in Uvira. At IMPACT, we work to protect children who are being exploited at mining sites in Uvira and Fizi, and strive to hold accountable those who are engaged in the illegal exploitation of natural resources.
Growing up in a family of seven, my hometown was greatly affected by the war in 1996 and 1998. Hundreds of thousands of people fled the country and hundreds of children were forced to become soldiers. With many people killed and countless others arrested and tortured, others simply disappeared.
With my family, we fled to a refugee camp in Tanzania where we spent almost four years. In the camp, I heard thousands of people tell the same stories of rape, killing, maiming, looting of villages, and child recruitment. Those stories, along with those from my own experience, shaped my life and my views of humanity and the world.
Upon returning to my hometown four years later I saw the destruction and desperation, as well as the hope of the people. I then decided to help my neighborhood with recovery efforts led by many young people. One of the efforts included mobilizing parents and children to rebuild badly destroyed houses and schools; answering the call helped to shape my humanitarian experience.
Furthermore, my becoming an activist has been a way for me to give back to the community that I grew up in. Another blessing has been my family’s support as I earned a university degree. I continue to believe that my community and my country need young activists like me to continue fighting for human rights, justice, and peace.
Assistant Lecturer, University of Mandalay
I have been teaching at the University of Mandalay for 10 years. Before 2010 in Myanmar, human rights topics were never taught or discussed. Although some rights, such as fundamental rights and child rights were discussed in constitutional law and in children’s law, they were not discussed from a human rights perspective.
Myanmar has received international attention and pressure for various human rights issues and violations. Since the dawn of our democracy, there have been many undemocratic practices infringing on fundamental human rights at the very core of democracy, such as freedom of belief, freedom of religion, freedom of thought, and non-discrimination. While some human rights violations are due to government neglect of its responsibility, some issues have arisen because of people's misunderstanding and disrespect for others' rights.
From witnessing and experiencing what is happening in my country, I realize that we need to learn and teach human rights in Myanmar. In my opinion, we need human rights education for two (at least) reasons. First, we need to educate people about their own rights and the respect for others' rights. Secondly, to do so, we need to train human rights advocates and academics to be able to educate the public at large. As an academic working for a university, my aim is to introduce and teach human rights courses at universities in Myanmar. Universities are the main institution where we produce essential human resources for the country.
Furthermore, as part of the University Human Rights Education in Myanmar project, I participated in a three-day training at Yangon University and in an online course provided by the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University. To be able to teach human rights courses, the project aims to train junior faculty members in the Department of Law and the Department of International Relations. As a member, I am very glad that I was chosen among the trainees to join the Human Rights Advocates Program together with advocates from various regions around the world. The program gave me the opportunity to share experiences and learn about the activism and work of advocates who are engaging in a variety of human rights issues.
Overall, the program has equipped me with knowledge and several skills for future human rights work. First, my participation in several workshops in various international human rights organizations was key. Among them, I was especially interested in the Human Rights Watch workshops where we solved hypothetical situations based on real human rights cases. We learned how to identify and prioritize human rights issues through fact-finding, using interviewing strategies to deal with various interviewees such as victims and government officials.
The workshops and courses I took also improved the research I am currently engaging in and helped me develop new ideas for future human rights related research. Finally, I will use the network that I established here in furtherance of collaboration between those institutions and my home institutions. By using the network, we can produce human resources and develop the capacities which are needed to develop human rights education in Myanmar.
The skills and knowledge I learned here will be very invaluable for educating, teaching, researching and promoting human rights, and through spreading awareness will contribute to building a peaceful society in my country. I thank ISHR very much for its contribution to the development of human rights education in Myanmar and for giving me such a fruitful opportunity.